With so many hydration packs on the market, how do you pick the right one for you? Our team has tested over 43 hydration packs since 2014 in search of the best of the best. From the Sierra mountaintops and coastal foothills to the desert red rock landscapes of Arizona and the grasslands of Minnesota, these packs have accompanied our testers on hundreds of miles of hikes, bike rides, and even backcountry ski trips. Each model was rated across several key performance metrics, including hydration system quality, storage volume, and carrying comfort. No matter where your next adventure takes you, we'll help you find the best hydration pack to meet your needs and budget.
We loved the Osprey Syncro 12 right off the bat, which was only confirmed by our testing as this pack rose to the top across many of our test metrics. It has a versatile design, quality construction, and a thoughtful storage and organization layout. The back panel is breathable and comfortable and the hydration system is top-notch. We love the well-placed drinking hose release clip that makes filling and replacing the bladder a breeze, and the storage layout 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 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 12 is an all-around capable option, it's not lightweight. Its quality construction and many features land it among our lineup's heaviest packs. A comfortable carrying system compensates for this, but there are probably better and lower-profile options 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 earns our highest honor and a strong recommendation for its impressive job balancing storage volume, organization, carrying comfort, and hydration performance. If you're looking for something lighter-weight (and lighter on the wallet), check out the minimalist CamelBak Classic Light 70.
The Gregory Nano 18 H2O earns recognition for its excellent value, offering ample storage volume and low weight at a surprisingly low price tag. This awesome pack has one of the larger storage volumes (18 liters) and water capacities (3 liters) in this category, while still managing to boast one of the lowest weights and price tags. 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. The hydration system is painless to use and take in and out of the pack.
However, the Nano 18 H2O sacrifices many of the premium features found on some of the pricier packs. Considering it's one of the most affordable packs we tested, it's certainly comfortable, though 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, like the Gregory Endo 15L. The Gregory Nano 18 outperforms many packs with higher price tags, though it lacks some higher-end features. Nonetheless, we find it's an impressive bang for the buck.
Weight: 41.6 oz | Pack Size: 14 L, expandable to 19 L
REASONS TO BUY
Plenty of storage and organization
Supportive of heavy loads
Versatile use and capacity
REASONS TO AVOID
Heavy base weight
Requires more force to drink from
The redesigned Deuter Compact EXP 14 earns top marks for its smart storage and versatility. This 14-liter pack has lots of storage and pockets to keep things organized and expands to 19 liters, making it a great choice for all-day adventures. Our testers are impressed with how supportive this pack is and how well it carries heavy loads. Features like a 3-liter bladder, pockets on the hip belt, a rain cover, integrated helmet storage, and mesh side pockets add to this pack's value and versatility. This pack proved comfortable and stable on mountain bike rides and hikes, and could even be used for snowsports.
The biggest drawback to the Compact EXP 14 is its weight — all of those pockets and features add up, and this pack tips the scales at a whopping 41.6 ounces. The side load bladder can be a bit challenging to get back into its pocket when the pack is full, and while the bite valve is not the easiest to drink from, it is well-constructed and has a cover. Overall, this pack is a great choice for when you need the ability to carry a lot of items with you on the trails and earns high marks for its storage and comfort. If you need an option for going fast and light, check out the CamelBak Octane 18.
The Gregory Endo 15 is recognized for its outstanding storage and organization, boasting a large 3-liter 3D-Hydro water reservoir, a comfortable and adjustable suspension system, and a pocket or sleeve for every piece of gear. 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 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, the Endo 15 makes a great choice for a heavy-duty hauler to help organize hiking gear, bike tools, camping equipment, or tools for fieldwork.
With its revolutionary ReTrakt drinking hose return system, the Thule Vital 6 made a significant impression on our testers. While every other top model has a hose clip or magnetic bite valve attachment, nothing else comes close to this design's simplicity and performance. The drinking bite valve is conveniently housed along the right shoulder strap with a long, flexible magnetic strip, making it easy to grasp and reliably and securely returns when you release it. The Vital also provides a secure, comfortable fit without bouncing or flopping around with its lightweight pack design, low center of gravity, and wide hip belt and shoulder straps.
While we were uniquely impressed by the drinking hose return system outside 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. Overall, this model is excellent for anyone who loves the convenience of a hydration bladder but is tired of the drinking hose always flopping around.
For those who want an affordable, top-of-the-line hydration system without the need for extra storage or complicated features, the redesigned CamelBak Classic Light is an optimal choice. This pack is lightweight with a consistently reliable and easy-to-use hydration system, and it also has creative storage solutions that make it more versatile than previous iterations. A large front pocket is large enough to hold a wallet, keys, phone, snacks, and other small items, while side bungee straps allow you to stow a jacket or heavier layer, making this a great choice for the lightweight crowd.
The hydration system is easy to use, and the reservoir has a large handle that makes filling it even easier. While not the easiest-to-clean reservoir, the screw-top opening is large enough to easily accommodate a cleaning brush. For cyclists, there are two small pieces of webbing to thread a helmet through that act as a helmet carry and a tab to clip a light onto at the base of the pack. If you're someone who appreciates a well-designed, lightweight pack without a lot of frills, the CamelBak Classic Light is hard to beat and has an attractive price.
For several months each, we used these hydration packs on the mountains, trails, and roads of California's Coastal Ranges, the Sierra Nevada, Colorado's Rocky Mountains, the red rock landscape of Sedona, Arizona, and the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota. To begin our testing, we became familiar with each pack and its storage and hydration system. We then filled the pack with items we would carry on the trail and more to determine its capacity. We filled the bladders, inserted them into the pack, routed the hoses, and headed out onto the trails and slopes. We drank from each pack as we hiked, biked, and even skied, all while keeping notes on each pack's performance. We recruited other hikers and riders to use the packs and provide feedback on what they did or didn't like and why. Each hydration system was disassembled, cleaned, and put back together. We then each hydration pack based on our metrics including drinking, filling, cleaning, comfort and storage capabilities, and overall weight.
Our test metrics for hydration packs are divided into six areas:
• Ease of Drinking (20% of score weighting)
• Ease of Filling (20% of score)
• Comfort (20% of score)
• Storage (20% of score)
• Weight (10% of score)
• Ease of Cleaning (10% of score)
To test hydration packs, we enlisted the expertise of gear testers Tara Reddinger-Adams, Nick Bruckbauer, and Jason Cronk. As experienced hikers, bikers, and all-around outdoors people, this group understands the importance of quality gear and efficient hydration. Tara has been testing for GearLab for nearly four years and calls Arizona home. She has worked in the bike industry for 11 years and has been coaching and guiding mountain biking for over five years with certifications from PMBIA and BICP. She relies on gear that performs well on the trails, appreciates features that add functionality, and always listens to people's needs before making gear recommendations. You'll find her out exploring on foot and on the mountain bike in search of new trails. Nick and Jason are longtime GearLab contributors and residents of the beautiful Lake Tahoe area, where they can be found shredding the trails all year via foot, bike, or skis.
We've been testing hydration packs for years to bring you the best options currently available.
Analysis and Test Results
We researched and analyzed the top hydration packs on the market and purchased carefully selected models from both well-known and up-and-coming manufacturers. All of the packs in our review come with a hydration bladder, drinking hose, unique bladder design, hose routing system, and bite valve. While packs may look similar at first glance, differences in both the pack's and hydration systems' design affect their overall performance, such as how comfortable the pack is, the bite valve's ease of drinking, a bladder's ease of cleaning, or how easy the bladder is to fill. To help you identify which models excel and in what areas, we analyzed each backpack and hydration system design across six different rating metrics.
While we do not factor price into a product's scoring, we recognize that individual budgets vary and that a product's value includes both its price and performance. Products that cost less can sometimes perform just as well (or nearly as well) as those that are more expensive. We also realize that not everyone needs (or wants) every possible feature and that sometimes less is more, both literally and figuratively speaking. We have compared both price and overall performance for each hydration pack tested to highlight each pack's performance features.
The hydration packs in our review all come with a hydration system and a backpack, which generally offer cost savings as compared to purchasing each component separately. Some similar-sized daypacks cost just as much as the options in this review but don't include a hydration bladder. The Gregory Nano 18 H2O provides a 3-liter bladder with a large storage volume and outstanding comfort at almost half the price of some high-end models, while the CamelBak Classic Light provides a top-notch hydration system in a minimalist pack design at a lower price.
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 each hydration system's flow rate performance, we analyzed how well each hydration system interacts with the pack itself. Most of the packs in our review allow you to route the hose on either side of the pack via the shoulder strap. However, not all packs have a way to attach the hose to the shoulder or sternum strap, which can lead to more fiddling with the hose when you need it. For this metric, we also took into consideration the overall bladder volume and how easily we could drink from the bite valve.
The differences between how easily each model delivers the flow of water became more apparent throughout our testing, and we started narrowing down each brand's performance. While huffing, puffing, and panting our way up and down hills, we found that the CamelBak products are some of the easiest to drink from with their Big Bite valves. 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. Our testers also liked the HydraPak hydration system that is found on the Evoc and Osprey packs. Their bite valve circular shape is easy to drink from and allows you to suck large amounts of water.
Some bite valve designs have a shut-off valve. This allows you to stop the flow of water through the bite valve from the hose and can be very handy when transporting your pack by helping to prevent accidental leaking. CamelBak's Crux Reservoir features an on/off valve that flips and is easy to operate with one hand, even with winter gloves on. This feature is especially handy if you tear a hole in the silicone of the bite valve and it begins to drip since you can turn off the flow of water to the valve easily. In comparison, the Deuter Streamer bite valve twists to turn the water flow on or off and requires two hands to operate. In general, shut-off valves that only require one hand to operate are preferred, especially when you are using them during an activity that requires the use of one or both hands.
The hydration system's overall design can greatly influence your drinking. Poorly routed hoses that kink or bite valves with a low flow rate can be frustrating to use. The same is true of having a bladder that is too small and running out of water. Here, packs with larger water bladder volumes and better drinking hose attachment systems score higher. 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.
Ease of Filling
Filling your hydration reservoir has become easier in recent years thanks to quick disconnect hoses, integrated handles, and larger openings to the bladders. While these may seem like small attributes, they make a difference in how easily you can fill up without spilling water.
One of the most important aspects of this metric is the size of the reservoir's opening. Some bladders feature wide mouth openings that span the entire width of the bag, while others have screw-top lids built into the side.
Those made by HydraPak, which are found on Evoc and Osprey packs, and Deuter's Streamer bladder all have wide mouth openings. These openings run the width of the top of the reservoir and are easy to place under a faucet to fill-- and are also large enough to easily put ice cubes into. This design is also the best for filling up in trickling streams (be sure to add a chemical treatment in the bladder or an in-line filter to the hose).
CamelBak and Gregory models feature screw-top openings and integrated handles that make holding the whole thing under the faucet easy. Our testers enjoy the support that these integrated handles provided, especially as the water begins to weigh the bladder down as it fills.
How important this metric is to you may depend on where you usually fill your hydration bladder. Do you always fill from a 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 water sources become less convenient, the convenience of the opening becomes more critical. The size of the reservoir opening can make a significant difference in the time and effort it takes to fill. A wider opening generally makes filling up easier.
Another factor to consider is the location of the bladder inside the pack, which impacts how easy it is to fill. Many models, like the CamelBak Classic Light, place the bladder in its own zip pocket towards the back of the pack. Other packs, such as the CamelBak M.U.L.E. Pro 14 and the Deuter Compact EXP 14, use a side load system, where the side of the pack unzips to access the bladder. During our testing, we found the side load designs generally more difficult to insert a full bladder into when the pack was also full, compared to those with top load designs such as the Gregory Endo 15 and Osprey Syncro 12. Most of these contenders have dedicated hydration bladder sleeves, making the bladder 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 imbibing enough water to stay hydrated. With most of today's pack designs, there is no need to dump your pack's entire contents in frustration to refill your tank.
Many models in our lineup also include a convenient quick-release button to easily detach the hydration hose. This button can be located at a mid-point on the hose or where the hose connects to the bladder. The top-ranked Osprey Syncro 12 includes a mid-point quick-release button, a separate bladder pocket, and a wide-mouth bladder opening that makes removing, refilling, and replacing a breeze.
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 to carry water and not much else like the CamelBak Classic Light or Camelbak Octane XCT 70? Is its intended use to carry and organize a bunch of mountain biking gear like the Evoc Ride 12 or Gregory Endo 15? Or, is it designed for all-day adventures like the Osprey Skarab 18 or the Deuter Compact EXP 14? Some packs, such as the CamelBak M.U.L.E. Pro 14 have the option to add back protection for mountain biking, making them even more activity-specific. Taking into consideration how you will use your hydration pack, will help you to narrow your choices and is an important step in your hunt.
Loading down an ultralight pack with too much weight can diminish its comfort. Conversely, a large pack may be overkill if you carry minimal items and only partially fill your hydration bladder. Having too large of a pack isn't necessarily uncomfortable, but its contents may shift around during use more than they would in a smaller pack. These factors can decrease your overall comfort and the size and weight of items you will carry in your pack should be taken into your purchasing decision.
We kept our comparison loads similarly weighted during testing. We typically carried a medium-sized first aid kit, a wind jacket, two liters of water, some snacks, a lip balm, and a cell phone for hiking. On certain occasions, we also lashed our trekking poles to the outside. When we went mountain biking, we carried those same essentials plus a multitool, a knife, and a small bike repair kit. Beyond these staple activities, we also used the packs for spring backcountry skiing, while snowboarding, as a gym bag, and while walking the dog. The smaller models we tested did not have the capacity for all these items, but the 14-liter and larger models we tested proved versatile and could be compared while carrying a more substantial load.
We next looked at each hydration pack's overall construction and tested how it supports and carries a load. Each model in our lineup has one of three basic foundations: No frame, like the minimalist design CamelBak Classic Light, a stiffened foam frame sheet, like our value-oriented Gregory Nano 18 H2O, and a light wireframe like the high-end Osprey Syncro 12.
Packs without a frame are more comfortable with lower weights and tend to slump and cling to your back as you add weight. Packs with stiffened foam or wireframes distribute weight better and are more comfortable. We were pleasantly surprised at the support we felt when we loaded the Osprey 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. The Deuter Compact EXP 14 is designed for larger loads. It expands up to 19 liters and handles heavy loads quite comfortably.
We also tested these packs for breathability as this affects your comfort quite a bit (think a sweat-saturated back on a chilly and windy day). The wire-framed Osprey Syncro 12 and Deuter Compact EXP 14 with their Airstripes and AirMesh lining provide the best ventilation designs. They offer high levels of breathability by keeping the main body of the pack away from your back, allowing for greater airflow. The Gregory Endo 15 also provides decent ventilation with comfortable back panels separated from the backpack's body.
Shoulder strap construction is another important consideration when it comes to comfort. 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. During our testing, we also found the shoulder strap design of some packs to be uncomfortable and too tight for people with larger torsos. Ultimately, we found that the higher-priced packs in our lineup tend to have more adjustability and ergonomic designs that are more comfortable for a wider range of body shapes.
If you're on the fence about hip belts, check out models that offer it as a removable feature.
Some hydration pack users prefer a more substantial hip belt like the Thule Vital 6 and Deuter Compact EXP 14, while others have no hip belt or use a dual sternum strap design such as found on the CamelBak Octane 18. Others use a slightly wider, larger webbing design like the Evoc Ride 12, while still others have a thin hip belt, like the Osprey Syncro 12 and Gregory Nano 18 H2O. What type of waist security you prefer is very subjective, and only you can decide which style you like. Generally speaking, the more substantial the hip belt, the more comfortably the bag will carry heavier loads.
A pack's comfort is a cocktail of individual ingredients, while storage space is a bit more straightforward. Are you only carrying water? Do you regularly carry extras in your pack, like snacks, first aid, and an extra layer? How about carrying tools, emergency gear, and other items for remote or all-day adventures? Depending on your typical day out and what you bring with you, it's relatively easy to figure out how much space you need.
Once you've decided on the best size, you can begin narrowing down how you want your storage space organized. Do you prefer one large opening to stuff all of your contents into? If so, the Gregory Nano 18 H2O or the Camelbak Octane 18 may be the ticket with their basic sack-like style. Are you someone who loves to have everything in its own compartment or pocket? Some packs even have loops to hold your bike pump in place, pad and helmet carry straps, integrated rain covers, and lots of interior pockets. If this is your style, our midsize bike packs, such as the CamelBak M.U.L.E. Pro 14, the Gregory Endo 15, and the Osprey Syncro 12 can be great choices.
We were especially impressed with the storage features on the Gregory Endo 15 and Deuter Compact EXP 14. The Endo has 15 liters of overall volume, a multitude of storage compartments, zippered pockets, padded sleeves, and hip belt pockets. The EXP 14, also has loads of pockets and the option to expand its main storage pocket by a full 5 liters, making it a great choice for all-day outings. We also like the easy-to-use storage compartments in the Evoc Ride 12, whose rectangular shape is easy to stuff with first aid and extra layers.
There are many types of organizational strategies among the packs we tested.
Here at GearLab, we measure an item's weight ourselves, since sometimes claimed weights aren't always accurate. Our lineup of hydration packs is no exception. We weighed each pack with its included hydration system on a handheld luggage scale or kitchen scale when the pack was too light for the luggage scale.
There is a large weight variance between the low and high ends of the spectrum in our lineup. The CamelBak Classic Light weighs a mere 14.5 ounces, while the more fully-featured Deuter Compact EXP 14 tips the scales at 41.6 ounces. The Evoc Ride 12L came in at a respectable 24 ounces and the Osprey Skarab 18 at 25.5 ounces.
With its simple, lightweight design, the CamelBak Classic Light scores well in this metric. If you carry just the bare necessities and don't need more than 2 liters of water, this pack is an excellent choice, whether you're a cyclist, hiker, or runner. It's also an excellent choice for kids, keeping the pup hydrated, or occasional hydration pack users.
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, whereas others don't mind an extra few ounces or even a pound if it means their pack is more organized, comfortable, and has more bells and whistles.
Ease of Cleaning
Let's be honest: most of us do not clean our hydration pack's bladder as often as we should. However, wide mouth openings make the process easy, and a few minutes of scrubbing can prevent mold and bacteria from overtaking your reservoir, hose, and bite valve.
The easier it is to clean also increases the likelihood of actually cleaning the bladder. Features like quick-release hoses also help, as does the size of the main opening. Bladders with the widest opening mouths, like the Deuter Compact EXP 14, the Evoc Ride 12, and the Osprey Skarab 18 and Syncro 12, are among the easiest to clean. You can remove the water sack from the pack, open its wide mouth, insert your hand, scrub, and dry. Once you do it, you realize that it's pretty darn easy to keep the bladder clean. Cleaning the hose itself requires a specialized thin brush, but it's easy to remove these bite valves and scrub them or soak them to remove bacteria. HydraPak bladders, which are found on Evoc and Osprey packs can even be flipped inside out to clean. For those that are dishwasher safe, you can toss them inside out in the top rack and let the machine do the work.
The narrower the opening, the more arduous cleaning becomes. The packs quipped with CamelBak Crux bladders fill easily but are harder to thoroughly clean and dry than the models mentioned above. That's not to say they were that difficult to clean; they just require a brush or small hand and 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 necessitates a little more effort, with smaller circular openings requiring a brush, but we appreciate the convenient hanging hooks to help them dry.
After cleaning, allow the reservoir to dry completely to avoid growing bacteria or mold inside. If possible, towel dry the inside of the bladder and then place it on a windowsill, propped open with a kitchen utensil (think a large whisk or wooden spoon) to speed up the drying process. You can also keep the empty bladder in your freezer to limit bacteria growth during storage.
Hydration packs are becoming more specialized, with more options available today than ever before. We hope that we've narrowed down your search by researching and testing the best options on the market. We've made this review as comprehensive and detailed as possible to help you select the best hydration pack for your needs.
Tara Reddinger-Adams, Nick Bruckbauer, & Jason Cronk