NOTE: This article is being written by the individual that was responsible for the design and development of the Signature Series 3.0 products at Ultimate Direction. This piece is intended to share information about the range of products, the thoughts behind them, and the process of how they were developed. It is not a product review, and is not intended to give a critical evaluation of any of the listed items.
When the original Signature Series running vests came out for Ultimate Direction three years ago they had a huge impact on the Mountain/Ultra/Trail industry. The project brought together four highly-respected ultra runners (Anton Krupicka, Scott Jurek, and Peter Bakwin, along with UD’s new Brand VP, Buzz Burrell), and collectively they worked through how to build a better, light & fast ultrarunning pack.
The impact of the Signature Series vests on the brand was profound as well. For years UD had been circling the drain and essentially an irrelevant brand. With three products Buzz and the Signature Series Athletes changed all that. The success was so unexpected and profound that UD actually had consistent problems for the first couple years keeping the Signature Series vests in stock to ship to retailers and distributors.
After the first year of sales UD updated the range with small improvements – a couple changes to more-durable materials, small tweeks to improve fit and function, and a update to UD’s new cyan brand color (from red).
Late in the life cycle of the 2.0 vests, sales slowed down. The product had been on the market (effectively) for three years and what had been revolutionary was now the product that competitors were mimicking with their new offerings. Fortunately, in August of 2014 – which is about three months later than we should have started working on the new range – UD began developing the 3.0 version of the collection.
THOUGHTS, PLANS, TRIAL & ERROR
When we started working on 3.0 there were exactly two things that we knew:
1. They were going to be based on using some version of the UD Body Bottle. The benefits of the Body Bottle that made that a simple choice for us – they don’t slosh, they’re lighter, they conform to your body for better comfort, and you can smoosh them down to almost nothing when they are empty for easier storage. Unfortunately, they are about twice as expensive to make as our regular bottles, but we were far too early in the process to worry overmuch about cost and pricing. And;
2. The fit and sizing of the vests were going to have to change and become consistent from model to model. The sizing from 1.0/2.0 was all over the map – if you had a 41″ chest you were a M/L in the Race Vest, a LG in the Ultra Vest, and the Adventure Vest didn’t fit you until we came out with an XL version in Spring ’15. I wanted three sizes in everything, and for someone who wore a Small in one vest to wear a Small in each of the other vests.
Over the course of development we changed pretty much everything at least once, and occasionally two or three times. I went through a number of meshes for the harness material and in the end worked with our supplier to develop a new mesh based on some of the samples that we had tested. I changed the sternum strap system multiple times and ended up developing the T-Hook hardware so that we would have something that functioned the way I really wanted it to. Sizing, proportions, volumes – they all changed. The Race vest started out with lat pockets like the Mountain vest has, until we stripped them off and simplified it. Heck, right near the end of development we changed from 3 to 4 vests (adding the TO vest) and re-named everything; then we swapped Tony and Scott’s vests after that.
The exception to this is the Adventure Vest; that one had the fewest changes along the way. When I picked up the first prototype and went for a run in it at the factory I loved it. Part of what made designing the Adventure Vest easy is that I really understand Peter – he is so steadfast and logical that by just sitting and holding a prototype for a few minutes I could see what he would want to adjust, why he would want to do it, and the cleanest way to accomplish what he would want.
Something interesting happened when we changed the Signature Series from a 3-vest line to a 4-vest line – the products naturally fell into two sub-categories.
The Race and Ultra vests have longer, lower riding harnesses that allow access to the bottom pocket on the back of the vest while it is being worn; they use webbing lat compression straps; and have a daisy chain & T-Hook system for the sternum straps that provides better conformity with the wearer’s body and reduced weight.
The Mountain and Adventure vests have shorter center-back lengths (measured from the bottom of the neckline in the back to the bottom edge of the harness); have pocketed lat panels for increased support; and use the rail & slider system for the sternum straps to improve load carrying and allow on-the-fly adjustment.
All four vests share the Body Bottle 500 (an OE bottle for UD that only comes in product) and collapsable-bottle specific pocket design, attachment of trekking poles up front for on-the-go access, revised shoulder strap pocket layouts, and new materials.
THE ADVENTURE VEST
The largest of the Signature Series race vests got a lot lighter for 2016. In Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other places with a great deal of required gear for ultramarathons the Adventure Vest has been extremely popular. The update to that vest will hopefully prove more-so. Not only did the Adventure Vest 3.0 lose 77g (the 3.0 vest comes in now at a svelte 377g where the 2.0 weighed 454g), it actually increased in capacity to 16.5L.
“Why more capacity?” you may ask. Because Peter’s focus has shifted from racing and FKTs to some really interesting projects like the “Rim to Rim to Rim Alt. Route” which required a shorty wetsuit and swim fins to cross the Colorado River. With the increasing complexity of his adventures, the vest that bears his name also grew.
One of the most-controversial (so far, anyway) features of the Adventure Vest 3.0 is that the second bottle-specific pocket on the shoulder straps has been replaced with what we affectionately call a “Burrito Pocket” (a pocket with enough volume to fit a good-size burrito; the name came when I designed the pocket for the Fastpack 30 a year earlier). Some runners have been incredulous that we would give them only one pocket on the front of the vest capable of carrying a water bottle. In actuality, the Burrito Pocket will easily accommodate another Body Bottle, and the pocket below it will also fit a bottle if you have are using the Burrito Pocket for something else. Plus, Peter has been storing body bottles in the inner pocket of the lat panels (the one with the velcro closure that hides the lat compression strap for sizing) for years. You can easily fit 4 bottles in the Adventure Vest that can be accessed without taking the vest off.
Other features this year are the removal of the bungee and nylon contraption inside the main back pocket. This has been replaced with a dedicated, zippered reservoir pocket that can also be used to keep items close to your body if you are not using a rez with the pack. The Rez pocket also moves the nylon panel that made the main pocket of the Adventure Vest a full-nylon, dry pocket away from your body to improve heat transfer and evaporation against your back.
Another big change was the addition of two stretch mesh pouches on the back of the pack. The upper pouch can be used to store mid-sized gear that you want to be able to access without opening up the pack – your Ultra Jacket, an extra water bottle, food, or a grappling hook (just thinking of what Buzz and Peter will get up to next). The bottom pocket has a bungee cord that runs above it and a set of hooks that will allow you to either use the bungee independently, or to act as the top half of the stretch pocket so that the next adventure with swim fins will be even better (this pocket can also hold a variety of larger gear including 20-30m of rope, or Jared Campbell’s hammer – check the UD 2016 Catalog if you’re not familiar with this).
My favorite thing about the Adventure Vest is that it carries 4L of gear well, or 16.5L – the new gear compression, which is borrowed from the 2.0 Ultra Vest and enhanced, really gives this pack outstanding versatility. I’ve spent more than a year using it for everything from a quick shot up Mt. Sanitas in questionable weather, to long days on the Colorado Trail, to chasing the race at Hardrock. I feel like a parent: I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I really do, and this is it.
THE MOUNTAIN VEST
The Signature Series athlete who has made the biggest change with his pack for the new collection is Anton Krupicka. He went from a 5L (including the bottle pockets) race-purposed vest to a 11.5L vest designed for bigger projects in the mountains. One of the things that I’m really pleased about is that his new pack is only 50g heavier than his old one when you compare weights with bottles (354g for Race 2.0 vs. 400g for Mountain 3.0).
Now, there is no question that a lot of that comes from the lighter bottles (35g vs. 91g), so the comparison to the Race vest might be considered a bit of a red herring since you can always use the 2.0 Race vest with our Body Bottle Plus and 100g. If you compare the weight and capacity of the Mountain vest (no bottles) to the 2.0 line, you are looking at the Adventure Vest that was 11L and weighed 454g without bottles – which is 124g heavier than the 0.5L-larger Mountain Vest.
Also worth noting is that the Mountain Vest has two dedicated bottle pockets on the front. (For those who don’t like the Burrito Pocket on the new Adventure vest, you can get the same size pack as the old Adventure Vest with two bottle pockets, and drop more than 25% of the weight of the old vest).
The Mountain Vest, like the Adventure Vest dropped the bungee inside the main pocket – this time in favor of a simple sleeve that will fit a reservoir (2L in the S and M, 3L in the L), or stash what you want next to your back securely in place.
Another nice feature of the new Mountain vest is the variety of pocketing to store certain items where you want them – a cell phone on the bottom of the right shoulder strap, two full-nylon dry pockets on the back, a tall external stretch mesh sleeve for jackets, or ropes, or wet gear.
One thing you can’t know if you don’t sit in on the design meetings with Tony is how passionate he is about his gear. He’s argued with Buzz for a solid half hour about the merits of the slider rails (found on the 1.0 & 2.0 vests) vs. our new T-Hook and daisy chain design for stating sternum straps (found on the next two vests). When someone takes their gear that seriously, you know you’ve done a good job when they are happy with the final product. And if that isn’t enough for you, then there’s always the fact that Jared Campbell just used the Mountain Vest to win the Barkleys Marathon, and become the first person to ever finish the full race three times.
THE ULTRA VEST
I don’t know if a UD product has ever had more intensive testing than the 3.0 Ultra Vest. We received the first prototypes of the SJ Ultra Vest a couple weeks before Scott and Jenny were headed to the Appalachian Trail for Scott’s FKT attempt. The Ultra Vest 3.0 is based on the what I expected to be Tony’s 3.0 Race Vest, but things didn’t work out that way. Fortunately, I was able to sit down with Scott and make some revisions to the prototype I had prepared for Tony before we made the pack that he tested on the AT.
While New Balance and various running media made a big deal out of Tony being a minimalist, Scott is actually much more ardent about counting grams and stripping things down than Tony is. As we looked at Tony’s version of the vest, Scott was very purposeful about paring down everything about the pack as much as possible to save weight while making it as functional as possible. We got rid of zippers, velcro tabs and pocket-cover flaps, and extended the main back pocket (which originally stopped above the bottom, side access pocket on the back) all the way down the back of the vest.
When Scott started the AT he opted for his 2.0 vest due to familiarity. As the miles went on, and the prospect of improved comfort and weight became worth the risk of trying out the new gear he switched to the 3.0 vest. A couple thousand miles later he was on top of Katadin in an updated prototype that we shipped him along the way (with proper logos).
After all that testing, we added one zipper back (bottom left shoulder strap pocket) and included a couple of reservoir hose loops toward the top of the shoulder straps.
How much difference is there between the 2.0 and 3.0 Ultra Vest? Well, you lose a little less than a liter of capacity – and the volume of secured storage is a lot lower with the open-top stretch pouch on the back in place of the zippered pocket of the 2.0 – but the weight savings is fantastic: 468g for the 2.0 with bottles vs. 273g for the 3.0 with bottles.
THE RACE VEST
The new Race Vest is essentially the product that I first proposed to Buzz after taking the job at UD. At the time I owned an AK Race Vest 1.0 and thought that there would be an opportunity to make something even more stripped down – with a smaller, secure pocket in the back for a phone and a jacket; something with smaller bottles and pockets for food and trash up front.
Buzz shot me down quickly, saying that if that’s what I was carrying I needed to be wearing a belt and not a vest. I understood his perspective, but I hated belts, so that was a non-starter for me.
As we progressed with the 3.0 project the ‘Race Vest’ I was developing for Tony was getting significantly bigger than the 2.0 vest and he still wanted more capacity. That meant we either had to: 1. Tell him “no;” 2. Change up our product line; or 3. Add another vest to the range. Since this is the Signature Series, we chose the latter two options and added a fourth vest, then took the vest that I was developing for Tony and gave it to Scott (who was pushing for a lighter, simpler vest at the time), and added volume to the vest that I had been working on for Scott and passed it along to Tony.
With a fourth vest in the line, what we needed to make was the vest that I had proposed a year earlier. Using the prototype of what was now Scott’s Ultra Vest as a starting point, we basically ditched the top pocket on the back of the vest, and simplified the front pocketing to come up with the TO Race Vest.
Tim loved it. He had only two requests: one was to double-layer the pocket on the back of the vest so that he could use one for gear that he knew he would need access to on a run, and the other for gear that he wanted or needed to carry but would not expect to use; and the other was to add the trekking pole attachment to the front of the vest that the other three Signature Series vests had (initially Buzz wanted the new Race Vest to be as stripped down as possible, and decided that it should not have the trekking pole attachments).
The 1.0/2.0 Race vest weighed about 350g with bottles and carried 4L of gear plus two bottles. The new 3.0 vest carries 5L (essentially the same), but gives you access to 100% of the capacity without taking the vest off, and weighs only 235g with bottles.
This vest was basically done in two prototypes while I was in Asia on a development trip immediately before we made our Salesman Samples (or SMS), so it was extremely fast even in development.
Working with the Signature Series athletes to develop these vests was a great experience. And to have four highly-accomplished athletes love the vests that we made for them is great. Now we’ll see what happens with the running community in general.
So far the feedback has been almost overwhelmingly positive. The new harness material is something that people really notice – it conforms to your body rather than sitting on top of your body closely following it. Athletes are also loving the weight. Shaving weight off of what were already some of the lightest vests on the market was not easy, but the people notice it, so that makes me feel good about the effort that went into making that happen.
Was it a mistake to remove the second bottle-specific pocket from the front of the Adventure Vest? Time will tell. There are definitely people who are upset about it.
Another thing that seems to have people upset is that there is no XL size. Actually the new L – in all the vests – fits a larger chest than the old, short-lived PB XL. Apparently we haven’t done a good job of letting people know about the new fit range for the 3.0, so that is something we are working on right now.
What will the verdict be from the M/U/T community? How many new 3.0 vests will we see at Hardrock in July? I look forward to the feedback. As a product developer you always strive for perfection, but that is such an elusive goal because: 1. Perfection is relative; and 2. Everything changes – technology, races, priorities, goals – what was once perfect probably never will be again.
Still, this doesn’t damp the desire to make the best product that our collective brian power can conceive. Give them a try, and let us know what you think. We take user feedback very seriously, and always appreciate when people share their experience to help us build a better product.