You want to increase your running distance, start run-commuting, or plan to run your first ultra-marathon?
Then running with a backpack will be part of your journey.
And if you are new to running with more than just your clothes on and are on the hunt for more information, you have come to the right place. In this ultimate guide to running with a backpack, you will learn everything you need to know. We will cover the reasons for running with a backpack, which type of pack to choose, and go over tips on how to run safely with added weight on your shoulders and back.
Ready? Let’s get started.
Reasons To Run With A Backpack
Running With A Backpack Allows You To Carry Everything You (Might) Need During A Run
Once you decide you want more than only heading out for that same 20-minute loop every morning, you must think about hydration during your run, at the very minimum.
While hip belts are an alternative, I found them uncomfortable and too large for my petite frame.
Even the XS-sized one would slip off my hip. Besides, they have very little space for carrying extra food, keys, or money. A phone doesn’t fit at all. The amount of water you can take is somewhat limited compared to a hydration vest or backpack.
Running with a handheld water bottle also becomes limiting rather quickly.
Plus, the chances are that running with a water bottle in your hand negatively affects your running form.
But I will get to that later.
Once you start to do long runs – especially on trails – you need to pack a few more things than only water and a snack. You will likely need to pack additional clothing, extra food, a phone, and a basic first aid kit.
If you are tinkering with the idea to run an ultra, training with a backpack will prepare you for that.
Some races require you to carry all your gear for the duration of your run. In these cases, you want to start training with a fully loaded pack towards the end of your preparation phase.
Running With A Backpack Allows You To Reduce Your Waste During Marathons (And Might Save You Time)
While you can run a marathon without ingesting food, you will need to hydrate. Almost every marathon will have aid stations equipped with water, sports drinks, and coke.
When you opt to race while carrying a hydration vest, you can run past these stations. There’s no need to stop trying to get the right cup and potentially losing time.
Another significant benefit is that you can be sure you hydrate with fuel your body can tolerate. This is especially important for us folks who have a sensitive stomach. While I have been able to heal most of the gut issues plaguing me, I don’t do well with sugar and sports drinks.
I accidentally took a cup with some sports drink during one race, and since I didn’t want to turn around and lose time, I drank it. Luckily it was in the last quarter of the race because the remaining kilometers were marked by stomach cramps and wild blood sugar swings.
Running With A Backpack Allows For Better Posture Compared To Running With A Handheld Bottle
Before I bought a hydration pack, I used to run with a handheld water bottle.
The capacity of the bottle is 500 ml, and it is enough to fulfill my hydration needs for longer runs, especially when I can refill during the run. It also has space for a small cell phone (like the Nokia 225) and keys.
After a few months running with the weight in my hand felt normal.
However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect my body. My right shoulder was chronically tighter than my left. I didn’t notice it, but it became apparent when I started to get regular massages.
Of course, you could also say it is because I am right-handed and hence do more things with my right hand.
However, the tightness resolved when I switched to running with a backpack.
I am sure that constantly carrying 500 g plus in one hand only affected how my muscles work. If you wondered why I didn’t switch hands now and then – I did, but I found carrying a bottle with my left hand too awkward and uncomfortable. Since I switched to running with a backpack, I better control my arm movement and relax my upper body. This more relaxed posture positively impacts my running form.
Need more convincing? Running Reborn founder and movement researcher Shane Benzie states in his book “The Lost Art of Running” that “a weight imbalance between one arm and the other can cause an imbalance in our symmetry, which can then affect our movement.” He explains that runners carrying a water bottle or phone during training runs are creating such imbalances. These imbalances could lead to one leg overstriding and heel striking while the other leg lands under your center of mass, for example.
Now that we have touched on the reasons for running with a backpack let’s look at the types of packs suitable for running.
What Types Of Backpacks Are Suitable For Running?
As is the case with running shoes, you can find various packs to fulfill every runner’s needs.
Before we go on, please note that I won’t be covering hip belts here and focus only on running backpacks that you carry on your back with shoulder straps.
Considering these constraints, you have two options to choose from:
- hydration vests or packs
- larger (multipurpose) backpacks
Hydration vests or packs are perfect if you want to use your pack only for hydration and possibly carrying some snacks.
They are designed for maximum running comfort and are intended solely for running. They vary in size and have different options for storing additional necessities.
Larger backpacks come in handy when you want to go for longer runs, hit the trails, or race an ultra-marathon. They come in different sizes and can be used for hiking or cycling trips as well.
Compared to running vests, they can accommodate any additional gear you might need, such as hiking poles, have more storage space for clothing and nutrition, and might feel less comfortable while running.
Be aware that the line between running vests and backpacks has become blurry in recent years, and the sheer number of options means you might need to spend some time researching your options before you buy your new training buddy.
With so many options, how do you know which is the suitable running pack for you?
Read on, as we will cover this question in the next section.
How To Choose The Right Backpack For You
All you might need is a small 2l vest if you are just starting out. I don’t recommend handheld water bottles for the reasons already mentioned.
Once you start increasing the self-supported distance you travel on foot, you need to invest in a running vest with a more extensive water reservoir and storage space for snacks.
If you are trail running, I advise you choose a vest with enough storage space for a basic first aid kit and some spare clothes.
If you want to use your pack for more than simply having a water and fuel reservoir for shorter urban runs, you should get a larger running backpack.
How large? That depends on your goals.
Usually, the longer the distance, the larger your pack should be. If you are racing ultra-marathons, the setup of the race also comes into play.
If you have to be self-sufficient for more than 2 hours, a pack that fits 6 liters and more is essential. For very long runs that require you to be self-sufficient, I recommend using a pack that holds more than 6 liters.
To run-commute, your pack needs to be large enough to fit everything you need into it. Hence, a larger pack is likely required here too. You should also be able to carry water in your front pockets instead of relying on a hydration bladder. When running with a bladder, there is always the risk that it could break during the run, and you want to avoid water spilling all over your clothes or, worse, laptop or other work items you might need to carry.
I recently switched from a hydration vest to a multipurpose backpack because I found the hydration vest to be too small for longer self-supported runs on the trails.
I never switched back to using the hydration vest for shorter runs, though, because I love having the water in my front pockets. I also use the pack for longer hikes.
No matter the intended purpose of your bag, you need to ensure two things.
No matter the intended purpose of your bag, you need to ensure two things.
First, make sure your choice has wide shoulder straps. Second, your pack needs to come with waits and chest straps.
The wide shoulder straps will ensure that chafing is kept to a minimum and the waist and chest straps are necessary to ensure a good fit.
Your backpack or vest should sit comfortably and allow you to move freely. Furthermore, you should be able to quickly adjust the fit to accommodate for changing loads due to your water and snack reservoirs emptying (and possibly refilling).
Avoid packs that feel bouncy or where you have to max out the adjustments straps to make it fit. Note that the pack will fit tighter when it is fully loaded, and it is advisable to use a pack that has a bit more storage than you need. A stuffed pack is more uncomfortable to run with, especially over long distances.
Water Bottles Or Hydration Reservoir
When choosing a backpack, you have options for water bottles carried in front pockets, and hydration reservoirs carried on your back.
Usually, you can carry more water using a combination of both water bottles and bladder – which is my preferred method when I go for long runs where I won’t have the possibility to refill.
When I go for runs with refilling options or shorter runs, I opt to use only the two soft flasks that come with my backpack, as they allow me to monitor my fluid intake more closely, and they are easier to refill than a bladder.
Extras For Special Circumstances
What do I mean by “special circumstances.” Those days where you’ll head out for a technical trail run and need hiking poles. Or if you are very adventurous – an ice ax. Some packs also have extra compression straps and bungees so that you can compress the load and attach clothing on the outside of the pack – if you so choose.
Tips For Running With A Backpack
First of all, be aware that running with a backpack will affect your stride – no matter how light and snuggly fit the pack is. When you first get started, you might find it uncomfortable and need a while to get used to running with weight on your shoulders.
You might need to slow down at first until you feel comfortable running with a pack.
However, if you plan on running for extended periods and need to be self-sufficient doing so, there is no getting around to learn to run with a backpack.
You must practice good running form.
Remember that you are carrying an extra load, and your risk for injuries will go up if you load more weight while running hunched over with your head down, overstriding, or overarching your back.
Start with short runs and a lightly packed bag. Slowly increase the distance and speed.
Do a few test runs to decide if the backpack you bought is the right one. It will feel different when you run than when you carry it while walking around.
Once you run regularly with a weight on your back, remember to give your upper body some extra attention in your recovery practice. If you foam roll your lower body, give your upper body a nice massage as well.
Avoid the temptation to pack too much “just because.”
Try to be as minimalist as possible and lighten your load as much as possible.
Last but not least:
- Avoid racing with a new backpack.
- Try out your fully packed bag a few times before your race to get accustomed to the load.
- If you are training for a self-supported ultra where you will carry a heavier load, do a few runs with your fully loaded pack and carry it around often during your everyday activities to condition your body and mind.
Have fun and enjoy the process.
Running with a backpack opens up a whole world of new adventures waiting for you.