Of all the hydration packs I’m testing, I was most eager to review the Nathan HPL 020.
A couple of years ago, I started noticing Nathan vests more and more frequently at races, and shortly concluded that they were the brand of choice among ultrarunners. (Since I’ve been paying closer attention this spring, I’d now say it’s a two-horse race between Nathan and Ultimate Direction – but I’d still give the edge to Nathan at this point.) You don’t see the same product at race after race simply because it has a slick marketing campaign – so I knew there must be something compelling about this vest.
One reason for ultrarunners’ attraction to this product is that the HPL 020 was created specifically to race in ultras. It doesn’t pretend to be any kind of backpack or mountain biking hybrid – its sole purpose is to get you through a 100-mile footrace. If you want something for multiple activities, this probably isn’t the product for you. However, if you’re looking for an ideal blend of hydration and cargo storage for your multi-hour trail runs, this vest should suit your needs perfectly.
The HPL 020’s ultrarunning focus comes naturally - it was designed and tested by Dana Miller, a 16-time finisher (and 5-time winner) of the Wasatch 100. Miller (nicknamed “Mud n’ Guts”) is one half of Nathan’s product development team, sharing responsibilities with Bryce Thatcher, an adventure racer and speed climber. The two of them have worked together for more than 20 years, and as Nathan's About Us page makes clear, you won’t find a more badass pair of outdoor athletes to put new products to the test.
(And before we go any further, I’ll answer the obvious question – HPL stands for Human Propulsion Laboratories. According to the website, the HPL “conducts brutal product experiments with the help of dozens of top-level athletes … the HPL Series includes the products inspired by and named for their respective athletes.” It sounds both hardcore and scientific - so if these products don’t work for you, maybe it’s not Nathan’s fault … you’re probably just not good enough.)
So there’s your background – let’s look at some details of the vest.
You’ll notice two things almost immediately when you pick up the HPL 020: the first is how lightweight it feels. The vest weighs just 6oz when empty, making it the lightest product in this review. Except for the hydration unit itself, the entire piece is composed of a lightweight mesh material that is very comfortable and breathable, and weighs next to nothing.
The second distinction is the fit of the HPL 020 compared to traditional hydration packs. You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “vest” instead of “pack” to describe this product so far – that’s an intentional distinction indicating that the HPL 020 is meant to be worn differently than other packs. The vest intentionally has a loose fit - the information tag describes it as “more like a hug than a weight on your back” – that is anchored by a 3-way propulsion harness device in back. The harness is like a pulley system that articulates back and forth with the small (but normal) movements of your upper torso while running, and allows each of the shoulder straps to move independently. The front of the vest has one simple sternum strap (which doubles as a drink tube clip) to hold the left and right sides together.
At first, it’s a strange sensation to feel the pack shifting while running - your first instinct will be to look for a strap to tighten – but the net result of this design is a very minimal vertical or lateral movement of the hydration pack.
Fighting the heat at Diablo
The looseness of the HPL 020 also helps with air movement and prevents the vest from feeling too warm against your body. This is the vest I wore at Diablo in April, where temperatures were in the 90s for much of the day; although I was suffering general heat-related issues like everybody else there, at no time did the vest feel uncomfortable, or like it contributed to increased body heat. In those conditions, I suspect that a larger, heavier, or more snug-fitting pack might have caused some unwanted problems. The front of the vest consists of mesh storage compartments: one has a zipper, one has a drawstring, and one is a holster with an elastic border on top. The zipper compartment is roomy enough for a headlamp or small flashlight, and the elastic pocket on top of it is the perfect size for my camera. The drawstring compartment is great for gels or energy bars. Since all of these pockets are in front of you, they are extremely easy to access on the run. The largest storage areas on the HPL 020 are two rear zipper compartments above the hydration unit, bringing the total storage capacity to 100 cubic inches.
Like other models in this category, the fluid capacity of the HPL 020 is 70 oz, with a screw-top reservoir that is very easy to open and close. Compared to other brands, the Nathan reservoir isn’t particularly remarkable – but it is the source of my one critique of the vest.
I found the drink nozzle to be a bit problematic, in that it’s not a typical bite valve – it’s a “pull out and bite” valve, which is supposed to decrease leakage. However, the pullout part isn’t easily done; you have to really get a good grip on it, and in my experience, almost every time I successfully pulled the nozzle out, the pressure of my fingers caused a few drops of fluid to splash out. You also have to careful about which part you’re pulling, as the plastic cover of the valve can detach from its base – a feature that is provided to facilitate cleaning the tube, but caused some frustration when I accidentally detached it on the trail a few times.
Aside from that, the HPL 020 very much earns its lofty status in the ultra community. Some summary bullets:
Strengths: • Extremely lightweight • Loose fit is very comfortable, even in severe heat • Harness systems prevent excess movement of fluid reservoir • Front storage areas provide quick access and enough space for essentials • Rear storage and shock cord for carrying larger items • Gender specific models (see below)
Drawbacks: • Since the vest is so minimalist, there aren’t any adjustments to make aside from the sternum strap – but this is a potential liability as well. If you don’t happen to like the fit, there’s not much adaptability to play with. • The drink nozzle issues mentioned above were an inconvenience, especially in light of everything else being so simple and effective. • Probably not suited for activities besides long-distance trail running.
Additionally, Nathan makes a women’s model of the HPL 020 called the Intensity, with the propulsion harness system designed for a shorter torso length. Both models typically retail for $80-85, but Amazon.com currently has them for $59), which seems like a great deal. If you’re a dedicated trail runner looking to make longer distances easier, the HPL 020 makes an excellent choice.
*If you’ve used this product, please weigh in with a comment to agree, disagree, or share your experience.