Best Overall Hydration Pack
Osprey Syncro 12
34 oz | Pack Size:
High-end quality and construction
Great comfort and support
Excellent storage and organization
Very breathable back panel
No hip belt pockets
The Osprey Syncro 12 earns our top overall ranking after making an immediate positive impression on our testers with its versatile design and high-quality construction. Its well laid out storage and organization options, comfortable and breathable back panel, and top-notch hydration system earn it solid scores in nearly every performance metric. We especially like the well-placed drinking hose release clip that makes filling and replacing the bladder a breeze, and the storage layout that includes both well-placed pockets and plenty of overall volume for bulkier items like a jacket or sweatshirt. This pack doesn't show any significant weaknesses and exhibits the quality that we've come to expect from Osprey products. One tester has been using this pack consistently for over a year without any noticeable wear or tear.
While the Syncro is an all-around capable option, the quality construction and a multitude of features land it among the heaviest packs in our lineup. A comfortable carrying system compensates for this, but there are lower-profile options that are probably better for fast and light pursuits. We also appreciate designs with zippered hip belt pockets, one of the only high-end features notably absent from this model. Overall, the Syncro does an impressive job balancing storage volume, organization, carrying comfort, and hydration performance, earning it our highest honor and strong recommendation.
Read review: Osprey Syncro 12
Best Bang for the Buck
Gregory Nano 18 H2O
: 25.5 oz | Pack Size
Amazing volume to weight ratio
Large water capacity
Simple and intuitive design
Mediocre back panel ventilation
Limited storage pockets
With its ample storage volume, low weight, and surprisingly low price tag, the Gregory Nano 18 H2O earns recognition once again for its excellent value. This awesome pack has one of the larger storage volumes (18 liters) and water capacities (3 liters) in this category, all while coming in with one of the lowest weights and lowest prices. The simple, straightforward design makes it easy to carry bulkier items in the primary storage compartment and keep smaller items organized in the exterior zippered pocket on the top lid. At the same time, the hydration system is easy to use and take in and out of the pack.
As one of the lowest-priced packs in our review, the Nano 18 H2O does sacrifice some more luxurious features found on some of the more expensive packs. While it's certainly a comfortable bag, the padded back panel is not as breathable as other models with open mesh panels, potentially leading to a hot, sweaty back. And while the large main storage compartment is great for stashing bulkier items, it doesn't have the detailed organization and storage capabilities found on other packs with multiple interior pockets or fancier fleece-lined pockets. Although it doesn't have some of these higher-end features, the Gregory Nano 18 H2O certainly out-performs many packs with higher price tags, giving it an impressive bang for the buck.
Read review: Gregory Nano 18 H2O
Best for Tight-Budget Minimalists
: 11.2 oz | Pack Size
Strong performance despite a minimal design
Shoulder straps snug for some users
The CamelBak Classic continues to be an optimal choice for those who want an affordable, top of the line hydration system without the need for extra storage or fancy features. With its 2.5-liter Crux hydration system, it scores well for ease of drinking and filling and is consistently one of the lightest bags in our lineup and on the market. This pack is essentially just a bladder and some shoulder straps with a pocket for your keys and phone, but sometimes that's all you want or need.
It's a bit more difficult to clean this reservoir than other folding wide-mouth models, so think twice before dumping a bunch of drink mix in there unless you want to start a microbiology experiment. There's one small pocket to hold your keys and an energy bar, and that's about it. But if you don't need a pack with extra storage, or are continually switching from biking to running and want something that'll work for both, the CamelBak Classic is an excellent choice that won't set you back a ton of cash.
Read review: CamelBak Classic
Best Storage and Organization
Gregory Endo 15L
: 37.9 oz | Pack Size
Several pockets and storage features
Adjustable hip belt height
Ventilated mesh back panel
Reservoir not easily removable
With a large 3-liter 3D-Hydro water reservoir, a comfortable and adjustable suspension system, and a pocket or sleeve for every piece of gear, the Gregory Endo 15 is recognized for its outstanding storage and organization. In addition to a large main storage compartment that houses the water reservoir and a removable tool pouch, this pack includes a front zippered compartment with a padded and lined sunglasses pocket, an external zippered valuables pocket, and zippered hip belt pockets. A ventilated back panel supports the cleverly designed storage features with moisture-wicking mesh and an adjustable Shift RS hip belt to help dial in a comfortable custom fit.
While the high-end features on this pack are undoubtedly impressive, they do come with a weight penalty, making the Endo 15 one of the heaviest packs in our lineup. And although the 3-liter reservoir provides plenty of capacity, it's a little bit trickier to access and remove than models with a separate reservoir sleeve, and its smaller circular opening makes refilling and cleaning more complicated than with some of the other top-rated hydration systems. However, if you're looking for a heavy-duty hauler to help organize all of your hiking gear, bike tools, camping equipment, or tools for fieldwork, the Endo 15 makes a great choice.
Read review: Gregory Endo 15
Best Drinking Hose Design
Thule Vital 6L
20.2 oz | Pack Size:
Innovative drinking hose attachment
Excellent storage for size and weight
Limited overall storage volume
Tedious water reservoir hanger
The Thule Vital 6L made a significant impression on our testers with its revolutionary ReTrakt drinking hose return system. While every other top model has some sort of hose clip or magnetic bite valve attachment, nothing else comes close to the simplicity and performance of this design. The drinking bite valve is conveniently housed along the right shoulder strap with a long, flexible magnetic strip, which makes it easy to grasp and where it reliably and securely returns when you release it. Along with a lightweight pack design, a low center of gravity, and wide hip belt and shoulder straps, the Vital provides a secure, comfortable fit without any bouncing or flopping around.
While we were blown away by the drinking hose return system on the outside of the pack, we were a little underwhelmed with the reservoir housing inside the bag. The hanger loop and T-shaped reservoir hook are more tedious to work with than most other designs, making removing and replacing the reservoir for refilling or cleaning a bit more challenging. The 6-liter storage volume is on the smaller side, but is an ideal design for a day out on the bike, and has enough room to pack a jacket and all of your essential gear. For anyone who loves the convenience of a hydration bladder but is tired of the drinking hose always flopping around, this is the model for you.
Read review: Thule Vital 6
The Journey Series provides plenty of comfort and the ultimate luxury of chilled water out on the trail.
Why You Should Trust Us
To test hydration packs, we enlisted the expertise of gear testers Nick Bruckbauer, Jason Cronk, and Jeremy Benson. As experienced hikers, bikers, and all-around outdoorsmen, this trio understands the importance of quality gear and efficient hydration. As residents of the beautiful Lake Tahoe area, Jason and Jeremy can be found shredding the trails all year via foot, bike, or skis. When he's not trekking in Nepal, skiing in Alaska, or scaling 14ers in Colorado, Nick makes his home along California's Central Coast, where he regularly immerses himself in the Pacific Ocean and among the local 4,000 ft mountain peaks.
For several months, we used these backpacks all over the mountains, trails, and roads of California's Coastal Ranges, the Sierra Nevada, and even a quick trip to Colorado's Rocky Mountains. We filled, drank, rode, hiked, ran, and skied while keeping notes on each pack's performance. We recruited other hikers and riders to use the packs and give us feedback on what they did or didn't like and why. Then we rated them based on their ease of drinking, filling, and cleaning, their comfort and storage capabilities, and their overall weight.
Related: How We Tested Hydration Packs
Analysis and Test Results
After a thorough examination of the best hydration packs on today's market, we carefully selected these 14 models from some of the industry's most trusted manufacturers. Each model in our lineup comes with a built-in hydration bladder and drinking hose, with a unique bladder housing design, hose routing system, and drinking bite valve attachment. The small nuances between each backpack and hydration system design can significantly impact the ease of drinking from, filling, and cleaning the water reservoir, as well as the overall comfort and utility of the backpack. We analyzed each backpack and hydration system design across six different rating metrics to help you identify which models excel in which areas, so that you're ready to tackle your next outing.
Related: Buying Advice for Hydration Packs
We recommend the best possible products here at OutdoorGearLab, but also recognize that not everyone is looking to pay top dollar every time. Since most of us are looking for a good balance between price and performance, we compare prices and overall performance ratings for each hydration pack we tested to illuminate higher and lower value products.
Generally speaking, most hydration packs are usually already a pretty good value because you get a water bladder and a backpack. Similar sized daypacks out there cost just as much as the options in this review but don't include a hydration reservoir. The Gregory Nano 18 H20 provides a 3-liter reservoir with a large storage volume and outstanding comfort at almost half the price of some high-end models, while the CamelBak Classic provides a top-notch hydration system in a minimalist pack design at an even lower price.
Who doesn't love a good value? The Gregory Nano 18 is one of the best values we've tested.
Ease of Drinking
Since the primary purpose of using a hydration pack is, well, hydration, our testing focused on each model's overall drinking performance. In addition to the flow rate performance of each hydration system, we analyzed how well each hydration system interacts with the pack itself. The security of the bite valve attachment system, the routing of the drinking hose through the bag, and the overall reservoir volume were all equally considered in addition to the ease of gulping down the liquid goods.
Throughout our testing, the differences between how easily each model delivers the flow of water became more apparent, and we started narrowing down the performance of each brand. While huffing, puffing, and panting our way up and down hills, we found that the CamelBak products with their Crux hydration systems and Big Bite valves are the easiest from which to drink. While we could only manage small sips without feeling like we were suffocating with some other packs, the CamelBak products allowed us to gulp our water as we pleased. Following closely behind are the HydraPak hydration systems found on a wide array of products including the Osprey models.
Related: Best Hydration Bladder of 2020
Not all bite valves are created equally. CamelBak's Big Bite valve is easy to use and includes a shutoff valve.
The design of the hydration system within the pack can also have a significant impact on drinking performance. Fumbling around with a floppy drinking hose or bite valve, or getting a hose kinked, or running out of water too soon can be detrimental to your optimum hydration. In this category, packs with larger water reservoir volumes and better drinking hose attachment systems score well. Standing out is the Thule Vital 6 with its innovative ReTrakt drinking hose return system that keeps the bite valve very secure and easily accessible.
The ReTrakt drinking hose return system features a flexible magnetic strip that keeps the drinking hose secure to the shoulder strap, easily accessible for drinking, and easily returnable to its secure position.
Ease of Filling
How easy is your reservoir to fill up? Compared to the "old days" when you had to dismantle your entire pack to fill up a likely-to-puncture hydration bladder with a narrow one-inch opening, today's models are more user-friendly than ever.
One crucial aspect of this metric is the size of the opening of the hydration bladder you're filling. Some packs like the TETON Sports Trailrunner 2.0 have an older style of opening of only 2 inches. With a reservoir opening that small, the logistics of filling up can be more complicated depending on your water source. The Gregory Nano 18 H2O and Endo 15 also have a traditional circular opening of about 3 inches.
The 3D Hydro bladder in the Nano 18 is simple to fill in the kitchen sink, but the circular opening may be challenging under more difficult circumstances.
At the other end of the spectrum, most of the packs we tested are equipped with bladders that fold completely open on their upper end. These larger openings make filling the bladder with water and even large ice cubes that much easier. This design is by far the best for filling up at trickling streams (be sure to add a chemical treatment in the bladder or filter inline with the hose).
Related: Best Backpacking Water Filter of 2020
The hydration bladder handle is a convenient addition.
Somewhere in the middle is where the Crux hydration bladders fall on the CamelBak products. These bladders all have a circular opening near the top of the bladder that has a 4-inch diameter, which proved adequate, even for dropping ice cubes in. The CamelBak options are easy filling, but not quite the easiest.
The Classic and Rogue share the same wide mouth and convenient handle to make filling up quick and easy.
How important this metric is may depend on where you usually fill your hydration bladder. Do you always fill from your convenient and deep kitchen sink? Do you ever find yourself traveling and filling up your pack from a shallow hotel sink? How about filling on the go from natural sources like lakes and streams? As the water sources become less convenient, the more critical the reservoir opening is. The size of the bladder opening can make a significant difference in the time it takes to fill as well as the effort needed. A wider opening generally makes filling up easier and vice versa for narrower openings.
All of the Osprey models have convenient wide-mouth openings.
Perhaps more important than the design of the hydration bladder itself, the location of the bladder inside the pack can have a considerable impact on how easy it is to fill. Some models, like the CamelBak Rogue and CamelBak Classic, place the opening front and center with easy access for filling from a sink. Other packs like the TETON Sports Trailrunner 2.0 and the insulated Hydro Flask Journey Series are designed with the hydration bladder in a harder to reach location. The majority of our contenders have relatively easy access to a dedicated hydration bladder sleeve, making the bladders easily accessible, even when the bag is filled with gear. The easier it is to refill your pack, especially in the middle of a hike or ride, the easier it is to ensure you're consuming enough water to stay hydrated. With today's packs, there's no more dumping the entire contents of your pack in frustration so that you can refill.
The extra bulk of the insulated bladder and insulated housing sleeve on the Hydro Flask makes removing and replacing the bladder challenging.
Some packs in our lineup also include a convenient quick-release button where the drinking hose connects to the bladder. One of our top-ranked models, the Osprey Syncro 12, includes quick-release buttons in addition to an easily accessible separate bladder pocket and a wide mouth bladder opening, making removing, refilling, and replacing a breeze.
The easily accessible bladder sleeve and quick release tubing on the Syncro 12 make it one of the easiest bladders to remove and refill.
A pack's level of comfort includes several factors. One of the first things we looked at was the intended use of all our test packs. Is the pack designed for carrying water and not much else like the CamelBak Classic or TETON Trailsports 2.0? Is your intended use to carry more gear, along with more water like the Gregory Endo 15 or the Deuter Compact EXP 12? Or are you looking for a larger daypack like the Osprey Skarab 18 or the Gregory Nano 18 H2O? Simply deciding how you'll be using your new pack is an essential early step in your hunt.
If you load down an ultralight pack with too much weight, the comfort level will quickly diminish. Conversely, if you tend to carry a minimum of items and only partially fill your hydration bladder, a larger, more extensive pack may be overkill. Having too large of a model isn't necessarily uncomfortable, but may create an excess of material that allows the contents of the bag to move around. These factors can decrease your overall comfort.
The padded mesh back panel on the Journey Series pack is well-ventilated and very comfortable.
When testing, we kept our comparison loads similarly weighted. For hiking, we typically carried a light jacket, two liters of water, a couple of nutrition bars, lip balm, a cell phone, and sunscreen. For biking, we brought the same items, plus some biking essentials like a spare tube, frame pump, and multi-tool. Beyond these basics, we had several wild card scenarios, like spring backcountry skiing, or using the pack as a gym bag. Some of our smaller models, especially the minimalist style packs obviously wouldn't be suitable for this, but the larger 18L and 20L models we tested certainly proved versatile and could be compared while under a more massive load.
The larger capacity of the Skarab 18 comes in handy for doubling as a gym bag.
Once the overall pack size is determined, it's time to look at the overall construction of the hydration pack and test how it supports and carries a load. The test models had four fundamental foundations: No frame, like the minimalist design CamelBak Classic, a stiffened foam frame sheet, like our value-oriented Gregory Nano 18 H2O, light wireframe like the high-end Osprey Syncro 12, and metal frame stays like the Deuter Compact EXP 12.
The stiffened foam back panel on the Nano 18 handles heavier loads with ease.
For lower weights, a pack without any real frame construction provides excellent comfort but suffers as you add weight. The more substantial the frame, the better the bag handles increased gear weight. We were pleasantly surprised at the support we felt when we loaded the Skarab 18 up with a full day's backcountry gear and started hiking. It doesn't provide the degree of support that a specialized ski pack would but isn't explicitly designed for that. Not surprisingly, the Deuter Compact EXP 12 and the REI Trail Hydro 20 are heavier themselves and deal with the heavier pack loads with ease.
The Trail Hydro 20 is an affordable, comfortable pack with a huge 20-liter storage capacity.
We also tested the packs for breathability as this affects your comfort quite a bit (think sweat-saturated back on a chilly and windy day). One of our contenders with the best ventilation design is the wireframed Syncro 12. This high level of breathability is accomplished by keeping the pack body away from your back, providing superior airflow using a suspension wireframe, and a highly breathable mesh back panel. The Gregory Endo 15 and Hydroflask Journey Series also provide proper ventilation with comfortable back panels that are separated from the body of the backpack.
The Syncro 12 has excellent ventilation and a sturdy frame, but could benefit from a thicker hip belt and some hip belt pockets.
Another consideration when it comes to comfort is the shoulder strap construction. A good portion of the pack's weight rides on your shoulders, especially for models with no hip belt or a skinny webbing belt. Shoulder straps with a more anatomic cut are more comfortable. Not surprisingly, the higher-priced packs in our lineup tend to have this feature and are more comfortable. The Patagonia Nine Trails 14 and the REI Trail Hydro 20 both have thick padded shoulders straps.
The Patagonia Nine Trails has some very comfortable foam padding on the shoulder straps and hip belt.
Some hydration pack users prefer a more substantial hip belt like the Hydroflask Journey Series or the Thule Vital 6. In contrast, others prefer no hip belt like the CamelBak Cloud Walker 18 or the CamelBak Rogue and Classic. Then there's the middle option, a narrower, less padded belt which we found on many of our packs including the Gregory Nano 18 H2O and the Osprey Syncro 12. The belt decision is subjective, and only you can decide which style you like. Still, generally speaking, the more substantial the hip belt, the better the pack will carry heavier loads.
If you're on the fence about hip belts, look for a model that offers it as a removable feature.
The extra-wide hip belt on the Vital 6 hugs your body and helps keep loads snugly supported.
Where a pack's comfort is a cocktail of individual ingredients, storage space is a bit more straightforward. Are you only carrying water? Do you regularly carry extras in your pack, like snacks and an extra layer? How about carrying the kitchen sink? Depending on your typical day out and what you tend to bring with you, it's relatively easy to figure out how much space you need.
Once you've decided on a size, you can begin narrowing down how you want your storage space organized. Do you prefer one or two simple compartments? If that's your style, see the Gregory Nano 18 H2O or maybe the Osprey Skarab 18 with their basic daypack style. Alternatively, do you like lots of individual compartments where your equipment and food can be more organized? If you need specialized gear storage, things like bike pump keeper loops might be a consideration, like in some of our mid-sized packs like the Gregory Endo 15 or Osprey Syncro 12. Many options like the REI Trail Hydro 20 also have external loops or daisy chains to give you a bit of extra storage for things like trekking poles.
The Trail Hydro 20 has external daisy chain attachments for securing additional gear to the outside of the pack.
We were especially impressed with the storage features on the Gregory Endo 15. In addition to a solid 15-liters of overall volume, the Endo has a multitude of storage compartments, zippered pockets, padded sleeves, and hip belt pockets.
Here at OutdoorGearLab, we measure items' weights ourselves, as sometimes claimed weights aren't always accurate, and our lineup of hydration packs is no exception. We weighed each pack with its included hydration system.
In our lineup, there was a surprising weight variance between the low and high ends of the spectrum. The CamelBak Classic weighs in at 11.2 ounces, while the upper end of the range, the insulated Hydro Flask Journey Series, rings in at 3 pounds, 1 ounce. The more fully-featured packs like the Osprey Syncro 12 and the Gregory Endo 15 both tipped the scales at over 2 pounds, while the Osprey Skarab 18 and the Gregory H2O both came in at a respectable 1 pound, 9.5 ounces.
While the Endo has almost every feature imaginable, it also tips the scales at almost 2.5 pounds, which is on the heavier end of our lineup.
The CamelBak Classic scores well in this metric with its simple, lightweight design. If you only need the bare necessities, this is an excellent option for those on a budget who are also concerned with weight. It's also an excellent choice for kids, keeping the pup hydrated, or occasional hydration pack users.
The low weight and simple design of the pack make it comfortable for light and fast movers. This pack was the lightest in the fleet, weighing in at a low 11.2 ounces.
How much emphasis this metric has on your hydration pack decision making is up to you. Some riders and runners want things as light as possible where others don't mind an extra few ounces or even a pound if it means their pack is more organized and comfortable.
The Vital 6 provides surprisingly useful storage space in a lightweight package.
Ease of Cleaning
We know that most users may not clean their bladders as often as they probably should. We're not pointing fingers or making judgments, because we're guilty too. With today's hydration packs, though, it's easier than ever to do a quick and thorough cleaning of your hydration system to keep the petri-dish effect to a minimum.
Overall, the quicker the access to the bladder itself, the easier the cleaning process is. Beyond that, the larger the bladder opening, the easier it is to clean. We also found that the quicker and easier it is to clean our hydration system, the more likely we are to do it. The bladders with the widest opening mouths like the Compact EXP 12, the Osprey Skarab 18 and Syncro 12, and Hydroflask Journey Series 10 are the easiest to clean. The logic here is simple. If you're able to remove the bladder from the pack and open the entire end of it, insert your hand and scrub, then follow it up with a towel, it's pretty darn easy to keep things clean. These complete openings at the top of the bladder also allow you to flip them inside out. For those that are dishwasher safe, toss them inside out in the top rack and let the machine do the work.
The stiffener on the Syncro helps with filling and cleaning. This model scored the among the highest in our fleet.
The narrower the opening, the more arduous cleaning becomes. The CamelBak Crux equipped packs filled easily but were more burdensome to thoroughly clean and dry than the models mentioned above. That's not to say they were that difficult to clean; they just required a bit more effort than the other wider opening models. The 3D-Hydro system on the Gregory Nano 18 H20 and the Endo 15 also require a little more effort with their circular openings but have a convenient hanging hook to help the reservoir dry.
The Quick Dry Hanger on the Gregory 3D-Hydro systems is a nice touch to help empty and dry out the bladder.
After cleaning, allow the reservoir to dry completely. Placing it in a windowsill and propping it open with a kitchen utensil (think a large whisk) speeds up the drying process. Toss the empty bladder in your freezer to limit bacteria growth during storage.
With a greater variety of hydration packs available today than ever before, we've narrowed down your search by researching and testing the best options available. We've made this review as comprehensive and detailed as possible to help aid in your decision making. Our gear testers rode, ran, skied, climbed, and hiked all over California and beyond to help you select the best hydration pack for your needs.
The Syncro is a solid all-around performer, earning it our highest honor.