Hydration packs are a relatively new introduction but have caught on fast and it is now rare to see any sort of outdoor activity where they are not used extensively. So here is our introduction to them, what you need to know
Why Use a hydration pack over a water bottle?
It’s easier to drink on the move. With a water bottle, you generally need to stop or slow down to drink. hydration packs let You drink more easily and keep your hands free, even when bombing down a mountain bike trail.
They encourage you to stay hydrated. It’s easy to drink more and drink consistently. Hydration packs are larger which encourages you to bring more water. They come in 2 or 3 liter sizes, while many hikers just bring a water bottle that holds less than one half of that.
Why use a water bottle over a hydration pack?
Most hydration packs are heavy for their small size, adding almost a pound for the bladder and reservoir before adding any water.
The packs we tested cost $50-150, a substantial amount of money considering a plastic water bottle can cost nothing, and the top-rated backpacks in our Daypack Review often cost less for greater capacity and versatility than a hydration pack.
All hydration packs are harder to clean than a water bottle. If you drink a lot of sports powders and additives in your water, you’ll be cleaning your hydration pack out frequently.
Spills and leakages are more likely when filling a bladder than a water bottle, even for the best performers in our tests. Some leaks occurred, either by our accidental failure to lock the bite valve, or from failures in the hose and bladder with less durable systems.
It’s easier to keep track of how much is left in a bottle. Rationing can be difficult with a bladder, as it’s out of sight and not hand-held for gauging its weight easily.
Comfort and Stability
One of the main reasons to buy a hydration pack is they are generally more streamlined than backpacks. Even the largest packs we tested are relatively narrow and compressible into a small space. The smallest ones keep the weight close to your back and waist.
Running-specific packs are designed to stay in place during the up-and-down motion of running. These feature easily accessible pockets and typically don’t buckle at the waist.
CamelBak, Geigerring and Platypus all use compatible quick-release tube attachments. If you like the Geigerrig pressurized bladder but prefer the CamelBak bite valve, you’re in luck. It’s useful if you have multiple packs and one starts to leak.
Other design issues may lead you to prefer one design over another: for example, the Geigerrig release button faces outward which can lead to accidental release and leaking.
Pressurized or Not Pressurized?
Geigerrig introduced a pressurized system a few years back.
Essentially this system adds a second tube to pressurize the second compartment in the reservoir. This can then squirt the water into your mouth, rather than have you suck it.
I am not sure whether this is this a major innovation, or a solution to a problem that didn’t exist? After all, how hard is it to drink from a large straw?
There are a lot of opinions and you can read many user reviews online saying that once you go pressurized, you will never go back.
Pressurized systems are cool, but we are not totally won over, as they create a heavier, more complex and more expensive system.
Ease of Cleaning
All hydration packs need to be cleaned eventually. If you add sugar or electrolyte powder to your water, you should clean your reservoir and hose after every use or two.
You can delay cleaning by not using sugar drinks, leaving the bladder full of water or storing the empty bladder in a plastic bag in the freezer. But eventually you will need to clean all hydration bladders and hoses.
Reservoirs and bladders with zip tops are easiest to clean. It’s easiest to get a brush inside them, and they are easy to dry particularly if they can be flipped inside out. Geiggerig bags are dishwasher safe.
Most CamelBak and Osprey reservoirs have a single compartment with a large opening so you can get a brush inside. This makes them relatively easy to clean, but you’ll need to buy or improvise a rack to get them dry.
Hardest to clean are systems with multiple compartments or ones you can’t easily get a brush inside, like the CamelBak waist belt packs. These usually involve repeated rounds of flushing with warm water plus an anti-bacterial additive, then more flushing to clear the additive.
All hoses are a pain to clean, especially if you use sugar drink mixes and need to clean them every time.
You’ll need to clean the tube with a long, skinny brush and soapy water, then rinse it out.
Geigerrig won’t sell you a brush like other manufacturers, and their video implies that just flushing with soapy water is sufficient. In our experience, all tubing eventually needs some scrubbing. But, to be fair to them, we did find the Geigerrig system the easiest one to clean in our tests.
If you don’t insulate them, all hoses will freeze in winter conditions.
Accessories are available from all the manufacturers, but the third party neoprene sleeves for the hoses and insulated bite-valve caps are just as good and far cheaper in our experience.
Most packs insulate the reservoir by positioning it between the back and the insulating material in the pack, so this is not as much of an issue.
Choosing a Hydration Pack
Do you need a hydration pack? Which one should you buy? It comes down to philosophy and choice of activity.
Day hikes are one of the best applications for hydration packs. Most of the packs we tested have enough space for bars, a rain jacket, and personal items.
We often forget to hydrate more on a day hike. The sense of closeness to safety can lead to neglect, forgetting to drink or bring enough water.
We recommend going with The lightest pack that holds the amount of gear you typically travel with for day hikes.
Most road cyclists use bottles as it’s generally agreed that carrying weight on the bike is better than wearing it.
However, the Camel Bak RaceBak is worth considering as it’s very light and sleek, and makes drinking much easier, especially on downhills and steep climbs.
Hydration packs are ideally suited to mountain bikers, allowing you to drink while moving up and down rugged terrain. They also give a bit of added spine protection If you land on your back.
However, mountain bikers are split on hydration pack use, with many racers preferring water bottles and storage in their jersey.
Many runners want to avoid wearing anything on their back as even the most stable packs bounce around a little, or the water moves around inside them.
A hip pack or grip water bottle is still the lightest and most comfortable way to go.
However, if you’re running for more than a few hours, especially on trails, a hydration pack or vest purpose-built for running Is much better than a backpack.
The vest style packs also let you put weight in the front, improving comfort and balance by giving less bounce.
Skiing and snowmobiling are ideal activities for hydration packs as you can keep your gloves on and don’t need to access your pack and get water out.
But many backcountry users will find that buying a larger, more versatile pack suited to their activity, and buying a reservoir and insulated hose separately, gives more benefit.
A hydration pack is ideal for one-day ascents such as El Capitan.
There’s just enough space for a bar, light layer or shell, and most of the water you’ll need for a 5-15 hour excursion.
Most climbers will prefer to add a bladder to their specialized climbing pack.
Almost every backpack made today is hydration compatible, with at minimum a hole for the hose and maybe its own back panel.
Most backpackers will want the extra capacity of a backpack and just add a bladder or carry water bottles.
We hope this article has helped you come to grips with what are probably the most important introduction to all forms of endurance sport in decades.
Hydration packs simply allow you to carry more water, more conveniently than bottles, and if you are even semi-serious about hiking, they should be your next purchase after a good set of footwear!
See you on the trails
- 1 Why Use a hydration pack over a water bottle?
- 2 Why use a water bottle over a hydration pack?
- 3 Comfort and Stability
- 4 Tube Compatibility
- 5 Pressurized or Not Pressurized?
- 6 Ease of Cleaning
- 7 Cleaning Hoses
- 8 Winter Use
- 9 Choosing a Hydration Pack
- 10 Running
- 11 Snow sports
- 12 Climbing
- 13 Backpacking
- 14 Summary