Monday, 4 November 2013

Gear Review: Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab Hydro 5

As regular readers of this blog will have learned, I really enjoy trying out new gear.  In some ways, this stems from a constant search for perfection.  An alternative view is that I've got a short attention span.  Perhaps the charitable view is that it's a bit of a combination.  Anyway, I'd been discussing race pack options with Keith at www.ULTRAmarathonRunningStore.com for a while, when he informed me that the S-Lab Hydro 5 was coming in.  I knew that I probably had a few hours to make a decision before demand started to outstrip supply.  I checked the details, compared the price of the full pack to the price of a different pack and the two Salomon squeezy bottles (which I really wanted to try out anyway), and bit the bullet.  Yes, I bought the pack (if anyone wants to send me stuff to try for free, I'll happily oblige!), with the intention of wearing it for February's Rocky Raccoon 100.  Now that I've managed to clock up some miles in it, I can finally offer my thoughts on it.

So many great things about this vest!

Features

This race vest is packed with useful features.  As an overview, it has a compartment and thermal sleeve for a 1.5L bladder (bladder not included), a reasonably large mesh main pocket, a variety of small pockets accessible while on the move, and a second stretchy mesh pocket that's ideal for a waterproof.  There are some loops and straps to hold your hiking poles, a foil blanket, and a whistle. (I'll never figure out how to use the pole loops, given I use sticks for about 4 days a year for walking, but there are instructions for them on the pack tags).  The variety of straps on the shoulders offer some useful fixing points for accessories like gloves and hats.  There are also front pouches for the 500ml Soft Flasks.  The straps are fantastically adjustable, so you've got a pretty good chance of achieving a good fit.

Pockets, Pockets, Pockets!
And More Pockets

If you really want it to, the pack can hold a lot. Here, it's holding 2L of water, 2 hats, gloves, windproof, spare socks, first aid kit, foil blanket, whistle, phone, food, and a pair of Fellraisers.  The lower mesh pocket is, however, starting to release itself ever since the stitches popped with a much smaller load.

Fit

The vest comes in three sizes, XS-S, M-L, and XL.  This was my first concern point - with a 37" chest, I typically fall into the S-M category, and fall between sizes.  After a quick check with Keith, I opted for the XS-S size.  With some trepidation, I put on the pack and was overjoyed that it fit perfectly.  After a bit of tweeking on the Twin Link straps, I was able to quickly get the pack to stay in place on the run.  In fact, when wearing the pack, I have found I don't need to tape my nips because there's no fabric movement across my chest.

I have noticed that, when wearing the vest, I heat up quickly and it takes a while to regulate as I would with a looser-fitting pack.  I think the mesh isn't as breathable as it looks like it should be.  Any pack will alter your temperature, so the key is to know you'll sweat a bit extra with this on and react accordingly.  Once the mesh is properly damp, the moisture does evaporate.  I've already noticed I like the extra layer in the wind, but we'll have to see how it gets on in the heat next year.

(Update from Rocky Raccoon 100)
In hot, humid conditions (relative to my normal training), I practically melted in the pack. I just wasn't able to cool down while wearing it.  I suppose throwing some ice packs in might have helped, but really the best solution was to not be wearing it.  I have to say that I saw quite a few other Salomon race vest wearers sweating buckets as well, so bear the lack of airflow on the skin in mind if you're planning to wear a race vest in the heat.

On longer runs, though, I was finding the end of the Twin Link plastic rods is pressing against my rib cage and leaving a bit of light bruising.  I'm getting better at making minor adjustments in the Twin Link setup to redirect that pressure, and by using the higher clip positions on the lower strap, I think that's now fixed.  As with anything hyper-adjustable, it takes a bit of trial-and-error to make improvements, but we're getting there.

Things I Like

Broadly, the fit is pretty good.  I'm happy that there's no movement whether I'm wearing one or two layers.  The body of the vest sits nicely on my back and there's sufficient clearance under my arms to clear the side pockets, although the zipper tangs can stick out and irritate if not correctly pushed down after use.

The Soft Flasks are great.  If there's a bit of sloshing, you just have to remove the air and they will go quiet.  It's easy enough to drink from the flask without removing it from its pouch, though the flask can slip down to the bottom of the pouch as it gets empty.

Things I'd Like to See Improved

The first thing I noticed as I was deciding which pockets to use for which bits of kit was the lack of any waterproofing.  This makes for a light pack, but it also means I have to carry things I want to keep dry in a plastic bag.  Given that I live in the UK, I can be pretty certain I'll be training and racing in the wet for a significant portion of the year.  I suppose I could spend another £20 to buy a spare waterproof pouch for my phone - but that seems a bit unnecessary.  I normally use sandwich bags to compress spare Buffs, gloves, socks etc., so I guess I just need another one for the phone.

I'd prefer a closure I can manipulate on the move, and that fully closes the pocket.


The closure for the main pouch is effective, but I'm not entirely convinced by it.  If I've got anything heavy enough to bounce a bit in the pocket, there is a risk it will come out.  If the bag is mostly empty, I do notice my first aid kit moving more than is ideal.  Once the pack's a bit more full, the mesh fabrics hold things together much better.  A bit of a compression strap on the outside, like you find on so many other packs would be a big improvement in load management.  I may have to add one on myself...  I also struggle to open it while I'm on the move.  It's not impossible, but improvements are there to be made.

The Soft Flask doesn't seem as robust as I'd like.  One bite valve is already a bit drippy, which can be a irritating if it's chilly.  Given that the valve is one of the only solid parts of the flask, it should really be a more capable.

The workmanship on the outer stretch pocket could do with some help.  I asked Nic to stuff my jacket into it (easier than me doing it, since she was behind me).  Seconds later, the sound of a couple of stitches popping on the elastic of my rather pricey new toy made me wince.  The damage wasn't too bad, but it's probably best to have stretchy stitches at the aperture of a stretchy pocket, don't you think?

Things I Love

The outer "SensiFit" stretch pocket at the bottom of the pack.  My waterproof lives there for most runs.  I can get the jacket in and out easily enough (even easier, now there are a few popped stitches), and the stretch means it doesn't interfere too much with the loading of the main pocket.

The weighting of the Soft Flasks.  Splitting my water load on a longer run is great.  I love being able to take a load of drink with me without it all being on my back.

The size.  The pack fits everything I need for a full day out in almost any weather.  I've got other packs for days when I need to transport gear (e.g. route-marking days) or spare clothes (e.g. running back from somewhere that wouldn't appreciate my snappy trail outfits), but for racing I just can't see me needing anything else.

The pocket setup.  Having the side space divided into several pockets is great.  I find I run with lots of small stuff, so it's good to have it split up so it's all easily accessible (assuming I remember which pocket it's in!).

The snap-fit Twin Link straps.  I especially love the red hooks that call out "open this one, you dolt!".

Would I recommend it?

I've seen plenty of other race vests recently - they're all the rage, after all.  Every one has different qualities to it.  I struggle to see how one might find a better fit, given the adjustability.  The lack of any waterproof compartments means I've got to find a workaround for my primary running environment, so would always be a caveat in any recommendation.  If you don't care about that, then I'd say go for it - this is a great pack, and the longer I use it the better it gets.

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