The Best Hydration Bladder Review
We choose six of the industry's top hydration reservoirs and put them to the test. We spent three months backpacking, mountain climbing, SUPing, dog-walking, hiking and trail running to figure out the best bladder for each application. We took them to the tops of high mountains and through the lows of the earth. We stuffed them into running packs, day hiking packs, and backpacking backpacks to determine if they were compatible. We even put them in the freezer to see how the material would react to extreme cold! In the end we rated each on five core metrics: ease of use, ease of care, ease of filling, quality, and weight. Our award winners and rankings highlight the best hydration bladders on the market. Read on to see how all competitors fared in our comparisons.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
The Hydrapak Shape-Shift stands out for its simplicity and light weight. Many of our testers found themselves reaching for this bladder when heading out on a bike or trail running mission. The bite valve is smaller than most and provides a sufficient flow of water with no leakage. We loved how the bladder is divided via a welded zipper inside that we can open and shut. It easily flips inside-out for easy cleaning and is dishwasher safe. The hoses are interchangeable with all models tested (except the MSR Dromlite) giving you choices in the length of tube and type of bite valve. If you're looking for something to accompany you on lightweight missions, this should be your top choice!
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Analysis and Test Results
A hydration bladder is small reservoir designed to hold your water while hiking or pursuing any outdoor adventure. They are great alternative to water bottles, as they are typically lighter and easier to drink from. Many of our testers also mentioned that because the tube was easily accessible, they stayed better hydrated. No need to put your pack down to pull out your water bottle - you can just sip on the go.
Traditionally bladders were sold specific to a hydration pack, but now you have the power to choose what bladder works best for you. Most backpacking backpacks, day hiking backs, and running packs are engineered with a sleeve that allows a reservoir to sit inside. Many also have a velcro strip or loop that fits through the top to keep it upright in a pack. Manufacturers are also making similar designs, which makes the hoses and mouthpieces interchangeable; a bonus if you love a reservoir, but hate the mouth piece.
Bladders come in all shapes and sizes. Some are easy to clean, while others prove to be a little more difficult. Hoses are detachable and mouthpieces actual come apart for easy cleaning and maintenance. Most are compatible with running, backpacking, and hiking packs, offering a slim and lightweight composition. Some sport a fabric exterior, while others are engineered with a light polyurethane textile.
In this review we focus on six of the top competitors on the market. In this article, you'll find descriptions of our evaluation metrics and information about our top performers. You'll learn tips for care and outfitting your bladder for extreme weather. In the individual reviews, we detail each product's features, explain our scoring in each metric, and compare and contrast each product. If you want to know the details of how the hose connects to its reservoir, or how to properly care for a specific bladder, this is the place to look.
Types of Hydration Bladders
Here at OutdoorGearLab, we divided the types of bladders into two categories; active use and water reservoirs. Active use bladders are typically lightweight and come with a tube and mouthpiece. They are intended to be carried on the inside of the pack as they are not as durable to punctures and wear and tear. Water reservoirs are meant to simply carry water and are far more durable, as you can strap them to the outside of a backpacking pack with ease. All the bladders tested fell under the active category except the MSR Dromlite Bags. This bladder instead has a screw top without a drinking tube or valve. The MSR Hydration Kit is sold separately but allows you to turn your water reservoir into a full functional active bladder.
Tips for Use
Even though bladders seem pretty easy to use, we have a few tips from our testers that might will help optimize the use you get out of a bladder. In this section we cover a few items. This includes tube clips, hot and cold drinks in your bladder, burping your bladder (like a baby), and proper maintenance. In the maintenance section, we will discuss how to ensure your bladder stays clean so you can stay healthy! Enjoy!
One of the most annoying parts of a hydration bladder can be the tube. This hangs over the shoulder and without a means to secure it means it will bounce around. Tube clips are used to remedy this problem. They come in two forms; the pinch and magnetic clip. The pinch clip simply slides over the tube, and clips onto a shoulder or chest strap. The magnetic clip is similar except you choose a place to put the first magnet. We liked to use the chest strap. The other magnet sits on the other on the tube; the magnets are strong and hold the tube in place. Of the two, we liked the magnetic clip a little more as it was more convenient. However, one issue we encountered was it would sometimes fall off because the orientation of the magnetic piece wasn't perfect. That said, it was easy to rotate the magnet on the tube to ensure it fit. The best part of both is they are compatible with all hydration systems. In the past, Osprey included a magnetic on the bite valve. We like this new design as it is more convenient and versatile.
Hot and Cold Drinks
Most bladders are constructed with a plastic-based material that can be temperature sensitive. In general, you shouldn't put hot liquids in your bladder unless the manufacturer says it's okay. The HydraPak brand bladders (Osprey, HydraPak, and Geigrigg) claim to be safe while frozen and up to temperatures of 140*F (warm not hot). All other bladders don't make any claims about how they perform in hot or cold temperatures.
Unlike the rest, the MSR Dromlite is able to withstand extreme temperatures - hot or cold. We filled it with tea and froze it solid, which we loved on cold nights when we needed a hot water bottle to keep us warm in our sleeping bag. This is attributed to the super durable nylon fabric with a higher temperature threshold. As a result, it's one of the most versatile hydration systems. In all, avoid extreme temperatures in any plastic-based hydration system.
Burp Your Bladder
Are you tired of water sloshing on your back while you explore the great outdoors? Most newbies to the hydration bladder don't know this trick that can be incredibly helpful on the trail. What is burping your bladder you ask? It's simply removing the excessive amounts of air to a) ensure it fits well in a pack and b) to prevent sloshing. Follow the steps to burp!
Step 1: Fill your bladder with water.
Step 2: Seal your bladder with its lid closure.
Step 3: Turn it upside down so the excessive air is at the bottom of the bag (or where the tube connects to the reservoir).
Step 4: Suck all the excess air through the tube until water starts to flow through the tube.
Voila! You've burped your bladder.
Tips for Care
Cleaning and caring for your bladder is extremely important to ensure you don't encounter bacteria growth or mineral build up over time. As discussed in our buying advice article, some reservoirs are machine washable while others are not. If you don't have access to a washing machine, diligent manual cleaning is of utmost importance. In this section, we provide you with tips on cleaning your bladder and O-ring maintenance. Every hydration pack requires care of three parts; the main reservoir, the hose, and mouthpiece. Commonly, users will take time to clean and air the reservoir, but forget about the hose and mouthpiece. These are two major culprits of nasty bacteria growth, so don't get lazy. If you start to smell something moldy, it's time for maintenance.
There are many videos online showing how to clean and maintain the reservoir. It should be cleaned with warm water and mild soap. If a bladder is dishwasher safe, make sure to clean it inside out on the top shelf (to prevent melting) at low temperatures.
Turn it inside out: If your bladder can be flipped inside out, do this and gently scrub (using a non-abrasive pad) with warm water and mild soap.
Use a brush: Use a simple cleaning brush to scrub the inside of the bladder (especially if it can't be turned inside out). This works great for bladders that have a mouth opening only large enough for a brush.
Use a cleaning tablet: There are many hydration pack cleaning tablets that you can use. Simply fill the bladder with warm water, drop the tablet in, and let it sit. Shake it a few times, discard, and rinse. Some tablets require a little more time than others, so make sure to read the directions carefully. If you don't want to buy a cleaning tablet, use Polident (the same stuff used to clean dentures) found at your local drug store. You can also buy tablets called Hydrapak Bottle Bright; these tablets are biodegradable and chlorine free.
Cleaning on the trail: Use warm water and a mild (biodegradable) soap. Fill the reservoir, shake, leave it in the sun (this kills all bacteria with UV light), rinse, and dry. If you have baking soda on hand, use this with water for a great clean.
Make sure you allow the bladder to dry completely. You can buy a drying hanger, or construct your own. We really liked to use kitchen tongs to keep the bladder from sticking to itself. This ensures complete drying and no bacteria growth.
The simplest way to maintain the hose is to ensure no water stays in the hose after use. Simply blow the water back through and dry. However, we doubt this is adequate enough to get all the bacteria out when when using sugary drinks. That said, you can buy hose cleaning kits that features a plethora of brushes. Most brands feature cleaning kits that are compatible across the board. Just take care to ensure the brushes are long enough to reach through at least 60% of the tube. You will have to clean it from both ends to get the entire length. The CamelBak Antidote Cleaning Kit is only $20 and seems to be compatible with most designs, though we haven't formally tested it.
Of all parts, the mouthpiece tends to be most forgotten about in the cleaning process. Each mouthpiece is different, but there are many online videos showing how to take your mouth piece apart. In doing so, take off the tubing (if possible) and deconstruct the mouthpiece. Use a small cleaning brush to remove any nasty residue that you might find in cracks and crevices. Dry while deconstructed, then put it back together. If you are unsure how to deconstruct the mouthpiece, check the company website and look under the 'cleaning and care' section.
All the bladders tested (except the MSR) has an O-ring in the quick release port that ensures there is no leakage and helps to maintain a tight seal. It's important to 'lube' the O-ring to make certain that the quick release system continues to perform. In the past, our main tester actually had a quick release port fail because she failed to keep it lubed. Use a food-grade silicone lubricant on the end of the hose to be sure this stays primed. We recommend doing this for all products - not just the HydraPak brand.
Criteria for Evaluation
After polling numerous bikers, hikers, mountaineers, runners, and outdoor enthusiasts, we learned that there are a few key points to consider when buying a hydration bladder. These points of consideration include ease of use, ease of care, ease of filling, bladder quality, and weight. Using this criteria, we were able to objectively determine which bladder performed best and which belonged on the shelf.
Ease of Use
If you can't drink from a bladder, it's pretty much a useless product. When considering ease of use, we focused on three main things. This includes: type and size of the bite valve, valve locking mechanism, and versatility of the bladder. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that hydration bladders aren't just good for drinking water - they have many other fun and interesting applications as well!
All the bladders tested are relatively easy to drink from but when you put them side by side, there is a noticeable difference. The Geigerrig Hydration Engine is the only pressurized system we tested. As soon as we bite down on the valve, there was a sufficient flow of water - no sucking required. With this pressurized system we also found many unique and creative uses. The more we used the Geigerrig Hydration Engine, the more innovative applications we found. We gave water to our dog. We cleaned our dog after it laid in the mud, and before it got into the car. Our favorite use of all was as a sun shower! We have long been looking for a good sun shower option after surfing and SUPing.
But the problem is that most solar showers depend on hanging the water up high from tree branch so that you can get enough water pressure. Most parking lots are tree free where we surf, making the pressurized water bladder a perfect solution. We were able to spray ourselves down for a fine rinse before heading home after a day in the sun. As a result of its versatile and easy use, the Hydration Engine bladder scored a perfect ten in this category.
Other bladders tested didn't have pressurized systems but provided great water flow. The level of water flow depended on the size of the bite valve and its suckability. When we kept the Geigerrig de-pressurized, this Editors' Choice winner performed similar to the Osprey Hydraulics LT and Hydrapak Shape-Shift Hydration Bladder. The bite valves are a little smaller than the CamelBak Antidote Reservoir and MSR Dromlite hydration system but it provided ample water flow with minimal suck. The Platypus Big Zip LP had a larger bite valve that was noticeable harder to drink water from. Luckily we were able to change it out (which we did). Overall, we preferred medium sized valves as they provided ample water flow with little effort. This was especially helpful when running or biking - or when we were out of breath.
For locking mechanisms, there are two main designs. The Platypus, MSR Dromlite, and Camelback features a simple (and easy to use) switch, while the other bladders feature a twist lock. The MSR Dromlite hydration hose attachment was the easiest to use (with the biggest switch), followed by the Camelbak and the Platypus. Since all other bladders were manufactured by Hydrapak, the twist locks were exactly the same. We found this was harder to use, as there was much resistance when rotating the valve. We also noticed that it got stuck easily if it wasn't cleaned consistently and sugary liquids had gone through the line. We normally kept the twist locks in 'open position' because of this and we were happy to find that there was no leakage in this set-up. As a result, bladders with a switch scored higher than those with a twist lock.
Use any zip or flip top hydration bladder with large openings to double as an ice pack. Or blow up your bladder to use as a temporary splint or camp pillow!
Ease of Care
Caring for a reservoir is especially important as it can become a breeding ground for bacteria, which can lead to sickness. When we considered ease of care, there were a few things we thought were most important. The first was if the bladder could easily be flipped inside out. Some bladders can't flip inside out and as a result, parts of it can't be completely cleaned. Second was whether or not it is dishwasher safe. Hydrapak brands (adopted by many top manufacturers) can all be placed in the top rack of a dishwasher (if advised) on low heat and cleaning is thorough. In the process, all bacteria is killed, making the bladder sterile. In the case you don't have access to a dishwasher, we looked to see if a basic scrubbing brush would fit inside and scrub the bladder completely. Those with a larger mouth opening typically did better than those with a smaller opening. Finally we looked at how easy the tube and mouthpiece was to disassemble. Products that didn't allow full disassembly didn't do as well as those that did, as bacteria could build up in little nooks and crannies. With these metrics we were able to determine which products were the easiest and hardest to clean.
Of all the products tested, the flip top variety are the easiest to clean while the screw top proved to be the hardest. Flip top options like the Geigerrig, Hydrapak Flex-Form, and the Osprey Hydraulics LT can be turned inside out and thrown into the dishwasher, while other brands have to be cleaned manually. A tablet like Hydrapak Bottle Bright is a non-toxic formula that removes stains and odors.
We found that flip top bladders were the easiest to access via a scrub brush because of their wide mouth openings. Even though the flip tops prevailed over the others, each are a little different. The Hydrapak and Geigerrig scored top marks because both the tube, reservoir and mouthpiece are easy to take apart, clean, and put back together. The Geigerrig Hydration Engine also claims that with its high pressure system, it is always flushing bacteria - arguable keeping it cleaner longer. We can't verify that, but we had no problems with it during our testing period. The Osprey on the other hand, scored lower because the hose connection was not right at the base of the pack and instead located a little further up the tube. As a result it couldn't be flipped inside out as easily, and the lower portion of the tube was much harder to clean. Sold separately is the Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir Cleaning Kit to help with the cleaning process.
Following the flip top bladders was the large screw top and zip top bladders. The CamelBak Antidote has a large opening, making it easy to get a brush inside. We also liked how it had additional 'drying arms' that ensured the bladder didn't collapse on itself. This resulted in decent ventilation without the use of the 'drying hanger'. The Platypus was similar to the flip top types, except the opening was much smaller and the bladder couldn't be flipped inside out. As a result, it was a little more difficult to clean.
Lastly, the MSR Dromlite was the hardest to clean. Given that this is actually sold as a water reservoir, it truly does its job storing water. That said, the opening was very small and there is no way you could fit your hand inside. Instead, a smaller brush was used to clean it, but sometimes we couldn't reach places located around the reservoir's mouth. It was also unable to flip inside out. Because of this lack of access, we recommend that no sugary drinks are placed in this reservoir unless you are prepared to clean it with quick dissolve tablets.
For all bladders tested (except the MSR Dromlite), the hoses have a simple quick-connect to detach the hose from the reservoir. This makes cleaning simple with kits like the CamelBak Cleaning Brush Kit (sold separately). It allows you to snake the little hose brush in for cleaning (you have to do this from both ends since the hose brush is only long enough to cover about 60 percent of the hose from one end).
We don't recommend adding sports drinks like Cytomax or Nuun Active Hydration to any of these bladders. Adding those sugary sports drinks is the equivalent of throwing a bacteria fiesta. Even the easiest to clean reservoirs are actually pretty time-consuming to really remove all sugar residue from. We recommend only putting water in your bladder. If you use sports drinks, consider bringing a separate Platypus SoftBottle in the 0.5 liter size with a concentrated mixture of your favorite sugary drink powder.
Ease of Filling
How easy is your bladder to fill? Bladders that scored high in this metric hosted a handle and non-floppy construct with the affinity to turn the bladder either vertically or horizontally while filling. We also liked bladders with a longer 'tongue-like' flip top, allowing easy fill up in small trickling streams. For each, we compared filling in sinks, streams, lakes, and rivers. We went out to the backwoods where water was sparse and where it was plentiful. In the end, we were able to determine which was the easiest to fill, and which wasn't.
All the bladders tested scored fairly well in this metric. We could easily pinch or hold each contender under a deep sink to get water inside. What sets each apart is the challenge of filling in a shallow sink or low-flowing stream. The bladders with plastic handles near the openings were generally the easiest to fill. We found the zip tops were harder to get completely full in shallow sinks and cramped drinking fountains. We could generally only get them about 80% full, and if you try to fill them as much as possible, there was often a little spilling. That said, in tiny dribbling streams, flip top styles were the easiest to fill as you can get the openings flat against the stream-bed. The Osprey Hydraulics LT did an especially good job with this, as the flip top was much longer than any other bladder tested, almost creating a spout to collect or pour water from. It also featured a helpful handle to aid in the process.
There was not a giant spread in the competition here but if we had to choose one winner, it would be the CamelBak Antidote Reservoir. The cap easily loosens and tightens and folds out of the way. It has a bomber handle that makes it easy to fill this in shallow sinks and water fountains. Second is the MSR Dromlite. Similar to the CamelBak, it also has a screw top with a pronounced handle. The bag shifts horizontally for easy filling in most conditions.
Through our testing time frame of three months, we tried to be rough and tough with each bladder. We put them in the freezer, poured in warm drinks, laid them out in the sun, tugged at their seams, threw them around, put them in backpacks, let the dog play with them, and even tried to crush them under pressure. In the end, we determined the bladder's level of quality based on our tests, the thickness of the bladder material, hose connections, and whether or not we observed leakage through our testing period. We also consulted the internet to see if there were any leering issues that needed to be proven correct or incorrect. When putting each bladder side by side we were able to determine small differences in quality - but not huge ones.
In our tests, all hydration packs stood up and didn't show leakage or durability issues. Each, in fact, earned a pretty high score in this category, though there were some differences between the types of textiles used to construct the bladders. For example, tough fabrics and seamless construction was considered higher quality than welded seams that could easily be pulled apart. Those using thicker materials were also acknowledged, as they are less prone to puncture.
If we had to choose the toughest of the lot, it would definitely be the MSR Dromlite. This Top Pick for Backpacking earned a perfect ten because it continued to perform after we literally threw it around and treated it like garbage. The Cordura fabric is uber tough and fairly light. It didn't abrade or show signs of wear and tear after three months of formal testing and years of personal use. As a result, we highly recommended it for backpacking trips and other adventures where you might need a rugged reservoir. It's also lighter than the traditional MSR Dromedary Bags. We really loved that it had a high temperature threshold and were happy to fill it with hot coffee and ice cold water.
Next was the Geigerrig and CamelBak for different reasons. The Geigerrig feels like one of the most hardily constructed bladders and they have a host of semi-hilarious videos on their website where they torture-test them. The added nylon sleeve helps to prevent further abrasion when placed in a backpack full of stuff. However, the material is a little thinner than the CamelBak. The Camelbak had decent quality, and even though it featured welded seams, we were unable to pull them apart.
The HydraPak and Osprey Reservoir both did a fine job, but the thinner material made us think twice when we went to throw it around. The Platypus scored the lowest simply because the bladder itself reminds us of a large ziplock bag. The welded seams seemed flimsy and when taking the time to see if we could pull it apart, we noticed the seams detaching quite easily. As a result, we concluded the quality wasn't as high as the other contenders. We did however love the uber thick plastic that could easily stand up to punctures.
When heading out on the trail, keeping a light load is important. Since water weighs approximately two lbs per liter, additional weight on the bladder itself can really add up. The products that scored the highest in this metric were simple and lightweight without too many bells and whistles. We tested all reservoirs by weighing them on the same scale with the tubing and mouthpiece attached. The lightest pack scored the highest.
The packs varied in weight, but within a small range of 2-3 ounces. The 3L HydraPak Shape Shift was our lightest contender (4.85 oz), winning our Top Pick for Lightweight Adventures. It features a simple, no frills design that was a popular pick among both our trail running and biking friends. The 2L MSR Dromlite was similar in weight (4.75 oz) when we didn't factor in the additional MSR hydration Kit (sold separately); but, when the tubing was factored in, it was the heaviest of the hydration systems tested (6.90 oz) for just a 2L reservoir. However, we still gave this a Top Pick for Backpacking as the 3 in 1 mouthpiece is sufficient when you're looking to get a hefty drink on the trail. Many of our testers didn't even want the tube and mouthpiece system.
The Geigerrig bladder was next, weighing in at only 5.85 oz. Since this bladder has additional nylon material, and an extra valve (for the pump), it wasn't as light as the HydraPak.The CamelBak weighed the same as the Osprey bladder, but the Osprey was only a 2.5L reservoir. As a result it scored a little lower. In the past, the Osprey used a reinforced plastic backing that made it 11.2 oz! So this is a fantastic improvement over past models. Last but not least is the Platypus Big Zip LP. The plastic used on this bladder is a little more heavier than others and weighs just a hair more (6.25 oz). That said, we didn't notice the difference in the field and we think it's quite light for most outdoor endeavors.
Geigerrig Hydration Engine stood out as the most versatile and well constructed bladder. It's a perfect option for those looking for a hydration bladder that can perform its basic function and a little bit more. The CamelBak Antidote was our Best Buy award, scoring second highest for a low price of just $35, while the HydraPak Shape Shift stood out as our lightest and most 'race-ready' option. Finally, the MSR Dromlite stood out for its burly and no frills construct. Even though the profile isn't as thin as others, it is a perfect compadre for any backcountry mission. Check out our Buying Advice article for additional information on what to keep in mind before making your purchase. Keep it light and stay hydrated out there!
— Amber King
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