Why and When You Need a Hydration Pack
Hydration packs are fantastic pieces of gear for anyone who needs to stay hydrated during adventures but doesn’t have the time to stop and drink out of a water bottle.
These packs are specifically designed to carry hydration systems, which can easily be used as you bike, hike, or run in the mountains, eliminating the need to take time-consuming water breaks. Plus, they’re often quite light and designed to carry water so that it doesn’t bounce around on your back as you move.
Any person who likes to use a hydration system can benefit from a hydration-specific pack, as these packs are designed to accommodate these systems, while also making space for additional features that make life easier in the mountains.
Even if you don’t use a hydration system, many of these packs, especially hydration waist belts, can also accommodate water bottles, which can make it easier for you to drink out of them when you’re on the move.
How to Choose a Hydration Pack
Hydration packs are quite simple pieces of gear, but there’s a lot of thought and planning that goes into choosing just the right one for your needs. Before you head out and purchase that brand-new hydration pack for your adventures, take a moment to consider these important characteristics of water backpacks.
Water Pack Types
In general, there are two main types of hydration packs:
- backpack water pack
- waist belt water pack
The central difference between these types of packs, as you might imagine, is how the pack is worn on your body.
That being said, there are some important advantages and disadvantages to each style that are worth understanding before you commit to a particular model.
Hydration backpacks act much like a standard backpack but come with a hydration system that fits into a purpose-built pouch. These packs offer ample storage space (depending on what size capacity you buy), which is great for those longer day hikes where you want to bring sufficient food, water, and extra layers.
Some companies even make hydration packs that are suitable for overnight use, though this is really just a factor of overall pack size.
Many hydration backpacks are also activity-specific, with some being designed specifically for hiking, running, snowsports, or cycling. Here are the main differences between the different activity-specific packs:
Hiking Hydration Packs
Hiking hydration backs are effectively the same as a standard pack for hiking, but they have a purpose-built pouch to hold the hydration reservoir inside the backpack.
Plus, they’ve got an opening at the top of the bag for the hydration tube to feed through, so you don’t have to walk around with your pack zipper slightly open. Usually, they also have some sort of attachment point for the mouthpiece somewhere on the shoulder strap so the mouthpiece doesn’t dangle by your knees as you hike.
Cycling Hydration Packs
While some cycling hydration packs are great for both road and mountain biking, others are made just for one of the two disciplines. Usually, road cycling hydration packs are designed to be low-profile and lightweight so you can set a new PR on your next ride with friends.
Mountain biking hydration packs also try to be low-profile, but they tend to have a bit more space to accommodate any extra gear you might want to bring with you.
Running Hydration Packs
Running hydration packs come in one of two basic models: the running vest and the running backpack. Running vests are essentially a hydration system that slides into a small, lightweight vest-shaped garment that snugly fits.
These are designed for ultramarathon runners and people who run without needing much more than water and a snack or two. They usually don’t have much space for extra gear. Plus, running vests don’t usually come with a hip belt, which is nice if you’re out on a long run.
Running hydration backpacks, on the other hand, look much like a small hiking day pack, but are designed to be low-profile and lightweight with minimal padding.
Usually, they can only accommodate a hydration reservoir, snacks, and a spare lightweight layer, but that’s often enough for a long trail run. They tend to be a bit heavier than a running vest, but running hydration backpacks are better for people who need to carry extra gear when they’re out running in the hills.
Snowsports Hydration Packs
These hydration packs are designed specifically for people who like to ski and snowboard but want to stay hydrated during their adventures.
The main difference between a snowsports-specific hydration pack and a regular hydration pack is that the snowsports models are usually insulated to help prevent the water from freezing.
This feature also makes snowsports hydration packs useful for anyone looking to hike or run in the colder winter months.
Hydration Waist Pack
If you’re out just for a short jaunt in the hills, you might want to consider choosing a hydration waist pack. As you can probably guess, a hydration waist pack is a small pack carried around the waist.
Usually, they can only accommodate a small water bottle and not much extra gear. That being said, they’re great for light and fast adventures where you don’t need much else but water!
There are two main things to consider when deciding what capacity hydration pack you need: the amount of gear you want to carry and the amount of water you need. The amount of gear you want to carry will directly affect the size hydration pack you’ll want to get.
Often, for a short day hike, most people can get away with using a hydration pack between 10 and 30 liters in capacity. Other activities and longer trips might warrant a larger pack (30+ liters), while others like running and road cycling might require a pack that’s 10 liters or smaller.
When it comes to deciding upon the water-carrying capacity of the pack, you first need to determine how much water you drink on a regular outdoor adventure. From here, you should consider the length of whatever activity you might be doing, as longer days in the mountains usually warrant more water consumption.
You’ll also want to think about the terrain you usually travel in.
If you live somewhere that’s hot and dry, you’ll probably want to carry more water (think three liters) with you as you’re less likely to find it on the trail. People who live in cold, wet environments, might only need a two-liter reservoir, as they’ll be able to replenish their supplies during their adventures.
On the other hand, some runners might only want to carry one liter or less, so as not to feel weighed down on the trail.
Fit is incredibly important when it comes to packs, especially snug running hydration vests. Each pack fits every individual differently, so it’s important to find the one that’s the right size for you.
You can get measured for a backpack by a professional at most outdoor stores, which can be a great starting point if the pack you’re interested in comes in multiple sizes.
Our advice? If the pack doesn’t feel great when you carry it around the store or your home, it won’t feel any better when it’s weighed down with water after 20 miles of running on the trail. Make sure your new hydration pack fits well and feels good before you head outside.
Water Backpack Features
Most hydration packs come with some standard features, which we’ll go over here:
Hydration packs that are designed to hold hydration reservoirs will usually have a purpose-built pouch integrated into the pack along the back panel, which is great for making sure the weight of the water doesn’t shift around as you hike, run, or bike.
These pouches generally have a clip at the top, which is used to hold the hydration reservoir upright and in position as you move. Usually, these pouches can accommodate hydration reservoirs between two and three liters in size, but it’s important to make sure your new pack can carry the amount of water you need.
Somewhere on the top or side of most hydration packs is a small opening that allows the hydration tube to sneak through the backpack fabric and out toward you as you wear the pack.
This opening makes it possible to use a hydration pack without having to keep your backpack slightly unzipped to allow the hydration tube to extend from the bottom of the reservoir to your mouth.
Mouthpiece Attachment System
Most hydration packs also have some sort of attachment system to keep the mouthpiece of the hydration system near your upper body when you’re not using it. Often, this is located on one of the shoulder straps, which makes for a convenient storage spot for the mouthpiece when you’re not actively drinking water.
Top Hydration Pack Brands
There are three top brands in the hydration pack market these days: Camelbak, Platypus, and Osprey. Each brand makes quality hydration pack systems, but each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Here’s what you can expect from each brand:
Camelbak is well known around the world for being one of the first companies to mass produce a hydration system. Born out of a need to drink water without stopping to get out a water bottle, the Camelbak hydration system has developed over time to be incredibly reliable.
Camelbak’s hydration systems are used anywhere there are outdoor enthusiasts, whether they are hikers, bikers, or ultramarathon runners. In fact, both US and foreign militaries use military-specific versions of Camelbaks to ensure that their troops stay hydrated, wherever they might be.
The company is known for having been one of the first to completely remove BPA-containing plastics from their products. Plus, their hydration systems are designed to be taste-free while the bite valve on their mouthpieces is well-known for being virtually leakproof when used properly.
Platypus redefined the world of hydration packs and reservoirs by making them incredibly lightweight. The main difference you’ll see when comparing a Platypus hydration system to a competitor’s is that the vast majority of Platypus reservoirs feature their patented “Big Zip” opening system.
Unlike both Camelbak and Osprey reservoirs, which have large twist-top openings, Platypus reservoirs look like gigantic Ziploc bags with a wide opening that makes them really easy to fill up in a river or stream.
Although their reservoirs have stood the test of time, Platypus is actually quite new to making backpacks. That being said, based on how their hydration systems perform, it’d be hard to expect anything less than the best from a Platypus hydration pack.
Osprey is a famous backpack company that is relatively new to the hydration pack game. Their hydration systems closely resemble Camelbak systems, both in style and function. However, where Osprey really stands apart is in the quality and versatility of their backpacks.
If having a comfortable backpack is the most important thing for you as you look for a hydration pack, then Osprey packs are likely a good choice. They offer a wide range of different styles and models, each specifically designed for a particular outdoor pursuit, whether that be mountain biking or marathon running.
How do you use a hydration pack?
Hydration packs are, thankfully, quite easy to use. They are basically backpacks with a hydration system inside.
Hydration systems consist of a soft-sided “bladder,” which holds the water and sits inside the backpack, a long tube that acts sort of like a giant straw to transport the water to your mouth, and a mouthpiece, which allows you to drink the water.
All one needs to do to use a hydration pack is fill up the reservoir and put it inside the backpack. Then one needs to position the tube and mouthpiece so that they are conveniently placed near one’s mouth for easy drinking.
Finally, one needs to bite down softly on the mouthpiece and suck in on the tube as if it were a straw. Voila! You have water and your thirst is quenched.
How do you clean a hydration pack?
Keeping your hydration pack clean is incredibly important as dirt, bacteria, mold, and mildew can easily build up in a dirty hydration pack. The best advice you can get for cleaning your hydration pack will come directly from the manufacturer, as they know what’s best for their product.
That being said, there are some general guidelines you can follow.
Here are the materials you’ll need to clean your hydration pack:
- Cleaning brushes made for your hydration pack and tube
- Clean dish scrubbing brush
- Reservoir cleaning tablets, baking soda, or bleach
- A drying rack
Cleaning your reservoir isn’t terribly difficult, but it is a process. Here are the steps you should follow for a squeaky-clean hydration pack:
- Fill your hydration pack with warm water and either one cleaning tablet, 1/4 cup (60 mL) of baking soda, or a few drops of household bleach. Seal the hydration pack and shake it up.
- Lift the reservoir up above a sink and pinch the tube, squirting a little bit of the cleaning solution into the sink. This helps ensure that all parts of the hydration pack are in contact with the cleaning solution.
- Set the hydration pack aside and let the cleaning solutions do their job. If you’re using cleaning tablets, this will likely be only about five minutes, but with bleach or baking soda, you’ll want to wait about 20 minutes.
- Drain the contents of the reservoir into the sink and fill it back up with warm water. Add a few drops of dish soap to the water.
- Scrub the inside of the reservoir with a clean dish scrubbing brush and use a hydration-pack-specific brush to scrub the inside of the tube.
- Thoroughly rinse everything out with clean water.
- Disassemble all of the pieces of the hydration pack and set them out to dry. It’s best to hang it up upside down so all of the water inside the reservoir can drip out. What’s most important here is that you wait until the hydration pack is completely dry as even the smallest amount of moisture inside can cause mold to grow inside the system.
Can hydration packs freeze? How do I avoid this?
Hydration packs can freeze when used in very cold temperatures. Generally speaking, for a hydration pack to completely freeze, it has to be below the freezing point of water (zero degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit) for a prolonged period of time.
Brief exposure to below-freezing temperatures usually won’t cause a hydration pack to freeze, but these conditions can cause small ice crystals to build up in the tube or mouthpiece of a hydration pack and make it more difficult to drink from them.
The most common part of the hydration pack that freezes is the tube. Unlike the hydration bag, which usually sits right next to your back in your pack, the tube sits out in the open air and is most exposed to the elements.
While the actual hydration bag can freeze, this is more common in very cold temperatures when the heat from your body isn’t transferring through the fabric of your backpack.
Luckily, there are a few ways to avoid having your hydration pack freeze in chilly temperatures:
1. One technique you can try is to blow air into the hydration pack tube after you drink from it.
Doing so helps push warm air into the tube, reducing the likelihood that the tube will freeze. This works best when the temperatures are right around the freezing point, but this is unlikely to make a huge difference in extreme temperatures.
2. Another option is to buy an insulated cover for the tube of your hydration pack. Many manufacturers sell specific models for their products, and they can be helpful in providing a barrier between your hydration pack tube and the elements.
That being said, like the blow-back method, these insulated covers can only help to a point and are unlikely to work well when the mercury drops well below freezing. In these instances, it’s often preferable to use plastic water bottles because there are more methods and techniques available to keep them from freezing.