Rob Greenwood puts three new running packs from Montane through their paces, while training for - and successfully completing - a Bob Graham Round.
When I first started running there was only a small choice of suitable packs. At the smaller end of the spectrum the traditional bumbag was still the go-to product for shorter runs/races, providing enough space for the bare essentials: food, water, and any other bits and bobs you could cram into it. Beyond that there were KIMM Packs, which - at least in my eyes - revolutionised running packs; however, things move on, and somewhere along the line the modern 'running vest' evolved into a category in and of itself. Offering unparalleled comfort, breathability and convenience, they have become the standard for runners for both training and races.
This review looks at three vests from Montane's Spring/Summer 2021 collection. Each offers something a little different in terms of its size and weight, meaning that each does something different to the next. As such, we have three very distinct products here. The first two, the Gecko VP 5+ and VP 20+ have more in common, as there's a lot of overlap in their construction. The last, the Gecko Ultra V+, is something unique, with very little in common with the other two, other than that it's still 'technically' a vest.
None of the models on review here are offered in separate men's and women's fit, and the idea is that they should be flexible enough to fit a range of body shapes. However the default fitting for non-gender-specific products does often seem to be more male-oriented. Assuming you can get to an actual shop it's always worth trying on a running vest before you buy it, but for obvious anatomical reasons this may be particularly the case for women.
Gecko VP 5+ - £100
Of the three packs on review, the VP 5+ was the one I instantly fell in love with. A large part of this comes down to its versatility, as its size, fit and features mean that it's suitable for a wide range of distances and days out.
At 260g on our scales*, the Gecko VP 5+ is small and light enough for shorter runs, particularly whilst training, yet large enough to contain enough food/kit for longer outings too. Whilst they're not on review, Montane also produce a smaller Gecko VP+ and a larger VP12+, but the beauty of the VP 5+ is in its ability to be an all-rounder. Its size makes it ideal for those who are looking to buy a single pack that will be suitable for a wide range of activities.
The VP 5+ was the vest I used throughout my recent Bob Graham Round, but not only that - it was the vest I used on the vast majority of my BGR training runs too.
*each of the weights quoted for the various vests are without the bottles, so it's just the vest
The Gecko VP 5+ comes in three sizes based on chest measurements: Small 76 - 92cm / 30 -36in; Medium 88.5 - 102cm / 35 - 40in; and Large 99.5-114.5cm / 39-45in
The sizing, at least for me, correlates with what I tend to wear in baselayers, fleece and jackets. Once on you can tailor the fit further courtesy of two elastic hooks, then a large, elastic strap at the base of the vest. Between the three the fit feels incredibly secure and comfortable. The only possible downside is that you need to be careful not to use the elastic hooks, as they have a nasty habit of falling off whilst undone (and it'd be a real pain to lose them).
Something that can negatively impact fit with some vests is that they're fine when they're in that sweet spot, with just the right amount of kit in them, but become quite jiggly when under-packed and quite bulbous, bouncy and uncomfortable whilst over-packed. I haven't found either to be an issue with the VP 5+ and throughout several months of intense use I've never once had it rub (this goes both for when I have/haven't got poles and bottles stored too).
The inside of the pack features a highly wicking 3D air mesh, which helps transfer moisture away from your body. Whilst I still maintain that anything touching your body, no matter how breathable, will cause you to sweat, it does a great job of pushing the moisture outwards and keeping you as cool as it can. Its effectiveness at doing this is apparent when you put spare hats and gloves in the side pockets, as they often come out feeling a little damp to touch. The only exception to this is the rear zipped pocket, which features a waterproof material to prevent anything from getting wet within it (although I'd still use a drybag if you wish to guarantee everything stays 100% dry). There were enquiries on the Forums as to whether this made the back feel sweaty, but as per my previous comments I haven't found this to be a problem.
The materials themeselves are treated with Polygeine - and those who lived through the era of the 'Smelly Helly' will know how much of an improvement this made to the odour of synthetic products. Given that you're running in these vests, and invariably they get quite sweaty, I suspect that without this treatment you'd be smelt before you were seen.
There's a wide variety of storage options, both big and small. At the back, there's a larger pocket, which is ideal for emergency gear and warmer/waterproof layers (i.e. items you're not going to want to access too frequently, as it'd require you to take the pack off). Above this there's another sizable pocket, with open access from the top. I've used this for a variety of things, including storage of more on/off items such as windproof layers, as well as spare water bottles and food. Behind this and the other pocket there is a sleeve in which you can place a hydration unit. Personally, I tend not to use one - instead favouring softflask bottles - but it comes down to personal preference. There's also the option of a bungee, which I very much view as being for emergency use, because I would much rather fit something in the vest than outside of it.
On the front are two sleeves for the 500ml softflask bottles which come with it. The flasks themselves can be a little tricky to get in, but once in are secure, so it's worth the extra effort whilst wiggling them in. The softflasks themselves are great to drink from, with a good flow of water, and a wide brim that makes them easy enough to clean. Were there to be a drawback it is that there's no way of locking off the flow. As a result, if you ever lay down the pack, or want to store the bottles inside the pack, and anything presses against the nozzle, then the aforementioned 'good flow' will flow either onto the floor, onto your clothes, or whatever else happens to be laying nearby.
Overlapping these are two zip pockets (one on each side). These are long and deep, making them suitable for a whole range of different items. I've put in food, phones, maps, compasses and timesheets. If you overfill them it can make the softflask bottles a little tricky to get in, which is something to be aware of whilst packing, but not so much once they're actually in.
Underneath the long pockets there are two smaller pockets, which are perfect for liner gloves and and buffs, smaller snacks, or excess wrappers. Around the sides are two long, deep pockets which can be used for a wide range of kit from hats, larger gloves and mitts, through to more substantial food items such as sandwiches.
If you're carrying poles there are two options: the first is to attach one to each side of the shoulder straps and the second is to attach them underneath the pack. I've tended to favour the former, simply because it's far more convenient, and the bungees/toggles attached allow you to tighten them so that they don't bounce too much. Their positioning also allows you to access your water, and also the long pocket, which is great.
Within one of the the long front pockets there's a small whistle, which will be of interest to those entering races where one is a requirement - or anyone in need of being rescued. Within the back pocket there's a small clip to attach your keys
I really like the Gecko VP 5+ and have found myself using it all the time, for runs both long and short. Its versatility makes it extremely attractive for those who are looking for a single vest.
Made for runners by runners, the GECKO VP 5+ builds on 100,000's kilometres of experience. An improved, anatomically driven body-hugging fit that's as secure as a Gecko! With increased accessible storage and POLYGIENE® permanent odour control you now wear, rather than carry your kit when moving fast on trails and in the mountains.
For more info see montane.com
Gecko VP 20+ - £120
The VP 5+ is a great pack, but it obviously has limitations in terms of capacity. Its bigger brother - the VP12+ (not reviewed here)- is a logical stepping stone for bigger days out, or days out in winter, but the VP 20+ represents the next level...
The VP 20+ is most at home on big, multi-day outings, with enough capacity to carry a tent/bivi, sleeping bag, stove, food and other essentials. I've also used it on long, single-day runs in winter, where the safety margin has required me to carry extra warm layers and a shelter. Whilst this still left the pack under-filled, I was - much like the VP 5+ - impressed with how well it carried whilst under-packed (even more so, as there's a lot more space for kit to jangle around within a 20l vest than within a 5l vest!). When overpacked, the main issue is that you're obviously filling a very lightweight, structureless pack with a lot of stuff, so inevitably it's going to fall upon your shoulders to take the load. In this particular circumstance it might have been nicer if the shoulder straps had been made a little bit wider, as there's definitely a noticable amount of strain that sits on your shoulders - particularly throughout the outer edge of the shoulder straps. As such, it's worth trying it on with a bit of weight in before you commit to buying it (if you can) because this definitely felt like it had the potential to be a major flaw - particularly when fully packed (and let's face it, the last thing you want on a multi-day run is the shoulder straps rubbing). Weight-wise it comes in at a competitive 340g.
Much like the VP 5+, the VP 20+ comes in three sizes: small, medium and large. It shares the same adjustment along the front (two elastic hooks, then a large, elastic strap at the base of the vest), but due to its larger size has two further options to help keep the weight close in to your back. The first is by cinching down the side of the pack, which reduces the volume and keeps everything compact. The second is on the top of the pack, where two tension straps above the shoulder straps allow you to draw the weight further towards your centre of gravity. It also has the benefit of cinching any excess material, which reduces any bounce.
As per the Gecko VP 5+.
The front shoulder strap storage is the same as the VP 5+, with the 2 x 500ml flasks, 2 x long zip pockets and 2 x smaller pockets below. The difference begins with the sides, where there are two pockets on each side. There's one directly on the side, which is good either for hats, gloves or food due to its easily accessible nature; beyond this there's a pocket behind, which is a little trickier to access on the move (depending on your levels of shoulder based flexibility) that's ideal for additional bottles/water storage.
On the back, the majority of the VP 20+'s volume comes from a large, zip-top hold-all. This acts as a good dumping ground for all the kit you won't need whilst on the move. On top of this there's a stretch lid pocket, with a slightly peculiar closing mechanism which I'm not completely sold on. On the one hand I like its simplicity, but on the other I find it quite awkward to use with gloves and cold hands. Perhaps another zip would have been better?
The bungees on the VP 20+ are, at least in my opinion, of greater use than they are on the VP 5+. Because of its larger volume their use is twofold: the first is to cinch down any excess volume and the second is to strap on any extra layers.
As per the VP 5+, the VP 20+ features a small whistle inside its pocket.
Much like the VP 5+, the VP 20+ is a well designed and likeable pack. It's best suited to multi-day outings, but can also be cinched down for single day use. The fact it achieves this without too much bounce or jiggle helps explain why we like it so much. For me the only niggle is that fiddly top pocket; in other respects the VP 20+ is basically faultless.
Built to be worn, not carried, this ergonomically fitted, body hugging vest pack is as secure as a Gecko! An unrivalled large load carrying construction together with a multitude of storage options, most accessible whilst on the move, makes the Gecko VP 20+ the ultimate multi-day running vest pack.
For more info see montane.com
Gecko Ultra V+ - £100
I've intentionally left this one until last, because whilst it is a running pack/vest, it's not a vest in the same sense that the other two are. In fact it arguably has more in common with a t-shirt than a conventional pack.
Weighing in at a minimalist 85g on our set of scales, the Ultra V+ is going to be of most interest (and relevance) to those seeking out the absolute lightest whilst racing in the hills and on the trails. Whilst it could be used for training, I've tended to favour the Gecko VP 5+ because of its usability, versatility and feel.
The minimalist nature of the Ultra V+ will appeal to some, but not others, and I suspect this could be a bit of a marmite product. Critical to how you'll get on with it is its fit, and the way it feels whilst on, which is a little specialist, and very different to a conventional pack. Unlike the two other packs on review, the Ultra V+ doesn't have any form of adjustment, and as a result it's of the utmost importance that you get it right to prevent too much bounce. In terms of feel, it needs to be quite snug (like a very tight-fitting t-shirt), and this means that it can be a bit of a struggle to get on. This is aided by a small zip, which gives you a bit more space to get it around the shoulders. Once on it feels more like an item of clothing than a pack.
When it comes to storage the Ultra V+ has several options. On the front there's space for 2 x 360ml softflask bottles, which come supplied. These are smaller than those provided for the other two packs on review, but probably because the Ultra V+ is likely to be used for shorter distances. Beneath the bottles are two small pockets which can be used for a variety of things. Throughout the cooler months of the year I tended to use them for my gloves and buff, then come Spring I went for a few small snacks. That said, the side/back pocket is where I tend to stuff energy bars and other snacks, as there's much more room, and they're nice and out the way whilst still being reachable.
Because of the fact that there's barely anything to it, you do notice whatever you've got stuffed into the pockets that bit more than you would with either of the other two packs, as there's nothing between you and it other than an incredibly thin layer of material. This is what I was referring to earlier when I said that some people might not like its feel, because you can feel every energy bar against your body.
A major benefit of the material used is that it is incredibly quick drying and breathable.
One issue we've had is regarding durability. Within the first few uses some stitching went around the bottle pocket, then after a bit more use stitching went on one of the lower front pockets. This original pack was replaced and we haven't experienced any problems with the new one, but it's a good reminder that this really is a super light product that needs to be handled with some care.
The Ultra V+ is a super light and super specialist pack that will appeal to some, but not others. It's got quite a unique feel, so is definitely something we'd recommend trying on (if you can), party because of the fit (which is important) and partly because of the feel (which we described above). For day to day use I've tended to favour the VP 5+ instead.
Some will call it a vest top, others a pack, all we know is it's the perfect fusion of the two delivering the ultimate in anatomically fitted storage for carrying the essentials when running on the limit. Combining clothing and pack expertise the Gecko Ultra Vest fits close like a garment but with a multitude of pockets for carrying the essentials when racing or training hard.
For more info see montane.com