Hydration packs are designed principally to transport water and make drinking convenient and efficient. In fact, with most hydration packs, you don’t have to stop or even slow down to take a sip of water; you grab the drink tube connected to the included water reservoir (sometimes called a bladder).
When shopping for a hydration pack, you first want to ensure the package is designed for the activity you intend to use it for, and then consider things like capacity, fit and extra features. This article walks you through the process and covers:
- Types of hydration packs: First, find a group that’s designed for the activities you do
- Capacity: Be sure the group has enough space for your water and gear
- Fit: Make sure the bag fits your torso length and hip size
- Features: Consider additional features, like bite valve on/off switches and quick-disconnect tubing
Remember that nearly all newer daypacks and backpacks without a hydration reservoir are designed with an interior sleeve that can hold a pool. If that describes an existing pack you own or are thinking about purchasing, you can add a reservoir to it to make it a hydration pack.
Types of Hydration Packs
There are two general types of hydration packs: hydration backpacks and hydration waist packs. Within those groups, bags are made specifically for outdoor activities, including hiking, running, mountain biking, cycling, skiing, and snowboarding. The common feature among nearly all is the included hydration reservoir that makes drinking easy. A handful of packs (usually ones designed for running) have water bottles rather than a pool.
Hiking hydration packs: These packs are much like standard packs for hiking and usually feature ample cargo space for food, extra layers, and the Ten Essentials you should carry on every outing. They range in size from small packs for short hikes to ones that are big enough for ultralight overnight backpacking.
Cycling hydration packs are designed specifically for road cycling and mountain biking. Those intended for the road are typically compact and low-profile, so they feel light and stable on your back and won’t create a ton of wind resistance. Packs designed for mountain biking are often more significant to accommodate extra gear, cycling clothing, and bike tools. All cycling hydration packs typically have low-profile waistbelts that won’t interfere with your pedaling.
Running hydration packs: These are designed specifically for running. While shopping, you’ll notice that some are called running vests while others are running backpacks. The line between the two is sometimes blurry.
Running vests: As you might expect, these look like a vest and are designed to fit snugly to your body. They are similar to a backpack in that they are carried over the shoulders and on your back, but they tend to be a bit lower profile, feature more pockets on the front of the shoulder straps, and don’t have a hipbelt like most packs do. Many include dedicated spots for storing water bottles on the front of the shoulder straps. Most vests also accommodate a hydration reservoir (sometimes sold separately) for runners who like to sip from a tube.
Running backpacks: These are a lot like a backpack that you’d take on a day hike but with running-specific features, such as a low-profile design, a simple hipbelt (a few have no hipbelt at all), and a bunch of pockets that are easy to access while you’re running. They sometimes provide more storage than vests (mainly in the back of the pack), making them a good choice for long trail runs that require lots of extra food and clothing. Nearly every running pack accommodates a hydration reservoir for easy sipping on the go (pools are sometimes sold separately). Many also include pockets on the shoulder straps or sides if you prefer to use water bottles.
Snowsports hydration packs: Designed for activities like skiing and snowboarding, snowsports hydration packs are winterized to help keep your water supply from freezing. That means there’s usually insulation on the reservoir, drink tube, and sometimes a bite valve cover. Some snowsports-specific packs include lash points or carry straps to allow hands-free transport of a snowboard.
As the name implies, hydration waist packs are carried around your waist. Many include water bottles rather than a reservoir, and the cargo space is smaller than most groups provide.
Waist packs can be excellent for light and fast adventures, like a hike, trail run, or cross-country ski, where you don’t need to carry much gear and don’t want your movement hindered by a bigger pack on your back.
Hydration Pack Capacity
Make sure the hydration pack you choose can carry enough water and gear to meet your needs.
Hydration Pack Reservoir Capacity
Water isn’t light (1 liter weighs approximately 2 pounds), so think about how much you need to carry and whether you’ll be able to refill along the way, and then purchase a hydration pack in line with that.
Of course, you don’t have to fill the reservoir to the brim on every outing. To keep weight low on shorter trips, carry only the amount of water you anticipate needing. For example, with a 3-liter reservoir, you can fill it halfway for a quick hike or a more extended adventure in a hot climate.
Here are some things to think about related to reservoir capacity:
- 0.5 liter or less (16 fluid ounces or less): Packs with minimal water capacity are usually waist packs that include one or two water bottles. They’re best for lightweight pursuits like running or walking.
- 1 liter or 1.5 liters (32 or 50 fluid ounces): A good choice for minimalists, kids, and short-distance bike commuters, hikers, and runners.
- 2 liters or 2.5 liters (70 or 85 fluid ounces): These popular reservoir sizes offer a nice balance of reasonable weight and bulk while providing a sufficient quantity of water that, in most situations, will require only occasional refilling.
- 3 liters or more (100 fluid ounces or more): Made for the thirstiest of adventurers or those who don’t want to stop to refill. They’re also suitable for anyone exploring terrain where water is scarce.
Hydration Pack Gear Capacity
The gear capacity of hydration packs ranges from less than 5 to about 50 liters. To figure out how much space you need, run through a mental inventory of the gear you carry. Can the pack accommodate your favorite jacket? Does it provide enough snack space for the length of trips you take?
Here are some considerations for gear capacity:
Five liters or less: Most of these small packs are built for lightweight pursuits like running, road biking, and ultralight hiking. Their compact, low-profile design provides room for only a handful of essentials, like an extra layer, some energy bars, and your keys.
6 liters to 10 liters: Many packs in this range are designed for mountain biking or trail running. They have enough space to fit an extra layer, food for the day, and your camera.
11 liters to 20 liters: These midsize packs are often built for hiking, mountain biking, or trail running and feature extra pockets for staying organized. Their larger capacity lets you carry enough clothes, food, emergency equipment, and extra gear for more extended explorations.
21 liters or more: Any hydration pack over 21 liters is usually designed for hiking. These have enough cargo room, comfort, and load-support features to perform well on long hikes. Some are even big enough for light-and-fast overnight adventures.
Hydration Pack Fit
Once you’ve figured out the type of hydration pack you want and the capacity, it’s time to ensure it fits you correctly. The correct fit offers:
- Size appropriate for your torso length (not your overall height)
- A comfortably snug grip on your hips (if the pack doesn’t have a hip belt, go solely by torso length)
Some packs are available in multiple sizes, from extra small to large, which fit a range of torso lengths. These ranges vary by manufacturer and gender. Check the product specs tab for size details.
Other packs have an adjustable suspension that can be modified to fit your torso. This is helpful if you’re often in-between sizes.
Hydration pack hipbelts usually fit a wide range of hip sizes, from mid-20 to mid-40 inches or more significant. You can find this measurement on the product specs tab.
Women-Specific Hydration Packs
These packs have hip belts and shoulder straps contoured with the female form in mind. Torso dimensions are generally shorter and narrower than men’s packs, too. Because they are smaller sizes, women’s backpacks often work well for young backpackers of either gender.
Youth-Specific Hydration Packs
These often offer smaller capacities and include an adjustable suspension to accommodate a child’s growth. You can also try women’s backpacks or small sizes of some men’s packs.
Hydration Pack Features
- Bite valve shutoff switch: Some bite valves twist to open and close; others have a button to ensure water doesn’t get out when you don’t want it to.
- Tube portals: This slit in the backpack allows you to thread the sip tube from the reservoir inside the pack to the exterior. Many groups offer two outlets so you can position the line to hang over either shoulder. Some packages offer a single, centered portal.
- Clips: Many hydration packs include a pin on a shoulder strap to keep your tube positioned for easy access.
- Quick-disconnect tubing: Some reservoirs include a drink tube that easily disconnects from the body of the pool, which is nice when it’s time to refill the reservoir mid-hike. You disconnect the line with a button and pull the reservoir from your pack. This allows you to leave the tube in place, which is especially handy if you have it routed through a tube portal.
- Wide-mouth opening: Wide-mouth openings usually allow you to fit a hand inside the reservoir, making cleaning easy. If you choose a pool with a smaller space, you can purchase reservoir cleaners or a cleaning kit with brushes for scrubbing the inside.
- Cold weather add-ons: Assorted winterized add-ons are available, including insulated sip tubes, insulated reservoirs, reservoir covers, and bite valve covers. They can be handy, though they add a little bulk and weight to your system.
- Raincover: A pack rain cover is a nice add-on if you recreate it in all types of weather.
THE BENEFITS OF HYDRATION PACKS:
Ease of Use: You carry it on your back, and the tube runs as close to your mouth as possible without becoming inconvenient. No matter what you’re doing (hiking, biking, climbing, etc.), no slowing down or stopping is necessary. If the drinking tube stays in place, it’s a grab, drink, and go, go go!
Hydration Levels are Higher: Because it’s more convenient and easier to drink from a hydration pack, you tend to drink more, which means you’re better hydrated during and after the activity. This means, as an athlete, you perform better.
Everyone’s Doing it: All of your hiking homies, biking buddies, and running regulars still using large, bulky plastic water bottles (disposable or not) will be envious of you. They’ll want to be you. They’ll buy their hydration packs and hoist you on their shoulders in thanks and adoration. Okay, probably not, but you get the picture. You’ll be the cooler one in the group. And better hydrate.
Are hydration packs worth it?
Verdict. A hydration system comes in handy when hiking alone, allowing you to drink on the go without stopping. It is also a convenient piece of equipment in warm weather because it lets you take small sips of water throughout the hike, keeps the water in the shade, and holds more water than most water bottles.
How long for a run do you need a hydration pack?
If you are regularly running for 2 hours or longer, it is wise to have access to drink around 2 L of water during your run. A hydration pack can offer this with easy on-the-go access. A hydration pack is likely not necessary for short runs that are less than 30 minutes in length.
Can you put ice in a hydration pack?
The hydration pack keeps the contents of the water bladder cold for quite a while, especially when you put ice in it. You can also freeze the bladder when it is half full, take it out the following day, and top it off with water, and the ice chunk will melt even more slowly than ice cubes throughout the day.
Is a hydration pack suitable for hiking?
Outdoor enthusiasts know how important it is to stay hydrated. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s tough to have enough water to drink when moving, hiking, biking, climbing, or running. It’s great to have a water bottle with you, but hydration packs allow you to carry more water conveniently.
Can I freeze a hydration bladder?
Freeze: Yes, freeze your hydration bladder to prevent any mildew from growing inside of it. No matter how well you’ve dried out the reservoir and hose, unwanted mold or mildew will likely increase during storage. The best way to battle this is to store your hydration bladder in a freezer.
Do thru-hikers use hydration bladders?
You’ll see thru-hikers treating and storing water in many different ways. One common practice for storing water is to use a hydration reservoir, a water bladder that hangs inside your backpack with a tube that comes out of the bag and wraps over one shoulder.
Do I need a water bladder backpack?
Hydration packs aren’t necessary but are convenient and comfortable, especially on longer day hikes.
How do you use a water bladder backpack?
Bite down on the tube and suck inward, just as you would when drinking from a straw. The suction power should allow the water to come out of the box. Swallow the water until you’ve had enough, then release the drink tube. Clip it to the hydration pack strap on your chest.
How much water should I carry backpacking?
The rule of thumb is to carry 1 liter of water every 2 hours of hiking. 3.5 hours would mean you’ll need to carry 1.5 liters of water.
Are ultralight backpacks worth it?
So, is ultralight backpacking worth it? Ultralight backpacking is worth it. You will only be carrying the items you need without overburdening yourself. When you have a lighter backpack on your shoulders, you will be more comfortable and can travel over challenging terrain more easily.
What is a good base weight for backpacking?
What is a good base weight to aim for? A good backpacking base weight is 15lbs, which does not require ultralight gear. However, 10 – 12lbs is a great goal to aim for, being a happy medium between comfort and weight.
Is a 50-liter backpack enough?
Even if you can’t get away with carry-on luggage, a 50-liter pack is big enough for even the most extended trip if you pack well.
What size backpack do I need for 2 weeks?
As a rule of thumb, 25-30 liter backpacks are best for shorter weekend trips, while 30-45 liter backpacks are best for longer or long-term trips.