Seeking the best hydration bladder? We researched over 60 different thirst-quenching options and selected 9 of the most popular to put to the test. We carried them all over the world from mountain passes rising to heights of 16,500 ft to the gnarly and twisting trails of the Grand Canyon. Our testers hiked, biked, ran, and more with these bladders in tow. We enumerated their features, stuffed each into different sized packs, and evaluated how easy each is to use, clean, and fill. We also subjected them to a variety of durability tests (in addition to general field use) to see which are built to last, and which may leak over time. We selected award winners based on their performance to help guide you in your search for the perfect hydration bladder. If you seek a complete hydration system setup and don't just want the bladder, check out our hydration pack review
The Best Hydration Bladders of 2018
As the summer beats down its rays of glorious sunshine and you frolic outside, hydration is the key to ensure that you don't suffer from dehydration. In this update, we take a look at three different hydration bladders that offer different options for summer (and year-round) hydration. Take for example the durable and featured Source Tactical WXP that is suited best for outdoorsmen and women with its natural colors and versatile performance. While none of these newcomers are award winners, they certainly compete. Read on to learn all about them!
Geigerrig Hydration Engine
The Geigerrig Hydration Engine earns our Editors' Choice award for being easy to drink from and providing us with many ways to use it. It has a pressurized system that keeps water flowing in a steady stream. At first, we looked at the bulb and separate air compartment and thought, do we need that? But then it let us wash our hands, fill the dog bowl, or even take a sun shower after a long day out, and we decided that yes, we do. We love that this bladder is top-rack dishwasher safe, making it much easier to clean than some competitors. The many attachments (like a filtration system, sold separately) made it fast and easy to collect and drink water from natural streams and lakes. All this and it doesn't cost that much more than the competition.There were a few things we didn't like about the Geigerrig. The on/off switch for the bite valve was difficult to turn at times, and if we didn't keep it clean, it got more challenging to work. There are no measurements on the bladder either, so you have to eyeball it if you want to take a specific amount of water with you. Other than that, this is an excellent option for anyone looking for a versatile container. It's lightweight (considering the extra valves and air pump), and best of all, doesn't taste like plastic!
Read review: Geigerrig Hydration Engine
Best Bang for the Buck
CamelBak Crux Reservoir
The CamelBak Crux is an upgrade to the CamelBak Antidote. It is now even easier to fill and drink from. It has a lifetime warranty, and it's made with durability in mind. Though it's not pressurized like the Geigerrig Hydration Engine, it is easy to drink from. It has one of our favorite bite valves, and we also liked the updated on/off mechanism. The hose connects via a quick-release system that makes it compatible with most reservoirs, and it's the easiest reservoir to fill.
Our main beef with the Crux is that you can't just throw it in the dishwasher. Though it is a lot easier to clean than previous versions from CamelBak, you still have to get in there with a brush, unlike zipper or flip top bladders which can be inverted and tossed in the upper rack of your dishwasher. It's also a little heavier than before, but that's most likely due to the bigger grab handle which makes filling it much easier. We'll take the extra ounce or so for that convenience. If you're looking for a durable and high-performing option that won't set you back too much money, the CamelBak Crux is an excellent choice.
Read review: CamelBak Crux Reservoir
Top Pick for Lightweight Adventures
Hydrapak Shape-Shift Reservoir
The Hydrapak Shape-Shift stands out for its simplicity and lightweight design. Many of our testers found themselves reaching for this bladder when heading out on a bike or trail running mission. This model shaves some ounces off your back, and in sports where every teeny tiny bit of weight counts, we appreciate the lightest possible gear. We love how the bladder is divided via a welded zipper inside that can open and shut depending on how much water is in there. No more sloshing around when it's half-full! It flips inside-out for easy cleaning and is dishwasher safe. The hoses are interchangeable with most of the models tested giving you choices in the length of tube and type of bite valve.
The bite valve is smaller than most, but it still provides a sufficient flow of water with no leakage. You need to be careful with the closure attachment as well. It didn't always stay attached, and we almost lost it a couple of times when filling the bladder. You also need to maintain the O-rings to make sure the quick-release system keeps functioning well. None of these were deal breakers though, and if you're looking for something to accompany you on lightweight missions, this should be your top choice!
Read review: Hydrapak Shape-Shift
Top Pick for Backpacking
MSR DromLite Bags
The MSR DromLite is the most versatile, lightweight, and packable hydration reservoir out there. This beloved model received an update that changed many different things, but it still performs amazingly! The outer material is made of a surprisingly tough plastic 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 that makes accessing and sharing water easy, and there are a plethora of attachments that articulate to it (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. The hose and bite valve on the kit are pretty basic and not a quick-release system, and most of our testers preferred to use the Dromlite as a bladder only. While this bladder is pretty stellar in function, it doesn't fit into the smallest hydration pack sleeves with its wide profile. Other than that, it's a perfect option for anybody looking for a reservoir to hold extra water while hiking mile upon mile, day after day, in the wilderness. It's also a great option to keep around camp.
Read review: MSR DromLite
Analysis and Test Results
A hydration bladder is a small reservoir designed to store and deliver water to your mouth. We tested nine of the top competitors on the market side-by-side over the last few years. We took notes and compared each along the way to determine strengths and weaknesses. We rated all models across the same performance criteria, including their ease of use, care and filling, weight and the quality of their construction. Below we break down each rating and highlight which stands out in each category. Use this criteria to guide you to the best hydration bladder for your specific needs.
Compared to some of our other categories here at OutdoorGearLab, there's not a big price discrepancy between the different products in our hydration bladder review. The various models that we tested range between $30 and $50, which is not that big a difference. However, there is still a value factor to consider. If you buy one model for $50 and it lasts four times as long as the $30 option, you're getting a better deal in the long run. In that regard, while purchasing a hydration bladder, be sure to consider the value of each to get the best product out there.
The chart below shows how the different models ranked according to their price. The MSR DromLite ($30), will take a beating and come back for more, making for a high-value product. The CamelBak Crux ($35) is also a good value (and our Best Buy winner), as it is constructed of high-quality materials. Finally, even though the Geigerrig Hydration Engine was the most expensive options ($50), it is so versatile and can also double as a solar shower, remaining a good value pick.
Ease of Use
If your hydration bladder is a pain to drink from, it's failing its main purpose. To evaluate this performance metric, we considered three main things: the bite valve design, the valve locking mechanism, and the versatility of the bladder. In the individual product reviews, we note the limitations of each bladder and how compatible it is with different types of hydration backpacks, noting whether it has a slim or wide profile.
All the bladders tested are relatively easy to drink from, but when you put them side by side, there is a noticeable difference. The Geigerrig Hydration Engine is the only pressurized system we tested. As soon as you bite down on the valve (when pressurized), there is a sufficient flow of water - no sucking required. On its own, this is already an excellent advantage for drinking convenience. We also found many unique and creative uses for the pressurized system. We squirted water in a dog bowl. We cleaned our dog after it laid in the mud and before it got into the car. We cleaned sand off our legs and hosed down a bike. Our favorite use of all was like a sun shower! We have long been looking for a good sun shower option after surfing and SUPing. In addition to these additional applications, it fits nicely into an assortment of hydration packs due to its slim profile.
Other bladders didn't have pressurized systems but still provide ideal water flow. The level of water flow depends on the size of the bite valve and its suckability. When we kept the Geigerrig de-pressurized, it performs similarly to the Osprey Hydraulics LT, Osprey Hydraulics and the Hydrapak Shape-Shift. All bite valves share the same design, as they are all produced by HydraPak. The outside of the valve is a squishy plastic that fits into the mouth for a comfortable bite experience. With a little bit of suck, you get a whole lot of water. These valves are a little smaller than the CamelBak Crux Reservoir and MSR Dromlite but still provide ample water flow with minimal effort. Of all the bite valves, we prefer the Camelbak because of its larger design that offers more water flow.
For locking mechanisms, there are two main designs. The Platypus, MSR Dromlite, and Camelback have a simple (and easy to use) switch, while the other bladders feature a twist lock. The MSR Dromlite hydration hose attachment is the easiest to use (with the biggest switch), followed by the Camelbak and the Platypus. These switch locks are easier to use than the twist locks, mostly because it requires just one hand, and there isn't as much resistance when rotating the valve. These twist lock mechanisms tend to get gummed up and stuck if not cleaned consistently. We avoid this issue by keeping the twist locks in 'open position.' The valves don't leak when opened. As a result, we prefer valves that have a switch as opposed to a locking mechanism as its easier to use on the trail.
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 to take a sip of water. The medium sized (where some attachments screw in) is great for sharing 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.
Ease of Care
Turns out, reservoirs don't clean and take care of themselves. To avoid creating a petri dish for bacterial colonies, you'll need to assume some cleaning responsibilities. When we consider ease of care, there were a few things we think are most important. First; if the bladder can easily be flipped inside out. Some bladders can't flip inside out and as a result, parts of it can't be completely cleaned. Second; is it dishwasher safe? Hydrapak brands (adopted by many top manufacturers) can all be placed in the top rack of a dishwasher (if advised) on low heat and cleaning is thorough. Third; we look at how easy the tube and mouthpiece is to disassemble. Products that didn't allow full disassembly can't be easily cleaned, allowing bacteria to build up in nooks and crannies. Fourth; we consider the porosity of the polymer used in the design of the hydration bladder. Bladders with a thicker, less porous plastic provide an environment that makes it harder for bacteria to grow. Fifth; we consider how easy it is to physically scrub the bladder without the use of a specialized cleaning system. For example; can we get our hand or a scrub brush inside. Using these basic criteria, we evaluate which is the easiest to clean, which is important if you forget to clean your bladder, then come back to it a few weeks later.
Flip-top bladder with a wider mouth and thinner plastics proved to be the easiest to flip inside out. Options that did best in this area include the Geigerrig Hydration Engine and Hydrapak Shape-Shift. Both of these don't have extraneous plastic handles on the outside of the bag, and the mouth is large enough to pull the bag through for an easy clean. Also, these options (in addition to the Osprey Hydraulic contenders) can be put in the top rack of a dishwater to ensure a thorough clean. To top it off, the tops on these bladders are wide enough to get your hand inside if you need to give it a good scrub.
Even though the flip tops prevailed over screw-top options like the MSR Dromlite, each is a little different. Some have smaller openings than others, making it a little harder (but not impossible) to get inside and some have more durable, less porous materials. The Deuter Stream and Source Tactical are both manufactured by Source and host a similar design. They have a slim profile that tapers at the mouth of the bladder, making it a little harder to flip inside-out and clean with a brush than the bladders made by HydraPak. The CamelBak Crux also 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 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 Source). While we can't verify this to be completely true, 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.
All bladders tested to allow the option to detach the hose and clean its parts. Some can be deconstructed further than others. For example; the Geigerrig and Hydrapak options allow you to completely take the bite valve to clean all parts. Same with the Source Tactical. However, some options are not as easy as the Deuter Streamer that doesn't allow bite valve to come off the hose easily.
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 in 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).
Overall, the best and easiest bladders to clean are those constructed by HydraPak that includes the Geigerrig Hydration Engine and HydraPak ShapeShift. If you are looking for a bladder that requires a little less maintenance, check out those made by Source including the Deuter Streamer and Source Tactical
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, 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 Osprey Hydraulics also features a rigid backplate, providing the bladder with a structure that the Osprey Hydraulics LT or other flip-top bladders don't host. As a result, it scores the highest in this category for ease of filling.
Overall, each bladder is easy to fill. The best option for a flip-top bladder is the Osprey Hydraulics with the CamelBack 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 crap 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 testing period. 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.
In our testing period, all the contenders did a decent job providing its function. However, after extended use, we learned that some models are more durable than others, based on the type of textiles and construction used for each. For example, thicker textiles that offer seamless construction are considered higher quality than welded seams that could be pulled apart. Also, those with higher quality switch-based attachment points proved to leak less overall and seem to be more durable than those with "plug and play" attachment points.
The MSR Dromlite is the toughest of the lot, even though the newer construction features a less durable and quality design than its predecessor. The earlier version utilized a Cordura fabric, that seemed to be almost of a nylon that was less prone to wear and tear. Now, it uses a plastic polymer that is similar to what you'd see with most bladders today. That said, it still deserves a high score because we literally tried to trash this bladder, and it stood up to the test. It can be frozen, strapped to the back of a 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. In the past, the mouthpiece is where the MSR Dromlite traditionally started to leak. In our three month testing period, we didn't observe this, but time will tell as we continue to use it throughout the year. Overall, the most versatile and durable bag tested, earning top marks in this metric. A great option for somebody seeking a hydration reservoir that can easily be packed away and is quite durable.
Next is the Geigerrig Hydration Engine and Osprey Hydraulics for different reasons. Both are constructed of a thinner, more plastic polymer that is pretty durable. In addition, the seams can't be pulled apart and last for years. On the Geigerrig, there is an added nylon sleeve that helps to prevent abrasion when placed in a backpack or on a rock. The Osprey Hydraulics is similar but uses a super-hefty backplate that performs the same function. Both are great options for stuffing into a backpack for ample amounts of time or taking out to use as an individual bladder.
Other bladders constructed by Source are unique in the thicker plastic materials used in the construction of the reservoir. They are more resistant to punctures. As a result of this, the Deuter Stream and Source Tactical function nicely as individual water reservoirs that can be loaded into a cooler or frozen for long periods of time. Both didn't score as high as other contenders because of the seemingly cheap handles that both come with, but the outer plastic is burly and overall quite durable. If you're seeking a bladder with a puncture-proof exterior, these are both great options.
Weight and Packability
Keeping your load light on the trail is important. Since water weighs approximately two lbs per liter, 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 with 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 range of 3 oz. The lightest and most packable hydration reservoir is the MSR Dromlite. It is super lightweight (without the hydration attachment) and packs up to the size of its lid, making it a Top Pick for all types of backpacking adventures. Keep in mind; this is just a reservoir and the MSR Hydration Kit needs to be purchased separately.
The lightest hydration bladder (with a hose attached) is the 3L HydraPak ShapeShift featuring few features and an ultra-lightweight construction. This is our Top Pick for its overall performance and superior performance in this metric. It also rolls down to a small size that can be packed away for storage later. Another great lightweight option, that offers a more durable outer fabric (more impervious to punctures) than the ShapeShift is the Deuter Streamer that packs up easier than the HydraPak and is a smidge heavier. Both are great options for everything from a simple day hike to an ultra-running adventure in the desert.
Hydration bladders are pretty simple in the world of gear. They are designed as a lightweight option to keep you hydrated on the trail. Even though the race was close, the Geigerrig Hydration Engine stands out as the most versatile and well-constructed bladder. It's a perfect option for those looking for a hydration bladder that can perform its basic function and a little bit more. 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 and Chris McNamara