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How to Choose a Hydration Pack

The hydration pack showdown contenders.
By Chris McNamara ⋅ Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Wednesday November 19, 2014

Below we give buying advice on how to select the best hydration pack. We start by asking the most basic question: "Do you even need one or would you be better off with a water bottle and backpack?" After reading this article, be sure to check out our Hydration Pack Review where we put ten of the top packs in head-to-head tests and choose a winner. Also see our Hydration Bladder Review if you already have a pack.



Why Use a Hydration Pack Over a Water Bottle

  • easy to drink when moving Unless you are road cycling or hiking slowly, you generally have to stop or slow down to drink if using a water bottle. Hydration packs let you easily drink even when bombing down a trail on a mountain bike.
  • easy to stay hydrated Related to reason above, hydration packs encourage you to drink more and drink consistently. Just the fact that hydration packs generally come in 2 or 3-liter sizes encourages you to bring more water (most water bottles hold a quart of water or less and most hikers generally just bring one.

Why Use a Water Bottle Over a Hydration Pack

  • Weight Most packs we tested were quite heavy. The bladders/reservoirs themselves can weigh almost a pound for a 2-liter container. The packs are also fairly heavy for their small size.
  • Cost The packs we tested cost $50-150. This is a lot of money considering that a plastic water bottle can essentially be free and our top rated backpacks in our Daypack Review often cost less and were larger and more versatile than a hydration pack.
  • Difficulty of cleaning If you drink a lot of sports powders with your water, you will need to clean your hydration pack often. Even the easiest to clean reservoirs we tested are still much harder to clean than a water bottle.
  • Spillage and leakage Even the best performers in our tests are much more likely to spill while filling than a water bottle. Some of the least durable hydration bladders leaked either by accidental failure on our part to lock the bite valve or through failure of the hose and bladder
  • Rationing It is difficult to keep track of how much water you have in hydration bladder and it can be a pain to regularly dig into your pack to see.

>> Also see our Water Bottle Review

Comfort and Stability


One of the main reasons to buy a hydration pack is they are generally more streamlined than backpacks. Even the biggest hydration packs we tested still are relatively narrow and compressible. The smallest of the packs really hug the weight to your back and or lower back and waist.

If you are a runner, we recommend checking out our review of The Best Hydration Pack for Running. Our reviewers tested five of the best running-specific packs on the market. Like the CamelBak Marathoner Vest (featured in this review), the running packs are designed to stay in place better during the up-and-down motion of running. They also have many more easily accessible pockets and typically don't buckle at the waist.

Comparing a standard vertical hydration reservoir that goes against the upper back (blue and white) with a bladder that goes in a hip belt (green).
Comparing a standard vertical hydration reservoir that goes against the upper back (blue and white) with a bladder that goes in a hip belt (green).

For maximum stability, consider our Editors' Choice winning running pack, Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set. This design has water bottle holders on the front straps and an insert in the back for a bladder. This balanced design puts more of the pressure on the torso as opposed to just the back and shoulders.

Tube Compatibility


Luckily, CamelBak, Geigerrig and Platypus all use compatible quick-release tube attachments. If you want the Geigerrig pressurized bladder but prefer the CamelBak bite valve, you are in luck. This is also nice if you own multiple packs and one style of bite valve starts to leak.

All three bladders use compatible hose attachment points. The Geigerrig release button faces out which can lead to accidental release (and leaking) in the pack.
All three bladders use compatible hose attachment points. The Geigerrig release button faces out which can lead to accidental release (and leaking) in the pack.

To Pressurize or Not to Pressurize?


A few years back Geigerrig introduced a pressurized hydration system. The idea is you "squirt and don't suck" the water out because a second tube pressurizes a second compartment in the water reservoir. Is this a major innovation or a case of solving a problem that didn't exist? After all, how hard is it, really, to drink from a large straw? There are a lot of opinions and you can read many user reviews online about how once you go pressurized, you will never go back. We are still not totally won over by pressurized systems. Yes, they are cool. But they also create a heavier, more expensive and more complex system.

Ease of Cleaning


All hydration packs need to be cleaned eventually. If you are adding sugar/electrolyte powder to you water, you should clean your reservoir and hose every use or two. You can delay the frequency of cleaning by not using sugar drinks and leaving the bladder full of water or storing the bladder empty in the freezer (but it in a plastic bag first).

But eventually you will need to clean all hydration bladders and hoses.

Cleaning Reservoirs/Bladder
Bags that zip open on top are the easiest to clean. Geiggerig models are dishwasher safe and even zip top models that can't go in the dishwasher are still much easier to get a brush in and clean. Perhaps an even larger factor is that zip top pouches are easy to dry. Just flip them inside out (or not) and they will dry just about anywhere.

Next in ease of cleaning are single compartment bladders with large openings so you can easily get a brush inside. Most CamelBak and Osprey reservoirs are of this design. These are relatively easy to clean, but can be a pain in the ass to dry. You either need to buy the drying rack or improvise a coat hanger or kitchen utensil. The hardest bladders to clean are ones that you can't easily get a brush into and/or have multiple compartments like the CamelBak waist belt hydration bladders. These require more effort with a brush and/or usually involve many rounds of warm water flushing with a bacteria killing additive, then more flushing to clean out that additive.

Hydration bladder - reservoir comparison.
Hydration bladder - reservoir comparison.

Cleaning Hoses
All hoses are a pain to clean, especially if you use sugar drink mixes. If you want to be sure you hose is bacteria free, you will need to scrub it with a brush and soap water and then flush it out. CamelBak, Platypus, and Osprey all sell cleaning kits with a special long and skinny brush for the tube. Geigerrig does not. In this video, they seem to imply you never need to scrub brush out the drink tube. Maybe if you mainly just use treated water. But if you use any type of sugary drink, our experience is that all tubing eventually needs some scrubbing. The exception might be if you religiously follow the method in the Geigerrig video (using soapy water flush after each use of drink mixes). But don't get us wrong, in our test, the Geigerrig system is clearly the easiest to clean.

Winter Use


All hoses will freeze in freezing temperatures if you don't insulate them. The the manufacturers sell neoprene sleeves to go over the hoses and some insulated caps for the bite valves. Most packs we tested will also insulate the water enough, especially since the reservoir is usually located between the back and the rest of the (insulating) pack material.

The styles of hydration packs from left to right: Geigerrig (large backpack)  Camelback Marathoner Vest (running vest) and Camerlak MULE (standard mid-sixed hydration pack).
The styles of hydration packs from left to right: Geigerrig (large backpack), Camelback Marathoner Vest (running vest) and Camerlak MULE (standard mid-sixed hydration pack).

The styles of hydration packs from left to right: Geigerrig (large backpack)  Camelback Marathoner Vest (running vest) and Camerlak MULE (standard mid-sixed hydration pack).
The styles of hydration packs from left to right: Geigerrig (large backpack), Camelback Marathoner Vest (running vest) and Camerlak MULE (standard mid-sixed hydration pack).

Conclusion


So do you need a hydration pack? If so, what should you buy? It all comes down to activity and philosophy:

Hiking
Day hikes are one of the best applications for hydration packs. Almost all the packs we tested have enough storage for bars, personal items, and a rain jacket. While not as critical to stay hydrated on a day hike as a backpacking trip where you are miles from help, we do find we often forget to hydrate more on day hikes where the sense of closeness to safety can lead to forgetting to drink or just not bringing enough water. Just about every hydration pack works for a day hike. We recommend going with the lightest one that holds the amount of gear you typically travel with.

Road Biking
Most road bikers use bottles as it is generally agreed that keeping weight on the bike is better than wearing it. We just use bottles. However, one option to consider is the CamelBak RaceBak, which is very light, sleek, and makes it much easier to drink, especially on downhills and steep climbs.

Mountain Biking
Hydration packs are ideal for mountain bikers because they allow you to drink when going up and down rugged terrain. In addition, they also give you some spine protection if you endo (fly over you handle bars and land on your back). But even mountain bikers are split on hydration packs. Racers and those obsessed with speed are more likely to use water bottles and stuff bars and a layer in a jersey.

Running
Like road cyclist, many runners won't want to wear anything on their back. Even the most stable hydration packs bounce around a little (or at least the water does). A water bottle grip or a hip pack is still the most lightweight and streamlined way to go. That said, if you run for more than a few hours, especially on trails, a hydration pack or vest designed for running is a lot more ideal than a backpack. The vest style hydration packs also let you put more weight in the front, which gives even more comfort and less bounce.

Snow sports
Back country skiing, resort skiing and snowmobiling are ideal activities for hydration packs because you don't need to take off your gloves in order to access you pack and pull out water. But many back country users may find they get the most benefit by just buying a reservoir, a hose insulator, and using a larger or more versatile pack that is better designed for their activity.

Climbing
The author has always relied on hydration packs on one-day ascents of El Capitan. They have just enough space for a bar, light layer or shell, and most of the water you need for a 5-15 hour excursion. But for most one-day climbs, most climbers will want to incorporate a bladder into their specialized climbing pack.

Backpacking
Almost every backpack made today is hydration compatible. At a minimum it has a hole for the hose and may have its own back panel. Most backpackers will want to just put a bladder in their backpack or use water bottles.

Chris McNamara at Big Sur  2008
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Chris is the founder of OutdoorGearLab and serves as Editor-in-Chief. Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara's life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris' sanity. He's climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, "Why?" Outside Magazine has called Chris one of "the world's finest aid climbers." He's the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 14,000 dangerous anchor bolts. Chris is also the founder and lead author of the rock climbing guidebooks publisher, SuperTopo. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also has two Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals here and here.

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