Hydration Pack Buying Guide

Whether you are a runner, hiker, biker, or any combination of the three, at some point or another you will probably think about getting a hydration pack.  They are more accessible, more convenient, and generally more comfortable than hauling around a water bottle (or two) for your many adventures.  Below is a guide to discovering what individual characteristics will make or break a hydration pack, and what to consider before buying.

Hydration Pack Size

The size of a hydration pack is dependent on the activity in which it will be used.  Depending on the sport and the length of the journey, both the bag and the bladder may differ.

Hiking, for instance, might require a moderate to larger hydration bladder with a larger pack for essential gear (compass, map, extra food, clothing, etc.) These reservoirs typically run up to 3L in volume, but can be filled lower than capacity for shorter days if weight will be an issue.  Finding a pack that comfortably sits a 3L bladder plus extras is essential for most day hikers.  For backpacking, most packs will have built-in pockets that hold up to 3L.

Bikers, on the other hand, may not need much water as they are riding.  Depending on the type of biking, many bikes will also have water bottle holders underneath the seat, so cyclists can wear a smaller, often more comfortable, hydration bladder on their backs while still carrying enough water to replenish themselves.  Biking packs themselves may not need to be as large, as cyclists are typically not worried about extraneous gear involving navigation, photography, or extra socks.

Finally, runners, depending again on their distance and dedication, will most likely use the smallest hydration packs as possible.  Road runners, long distance runners, and trail runners alike carry minimal gear and water for the lightest load achievable.  Extra items may also shift and become uncomfortable when running, as the body tends to move more than when cycling or even hiking.

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Hydration Pack Weight

As hinted before, weight plays a huge factor in determining which hydration pack will suit someone the best.  Similar to size, runners will typically have the lightest weight packs, followed by cyclists and hikers.  However, some bladders and bags are designed to be lighter than others in any sport.

The lightest weight packs have very little in the way of extras. They are typically just a bag that will hold water and little else—excellent for runners, short-distance cyclists, walkers, families at the zoo.  Almost any activity that requires little else in terms of storage can warrant a lightweight pack that can amass as little as 10 ounces. [easyazon_link keywords=”Lightweight hydration packs” locale=”US” tag=”allaroundcamping-20″]Lightweight packs[/easyazon_link] taunt features such as mesh straps and minimal additional room to cut weight.

Day-hiker or even [easyazon_link keywords=”cyclist hydration packs” locale=”US” tag=”allaroundcamping-20″]cyclist hydration packs[/easyazon_link] can weigh between 1-3 lbs (dry weight), depending on the style.  With more goodies and water added, these packs can weigh significantly more. Keep in mind also that the bladders in these bags are typically larger (3L compared to 1-2L), and will add more weight also.

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Hydration Pack Comfort

Hydration Pack Buying Guide
Comfort is probably the most important constituent in a hydration bladder. Even the smallest and lightest of hydration bladders are going to cause issues if they are too tight, dig into the skin, or are otherwise unsupportive.

Many times, lighter weight bags must cut seemingly obvious comfort features in order to provide a lighter product.  Designs can lack the presence of a padded hip belt and shoulder/back padding, which keep the pack closer to the body and prevent movement from side to side.  However, often the pack is molded and does include a sternum strap (between the two shoulder straps) which will keep the hydration pack from bouncing.  A thin hip belt can be present, which will also hold the bag closer to the body; while it may lack extra padding, the lack of weight from the bag keeps the effects from reducing the padding minimal.

Heavier hydration packs tend to require additional padding and framework to provide support for hauling more gear.  As with larger backpacking packs, weight is distributed onto the hips to reduce stress on the back and shoulders. Wider hip belts and shoulder straps can dispense weight over a greater surface area, thereby reducing pressure overall.

As with everything, there are hydration packs in between the extremes.  Some may have wide shoulder straps but no back padding, others may be molded perfectly to fit an individual but lack a hip belt.  The easiest way to determine if a pack is going to be comfortable is to try it on in clothing you will most likely be wearing during the activity, and do a mock test to represent the movement of the sport.

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Hydration Pack Stability

Similar to the varying levels of comfort within a hydration bag, it may also have differing levels of stability dependent on the sport.  Typically, packs for running must be more stable to avoid up and down or side to side motions for more efficiency.  Hiking packs, especially when filled with heavier equipment must also try to direct most of the weight to the hips and legs instead of on the shoulders (this will reduce overall fatigue and strain on the back and shoulders when hiking). Biking, especially on rough terrain with many turns, will also require a pack that will keep close to the body and avoid extraneous movement.

Stability is altered through strap and frame systems.  Typically, there will be shoulder, hip and chest straps in any packing system for outdoor use.  These may differ overall, and generally improved padding and stability will typically equal extra weight as well—something to look at depending on the activity it will be used for.  The following features will also make a bag more stable:

  • wide hip belts or padded hip belts
  • multiple chest straps
  • a pack frame
  • molded back support

As noted above, these features also tend to make the pack heavier and add to the cost of the pack itself.

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Hydration Pack Access

Heavier day-pack style hydration packs typically have more pockets for extras and are made with heavier duty straps and rubber.  They may also have ergonomic back pads and hip belts to make longer distances more comfortable, whether that is as a biker or a hiker.  Unlike lighter weight hydration packs, they may also come with additional side pockets for more water, or hip belt pockets for easier access to nutrition bars, a compass, or a cell phone.

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Hydration Pack Hose Attachment

Hydration Pack Buying Guide
There are also multiple options for keeping the hose of the bladder accessible but out of the way.  Some bags keep hose valves secured on the chest strap with a magnet, which is easy to remove but may be bothersome to reconnect.  Straps or elastic, on the other hand, will typically keep the hose attached to the shoulder straps with a few free inches hanging.  The user must reach over to pull the hose up, but once released, the hose will return to its original place.  Both are effective ways to keep the hose close by, but some individuals may have an easier time with one or the other.

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Hydration Pack Bladder

After finding the perfect bag itself, it may be worth it to [easyazon_link keywords=”hydration pack bladder” locale=”US” tag=”allaroundcamping-20″]consider upgrading the bladder inside[/easyazon_link].  Some standard bags lack quality materials and may be thinner and more prone to punctures or leaks.  For others, the hose from the bladder might be a source of frustration.  Difficulties cleaning a bag will encourage mold and bacteria to form inside, and it might be paramount for some to find a hydration bladder that is easy to clean.

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Hydration Pack Opening

The opening for filling a hydration bladder can differ in size and accessibility.  Typically, there are three types of openings that can be utilized in a hydration bladder, which may allow for an easier time both filling and cleaning.

  • Fold Top 

    A fold top can be closed by flipping over the top portion of the bladder and securing it with a slide closure. This is an excellent choice for those who might be getting water from streams and filtering with iodine tablets, a steri-pen or UV Light.  It also makes cleaning easy, as this bladder type can easily be flipped inside out to clean and dry.

  • Zip Top

    These bladder styles are less common but similar to the fold top option in that they have a large opening and are easy to fill.  However, they are more difficult to clean as they cannot be turned inside out, and are less reliable when it comes to sealing and preventing leaks.

  • Screw Top 

    Screw top bags are probably the most common, especially for bladders that come standard with a pack. These are more difficult to clean and dry as they also cannot be folded inside out.  They are slightly more difficult to fill, depending on the width of the mouth, which can vary.  Some mouth openings for screw top bags are larger than others, and individuals can still manage to stick a hand in for cleaning, though this is still a more difficult method than a fold top bladder.

Screw tops might also pose some difficulty for filling, as the opening is typically located on the side of the bag. For this reason, it is challenging to fill completely without laying it on its side, but can be filled more easily at a water fountain (being held at an angle) than a bladder with an opening on the top.

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Hydration Pack Valve Type

Hydration Pack Buying GuideValves are located at the end of the hose and are the openings from which the water will flow.  The two most popular types of valves are sip tubes and bite valves, and pose their own flaws within the system.

  • Sip Tubes 

    Sip tubes present water exactly how it is described: by sipping. They will generally last longer than bite valves if they are taken care of, but are difficult to drink from when doing strenuous activity. 

  • Bite Valve

    Can be prone to leaks or holes and wear out faster due to the mechanism (biting). Many that come with a locking mechanism will typically last longer as the water can be cut off prior to coming to the leaky portion.  However, this adds another step and more time to getting water when it is needed.

There are also pressurized hydration packs, which add pressure to the bag for improved water flow (think of getting water from a faucet rather than a straw).  The pressurized hydration packs are typically heavier and take up more space in a pack.

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Hydration Pack Summary

Hydration packs and their accompanying bladders might differ completely from one sport to the other.  Finding the best sport-specific pack will be made much easier when the buyer understands what they should be looking for, whether it will be lightweight, supportive, comfortable, and small, or any combination of the four.  It is an excellent idea to try the bag on in person and mimic the activity for which it will be used.  It is also important to remember that hydration bladders or even specific hose components can be switched out to be further personalized.  With all of the options out there for both bags and bladders, finding the right bag is certainly a task that can be accomplished.

  1. Colm November 12, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Great article … some excellent advice here … I never hit the trail without my hydration pack, they’re a great piece of kit!

    • All Around Camping November 26, 2016 at 9:56 am

      Thanks Colm! You’re right, I never go camping without mine.