What Size Pack Do I Need?
How much storage capacity you need depends mostly on your preferences and what you typically take with you into the mountains. This varies based on the activities you use your hydration pack for. For example, mountain bikers carry a minimum amount of gear in case of mechanical issues or flat tires while out on the trail, in addition to the water, food, extra layers, and other essentials you might bring along. For the real minimalists out there, the Camelback Classic and Camelback Rogue carry little more than water and a few smaller items. The two lumbar style packs in our test selection, the Dakine Low Rider 5L and the Osprey Talon 6 both offer 5 and 6 liters of storage as their names suggest. These lumbar packs are part of a low profile and minimalist pack trend that is popular among mountain bikers.
For those of you who are more likely to spend several hours on the trails, especially in mountainous areas, choosing a larger pack with more storage will be the ticket. For activities like mountain biking and mountain trail running, more gear is often needed due to the nature of your surroundings, or the length of time you may spend on the trail. The farther you go and more time you spend outdoors the more things you likely need to bring with you. We're not just talking about water, but also things like additional food, extra layers, and perhaps even a light weight shelter, or a larger first aid kit. Packs with larger storage capacities like our Editors' Choice Platypus Duthie A.M. 10, the Deuter Compact EXP 12, or the CamelBak M.U.L.E. will suit your needs for space and support.
Though hydration specific packs are used commonly in most sports from climbing to mountain biking, certain designs are best suited to particular sports, while many are versatile enough to be used for a variety of activities. Many of the full-sized packs are multi-purpose and will be suitable for many sports. However, if you are looking specifically for a running pack or a mountain biking pack, you should look for certain features that would be beneficial to you. For example, some mountain bike packs have been integrated with spine protectors, organization pockets, and helmet carrying systems for long gravel road climbs.
The lightest weight backpack style models we see mainly as water carriers. Though they might have some small pockets for keys and a cell phone, they offer little in the way of storage limiting their usefulness as a daypack. Despite their diminutive size, these packs are typically very stable and comfortable, and suitable for trail running. Take a look at our Running Pack review if you're looking for a minimalist pack that will carry water and stay put.
Most of the models we tested fall in this category. As the designs have evolved, hydration specific packs are available in a variety of sizes based on your activity of choice. A pack's storage capacity, however, should not be confused with the water bladder size. Most packs come standard with a 2-3 liter bladder that is included with the backpack. When looking through sizes for packs, the volume (usually measured in liters, sometimes in cubic inches) will give you a rough estimate of how much stuff you can cram into your pack. Do keep in mind, however, that this is the total volume of the pack. If you have a full 3-liter hydration bladder in a 10-liter pack, you've reduced your usable space down to 7 liters.
Lumbar Style Packs
Fanny packs are all the rage in the mountain bike world, but their usefulness isn't limited to biking alone. Lumber style packs are suitable for a variety of activities from mountain biking, hiking, trail running, even stand-up-paddling. Lumbar packs have been steadily evolving, and the latest crop offer useful features and designs to make them more lightweight, comfortable, and better than ever before. Generally speaking, the water carrying and storage capacity of lumbar packs are somewhat limited, so this style of pack is best suited to minimalists or shorter trips into the mountains. This type of pack comes in various configurations with both hydration bladder and water bottle styles offered.
Ease of drinking is one of the most important aspects of a hydration pack. During our testing this spring, we found varying flow rates from our hydration systems. Check out our Hydration Pack Review to see how they all compared.
While there was a significant variance in rates, overall the higher quality/higher priced models performed very similarly, and differences were almost imperceptible when actually out field testing. If you're discouraged, 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. CamelBak and Platypus make this simple with their 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 valve incorporated into the drinking tube.
Ease of Filling
A hydration pack 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 first step in determining how easy a pack is to fill is accessing the hydration bladder. Some contenders, like the CamelBak Rogue, place the access right up front and center. Just lift the cover, and you've got full access to the vast opening. Other packs like the Editors' Choice Platypus Duthie A.M. 10 and the Osprey Raptor 10 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.
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.
A general rule of thumb is that as you carry more gear, you'll likely want more support. Luckily, today's pack manufacturers have recognized this and design things accordingly. The minimalist models like the CamelBak Classic or TETON Sports Trailrunner 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 the larger packs like the Deuter Compact EXP 12. There's no need for extra materials when carried loads are light. A simple padded nylon bag with some cushy shoulder straps is plenty good here. Lumbar packs like the Dakine Low Rider 5L and the Osprey Talon 6 which support the entire weight of the pack on the belt around your hips and waist are also generally designed to carry smaller loads due to the more concentrated weight distribution of the pack. Therefore, the water and storage capacities of these style packs is generally somewhat lower than you might find with backpack style packs.
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 wire frames 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.
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. Today's manufacturers have realized 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 hydration packs are made with mesh covered foam back pads with integrated air channels that aid in breathability and ventilation. For even more ventilation, models like the Osprey Syncro 10 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.
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.
How Much Storage Do I Need
The amount of storage capacity you need depends primarily on how much stuff you like to bring along with you. This depends on the activities you do, the length of your adventures, and the weather you may encounter. Fortunately there are plenty of pack options in various sizes to suit just about everyone's needs. Be realistic with yourself and what you carry, and when in doubt err on the larger side. Many of the more significant capacity packs also feature compression straps that allow you to tighten down the load in your pack if you don't fill it all the way. We also suggest looking at the organization of the pack and compare it to your needs and wants. If you're someone who wants to have quick and easy access to individual items, look for models that feature more compartments or organization pockets.
For those of you who don't necessarily need this uber-organization, a more straightforward pack with fewer dividers, pockets, and pouches may suit your needs better. Today's competitors have a multitude of specialty storage features like waistbelt pockets, hydration sleeves, helmet carrying systems, padded pockets for electronics or glasses and goggles, even bike tool rolls.
You just need to decide on the quantity of storage, the layout, and features that will suit your needs.
When you're selecting a new hydration pack, the weight of the actual backpack may be a factor for you. This metric is pretty straightforward, and only you can decide what your needs are. One thing we've found is that manufacturer's claimed weights can be misleading. During our testing, we weighed all of our test packs and listed the actual weights for your convenience.
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 pack'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.
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 obviously a little 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.
We hope the information above helps you narrow down the size and style of pack you need. This buying advice should, along with our comprehensive comparative reviews, aid in making a more informed decision about the pack that's right for you. Happy Trails!