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Hands-on Gear Review
CamelBak M.U.L.E. Review
Cons: Poor ventilation, insufficient waist belt for the pack size, bladder not easy to clean
Bottom line: A classic hydration pack design with a long lineage; while not as good as some, it is better than others.
While not the CamelBak Classic, this pack is well, A Camelbak classic. The CamelBak M.U.L.E. has been in their lineup since 1996! This pack has a lot of the mountain bike-specific features of some of the other hydration packs in our test, but not all, which helps keep the weight down and the simplicity high. CamelBak says "it's got everything you need and nothing you don't" and we agree.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The CamelBak M.U.L.E. is a staple of CamelBak's hydration pack line. It has proven itself over the past 19 years, but unfortunately, it could use some updating to compete with other more modern models in our test lineup.
Ease of Drinking
With a 25 year history of designing and manufacturing hydration packs, we expected this model to score high marks like the other CamelBak bags in our test and the M.U.L.E. did not disappoint. The foundation of the pack is the Crux hydration system which is designed to deliver 20% more water "per sip" according to CamelBak. While it's difficult to measure and quantify "per sip" quantities, we did find that the Camelbak packs delivered water more efficiently than the other systems in our test. Huff, puff, pant, and groan even with that, it was still easy to not just sip but gulp water from the Big Bite valve; this guaranteed our thirsty reviewers grade of 10 out of 10 in this category.
The 3-liter Crux hydration bladder is stored in its own dedicated and lightly insulated hydration sleeve located at the inner-most portion of the pack, just inside the back sheet and behind the main storage compartment. The drinking tube attaches with a quick disconnect fitting which we found convenient when it was time to fill up. The tube is routed through a simple opening from the hydration sleeve, down the right shoulder strap and is attached to a magnetic clip, much like the Osprey Syncro 10 and Osprey Raptor 10. The business end of the Crux system is the Big Bite valve which is equipped with a convenient and effective on/off valve.
We found the CamelBak bite valves were the easiest to achieve maximum flow yet with no leakage, especially when flipping the On/Off valve to the forward position. Twenty-five years of experience doesn't just sound good on CamelBak's resume; the experience is also put into play with the Crux system.
Ease of Filling
While the M.U.L.E. scored the highest marks for "ease of drinking", it didn't perform quite as well when it came to fill up the Crux bladder. While it was not that difficult, it simply was not as easy as others, like the Osprey Syncro 10. Access can be gained through opening a large zipper into the hydration compartment, and the large blue cap of the bladder is right there. Then, slide the bladder up and partially out of the bag and hang on to the shoehorn style handle - it's a quick fill.
Here's where it gets a bit tougher. The bladder is equipped with a double-hooked hanger to keep it upright and unable to sag into the bottom of the bag, but unfortunately, the M.U.L.E. isn't equipped with anywhere to hang the bladder. This can be overcome by sliding the handle into a sewn loop, which also guides the drinking tube up and out of the pack. Do note that it did take a little fiddling to slide the handle into place. If the other features of the pack are your favorite, this is a minor consideration, but a consideration nonetheless.
The good news is the M.U.L.E. feels a lot like this gear tester's trusty old CamelBak H.A.W.G. Unfortunately, the bad news is that the M.U.L.E. appears to be a lot like our main tester's trusty old Camelbak. While the older pack is reasonably comfortable, with a similar feel, the M.U.L.E. doesn't compare with other new packs we tested, like the Platypus Duthie A.M. 10, the Osprey Raptor 10, Osprey Syncro 10, or the Deuter Compact Air EXP 12. These other competitors provided better ventilation for testers' backs, as well as a more reliable connection, a better ride, and optimal stability. For more casual riders and hikers this may not be an issue, but for riders venturing into more technical terrain and longer rides, this may not be the pack you're seeking.
The back panel is CamelBak's Air Direct construction which incorporates a mesh panel stretched over raised, ridged foam sections. One portion sits at the lower back while the other two sit under the shoulder blades. After riding on a couple of warmer days, we noticed the backs of our shirts were nearly as saturated as with older packs. We felt like the pads, although well intentioned, made too much contact with our backs.
The shoulder straps are anatomically curved and cut, composed of ventilated foam padding with mesh covering on the top half and the same nylon material as the pack body for the lower half. Our testers felt the straps were more than adequate and had no complaints.
Of the larger packs in our test, the M.U.L.E. comes equipped with the least supportive waist belt. The belt is a simple ¾" webbing strap with adjusters on both sides and fastened by a quick release buckle. The belt did keep the pack from flopping on technical ground, but didn't provide any real support; this is another area that the M.U.L.E. suffered in. This variance from the other packs in our test didn't seem like a major factor, but after riding with the others, our testers felt the belt was lacking. If we were testing this model 5-10 years ago, we would likely rate the comfort higher, but unfortunately, we could only award the M.U.L.E. a 6 out of 10.
The M.U.L.E. has a large enough storage capacity for all day rides and hikes at ~10 liters and in conjunction with a stretchy external pouch. The pouch is attached to the two quick release buckles that button the central portion of the pack up and also to the two fixed buckles on the lower adjusters. The quick release buckles have extra integrated tabs on their outer surfaces for hooking and carrying your helmet. The pack has good storage (but not quite as refined as our other packs like the Editors' Choice Platypus Duthie A.M. 10), and it scored a 6 out of 10.
As we found with competitors like the Deuter Compact Air EXP 12, the outer portion of the pack opens with a large rainbow shaped zipper that provides complete access to the first compartment. Inside the pack is a horizontal zip pocket that measures 8"x6" and has an incorporated key clip inside. Immediately below are two stretch mesh panel pockets that split the lower half into two sections. We found these pockets were ideal for storing bike tools and a spare tube. Sewn into the outside of the upper pocket is an elasticized keeper loop that kept our air pump handy and in one place.
Move from that outer pocket toward the guts of the pack and open the next full-access zipper. Inside this next compartment is space, lots of space. No extras at all, just a place to stuff your extra layers, etc. If you like simplicity, this may be your pack.
Here too, you'll see the outside of the simple nylon pocket that is accessed from a zipper on the very top of the pack. This pocket measures approximately 8"x5, " and we used it for storing our phones, glasses, and goggles, although the pocket has no padding or lining.
"It's got everything you need and nothing you don't". Some of you may agree with this, but we felt some of the other larger capacity packs in our test had more of "everything you need".
Of our larger capacity models, the M.U.L.E. is one of the lightest at 1 lb 12.8 oz, but not as light as the Osprey Syncro 10, which weighs in at 1 lb 9.6 oz. Like most of the pack's other metrics, this competitors falls in the middle. For the real weight weenies out there, we'd recommend the CamelBak Rogue or the CamelBak Classic.
Ease of Cleaning
Even though it isn't complicated to clean, it does take more time to scrub out the hydration bladder. The zipper access is straightforward, but you do need to reach into the bottom of the bladder compartment to find the quick disconnect button to the drinking tube to remove the bladder entirely. After the bladder has been removed, we were able to gain good (but not effortless) access to the interior. Other hydration bladders like those found on the Osprey packs and the Deuter Compact Air EXP 12 with full opening capability were easier to scrub, wipe, and dry. The Crux bladder offers good but not great access when compared with the wider access designs.
Although CamelBak only lists "mountain bike" under activities for the M.U.L.E., we found hiking and trail running were also in this pack's abilities. If you're the type of rider who carries enough gear to fill a hydration pack and don't care about organization and the little extras, this pack may be for you.
When compared to the prices of the other large capacity packs in our hydration pack test, the M.U.L.E. is on the lower side, though not by much. If you're pinching your pennies but need an all day all mountain hydration pack, take a look at this pack.
If you're the kind of person who sometimes rides, hikes, and runs for the long haul and don't need all of the latest and greatest gizmos and features, the CamelBak M.U.L.E. could be the choice for your adventures.
— Jason Cronk
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