How to Choose your Trail Running Pack or Belt

What you need to know and take into account when choosing a pack for your next trail run.

Backpacks are an essential piece of gear for trail running. Photo: Monrasin
Addicted to trail running and want to take the sport to the next level? Now that you’ve chosen the perfect pair of trail-running shoes, the right backpack is one of the most important things you can buy. But with all the different options out there, how can you know which pack is right for you? At Barrabes we've put in the miles in order to prepare this guide for you on all the basics you need to know about trail running packs. We hope it will help you understand what you need to take into account when choosing a pack and find the perfect one for your needs.

The first thing you need to consider is what is essential and necessary to bring with you based on the activity at hand. This decision should be based on a number of different factors. For example, the type and length of run as well as the type of terrain, trail characteristics, weather conditions, and time of day/year all have an influence on what you need to take in terms of clothing and gear, and specifically for our purpose here the type and size of pack you’ll need. Trail running is a sport which consists of running and hiking over trails, most often in the mountains, and your backpack is a crucial element of basic safety. Your backpack needs to carry everything you need on your training run or race, as well as your basic survival gear for day-long excursions of any kind into the mountains. Some runners who transition into trail running from road running with little experience in the mountains venture into the wilderness unprepared for things like accidents or sudden changes in the weather. Whether running or hiking, you should make it a habit to always carry the basics in case of an accident or some other unforeseen event that could leave you stranded outdoors for a number of hours or even overnight.


Running Vest
This type of pack is designed to be worn like a shirt, with the load balanced between the shoulder blades. The design provides a close fit to prevent shifting while increasing comfort and stability while you run. Its compartments and pockets are distributed both front and back for easy access to everything you need during a race, and you won't have to stop and remove your pack like you would with a traditional backpack. Vests features a range of compartments for carrying and organizing your gear and personal items, with each model and brand offering its own design. Choose one that suits your gear needs best.

Running vests are perfect for trail races of all lengths with aid stations as well as shorter training runs, where their limited capacity is enough to carry everything you need for the race as well as enough food and water to make it to the next aid station.

Running in the winter snow, with a clear example of having all the essential gear
Classic Backpack
The second category are backpacks that can carry more than a vest and are designed primarily for long, completely autonomous races (without aid stations) that require more gear, water and food. The weight is distributed across the back. The front features pockets for bottles and a few small items. It doesn't fit the body as closely as a vest and tends to swing a bit more, which can affect stability. Regardless, a backpack may be essential if you're required to carry a bigger load. The type and distribution of compartments and pockets are different for every model.

The capacity of the backpack you need will mainly depend on the type and duration of the activity. Every race and every runner is different, but this table will give you an idea of the type of backpack you will need according to the type of run.

Making sure a trail-running backpack fits properly is crucial. Comfort is key when it comes to long races or training sessions, and a pack that can carry all your gear and fits well without chafing is a priority – make sure everything fits as tightly and compactly to the body as possible to provide the highest level of stability while you move. A backpack that shifts while you run can make you lose your balance. There are also backpacks designed specifically for men and women that adapt to each gender's specific shape to ensure an optimal fit.

Adjustable backpacks

Adjustable backpacks have a system of Velcro and straps to guarantee a perfect fit in any situation. If the gear you plan to carry and the clothes you need varies from race to race, this type of backpack is for you. These packs also feature compression straps that reduce the volume of the backpack if you're carrying less, ensuring that everything remains securely attached to the body and immobilized within the backpack. This system will make mountain runs more comfortable, stable and secure.

Adjustable backpacks are a good option for getting started in trail running, because you can use the same pack for training and your first race, and its tight fit means that you can use it year-round and while wearing different layers of clothes. A drawback is the added weight from the belt and strap system.

Non-adjustable backpacks

Non-adjustable backpacks are vests made out of an elastic material that automatically adapts to your body. They come in a range of sizes similar to those you find in t-shirts, according to the torso, and it is important to try them on to find the right size for you. Give one a test run in race conditions, packed with the same clothes and gear you would need during the race. You should look for a snug fit in these conditions, so the vest shouldn't shift while you wear it while allowing total freedom of movement.

The design of these backpacks, without belts and straps, makes them lighter than adjustable backpacks. The disadvantage is that they adapt less to how many layers of clothes you're wearing, and since the volume can't be adjusted with compression straps, your gear can shift within the backpack if you're carrying less than a full pack.

The non-adjustable vests are a good choice at higher levels of competition. More streamlined and lightweight than an adjustable backpack, they require a greater investment since you won't be able to use the same backpack for all races and weather conditions, and you'll likely have to buy more than one.

There are backpack models that employ both systems, with a stretch fabric and several adjustable straps, a good happy medium between the other two types. They adjust to the body more than other vests, but they also weigh a bit more.

Barrabes employee Fernando Tomás, during the Gran Trail del Aneto 2014
Another more minimalist and affordable option for short runs is running is a waist pack or a running or hydration belt. Smaller and less cumbersome, these are a great solution for runs that last less than an hour. Running belts are for the absolute bare minimum and don't provide much room for carrying gear: you'll be limited to roughly a few energy bars, your house keys and your phone. Yet they are extremely comfortable and flexible, and fit the body so closely that you'll hardly even notice you're wearing one. Waist packs or hipbelts, on the other hand, allow for a 500 ml bottle, in addition to a pocket for food and personal items. There are models with a generous capacity of up to 3 liters.

The key to finding your trail running backpack is to analyze your needs: the one that works for your friend won't necessarily be the one that works for you. Today, manufacturers offer an ample variety of models, all with different features so you can find the one that suits you best. This guide is only an introduction, but we hope it’s given you an overview on the options that are out there to choose from. For more information and personalized advice, contact Barrabes customer service or visit our online store.


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For more on trail running gear:

"How to Choose the Right Trail Running Shoes for You"

"What to Wear for Trail Running and Mountain Races”

"How to Choose a Hydration System for Trail Running"

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