Hydration packs come in handy for a vast variety of activities, including hiking, scrambling, mountain biking, trail running, and 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. While trudging up, down, and through all different types of terrain, we noted which hydration systems provide the best flow of water. We evaluated the effectiveness of the drinking hoses and bite valves and the overall volume of each reservoir. Equally as important, we also analyzed how the hydration system interacts with the pack. We favored designs with more intuitive hose routing paths and more secure bite valve attachment points. We were able to find which designs are the most effective while bushwhacking through thick brush, climbing and scraping against rocks, and riding over bumpy terrain.
Ease of Filling
After coming back home from our adventures in the field, we also did side-by-side comparisons to see how easy it is to remove the hydration bladder from each pack, fill it up in the sink, and replace it back into the pack. We took into consideration the bladder's location within the pack, how complicated or easily removable the drinking hose is, and the opening size of the bladder itself. There is a definite difference between bladders with easily accessible locations and quick release hoses, versus bladders in a tighter location with more difficult to maneuver drinking hoses.
Comfort is perhaps one of the more important rating metrics for any backpack. Our lineup includes models with nicely supported, well-ventilated back panels and cushioned shoulder straps and hip 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 the higher volume packs that we tested are comfortable even when loaded to capacity.
We evaluated each pack not just for its overall storage volume, but how well-organized and intuitively designed the storage system is. 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 a range of storage capacities, from super-minimalist designs just able to hold a wallet and keys, up to 20-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. Our lineup includes 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.