For the Fall/Winter 14/15 season, Salomon have introduced a new hydration belt specifically for Nordic skiing- the S Lab Insulated Hydro Belt Set. I recently received this hydration system and have had a chance to use use it during some roller skiing sessions and I am providing initial impressions here. A more thorough review will be provided once I get a chance to use the hydration system in true winter conditions over a reasonable distance.
Hydration systems for Nordic skiing have essentially been in the “stone age” as compared to other endurance sports. With the exception of Bryce Thatcher’s innovative water bottle-based system belt from the mid-80’s there has been virtually no further development beyond improved ergonomics. In fact, in recent years there has been a retrograde path followed by all of the major Noridc ski equipment companies to produce ridiculously inconvenient, poorly designed, and clunky hydration belts such as the one in the image below. In order to drink from this “nordic canteen” (and when I say “canteen” I mean it in reference to WWII type technology) one must stop, take off the belt, screw off a top cap (or pop up a nipple valve) and tip the whole thing up in the air to get a swig. As far as I can tell this design was borne out of Norway and is about as bad of an example of design as I have ever experienced. As the local Swix rep says- “there is the right way, the wrong way, and the Nor-way”. Usually this “Nor-way” is unique and functional (like the Swix “Triac” pole, for instance) but in the case of these hydration belts it is nothing but bad design. Even Salomon jumped on the bandwagon and produces one of these. This model has a “pull top” nipple but they have made a screw top in the past.
Last season I gave up on the Nordic ski equipment makers and started using a Salomon running belt hydration system for training and longer races. These belts work but there are compromises, like difficulty in getting a soft flask out of the belt while skiing at speed. Some have taken to using backpack bladder hydration systems with the associated tube for access, but in skiing the last thing you want is something on your back as it interferes with poling and smooth technique. Given the fact that Nordic skiing is essentially a “core” dominated skeleto-muscluar activity, the waist is the area of the body that moves the least as a strong and stiff core allows for and is essential to efficient power development via the limbs. So a belt is the right choice for this sport. It does not take any “non-linear” thinking to realize that a solution for hydration systems for Nordic skiers would be to combine a belt system with a bladder-and-tube reservoir. Well, Salomon have done this.
Making the obvious available
The S Lab Insulated Hydro Belt Set combines the design language from Salomon’s running belt hydration systems with a bladder-and-tube from Salomon’s running vest systems. The tube has a removable insulated sheath to help prevent freeze up in cold conditions. Salomon states that the tube insulation prevents freeze-up down to -20C (-4F). I have not tested this yet so it is the one feature that will remain a question until the snow moves in this Fall.
The belt has a large zippered insulated rear pocket for a 1.5 l Hydrapac bladder, a small water resistant zippered pocket (I assume this is for electronics or other water sensitive items that you may have with you), a small stretch mesh pocket, and a large stretch mesh pocket that makes up the entire width of the rear portion of the belt storage area. The whole assemblage zips up into a neat package with a stated volume capacity of 2 l, 1.5 l of which accommodates a full bladder, so that leaves about 0.5 l for other “stuff”.
As mentioned above, the design of this hydration system is a hybrid of the Salomon belt systems and the bladder-based vest systems. For the Nordic skiing application a number of other design features have been included. First, I will cover the basic functions and then address the other features.
The basic function of the hydration system is to conveniently provide water/fuel to the training/racing athlete. In this belt this is accomplished with a form-fitting bladder/storage chamber attached to an adjustable belt with a velcro closure. The images below show an overview of the components.
These are the elements of the basic functions- just fill the bladder, zip up the rear pocket, put on and fasten the belt, bring the feed tube around the front of your waist through an elastic band on the belt, fish the tube up your torso under your jacket, and then clasp the feed tube on an available piece of clothing (e.g. the collar of your jacket). Voila! Water/fuel is now readily available without stopping. One will likely need to adjust the exact position of the bite valve to get it into the mouth but this can be easily accomplished with the fingers of either hand even with a pole strap on. Perfect!
Fit and Use
The belt system is quite comfortable as a result of the form-fitting design and a highly adjustable belt. The belt length is adjusted by slipping it into a “slot” in the storage compartment and attaching it via a velcro fastener on the inside surface of the ‘slot”. The belt adjusts nicely down to my 27″ waist and it appears that there is enough room to get it down to about 24″ and perhaps even smaller. Based on some measurements, it looks like the belt can be expanded to at least 44″. The belt closure uses a simple d-ring slot that one puts the velcro covered belt end through and then the belt end is folded back to attach to a companion velcro section of the belt. It is very secure and easily adjustable.
Once on, the form fit design is about as comfortable as a belt can be as Salomon have been working on this type of belt for over 5 years and they seem to have the design protocol down. One of the nice additional features is the three gel-pac pockets sewn into the belt across the front. These pockets can hold individual gel-pacs (or other such fuel pacs) and I have so far found them easy to extract from. We will have to see what cold weather does however as cold fingers are a different animal when it comes to fine motor skills. There is also concern that gel-pacs may become frozen and difficult to consume- not sure if there will be enough transmitted body heat to keep them soft. The pockets will accommodate other fuels as well- perhaps ones that are not temperature sensitive.
I loaded up the belt with about as much as I would typically carry for a 4 hour OD workout with some possibility of changing/wet weather. I was easily able to stow the following: 1.5 l of liquid in the bladder, three kick wax tins, a cork, a dry hat, an S Lab Hybrid rain jacket, a gel-pac, a fuel bar, and a camera. There was still room for more but I would likely never carry 1.5 l of fluid (I would probably carry more like .75 or 1 l) so there would be additional room for some dry gloves and more fuel. The images below show what the belt looks like when loaded with this stuff.
And here is a view of what was in the belt:
One of the key features to the utility of the belt pack is the use of stretch meah for the outer pocket. This material form fits over the contents and holds them snugly up and into the pack making for a compact and jiggle-free ski.
I have taken the belt on a few roller skiing sessions of about 20-30 km in rolling terrain for a total of about 100 km. The belt is very comfortable and one can forget that it is there at the waist. You are, however, aware of the feed tube/bite valve as it is right there next to your face. Very convenient and easy to fuel from. I was out on cool mornings so I had a jacket on and fished the feed tube up the inside of the jacket, as will be typical when using the belt system on snow. One could also route the tube up ones back and bring it forward over a shoulder. I have not tried this as I find the front orientation to be very functional.
If you are not wearing a jacket you can fish the feed tube up your shirt (or jersey) and clip it to the collar. It is possible to just bring the tube around on top of whatever you are wearing and clip it to the collar without fishing the tube underneath. This leaves the tube dangling out in front, ready to snag on a moving hand during poling, so I would not advise using the system this way. If you are not wearing a shirt, you are out of luck, although one could just fold the tube back on itself and stow it in the slot for the belt and still use the fluid carrying capability, but you would have to stop to use it however. The intended use is in winter conditions where one will be wearing a jacket or some type of clothing (like a race jersey).
I will be putting in much more rollerskiing time with the belt system in the next two months so I will update this post with any further experience of note.
$100 US…. expensive but worth every penny just for the convenience, let alone the substantial storage capacity and comfort.
Finally, modern hydration system design meets Nordic skiing. The Salomon S Lab Insulated Hydro Belt Set is a unique hydration/fueling solution for Nordic skiers that allows for convenient, “on the move” hydration/fueling. In addition, the system has a substantial volume of carrying capacity for longer ski workouts. Although testing in truly cold, winter conditions is critical to confirmation of translation of my current experience to snow and cold, I highly recommend this hydration system for Nordic skiers. The only concern I will note at this point has to do with how well the insulated tube/bite valve works- i.e. does it stay free of ice ups. Salomon says it is good to -20C (-4 F) but only direct experience will tell. Stay tuned.
Update 7 December 2014
I have now used this hydration system for about another 400 km of roller skiing and, since November 15th, about 400 km of Nordic skiing. Temperatures have ranged down to 0F (-18C) and I have had no issues with freeze-ups. The system is working great and I use it daily in all ski workouts. The ‘true’ cold (-10 to -20F (-20 to -30C)) is coming so I will update again with some experience at super cold temperatures.
Update 4 February 2015
I have now used this hydration system for over 1500 km of cross country skiing and continue to find the product to be a great hydration alternative to the clunky products offered by other manufacturers. In addition, I have used the system at temperatures below -5F and found that both the nipple on the feed end and the quick-release joint at the bladder-feed tube interface will freeze up. This incapacitates the system but is in accord with Salomon’s specification that the product is not intended for use below about -4F. I did remedy the situation by putting the pack underneath my jacket wherein body heat was sufficient to thaw the freeze at the joint and keep it unfrozen right down to about -10F. The nipple freeze up can easily be thawed in less than about 5 seconds in the mouth. Beyond -10F I generally do not ski.