If you’ve been anywhere near trail or ultra running in the past 4 years, you know that Ultimate Direction’s 2012 release of the Signature Series packs changed the way we carry water.

Packs certainly weren’t new to ultra running, but Ultimate Direction’s switch away from a water bladder, towards bottles carried in carefully designed front pockets was a unique idea for most of us.

It meant having liquid and fuel at our fingertips and quicker refill at aid stations. All without taking off the pack.

The red 2012 Anton Krupicka (AK), Scott Jurek (SJ), and Peter Bakwin (PB) packs were suddenly everywhere, but they had their flaws. So by 2014, Ultimate Direction released the 2.0 versions, which included material upgrades and larger, more useful pockets.

And of course, the blue 2.0 packs were quickly found at every ultra marathon starting line. That’s when I first made the switch, and I haven’t looked back since.

The recent release of the Signature Series 3.0 sees several changes and upgrades, plus the addition of the Timothy Olson (TO) Race Vest. The TO vest is designed to fill a void as the other packs morph along with the runners they are named after.

Quick Note: Both the TO and SJ packs were provided to Rock Creek Runner for review. The comments and thoughts are entirely my own, as Ultimate Direction has no influence over or approval of this review.

3.0 Upgrades and the Introduction of the TO Race Vest

I’ve decided to combine the SJ Ultra and the new-to-the-series TO Race Vests into one review because for most of us, the choice comes down between the two. While the AK and PB vest look great, they’re probably to be too much pack for what your average trail or ultra runner needs on the regular.

Many of the features and upgrades from the 2.0 models are the same across these two packs, with the TO Race Vest being more minimal in its carrying capacity.

A quick word on the AK Vest

In the 1.0 and 2.0 versions of UD’s Signature Series, the AK Race Vest had the smallest carrying capacity and was often viewed as the best for race scenarios.

In the 3.0 series, the AK vest has completely transformed into a mountain vest, with much larger pockets and more room than most runners need for supported races. If you’re like me and used the AK vest in the past, look at the SJ and TO vests in these new versions.

Upgrades and Changes from 2.0 to 3.0

Don’t let the same blue color fool you, the changes between the Signature Series 2.0 and 3.0 are many, and for the most part, they’re major upgrades.

Let’s take a look at some of those changes:

1. Pockets: Probably the biggest and best changes come in the form of pocket upgrades. UD has clearly spent time designing the pockets for ease of use during the run. On the TO and SJ vest, the larger pockets below the bottle pockets stretch enough to fit several gels, bars, or gummies, and are big enough to fit a cell phone or small camera. I use the small water resistant pocket above the bottles for salt tablets, and the other mesh pocket for trash.

The back pocket upgrades for both vests come in the way of accessibility without removing the vest. I’ll discuss this further down, but they’ve designed zippered back pockets low enough on the back that you can reach them while wearing the vest. Pretty cool.

2. Material: The two biggest material upgrades are found in the stretchy pocket mesh, which after hundreds of miles of use and lots of stuffing, don’t appear to be stretching out at all, and the very breathable mesh that makes up the shoulder straps and back. So far I’m seeing no issues with rippage on that mesh.

bottles3. Bottles: It appears as though Ultimate Direction has gone all-in on the soft-flask Body Bottles, a sharp departure from the old style hard bottles. I’m not going to lie, this took me a bit of getting use to, but now I’m convinced that it was a good idea:

  • Pros: They don’t slosh! I repeat, they don’t slosh. I didn’t realize how much I hated the sloshing until it was gone. They also don’t bounce on your chest as much (especially when they aren’t full), and you can easily stash them when a bottle is empty.
  • Cons: The clear structural plastic at the top (below the lid) is very hard, and it took me awhile to find a way to have them in the pack without digging in to my chest. They’re also harder to carry in your hand if you want to run awhile holding the bottle.

4. Weight: Full specs can be found below, but with new material comes a lighter pack. The TO vest is lighter than the AK 2.0 vest (the smallest option of the 2.0), and the SJ comes in at almost the same weight as the old AK and with a lot more carry capacity.

5. Comfort: The breathability of the fabric, soft bottles, and new fit (if it fits right, more on that next), make this a super comfortable pack.

6. Fit: Ultimate Direction changed their sizing options for the 3.0 vests from a Small/Medium – Medium/Large in the 2.0 to separate Small, Medium, and Large options. Oddly enough I’ve actually found this to make sizing more difficult.

I’m a medium dude in just about everything I wear, but when trying on the TO vest in a medium, I was swimming in it. Unless it’s full of gear, the vest is far too big, even with the below-arm side straps and the adjustable chest straps cinched down.

If the pack is too large, the shoulder straps and neck collar rubbing against your neck. The neck collar now sits further up your back than previous versions, giving it less flexibility in the fit.

In short, the packs run large, and you don’t want a pack that’s too large. For me this was the biggest issue I’ve found with the 3.0 packs.

One final note on fit is that they’ve redesigned the chest straps to be more secure, which is nice, but harder to adjust. If you’re adding or taking out layers or gear mid run, adjusting where the straps sit is more of a process than I want.

7. Trekking Pole Loops: They’ve also added trekking pole loops to all models in the Signature Series. They’re designed to carry one pole on each side of the front of your vest, which makes them easy to store and access as needed. I’ve only used this feature once, and it worked pretty well. The bottom of the poles dug in to my chest a bit, but I believe a few adjustments with how I stash them could fix that issue. I can definitely see why these would be helpful for runners that use trekking poles regularly.

Now, let’s take look at the packs individually.

The TO Race Vest 3.0

TO-solo

The Timothy Olson Race Vest is new to the 3.0 series. If you were comparing it to older versions, it serves as the replacement for the AK Race Vest.

What’s unique about this vest is that a major percentage of the carrying capacity is in the front of the vest, with two sizeable pockets below the bottle pockets, and two smaller pockets above.

The back storage areas are designed to be completely accessible without taking off the vest. You can reach your hand around your back and access both of the pockets. It’s a little awkward, but still very nice. Keep in mind that these aren’t huge pockets, but large enough for items like nutrition, a map, and a small jacket.

Before I go any further with my opinion, let’s jump to the details you need to know.

Here are the specs and promo video:

  • Volume Capacity: 305 in/ 5L
  • Weight: 5.78 oz. (8.23 oz. with bottles) / 165 g (235 g with bottles)
  • Height: 18.1 in. / 46 cm
  • Width: 11 in. / 28 cm
  • Depth: 4.1 in. / 10.5 cm
  • Sizes:
    • SM: 24 – 38 in. / 61 – 97 cm
    • MD: 31 – 42 in. / 79 – 107 cm
    • LG: 36 – 50 in. / 91 – 127 cm
  • Cost: $110 (Amazon)
  • Will it carry your iPhone 6? Yes, in both of the larger front pockets, although I did have my phone fall out of the front pocket when bent over in a creek. Whoops.

My Thoughts on the TO Race Vest 3.0

This pack is perfect for when you want or need to carry more than just a handheld. For most trail and ultra runners, that’s all you’ll need.

The pockets in the front will fit your water, gels, salt caps, phone, and even a bar, and the back pockets can be stuffed with an extra layer, headlamp, or more nutrition.

Here’s an example of what this pack can hold comfortably:

TO-gear

And here it is with that exact gear in the pack:

TO-full

As you can see, the pockets aren’t full, and the top front pockets are not utilized at all in this photo.

The large mesh back above the lower pockets do a nice job of keeping the pack secure on your back without adding discomfort. The mesh is completely breathable.

Because my TO pack is a medium and doesn’t fit me exactly right, I asked my friend and Thunder Rock pacer Paul to give it a full test. He’s logged over 100 miles in it and has this to say:

The TO vest has become an excellent tool for long runs. The multiple pockets include ample space for water, nutrition, keys, and other small supplies you may need. The vest’s straps, once adjusted, fit comfortably and do not shift on the trail.

I’ve found that this pack serves me well up to 20 miles if I don’t have a new water source.

The SJ Ultra Vest 3.0

SJ-solo

While the TO vest is sufficient for most runners, I’ve taken a liking to the Scott Jurek vest. In part because it fits me better (the small), but also because of the features.

The main differences between the SJ and the TO vests are the back compartment — large enough to hold several layers or a water bladder — with bungee cords for out-of-pack storage (think jacket), and the zippered pocket up front. There’s also only one lower back zippered pocket as opposed to the two on the TO.

Here are the specs and promo video:

  • Volume Capacity: 518 in/ 8.5L
  • Weight: 7.11 oz. (9.56 oz. with bottles) / 203 g (273 g with bottles)
  • Height: 18.1 in. / 46 cm
  • Width: 11 in. / 28 cm
  • Depth: 5.5 in. / 14 cm
  • Sizes:
    • SM: 24 – 38 in. / 61 – 97 cm
    • MD: 31 – 42 in. / 79 – 107 cm
    • LG: 36 – 50 in. / 91 – 127 cm
  • Cost: $125 (REI | Amazon)
  • Will it carry your iPhone 6? Yes, in both of the larger front pockets. The one with the zipper is perfect.

My Thoughts on the SJ Ultra Vest 3.0

I received the SJ Ultra Vest a few weeks before Thunder Rock, and while I was able to train in it some, that race was my first real test.

I wore the vest the entire race, storing nutrition, water, and my aid station sheet up front, and an extra energy bar, rain jacket, Buff, lube, and headlamp (as needed) in the back.

In a word, the pack was perfect for what I needed. It was comfortable the entire race and never rubbed or irritated any unusual spots.

To give you a little better idea of what it can carry, here’s some sample gear laid out:

SJ-gear

And here it is all stuffed in the pack. The extra bottle was placed in the larger back pocket:

SJ-full

With an additional bottle stuffed in the back, I’d feel totally comfortable taking this out for an 8, 10, 12+ hour unsupported effort. There’s enough room for layers, aid, and just about anything else you might need.

One complaint is some of the straps — the bottle pocket straps when the bottle is cinched in, the bungee strap in the back, and the chest straps — flap too much. To solve this, I’ve started to tie them down or loop them around something else. The best solution I’ve found with the back bungee is to stuff it inside the back pocket.

Also, be mindful of the fact that if you weigh the front down too much with water and nutrition, the back will slide up, resting against the back of your neck.

The good (great) news is that with well over 250 miles in the vest, there’s little sign of wear, and the stretchy pockets have not stretched out.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a fan of the 2.0, you’ll be an even bigger fan of the UD Signature Series 3.0 vests. I consider the updates to materials and pockets major upgrades to the functionality of these two Signature Series packs.

For the most part I’d recommend the TO vest for the average runner, but the added storage in the SJ vest does not feel like too much even when mostly empty.

The new Ultimate Direction vests are a great option for anyone looking for a trail, ultra, or commuter running pack.

Purchase the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra and TO Race Vests 3.0

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