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How to Choose a Hydration Pack

Monday June 17, 2019
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If you've found yourself reading this article, then a shiny new hydration pack must be in your future! But which model is the right choice for you? We discuss how to choose the best option for your specific needs, as well as providing guidance on how to choose between a specialized hydration pack, a traditional daypack with an added hydration system, and even a lumbar style pack. Once you're armed with all of this information, be sure to check out our Best-in-Class Hydration Pack Review and our individual product reviews to help narrow down your options and find the right pack for you.

We put the packs through head-to-head field tests to help you decide which one is right for you.
We put the packs through head-to-head field tests to help you decide which one is right for you.

Hydration packs have almost become a standard issue for outdoor enthusiasts of practically every pursuit over the past several years. Just like their non-hydration specific cousins, not every bag is created equal, and there are now more options to choose from than ever. Packs of many shapes and sizes are available, and many include luxurious touches or extra features for specific activities and uses. With all of those choices, how does a thirsty outdoor adventurer choose the right pack? Luckily, we put the top models to the test to help you decide!

Intended Use


The first thing you'll need to consider is how you're most likely to use your shiny new pack. Are you just looking for a basic daypack for general use? Hikes with the family and friends? Do your outdoor athletic pursuits usually involve pedaling? How about the season? Are you a warm weather sun worshipper, or are you a cold weather warrior? Today's packs are typically geared towards one activity or another, intended for hiking and general use, road or mountain cycling, running, or cold weather and snow sports. It's important to choose a pack that includes the features that will be a good fit your personal outdoor interests.

Consider your favorite activities when deciding which pack is right for you.
Consider your favorite activities when deciding which pack is right for you.

General Use


General use packs are similar to standard backpacks, but with the addition of built-in hydration features: hydration bladder compartment with a hanging clip or hook, drinking tubes with bite valves for easy drinking, and openings, loops, or magnetic clips to route and secure drinking hoses to a convenient spot on the pack. These all-purpose packs are available in sizes from quite small to large enough for fast and light backpacking trips.

The Best Buy Award winner Gregory Nano 18 provided plenty of storage for all-around use.
The Best Buy Award winner Gregory Nano 18 provided plenty of storage for all-around use.

Cycling Packs


Riders can opt for certain models that are aimed specifically at their two-wheeled pursuits, whether your rides take you to the road or the trail. While equipped with similar features as the general use packs, like the hydration bladder compartment, bladder, drinking tube, and bite valve, these packs also provide more bike-specific features. With riding packs, things like tool compartments and gear securing straps and flaps are also included.

Moving fast with the M.U.L.E. in tow.
Moving fast with the M.U.L.E. in tow.

Packs that are intended more for paved rides tend to have a low profile and may not include waist belts like those that are more geared for trail riders. Mountain bike packs generally provide more space for extra layers, tools, and some are equipped with armor storage and even built-in spine protectors.

The Duthie has several interior storage compartments to keep all your specialized gear organized.
The Duthie has several interior storage compartments to keep all your specialized gear organized.

Lumbar Packs


A "newer" old-school style of pack that is making a comeback is the lumbar pack. These packs are typically lighter weight than traditional backpacks, provide more freedom for movement with their lack of shoulder straps, and can be a comfortable, convenient option for bikers or hikers. With just enough storage for a couple hours' worth of water and your essential tools, keys, wallet, and phone, a lumbar pack can be a great choice for shorter outings where light is right.

On the go without shoulder straps to slow us down!
On the go without shoulder straps to slow us down!

Cold Weather


If your activity repertoire takes you outside in the colder months, several manufacturers have got you covered, or at least your water supply. There's no longer a need to construct closed cell foam and duct tape insulating covers for a hydration bladder and drinking hose unless you're going for that cool, retro dirtbag look. These specialty packs typically provide you with extra thermal protection for both bladder and tube, and some include bite valve covers. Even with all of these features, we still recommend blowing out your drinking tube after each sip to prevent annoying freezing and blockage.

Running


Hydration-style packs intended for running are in more of a specialized class by themselves. If you're looking for running-oriented packs, check out our Best Running Hydration Packs Review. These models, often a hybrid between a pack and a vest, move with your body much better than any traditional backpack style model we reviewed. They also weigh less and typically feature soft bottles instead of larger, heavier bladders.

The Classic out on the run.
The Classic out on the run.

General Tips for Selection


As you'd likely suspect, generally speaking, the larger and longer your adventures, the larger the pack you're likely to need. That goes for both gear and water carrying capacities. Keep in mind that water is indeed necessary, but adds up quickly at a weight of 2.2 pounds per liter. Top off that 3-liter hydration bladder, and you're looking at 6.6 pounds on your back! Remember, you don't necessarily have to completely fill the bladder with liquid if your hike, ride, run, ski, or snowshoe is only a couple hours. You can partially fill, swap out differently sized bladders, or even use a smaller-sized bladder along with a water filter, etc., for longer days when water sources are readily available for fillups.

The Syncro 12 can be your go-anywhere  do-anything hydration pack.
The Syncro 12 can be your go-anywhere, do-anything hydration pack.

Ease of Drinking


Ease of drinking is one of the most important aspects of a hydration system. During our testing process, we found varying flow rates from our hydration systems. Check out our Best Hydration Packs article to see how they all compared.

The stock HydraPak mouthpiece found on the Dakine Hot Laps lacks the shutoff switch found on the Osprey packs  but still scores well in our ease of drinking category.
The stock HydraPak mouthpiece found on the Dakine Hot Laps lacks the shutoff switch found on the Osprey packs, but still scores well in our ease of drinking category.

While there was a significant variance in flow rates among the different hydration systems, overall the higher quality/higher priced models performed very similarly, and differences were almost imperceptible when actually out in the field. If you're discouraged with the hydration system in your pack, keep in mind that there is compatibility between some of the systems and you may be able to pair one brand's bladder with another brand's drinking tube or bite valve. CamelBak and Platypus make this simple in some of their models with quick disconnect fittings between the bladder and tube. Both systems use the same fitting, and the switch is easy. If you want extra security when it comes to leakage from the bite valve, most hydration systems now include an on/off shutoff valve incorporated into the drinking tube.

They even use handy pictures!  This position=no drink.
They even use handy pictures! This position=no drink.

Ease of Filling


A hydration bladder that is easy to drink from should also be easy to fill, which brings us to our next criteria for deciding on which model is right for you: ease of filling.

The Crux shoe horn style handle increases the ease of filling  earning the M.U.L.E. a high score.
The Crux shoe horn style handle increases the ease of filling, earning the M.U.L.E. a high score.

The first step in determining how easy a pack is to fill is accessing the hydration bladder. Some contenders, like the CamelBak models, place the bladder access right up front and center. Just lift the cover, and you've got full access to the vast opening. Other packs like the Osprey, Platypus, and Gregory offerings make things easy to access with dedicated hydration sleeves that house the bladder in a handy zippered compartment. This style gives you complete access to your hydration system without having to gut your pack completely.

When you're considering which filling style you'd prefer, remember to anticipate the water sources you're likely to fill your pack from. Most of the competitors we tested were easy to fill from a deep kitchen sink, but if you travel and are filling up from shallow hotel room sinks or natural water sources, you may want to consider a model with a quick disconnect fitting. In situations like these, it's much easier to access the hydration bladder after disconnecting the drinking tube, and you'll gain better access to fill.

The easily accessible bladder sleeve and quick release tubing on the Syncro 12 make it one of the easiest bladders to remove and refill.
The easily accessible bladder sleeve and quick release tubing on the Syncro 12 make it one of the easiest bladders to remove and refill.

Comfort


Your pack also needs to be comfortable, and there are several factors to consider as you're shopping for the right model. Things like overall support, ventilation, shoulder strap, and waist belt construction are important to consider.

Overall Support

A general rule of thumb is that as you carry more gear, you'll want more support. Luckily, today's pack manufacturers have recognized this and design things accordingly. Minimalist models like the CamelBak Classic are intended for small amounts of weight, generally some water and a couple of small items. These packs are simple in design with materials and support that are less substantial than larger packs like the Osprey Skarab 18. There's no need for extra materials and storage when carried loads are light. A simple padded nylon bag with some cushy shoulder straps is sufficient here.

The Seral was the most comfortable lumbar pack we tested.
The Seral was the most comfortable lumbar pack we tested.

On the other hand, when your days are long, and the weather is variable, your pack weight is likely to increase, and more support will add to your comfort. Packs that are larger and intended to carry more gear have been designed with more overall support in mind. These models feature more padding in the central areas like the waist belt, shoulder straps, and back pad. Some of these higher capacity packs are even made with lightweight wireframes as we found in our Editors' Choice Platypus Duthie A.M. 10 or metal stays like the Deuter Compact EXP 12. These extra support features make carrying heavier loads a little more manageable by giving the pack more structure.

The Duthie A.M. 10 was one of the most comfortable packs we tested.
The Duthie A.M. 10 was one of the most comfortable packs we tested.

Ventilation

A good pack should be well ventilated where it comes in contact with your back, shoulders, and waist. Particularly on a chilly day, there's nothing more annoying than working up a profuse sweat, taking your pack off and realizing your back is entirely soaked (and soon, chilling). Today's manufacturers realize this, and the majority provide excellent breathability. Look for models constructed with more open mesh and fabrics since this encourages better breathability to keep you cool, mainly where the pack contacts your back. A majority of the packs we reviewed are made with mesh covered foam back pads with integrated air channels that aid in breathability and ventilation. For even more ventilation, models such as the Osprey Syncro 12 and Platypus Duthie A.M. 10 incorporate a tensioned mesh back panel with a lightweight wire frame that keeps pack contact with your body to a minimum.

The Syncro 12 has excellent ventilation and a sturdy frame  but could benefit from a thicker waist belt and some hip pockets.
The Syncro 12 has excellent ventilation and a sturdy frame, but could benefit from a thicker waist belt and some hip pockets.

Shoulder Straps and Waist Belts

The more substantial the weight you're carrying, the more significant your shoulder straps and waist belt should be. For the shoulders, some packs accomplish this through extra padding in the upper portion of the shoulder straps and others like the Deuter Compact EXP 12 use broader materials. This increases the surface area of the strap's contact on your shoulders, spreading the load more evenly and reducing pressure points. Waist belts use the same principle, and the models with beefier construction allow you to carry more weight on your hip bones. Just like the shoulder straps, the thicker or wider the materials used, the more significant support and comfort you'll experience.

The Compact EXP eats up the miles and vertical and proved to be a solid performer.
The Compact EXP eats up the miles and vertical and proved to be a solid performer.

Water and Gear Storage


Matching pack size to your typical outdoor endeavors leads to maximum satisfaction. Below, we break down how much space the average adventurer needs in different scenarios and activities.

Water Capacity Guidelines


1 liter to 1.5 liters

For shorter duration and/or distance activities like quick day hikes or mountain bike rides lasting less than a couple of hours in generally cooler temperatures. A good volume for fast and light adventures.

1.5-2.5 liters

A good all-around size for most activities lasting up to several hours. You leave the trailhead with intentions of a quick out and back, but decide to go a little longer, maybe taking that longer optional loop. This will generally get you by. Going all day in an area with refill possibilities? This range can be sufficient with a stop or two to refill.

3 liters

Maximum capacity! You anticipate your path taking you several miles on a hot day and don't want to run dry; this size has got you covered. This is for the thirstiest hikers and riders in the warmest locations. If your adventures involve multi-hour long distances, this may be your go-to option for hydration capacity!

Gear Carrying Guidelines


<5 liters (<305 cu. in.)

For pursuits like road cycling, short and fast hikes, and running. These packs feature low capacity bladders, generally 1 liter, and storage for just the bare essentials like a patch kit, phone, car keys, maybe a light wind breaker jacket, but not much more. This is the size for you ultralight and fast adventurers.

5-10 liters (305 cu. in. to 610 cu. in.)

This is a nice size range for general use hiking and riding when you may want an extra layer, food, maps, electronics, etc. Water capacity on these packs is in the 2 liters or less range. Think riding or hiking a couple of hours in possibly changing weather like an early morning start when the weather is hot, and you need a place to stash that extra layer once things heat up a bit. These packs can be a good choice for athletic pursuits a little more intensive than the smallest packs but are still for fast and light activities.

10-20 liters (610 cu. in. to 1220 cu in.)

This size range is for all day efforts on the trail, far from the trailhead. These larger packs have larger capacities but can still qualify as mid-sized. If you find yourself out on long adventures, this may be your pack range of choice. You can easily fill that 3-liter bladder to capacity and still have room for repair and first aid kits, extra layers, extra tubes, food, and most other items you're likely to carry into the backcountry.

20+ liters (>2440 cu. in.)

Packs in this range are the largest. When your longest days may even require a headlamp at the start or finish (or both!), this is likely the ticket for you. This size crosses over into ultralight backpacking range and may be a good choice for fast and light overnight trips.

Ease of Cleaning


The ease of cleaning correlates somewhat directly with how easy the bladder is to fill. Hydration bladders that could be opened entirely on one end were hands-down the most effortless style to keep clean. These allow you to reach into the bag, wash, scrub, and dry to your heart's content. The narrower the bladder's opening, the more challenging it is to clean thoroughly. While we realize the cleaning of a hydration bladder's innards isn't likely to occur as often as it should, the one time we are militant about cleaning is when we fill up with liquids that contain sugar. Why is this so important? When you combine a moist and frequently warm environment with sugar, you've got a breeding ground for bacteria. Keeping your pack clean also helps avoid that nasty tasting water that so many of us have had the misfortune of ingesting.

As a rule of thumb, we recommend only filling a hydration bladder with water. Sugary drinks introduce a feast for bacteria, allowing them to survive easily and multiply at a much faster rate. But, of course, you do you!

Easy access for cleaning and drying is found on the bladder of the Duthie.
Easy access for cleaning and drying is found on the bladder of the Duthie.

A clean hydration bladder is great, but what about the drinking tube? Since the inner diameter of the typical model is +/- 0.25", it's tough to access. We recommend picking up your cleaning kit of choice which should include a long and skinny brush that lets you scrub the interior of your drinking tube for a truly clean water source.

Cleaning the drinking tube with a specialized brush  which did not make for easy cleaning.
Cleaning the drinking tube with a specialized brush, which did not make for easy cleaning.

Another tip — Store your bladder, drinking tube, and bite valve in your freezer between uses to stunt bacteria.

Hydration Pack vs. Daypack


Finally, let's talk about the general differences between a typical backpack and a specialized hydration pack. You may think the differences might be obvious, but are they? When you put the two side by side, especially larger sized packs, 10L and up, they don't look much different at first glance. So if they look so similar, what are some things to consider?

Hydration pack or daypack?  They look pretty similar  don't they?
Hydration pack or daypack? They look pretty similar, don't they?

Before we address that, a couple of quick notes: When we say "daypack," we mean a pack that does not include a hydration system and components, we're not comparing hydration packs to standard pack with water bottles. The differences are pretty simple. The biggest advantage for the hydration pack is quick access to water and overall convenience. The biggest typical negatives for the reservoir and tube vs. bottle is difficulty in cold weather and not having a clear idea of how much water you have left, as the bladder is hidden inside the hydration sleeve.

Now back to our original question…Do I need a specialized hydration pack or can I just add on a hydration system to a regular daypack? We'll steal our own thunder up front and say, well, we can't answer that for you. It's not that straightforward.

The question used to be pretty obvious for the main reason that "regular" backpacks simply weren't set up for water storage. They didn't have dedicated hydration sleeves and compartments, openings for drinking tubes, or tube routing capabilities like their specialized pack relatives. The only option was to put together your own piecemeal setup that likely involved duct tape and zip-ties.

Over the past several years, the lines between non-hydration and hydration packs have increasingly blurred, especially in the larger sizes. In the past, these packs were only available in smaller sizes like the CamelBak Classic and were typically used most often by cyclists and runners. More recently, they've become available in larger volumes; some are now available even over 20 liters! So now that their range has expanded into even bigger sizes, the two general styles of packs are overlapping more and more.

Some factors to look at when deciding between the two types of packs are cost, support, and overall pack construction, hydration specific features.

Support and Construction

Both types of packs run the gamut of overall support and construction, but as a very general rule, a typical hiking daypack is likely to have a heavier duty support and construction. They likely have sturdier framesheets, support stays, and more padding in shoulder straps, as well as more width and padding in the waist belt. Keep in mind, these are not definites but are characteristics we've noticed through testing dozens of different packs. A more supportive daypack, as a result of the robust construction, generally weighs more than a hydration pack of equal size.

Daypacks tend to be more supportive and durable, while hydration packs typically weigh less.

Cost

As a general rule of thumb, buying a hydration backpack can be cheaper and more budget-friendly, especially if you're not looking for beefier support and extra sport-specific features. The hydration system is included with the pack, and this keeps the cost down. A quick example is in two similar packs, the Osprey Skarab 18 and the Editors' Choice in our Daypack review, the Osprey Talon 22. The Skarab, with hydration system included, retails for $85 while the Talon retails at $110. Now add on $35 for a Hydraulics reservoir, tube, and bite valve and your total is $145. That's a $60 difference. With that being said, the Talon is a more substantial pack with more features, but if you're someone who doesn't need those extras and are primarily looking at overall capacity and price, the cheaper option may be better for you. There are almost infinite comparisons between similarly sized packs, so in a nutshell, if cost is a factor for you, look for similar sizes and features, do your own analysis and decide which is the better route for you.

We love the convenience of hydration bladders for drinking while playing, and appreciate the affordability of the pack + bladder combo (most of the time!).

Hydration Specific Features

We mention this last because almost universally, most packs are now set up with hydration sleeves and tube keeper loops, straps, etc. In the past, packs didn't necessarily have these extras, but now, a pack without hydration features is a rarity. Just keep in mind if you're looking at a regular backpack and are planning to add a bladder, etc., just make sure it's set up with the features and water storage you're looking for.

If you plan to use a bladder inside your pack, be sure it includes a separate sleeve that accommodates your bladder of choice. Not all sleeves work well with three-liter reservoirs, beware!

Conclusion


Armed with a little extra knowledge and some good guidelines, you'll be able to make a better-educated decision when you're researching, purchasing, and the best part — using your new hydration or daypack with hydration system! Use these tips to make the best choice for wherever your adventures take you!



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