Our expert adventurers have tested 20+ of the best hydration bladders over the last seven years. In this 2020 update, we bought 11 of today's top models to duke it out. We put these bladders through the wringer, taking each on adventurous trail runs, boating missions, and climbing adventures. We've stuffed them in the freezer, thrown them in packs full of gear, and left them out in the sun. After filling, drinking, cleaning, refilling, and drinking some more, we've discovered which bladders offer the best performance and are the most worthwhile. Use this review to learn about everything you need to know to find the best bladder for you.Related: Best Hydration Pack of 2020
Best Hydration Bladder of 2020
Best Overall Hydration Bladder
Platypus Big Zip EVO
The Platypus Big Zip EVO is a durable hydration bladder that is well-constructed. It features a versatile tube setup that can either be plugged into the bottom of the bladder or into a connection point halfway up the tube. It's easy to scoop water or fill it under a facet. The plastic polymer in the reservoir doesn't leave a nasty taste in the water while the flow rate is top-notch. We appreciate the silver-ion technology that's said to prevent bacterial growth, and how easy the bladder is to clean. Of all the systems tested, it proves to be the most durable, easy to use, and thus, our favorite of all the systems.
Unfortunately, it's not the lightest, nor is it the most packable because of its super durable design. While it's pretty easy to care for, it's hard to get a brush inside because of its zip-top enclosure that is a little narrow. It can't be flipped inside out for easy cleaning, either. For most outdoor enthusiasts, this one covers all the bases for reliability and use.
Read review: Platypus Big Zip EVO
Best Bang for the Buck
The affordable Platypus Hoser is simple. It is light and durable with a profile that'll fit into nearly any type of hydration sleeve. The flow rate is ample, delivering water with little to no effort. The price is also right. If you're seeking a simple bladder that'll keep your hydration on the go, or for use in a backpack that isn't jam-packed, this is a great option.
The lack of a locking mechanism on the bite valve is a bit of a letdown and proves to be a touch leaky as it bounces around on our adventures. We found ourselves getting drip-drizzled on during missions where our bags were packed full, pushing water from the bladder out of the mouthpiece. Sadly, the bite value can't be changed out easily, so if you buy it, you're stuck with it. If you can deal with that caveat, this is by far the most durable, packable, and high-value bladder that we've tested.
Read review: Platypus Hoser
Best for Lightweight Adventures
Hydrapak Shape-Shift Reservoir
The HydraPak Shape-Shift is a lightweight bladder with a slim profile. The bite valve offers a super-fast flow of water, and it sports a fancy hand holder that makes filling easy. It is one of the easiest bladders to maintain. We flip it inside out for easy care after rinsing and throw it into the dishwasher. The price is right too. This is our top recommendation for on-the-go athletes who need a lightweight bladder that fits into most slim backpacks. We take it on trail runs and hiking missions regularity. You can also clip the interior plastic pieces together to make it less "sloshy," though you lose a little volume when you do this.
We aren't too fond of the durability of this bladder after testing it for over six years. While we've never experienced the thinner plastic puncturing or ripping, we have had to stop using it for two previous models because the tube clip-in points (even when lubricated regularity) became gummed up and the release mechanism stopped working. Also, when the interior plastic pieces are used, you lose about a half-liter or volume, making it a 2.5-L bag, instead of 3-L. If you are seeking a lightweight bladder that reduces the "slosh" factor when moving over terrain, this is the one that we'd recommend.
Read review: Hydrapak Shape-Shift
Best for Backpacking
MSR DromLite Bags
The MSR DromLite is the most versatile, lightweight, and packable hydration reservoir that we've tested. It has been continuously updated over the years, but it still proves to have impeccable performance. The outer material is made of a surprisingly tough polymer that can truly take the beat-down. Don't be afraid to strap it to the back of your pack or throw it around the climbing crag, even though it's not as thick and durable as its predecessor. The 3-in-1 top makes accessing and sharing water easy, and there are a plethora of attachments that are compatible (for example, the MSR Hydration Kit). Not only that, but this reservoir easily turns into a handwashing station, shower, hot water bottle, and more.
Keep in mind that this is only the water reservoir. MSR sells the Hydration Kit separately that turns this bag into a hydration system. While this bladder is pretty stellar in function, it doesn't fit into the smallest hydration pack sleeves with its wide profile. We've also experienced the lid leaking after about two years of testing and heavy use, which was a problem in their previous models, too. If you seek a super packable reservoir to hold large volumes of water, this durable and packable bag is our recommendation.
Read review: MSR DromLite
Best Insulated Hydration System
If you love cold sips of water on the trail, the Hydrapak Hydrasleeve has you covered. This insulative sleeve fits most 3L hydration bladders and comes with an insulative tube. It offers modularized use, so you can simply use the bladder without the insulation sleeve or the system as a whole. We tested it while ski touring in the winter and backpacking through hot desert conditions. It kept the water in our tube from freezing twice as long as uninsulated tubes. It also kept our ice water cold in the reservoir 3x longer than a normal bladder. If you are seeking a system that'll do just that, this insulative option is our top choice. Enjoy it all year long, through both hot and cold weather.
Unfortunately, this bladder comes with a few flaws. The quick-connect at the bottom needs some maintenance and lubrication; otherwise, it gets gummed up and becomes unusable over time and lots of use. Plus, the bladder's tube end has popped off several times in our testing period when trying to remove the bladder from the sleeve, spilling a little bit of water. This only happened when pulling the bladder out of the sleeve, and never happened on its own inside a pack for us. Aside from these minor caveats, it still offers the best insulative properties of any bladder tested thus far and is our recommendation for those that are in super cold places or like to keep their water cold in the heat.
Read Review: HydraPak HydraSleeve
Why You Should Trust Us
Amber King brings you this review. She is an endurance runner that logs between 20 - 50 miles each week on the local trails in hometown Ridgway, Colorado. Each year presents a new opportunity to embark on fastpacking goals from home in the US to Peru to Iceland. She has used these products for years and tested over 20 individual models first-hand. Amber brings a wealth of expertise and know-how that has been pivotal in developing this hydration bladder review. She takes them running, hiking, climbing, backpacking, skiing, and canyoneering worldwide.
Our testing process involves stuffing bladders into running packs, backpacking backpacks, and throwing them into coolers and the freezer. We freeze them, wash them, dry them out, and use them for all sorts of adventures. We test in environments that range from cold to hot, loading them with electrolytes to quench a thirst on the trail. Also, we take the time to see how long each keeps your water cold in the summer, and which tubes freeze up in the winter. We carefully analyze each feature and evaluate the durability of each product. With over 300 hours of filling bladders and sucking on bite valves, we have thoroughly vetted and tested every model in this review.
Related: How We Tested Hydration Bladders
Analysis and Test Results
We selected a wide range of hydration bladders ranging from reservoirs to insulative models to traditional models. They are all rated across six important criteria to assess overall performance. We take the time to provide in-depth comparisons to help you find the best hydration bladder for your needs.
Related: Buying Advice for Hydration Bladders
Compared to some of our other categories here at the GearLab, there's not a big price discrepancy between the different products in our hydration bladder review. The various models that we tested fall into a small range. However, there is still a value factor to consider. If you buy one model for a little more and lasts four times longer than a cheaper option, you're getting a better deal in the long run. When purchasing a hydration bladder, be sure to consider the value of each to get the best product out there.
The MSR DromLite can take a beating and return for more, making for a high-value product. The Platypus Hoser is simple at a relatively low cost. It does have some issues with a drippy bite valve, but it's manageable, and the overall functionality of this bladder suffices for most adventurers. If you want a higher value product, be sure to check out the CamelBak Crux. Other options like the Source Tactical WXP and Deuter Stream are both more expensive, but the durability of its construction is bomber offering performance that we think will last.
Ease of Use
If your hydration bladder is a pain to drink from, it's failing its main purpose. The bladder that fits easily into a bag and provides sufficient water flow on the go (without leaking) does the best here. To evaluate performance, we consider the bite valve design, the valve locking mechanism, and the versatility of the bladder. We note the limitations of each bladder and how compatible it is with different types of hydration backpacks. In this section, we also discuss differences in the performance between insulated vs. non-insulated competitors.
Water flow is the main validator of ease of use. After all, you shouldn't have to work to get water while you're putting miles down on the trail. A good bladder that'll provide great flow typically uses a large tube diameter in addition to a high flow value that'll create a pressurized system. The Platypus Big Zip Evo does just this. The valve is huge and one bite down releases ample water into your mouth.
The Big Zip Evo has the fastest flow of water of all tested. The CamelBak Crux Reservoir uses a slightly smaller value that's simple to use and provides plenty of water flow, too. The valves used in all HydraPak products, like the HydraPak Shape-Shift and HydraPak HydraSleeve, also feature a fast rate of water flow. With any of these options, you can squeeze the valve, and water will shoot out. You can give water to a pup, or even fill up a small water bowl with any of these options.
HydraPak also makes the bite values used in both the Osprey Hydraulics LT and Osprey Hydraulics. These valves are a little smaller than the CamelBak Crux Reservoir but still provide ample water flow with minimal effort. Of all the bite valves, we prefer the Camelbak and the Platypus (on the Big Zip Evo) because of their larger design that offers more water flow. We also like options that feature an easy-to-use locking mechanism.
Of the locking mechanisms, there are two different designs; the switch and the twist. The Platypus Big Zip, CamelBak Crux Reservoir, and Deuter Streamer all use the switch. We prefer these as they are easy to open and close with the flick of a thumb. Of them, our favorite is the Big Zip and Crux, as they both feature large levers that don't gum up or clog over time.
The Twist mechanisms found on the Osprey, Source Tactical, HydraPak, and Badlands brands are more difficult to use because you have to use two hands to unlock or lock them, a little tricky on a mountain bike while on the move. The HydraPak and Osprey brands are quite similar and the easiest to use. The Badlands is especially difficult to use, simply because the mouthpiece is so small. However, these differences are very small, and if you've never had a good comparison, you'd never know the performance difference.
The only bladder that doesn't have a locking mechanism is the Platypus Hoser, which unfortunately resulted in our testers getting dripped on occasionally. The flow rate on the Hoser, though, is great, and its simple design makes it easy to use otherwise.
Another interesting bladder that provides a level of ease of use is the 3-in-1 cap offered by MSR Dromlite. The three different caps offer different levels of water flow. The smallest is perfect for taking a sip of water. The medium-sized (where some attachments screw in) is great for sharing the water, and the large size is for filling. If you are looking for a simple hydration bladder (without a hose setup), this is a wonderful option.Insulative Bladders
These bladders come with some form of insulation around either the tube, the body, or both. We tested two of these, the HydraPak HydraSleeve and the Badlands Hydration Reservoir. Both are good options, with the HydraSleeve outperforming the other. Our tests involved putting these and non-insulative bladders into the freezer, as well as backpacks to see how good a job they do at maintaining temperatures.
In our freezer tests, the HydraPak HydraSleeve kept the main body of the bladder from freezing, even after leaving it in there for 24 hours. While there was a lot of ice inside, it wasn't completely frozen.
When testing how well the insulative tubes actually resist the tube from freezing, we used the non-insulated HydraPak Shape-Shift bladder without any insulation as a control. Then, we placed both the Badlands and Hydrapak HydraPak into the freezer. We left them inside, checking every 10 minutes to see if the tubes had frozen up. After 20 minutes, the regular bladder hose had frozen up, while both the Badlands and HydraSleeve remained liquid. The HydraSleeve tube staved off freezing for a total of 40 minutes while the Badlands was able to remain unfrozen for a total of 30 minutes. Unfortunately, neither of these bladders could stave off. So, if you go ski touring, know that this sleeve and insulative tubing will help, but can't completely prevent freezing in extremely cold conditions. If you drink relatively frequently from the tube, though, the water from the bladder will replace the water in the tube, continuously preventing the liquid from freezing. With an uninsulated tube in freezing temperatures, it's hard to drink frequently enough to avoid this.
We also put them into backpacks (filled with cold water) and put them into the sun to see how long it took for the water to heat up. We also stuffed the backpack with a jacket and other items you'd normally take on a backpacking trip. In this test, the control (the normal bladder) and the Badlands kept water cold for about 2 hours. The insulated tube of the Badlands model didn't contribute to keeping the bladder itself cool. The HydraSleeve (after our 7-hour test) managed to keep water cold for 6 hours. This is 3x longer than a normal hydration system without an insulating sleeve. This validated our hypothesis that this hydration sleeve provides insulation that'll keep your beverages cool on the trail.
Additionally, while hiking with the HydraPak HydraSleeve in the desert, we loaded it up with ice-cold water. Throughout the day (our hike was six hours), the water stayed icy cold, and ice cubes were still inside after the hike. Temperatures were between 80 - 90F that day. Overall, the HydraPak HydraSleeve offers excellent insulation that'll keep your drinks cool in the summer. Some people strongly prefer drinking cold water, and if that's you, this model does it best.
Ease of Care
Reservoirs don't clean and take care of themselves. To avoid creating a petri dish for bacterial colonies, you'll need to assume some constant care. To evaluate how easy it is to care for your bladder, we consider a few things. Can the bladder be easily flipped inside out? Is it dishwasher safe? How easy are the tube and mouthpiece disassembled? Can all nooks and crannies be cleaned? What is the porosity of the polymer used in the design of the hydration bladder? How easy is it to physically scrub the bladder without the use of a specialized cleaning system? Knowing the answers to these questions sets some bladders apart from others.
Flip-top bladder with a wider mouth and thinner plastics proved to be the easiest to flip inside out and manually clean. Options that did best in this area include the Hydrapak Shape-Shift 3L and Badlands Hydration Reservoir. These options (in addition to the Osprey Hydraulic contenders) can be put in the top rack of the dishwater to ensure a thorough clean. To top it off, the openings on these bladders are wide enough to get your hand inside if you need to give it a good scrub. Unfortunately, these bladders are quite porous, so if not cleaned consistently, bacterial growth will ensue.
Even though the flip tops prevails over screw-top options for cleaning, each performs a little differently. Some have smaller openings than others, making it a little harder (but not impossible) to get inside. Others have more durable, less porous materials, which naturally makes wiping them down easier. The Deuter Stream and Source Tactical both feature a less porous material and a slim profile that makes it harder to flip inside-out. The Platypus Big Evo Zip also has a more narrow opening and connected baffle that makes manual cleaning a bit more difficult. The CamelBak Crux proves to be easier to clean than the MSR Dromlite because of the huge opening that makes it easy to get a brush inside…however, it's hard to reach the smallest corners of the bladder.
While the Source and Platypus constructed bladders don't have a super large opening to easier cleaning, they are made of high quality and durable materials that are less porous, making it allegedly harder for bacterial colonies to grow (as claimed by both companies). Platypus advertises the use of a silver-ion construction that is supposed to prevent bacterial growth. While we can't verify this, we didn't notice any bacterial build-up during our testing period, even after leaving the bladder full of water for a couple of days with a sugary substance inside. Conversely, bladders made by HydraPak had bacterial build-up in the tubes and mouthpieces far more often than those with a less porous construction.
Most bladders tested allow you to disassemble the hose and bite valve for thorough cleaning easily. For example, the Platypus Big Zip, Source Tactical, HydraPak HydraSleeve, and Hydrapak Shape-Shift allow you to completely take the bite valve and the hose apart to get into every nook and cranny. However, some options are not as easy, such as the Deuter Streamer, Platypus Hoser, and Osprey Hydraulics products. These take more work to disassemble, and in the case of the Hydraulics, you can't disconnect the lower tube from the bladder, making cleaning almost impossible.
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 Kit (sold separately). It allows you to snake the little hose brush 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).
Ease of Filling
How easy is your bladder to fill? Bladders that score high in this metric host a sturdy handle and non-floppy construct with the affinity to turn the bladder either vertically or horizontally while filling. We also like bladders with a longer 'tongue-like' flip-top, allowing easy fill-up in small or trickling streams. To test this, we filled each in sinks, streams, lakes, and rivers. To find the easiest bladder to fill in a different setting, take a gander at the section below.
For all bladders tested, each fills up without serious issues. What really sets each apart is the challenge of filling in a shallow sink or low-flowing stream. In a shallow sink, bladders with a plastic handle near the openings are the easiest to fill. Flip and zip tops are hard to get into shallow sinks and cramp drinking fountains as the bladder gets in the way, and we could only fill them about 80% full. However, screw-top options, like our favorite, the CamelBak Crux Reservoir, can easily be filled with the use of its huge handle.
In a dribbling stream, the flip-top options with a long tongue work the best. The Osprey Hydraulics options did an especially good job with this, as the flip top is much longer than any other bladder tested, almost creating a spout to collect or pour water from. It also features a convenient handle to aid in the process. The Platypus Big Zip Evo hosts a unique design that requires you to simply pinch the bag, which offers easy filling in all water sources. We also love how the Hydraulics features a rigid backplate, providing the bladder with a structure that the Osprey Hydraulics LT or other flip-top bladders don't host.
Overall, each bladder is easy to fill. The best option for a flip-top bladder is the Osprey Hydraulics, with the CamelBak Crux being the best for a screw-top design with a handle. The Source Tactical offers a unique combination of both flip-top and screw-top options to make filling at any water source a breeze.
Quality & Durability
Over the last few years, we've beaten the snot out of each bladder, trying to get it to leak or break. We put each in the freezer, poured in warm drinks, laid each in the sun, tugged at the seams, put them in backpacks, let the dog play with them, and even tried to crush them under pressure. We also assessed the quality of the construction to see if each is more conducive to punctures than others. 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 years of testing. We also consulted the internet to see if any leering issues needed to be proven correct or incorrect. Using this information, we determine the bladder that offers the best value and level of durability.
All contenders do a good job in this category. After all, we do select the best to test. Though, none beat out the HydraPak HydraSleeve. This Nylon sleeve is completely abrasion-resistant and keeps the bladder inside from coming into contact with the natural world. As a result, this hydration system earns top marks. Kind of a no-brainer here, due to its extra protective layer, but worth noting.
However, with the exception of putting the HydraSleeve into its protective sleeve, the hydration that proves to be the highest in quality and durability is the Platypus Big Zip Evo. This system uses a thicker construction that is a bit burlier than the hydration bladders designed by Source. It is puncture resistant, and after trying to destroy it totally, we haven't seen any issues. It's one of the most reliable bladders and hose systems tested. The Platypus Hoser features the same construction, but the connections aren't as well-crafted. Its simplicity, though, scores it some points in longevity — in our experience, the simpler the product, the longer it generally lasts.
We love the durability of the MSR Dromlite. It can be frozen, strapped to the back of the pack, and can endure quite a bit without succumbing to punctures. Its construction is seamless, and we couldn't get the seams to pull apart, no matter how hard we tried. Over the last year of testing, we haven't observed this, but time will tell as we continue to use it throughout the years. Overall, this is the most versatile and durable bag tested. It's great option for somebody seeking a hydration reservoir that can easily be packed away and is quite durable.
For a bladder made of a thinner textile, the Osprey Hydraulics performs the best. This bladder uses a super hefty backplate that retains its shape and protects it from exposure to abrasive environments. The Osprey Hydraulics LT doesn't have this backpack making it less durable overall.
Weight and Packability
Keeping your load light on the trail is important. Since water weighs approximately two lbs per liter, the additional weight on the bladder itself can add up. Also, a bladder that packs up small when empty can be important for storing away when not in use. Products that score highest in this metric are simple and lightweight without too many bells and whistles. They have omitted plastic handles or extraneous features and can roll up into a tiny little ball. We tested all reservoirs by weighing them on the same scale as the tubing and mouthpiece attached. We also rolled up each to see which packs to the smallest volume. The lightest and most packable hydration bladder scores the highest in this metric.
On the trail, each model is suited for hiking and backpacking. The smallest and most packable models are better for lightweight missions or extended adventures. All bladders varied in weight but stayed within a 5-ounce range.
Of all the models tested, the Platypus Hoser is the lightest and most packable design we've come across. It rolls right up into your palm with a super lightweight construction. While it's a little lighter than the HydraPak Shape-Shift, it's lighter and more packable. Not solely because of its lightweight nature, but because we prefer it for different adventures. The Hoser, unfortunately, tends to have a drippy bite valve, while the Shape-Shift does not. That said, the Hoser is more durable than the Shape-Shift. With these factors considered, we prefer a bite valve that doesn't leak, even though the weight and packability are lower. Both fit well into running vests. The Hoser has a wider profile than the Shape-shift, but the Hoser is more packable.
The MSR Dromlite is also super lightweight (without the hydration attachment) and packs up to the size of its lid. Keep in mind; this is just a reservoir, and the MSR Hydration Kit needs to be purchased separately if you want to attach and drink from a hose with this model. If you want a light bladder with a little insulation, look to the Badlands Hydration Reservoir that has a low weight, even with a little extra material around the hose. And while the HydraSleeve is the heaviest model, you can always remove the bladder sleeve to move lighter with just the bladder and insulated tube.
Hydration bladders are simple but important in the world of gear. They are designed as a lightweight option that avoids using bottles to help you stay hydrated on the trail. Remember to consider your individual needs first and use them to guide you through our analyses of these products. They are all impressive products for one reason or more, and the best one is the model that serves your unique needs better than the rest.
— Amber King