Looking to quench your thirst on the go? After researching 30 different models, we put six of the most popular hydration bladders to the test. We took them on day hikes, trail runs, mountain bike rides, and multi-day backpacking trips to see how they fared in a variety of situations. Our side-by-side tests compared how they fit in different packs, how well their various closures worked, and even whether or not they made our water taste like plastic at first. Keep reading below to see which ones we liked best, and you can also check out our hydration pack review if you're looking for a complete setup and not just a bladder.
The Best Hydration Bladders of 2018
Analysis and Award Winners
The temps are finally heating up out there, so it's time to focus on staying hydrated on the trail. We've updated our hydration bladder review to make sure it's ready to go as you gear up for spring and summer hiking, running, biking, or whatever else it is that you do. Camelbak has updated some of their product lines, and the new Antidote replaced the old Crux model. No matter the name, we still liked it a lot, and it has kept its Best Buy award status. We also have some specific recommendations for backpackers and those looking for the lightest possible options, and of course our overall Editors' Choice award winner, which you'll find right below.
Geigerrig Hydration Engine
The Geigerrig Hydration Engine earned 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 loved 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 our old Best Buy winner, 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 very 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
Weight (3L size): 4.85 oz | Dishwasher friendly?: Yes
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 will shave some ounces off your back, and in sports where every teeny tiny bit of weight counts, we appreciate the lightest possible gear. We loved 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 all the models tested (except the MSR Dromlite) 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 one of the most versatile hydration bladders we tested and one of the most durable models out there. It's a little different than most bladders since its exterior is made of nylon instead of a plastic polymer. It sports a 3 in 1 top that makes accessing water easy. It's a perfect option for backpacking because of its durable exterior. If you run out of interior pack space, you can lash this to the outside without fear of puncturing it unless you're trying hard to.
Keep in mind that this is a bladder only. 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. You also need to take care when filling it in small streams, as the nylon fabric will get wet and retain water. If you put that back in your pack, you might end up with some wet clothing. We did love that we could fill it with hot beverages though, unlike most other hydration bladders, and it doubles as a hot water bottle on cold nights. If you want a container with more capacity and flexibility than a water bottle but don't care for hydration hoses, this is the bladder to get. If you want a less expensive option just for having water around camp, we recommend the Nalgene Cantene in the 96 oz size. It weighs less than 3 ounces and costs about 1/2 as much as the DromLite.
Read review: MSR DromLite
Analysis and Test Results
A hydration bladder is a small reservoir designed to hold your water while hiking, biking, or on any outdoor adventure. We tested six of the top competitors on the market side-by-side for months full of all the above activities and more. Taking notes and comparing along the way, we came to understand each product's given strengths and weaknesses. All models were rated across the same performance criteria, including their ease of use, care and filling, how heavy they were and their durability. Below we break down our ratings for each testing metric and highlight which ones stood out in each category.
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 ranged between $30 and $50, which is not that big a difference. However, there is still a value factor to consider, as 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.
The chart below shows how the different models ranked according to their price. The MSR DromLite ($30), didn't score that high overall, but it'll take a beating and come back for more. We've personally had this bag for years, and it's withstood dozens of trips. The CamelBak Crux ($30) is also a good value (and our Best Buy winner), as it is made to last. Finally, even though the Geigerrig Hydration Engine was the most expensive options ($50), it is so versatile and can even double as a solar shower that it remains a good value pick in our opinion.
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. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that hydration bladders aren't just good for drinking water - they have many other fun and interesting applications as well!
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 we bite down on the valve, there was a sufficient flow of water - no sucking required. On its own, this is already a great 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 as a sun shower! We have long been looking for a good sun shower option after surfing and SUPing.
The problem with most solar showers is that they depend on hanging the water up high from a tree branch so that you can get enough water pressure. Most parking lots are tree free where we surf, making the pressurized water bladder a perfect solution. We were able to spray ourselves down for a fine rinse before heading home after a day in the sun. As a result of its versatile and easy use, the Hydration Engine bladder scored a perfect ten in this category.
Other bladders tested didn't have pressurized systems but provided great water flow. The level of water flow depended on the size of the bite valve and its suckability. When we kept the Geigerrig de-pressurized, this Editors' Choice winner performed similarly to the Osprey Hydraulics LT and Hydrapak Shape-Shift. The bite valves are a little smaller than the CamelBak Crux Reservoir and MSR Dromlite hydration system but it provided ample water flow with minimal suck. The Platypus Big Zip LP had a larger bite valve that was noticeable harder to drink water from. Luckily we were able to change it out (which we did). Overall, we preferred medium-sized valves as they provided ample water flow with little effort. This was especially helpful when running or biking - or when we were out of breath.
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 was the easiest to use (with the biggest switch), followed by the Camelbak and the Platypus. Since all other bladders were manufactured by Hydrapak, the twist locks were the same. We found this was harder to use, as there was much resistance when rotating the valve. We also noticed that it got stuck easily if it wasn't cleaned consistently and sugary liquids had gone through the line. We typically kept the twist locks in 'open position' because of this and we were happy to find that there was no leakage in this set-up. As a result, bladders with a switch scored higher than those with a twist lock.
Ease of Care
Turns out, reservoirs don't clean and take care of themselves. To avoid creating a petri dish for bacteria, you'll need to assume some cleaning responsibilities. When we considered ease of care, there were a few things we thought were most important. The first was if the bladder could 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, was whether or not it is 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. In the process, all bacteria are killed, making the bladder sterile. In the case you don't have access to a dishwasher, we looked to see if a basic scrubbing brush would fit inside and scrub the bladder completely. Those with a larger mouth opening typically did better than those with a smaller opening. Finally, we looked at how easy the tube and mouthpiece was to disassemble. Products that didn't allow full disassembly didn't do as well as those that did, as bacteria could build up in little nooks and crannies. With these criteria, we were able to determine which products were the easiest and hardest to clean.
Of all the products tested, the flip top variety is the easiest to clean while the screw top proved to be the hardest. Flip top options like the Geigerrig, Hydrapak Flex-Form, and the Osprey Hydraulics LT can be turned inside out and thrown into the dishwasher, while other brands have to be cleaned manually. A tablet like Hydrapak Bottle Bright is a non-toxic formula that removes stains and odors.
Flip top bladders are the easiest to access via a scrub brush because of their wide mouth openings. Even though the flip tops prevailed over the others, each is a little different. The Hydrapak and Geigerrig scored top marks because both the tube, reservoir, and mouthpiece are easy to take apart, clean, and put back together. The Geigerrig Hydration Engine also claims that with its high-pressure system, it is always flushing bacteria - arguably keeping it cleaner longer. We can't verify that, but we had no problems with it during our testing period. The Osprey, on the other hand, scored lower because the hose connection was not right at the base of the pack and instead located a little further up the tube. As a result, it couldn't be flipped inside out as easily, and the lower portion of the tube was much harder to clean. Sold separately is the Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir Cleaning Kit to help with the cleaning process.
Following the flip top bladders was the large screw top and zip top bladders. The CamelBak Crux has a large opening, making it easy to get a brush inside. We also liked how it had additional 'drying arms' that ensured the bladder didn't collapse on itself. This resulted in decent ventilation without the use of the 'drying hanger'. The Platypus was similar to the flip top types, except the opening was much smaller and the bladder couldn't be flipped inside out. As a result, it was a little more difficult to clean.
Lastly, the MSR Dromlite was the hardest to clean. Given that this is sold as a water reservoir, it truly does its job storing water. That said, the opening was very small and there is no way you could fit your hand inside. Instead, a smaller brush was used to clean it, but sometimes we couldn't reach places located around the reservoir's mouth. It was also unable to flip inside out. Because of this lack of access, we recommend that no sugary drinks are placed in this reservoir unless you are prepared to clean it with quick dissolve tablets.
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).
Ease of Filling
How easy is your bladder to fill? Bladders that scored high in this metric hosted a handle and non-floppy construct with the affinity to turn the bladder either vertically or horizontally while filling. We also liked bladders with a longer 'tongue-like' flip top, allowing easy fill up in small trickling streams. For each, we compared filling in sinks, streams, lakes, and rivers. We went out to the backwoods where water was sparse and where it was plentiful. In the end, we were able to determine which was the easiest to fill, and which wasn't.
All the bladders tested scored fairly well in this metric. We could easily pinch or hold each contender under a deep sink to get water inside. The chart displayed here shows how each bladder ranked in the Ease of Filling metric.
What sets each bladder apart is the challenge of filling in a shallow sink or low-flowing stream. The bladders with plastic handles near the openings were the easiest to fill. We found the zip tops were harder to get full in shallow sinks and cramped drinking fountains. We could only get them about 80% full, and if you try to fill them as much as possible, there was often a little spilling. That said, in tiny dribbling streams, flip top styles were the easiest to fill as you can get the openings flat against the stream-bed. The Osprey Hydraulics LT did an especially good job with this, as the flip top was much longer than any other bladder tested, almost creating a spout to collect or pour water from. It also featured a helpful handle to aid in the process.
There was not a giant spread in the competition here, but if we had to choose one winner, it would be the CamelBak Crux Reservoir. The cap easily loosens and tightens and folds out of the way. It has a bomber handle that makes it easy to fill this in shallow sinks and water fountains. Second is the MSR Dromlite. Similar to the CamelBak, it also has a screw top with a pronounced handle. The bag shifts horizontally for easy filling in most conditions.
Through our testing time frame of three months, we tried to be rough and tough with each bladder. We put them in the freezer, poured in warm drinks, laid them out in the sun, tugged at their seams, threw them around, put them in backpacks, let the dog play with them, and even tried to crush them under pressure. 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 there were any leering issues that needed to be proven correct or incorrect. When putting each bladder side by side we were able to determine small differences in quality - but not huge ones.
In our tests, all the contenders stood up and didn't show leakage or durability issues. Each, in fact, earned a pretty high score in this category, though there were some differences between the types of textiles used to construct the bladders. For example, tough fabrics and seamless construction were considered higher quality than welded seams that could easily be pulled apart. Those using thicker materials were also acknowledged, as they are less prone to puncture.
The MSR Dromlite is the toughest of the lot. This Top Pick for Backpacking earned a perfect ten because it continued to perform after we threw it around and treated it like garbage. The Cordura fabric is uber tough and fairly light. It didn't abrade or show signs of wear and tear after three months of formal testing and years of personal use. As a result, we highly recommended it for backpacking trips and other adventures where you might need a rugged reservoir. It's also lighter than the traditional MSR Dromedary Bags. We loved that it had a high-temperature threshold and were happy to fill it with hot coffee and frigid water.
Next was the Geigerrig and CamelBak for different reasons. The Geigerrig feels like one of the most hardily constructed bladders and they have a host of semi-hilarious videos on their website where they torture-test them. The added nylon sleeve helps to prevent further abrasion when placed in a backpack full of stuff. However, the material is a little thinner than the CamelBak. The Camelbak had decent quality, and even though it featured welded seams, we were unable to pull them apart.
The HydraPak and Osprey reservoirs both did a fine job, but the thinner material made us think twice when we went to throw it around. The Platypus scored the lowest simply because the bladder itself reminds us of a large ziplock bag. The welded seams seemed flimsy, and when taking the time to see if we could pull it apart, we noticed the seams detaching quite easily. As a result, we concluded the quality wasn't as high as the other contenders. We did, however, love the uber thick plastic that could easily stand up to punctures.
When heading out on the trail, keeping a light load is important. Since water weighs approximately two lbs per liter, additional weight on the bladder itself can add up. The products that scored the highest in this metric were simple and lightweight without too many bells and whistles. We tested all reservoirs by weighing them on the same scale with the tubing and mouthpiece attached. The lightest pack scored the highest.
Each model varied in weight but within a small range of 2-3 ounces. The 3L HydraPak Shape Shift was our lightest contender (4.85 oz), winning our Top Pick for Lightweight Adventures. It has a simple, no-frills design that was a popular pick among both our trail running and biking friends. The 2L MSR Dromlite was similar in weight (4.75 oz) when we didn't factor in the additional MSR Hydration Kit (sold separately); but, when the tubing was factored in, it was the heaviest of the hydration systems tested (6.90 oz) for just a 2L reservoir. However, we still gave this a Top Pick for Backpacking as the 3 in 1 mouthpiece is sufficient when you're looking to get a hefty drink on the trail. Many of our testers didn't even want the tube and mouthpiece system.
The Geigerrig bladder was next, weighing in at only 5.85 oz. Since this bladder has additional CamelBak weighed the same as the Osprey bladder, but the Osprey was only a 2.5L reservoir. As a result, it scored a little lower. In the past, the Osprey used a reinforced plastic backing that made it 11.2 oz! So this is a fantastic improvement over past models. Last but not least is the Platypus Big Zip LP. The plastic used on this bladder is a little heavier than others and weighs just a hair more (6.25 oz). That said, we didn't notice the difference in the field, and we think it's quite light for most outdoor endeavors.
Tips for Use
Even though bladders seem pretty easy to use, we have a few tips from our testers to optimize the use you get out of a bladder. We give you the low-down on tube clips, hot and cold drinks in your bladder, burping your bladder (like a baby), and proper maintenance. In the maintenance section, we discuss how to ensure your bladder stays clean so you can stay healthy! Enjoy!
One of the most annoying parts of a hydration bladder can be the tube. This hangs over the shoulder and without a means to secure it means it will bounce around. Tube clips are used to remedy this problem. They come in two forms; the pinch and magnetic clip. The pinch clip simply slides over the tube, and clips onto a shoulder or chest strap. The magnetic clip is similar except you choose a place to put the first magnet. We liked to use the chest strap. The other magnet sits on the tube; the magnets are strong and hold the tube in place. Of the two, we liked the magnetic clip as it was more convenient. However, one issue we encountered was it would sometimes fall off because the orientation of the magnetic piece wasn't perfect. Tube clips are universal and should fit all models.
Hot and Cold Drinks
Most bladders are constructed with a plastic-based material that can be temperature sensitive. In general, you shouldn't put hot liquids in your bladder unless the manufacturer says it's okay. The HydraPak brand bladders (Osprey, HydraPak, and Geigrigg) claim to be safe while frozen and up to temperatures of 140*F (warm not hot). The other bladders don't make claims about how they perform in hot or cold temperatures.
Unlike the rest, the MSR Dromlite can withstand extreme temperatures - hot or cold. We filled it with tea and froze it solid, which we loved on cold nights when we needed a hot water bottle to keep us warm in our sleeping bag. This is due to the super durable nylon fabric with a higher temperature threshold. As a result, it's one of the most versatile hydration systems. In all, avoid extreme temperatures in any plastic-based hydration system.
Burp Your Bladder
Are you tired of water sloshing on your back while you explore the great outdoors? Most folks new to the hydration bladder don't know this trick that can be incredibly helpful on the trail. What is burping your bladder you ask? It's simply removing the excessive amounts of air to a) ensure it fits well in a pack and b) to prevent sloshing. Follow the steps to burp!Step 1: Fill your bladder with water.
Step 2: Seal your bladder with its lid closure.
Step 3: Turn it upside down so the excess air is at the bottom of the bag (or where the tube connects to the reservoir).
Step 4: Suck all the excess air through the tube until water starts to flow through the tube.
Voila! You've burped your bladder.
Tips for Care
Cleaning and caring for your bladder is extremely important to ensure you don't encounter bacteria growth or mineral build up over time. As discussed in our buying advice article, some reservoirs are machine washable while others are not. If you don't have access to a washing machine, diligent manual cleaning is of utmost importance. In this section, we provide you with tips on cleaning your bladder and O-ring maintenance. Every hydration pack requires care of three parts; the main reservoir, the hose, and mouthpiece. Commonly, users will take time to clean and air the reservoir but forget about the hose and mouthpiece. These are two major culprits of nasty bacteria growth, so don't get lazy. If you start to smell something moldy, it's time for maintenance.The Bladder
There are many videos online showing how to clean and maintain the reservoir. It should be cleaned with warm water and mild soap. If a bladder is dishwasher safe, make sure to clean it inside out on the top shelf (to prevent melting) at low temperatures.
Turn it inside out: If your bladder can be flipped inside out, do this and gently scrub (using a non-abrasive pad) with warm water and mild soap.
Use a brush: Use a simple cleaning brush to scrub the inside of the bladder (especially if it can't be turned inside out). This works great for bladders that have a mouth opening only large enough for a brush.
Use a cleaning tablet: There are many hydration pack cleaning tablets that you can use. Simply fill the bladder with warm water, drop the tablet in, and let it sit. Shake it a few times, discard, and rinse. Some tablets require a little more time than others, so make sure to read the directions carefully. If you don't want to buy a cleaning tablet, use Polident (the same stuff used to clean dentures) found at your local drug store. You can also buy tablets called Hydrapak Bottle Bright; these tablets are biodegradable and chlorine free.
Cleaning on the trail: Use warm water and a mild (biodegradable) soap. Fill the reservoir, shake, leave it in the sun (this kills all bacteria with UV light), rinse, and dry. If you have baking soda on hand, use this with water for a great clean.
Make sure you allow the bladder to dry completely. You can buy a drying hanger, or construct your own. We liked to use kitchen tongs to keep the bladder from sticking to itself. This ensures complete drying and no bacteria growth.
The simplest way to maintain the hose is to ensure no water stays in the hose after use. Just blow the water back through and dry. However, we doubt this is adequate to get all the bacteria out when using sugary drinks. That said, you can buy hose cleaning kits that feature a plethora of brushes. Most brands feature cleaning kits that are compatible across the board. Ensure the brushes are long enough to reach through at least 60% of the tube. You will have to clean it from both ends to get the entire length. The CamelBak Cleaning Kit is only $20 and seems to be compatible with most designs, though we haven't formally tested it.The Mouthpiece
Of all parts, the mouthpiece tends to be the most forgotten about in the cleaning process. Each mouthpiece is different, but there are many online videos showing how to take your mouthpiece apart. In doing so, take off the tubing (if possible) and deconstruct the mouthpiece. Use a small cleaning brush to remove any nasty residue that you might find in cracks and crevices. Dry while deconstructed, then put it back together. If you are unsure how to deconstruct the mouthpiece, check the company website and look under the 'cleaning and care' section.The O-ring
All the bladders tested (except the MSR) have an O-ring in the quick release port that ensures there is no leakage and helps to maintain a tight seal. It's important to lubricate the O-ring to make certain that the quick release system continues to perform. In the past, our main tester had a quick release port fail because she failed to keep it lubed. Use a food-grade silicone lubricant on the end of the hose to be sure this stays primed. We recommend doing this for all products - not just the HydraPak brand.
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.