What Size Pack Do I Need?
A consideration when making this choice is in deciding what types of activities are you going participate in the most. If you see yourself mostly sticking to road cycling an hour or two, the smaller and simpler, the better. Pack's like the CamelBak Classic or our Top Pick for a Lightweight Pack CamelBak Rogue should serve your needs with their focus on carrying just the essentials like a spare tube, tire levers, and CO2 cartridges.
For those of you who are more likely to spend several hours on the trails, especially in mountainous areas, going with a larger pack with more storage will be the ticket. For activities like mountain biking and mountain trail running, more gear is needed due to the nature of your surroundings. These areas typically mean you'll be carrying not just water, and more of it, but also things like additional food, extra layers, and perhaps even light weight shelter like an emergency bivy sack. Packs with several liters of storage like our Editors' Choice Platypus Duthie A.M. 10, the Deuter Compact EXP 12, or the CamelBak M.U.L.E. will suit your needs for space and support.
Though hydration specific packs are used commonly in some sports from climbing to mountain biking, certain designs are best suited for certain sports, though many of them overlap. Many of the full-sized packs are multi-purpose and will be suitable for many sports. However, if you are looking specifically for a running pack or a mountain biking pack, you should look for certain features that would be beneficial to you. For example, some mountain bike packs have been integrated with spine protectors, and most sports helmet carrying systems for long gravel climbs.
These models we see as nothing but water carriers. Though they might have some small pockets for keys and a cell phone, they are not built to be a multi-purpose daypack that also offers hydration. Despite their diminutive size, these packs are typically very stable and comfortable, and suitable for trail running. Take a look at our Running Pack review if you're looking for a minimalist pack that will carry water and stay put.
Most of the models we tested all in this category. As the designs have evolved, hydration specific packs are available in a variety of sizes based on your activity of choice; however, this should not be confused with the bladder size. Most packs will have a standard sized bladder that is included with the backpack, but you can typically fit a larger bladder into the same model if need be. When looking through sizes for packs, the volume (usually measured in liters, sometimes in cubic inches) will give you a rough estimate of how much stuff you can cram into your pack. Do keep in mind, however, that this is the total volume of the backpack. If you have a full 3-liter hydration bladder in a 10-liter backpack, you've reduced your usable space down to seven liters.
Ease of drinking is one of the most important aspects of a hydration pack. During our testing this spring, we found varying flow rates from our hydration systems. Check out our Hydration Pack Review to see how they all compared.
While there was a significant variance in rates, overall the higher quality/higher priced models performed very similarly, and differences were almost imperceptible when actually out field testing. If you're discouraged, keep in mind that there is compatibility between some of the systems and you may be able to pair one brand's bladder with another brand's drinking tube. CamelBak and Platypus make this simple with their quick disconnect fittings between the bladder and tube. Both systems use the same fitting, and the switch is easy. If you want extra security when it comes to leakage from the bite valve, most hydration systems now include an on/off valve incorporated into the drinking tube.
Ease of Filling
A hydration pack that is easy to drink from should also be easy to fill, which brings us to our next criteria for deciding on which model is right for you: ease of filling.
The first step in determining how easy a pack to fill is in accessing the hydration bladder. Some packs like the CamelBak Rogue place the access right up front and center. Just lift up the cover, and you've got full access to the wide opening. Other packs like the Editors' Choice Platypus Duthie A.M. 10 and the Osprey Raptor 10 make things easy to get to with dedicated hydration sleeves that house the bladder in a handy zippered compartment. This style gives you complete access to your hydration system without having to gut your pack completely.
When you're considering which filling style you'd prefer, remember to anticipate the water sources you're likely to fill your pack from. Most of the competitors we tested were easy to fill from a deep kitchen sink, but if you travel and are filling up from shallow hotel room sinks or natural water sources, you may want to consider a model with a quick disconnect fitting. In situations like these, it's much easier to access the hydration bladder, disconnect the drinking tube, and you'll gain better access to fill.
Your pack also needs to be comfortable, and there are several factors to look at as you're shopping for the right model. Things like overall support, ventilation, shoulder strap and waist belt construction are things to consider.
A general rule of thumb is as you carry more gear, you'll come to enjoy more support. Luckily, today's pack manufacturers have recognized this and design things accordingly. The minimalist models like the CamelBak Classic or TETON Sports Trailrunner are intended for small amounts of weight, generally some water and a couple of small items. These packs are simple in design with materials and support that are less substantial than the larger packs like the Deuter Compact EXP 12. There's no need for extra materials when carried loads are light. A simple padded nylon bag with some cushy shoulder straps is plenty good here.
On the other hand, when your days are long, and the weather is variable, your pack weight is likely to go up, and more support will add to your comfort. Packs that are larger and intended to carry more of your gear have been designed with more overall support in mind. These models feature more padding in the main areas like the waist belt, shoulder straps, and back pad. Some of these higher capacity packs are even made with lightweight wire frames as we found in our Editors' Choice Platypus Duthie A.M. 10 or metal stays like the Deuter Compact EXP 12. These extra support features make carrying heavier loads a little easier by giving the pack more structure.
A good pack should be well ventilated where it comes in contact with your back, shoulders, and waist. Particularly on a chilly day, there's nothing more annoying than working up a profuse sweat, taking your pack off and realizing your back is completely soaked. Today's manufacturers have realized this, and the majority provide excellent breathability. The higher the temperatures you play in and the hotter you tend to run, make increased breathability a must. Look for construction with more open mesh and fabrics since this encourages better breathability to keep you cool, particularly when the pack contacts your back. A majority of hydration packs are made with mesh covered foam back pads with integrated air channels that add to breathability and ventilation. For even more ventilation, packs like the Osprey Syncro 10 and Platypus Duthie A.M. 10 incorporate a tensioned mesh back pad with a lightweight wire frame that keeps pack contact with your body to a minimum.
Shoulder Straps and Waist Belts
The more substantial the weight you're carrying, the more significant your shoulder straps and waist belt should be. For the shoulders, some packs accomplish this through extra padding in the upper portion of the shoulder straps and others like the Deuter Compact EXP 12 use wider materials. This increases the surface area of the contact area on your shoulders, spreading the load more evenly and reducing pressure points. Waist belts use the same principle, and the models with beefier construction allow you to carry more weight on your hip bones. Just like the shoulder straps, the thicker or wider the materials used, the greater support and comfort you'll experience.
How Much Storage Do I Need
Storage is a question only you can answer, but we're here to help you with some suggestions. To start things off, be realistic about your needs. Are you a minimalist and only see the need to carry water? If that's you, packs with less storage are the way to go. Just remember if you're someone who seems to keep adding "just in case" items, you'll quickly run out of room, and your pack will overflow, leaving you to wish for a larger model. On the other hand, overestimating your needs may lead you to carry a bigger backpack than you need; this can quickly add to discomfort and frustration when you're toting around a couple of pounds of excessive weight that shifts and flops around on your back. We also suggest looking at the organization of the pack and compare it to your needs and likes. If you're someone who wants to have quick and easy access to individual items, look for models that feature more compartments than less.
For those of you who don't necessarily need this uber-organization, a simpler pack with fewer dividers, pockets, and pouches may suit your needs better. Today's competitors have a multitude of specialty storage features like waistbelt pockets, hydration sleeves, helmet carrying systems, padded pockets for electronics or glasses and goggles, and even bike tool rolls.
You just need to decide on the quantity of storage, the layout, and features that will suit your needs.
When you're selecting a new hydration pack, the weight of the actual backpack may be a factor for you; this is pretty straightforward overall, and only you can decide what your needs are. One thing we've found is that manufacturer's claimed weights can be misleading. During our testing, we weighed all of our test packs and listed the weights for your convenience.
Ease of Cleaning
These criteria go along pretty directly with how easy the bladder is to fill. Hydration bladders that completely open on one end were hands-down the most effortless style to keep clean. These allow you to reach into the bag, wash, scrub simply, and dry to your heart's content. The narrower the bladder's opening, the tougher it is to clean thoroughly. While we realize the cleaning of a hydration pack's innards isn't likely to occur as often as it should, and we may or may not be guilty of this, the one time we are militant about cleaning is when we fill up with liquids that contain sugar. Why is this so important? When you combine a moist and frequently warm environment along with sugar, you have a breeding ground for bacteria. Your super fresh new pack isn't much fun when you're not able to use it as you're laying on the couch with the occasional sprint to the bathroom. Keeping your pack clean also helps avoid that nasty tasting water that so many of us have had the misfortune of ingesting.
A clean hydration bladder is great, but what about the drinking tube? Since the inner diameter of the typical model is +/- 0.25", it's obviously a little tough to access. We'd recommend picking up your cleaning kit of choice which should include a long and skinny brush that lets you scrub the interior of your drinking tube for a truly clean water source.
Now that you're armed with more information than ever, it should be easy to narrow down the huge selection of hydration packs out there. If you remember the basics like your intended use, how much space you need, and the hydration system that you prefer, things should go smoothly for you. Between our testing and reviews, along with all of the information we'd discussed, you should be able to make an informed decision on which hydration pack is right for you. Now all that's left is to choose your pack and then get outside and enjoy it!