How to Choose a Hydration Pack

Camping & Hiking Expert Hannah K. breaks down what to look for in a hydration pack so you're always comfortable and hydrated on trail.

Photo by Nathan Lindahl

Published on

Staying hydrated during outdoor physical activity is highly important: water equals life. This is where hydration systems come to the rescue. Hydration packs are an amazing, hands-free way to stay hydrated without carrying a bulky water bottle around. Hydration packs are useful for hikers, trail runners, bikers, and everyone in between. There are a lot of options out there, so here are some tips to help narrow down your choices.

Type

First, you want to consider the type of pack. There are hydration packs that you wear like a vest or backpack, and there is also a style called a hydration waist pack that fits similarly to a fanny pack. A hydration pack uses a water bottle versus a reservoir or hydration bladder and it has less capacity for extra items, like snacks or layers.

There are also hydration packs that are great for long-distance hikers who prefer to use a reservoir rather than water bottles. It’s good to note that many daypacks and bigger backpacks are hydration-reservoir-compatible.

Cycling hydration packs are compact, low-profile, and specifically made for road or mountain biking. They come in a range of sizes. Another type is the snow sports hydration pack, which is made to keep water in a liquid state—rather than a frozen state—while you are out enjoying the snow. These packs have an insulating tube for the reservoir and often feature attachment points to carry skis or snowboards.

There are also running packs and running vests, with the latter being more compact with less room for extra items. Some running vests allow you to use a hands-free water reservoir while others have pockets for bottles, and some have both.

Size

The next thing you want to think about when picking a hydration pack is the size. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. How long will I be away from a water source? If you are going to be away from water sources for long durations of time, you will want to carry more water with you. Keep in mind that water is heavy; one liter of water is about two pounds of weight.
  2. How intense is the activity? Are you running up a mountain or walking around a lake?
  3. How hot or cold will it be outside? The hotter it is, the more you sweat and the easier it will be to become dehydrated.
  4. What is the elevation level where I am going? At higher elevation levels, you’ll need more water.
  5. Will I want to bring lots of snacks, layers, and other items? Knowing how much you want to include in your hydration pack other than water is crucial to deciding how big of a vest or pack you need. Essentially, know what you want to bring and the amount of storage required to fit it all.
  6. Do you want separate compartments to organize your gear or do you want to throw it all in at once? Do you like multiple pockets or do you want something sleeker?
A man in shorts, a t-shirt, running shoes, and a hydration pack runs along a cliff-side trail. In the distance, a jagged snow-dusted peak rises.

Photo by Brian Erickson

When you have an idea of how much you want to bring with you, you can choose a liter size. 5 liters or less will be best for running, light and short hikes, and road biking. Including water, you may be able to fit your keys, a snack, and an extra layer in your pack. 6 to 10 liters is a great size for trail running (longer distances) and mountain biking where you may need to bring more gear. 11 to 20 liters is often for longer day hikes, and 21 liters or more is designed for long-distance hiking and backpacking.

Fit

Like any pack, you want your hydration pack to fit well. Keep in mind that a hydration vest will be more snug and sleek than a pack. You can use your torso length or waist size to determine what size will best fit your needs. I recommend trying many different sizes and brands and to try on the packs with some weight in them before you purchase. Testing these items out for fit is the best way to predict what your comfort level will be once you step outside.

Test out the comfort of the shoulder straps and the fit under the arm and around the ribcage. If you are getting a large backpacking pack or a hydration waist pack, check that the weight is evenly distributed on your hips so you don’t feel any pain.

Extra Features

If you are using a water reservoir, there are features that make drinking hands-free and refilling easy, including insulation tubes (for cold weather), bite valves (to avoid leaks), tube clips and tube portals or magnetic clips (for easy access), quick-disconnecting drink tubes, and wide-mouth openings (for easy filling).

This Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir is my favorite reservoir I have used so far. It is perfect for my activities of choice. It never leaks, uses mechanisms such as the wide-mouth opening for easy refilling, and comes in a variety of sizes.

Chest straps are another great feature for both vests and hydration backpacks. Chest straps will keep your gear tight against your body and avoid the “slush,” especially if you are trail running or mountain biking and want to keep extra movement to a minimum. Also, back panels for ventilation are key for extra sweaty days. Breathable mesh all the way!

Someone bikes uphill on a trail between pine trees while wearing a pack around their waist. The sun filters through the trees and the whole picture glows. It's beautiful.

Photo by Tim Foster

Other things to keep in mind are the durability of the gear, how often you will use it, and if any of the gear is dishwasher-safe or needs to be hand-washed. Let’s avoid the bacteria and mold fest and keep our water clean, okay folks?

Expert note: Bite valves on a pack are very individual. Some prefer them to be easier to drink out of, while others like them to be a bit more difficult to use to avoid leakage. Some want them to be easy for their dog to drink out of as well. Individual choices!

Like Osprey, Camelbak is another award-winning and heavily loved brand with great pack options. From vests to bottles to water bladders, this brand makes it all! Need a replacement tube, hose, or an insulated tube, or even a few replacement mouthpieces? Camelbak has you covered.

Remember, fluids are extremely important to our health and well-being. Listen to your body and observe your pee! Too yellow, drink more water; not yellow enough, give the water a rest. Have any other questions about hydration systems? Reach out to me or another Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated and we can chat about all things outdoors.

Like this article?
Share it with your network

Written By
Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free gear recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

Read Next