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Hydration Nation – Camelbak Circuit Review

Me running with the Camelbak Circuitthe build up
For those who don’t know, I’m training to run the 2015 Chicago Marathon for St. Jude as a St. Jude Hero (you still have time to donate to support me as I support St. Jude in providing free care to children (and their families) battling cancer). That training includes long runs in the hot, humid Summer months of the Northeastern US, which means I need to bring some form of hydration on my runs. For runners reading this, you know a simple hand bottle can work, but doesn’t likely carry enough fluid for being out there for 2+ hours in 80-90 degree heat (plus high humidity!). So I’ve been getting by using one of two Nathan hydration belts I own, which have two (Mercury 2) or four (Speed 4R) small bottles distributed throughout the belt, plus a little pouch for my fuel (Clif Shot Bloks and Honey Stinger Chews). They’re pretty good, and hold about as much water as I’d need for a sub-2 hour run in moderate heat (think up to mid-70s). The big downsides are that a) they are very noticeable on the hips, moving around and weighing you down as you stride, and b) they are limited in how much water they can hold, so I find myself running dry on anything longer than a half marathon distance or in the kind of heat and humidity we’re seeing in the Northeast. Add to that the limited additional storage they provide for energy, keys and a phone (I have to wear an arm band, which I don’t like to do, but won’t run long without a phone).

Camelbak Circuit (chest view)So, what to do? You reach out to marathoning friends and realize you’re now stepping into the big leagues and get a hydration pack. In fact, not just a pack, but a vest. What’s the difference? Front storage.  For a minimal additional price, I figure you might as well get the option of front storage for easy access to fuel, the ability to carry your phone (depending on the phone and pack), and even to carry more water if you end up going crazy and doing ultra-marathons.  Hey, it could happen.

For me, that meant a trip to the local running store to check out some options, and settling on the Camelbak Circuit (buy it from Amazon.com and help support this site). I tested this model, another Camelbak and an option from Nathan.  I have a few other packs at home, but they’re really full back packs that can hold a water reservoir, which is more pack than I wanted.

Camelbak Circuit in Magenta - photo courtesy of Amazon.com
Camelbak Circuit in Magenta – photo courtesy of Amazon.com

what is it
The circuit is a mid-level hydration option that has a 1.5L reservoir – the Camelbak Antidote reservoir, which is very well-rated by lots of different running gear review sites for ease of use and cleanability. It is one of the smallest vests they offer, with limited smaller vests (though plenty of smaller packs), and then lots of larger vests and packs above the Circuit. It runs about $85 from various retailers, and comes in both blue and magenta.

The hose can come out the right or left side, though there’s only a set of clips to hold it down on the right. At the end of the hose is Camelbak’s Big Mouth bite valve that works very well at both delivering and not delivering water (that is, not dripping when not in use). Just bite and suck, and water flows freely.

It doesn’t adjust like a backpack (via pull straps at the bottom of the shoulder straps), but instead has two mechanisms for customizing the fit – two chest straps, and straps that pull the shoulder pads closer to the back, which also clamp down on the bladder. This is a great feature since, as you drink, the bladder could use clamping down to reduce sloshing. They claim it stops sloshing, but that’s not quite the case, and I’m not sure it would really be possible without some much more elaborate mechanism surrounding the bladder.

Me running with the Camelbak Circuitmy impressions
I’ve now run with the Circuit for about seven and a half hours and 45 miles, and have a very good sense of the pack. The first thing I noticed when I took my first sip was what I didn’t notice – a funny taste. Every other water bladder I’ve drank from has a taste to it (sort of plastic tasting). I wouldn’t say it’s the same as drinking fresh water from a glass, but it’s near flavor-free.

In terms of the capacity, 1.5L has worked well for my runs, but I’m finding that I would probably be better off with a 2.0L reservoir as I’ve run out of water around the 15 mile mark twice now (once at 13 miles, and once at 14.75) – both times in 80+ degree heat. I’m not a huge guy, but I’m not tiny, either (I’m 6’1″-ish and about 170lbs). Had I had some more time to research, I would hopefully have found the some capacity-per-distance guidance and used that in my purchase decision, but c’est la vie. Once, I ended with about half the pack left, but that was a much cooler day, so I’d say this is roughly a 15-miler option. As I go longer than 15 miles, I’ll throw a couple of bottles in the front pockets to supplement the capacity as this pack can’t accommodate a larger reservoir.

Me running with the Camelbak Circuit
Front shot of the pack one me where you can see the tied up chest straps to keep the free ends from bouncing around

As for the adjustments, I felt that they weren’t quite perfect, but was pretty good at getting the fit a good. A recurring theme began here – what you think the vest should be like, or how they should have done something, after using it for five hours, I don’t think I’d change things.

What do I mean? Well, a common complaint is that there’s no band to hold down the chest straps after you tighten them down, so you get the end of the strap bouncing around. I just tied mine around itself, and it’s been fine (it needed retying once, but that was more my fault with weak tightening of the knot). You can see what I did in the pic on the right.  I paid more attention to this on my last run, and noticed that there really isn’t room for a band on the strap once it’s tightened (at least not for me, and I’m no waif). Therefore, I could see a retention band actually getting in the way of you tightening the strap enough. Sure, Camelbak could have done something on the right shoulder strap to connect the loose chest straps to, but then it would get in the way of the hose and its clamps. So I think I could safely say I prefer the lack of a solution to having one.

The same can be said for the adjustments. At first, before running much, I was like, “Oh, they should have done it more like a backpack, where you’re pulling from the bottom of the arm straps.” But then the bladder wouldn’t be cinched down, and would move around more. Or would require another strap to be pulled. And once I got running, the adjustment actually worked well at getting a good fit, keeping the bladder in place, and not requiring too much work from me to keep it feeling right.

There are four pockets on the front of the unit – one smallish one with a fold-over-flap closure, one zip pocket (about the right size for an iPhone 5, but just a touch too small for my iPhone 6, which mostly zips close, but has a corner sticking out – no problem), and two expandable stash pockets with bungee-tightening mechanisms. This is where I throw my nutrition since it’s easy to get in and out of the pockets, but this is also where I’d stow water bottles as I go longer. I’ll probably start to use an SPI belt or FuelBelt for my nutrition once these pockets fill up with more water.

Another nice thing is that I didn’t have much of an issue with bumping my hands into the pack. If I had filled the front pockets with water bottles, this might have been more of an issue since they’d stick out more, but so far, the pack really didn’t get in the way of my movements at all. That’s crucial, especially when my reason for wanting it is feeling that my hydration belt was interfering with and affecting my running gait. That said, I try to run with my hands closer to my waist (as is a more efficient way to run than with high hands). If you are a high-hand-runner, you’ll bump your arms.

my depressions
My only real issues with the pack is around the bladder, and they’re two signs of cheapening the product – well, perhaps one and one case of me getting an incomplete package. The pack supposedly comes with these two plastic arms that come out and squeeze the sides of the bladder to help it dry. Mine didn’t come with these. I ended up buying a cleaning kit which came with ‘extra’ arms (the word ‘extra’ is why I think the pack was meant to come with them). It doesn’t come with any instructions, and I will say, while I’m generally smart and figure things out without instructions, there’s no way I would have know what to do with these things if not for Google Image Search. They go into these slots in the outer ring of the bladder fill hole (probably not the technical name), and then rotate in and out – storing around the fill hole or rotating out to squeeze the bladder. FYI – the cleaning kit also comes with a long cleaning brush that you can insert into the drinking hose to clean it, but it’s like four inches too short to get to the end, which is annoying and frustrating as those last few inches are where the water vapor likes to hide, which means it’s where mold is more likely to grow. Anyway, the little arms are great because the toughest thing about cleaning the pack is getting the bladder totally dry as quickly as possible for storage without molding. If they’re not included by default, that’s a cheaping-out-the-product kind of move in my book. If they are, then quality control at Camelbak needs some help, or someone jacked them from the unit I ended up buying.

The other issue is that there is a quick release button to separate the hose from the bladder. Or at least there is if you buy the quick release bladder separately got $30. The version sold with the pack has the hose attached (and it doesn’t seem to come off or I’m just weak because it does apparently come off). This makes drying tougher to achieve as the hose really holds moisture. I was able to get the bite valve off easily, so I’ve been doing that to help with drying, but it would be best to get it open on both ends (and solve the issue around the cleaning brush being too short). So my options are to live with potential mold in a product I use when I’m really putting my body through a lot (not a good thing), or pay the $30 on top of the $85 I already spent on a separate, replacement bladder and put aside the perfectly fine, brand-new bladder that came with the pack. I wish I could have spent $90 and gotten the pack with the right bladder from the start. Again, cheapening of the product to achieve a certain retail price.Me running with the Camelbak Circuit

I will say that I found a solution in Camelbak’s quick release conversion kit for the type of bladder I have. It’s $12.99 or $10 from Amazon, and is on the way to my house as I write this – hopefully arriving before my next drying session Friday afternoon.

While I like the pockets, I do wish one of them was a touch different. The zippered pocket in which I put my iPhone would be perfect if it had some water-proof membrane between you and it. That way, your sweat won’t ruin your phone, if you put it in there. My solution is to use my silicone case on my phone, and just try to remember to face the screen outward, but it would be so much better if there was a Gore-tex liner backing this pocket. Not a deal-breaker, but definitely would be nice.

Lastly, you can clean the product with hot water and a little soap, but Camelbak does recommend using their cleaning tablets to help keep the pack from molding. Those run a little over $1 per tablet, so that can really increase the use cost of a product like this. I can’t fault the pack for this as all hydration packs of this issue, but I would say that these tablets are way over-priced, and are sold in too-small quantities (eight per pack, with two included in the cleaning kit I bought). Maybe if they were sold in a pack of 20, they could be cheaper. I’d say they’re at least 2x over-priced. Otherwise, they’re easily to use and do a good job.

to buy or not to buy
But these ‘depressions’ aren’t really show stoppers, and don’t impact the use of the product for hydration when running. I have to say, I was a little scared to just buy this one without getting a chance to read a ton of reviews or get something higher-end from a close-out site like The Clymb. This was the best fit out of the three options at the local running store I went to, but I can honestly say it turned out great. The bladder size is a good fit for how long I run when I run long, but as I mentioned above, I’ve probably hit the limit of how long this pack is meant for with my 15 mile long runs. The storage is well-sized and easily accessible without being overkill (I didn’t want something verging on a backpack that I could stow a jacket in or something – I just wanted fuel storage). The materials used are both strong and comfortable. And the biggest positive surprise of all is that it doesn’t make the water take on a nasty plastic taste.

I’d say I’m very happy with this purchase, and absolutely recommend the Camelbak Circuit. You can get it today from Amazon.com, REI, or from many of your local running stores (or Camelbak, themselves). It’s my first Camelbak product, so I don’t know enough about the rest of their line, but if they designed their other stuff with the same thought as they did the Circuit, I’d say this brand should definitely be on your short list.

Being prepared helps you stay active no matter what gets thrown at you when you get out there. Be prepared, get out there, and enlighten.your.body.

About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.

3 comments

  1. Looks awesome!! I don’t run enough to need something like this, but it would definitely be helpful when cycling!

    • Great point – my first experience with them was when a friend had a hydration pack in a century ride we did together, so you’re absolutely spot on with the cycling idea!

  2. You can also use CamelBak brushes from our Cleaning Kit to scrub your reservoir and drink tube. Brushes are the best way to ensure you are scrubbing all of the areas of the reservoir clean.

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