9 best running backpacks for racing, commuting, trails and marathons

Carry all your essentials in one of these lightweight bags, perfect for every type of runner

Liz Dodd
Wednesday 19 August 2020 16:30
Choose from hydration rucksacks, reflective materials or a 20l option for backpacking
Choose from hydration rucksacks, reflective materials or a 20l option for backpacking

Whether you started jogging during lockdown or ran the London Marathon in your garden this year, a running backpack is an overlooked but essential piece of kit, particularly if you’re hoping to turn your habit into a healthy commute.

We tested these bags where they would be most useful, on regular runs to the office. To qualify as a commuter pack, they had to fit a change of clothes and shoes, and a small packed lunch. With no races to test our current PBs in, we took the racing specific bags for interval training runs – which are generally faster and sweatier – and for some gentle trail runs.

Overall, we looked for comfort across various distances and loads. You can’t take just any backpack running: the straps will start to chafe after a short time, and so will the back panel when you sweat, and the hip belt. Adding any load at all can throw your balance and your gait, which could lead to injury.

Running backpacks, on the other hand, have softer or padded straps that taper in the right places and plenty of breathable mesh to stop heat and sweat build-up. They usually fasten in at least two places – across the chest and the hips – which keeps any load firmly set against your back, while allowing natural movement in your hips and spine as you move.

These bags are suitable for a gentle 5k. If it’s speed or distance you’re aiming for, or if you’ll be crossing rough terrain, go for a lighter, sportier bag with an easy-to-reach hydration system and zippable pockets for valuables such as your keys and phone.

Make sure you choose a bag that can take your water bottle, or even better, has a hydration system with drinking straw.

If you plan to run your commute, you can usually compromise a little on weight and go for a smarter, more spacious bag. If you will be running in the dark or low light, particularly on unlit rural roads, consider a reflective backpack.

Finally, there is – we discovered – a great opportunity to be had in running to the shops: get your workout in and a chore done. For those trips we picked out a couple of more spacious (20l) bags that handle weight really well – these have the added bonus of crossing over into cycling or hiking, too.

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Lululemon fast and free backpack

A beautiful bag with a sleek, modern design that’s as practical as it is stylish, thanks to the firm support around the shoulders and the elegant tapering down the back. The fit is really stable, thanks to the adjustable chest strap and hip strap, and the padded straps mean the bag stays comfortable even with a load.

We loved the wide zip opener across the top – the bag has a good capacity (13l) and this means you can stuff it to the brim, even with hard to stash kit like a change of shoes. It also comes with a separate drawstring bag for shoes and laundry. The side pocket is generous but snug and fit our usual 500ml water bottle perfectly.

Proviz nightrider backpack

The perfect bag if you run early in the morning or late at night, the "nightrider" uses the same extraordinarily reflective material as Proviz’s famous cycle jackets for the details and flashes, and bright hi-vis material for the main body.

It’s got a good 10l capacity, which fitted our change of clothes, packed lunch and a waterproof layer. The outer zip pockets came in handy for our face mask, keys and phone, and the fit was comfortable and felt secure.

Asics lightweight running backpack

A competitively-priced bag from one of the best names in running kit, this light carrier (450g) packs some of the highest capacity that we tested. That’s partly the decent internal space (10l), but also the clever addition of a lightweight bungee cord on the back, which you can use to stow a jacket, waterproof layer or even a towel for a post-run shower at the office. It’s comfortable, with light mesh shoulder straps and a good thick hip belt, which coped well when we filled the bag with commuting gear.

Osprey tempest 20

A bigger bag that’s great for a run to the shops, or to have on hand if you also cycle and commute. The sporty carrier holds a very decent 20l of kit, which is more than enough for a change of clothes, and has the comfort and precision you’d expect from a hiking bag. Osprey says it “clings to your back like a frightened monkey”, which is about right. It was one of the best we tested for avoiding sweat, thanks to the structured back panel. It isn’t remarkably heavy – at 700g – but it isn’t super lightweight either, so is better suited to a weekend away than a race.

Sweaty Betty icon active backpack

A really beautiful bag that’s perfect for a run to the office and then drinks after work. The quilted fabric was unique among the bags we tested, but actually felt really nice and squishy, and it looks really sleek. It takes almost 18l of kit, which equates to a change of clothes and a pair of shoes, or a decent picnic. It fits comfortably, with soft straps in a good location around the chest and hips. We loved that the bag sits quite low on the back – our reviewer found that keeping her upper back and shoulders free greatly reduced sweating and chafing, and having the bag’s centre of gravity so much lower helped with balance.

Patagonia women’s nine trails

A stylish bag with plenty of capacity and brilliant eco-credentials. The spacious main pocket has a gratifyingly large u-shaped opening that makes stowing trainers or a raincoat easy, and plenty of little side pockets for essentials. We loved the comfortable, hiking-style fit and the fantastic, breathable and structured back panel. Patagonia supports a number of important ecological projects, most notably by “taxing” itself 1 per cent of its overall sales, which then goes to environmental charities.

Thule vital hydration pack

A race-ready bag that’s perfect for competition or serious trail running. There is a little inside space, which is carefully organised into snug pockets, and just right for gel packs, cereal bars, sunglasses or a waterproof layer. The main draw is the generous (1.75l) hydrapack, which is included, and connects to a smart drinking system with a magnetic hose that stops the drinking straw from flapping around when you’re running. Thin pockets and plenty of mesh mean that sweat doesn’t build up at all, seriously reducing the risk of any chafing.

Salomon agile 6

A great option for commuters who Park Run at weekends, the "agile" is exactly the right size for a small change of clothes and packed lunch. It feels like a super soft waistcoat with lightweight, wide straps, and weighs just 300g – making it one the lightest bags we tested. It comes with two soft water flasks that sit in little sleeves on the shoulder straps, in just the right spot for a mid-race refresh. The two chest straps mean that it fits really comfortably, with no chafing, and they link into straps around the waist, so the bag feels stable and comfortable whether full or empty. You can move the straps to customise fit, which is really helpful in a unisex bag.

Nike run commuter backpack

A simple and stripped back carrier that’s ideal for lightweight commuting. The main pocket is spacious, with enough room for a change of clothes and a packed lunch, and side pockets are a good size for a phone or keys. Best of all is the fit, which is stable and comfortable and very customisable, thanks to all the adjustable straps. The finely ventilated mesh back is effective, and meant that we didn’t build up a sweat even when we had the bag loaded and flush against our back.

The verdict: Running backpacks

We loved Lululemon’s sleek and spacious bag for running to work. For racing or trail running, Thule’s hydration pack is a stripped back and speedy piece of kit.

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