First things first. Two disclosures about my review of the Nathan Firebreaker Race Vest:
- I got this pack free from REI and Nathan for the purpose of my review. The opinions in this review are my own.
- I currently have and use the UltrAspire Alpha (RIP) hydration pack. While I did everything in my power to test the Firebreaker neutrally, I’m sure I was comparing it to my Alpha, even if it was unconsciously.
I don’t think either of these factors impacted this review, but I believe in being upfront about any possible biases, even if they un or subconscious.
With the housekeeping out the way, on with the review!
The Nathan Firebreaker Women’s 2 Liter Race Vest
Before I even got this vest, I considered what I wanted in a hydration vest.
This is the list I came up with:
- Water. Does it hold enough and is the bladder easily accessed and refilled?
- Easy gel access. Can I easily access gels, blocks, and other necessities on the run?
- Is there a secure place to hold my keys and my phone?
- Storage. Does it hold enough, without holding too much or adding extra bulk?
- Fit. Does the pack fit securely, without jostling or jiggling on the run? Is it comfortable? Where do the straps hit?
To date, I’ve used this vest on 4 runs ranging from 3 to 12 miles.
I plan using the pack on a few longer runs in April (I’ll update this review if I discover anything new).
A hydration pack is, first and foremost, about the water. A pack must carry enough water to keep me hydrated. That is the one completely non-negotiable item on the list.
I volunteer at many races, so I’ve seen and dealt with pretty much every type of pack and hydration reservoir out there. The reservoirs with side screw-top access (often found on Camelback packs) are always a total disaster.
My favorite, and I think the easiest to access and fill, are the fold-over type.
The Firebreaker has a 2-liter fold-over reservoir. Ideal!
2-liters is enough water to get me through all but the longest runs on the hottest days.
The one issue I have with the bladder is the straw is waaaaaay too long and there is no way to wrangle it. I’ve read you can take off the bite piece, cut the straw and replace the bite piece, but I have zero faith in my ability to do that without ruining the straw or turning it into a leaky mess.
So it will stay about a foot too long.
Rating: 5 (out of 5)
Easy Gel/Fuel Access
I want to be able to access gel and fuel on the run, without having to remove the pack. I am baffled by packs that don’t have any quick access to gel. Who wants to take off a vest every time they need a gel?
The Firebreaker has 3 open pockets and one zippered pocket, easily accessible in the front of the vest. The 3 open pockets are fairly small (they fit 2-3 gel packs and 1-2 packs of blocks), which is more than enough for shorter and middle distance runs.
For long runs, I will likely have to put additional fuel in the back and stop at some point and rearrange. I could put fuel in the zipper pocket, but that seems like the best place for my phone and I don’t want to mix technology and sticky gel packs.
On summer long runs, I often carry a collapsible bottle with a sports drink. The open pockets are too small to carry this bottle.
I’ll cover this more later, but my major issue with this pack is it feels very short.
It ends high on my back and well above the bottom of my rib cage in front. I have to chicken wing to grab a gel (however, I’m sure I’d quickly get used to this after a few uses).
The bigger issue is that because of this, the fuel pockets fall directly on top of my boobs.
I feel like my chest takes enough abuse on a long run, I don’t want to add to their burden by piling my GUs on top of them.
Shorter/middle distance runs (roughly 13 miles and under): 4
Long runs (roughly 13 and over): 3
Secure Spot For Keys And Phone
While open pockets are fine for gels, I want my phone and keys securely stashed away.
On the Nathan Firebreaker: Phone yes.
Keys… sort of?
There is a large zipper pocket in front, ideal for my phone (a Samsung Galaxy 7) and keys. However, the short fit means I’m carrying my phone directly on top of my boobs which seems awkward.
There is a key clip in the back of the pack (in an open pocket). I know this is a weird quirk of mine, but I get super paranoid about losing my keys. I can’t imagine putting them in an open pocket (even when they are totally secure and clipped in). There will come a time when I’ll panic and check they’re still there.
But that might just be me.
Storage: Enough, But Not Too Much
Storage space in a pack is a fine line.
I need some room for fuel and a few extras, but if there’s too much, I may be tempted to carry too much stuff.
For reference, for a longer trail run I usually carry:
- GU (about 2 / hr)
- Blocks (about 1 pack/hr)
- A little pack of kleenex
- Lip balm
- My phone & keys
- A canister of pepper spray
- If I’m running in the middle of nowhere or running as coach or pacer – a little first aid kit
- Depending on the weather, a rain/wind layer but that’s pretty rare.
The Firebreaker has a touch more space than I need, but it’s carried well and the extra space doesn’t feel too bulky.
Fit has a few different aspects. For me, a pack should:
- Fit securely, without jiggling or jostling
- Be comfortable
- Have straps in areas that won’t cause chafing
Overall, the Nathan Firebreaker fits better than I expected.
- Around the torso, the Firebreaker is very adjustable. There are 4 straps on the side and 2 in front, so it can be adjusted in many ways.
- The pack, once adjusted, fits securely, and didn’t jostle on the run.
- The front clasps are easy to use and are lower on the pack (I’ve tried on some vests where the front clasps are high and I feel strangled by them).
My phone and keys jiggled around a bit in their zipper pocket, but nothing unreasonable.
- As I mentioned in the fuel section, on me, this pack feels very short. I wish it were a few inches longer.
- The boob issue.
I’m gonna get TMI here for a second (apologies).
I’m a lady with boobs. The biggest issues I have with chafing on long runs fall somewhere in the jog bra area. I really don’t want to be adding extra layers and carrying my fuel directly on top of my chest. This can only make my known trouble spots worse.
To be clear, in my test runs so far, this hasn’t been an issue.
But I can’t get the ‘this feels awkward’ and ‘this could be a problem’ ideas out of my head and as a result, I’d hesitate to wear this pack (and its extra chest layers) on runs of 16 or 20 miles.
This is most likely a non-issue for you smaller-busted ladies.
Shorter/middle distance runs: 4
Long runs: 3
Overall, I liked the Nathan Firebreaker more than I thought I would. It is a great option for short and middle distance runs.
Because of the smaller fuel pockets and the fit issue (a/k/a boob gate – really can’t get over the fuel pockets falling exactly on the one place I don’t want them to), I’m not sure I’d want to wear this pack on longer runs or marathons.
Shorter runs: 4 (out of 5)
Long runs: 3 (out of 5)