The best thing about running is that it has a low barrier to entry — all you need is a pair of decent shoes to get started. But if you find yourself hitting the road with a phone in one hand, a water bottle in the other, a jacket tied around your waist and a set of keys bulging out of your pocket, you may also want to invest in a running backpack.
Running backpacks and vests come in a variety of sizes and designs and are worn by runners of all types. Trail runners use them to tote trekking poles and first-aid kits; long-distance runners carry extra layers and fuel; run commuters haul their laptops; and recreational runners slip on a pack when they need to transport the essentials, like their phone, keys, credit cards and water.
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So while the basic function of a running backpack is always the same (to carry stuff), certain features and design nuances can make one running backpack better suited to a runner than other available options. When you also consider variables like price, fit, sizing options and personal preferences, choosing the right model can feel daunting.
So, if you're wondering what backpacks are good for running in, we've got you covered. To help cut through the noise and identify the best backpack for your running style, we asked avid runners and running coaches for their advice and recommendations.
- Best Overall: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest 6.0 ($149.95, REI.com)
- Best Lightweight: Nathan VaporAir 3.0 7 Liter Hydration Pack ($160, Nathansports.com)
- Best for Hydration: Camelbak Circuit Run Vest ($90, Camelbak.com)
- Best for Run Commuting: REI Co-op Commuter Pack ($89.95, REI.com)
- Best for Distance Running: Salomon ADV SKIN 5 ($140, Salomon.com)
- Best for Storage: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 ($149.95, REI.com)
- Best for Trail Running: Black Diamond Distance 4 Hydration Vest ($149.95, Blackdiamondequipment.com)
- Best Budget Pick: Vibrelli 2L Hydration Backpack ($24.98, Amazon.com)
How We Chose
We chatted with a diverse group of runners — including trail runners, road runners, run commuters and competitive athletes — to better understand what features make a high-performing backpack for running. Based on their input, we identified the best products based on factors including:
- Size and weight
- Hydration features
1. Best Overall: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest 6.0
When choosing the best running backpack overall, we considered quality and performance as well as versatility. No matter if you're training, road racing or trail running, Ultimate Direction's Ultra Vest 6.0 will have your back.
By offering a wide range of sizes and patented Comfort Cinch technology, this Ultimate Direction backpack enables runners to get the best, most secure fit, which minimizes annoying bouncing and painful chafing. The pack itself is light, weighing in at just 8.11 ounces without water bottles, but it offers a generous amount of storage and can hold two hydration flasks (included) and a 2-liter water bladder.
While most other packs offer some level of water resistance, the ultra vest is equipped with two fully waterproof sections, including the spacious main compartment and one of the zippered shoulder pockets. Bungee cords offer additional external storage, and detachable loops allow trekking poles to be stowed on the front or back of the vest.
Adam Devine, coach of Prospect Park Track Club's Trail Training Group in Brooklyn, New York, owns an older model, and reaches for it whenever he needs to carry more than just the essentials.
"It's what I use when I am doing a race or a run where I want hydration bottles but also need storage for extra food, a jacket and hat or any other extra items for that particular run, like charger packs or additional electronics," he says.
2. Best Lightweight: Nathan VaporAir 3.0 7- Liter Hydration Pack
Weighing in at just 8.8 ounces, the VaporAir 3.0 is the featherweight champ of running backpacks. This pack is super light and breathable, thanks to a double layer of moisture-wicking mesh on the vest's interior and shoulder straps. And by offering an inclusive sizing system that ranges from XXS to 3X, Nathan promises a tailored fit, which means less jostling as you move.
Despite the minimalist design, the VaporAir offers plenty of storage, including two easy-to-access zippered pockets, a large compartment in the back, multiple bungee cords and loops for trekking poles. The backpack is equipped with a 2-liter hydration bladder, but you can also tote your own flasks in the pouches up front.
"The Nathan vest is my race vest when I am trying to go as light as possible to run as fast as possible but still need water and nutrition on my body," Devine says.
In addition to the multiple hydration options, Devine also appreciates the pack's handy front pockets.
"A lot of little items are kept separate to keep me from having to fuss and dig when I am running fast," he says. "Some other packs have larger pockets, and there are a couple of large pockets on the Nathan, but having small zippered areas to keep items readily accessible keeps me from frustratedly digging."
3. Best for Hydration: Camelbak Circuit Run Vest
The Circuit Run Vest's included hydration bladder, Camelbak's 1.5-liter Crux reservoir, isn't an additional feature on this running backpack — it's the star player.
First of all, it's just easy to drink from. According to Camelbak, the newest Crux reservoir delivers 20 percent more water per sip than previous models, and you can easily close the drinking valve's on/off lever with one hand. Most importantly, the reservoir's accessible placement means you won't be fumbling for a drink mid-run, says Alison Staples, coach at &Running in Howard County, Maryland, and Circuit Run Vest devotee.
"I particularly like the loop at each shoulder that houses the hose connected to the bladder," she says.
Hydration capabilities aside, the Circuit Run Vest holds its own as an all-around solid running backpack. It's made with ultralight materials and includes zippered pockets, pouches for extra water bottles and loops for trekking poles. While it's only offered in one size, there are separate fits for men and women, and the adjustable chest straps afford some customization.
"The straps hit right below the sternum, which allows enough room for the diaphragm to fill with air while providing a snug fit," Staples says. "I've experimented with other brands and find this pack to be more flexible, soft and a better fit than most other brands and types of packs," Staples says.
Her number one tip: "I recommend buying a hydration bladder cleaning kit that comes with a hose cleaner and cleaner tablet to prevent build-up inside the bladder."
4. Best for Run Commuting: REI Co-op Commuter Pack
If running is also your mode of transportation, you need a snug-fitting backpack that's durable, weather-resistant and more spacious than something you might wear during a race or on a long training run.
The Co-op Commuter pack checks all the necessary boxes, according to Raj Hathiramani, coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City.
"This running backpack has high utility for a daily commute to work or the gym. It has adjustable shoulder, sternum and waist straps, space for a laptop and hydration bladder, as well as neat compression straps that work as a helmet-carry attachment point," he says.
Besides the main compartment, there are eight exterior pockets to help organize everything from travel-sized toiletries to power cords. And when an unexpected storm rolls in during rush hour, you can easily pull down the built-in rain cover to keep your valuables safe and dry.
5. Best for Distance Running: Salomon ADV SKIN 5
The best long-run backpack is the one you forget that you're wearing, and the only way to achieve that kind of comfort is with an impeccable fit. The Salomon ADV SKIN 5 is available in a unisex and women-specific model, with sizing from 2XS up to XL.
"The elastic cords and loops allow me to easily find the right fit, especially as my vest gets lighter over the course of the run from hydration and fueling," Hathiramani says, who wears the ADV SKIN 5 on longer trail runs and during races.
From a hydration standpoint, the ADV SKIN 5 has you more than covered — the pack comes with two 500-milliliter soft flasks, and there's a removable insulated sleeve in the back of the vest that can accommodate a 1.5-liter bladder.
Multiple mesh and zippered pockets hold snacks, supplies and tech, while a zippered main compartment and an easy-to-access tunnel pocket can store bulkier items, like extra layers, gloves and hats.
For trail runners, there are multiple options for attaching poles, and Salomon sells a separate quiver that hooks onto the back of the pack.
6. Best for Storage: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20
Up front, the pack has all the features of a well-designed running vest: pockets for keys and a phone, water flask pouches and adjustable straps for a close fit. But from the rearview, it resembles a lightweight day pack with multiple mesh pockets that expand to hold extra running gear. The spacious main compartment has a roll-top closure that can expand or compress depending on the bag's contents.
When run commuting to the office, Devine reaches for the Fastpack.
"My commute pack needs to be able to protect my laptop and expand out to carry shoes, pants and even a coat in a pinch. The Fastpack does all of that."
Ultimate Direction's lightweight running backpack also offers 30-liter and 40-liter sizes for runners who require even more space and storage options.
7. Best for Trail Running: Black Diamond Distance 4 Hydration Vest
The most prominent design feature on Black Diamond's Distance 4 Hydration vest is its "harness layout with soft, flexible edge binding." Translation: This pack is made with stretchy material that fits like a glove and moves with you as you run, hike, trek and climb.
The pack's lighter and brighter colorways were chosen with visibility and temperature control in mind, and features an on-the-go Z-pole storage system, which allows you to access or store trekking poles without taking off the vest, making it uniquely suited for the trail.
Other thoughtful touches include a removable micro whistle, front pouches for the included soft flasks and zippered pockets in the front and back.
"My favorite pack at the moment is the Black Diamond Distance 4, as it works exceptionally well for nearly all racing and training that I do," says Gabe Joyes, professional trail runner and coach from Lander, Wyoming. "I particularly like the Distance 4 because of its close and comfortable fit, easy access to gear, snacks and hydration all while on the move and innovative and safe pole carry system. The carrying capacity of the Distance 4 is larger than it sounds as well. For the vast majority of trail runners out there, this is the only pack you need for training and racing."
8. Best Budget: Vibrelli 2L Hydration Backpack
What is the best budget hydration pack, you may be wondering? If you don't want to spend a lot on a running backpack but need on-the-go hydration and a comfortable way to carry your stuff, the Vibrelli 2L Hydration Backpack is a solid budget option.
This pack is constructed with a thicker nylon fabric, so don't expect the kind of lightweight breathability you get with other technical materials. But the compact design is streamlined and includes adjustable chest and waist straps.
The bag includes a 2-liter bladder constructed from medical-grade materials (the high-flow bite valve promises to minimize leaking and dripping). There's ample storage, too. Besides the main zippered compartment, the bag includes a stretchy mesh pouch and bungee cords for strapping in bulkier items, like jackets, shoes and helmets.
The 2L Hydration Backpack is a popular choice on Amazon, earning an average customer rating of 4.5 stars based on over 8,000 reviews. "Was super affordable and I use it to run almost daily!" one reviewer wrote.
What to Look for in a Running Backpack
Expert recommendations are a great place to start, but your running backpack has to meet your unique needs. Consider the following points when determining if a running backpack works for you.
1. A (Not Too) Snug Fit
"A good running backpack is typically going to sit more on the upper back, so it shouldn't be very long or hitting your low back," says Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder and head programmer at Movement Vault. "You want it relatively secure so it's not moving side to side or up and down," he says, as excessive bouncing or shifting can cause chafing and skin rashes. Choosing a bag or vest with sizing options over a one-size-fits-all backpack may help you achieve a more custom fit.
However, it shouldn't be too tight. "You still want to be able to breathe well and move your arms," he adds. So make sure you can comfortably expand your diaphragm and swing your arms when you move.
2. Lightweight Materials
"Generally, you want something that's going to be extremely light. You don't want to carry excessive amounts of weight on your back," Wickham says. He explains that running with any additional weight will cause compensations that could throw off your gait.
Choose the lightest possible backpack with only as much storage as you need. For example, if you don't plan to use your backpack for long expeditions or run commuting, opt for something with smaller compartments so you won't be tempted to carry more than what's necessary. (More storage isn't always better.)
3. Even Weight Distribution
Weight distribution comes down to how you pack your bag, but certain features can make it easier to prevent a lopsided load (which can hijack your posture and running form). Fluids, like water or electrolyte drinks, are heavy, so if you plan to hydrate on the go, consider purchasing a bladder that can be tucked into the center of the pack. Or, opt for a backpack that includes two smaller water bottle holders versus one side pouch.
4. Accessible Storage and Hydration
Think about what you reach for mid-run. Are you constantly pulling out your phone to snap photos and switch up your music? Do you refuel multiple times? Do you prefer to sip water without stopping and stow away extra layers without taking off your backpack? Make sure there's an easy-to-access pocket, pouch or compartment that's conveniently placed and holds what you need.