November 2014

Gear review: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20l

For the past couple of years I’ve been using either the first generation Salomon S-Lab 12 litre or the Ultimate Direction PB for non-multi-day ultras. They feel less cumbersome than traditional packs and the multiple pockets make organising gear easier. And the smaller capacity helps reign in my ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ packing tendencies. So, as a bit of a gear junkie, I was looking forward to the Fastpack becoming available in the UK (Ultimate Direction did a good job of creating online buzz...). In particular I thought it might be good for the T184. In the end it didn’t hit the shops here until October. 24 hours later (thanks to the ULTRAmarathonRunning Store’s speedy dispatch and delivery) I had one sat on my doorstep.

So far I’ve tested it out on two runs. A half-day (carrying waterproof jacket & trousers, fleece, hat & gloves, survival bag, head-torch, water and snacks) and an overnight trip (all of the above plus bivy bag, sleeping bag & mat and more food). I also tried a quick run around the block with a winter weight sleeping bag and mat.

For the half-day outing, the Fastpack felt a bit like driving a blingy 4 by 4 to the corner-shop (thankfully I didn’t encounter any hard-core fell-runners). With a 36 inch chest (thanks to a large rib-cage...) I’m towards the upper-end of the advertised size range for S/M (24-40 inches). However even with the straps tightened almost completely the top of the pack moved around a fair bit. Fiddling around with the level of the chest straps reduced the movement, but didn’t eliminate it completely. It was a bit irritating and I’d worry about chafing over a full day. Fit when part-loaded is likely to be an issue for anyone smaller built than me (which is most female runners, and some men too). This run probably wasn’t a fair test for the pack; it’s not what it’s designed for. But, on the other hand, an OMM 20l sack, for instance, would handle a ‘part-load’ far better.

The Fastpack came into its own on the overnight trip. The seamless back is really comfy, no chafing and it sat evenly across my back, regardless of how I stuffed things into it. This wasn’t a long enough outing to really put comfort levels to the test, but (even without sudocrem...) there was no chafing and the wide shoulder straps spread the weight, avoiding a sore collar bone.

I used the stretch side pockets for two 750ml water bottles. Side pockets are my preferred place for carrying water bottles (it’s even where I put them in my S-Lab). These ones are secure and easy to access, and would even hold bigger bottles. My waterproofs went in the stretch back pocket. Good for keeping them separate from other gear, and far more secure then stuffing them in a rear bungy. Car keys went in the small zip pocket on the front straps and snacks into the larger pockets. For any trip which needs 20l total capacity, I’ll usually have a fair amount of stuff (mobile phone, sunglasses, head-torch,...) which I want close to hand. Usually it goes in either a front pack or the lid pocket, but with the Fastpack it had to go in the main compartment with everything else. The larger front pockets were big enough to hold some of this stuff, but in the absence of zips I didn’t trust them.

Thanks to the roll down top, it is possible to get a lot more than 20l of kit in (possibly closer to 30). I’ve managed to fit Winter weekend camping gear in, including a heavier weight sleeping bag and mat. However then it was very top heavy and it felt like I was at risk of toppling over backwards.

In summary: a good piece of kit for multi-day trips outside Winter, but not as adaptable as other similar size packs. It has some really nice features (the large stretch back pocket is great for storing waterproofs) but the lack of secure small pockets is annoying. Fit when part-loaded may be an issue if you’re slim built. It’s worth considering if you like (and can afford...) to have kit for all occasions. But an OMM 20 or 25l sack, or similar, with a front pack will do the same job cheaper, and is more adaptable.

On being a gear junkie

I’m a bit of a gear junkie. I like buying and using new running gear, and finding kit which works well for me. But, judging by some of the discussion on the Ultra Running Community Facebook page, this makes me a bit odd. A profligate fool, even.

I know fancy, or even decent, gear isn’t going to make me run faster. I ran my marathon PB (nearly 20 years ago, when I was a penny-less PhD student) wearing a pair of ‘trainers’ from a high street shoe shop, some M&S cotton socks, a huge 99p cotton T-shirt from New Look and a pair of purple shorts from the bargain bin at the local running shop. But I’m lucky enough (thanks to a job which kicks my arse for half the year) to have some disposable income, so why not spend it on things which make me happy and running a more pleasant experience? For multi-day mountain races decent kit is a necessity, but even for tamer events, how much is finishing in comfort, rather than cold and chafed to bits, worth?

There’s an argument that it’s better to spend cash on experiences than on kit. I’m the last person who need to be convinced of the value of experiences. Up until recently our mortgage payments were only slightly more than our holiday budget... However I’m a bit wary of ‘big-ticket’ races. Any ‘big’ race involves an investment of time and energy for training. Throw in a substantial financial cost and DNFing becomes even more painful. Some races require new kit. But unless it’s really niche stuff you can use it again and again. And if you don’t, you can usually eBay it and recoup a substantial fraction of the cost.

I don’t rush out and buy new stuff for the sake of it. I like ‘things which work’ more than I like new shiny things (unlike the couple at this year’s Round Rotherham who looked like they were taking part in a Killian and Emelie impersonation competition). My favourite medium-weight long-sleeved tops are a couple of Men’s Raidlight Stretch Raider tops that I picked up in a sale 7 or 8 years ago. They’re looking a bit battered, and I’ve had to mend some small holes, but they still do their job well.

While I do spend a fair bit on kit, I like to make my cash go as far as possible. I rarely pay full RRP for anything, unless I absolutely have to. For instance to replace something which has broken and is needed for a specific race. But I don’t just buy from whatever random online shop is cheapest. Good customer service (and supporting business who’re doing a good job) is worth more than saving a couple of quid. I do sometimes have to restrain myself from buying things from SportPursuit because they’re cheap and/or purple and/or might come in useful one day though.