Hydration Packs come in handy for a vast variety of activities, including hiking, scrambling, mountain biking, trail running, or backcountry skiing. Our testers put our lineup of packs through the wringer in the Lake Tahoe area, along California's Central Coast, and on a short trip to Colorado. We also used some of our packs as a gym bag, a daypack for long track meets, and as a carry-on for some weekend flights. Using each model in such a wide variety of conditions allowed us to test both their water and gear carrying capacities, their fit and comfort, and the performance of their hydration systems.
All of the packs in this category include a built-in hydration system. To answer the question "Do I really need a hydration pack?", and aid your decision-making between hydration vs. standard daypacks, read the "Hydration Pack vs. Daypack" section in our Buying Advice article.
Related: Buying Advice for Hydration Packs
Ease of Drinking
Our testers spent several weeks riding, hiking, and trail running around the Lake Tahoe area, coastal California, and beyond, testing each pack in varying conditions for ease of drinking. Since it can be difficult to make this comparison subjectively, we decided to add an experiment!
Aside from the field testing, we spent some time in the laboratory…okay, our kitchen. Since we had noticed definite differences in how easy it was to drink from each pack, we decided to do a side-by-side flow test at home. This involved filling the packs up with just over one liter of water, hanging the bladder at the same height, and then draining and stopping at exactly one liter which then primed the drinking tube. At this point, we'd start the stopwatch while simultaneously squeezing the bite valve at the point of maximum flow. Each model was timed from start to wholly drained and times were recorded. From fastest to slowest, the time was approximately double!
Ease of Filling
Although not as formal as our timed flow test, we also did side-by-side comparisons to see how easy it was to remove the hydration bladder from each pack, fill it up in the sink, and replace it back into the pack. This took into consideration the bladder's location within the pack, how complicated or easily removable the tubing was, and the opening size of the bladder itself. There was a definite difference between bladders with easily accessible locations and quick release tubing, versus bladders in a tighter location with more difficult to maneuver tubing.
Comfort is perhaps one of the more important rating metrics for any backpack. We had models with nicely supported, well-ventilated back panels and cushioned shoulder straps and waist belts, and others with thin, narrow straps and hot, sweaty pack panels. Another big factor in comfort is how supportive the frame of the pack is under heavy loads. Most of our higher volume packs were comfortable even when loaded to capacity.
We rated each pack not just for its overall storage volume, but how well-organized and intuitively designed the storage system was. Are there pockets for your keys and wallet? Are they easily accessible without having to take off and open up the pack? Is there enough room to fit a jacket or sweater? Our lineup includes three lumbar packs for shorter outings, three 18-liter packs for longer day trips, and everything in between. We also have packs with specialty storage compartments for biking gear or other small tools.
Since manufacturers' claimed weights can sometimes be a little less than accurate, we also weighed each hydration pack on the same scale and recorded the results for you. There are usually obvious tradeoffs between weight, volume, and features, and we break down which models have the best volume to weight ratios, the best features, and the biggest bang for your buck.
Ease of Cleaning
Similar to ease of filling, ease of cleaning is typically based on how easily removable a bladder is from the pack and the size of the bladder opening. We tested bladders with smaller round openings as well as larger folding openings. Some bladders have internal baffles that help give it structure but might interfere with cleaning, some can be folded completely inside out, and some are even dishwasher safe!
After checking out our reviews, you'll be armed with all of our test results and field observations, and you'll be ready to choose the best pack for your next adventures!