minutes per mile blog

running hydration: comparing the water vest vs. belt vs. handheld bottle

A while back a reader asked me for opinions on the best type of running hydration tool. Which is the best for running — the water vest, the water belt, or the handheld water bottle?

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Tough choice, and it definitely depends on the scenario and type of runner you are. I’ve jotted down all of my thoughts and opinions below regarding each option and hope it helps you make the right choice if you’re in the market for a new water-carrying mechanism this summer!

Last place: Running backpack/vest. I have a Camelback hydration vest (it’s about 6 years old so they don’t make it anymore, but it’s similar to this style).

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Pros: Considering you have a straw right on your shoulder to drink from at any time, I suppose the vest wins in terms of convenience because you don’t have to deal with caps and spouts. And more importantly, the vest wins in terms of sheer capacity. Mine holds two liters (some hold even more!) and also has spacious pockets for food, gels, first-aid stuff — whatever you need to take with you on the go. In the past I’ve used it on long runs where I knew there wasn’t going to be water available on the route. I’ve also used it to pack and run with a spare change of clothes! If I was a trail or ultra runner I would probably stick with the vest due to its size. As of now I only use it for non-running stuff like hiking or travel. Just take the water pack out and you have a perfect mini backpack!

Cons: Although the vest has some major benefits, in my opinion it has a few major drawbacks. The first and WORST for me is chafing. If you’re wearing the vest with a tank top (which would be highly likely since heat + hydration go hand in hand), watch out for some nasty chafing on your shoulders, back, and chest. I wore this vest a few times on some hot summer runs and actually have a scar from where it rubbed, scratched, and scabbed my shoulder bone so severely! Second is that I found the vest the most uncomfortable of all water carrying options. Even when I secured the belt around my chest, the shoulder straps bounced up and down with each footstep. Very annoying when your running for 3+ hours. Third is the HEAT. Although the vest carries a ton of stuff, the bad news is that it’s all sitting across your back, preventing airflow and making you sweat even more. And fourth… horrible tan lines!

Second place: The running belt. I have a Nathan running belt that’s about five years old. They don’t make the model anymore but it’s similar to this model which I would highly recommend since it has slanted bottle holders! Mine has the straight holders :(

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Pros: The two-bottle running belt seems perfect because it carries what’s just the right amount of water for a long run (for me at least). If I take the belt out for a 18-22 milers I probably wouldn’t need to stop and refill it unless it was an extra hot day. Plus it has a handy little pouch for carrying 2-3 gels and your keys. Lastly, despite my initial hesitations, the belt is actually quite comfortable and not too annoying. I like to wear mine low on my hips and find that it doesn’t bounce around nearly as much as the backpack. Other people like to wear theirs high, just above their belly button!

Cons: The water belt is not *too* annoying, but it is still a *tad* annoying. Since I don’t run with music, the sloshing sound does tend to bother me sometimes and the belt still adds extra weight to your run. I try to drink out of both bottles evenly so that one doesn’t ever get heavier or louder than the other (how is that for OCD). Also, I’m assuming they’ve fixed this by now, but the water bottles on my version are not the greatest. They’re difficult to open and close with your mouth, so you have to use both hands to push the spouts open and closed. If you’re using a hand to hold something else like a phone or iPod, it’s tough to coordinate getting the bottle out of the holster, opening its spout, closing it, and then slotting it back into the belt. Again, Nathan might have fixed this in recent versions — I know the slanted holster is a huge upgrade! — but it’s drawback for me. Still, I do appreciate the belt for its relative comfort and capacity. In my mind it’s the perfect “happy medium” between the vest and the handheld.

First place: Handheld water bottle. The good old handheld water bottle is my go-to hydration option. It’s light, easy, and the least annoying of all the options. I have the Ultimate Direction Handy 10 handheld bottle, which apparently is designed for women but would probably suit anyone.

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Pros: Like I said, light and easy. I love my little water bottle because it’s allows me to have water on the go but doesn’t bog me down. The hand strap means that I only have to keep a very loose grip on the bottle to keep it secure on my hand, and there’s a little pocket that has just enough room for a gel and a key. For extra long runs where I need more than one energy gel, I’ll usually tuck those into a shorts pocket or simply hold them in my other hand with my phone. I often get asked by runners if I get annoyed holding so much in my hands when I run. The answer is not really. I guess after years of running with either a phone, camera, or iPod in my hands I just got used to it! Sure, I’d rather be running with absolutely nothing — but if I have to choose between carrying things on my back, on my waist, or in my hands, I prefer hands.

Cons: Obviously the water bottle loses in terms of capacity. This little guy only holds 10 ounces! If I’m doing a long run with no water stops or fountains along the way, the handheld probably isn’t the best option. However, I design most of my long run routes to include water stops so that I can refill and keep running without a worry. The second drawback of the handheld is that you basically “lose” a hand if you use it, which could make it difficult to do things like push a button on your iPod or grab a Gu on the run. Also, sometimes it’s difficult to open and close the zipper on my handheld pocket with just one hand.

Final thoughts: For long runs that include a water stop or two, I hands-down recommend the handheld water bottle! I didn’t discuss hydration for racing in this post but feel like I should point out that I don’t use any of these when running a marathon or half — I rely on the race water stops instead. In the end, running hydration is a totally personal decision, so do what works best for you. What’s your preferred running hydration gadget? I’d love to hear what others think in the comments section!

4 thoughts on “running hydration: comparing the water vest vs. belt vs. handheld bottle

  1. You need to give a hydration pack a 2nd try! I LOVE mine – it’s a Nathan. I do run ultras so I need it for the capacity but mine does not bounce at all and I’ve never had chaffing issues (from my pack — my sports bra on the other hand…). I agree that a handheld is perfect for shorter distances but the hydration pack is awesome when you are on trails for 4-5 hours w/no water (I live in WI and water spots are only open in the summer months).

  2. I second Angie’s comment. The backpacks are A LOT better now. I actually have one from Mountain Hardware and I’m totally in love. I have a 70 oz Camelbak bladder that I fill with water/ice, and it keeps me hydrated on those long runs. And, it doesn’t bounce at all. It’s just a part of me on the run.