Friday, December 21, 2012

Tested: Ultimate Direction Wink hydration vest

This week's review: the (2010) Wink hydration pack from Ultimate Direction.

Completely assembled and ready to go.

Back view showing stretch mesh outer pocket, trekking pole retainers, bungee webbing and tow loop.

What it is: A lightweight backpack with integrated 2 litre bladder for beverages and lots of storage capacity.

Why you want one: To stay hydrated and carry extra nutrition or other gear on long training runs or while racing.

Open bladder removed and hung by the hole thoughtfully included for the purpose.
This is how I store it whenever it's not in use.

Full view of the closed bladder and insulated hose.

Duration used: 2 years (purchased sometime in 3rd quarter of 2010)

Price paid/purchased from: I believe I paid about $70 on sale from ZombieRunner.

Top, smaller (maybe 5"x5") zip pocket with main compartment open in behind.
Side zip compartment with elastic webbing loops and hook and loop-flap valuables pocket.

Bladder installed inside dedicated pouch in main compartment & hung from hook and loop strap.
 What rawks: The straps are shaped for the female figure and sit comfortably around your neck and shoulders, keeping the pack high on your back to minimize the feeling of the weight of the bladder (and keeps people with short torsos like mine happy) - the men's version called the Wasp rides the same but is a slightly different shape. I have never experienced any chafing from the pack, though I will admit I've never used it without at least 1 layer of fabric between my skin and the vest and I have noticed some discoloration on the bottom of the back where it has rubbed on a red shirt. The vest is lined throughout with cushioned mesh and the back has two raised pads that create a channel down the centre, all of which permit airflow and prevent the pack from feeling too hot in warm weather. The webbing harness system, comprised of a single strap on each side and two side release-buckled front straps keep the pack very secure; I don't really notice it bouncing even when pounding down a hill. The straps even include a loop of elastic webbing to hold any excess length when you've adjusted the vest (by using the double-back buckles on each strap) to keep it from flapping around. The centre baffle in the bladder helps it keep its flattened shape when full and prevents sloshing, while the ingenious hang loop on the top of the bladder attaches to a hook and loop strap in the top of the pack that keeps it from collapsing as it is emptied. The low placement of the drinking hose's origin allows full use of the whole bladder's capacity - you don't end up carrying any fluids that you're unable to drink while moving. The bladder is easily filled without having to remove it from the pack while still having a secure closure that doesn't leak. Generous reflective accents keep you safe while you're out in poor visibility and a drain hole in the bottom of the main compartment lets any leaks or rain run out without making you carry unnecessary weight. The hose can be routed over either shoulder thanks to dual retaining loops on the vest, and you can position the end anywhere you can clip on the thoughtfully-designed keeper; it's a hook and loop strap riveted to a small metal clip that can rotate 360 degrees to hold the hose at virtually any position. I keep it clipped to the top of the upper front strap and leave a tail of hose about 8" long so I can pull the valve up to my mouth, but you might prefer it clipped to the vest itself or even the collar of your shirt. The valve itself is a marvel of simplicity; just bite and drink. I've used the pack in very cold conditions and had ice develop in the mouthpiece, but was able to chew on it to crush any blockage and drink easily. The full-length neoprene sleeve on the hose helps keep the beverage from freezing in the cold or from heating up in hotter or sunny weather. If it's an iffy day, you're running long enough to see the sun rise or fall (or both), or just just need to bring something to your run destination you'll appreciate the absolutely ridiculous storage capacity of the Wink. The huge main compartment, even with the bladder installed in its own pouch, will easily accommodate almost any running jacket on the market (or even an ultralight tent or tarp shelter for fastpacking). The smaller, top, zip pocket would hold a toque or headband, and a set of insulated gloves would tuck neatly into the side zip compartment along with a cellphone in the internal hook and loop-flapped pocket. If you need to grab or ditch a large item in a hurry, the stretch mesh open-top pouch on the back or bungee webbing are great options, and there are hook and loop straps to hold a pair of trekking poles in place. Even with all that,  you still have all four front pockets available! The upper two open-topped pouches will each hold a standard 5oz gel flask, and the two lower, zippered pockets are even higher volume - one is made of the same air mesh as much of the vest, but has stretch gussets that allow it to comfortably hold 4 or 5 Clif bars, while the other is made entirely of stretch mesh and could engulf a softball. The pocket placement keeps them out of the way of your arm swing while still leaving them easily accessible - I like to throw my smartphone in one so I can take photos along the way (or, you know, call for help) and keep a zipper bag of toilet paper in the other, 'cause it always pays to be prepared.

Hose routed through the "shingled" overlapping elastic webbing of the exit port, and up through the hole in the vest.

A single strap on each side slides through the piece by my index finger to help the pack move with you.
What sucks: Either the bladder itself or the hose has a really odd, pervasive plastic taste to it - I've never used anything but water in it, but over the years I've used it the flavour has never gone away. I don't notice it after a bit on the run, but the first sip I take always results in an "oh yeah, THAT" sort of reaction. It's certainly not the lightest hydration vest on the market, though I can't say I've really had an issue with the weight. The bite valve has been known to drip a bit during transport and on runs as it doesn't have a positive closure. The front straps cannot be re-positioned (up & down) as they can on some other offerings. I do get occasional hand rub on the front pockets, and have never been 100% sure about the fit of the vest on my particular body. The elastic loops add weight to the adjustment straps but don't work terribly well to keep the excess webbing in place, and have been known to bounce annoyingly. I wouldn't use this in a race unless the aid stations were virtually non-existent as a hand bottle is much faster and easier to fill and lighter to carry, but those complaints would apply to any hydration pack.

Detail of the hook and loop closure on the bladder - the roll-top has yet to leak on me.
You can also see the top of the centre baffle.

Detail of the 4 front pockets - great capacity and decent placement.
What I'd like to see: Attachment straps you can re-position on the front to accommodate different body shapes, a better system to deal with the excess webbing ends, and some at least one higher-capacity drop-in pocket on the front.

A vest for all seasons.

Best photo I have of how the pack sits on me.

What I'm saying: This is a really versatile bit of kit! I reach for it whenever a hand bottle would either freeze, be inconvenient or simply not have the capacity for the duration of my workout, or if I need to carry extra gear (like a rain jacket or spare gloves). I have got a lot of great use out of this pack and have never had an issue with it that really annoyed me. That being said, I feel like it could fit me a bit better and offer some faster access (but still secure) storage that is reachable while running. I am very tempted to buy a Surge from newcomer UltraSpire, but having seen how functional my Wink is Tanker has said that he'd happily use it if I buy a new pack! It does an admirable job of keeping what you need readily at hand without any fuss, and it's just the spoiled brat in me that wants to try something new. UPDATE March 2014: After falling on my back while cross-country skiing in the pack, first the centre baffle in the bladder let go on one side (leaving it waving uselessly inside), then the bladder developed a slow leak at the top of the heat seal seam on the still-attached side of the baffle. I did try using a Tear Aid patch to seal it, but it failed during the course of a 20 mile run directly afterwards. It appears that this type of bladder is no longer available, so I will have to experiment with something else (unless I can stop the leak by other means). Unfortunately, very little seems to be available with the original bite valve - I've tried the push-pull type of valve since and hate it, so it looks like I'll have to do some surgery to whatever new bladder I end up using. I cannot say whether the indirect impact of me falling on the pack was responsible for this, though the timing does correspond. I still got approximately 3.5 years of use from the bladder, and the pack itself is still in perfect condition.

Yes, I do run with it, too.

Cold weather trail run.

For further edification: Read reviews from Snowshoe Magazine, Running Institute of San Diego and Half-TRIing.

As this will probably be my last blog post beforehand, I'd like to wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas (or other winter holiday according to your preference) - hope this is a time filled with joy for you and those you hold dear!

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