Monday 18 March 2013

Salomon XT-Advanced Skin S-Lab

Being the huge (accidental) Salomon fan boy that I am, I have recently been bigging up the Salomon Skin S-Lab pack to some of my friends who have been looking for new packs this year. With the release of the Signature Series from Ultimate Direction, it seems that the race vest style of running pack is becoming more and more popular. With ultras, it is often important to take a lot of gear out with us on the trails, particularly if doing something long and self-supported, or up a mountain, in a jungle, in a desert, etc. Broadly speaking there are 3 choices for carrying what we need; a handheld water bottle (if all we need is a bit of water and maybe a few gels), a waist pack (to carry a couple of bottles and a bit of essential gear like a jacket), or a backpack (if we need to carry a whole bunch of stuff). Over longer distances, backpacks can get quite uncomfortable given the way that they sit the weight on the shoulders, with maybe some lumbar support as well. The race vests are designed to distribute the weight over the chest so that you don't get so much of that pulling on your shoulders.

I have been using the Salomon XT-Advanced Skin S-Lab since I started running ultras in 2011, and for the time-being have no reason whatsoever to switch. I love this pack. It is a masterful feat of design, with everything perfectly placed for me, and so many useful little features that another pack would have to do something very special to get my attention. Why go out for hamburger when you have steak at home?

There are currently two flavours of the pack - the 5L and the 12L. I reviewed the 5L a long time ago before I ran my first 100 miler with it, but have now used it so much that I feel that a new review is required. I have both the 5L (2 in fact...) and the 12 L, so will review both simultaneously as they are pretty much identical in most regards. Spoiler alert: I like them!

As a warning, this review looks at the 2012 edition of the packs. There is a newer version available (with a new colour scheme: ooh, pretty red!) but I won't need to replace these any time soon. But there aren't too many additions or changes other than cosmetic so the the vast majority of the review still applies to the latest 2013 models.


This is where the Salomon packs really shine. The fit, for me at least, is absolutely perfect. The system, known as Sensifit, is essentially moulded to the shape of a runner's body, with adjustments made at a small number of key points. The weight distribution occurs across the chest, but not in a restrictive way so you don't notice problems with breathing. The pack is essentially a vest cut down the middle at the front. You slip on both sides, then use a very simple twin-link 2-strap system to hold everything in place. The straps are very small and slightly elasticated so there is a little bit of give as you run. The clasps clip on and off very easily (unless you have very cold hands), and there are multiple connection points so you can find the best fit for your body shape. Adjustment of the strap length is very simple, with a single squeeze clasp which can be adjusted while moving.

Twin link 2 strap system adjusts across the chest to modify the fit and prevent movement when running.
The fit of the pack itself can be adjusted using the load lifters which pull the pack in tighter over the shoulders. This allows you to either slacken off the bulk of the pack (if you are putting more in there for instance), or tighten it closer to the body (to prevent any bounce if there is not much in there).

The load lifters adjust the tightness of the main pocket against your back.


The Salomon packs both come with a 1.5L bladder for fluids, and the feed tube is designed to come up under the arm rather than hanging over your shoulder like with most packs. This keeps it nicely out of the way, and if you trim the tube down it can sit completely hidden until you actually need it. Nobody likes things flapping at their faces for hours on end. The bladder sits inside an isothermic pouch which acts to keep the fluids cool from the heat of the sun and from the heat of your body. If it is a particularly warm day, you may actually prefer not to use this as the bladder can work to cool your body down (although you will be stuck drinking warm water). 

A lot of people wonder about the placement of the bottles on the front of the chest straps. I was originally a little concerned that they would get in the way, but actually they seem to be in the perfect position; they are far enough forward that you don't catch your elbows on them with the backswing (like with my OMM 15L pack), but are far enough back that they are not in your face or restrict arm movement (for instance like with some Raidlight packs). I mainly run with bottles rather than the bladder, and find that they just sit there out of the way until I need them. As a little tip, I just use a couple of cheap 500ml stubby High5 bottles which fit in the pockets perfectly without sticking out. I squeeze at the base of the bottle to pop it out, and this allows me to put bottles in and out with ease while I run. 


The pack is incredibly light, with the 5L coming in at around 330g and the 12L coming in at around 530g. Unless you have it stuffed full of gear, you really won't notice that you are wearing it.


Sizing for these packs is quite simple. There is an XS/S pack for ickle people, a M/L pack for normal people, and an XL for larger people. I actually find the ickle people pack more comfortable for my build as I am quite small, but my new 5L pack is actually the medium size and still fits absolutely fine. So at about 5' 9" with a relatively broad chest I am just at the cutoff between the two. Size yourself from there! 


The capacity of the pack is obviously dependent on the size that you buy; 5L or 12L. But they are essentially the same pack with one major difference, as the 12L has an additional main pocket for the majority of your gear. Realistically, the 5L is designed for races where you do not need too much equipment (a jacket, some gels and some water), whilst the 12L is for if you need to be taking a lot more stuff (spare clothes, navigation equipment, full waterproofs, etc.). But you will be surprised at how much you can fit into the 5L pack. If you have some lightweight waterproofs (such as the Montane Minimus brand), you can even fit the full kit list for races like UTMB and Lakeland into the 5L pack! But it is a bit of a squeeze, and realistically if you are planning on doing anything mountainous that requires extra kit on top of your basics, the 12L is likely to be your best bet.

The main bulk of the capacity for the 5L (and half for the 12L) is made up by the flexible zipped pocket on the back of the pouch. Bear in mind that this is not waterproof as it is made from a very lightweight perforated and flexible material - the more you flex it, the more the water will get in! On the 12L there is in addition a large more (although not entirely) waterproof pocket which makes up the main compartment (7L). This is where you will put the majority of your gear, and can be separated into 2 smaller compartments using a zippable flap. This can help separate your waterproofs from your clothes for instance.

There are pouches, pockets and cubby holes all over the pack for fitting plenty of gear in.
To this day, I keep finding new pockets and cubby holes in this pack. If a pocket can be fit somewhere, it is. There are little zip up pockets in the kidney area of the pack, which are perfect for putting gels and other food-stuffs into. You can comfortably fit about 5 gels in each pocket. They can be a little fiddly to get to, mainly in terms of zipping/unzipping the pockets. Once you get the hang of it it's okay, but pulling the zip towards your body (to open it on the 5L, or to close it on the 12L) is a little awkward without using your other hand to counteract the force. It's a skill, but you soon pick it up!

There is a little internal pocket inside the bladder pouch which closes with a magnetic clasp. This carries a foil blanket, which is often an essential piece of kit for longer ultras. On the 12L, there is an additional waterproof pocket on the top of the pack which is very useful for putting your wallet, phone and keys in when running. There are also various little pouches around the pack that you can use for bits and pieces, including a pouch on the side of the bottle holder which I use for empty gel packets (just need to remember to empty it afterwards, otherwise it gets a little sticky!).

There is also a removable pocket which attaches onto the front above the bottle holder using a simple velcro connection. Personally I do not use it, as I feel that it gets in the way a little bit when I want to get my bottle out.

Also, don't feel that you have to use the storage compartments for their intended purpose. For the Lakeland 100 last year, I put a bunch of kit into a waterproof bag and stuffed this into the pouch that usually houses the bladder (relying instead on bottles). Also, I usually run with only one bottle, and use the second bottle holder for my phone, or my jacket.

Speaking of jackets, the 5L and 12L packs have great little loops for carrying things like this. On the 5L, there is a large loop on the bottom of the pack that you can put your jacket into. As long as there is something in the pack to provide some ballast to hold it in place (it doesn't work so well with an empty pack), it sits quite nicely out of the way and is easy to get to without taking the pack off. On the 12L, this feature is absent (which is a real shame), but there are elasticated loops up both sides of the main compartment which you can put your jacket into, or if you have a set of foldable trekking poles these can fit in here as well. There are also 2 big pouches at the base around the kidneys on the 12L, which probably aren't designed to be used to carry things but into which I have found my lunch box fits quite nicely when running to work!

The loop at the base of the pack allows you to tuck your jacket away for easy access. Sadly this feature is missing from the 12L pack.
Basically, unless you're doing an adventure race where you need a tent and camping equipment, chances are you'll find a place for everything in the 12L. And if you're just doing a normal long run, or are in a supported race where you don't need too much stuff, the 5L will fit everything you might need.


This comes back to what I mentioned previously about the fit. It really does just fit to your body perfectly as you run. I have used several packs over the years, but nothing comes close to how it feels to run in this, particularly for really long distances. I have run for over 30 hours at a time several times using this pack and have never had an issue. The whole point of the S-Lab is to work with athletes to design equipment that really fits their needs, and it really shows with this pack. Everything has a point and the placement of everything seems to fit my build perfectly. All I can think is that this must mean that I run like Kilian Jornet...

The biggest issue with respect to comfort is really more of a broad problem with packs in general; your back is a large area for heat dissipation, and covering it up results in a large amount of heat retention and sweating. The Salomon packs are better than many other packs in this regard as they are quite lightweight and take up a relatively small area, and the material immediately adjacent to your back is made from a quick drying fabric to minimise the problem of sweat build up (although there really isn't anywhere for the sweat to go). But this is really a problem with any kind of back pack, and I never have any issues with chaffing with these packs compared to what I have had with other bags I have used.

I have actually adjusted my packs slightly to improve the comfort by trimming the feed tubes for the water reservoirs, trimming off loops and tabs that don't really do much so they don't flap around everywhere, and in particular removing the 4D trekking pole loops that I really am never going to use. But I really can run all day (and then some!) with this pack and never see a problem, so I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever with regards to comfort.


When I first bought my first generation pack back in January 2011, they were like gold-dust in this country. I managed to track down a shipment and got in there before anybody else had the chance. Sneaky! It was quite a shock when I turned up at Chamonix for UTMB last year and found they sold them in every other bloody shop. These days, they are much easier to source in this country (along with the rest of the Salomon line). Places to look are the Ultramarathon Running Store, Centurion Running Store, Castleberg Outdoors, Fit 2 Function, etc. You can't move for Salomon gear these days!


This is really the one sticking point to the Salomon packs - they ain't cheap! This is possibly where the Ultimate Direction packs will make their mark. The Salomon 5L pack currently comes in somewhere around the £105 mark (the older version is a little cheaper), whilst the equivalent Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest can be found for around £80. The Salomon 12L pack is around £135, whilst the equivalent Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest can be had for about £110. At the time that I bought my pack there was no other choice, but given the choice now I confess that I may have gone for the Ultimate Direction version. Having said that, if you ask me, "Is the Salomon pack worth the money?", my answer would be, "Hells yes!". I have no qualms about having spent the money on this pack as I have more than gotten my money's worth over the years. So much so that I spent the money again on the 12L pack, and then again to buy a new 5L pack when the bottle holders fell apart (more on that below). I have not used the Ultimate Direction packs yet, so can't say if I would feel the same way about these, but I would be interested to compare the two together. But right now, you'll have to prise my Salomon pack out of my cold, wet hands!


"But Sam you handsome devil you, surely there must be some issues with these packs?", I hear you say. And to be honest I have only had a couple of issues of note over the many many miles that I have run with these packs.

The main issue that I have had is with the bottle holders on the front of the chest straps. Over time (admittedly a long time), these began to tear and fall apart leaving gaping holes that I have "fixed" using safety pins. The problem here was the use of a lightweight material to save on weight for the pack, and years of bottles/gels/phones bouncing around in there resulted in the fabric tearing. However, this problem is specific to the very first pack (2011 generation 1 model). From the 2012 model onwards, this material has been replaced with a tougher material and this problem has not occurred again. The payoff is that the pockets are slightly more rigid, but not so much that you will notice anything if you have never had the original packs to compare against.

Wear on the bottle holders after years of extreme use (2011 model shown). The material for these has been improved for the latest versions.
The second problem is that I once went running and the feed tube froze. This was really my own fault though - I stuck the bladder in the fridge overnight, went running in the snow, and didn't drink anything for about an hour and a half. Plenty of time for an already cold drink in a thin tube to freeze solid! Doh.

The only other issue is that wearing this pack can lead to your back getting warm when running, but as mentioned above this is an unfortunate fact of any backpack. Despite this, I have never really had any chaffing issues with this pack.


I think that it is safe to say that I really like this pack, and it was in fact buying this pack that lead me down the inevitable road of Salomon fanboyism that I currently appear to be on. The problem is that they just make such damn good stuff, and at the time at least there was simply no contest that this pack was the best on the market. But that's not to say that I won't ever try a new pack. I would be interested in trying out the Ultimate Direction series, particularly the Anton Krupicka Race Vest which is the equivalent to the 5L Salomon pack. As with the S-Lab, Ultimate Direction have worked closely with their athletes to design the packs around the needs of the runner. If it works just as well, then groovy; I could save some money. If not, then I am perfectly happy having paid more money for such a comfortable and well-thought out piece of kit. But for the time-being, my packs aren't showing any signs of needing replacing so I will continue to use them until they do.

Next up, I will be taking the 12L out on a little 147 mile jaunt along the Viking Way. And I'm sure that I will stay lovely and comfortable throughout the whole thing. Although I'm sure that Mark Cockbain will have something to say about that...

Happy trails!

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