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.