The Best Running Pack of 2014

Tested: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20

Style : Accessories By Photo by Henry Phillips

As city dwellers with a penchant for sports, we’re used to packing our day into a bag and carrying it with us, which means iPads, running shoes and spare clothes share the same real estate — a tough thing to do without looking like a hostel-hopper or a character from The Road. For distance runners, the ultimate bag also needs to be suitable for a bounce- and chafe-free commute of over an hour or more; trail runners, marathon runners and hikers need the same performance while bagging a few peaks in one day. Few single packs can meet all of these demands. The Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 ($150), which launches on August 15, exceeds them.

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There are all sorts of things that can go wrong with a bag: it’s too heavy or the weight isn’t distributed appropriately; the straps dig into your neck or into your shoulders; there’s sloshing and swaying; the storage isn’t easily accessible. We bring this up because we’ve run in pretty much everything with straps — and most packs do just fine in every area except movement.

The Fastpack 20 was clearly designed with the input of runners. (You can get a first-hand account of some UD athletes on their blog.) The first thing you’ll notice is that the shoulder straps flare out over the chest, creating a very comfortable, vest-like fit with more substantial coverage than any other pack we’ve run in. These straps and the mesh back panel are cut from a single piece of fabric, so there are no seams or foam padding articulations that can turn into a nuisance after several miles of running.

But comfort is an empty virtue without storage. Two large front pockets on the shoulder straps accommodate (on the left strap) a bottle and (on the right) snacks or other things you want to grab easily. The left pocket has an elastic closure, the right, a zipper. Beneath both pockets are smaller enclosures for keys, electrolyte tabs, a lucky rabbit’s foot or whatever else you want to stow.

The main compartment has a sleeve for a hydration bladder, plus a mesh divider that works well for a laptop, tablet or anything else that you want to separate from the rest of your gear. The whole thing has a roll-top closure, which holds 15 liters of valued possessions rolled down or 20 when fully extended. There’s also an external mesh pocket that cinches down with two bungee cords and multiple loops on either side to keep everything inside the pack close while you move.

The “con” column for the Fastpack 20 is very small. If you’re looking for a daypack that provides a lot of structure and internal organization, this isn’t it; this back is for packing up, cinching down, and taking off. Also, perhaps less importantly, with the rolltop flapping down the back and partially obscuring the graphics, at least one person thought we were wearing a bag that advertised the English-Irish pop boy band One Direction. We only wish. On the other hand, Ultimate Direction is associated with a handful of exceptional names, including two of their sponsored athletes, ultramarathon living legend Scott Jurek and two-time Leadville 100 champion Anton Krupicka.

They may not have the pretty voices, but they sure can run — and their collective influence is apparent in the Fastpack 20. When comes out in August, it’ll be at the top of the heap alongside other innovative running packs like Salomon’s S-Lab Advanced Skin Hydro 12 Set and Geigerrig’s pressurized hydration systems. That’s two weeks before the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, so we hope you’ve locked in your spot.

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