Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta Review

Every so often there’s a piece of gear that grabs your attention. Often it’s not so much the reinvention of the wheel, but the careful attention to detail as a collection of experienced folks refines a product and take it to the next level. With gear, a hydration pack in this case, personal preference is the primary factor in determining which product gets your nod and your money. What size and how heavy? How many pockets and in what configuration? Bottles or hydration bladder? If you’re in the market for a new way to transport your food, fluid, and a few pieces of clothing and safety items, the Ultimate Direction Jenny Collection has a new hydration pack—the women’s Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta ($125)—that warrants a closer look.

Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta - front left

The Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta. All photos: Heather Jossi

The Ultra Vesta is a four-liter storage-capacity pack ergonomically designed to fit women. It’s not a small, ‘pinked’ version of a men’s pack. Everything about the pack seemed truly tailored to the female athlete. Interestingly, the chest sizing to determine the XS/SM versuss M/L fit is ‘unisex.’ This might be the first time a women’s specific anything is used as the ‘unisex’ standard instead of the men’s version! Love it!

The pack I received from UD was purple and grey (with pink accents and yellow bungee cords), and though I’d prefer my packs to be red or green or yellow, color never has had any bearing on function. The pack’s lead designer, Jenny Jurek, states that she took the best features of the UD Wink and the Signature Series packs to create the Ultra Vesta after her experiences at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in 2009. The pack was then tested and perfected by a diverse group of women runners who worked closely with Jenny to dial in the final product. From an objective perspective, well done.

Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta - front

The nine-ounce (empty) Ultra Vesta is made from Power Stretch Mesh, Cool Wick Air Mesh, and 150D Irregular Rip Stop, giving it a lightweight but not flimsy feel and plenty of stretch to accommodate deep breathing up big climbs and cinching variable loads on wild downhills. I appreciated the soft, nonabrasive material as I’ve worn the pack with a silk-weight tech shirt in 55-degree-Fahrenheit temps and over several layers in zero-degree F temps. I had no issues with chafing, sweat build-up under the pack, or excessive bouncing of the pack itself. I didn’t have a chance to test the pack in hot or humid weather but it seems promising. The pack also held up well to a brief encounter with a rambunctious pup (claws and friendly teeth) and a tree branch which was pleasantly surprising given the lightweight nature of the mesh–plus one for durability!

This pack comes with two 10-ounce bottles. The bottle holsters on each side of the front straps are perfectly sized for these bottles and include a bungee cord that slips over top of the neck of the bottle and cinches the holster to lessen the chances of them popping out as you navigate technical trail or bend down to adjust your shoe. I loved this detail though I found I wasn’t very quick at ‘unleashing’ my water on the fly while dancing over rocks. Likely, this is my own issue and not an issue with the pack. The water does slosh noticeably if you notice such things. I traded one bottle out for a soft flask of the same size and found the sloshing to be lessened significantly. With the bottles in place, it also seemed to be more important to counterbalance the weight with items stored in the back of the pack to avoid forward creep of the pack. I’ll admit, I’m not sure I’m in love with having my water attached to the front of my pack. I think it’s a brilliant idea and having free hands is fabulous, but so far I’m not giving up my handheld.

Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta - front right

This brings up another one of those details I appreciated about the pack. If you choose not to use the bottles, the holsters are perfect for gel bottles, nut butter pouches, a camera, thin hat/gloves, or other slightly bulkier items. The cinch cord keeps them secure so well that I found it to be a bit challenging to actually release as the plastic tabs that facilitate that are made for smaller fingers than mine. I suspect this would get easier with subsequent uses.

Joining the bottle holsters on the front are two other pockets. On the wearer’s left beneath the holster, there is a storage packet that can accommodate bars, gels, and pouches of chews. It has a short, Velcro closure on top if your items are smaller. This pocket wasn’t quite tall enough to hold my iPhone 5 securely (I might be overcautious) but had a fair amount of stretch front to back. On the wearer’s right beneath the holster, there is a vertically angled zippered pocket that is large enough for a phone or a variety of other items. I wouldn’t consider it waterproof by any standard (again, I’m overly cautious), so if moisture is a concern in any way, I’d utilize plastic baggies. For the frequent ‘face-planting/superwomen/slide into home plate’ people among us, the lower front pockets fit snugly over the ribs. This might be a consideration when planning your phone/camera placement in your pack to avoid broken ribs… or phones.

On the back side of the pack, there are some other key details that I thought were very interesting and well-thought out. At the top of the pack, below the handy, pack-hanging loop, there is a horizontal zippered pocket with a key tether (love this). It comes with a very useful and thoughtful pony-tail hair band (extra perk) and a strip of paper with an inspirational trail ‘message’ and a reminder of how to connect with UD. Some might find this over-the-top, but I thought it was a sweet detail that somehow gave the pack a personal touch as if Jenny Jurek and her crew packed it just for me. This pocket is the most water-resistant of them all and would easily accommodate a phone, key, ID or credit card, and other things you don’t need frequently. My arms are not flexible enough to access items in this pocket without taking the pack off.

Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta - rear

Just below, there are two vertical zippered pockets that run almost the length of the backside of the pack and are layered one on top of the other—ingenious for the size of the pack. On the left, you access the superficial pocket which provides a storage area for clothing items, maps, or other items. On the right, you access the pocket (closest to your back) which can hold a two-liter reservoir (not included). The reservoir can be further stabilized with an internal bungee system which decreases the slosh factor. There is a hose-routing hole on either side of the pocket and hose-stabilizing straps on each of the front straps of the pack. You can further secure the mouthpiece with a loop present near the bottle holsters on the front. I utilized these features on several runs and found it to operate very well. My 50-ounce reservoir fit more easily and comfortably than a 70-ounce one I tried. The mouthpiece was secured on the front in a place I could reach it without unhooking it from the loop. The only drawback was some noticeable pressure on the top of my shoulder where the hose came over from the back of the pack. I suspect if the routing hole was located higher on the back of the pack, this might be eliminated.

Other features present on the back side of the Ultra Vesta are an external bungee cord system for stabilizing clothing or other gear, two trekking-pole loops, and one loop for an ice axe. There are reflective tabs present in seven places on the back and at least three on the front. They show up well in the glow of a headlamp. Overall, you get a lot of options for gear placement and storage for a pack this compact.

One final feature that I certainly appreciated as a frequent solo trail runner is a small safety whistle attached just above the left bottle holster. It tucks nicely behind the bottle or up under the hose stabilizers on the front strap in exactly the right spot to reach in an emergency without resorting to gymnastics or memory as to where I stashed my safety whistle. It’s quite loud (as my child demonstrated for my dog) and a nice addition that I wouldn’t have thought to ask for. It’s the little details like this that come through in a pack ‘designed by women for women’ as stated on the tags that come with the Jenny Collection pack.

One final note: a key thing that differentiates this pack from others I own from different companies is the fit. We all develop our personal preferences of how or where packs distribute the load. My preference is usually to have my load carried lower on my back which reduces my perception of upper shoulder and neck fatigue and seems to reduce my likelihood of serious chafing burns on my lateral neck. I have an expando-rib cage and a sensitive stomach, so placement of stabilizing straps is key. I noticed immediately that the fit of my loaded Ultra Vesta pack (size M/L) was ‘high’ on my torso yet pleasantly snug when I buckled and cinched the two vertically adjustable sternum straps and cinched the fixed, side-strap adjustments. I had no chafing or difficulty taking full, deep breaths. Unfortunately, each time I ran three to four hours with the pack, I developed a sore spot hours after the run at the base of the pack near the mid-lower thoracic spine. I think this is the result of the where the load sits. Is this a deal breaker for me? No, but at this point, I would need to play around with the pack more on training runs to see if changing the weight/load distribution would eliminate the bruising… or perhaps I need to do more postural exercises while running.

Overall Impression
I think the Ultra Vesta from Ultimate Direction’s Jenny Collection is an excellent pack on so many levels. I greatly appreciated the attention to detail in a women’s-specific hydration vest that was evident by Jenny Jurek and her team as they designed and refined it together. In a quiver of packs, it seems to fit between the race vest and the self-sufficient ‘out all day’ pack. Using the two 10-ounce bottles in the holsters plus some calories and other gear in the pockets, this pack would easily get you through an ultra with decently spaced aid stations. With two to three liters of fluids in the reservoir pocket on the back and the front pouches and pockets full of calories, one could be out for quite awhile without needing to restock. For more clothing or gear-intensive outings, a larger pack might be preferred. It’s simply a matter of dialing in your preferences and figuring out the fit that you prefer. This is a sweet pack if it lines up with what you like.

 Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Ladies, have you worn the Ultra Vesta? If so, what are your impressions?
  • And, what are your thoughts on running packs with water bottles on the front, a concept popped into popularity in the last 12 or 18 months and continues to evolve?

[Note: If you’re interested in picking up this pack, the UD Ultra Vesta is in the iRunFar Store.]

Kristin Zosel

is a mom, wife, ultrarunner, physical therapist (on sabbatical), and transcriptionist for iRunFar.com. Her love of steep uphills, high mountain environments, and Swiss “lovely cows” keep alpine visions dancing in her head and strong cappuccinos in her mug.

There are 14 comments

  1. olgav100

    Wow, this is the most awesome review, detailed and otherwise! I just got the pack myself, and my first impression echos yours on every count – including not quite giving up my handheld:) Thank you! I think Jenny hit it right, my previous favorite was UltrAspire Spry. So, I am guessing so far, I will miss the small added pockets for salt tabs…hmm. But yeah, looking forward giving it a spin!

  2. JFoxBeaudet

    This is an excellent, detailed, in-depth review; I really appreciate the depth of Kristin's analysis. I am currently wearing the men's Ultimate Direction racing vest designed by Anton Krupicka. I really like it for its light weight and efficiency. I do wish the upper pockets had just a little more room for my oatmeal bars, sometimes the water bottles tend to push the food up and out of the pockets. The women's vest looks like it might have more room, but I wonder if it would feel as light weight as the men's vest. It looks like it is longer than the men's vest and the lower strap tightens toward the bottom of the rib cage. I wonder if it would feel comparatively more restrictive? I have used water bladders for hiking and developed a strong aversion to the time and effort it takes to keep them adequately clean. I definitely prefer bottles and I prefer them on the front of the vest. I don't like anything in my hands when I am running. I am definitely going to think about giving this vest a try!

    1. Wej1971

      I have the same AK vest and although the front bottle pockets are ideally sized, I agree about the other ones. There are two that when on you can't reach (sort of around the back), two at the front right at the bottom that are tiny (you can just about fit a gel in each) and two above the bottle positions that can't hold anything substantial.This looks a lot more interesting, although I'm not sure I can justify buying another while my AK is still in one piece!

      1. JFoxBeaudet

        Your assessment is right on. I use the back pockets for my phone and first aid items. The tiny lower front pockets I reserve for my car key, driver's license on one side, and folding knife, whistle on the other side. There is a nice little elastic loop that holds a pepper spray canister securely (one end of the canister is also hooked on a second side loop). (We have mountain lions and occasionally stray packs of dogs in our area, so I try to be prepared!).

  3. kjz

    Thanks for the kind comments. A few people have mentioned specifically about fitting 20oz bottles in the holsters… I wonder if UD has any bottles that are larger but with the same shape as these 10oz. I feel like the shape of these is just right for the concept… perhaps if you could have a 16oz+ bottle with the same shape, they might fit in the holsters sufficiently. I wouldn't prefer it myself, but it might be an option. Perhaps Jenny Jurek/UD could speak as to whether or not that style of bottle (larger) is available at all? Or maybe there's an UltraVesta II in the works with increased front holster size… :) I have no idea. :)

    1. BuzzBurrell

      Excellent question! We asked ourselves the same thing, so designed the "Body Bottle" – a soft flask with a 14 oz capacity. Fluid goes out with no air coming in, so as the Bottle shrinks there is no sloshing, and its shape conforms to whatever body part it is touching. Not for everyone but nothing is!

      The Body Bottle arrived at port yesterday so will be presumably be available in Bryon's Store by sometime next week.

  4. @kimba90

    I understand the convenience of bottles on the front of the pack. But as a well endowed on the front ultra runner, bottles don't work for me, on the front. I would be interested in some reviews of the newer hydration packs from the perspective of a female C or D ultra runner out there.

    1. kjz

      excellent point, kimba90. I'll see if I can find someone locally to test it and post a comment here. It seemed to me it might actually work better with a C/D cup as it might help the bottles to bounce less. I know that might sound counterintuitive, but with the bottles, I was actually concerned I might have bruising/chafing issues there. I didn't, but I also preferred the hydration bladder with this pack. If you have an opportunity to try it in a shop, you might be pleasantly surprised. The adjustments on the side could certainly accommodate various measurements.

    2. JFoxBeaudet

      I can absolutely see how a larger cup size would potentially be a problem. I am an A/B and there is just enough room with the men's vest to strategically place the bottles just lateral to each breast to prevent discomfort. I have never experienced chafing. I don't think it would work very well with a larger cup. It does seem like a back hydration pack would be more ergonomic.

    3. BuzzBurrell

      This is a common question (from Americans; Euro's don't blink), so here's some thoughts:
      * All UD vests have side adjustment straps – adjust those first, pulling the bottles to the side over your Pects – only then tighten the Sternum straps (which slide to position up or down as needed).
      * Jenny's Ultra Vesta has the bottles positioned higher than the Signature Series, and uses 10 instead of 20 oz, and they are concave on the back.
      * Check out a photo of Michele Yates wearing the Vesta – she fares quite well.
      * The UD Body Bottle (a soft flask) might be your preference.
      * All UD vests accomandate a reservoir for those so inclined.
      * Here's a fun in-house review of this topic: http://blog.ultimatedirection.com/the-girls-up-fr

      1. kjz

        Thanks for all the replies, Buzz. I felt that the bottles were positioned higher than the men's packs hence my comment above–thanks for confirming. Love the idea of the Body Bottle. Looking forward to trying one out.

  5. Lilalump

    I am currently thinking about buying either this vest (expensive :-/ ) or the Nathan Firecatcher, which I tried on in the store and fits me well, but only fits a 50 oz bladder. The Nathan bladders have poor reviews on Amazon though, so I was wondering what brand of bladder you use, and if you can recommend it.

    If I can find a bladder that fits both vests, I was thinking about buying the cheaper Nathan vest first and try it on with the full bladder, return the vest if I don't like it and order the more expensive option. Any thoughts/experiences with the Nathan vest? Or would you recommend to go with the Ultimate Direction vest from the beginning?

    1. KristinZ

      I apologize for not seeing this until now… what did you decide? I think any brand is good if you like the fit… it’s a matter of figuring out which fit and configuration you prefer.

      I use whichever bladder comes with my pack. :) I do like the quality made by hydroflask tho. I also never put anything in the bladder other than water.

Post Your Thoughts