By Tom Demerly.
The Birth of a Product Category.
Camelbak was born when founder Mike Edison decided it was easier to innovate than risk a bike crash. Edison was riding the 1989 Texas Hotter N’ Hell Hundred with hundreds of riders and few water stops. He couldn’t carry enough water. It wasn’t safe to reach for a bottle while riding in a pack of cyclists. He rigged an IV bag with medical tubing inside an athletic sock on his back. A product category was born.
Camelbak grew with the mountain bike culture but didn’t hit their stride until the military adopted backpack hydration systems in the late 1990’s. According to the Wall Street Journal, a Department of Defense contract awarded to Camelbak in 2005 was worth over $17 million. Military applications became Camelbak’s largest category.
While the defense category bankrolled Camelbak since the Gulf crisis began a new, smaller category emerged: the adventure athlete. Adventure athletes include ultra-distance triathletes and adventure racers pushing the limits of human endurance in hundred mile running races, Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises type events. The events require self sufficiency for long periods- no aid stations. Athletes carry small amounts of equipment for navigation, nutrition, signaling, rescue and first aid. A category within a category was born; the adventure race hydration pack.
For triathletes this category has great utility. If you are training for Ironman distance you have 15-20 miles worth of aid stations on your back. For long brick or run workouts a nice hydration pack provides everything you need without stopping.
The Camelbak Octane LR: New for 2011.
For 2011 Camelbak has introduced a new model that bridges the gap between larger capacity adventure race packs and smaller hydration only packs. They also have refined their lightweight, larger capacity hydration packs to an impressive level.
The new 2011 Camelbak Octane LR (for “Long Range”) is a 2 liter fluid capacity, 9 liter total capacity pack with a new Antidote lumbar-hugging reservoir that rides closer to the athlete’s center of gravity for better balance and less “sloshing” while running. In addition to running, it feels more natural on the bike since the weight of the fluid is held close to the place where you sit- it does not affect your center of gravity.
The Key Features: Lumbar Wrap design and new Antidote Reservoir.
The new Antidote reservoir update, which crosses all Camelbak reservoir models, is a great redesign. All Antidote reservoirs have the largest opening in the industry except for roll-top designs, which are harder to open and fill quickly. The new, larger Antidote opening facilitates better cleaning and drying of the reservoir. The Antidote reservoir fill cap opens more quickly with a quarter turn anti-clockwise, like a gas cap on a car. Index marks show where to line the cap up for closure. The cap is attached to the reservoir with a leash, a feature that is extremely important when filling a reservoir from a fast moving stream where the cap can be washed (learned that the hard way at Eco Challenge).
Taking a cue from Camelbak’s military models the new Antidote reservoirs use a quick disconnect hose for installing an in-line water filter or replacing the drink tube separately. The quick disconnect can be used while the reservoir is full with almost no leakage.
The vertically oriented Camelbak Antidote reservoirs, such as the one used in the Octane XCT, have internal baffles to keep their profile flatter when full. Another well conceived feature is a set of foldable drying arms that hold the reservoir open for drying. The inside of the reservoir uses HydroGuard treatment which helps keep the reservoir fresh but isn’t a substitute for cleaning.
Antidote reservoirs are electronic/high frequency welded and very durable. One of our run specialists, Eric, a lithe 150 pound lad, stood on a full Antidote reservoir with all his weight with no disaster or even leaks.
Both the 2 liter fluid capacity Octane LR and the 3 liter Octane XCT use Antidote technology reservoirs; the Octane XCT 3 liter reservoir is vertically oriented, a design we’re more accustomed to seeing but lacks the cargo capacity and low center of gravity stability of the Octane LR with its 2 liter, horizontally oriented lumbar Antidote reservoir.
The entire pack on the Octane LR isn’t much larger than a 2 liter hydration pack by itself but has much more cargo space since the reservoir is lower –and rides better inside the pack bag. It’s an impressive development when you consider other backpack hydration designs from Salomon, Gregory, The North Face, GoLite and others that don’t fit as well, remain as stable or hold as much cargo and fluid. Camelbak is the original, and still leads the tube fed, backpack hydration category.
Large Cargo Capacity with a Small Overall Pack Size.
Despite the trim design of the Octane LR we easily fit all this into the pack with a full 2 liter reservoir:
3 energy bars, four gels (970 total calories).
Canon G9 digital camera.
Topographic map and compass.
Small blister and first aid kit.
LED headlight with spare AAA batteries.
Toilet paper and wet wipes.
Glow stick (tie to shoe lace and swing around to signal for helicopter rescue)
Small multitool including tweezers to pull out cactus needles (it’s Arizona…).
Shell jacket and watch cap.
The clever design of the Octane LR makes efficient use of every bit of space around your body for the most efficient load distribution and cargo capacity. Because of that, it is the best running hydration pack I’ve run with- and I’ve run with most of them.
Once loaded the pack even had cargo room left for gloves or a compressible insulating layer and change of socks. When loaded the pack rides well when running. The side pockets have a lot to do with this, stabilizing the pack while keeping items handy. The minimal harness keeps the load stable. The inverted “T” shape of the pack rides better than any other long range, light weight adventure pack I’ve worn including the old designs from Mole Tracks (now defunct) built for adventure racers and Marathon des Sables desert racers.
“The Octane LR makes efficient use of space for the most efficient load distribution and capacity. It is the best hydration pack I’ve run with-and I’ve run with most of them.”
I like the fit of the Camelbak Octane LR better than Salomon’s XT Advanced Skin 5 S-Lab pack- a $179 pack, which rides higher on my long torso and doesn’t seem to distribute the load as evenly or fit as well on the bike. The Camelbak Octane LR is only $88.95- an impressive value. A key feature in any adventure pack is how well the load “rides” on your body while running or cycling. The Octane LR is the best of the packs I’ve carried, and I’ve carried a lot of them from Vietnam to Antarctica, the Sahara to New Zealand.
The design of the pack bag and routing for the hydration tube enable you to bring the tube up under your arm or over your shoulder. A tubing loop and plastic “keeper” on the right shoulder help you find the bite valve more easily in the dark or during vigorous movement. The left shoulder features a small stretch mesh pocket for a couple energy gels or a small electronic device. There is minimal reflective treatment on the back and front of the pack and harness, and I would have appreciated more reflective trim for better nighttime visibility. A small vertical webbing loop on the back of the pack can be used to clip a blinking LED light- I wonder why they didn’t make this loop horizontal to hold a flashing LED light more securely.
The pack is made of lightweight 70 denier mini ripstop, 230 denier taffeta fabric and heavier 420 Denier Nylon. There is a “DWR” or Durable Water Resistant poly urethane coating on the pack. These ultra-strong, lightweight fabrics make the entire pack bag and harness feel more like clothing and less than a backpack- exactly what you want for action sports: you don’t want to carry a load, you want to wear a load. This pack is more like apparel than a backpack.
“The lightweight fabrics and wrap-around design make the Octane LR feel more like clothing and less like a backpack.”
A few minor nit-picks with the Camelbak Octane LR: You can’t carry a water bottle on the front of the pack. Salomon has this feature. It’s important to the ultra-runner, less so for weekend users. A bottle holder for the Octane LR that fit Camelbak’s other models would be nice. Salomon and Mole Tracks had small chest packs that mounted on the shoulder and sternum straps. Those little chest packs held a compass, map, GPS, energy bars, sun screen, etc. They’re handy. Camelbak doesn’t have that yet. Some sternum strap buckles have an integrated emergency whistle. It’s missing from the Camelbaks. Even with the refinements on the Camelbak Antidote reservoir the bite valve is still small. Sucking on a tube-fed hydration system long enough can produce sores in your mouth. I experienced this at Eco-Challenge, Raid Gauloises and Marathon des Sables. I’ve used military systems from Blackhawk’s HydroStorm that had larger bite valves with a higher flow rate. You didn’t have to suck on them as hard: no discomfort even after days with sunburned lips. A bigger bite valve would be nice. The packs are sized for an average size athlete. If you are over 6’2″ or over 220 pounds there may not be enough adjustment in the waist strap and shoulder harness. These are compromises that needed to be made to keep the pack light and optimal for its intended purpose, but worth noting.
Considering how new this product category is the refinements have come quickly. Camelbak invented the category and in most ways still leads it. The Octane LR is an example of that refinement and leadership with its unique horizontally oriented Antidote reservoir, trim fit, efficient cargo carrying and light weight. It’s a great design and a pleasure to use.