Searching for the best mountain bike hip pack is quite an involved process. There are a huge number of critical details to pay attention to during testing. Some of the details, like weight, are quite easy to decipher. Other exceptionally important details like comfort require much more rigorous and persistent testing.
While you may think testing hip packs is as simple as strapping them on and going on a quick pedal, we assure you it is more complex than that. We tested these packs on multiple rides of varying lengths. We tested them with a windshell on, while wearing a thick jersey, a thinner jersey, and a simple tee-shirt. We rode in below-freezing temperatures as well as sweltering ones. We tested these packs in the rain and the dust. You name it, we did it. All of this in the name of sussing out any small yet critical details.
During the testing process, we kept thorough notes on each pack. Then, we painstakingly ranked them on six predetermined metrics weighted based on their importance. These metrics are ease of drinking (worth 20% of the final score), ease of filling (worth 20%), comfort (worth 20%), storage (worth 20%), ease of cleaning (worth 10%), and weight (worth 10%).
Ease of Drinking
This is a critical metric when evaluating a mountain bike hip pack. Having a pack with loads of fancy features and doo-dads is great, but if it's difficult to have a swig of water, there is a major problem.
To score ease of drinking, we wore these packs back-to-back (no pun intended) and pedaled around-consuming water. We had sips of water while in the saddle, while standing around, sitting on rocks, pedaling fast, pedaling slow. We evaluated the ease or difficulty of accessing the hydraulic hose, if applicable. We monitored how easy it was to remove or store the hose when not in use. In addition, we spent a lot of time evaluating the differences between the nozzles and hoses to see which had superior water flow. We also took these packs on long rides to see how well the hydration system functioned when you are exhausted four hours into a big ride.
Ease of Filling
This metric is also quite important. When a hydration bladder/pack is easier to fill, you are going to be more likely to want to use it.
We examined how easy or difficult it was to remove the hydration bladder from the pack. Some of the hip packs in our test were quite involved and, frankly, it was a hassle to pull the bladder out. Other options used a quick-connect system making removal and filling a breeze.
We used these packs as much as possible during the test period. This required filling the bags up multiple times. We fiddled with different techniques to fill the bladder from removing it completely to playing the dangerous game of filling the bladder while still in the pack. At the end of testing, we spent a couple of hours filling these packs up back-to-back-to-back, watering the plants with that water, and doing it again. We looked at the closure system and the hose routing. Both of these factors are critical when filling a hydration pack with no spillage.
Comfort is key, no two ways about it. Nobody wants to wear an uncomfortable hip pack while they are trying to enjoy themselves on the trail. As a result, comfort is absolutely critical. If a piece of gear is comfortable, you are more likely to use it.
Comfort is one of the easiest metrics to test. Simply put, we wore these hip packs as much as humanly possible. In addition, we wore them with multiple pairs of shorts and jerseys. Testing these bags against clothing of different materials is important in the event a hip pack feels great against thicker materials but is irritating against thinner fabrics. We tested our packs in all temperatures to see how they felt in sweltering heat and in below-freezing temperatures.
Storage is very important when evaluating a hip pack. Prior to making a purchase decision, it is important to identify whether or not the pack you want will fit your snacks, tools, and tube. Do you need to carry an extra layer? How much food do you need to bring along? All of these items are important considerations.
We evaluated storage capacity and design by loading and unloading each pack dozens of times. We loaded these hip packs up with the essentials such as a multi-tool, tire lever, tube, and CO2 cartridges. Then, we loaded the bags up with the supplies needed for bigger rides. We assessed how well each holds a rain shell, extra layers, and a sandwich. In addition, we evaluated each pack to see how well a hand pump fits.
Ease of Cleaning
Ease of cleaning is an important metric. Nobody wants to be pedaling around with a stinky and sticky hip pack that is full of mold. As a result, bags that scored well in the metric featured easier-to-clean designs and had hydration bladders that were easy to remove and clean.
We used each mountain bike hip pack extensively and, after every couple of rides, we spent some time giving them a nice cleansing. This included scrubbing the inside of the pack with some soap and a sponge, hitting it with the faucet, and hanging it out to dry. In addition, we removed the bladder (when applicable) from the hip pack and gave it a good washing and hung it out to dry. This process was of great importance when evaluating our hip packs. The bags that have hydration systems that are easier to access scored better in this metric.
The weight of each pack is by far the most objective metric. We simply weighed each bag while empty, dry, and without the hydration systems installed.