Hydration Backpacks vs. Running Vests – Which To Wear

Recently our tried and true running vest broke down. After years of use, and lots of time sitting in a hot garage drying out from sweat, mud, and rain, the material finally broke down and ripped apart. With the average summer temperatures easily in the mid 80s, and most of our mid-day runs cresting over an hour, this sent us on the hunt for some new hydration options.

But which water bottle or hydration vest is best for a run? We decided to try a few of them before settling on just one. We bought and borrowed different hydration vest, hydration belts, and water bottles to find out which one would be the best option. Our favorite was simple 20oz handheld bottle, with a small pocket for 1-2 items.

While that single bottle is the best, there are times when runs get longer and the size is just not enough. We can double up on the same bottle, or explore using all the other ones we have purchased or collected over the years. Here is our review of each of these and what types of runners they are best for.

hand held water bottle for running

Types of Water Bottles for Runners

There are a couple popular ways to carry water on a run, with the major differences being where the water is stored. Since a liter of water weighs just over two pounds, the location of the extra weight can be a real consideration. Poorly placed water bottles can cause chafing, excessive bouncing, and fatigue that is unnecessary. The most popular options for where to tuck a water bottle are:

  • Hydration Belts – These are worn like a fanny pack and put smaller water bottles either on top of the hips or on the small of the lower back. Typically these carry less water since the bottles are more likely to bounce around.
  • Hydration Backpacks – Water backpacks carry a larger reservoir with backpack straps and will have a long hose straw that wraps around and be accessible without having to take the pack off. Backpacks are the best option for trying to carry large quantities of water.
  • Hydration Vest – Vest typically have some type of backpack storage but put the water bottles on the front just below the shoulders. Those bottles can have straws that make them drinkable without removing the bottle (similar to a backpack) or a normal bottle just tucked into a sewn pouch.
  • Handheld Water Bottles – Carrying a water bottle can be as simple as grabbing a common plastic one. Or, you can find runner bottles that have straps that make it easier to hang onto by wrapping around the hand so you do not have to grip it the whole time.  You can also pair a handheld with a backpack or other option to increase the total amount of water carried.

hydration backpack, running vest, and hand held water bottle

Considerations for Choosing the Best Running Water Bottle

When thinking about which of these options to go with there are a couple top considerations. Mainly though the concern is what type of activity you plan on doing most often. A simple question sometimes is “do I need a hydration belt“. For long unsupported runs in a dessert you may need need more volume of water, while for a near home road run the concern may be more about what else you need to carry other than water. In an organized marathon you likely will not need a hydration belt. A few questions to ask before choosing which water bottle or hydration pack to buy

  • What is the weather where you are running? Obviously hotter weather will often require more water, but even in rainy wet weather you still need to hydrate. Just like running in heat in a cotton shirt will be a problem, the materials used can help keep you warm and dry or add to a day of misery. For sunny areas make sure a bottle or bag doesn’t expose weird areas that will get sunburned and if running in wet areas consider that cleaning and drying a backpack may be more difficult if used on daily runs.
  • Are there other activities you want to use the bottle for? This is an easy one, if you are planing to do longer day hikes than a pack with storage in addition to water is critical. For those looking to cycle as well belts and backpacks are better options than handhelds since they can at least double for a bottle on a ride.
  • How long are you typically out for, and are there places to fill a bottle? For supported runs, like marathons with aid stations, you still may want to carry something so that you have it when you need compared to when an aid station is around. Smaller handhelds are great for supported races since they are still light weight and when passing an aid station everything is already in your hands which makes them easier to refill. A backpack reservoir can be a nightmare to refill at an aid station especially if you’re just trying to dump cups into a small opening after peeling the whole thing off.
  • What other items do you want to carry? The most common additional items we see folks carrying are phones (for tracking and for after the run), nutrition, keys, and extra clothes. Many bottle holders have places for some version of these, but check that your preferred item works. We have ditched backpacks because once you stuff a jacket in them they shift and become uncomfortable. For phones carriers we have found that some of them have covers that you can still touch a screen through, but for one of them as soon as any drop of water or sweat touched it the phone would think it was being tapped and all tracking apps and music controls were rendered useless.
  • Are hydration belts allowed in marathons? This will depend on the race, but for the most part yes, hydration belts and water bottles are fine. For some longer unsupported races they may even be required. If you are fighting for a podium or award spot it’s worth checking with the race directors to confirm they are allowed, but generally speaking we have never heard of a mid-pack athlete having any issues because they carried a hydration vest or bottle.