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Our team of adventurers has tested more than 40 of the market's best hydration packs over the past 9 years, recently purchasing 11 of today's top models for a fresh round of side-by-side testing. 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.
The Osprey Syncro 12 made an immediate positive impression on our testers and continued to impress throughout testing, earning the top overall spot in our review. It has a versatile design and high-quality construction, as well as well-laid-out storage and organization options, a comfortable and breathable back panel, and top-notch hydration system. This combination of attributes earned it solid scores in nearly every performance metric. We love the well-placed drinking hose release clip that makes filling and replacing the bladder a breeze and the storage layout that 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, the quality construction and multitude of features add to its overall weight, and it's one the heavier packs in our lineup. 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.
The Gregory Nano 18 H2O earns recognition for its excellent value, thanks to its large 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 or fancier fleece-lined pockets. The Gregory Nano 18 H2O 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.
For those who want an affordable, top-of-the-line hydration system without the need for extra storage or fancy features, the CamelBak Classic continues to be an optimal choice. With its 2.5-liter Crux hydration system, it scores well for ease of drinking and filling and is consistently one of the lightest bags in our lineup and on the market. This pack is essentially just a bladder and some shoulder straps with a pocket for your keys and phone, but sometimes that's all you want or need.
The reservoir is a bit more difficult to clean than other folding wide-mouth models, so think twice before dumping a bunch of drink mix in there unless you want to start a microbiology experiment. There's one small pocket to hold your keys and an energy bar, and that's about it. But if you don't need a pack with extra storage or are continually switching from biking to running and want something that'll work for both, the CamelBak Classic is an excellent choice that won't set you back a ton of cash.
The Evoc Ride 12 is a new offering from the German company and is designed as an "all-rounder" hydration pack. Our testers found this pack to be incredibly comfortable for loads of various sizes, thanks to its supportive structure. The large main compartment is rectangular shaped, allowing us to easily fit in our first aid kit, down jacket, raincoat, snacks, and other items. Several small storage compartments kept our keys, lip balm, wallet, and snacks organized and in easy reach. Well thought out features such as an integrated whistle, helmet carry straps, and elastic strap retainers add additional value to this pack.
One of the pack's drawbacks is that this pack comes with only a 2-liter bladder, which is too small for all-day pursuits. But, the pack is large enough to accept a 3-liter bladder. The High-flow Blaster™ bite valve has a very good flow rate and is comfortable to use. The Ride 12 shines for its comfort, storage, and weight, and we have no qualms about granting it one of our top awards.
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 do 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 several months, we used these backpacks all over 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. We filled, drank, rode, hiked, ran, and even skied 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. We then rated them based on their ease of drinking, filling, cleaning, comfort and storage capabilities, and overall weight.
Our hydration pack testing is divided across six rating metrics:
Ease of Drinking (20% of total score weighting)
Ease of Filling (20% weighting)
Comfort (20% weighting)
Storage (20% weighting)
Weight (10% weighting)
Ease of Cleaning (10% weighting)
To test hydration packs, we enlisted the expertise of gear testers Nick Bruckbauer, Jason Cronk, and Tara Reddinger-Adams. As experienced hikers, bikers, and all-around outdoors people, this group understands the importance of quality gear and efficient hydration. Our male reviewers are residents of the beautiful Lake Tahoe area and can be found shredding the trails all year via foot, bike, or skis. Tara is a resident of Minnesota, but spends a good part of the year mountain biking and hiking in Colorado and the southwest U.S.
Analysis and Test Results
After a thorough examination of the best hydration packs on today's market, we carefully selected these models from some of the industry's most trusted manufacturers. Each model in our lineup comes with a built-in hydration bladder and drinking hose, with a unique bladder housing design, hose routing system, and drinking bite valve attachment. The small nuances between each backpack and hydration system design can significantly affect the ease of drinking from, filling, and cleaning the water bladder, as well as the overall comfort and utility of the backpack. To help you identify which models excel in which areas, we analyzed each backpack and hydration system design across our six performance metrics mentioned above.
Here at GearLab, we recommend the best possible products but also recognize that not everyone is looking to pay top dollar every time. Most of us prefer to balance performance and price, and we have compared both price and overall performance for each hydration pack tested to highlight each pack's performance features.
Hydration packs come with both the bladder and backpack, which in general offers 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 H20 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 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. The security of the bite valve attachment system, the routing of the drinking hose through the bag, and the overall bladder volume were all equally considered, in addition to the ease of gulping down the liquid goods.
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 HydrPak hydration system that is found on the Evoc and Osprey packs. Their bite valve has a pleasing shape in the mouth and is easy to suck large amounts of water from.
The hydration system's overall design can greatly influence your drinking. Poorly routed hoses that kink or offer a low flow rate can be frustrating to use. The same applies to having a bladder that is too small and running out of water. In this category, packs with larger water bladder volumes and better drinking hose attachment systems score well. 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
How easy is your bladder to fill up? Compared to the "old days" when you had to dismantle your entire pack to fill up a likely-to-puncture hydration bladder with a narrow one-inch opening, today's models are more user-friendly than ever.
One crucial aspect of this metric is the size of the opening of the hydration bladder you're filling. Packs such as those by Gregory have a circular opening that is about three inches in diameter, which works well for sinks but is harder to fill from a lake or stream. The Camelbak Crux bladders have a substantially larger four-inch circular opening that is easy to fill and large enough to drop ice cubes into.
At the other end of the spectrum are bladders that fold completely open. These larger openings make filling the bladder with water and even large ice cubes that much easier. This design is by far the best for filling up at trickling streams (be sure to add a chemical treatment in the bladder or filter inline with the hose).
How important this metric is 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 the water sources become less convenient, the more critical the bladder opening is. The size of the bladder opening can make a significant difference in the time and effort it takes to fill. A wider opening generally makes filling up easier.
Perhaps more important than the design of the hydration bladder is its location inside the pack, which can have a considerable impact on how easy it is to fill. Some models place the opening front and center with easy access for filling from a sink, such as the CamelBak Classic. Other packs such as the CamelBak M.U.L.E. Pro 14 and the CamelBak Octane XCT 70 use a side load system, where the side of the pack unzips to access the bladder. Our testers found these systems slightly more difficult to use compared to top-load designs such as the Gregory Endo 15 and Osprey Syncro 12. Most of our contenders have dedicated hydration bladder sleeves, making the bladders 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 consuming 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 the bladder.
Many of the bladders in our lineup also include a convenient quick-release button. This button can be located on a mid-point on the hose or where the drinking 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 or Camelbak Octane XCT 70? Is your intended use to carry more gear, along with more water like the Evoc Ride 12 or Gregory Endo 15? Are you looking for a larger hydration pack for all-day adventures like the Osprey Skarab 18 or the Gregory Nano 18 H2O? Or are you looking for a hydration pack that also offers the option to add back protection for mountain biking, like the CamelBak M.U.L.E. Pro 14? Simply deciding how you'll be using your new pack is an essential early step in your hunt.
The comfort level will quickly diminish if you load down an ultralight pack with too much weight. Conversely, a larger, more extensive pack may be overkill if you tend to carry a minimum of items and only partially fill your hydration bladder. Having too large of a model isn't necessarily uncomfortable but may create an excess of material that allows the bag's contents to move around. These factors can decrease your overall comfort.
We kept our comparison loads similarly weighted during testing. We typically carried a first aid kit, jacket, two liters of water, snacks, lip balm, and cell phone for hiking. On some occasions, we also had our trekking poles lashed to the pack. When we went mountain biking, we carried the same essentials plus a multitool, knife, and a small bike repair kit. Beyond these basics, we also used the packs for spring backcountry skiing, a gym bag, and while walking the dog. The smaller models we tested did not have the capacity for all these items, but the larger 14-liter and larger models we tested proved versatile and could be compared while under a more massive load.
Once the overall pack size is determined, it's time to look at the hydration pack's overall construction and test how it supports and carries a load. The test models had four fundamental foundations: No frame, like the minimalist design CamelBak Classic, a stiffened foam frame sheet, like our value-oriented Gregory Nano 18 H2O, light wireframe like the high-end Osprey Syncro 12, and metal frame stays like the Deuter Compact EXP 12.
A pack without any real frame construction provides excellent comfort for lower weights but suffers as you add weight. The more substantial the frame, the better the bag handles increased gear weight. 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. Heavy by design, the Deuter Compact EXP 12 unsurprisingly deals with the heavier pack loads with ease.
We also tested the packs for breathability as this affects your comfort quite a bit (think sweat-saturated back on a chilly and windy day). The wireframed Osprey Syncro 12 and CamelBak M.U.L.E. Pro 14 with Air Support™ Pro Back Panel have the best ventilation design. This high level of breathability is accomplished by keeping the pack body away from your back, providing superior airflow. The Gregory Endo 15 also provides proper 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. Not surprisingly, the higher-priced packs in our lineup tend to have this feature and are more comfortable.
Some hydration pack users prefer a more substantial hip belt like the Thule Vital 6, while others have no hip belt and instead 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 others have a thin hip belt such as the Osprey Syncro 12 and Gregory Nano 18 H2O. What type of belt you prefer is very subjective, and only you can decide which style you like. Generally speaking, the more substantial the hip belt, the better the pack will carry heavier loads.
If you're on the fence about hip belts, look for a model that offers it as a removable feature.
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 the kitchen sink? Depending on your typical day out and what you tend to bring with you, it's relatively easy to figure out how much space you need.
Once you've decided on a size, you can begin narrowing down how you want your storage space organized. Do you prefer one or two simple compartments? If so, the Gregory Nano 18 H2O or the Camelbak Octane 18 may be the ticket with their basic sack-like style. Alternatively, do you like lots of individual compartments where your equipment and food can be more organized? If you need specialized gear storage, such as bike pump keeper loops, helmet or pad carry straps, some of our midsize bike packs such as the CamelBak M.U.L.E. Pro 14, the Gregory Endo 15, and the Osprey Syncro 12 might be great choices.
We were especially impressed with the storage features on the Gregory Endo 15. In addition to a solid 15-liters of overall volume, the Endo has a multitude of storage compartments, zippered pockets, padded sleeves, and hip belt pockets. We also liked the easy-to-use storage compartments in the Evoc Ride 12, whose rectangular shape is easy to stuff with first aid and extra layers. Easily accessible hip pockets allow quick access to snacks, a multitool or knife, and other small items.
Here at GearLab, we measure an item's weight ourselves, as sometimes claimed weights aren't always accurate. Our lineup of hydration packs is no exception. We weighed each pack with its included hydration system.
There was a surprising weight variance between the low and high ends of the spectrum in our lineup. The CamelBak Classic weighs 11.2 ounces, while the more fully-featured packs like the Deuter Compact EXP 12 and the Gregory Endo 15 both tipped the scales at over 38 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 scores well in this metric. If you only need the bare necessities, this is an excellent option for those on a budget who are also concerned with weight. 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, where others don't mind an extra few ounces or even a pound if it means their pack is more organized and comfortable and has more bells and whistles.
Ease of Cleaning
We know that most users may not clean their bladders as often as they probably should. We're not pointing fingers or making judgments because we're guilty too. With today's hydration packs, though, it's easier than ever to do a quick and thorough cleaning of your hydration system to keep the petri-dish effect to a minimum.
Overall, the quicker the access to the bladder itself, the easier the cleaning process is. Beyond that, the larger the bladder opening, the easier it is to clean. We also found that the quicker and easier it is to clean our hydration system, the more likely we are to do it. The bladders with the widest opening mouths, like the Deuter Compact EXP 12, the Evoc Ride 12, the Osprey Skarab 18, and the Syncro 12, are the easiest to clean. If you can remove the bladder from the pack and open the entire end of it, insert your hand and scrub, then follow it up with a towel, it's pretty darn easy to keep things clean. HydraPak bladders, which are found on Evoc and Osprey packs, are easy to flip inside out to clean. For those that are dishwasher safe, 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 required 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 require a little more effort with their circular openings and require a brush, but we appreciate their convenient hanging hooks to help the bladder dry.
After cleaning, allow the reservoir to dry completely. Placing it in a windowsill and propping it open with a kitchen utensil (think a large whisk) speeds up the drying process. Toss the empty bladder in your freezer to limit bacteria growth during storage.
With a greater variety of hydration packs available today than ever before, we've narrowed down your search by researching and testing the best options available. We've made this review as comprehensive and detailed as possible to help aid in your decision-making. Our gear testers rode, ran, skied, climbed, and hiked all over Arizona, California, Minnesota, and beyond to help you select the best hydration pack for your needs.
Tara Reddinger-Adams, Nick Bruckbauer, & Jason Cronk
We've been back in the ring testing this year's top water...
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