Running Packs 101: Fit, Features, and Storage

Running Packs 101: Fit, Features, and Storage

Running packs and vests are very different from most of the backpacks that day hikers and backpackers are familiar with. In this article, I’ll explain the differences between a running pack and other backpacks, and detail how the special features of a running pack work. I also cover the emergence of hybrid backpacks like the Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest and Six Moon Designs Flight 30, which blend the attributes of running packs and backpacking packs.

Not All Packs Are Meant For Running

Okay, it’s a given that not all packs are made for running, but it bears stating this fact because running packs differ from other backpacks in many ways. All of the differences in fit, features, and storage add up to a pack that you can actually comfortably run in. You’ll understand this first hand if you try running in anything other than a running pack. Try going for a run in your run-of-the-mill Osprey hiking pack and you’ll wind up with an aching neck and shoulders… and a whole lot of chafing, which you’ll be keenly aware of the moment you take a shower.

Vest-style running packs have straps that are part of the pack’s storage system.
Vest-style running packs have straps that are part of the pack’s storage system.

Vest-Style Running Packs

Some running packs have straps that are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the pack, wearing more like a vest. There are some running-specific designs that fit very closely to the body and are made almost entirely of stretchy material to allow for a snug fit. This combination minimizes bouncing and lets the chest expand and contract without constricting.

Vest-style packs are best for racing or shorter trail runs where you don’t have to worry about carrying a lot of extra gear, food, or water. But vest-style running packs aren’t great to cross over as a hiking pack because they tend to have limited storage and sit high up on the back – not ideal for carrying your ten essentials.

Other running packs can be more versatile in fit and function and can crossover as a hiking or adventure pack. You may also notice that the shoulder straps on a running pack are contoured to sit closer to the neck and away from the armpits: this is to minimize rubbing and irritation and allow for an unrestricted arm swing while running.

Buckles and nylon are thin and lightweight on running packs
Buckles and nylon are thin and lightweight on running packs.

Running Pack Straps

Running-style packs have vastly different straps than backpacking packs. They tend to be slimmer with very little to no padding. This is because running packs aren’t meant to carry a lot of weight – usually just a few essentials like snacks, some water, an extra layer, and a small first aid kit – so padding is not necessary. Running pack straps also have very little to no stiffness and they are made to breathe, very different from the tough material and sandwiched foam of a traditional backpack. The nylon webbing used in running packs is slender and the buckles are small and lightweight.

Load Distribution

Unlike multi-day backpacks, running packs don’t have rigid frames. Backpack frames help distribute weight and provide structural support to keep the pack from collapsing. Runners typically don’t carry much weight in their packs, nor do they carry a lot of gear, so a rigid frame isn’t necessary and would just add weight as well as additional pressure points that may cause chafing.

There are always pockets on the shoulder straps to carry quick access items, like snacks
There are always pockets on the shoulder straps to carry quick access items, like snacks.

Running packs are generally carried higher up on the back, between the shoulders, while backpacking packs have weight distributed to the hips. If you see a running pack with a hip or waist belt, it’s there to control swing and bounce and not for weight distribution. Carrying heavier weight and more gear in a running pack is possible, but not preferred, and results in muscular fatigue of the shoulders.

Pack Storage

Storage solutions for running packs are quite different from traditional backpacks. One of the biggest differences are the accessible pockets on the front of the shoulder straps. These pockets allow the runner to easily grab snacks or other important items, or even carry special flasks for hydration that they can sip from directly while moving.

Most of the time, the main compartment of a running pack is made of stretchy material so that the runner can stuff items in and they are kept snuggly in the pack. Bouncing and jostling quickly suck energy and can cause extreme discomfort, so the more snug the items in that pack are, the better.

Some running packs have gear loops and compression straps, while others do not. Gear attached to the outside of a running pack can bounce around and be irritating.

Another unique storage feature in running packs is trekking pole storage. Runners who use poles sometimes want to stash them in order to free their hands when running with trekking poles.

A snug fit is important to eliminate bouncing and skin chafing
A snug fit is important to eliminate bouncing and skin chafing

Hybrid Running/FastPacking Packs

There are many different kinds of specialized running packs available these days and the options are always expanding. As trail running continues to grow in popularity, it’s only natural for boundaries to be pushed. Various sports are being hybridized (imagine the intersection of running and mountaineering), and gear evolution continues alongside the evolution of the sports.

See also: What is Fastpacking?

For example, some packs are made specifically for running in the mountains, like the Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest that has storage for an ice axe, while others are made for running long distances along with overnight stays in the backcountry, such as the Six Moon Designs Flight 30. Some of these backpacks deserve their own categories because they are no longer in the realm of “just a running pack.” They are neither a running vest, nor a traditional backpack – they are hybrids and can cross over between running packs/vests and more traditional backpacking packs.

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About the author

Ashly Winchester spends most of her time roaming and running around the wild spaces of California and the Pacific Northwest. She has an insatiable appetite for adventure, which led her to become a mountain guide on Northern California's gem, Mount Shasta, and set a goal of climbing all of the Cascade volcanoes. She is an avid hiker and backpacker, but really comes alive when she's running long distances on trails, so it makes sense that she has started combining these activities into fastpacking trips. Even though she likes to move fast, Ashly also likes to slow down and study native plants and their traditional uses. You'll often find her examining plants on the trail and taking photos of them for identification. Find Ashly on her instagram, @ashly.winchester, or tune in to her podcast over at womxnofthewild.com

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4 comments

  1. This is a great piece and you’re right we are already seeing a crossover from running into hiking packs. Question on sizing, does torso size come into play or is chest size more important? Running/fastpacking packs could be a good alternative for long torso persons looking for a small daypack. This might apply more to a fastpack then a vest. Thanks!

    • Dan, true vest style running packs do not take torso length into consideration. Once you start crossing over into fastpacking though, then torso length does come into play. Running packs are normally very adjustable and sizing typically comes in “men’s” or “women’s.” And I agree, fastpacks may crossover as hiking packs. Thanks!

  2. Agree with Dan’s appreciative comment above. I’m wondering if I might like the Six Moons fastback more than my Osprey Talon. Thanks for opening my eyes to another option.

    • I’m glad you found value in this! There are so many specialized packs out there that the options are almost overwhelming. My experience with the Six Moons pack has been great thus far. I hope you’re able to find something that works!

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