Spring and summer racing season is upon us once again, and as many races work to become more environmentally friendly by going cup-less, hydration vests are increasingly handy. I’ve long been a fan of carrying my food and fuel with vests, and I like that the options are becoming more diverse in volume and design. The Nathan VaporHowe 4L Women’s Race Vest ($149.99), one of the smaller-volumed packs on the market, is my perfect size for distances from ‘daily run’ to 50 kilometers in conditions that aren’t too harsh with aid stations one or two hours apart. I might choose to add a bladder and drop bags to get more range out of the smaller packs in a less supported race if I only wanted to have one pack of this size.
The VaporHowe 4L was designed by Nathan Sports with Stephanie Howe Violett’s input from concept through prototype testing to the completed project. This 4-liter (244-cubic-inch) pack is very lightweight and weighs in at only 6.4 ounces/181 grams without soft flasks or 10.4 ounces/295 grams with them included. Stephanie also designed a VaporHowe 12L Race Vest for longer days on the trail, but this review focuses only on the 4-liter vest.
[Editor’s Note: iRunFar reviewed the men’s VaporKrar 4L Race Vest last fall, too, which is quite similar but men’s specific.]
Nathan VaporHowe 4L Women’s Race Vest Construction and Fit
The pack itself is constructed with a very lightweight, perforated, stretch-woven fabric, which gives it a snug, apparel-like fit and retains excellent breathability even up to temperatures in the low 90s Fahrenheit in the Arizona desert. I can’t say how it breathes with significant combined humidity and heat as I didn’t have any travels that took me into this kind of climate during my testing period, but I can attest to the quick-drying nature of the material. I spilled a fair amount of an open bottle of water on the pack just prior to a two-hour run—it was dry well before the run was over and I experienced no chafing.
Along the no-chafing line, I don’t ever run with just a bra, but this pack almost makes me want to. It feels just like my softest, smoothest, thin, and technical tank top. Currently, the pack only comes in a salmon pink, but the grey accents and silver reflective hits look sharp and overall, I enjoy wearing it on the trails from a visual and performance perspective.
One thing I absolutely love about the VaporHowe 4L is that it’s designed by a woman with a women’s-specific fit. It has a wide size range from XXS (26 inches at the sternum or 30 inches at the bust) to XL (37 inches at sternum or 40 inches at bust). I still worry this range leaves out some of our well-endowed trail sisters, but it’s a good start for a wider fit range that I hope continues to expand since trail runners obviously come in all sizes.
The vertically sliding dual sternum straps give it significant adjustability over smaller and larger chests, but my 34A size fits perfectly mid-range in the size medium. Extra adjustment straps on the sides of the torso allow you to further dial in the fit. A thoughtfully added feature here is the addition of a magnetic button to the top strap for secure attachment of the tube of the 1.5-liter hydration bladder (if you choose to separately purchase this option).
One thing to note about the straps is that they are made from a non-stretchy, very smooth (slick) webbing with a relatively obtrusive buckle attachment, which tightens to hold the pack snugly but makes cinching the pack down somewhat less comfortable than those with stretchier straps and smaller buckles. I found myself having to retighten the straps frequently even in an hour run with a well-balanced load. A minor improvement or two here (added stretch and friction to the webbing and a less-obtrusive buckle) would greatly enhance my overall comfort with the pack.
Nathan VaporHowe 4L Women’s Race Vest Storage and Hydration Options
The pockets on the VaporHowe 4L are thoughtfully designed and placed, and they provide just enough space for well-organized gear. In the front, the main pockets on either side are for the two 12-ounce extended-straw ExoShot soft flasks (bottles), which make sipping without removing the bottles from the pack exceedingly easy and non-stressful to the neck. The bottles slide very easily into the pocket without taking the pack off as they have a lightweight plastic piece integrated on one side that gives the soft bottle a bit of structure.
I LOVE these bottles, and I want larger volumes for some of my other packs. I’ve never used an extended straw before, and I’m totally sold. The lid screws on and off without any wrangling and the straw angles perfectly for easy drinking. If you have an earlier version of this pack, please do note that the bottles have been perfected and any lid issues you may have had are now resolved. The bottle pockets can also fit an iPhone 7 behind the bottle next to your chest, which was the best place I could figure out to store it for easy access. Overlaid on the bottle pocket is a smaller pocket into which you can stuff a bar, gels, a buff, or other items as needed. These two pockets are not overly large and their volume is somewhat limited by full bottles.
Above the bottle pocket on the left is a zipper pocket with a separate pouch for electrolyte pills or a key and an attached emergency whistle. The rest of the pocket can hold a smaller phone perhaps or other food items. The pull tab on this zipper is easy to grab even wearing light gloves. On the opposite side of the vest, a drop-in pocket can hold an additional gel or two. Routing tunnels for the hydration-bladder tube are located over each shoulder with guiding strips below to make it easy to wear your tube over either shoulder per your preference.
On the rear of the pack, there’s a kangaroo-pouch-style pocket in the lower half that can be accessed from hand holes on either side. Hats, gloves, or a wind jacket easily and securely fit here although large food bars would sometimes rattle to the sides, which made me wonder if they’d eventually work their way out. The top half of the outer aspect of the rear of the pack is another pocket that is accessed from the top. This pocket easily holds headlamps, battery packs, or the aforementioned larger food bars. This has a small velcro tab midway across, which provides just enough security that nothing ever popped out. Between these two outer pockets and your back is yet another full-length pocket for the hydration bladder you might purchase or anything else you’d need to stuff that requires more room. This is where I’ve slipped an extra soft bottle for a longer run or a thin puffy jacket for the winter and crazy ‘spring’ weather we often have here in Colorado.
Remember those side torso-adjustment straps I mentioned earlier? Behind those against your torso is one more pair of thin stretchy mesh pockets with mid-pocket velcro tabs. I found these most useful for trash or packs of softer foods (or buffs) as they allowed a bit of protection from the straps and plastic adjustment. Overall, the pockets are perfectly designed for four liters of storage.
One thing to note, there are no obvious pole-attachment straps in the front of this pack, so to carry poles, you would need to figure out how to stash them securely and comfortably in the back pockets.
Nathan VaporHowe 4L Women’s Race Vest Overall Impressions
All in all, I’m impressed with the Nathan VaporHowe 4L Women’s Race Vest. I find myself reaching for it frequently on my daily runs around the Front Range of Colorado, especially now that I rigged the two chest straps with rubber bands to stop them from sliding loose as I run. I look forward to seeing this pack and future iterations of it on the trails and in races for years to come.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you trained or raced with the Nathan VaporHowe 4L Women’s Race Vest? What are your impressions of the vest and in what situations have you used it?
- Ladies, what are your thoughts on the fit of this vest for your body type?
- What about the vest’s front, side, and rear storage pockets? Which do you like and which do you think could be improved upon?
- The ExoFlasks and their extended straws, yay or nay?
- Have you tried a hydration bladder with this pack? How does it work and ride for you?
[Editor’s Note: If you’re affiliated (i.e., an employee, ambassador, etc.) with a brand that produces packs, please share that relation in each of your comments on this article. Thanks!]