The Best Water Storage Solution for Backpacking

Victorious Dromedary chugging atop the final peak (Mt. Huxley  13 086 ft) of the Evolution Traverse  High Sierra. The first third of the traverse is the background ridgeline in the photo.
Article By:
and Max Neale

Last Updated:
Sunday

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.

Water Bottles
Nalgene 32 oz water bottle
Nalgene 32 oz water bottle
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!!

Hydration Bladders
CamelBak Antidote Reservoir
CamelBak Antidote Reservoir
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 Bottles
Soft bottles like the 1L Platypus PlusBottle (left) and Evernew Water Bladder (right) work well for backpacking. Of these two  the 2L Evernew bladder is less durable but lighter- it's our top choice for ultralight backpacking where weight and speed is the
Soft bottles like the 1L Platypus PlusBottle (left) and Evernew Water Bladder (right) work well for backpacking. Of these two, the 2L Evernew bladder is less durable but lighter- it's our top choice for ultralight backpacking where weight and speed is the
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.

MSR Dromedary
MSR DromLite is available in six  four  and two liter versions.
MSR DromLite is available in six, four, and two liter versions.
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.

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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