Why I Love Backpacks with Running Vest-Style Shoulder Straps

Brett 'Grandpa' Kretzer

 

 

Ever since I hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier with the Mountainsmith Zerk 40, I have absolutely fallen in love with packs that feature running vest-inspired shoulder straps. “What exactly does that mean?” you may ask. It simply means that the shoulder straps are wider, might be equipped with stretchy mesh pockets, and usually have multiple buckle closures across the chest. In my opinion, they provide an unparalleled level of convenience and comfort that I never want to hike without again. 

Accessible Storage on the Go

If you’re someone who gets your kicks from forward momentum, crushing miles, tracking your pace, and limiting your break time, then you might especially appreciate the convenience of running-vest style shoulder straps. The capacity of shoulder strap pockets varies from pack to pack, but, on my Mountainsmith Zerk 40, I am able to fit one liter of water, my phone, and half a day’s worth of snacks in my shoulder straps. Or my phone, sunglasses, and a full day’s worth of snacks.

As any thru-hiker knows, filtering water, snacking, and checking maps takes up a lot of time on trail. Removing the need to stop and unshoulder your pack for these chores drastically improves your ability to pack in the miles if this is your goal. The key to big mileage days is not to hike fast, but to keep moving forward as much as possible.

Better Weight Distribution

Since most running vest-style packs are frameless and don’t have support from a hip belt, the wide shoulder straps are quite a nice addition. The ability to pack more things inside the pockets of the shoulder straps helps to distribute weight across the front of your body. I swear my back is a lot happier when I can shift some of the weight to the front of my body. The wide shoulder straps (and the extra front buckle closures on some styles) give you the feeling that your pack is embracing you in a friendly hug, which we can all use from time to time. 

Let’s do a little math…

If I fit 1 liter of water (2.2lbs), my phone with its case (about 8oz), and a half day’s worth of snacks (roughly 12oz) into my shoulder straps, I’m shifting about 3.5 pounds of pack weight to the front of my body. I also like to pair a pack with a fanny pack (more compatible sans hip belt) which usually carries my battery bank, charging cable, miniature Swiss army knife, sunscreen, and the other half day’s worth of snacks. Let’s say that amounts to about 1.5 pounds. In total, that’s 5 pounds shifted to my hips and chest and away from tugging on my back and shoulders. That’s 20% of my average pack weight after having just left town with a few days worth of food and a liter or two of water. That’s huge!

The verdict is definitely still out on whether this actually helps save your back, but so far I’m feeling optimistic about it. Let me know in the comments what you think about this!

Fastpacking

Perhaps the most direct practical translation of applying running vest-style straps to backpacks is for fastpacking. If you’re not familiar, fastpacking is basically the combination of backpacking and trail running. Carry as little as humanly possible to run into the wilderness with a mega-ultralight pack and cover as many miles as possible.

The running straps keep your pack snug against your body and stabilized for increased turbulence. The pockets on the shoulder straps keep hydration and calories easily accessible to eliminate the need to stop moving.

Packs with Running Vest-Style Shoulder Straps

2024 Zerk 40L Backpack by Mountainsmith

Mountainsmith Zerk 40

Cost: $219.95
Capacity: 40L
Frame: No
Hip belt: Yes
Best Use: Weekend backpacking, Ultralight thru-hiking

Joey by Pa'lante PacksPa’lante Packs Joey
Cost: $240
Capacity: 24L
Frame: No
Hip belt: No
Best Use: Fastpacking, Weekend Ultralight Backpacking, Extended Day Hikes

Fast Kumo 36 Fastpack by Gossamer Gear

Gossamer Gear Fast Kumo 36 Fastpack
Cost: $190
Capacity: 36L
Frame: No
Hip belt: Yes (w/ pockets)
Best Use: Ultralight thru-hiking, Fastpacking

Six Moon Designs Swift V

Cost: $275
Capacity: 50L
Frame: Yes
Hip belt: Yes (w/ pockets)
Best Use: Backpacking, Thru-hiking

Red Paw Packs 40L Custom
Cost: $365
Capacity: 40L
Frame: Yes
Hip belt: Yes
Best Use: Backpacking, Thru-hiking, Customization

Attachable Vest-Style Shoulder Straps

Hybrid Vest Straps by Nashville Pack

If you already own a Nashville Pack, you could upgrade it with their Hybrid Vest Straps. The straps will attach to either one of Nashville Packs’ two pack styles. The straps come in four different torso sizes too.

 

Add-Ons

Maybe you don’t want to commit to buying a new pack or vest-style shoulder straps aren't going to work for you. Here are some handy add-ons to your current pack shoulder straps to increase their storage capacity. 

Water Bottle Sleeves

Diver Mesh Water Bottle Sleeve by Trekker Joe's

Water Bottle Sleeves are an excellent addition to any pack that is lacking the pockets from running vest-inspired straps. There are several companies who make great options that are compatible with most shoulder straps. Here are a few…

Water Bottle Sleeve by Chicken Tramper Gear
Diver Mesh Water Bottle Sleeve by Trekker Joe's
Stretch Shoulder Pocket by Waymark Gear Co.
Bottle Rocket by Gossamer Gear


Shoulder Strap Pouches

Zippered Shoulder Strap Pocket by Chicken Tramper Gear

Zippered shoulder strap pouches can actually be more practical than the typical open mesh pockets found on running vest-style straps. They’re more secure, and can usually hold more gear (or snacks). Here are a few solid options for shoulder strap pouches…

Zippered Shoulder Strap Pocket by Chicken Tramper Gear
Shoulder Pouch by WEBO Gear
Shoulder Pocket by Hyperlite Mountain Gear
Shoulder Strap Pocket by Gossamer Gear


Thanks for reading! Now get out there and see how many snacks you can stuff into the pockets of your new vest-style shoulder straps!

 

*It’s important to note that this article is written from the perspective of a writer who is flat-chested. The experience of wearing a vest-style pack for those who are not flat-chested can be very different! As with all gear, varied body shapes, preferences, brands, and styles will impact how well particular packs work for each individual.*

 

Brett is a bluegrass musician, outdoorsman and writer currently based in Golden, CO. He's backpacked thousands of miles in the U.S. and Europe and is always on the lookout for the next adventure. When not behind the writing desk, you can find him bagging peaks, climbing rocks, shredding powder, or jamming at a bluegrass festival.

 

 

Joey by Palante Packs
Running Vest-Style Packs

 

 

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