The Running Backpacks I Use for Marathon-Length Endurance Races

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When you need to stay hydrated and energized but still lightweight. Photo: Christophe Dupont Elise/Corbis via Getty Images

As I’ve recently started kicking my training up a notch or two with endurance races (marathon-length runs on more trying terrain), I’ve also begun to try out different running backpacks. A running backpack is different from a hydration belt or hydration pack because it has room for supplies beyond water and a Clif Bar or two. During a mountain race, the weather can change quickly, injuries can happen, and food is a must, so running with a backpack that can tote stuff along while not bouncing around on my back will be critical. (Moreover, organizers of endurance races most often require that you pack a long list of items as a safety provision.)

I already own a couple of good runner’s backpacks that I’ve used on trail runs and longer street jogs before, but with such a momentous challenge looming, I decided to try out a few other options as well. Here are the running backpacks I’ve found most useful.

Best running backpack for most people

Columbia Trail Elite 22L Backpack
$129, Columbia

I’ve used my Trail Elite pack during several summit pushes at the end of long climbs, and I’ve used it as a day pack on many a casual hike, but I had never worn it on a long run until just a few weeks ago, and now it’s the top contender to be on my back during a mountain race this summer. First, the back of the pack has a taut mesh panel that creates separation between your torso and the backpack itself, allowing superb airflow that keeps you as cool and dry as possible. Second, it sports a lightweight aluminum frame that ensures the pack keeps its shape and helps it stay centered on your body even as you bounce along. And third, there is a built-in rainfly that can render the pack totally waterproof when needed and then tucks away again when the sun returns. At 22 liters, it also has ample storage capacity for layers, snacks, first-aid gear, and a bit more.

Best running backpack for road runs

CamelBak Octane 10 Hydration Pack
$100, Amazon

I got my first CamelBak in the late 1990s, and I’ve been a fan of the brand ever since. While the company’s core products focus on hydration alone, some, like this Octane 10 Hydration Pack, also have good storage space for the food and gear you might need during a long run. This pack features a two-liter reservoir that’s designed to dispense water at a fast flow rate for efficient rehydration, making it a good choice for use on summer days when the sun heats up the asphalt, but you still need to log the miles. And its neon-bright color makes it a good choice for use near vehicles whether you’re running day or night. The main storage compartment can easily fit a rain shell, layering, a first-aid kit, your keys and wallet, and so forth, while dual pouches on the straps can hold energy bars or your phone.

Best running backpack for overnight trips

Gregory Mountain Products Miwok 18 Liter Men’s Day Hiking Backpack
$100, Amazon

Frankly, the Miwok 18 will probably prove too large for my one-day jaunt, but for the die-hard trail runner who wants to charge all day and then camp at night, this Gregory Mountain Products pack is perfect. An 18-liter pack would be considered tiny by most hikers, but when you’re running at speed, every ounce you’re carrying adds up fast. This pack offers enough storage space for the clothing, rations, water, and even extra-compact shelter and sleeping gear, but it’s still compact enough for a runner. And its broad but flexible hip pads and shoulder straps will keep that pack snugly in place, even as you log the miles on your multiday running excursion.

Best running backpack for high-intensity runs

Salomon Agile Bag 12 Set
$110, Amazon

If you’re heading out to crush a Tough Mudder, a triathlon, or a trail race over seriously rugged terrain, definitely take a look at the Salomon Agile 12. This pack stays glued to your body like none I’ve ever used, so even as you clamber over obstacles or charge through a boulder field, it will be virtually glued to your back with minimal movement, helping to keep your balance and even reducing fatigue. The Agile 12 has less storage capacity than many other running backpacks, but when you’re engaged in a high-intensity sporting activity, all you need is water, a bit of gear, and some energizing eats.

Best affordable running backpack

Camden Gear Hydration Backpack Running, With 2L Water Bag Pack Black
$23, Amazon

Camden Gear is known for its affordable running gear, but the stuff is actually surprisingly well-made when compared to the competition in the category. This running backpack is primarily built around a 1.5-liter water bladder, the tube of which can be affixed to either shoulder strap for easy access as you cruise. But beyond the water bladder storage compartment — which can accommodate a rain shell or thermal layer if you fold it well — there are three additional pockets that can be used for various gear items. This is a smaller pack that won’t serve you beyond carrying food, water, and a couple of select items needed during a run, but for most distance runners who plan to end up in the same place where they started their run, it’s a fine choice at a great price.

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The Running Backpacks I Use for Marathon-Length Races