In Search for the Ultimate Outdoor Water Storage Solution
Carrying water is a terribly dreadful chore that we outdoorsy people would be better off without. This necessary-for-survival substance weighs 8.35 pounds per gallon, or 2.2 pounds per liter, which makes it one of the densest things hikers carry. Although carrying less water — which can be made easier by identifying water sources before you reach them— is the best way to reduce water weight, minimizing the weight and size, and maximizing the functionality, of a water storage vessel can save weight and energy. This article explores the advantages and disadvantages of various water storage solutions for backpacking and other outdoor activities.
Hard plastic and metal water bottles are excellent for day-to-day use in urban environments and for day trips outdoors. Their rigid structure allows them to stand upright, which can be very useful indoors. Some bottles are made of very durable stainless steel and can last a decade or more of hard use. Rigid bottles like plastic Nalgenes are also excellent for winter use because they can fit inside insulated cozies.
The primary drawback to rigid bottles is they don't pack well with other objects and they are heavy for the amount of water they carry. Let's consider several exmples: a standard 1-liter Nalgene weighs 6.2 ounces, a 40 fl. oz. (1.18 liter) Kleen Kanteen weighs 9.4 ounces, and the 1 liter MSR Alpine Bottle weighs 10.4 ounces. I believe these rigid bottles are too heavy and too bulky for most multi-day overnight trips; three empty one liter Nalgene bottles weigh more than a pound and consume more than three liters of your backpack when empty!!
Mouthpiece equipped hydration bladders like CamelBaks are excellent for fast paced day use activities like mountain biking and long-distance trail running. The primary argument for using one is that it's easier to drink while in motion, which is indeed true. However, in very few activities is it impossible to stop moving. Only during races, is slowing down a significant drawback. Rather, during most outdoor activities stopping briefly is likely of benefit: you can catch your breath, rest your body, and take a moment to observe the surrounding environment. I've found that taking a drink of water from a bottle or a non-mouthpiece reservoir takes as little as one minute. (The primary determining factor is backpack design; external pockets make it faster to drink.) Many backpacks with open side pockets allow you to reach a water bottle while walking. Therefore, the efficiency argument for a hose and mouthpiece equipped bladder are largely dependent on the speed at which you aim to travel and the design of your backpack.
Unfortunately, hydration bladders eventually leak through their various hose connections. Parts break or become lost and are expensive to replace. The thin plastic material used in bladders has very poor abrasion resistance; bladders are best kept inside a backpack. This leads us to their next drawback: when a bladder is inside a backpack adding more water to it is tricky at best.
In my experience, using hydration bladders can require you to also have a rigid bottle to dip into a creek and pour additional water into the reservoir inside your pack. In order to access the reservoir I often have to take lots of things out of my backpack then cautiously pour water into the opening. Many CamelBak type reservoirs allow you disconnect the reservoirs from the hose, thereby leaving the hose inside your pack, but there are several problems with this: (1) this connection is rarely reliable for more than six months of hard use. (2) I find that my backpack must be mostly empty in order to access the bottom connection. (3) Hydration hoses can be very challenging, if not impossible, to clean in the backcountry. For these reasons I believe hydration bladders are poorly suited for backpacking and the vast majority of outdoor activities.
Soft water bottles marry the low weight and pack ability of hydration bladders with the handheld convenience of a water bottle. The marvelous 1 liter Platypus PlusBottle weighs a mere 1.3 ounces and packs to the size of a clementine when empty!! The Evernew Water Bladder, available sizes up to two liters, is also good. Soft bottles are excellent for all types of weight and space conscious activities— GearLab testers love them. The primary drawback to soft bottles is their limited durability, or rather the fact that you use a small plastic bladder like you would a rigid bottle—tossing it around on the ground and jamming it onto backpacks and duffels is hard on flexible plastic. I've found that they usually break after three to six months of hard everyday use.
All of this negative ranting leads us to the ultimate multi-purpose water storage solution, the MSR Dromedary.
The polyurethane lined MSR Dromedary sack makes hauling water easier and less miserable than with any other bottle or bladder we've tested. MSR offers two types of droms: the Dromedary uses a 500-denier nylon that's nearly as durable as an expedition style duffel bag. The DromLite uses a lighter 200 denier fabric that's better for weight conscious applications like hiking and climbing. I've used both of these extensively over the past nine years and prefer the Dromedary in its 10 liter size for basecamping and car camping. I prefer the DromLite in the 4 liter size and use it as my go to water storage vessel for nearly all three-season outdoor trips from a day hike to multi-day climbs, and backpacking. Bring able to carry 4 liters of water in something that ultra packable, highly durable, and only weighs 5 oz. is revolutionary. There are drawbacks to Droms, of course: you can't drink out of them as easily as a rigid water bottle and they aren't suitable for winter use, but these limitations are trivial compared their benefits. For more information see the MSR DromLite review.