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Are Hydration Vests Better than Hip Packs?

No, of course not. But they're actually pretty cool.

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Get ready, folks. We’re about to give an authoritative answer to a question you never asked. After all, the hydration vest was made for ultra-runners. People who wear tank tops and nipple pasties and tiny white baseball hats with drawstrings. Hydration vests focus their weight high on your back while most bike-specific packs aim to do the opposite. They offer all the discomfort of wearing a traditional pack without any of that pesky carrying capacity. This is why we at Beta have allowed any vest sent for testing to go stale on the shelf like the loaf of Panettone your aunt sent you for Christmas.

But then, Evoc made one. We didn’t expect anything fundamentally groundbreaking from their new Hydro Pro vests, but these two happen to have the same fluid capacity (1.5 liters) and the same storage capacity (also 1.5 liters). And beyond that, Evoc tends to make thoughtful design decisions. So, although this is mostly an exploration of concepts, not a review of this specific hip pack or hydration vest, Evoc’s approach of each should be on the shortlist for anyone considering either. 

You already know what it’s like to use a hip pack. That’s probably not why you’re reading this. But because the hip pack is the baseline for compact on-body storage, it seemed like the logical place to start. And after spending a couple months using something completely different, I’ve learned a lot about what I do and don’t like about hip packs, particularly hydration hip packs like Evoc’s Pro 3. Since peeves are always juicier than praise, let’s start with what I don’t like.

Though actually drinking from a hose attached down at your lower back is just as effortless as drinking from one that comes over your shoulder, storing that hose is a pain, regardless of the brand. And it’s a shame, because I’ve missed the convenience of bladder-based hydration ever since I joined the no- backpack bandwagon. It’s nice that my hand would leave my grip for less than a second to get the bite valve to my lips, and I’d need only to relax my jaw for it to go right back to where it belonged.

With a hip-pack bladder, it’s not that simple. Half the time, I’m not just taking my hand off your grip, but my eyes off the trail. Though we can all (hopefully) touch our finger to our nose with our eyes closed, connecting the tiny magnets most brands use to secure hose to hip is another story. And there’s no guarantee they’ll stay secure. This issue happens to be the primary reason I entertained the idea of testing a hydration vest in the first place.

The secondary reason is the hip pack’s tendency to bounce or, worst case, work its way around 180 degrees on steep, rocky descents. The solution is to wear the pack higher and tighter, but I don’t want to wear a corset on a long climb. Evoc’s Venti Flap adjustment allows for a quick switch between slightly tighter and slightly looser, but this is more about airflow than repositioning the pack itself. And this all relates back to the fact we’re talking about bladder-equipped hip packs here. Once you put 1.5 liters of water in the center of a bag along with who knows what else, you’re just about at the limit of what you want on your waist, and keeping that weight stable but comfortable is not an easy feat.

But nearly every other aspect of the hip pack couldn’t be easier. This’ll be quick because you probably don’t need to be sold on hip packs. Whenever I have to switch to a traditional backpack, I remember how often I’ll twist a hip pack around to look for something in its main compartment. It’s possible to do something similar with a backpack, but I wouldn’t call it convenient. And then there are the side pockets, which have been getting refreshingly more spacious over the years. With some careful organizing, even a mid-sized hip pack can handle an all-day ride. That pairs well with the cool comfort of having nothing on your back and shoulders. Again, all stuff you already know, but worth pointing out because it’s also all stuff that a hydration vest can never offer.

That was my frame of mind when weighing whether or not to even acknowledge the existence of hydration vests. I just wasn’t sold on the concept. The negatives seemed to outweigh the positives. But you never know until you try, so I tried. And it turns out this is a little more complicated than I thought it would be. I was right about a few things, but wrong about more. 

I was right that the Hydro Pro vest feels like a backpack. A far smaller and lighter one, but still, I never forgot that there was something over my shoulders and on my back. It’s not as if I would forget that I’m wearing a hip pack when it’s filled with 50 ounces of water, but there’s something about having the weight down low, away from my neck, head and ears that makes a hip pack feel less invasive. On long rides with the Hydro Pro vest, I felt some of the patchy numbing in my hands that sometimes creeps in if I’m not shifting my body position often enough. To be honest, though, a set of too-tight bib shorts can sometimes do the same thing. In a way, the pressure the pack put on my shoulders seemed to get partially absorbed into the pressure from my bibs.But my jersey wasn’t able to flutter in the wind, which was probably the most liberating part of my first ride with a hip pack. 

I also, of course, missed the convenience of easy access to my stuff. I wasn’t expecting this because a huge feature of hydration vests is their ability to put large pockets, right on your chest. They’re great for storing stuff in reach in a surprisingly non intrusive way, but getting that stuff out can actually be a bit of a pain. Like nearly all other hydration vests, the chest panels on the Hydro Pro are each home to a deep soft elastic-closure pouch. They can hold a surprising amount of the sorts of things you may want easy access to like nutrition or tools. There are also one or two zippered pockets for a phone or anything else you’d rather not leave anywhere without a zipper.

But reaching into those pouches is somewhat awkward. Not just because of the shapes you need to make with your arm and wrist to get into the top, but also because no fingers are long enough to make it all the way to the bottom. If you want to grab anything in there with one hand, you’re limited to objects that are tall enough to make it near to the top of the pouch. And maybe I’m far-sighted, but it’s hard to look down in there to see what you’re after. And the zippered pocket is vertical, so when I tried to store multiple small objects, I had to be mindful to keep them from spilling out when I reached in for my phone. All these pockets are plenty useful, they’re just only useful for certain quantities of certain items.

Now, remember, I also had some harsh words for the hip pack, and none were harsh enough to be deal-breakers. Same goes for my complaints about the hydration vest, because I found several things I actually liked about it. Least surprisingly, it’s easy to drink from. I actually used a shorter hose during testing, though the original hose is pictured in these photos. Just long enough to reach my mouth, but not long enough to flop around after I abandoned the magnetic clip. It even took less force than a traditional pack to do the actual drinking. 

Rather more surprising was the fact that it always stayed put. I expected that, on steep trails, it would jump up and crowd my neck, given that there’s no waist strap. Evoc uses a double chest strap that actually holds everything in place, and it helped that some of the weight is up front cantilevered opposite the bladder and main compartment. It does get a little tight in there when the reservoir is full, but that leads me to one of the more nifty perks of the hydration vest.

Most of my bibs have a few storage pockets across the back. These are pretty much unusable if I’m wearing a hip pack, but the hydration vest stays well above them. Now, this arrangement may seem like it’s getting dangerously close to an actual backpack, but spreading the load among the vest’s front pockets, its main compartment, and a few bib pockets, the result is the sensation that you’re simply carrying less stuff. And although bib pockets also require a bit of contortionism to access, they don’t require you to remove your pack. 

So, neither of these is a perfect solution. Few problems ever have a perfect solution. But each has its strengths. If you like the idea of the hip pack, but you must have one with a hydration bladder, you can still have all the easy-access, unintrusive, back-sweat busting comfort that has put the hip pack on top for the past several years. Or, if that stuff isn’t as important to you as what the beer community calls “drinkability,” the hydration vest is a surprisingly well thought-out option. It’s perfect for short, hot rides where you want nothing to stand between you and your next sip. Or when supplemented by an occasional water stop, it’s a way to ensure you can drink, unencumbered, on long rides. And though I wouldn’t know, it’d probably be a great choice for racers who don’t want to lose valuable seconds reaching for a bottle. It’s not for everyone, but it brings something new to the table. Sorry I was so hard on you at first, hydration vests. You’re all right.