Hydration packs have built-in access to water you can drink while you’re wearing the pack. They come in many designs and sizes, specialized for activities like hiking, mountain biking and running.
Like a camel, these packs are equipped with a special bladder that lets you carry all your water on your body; you just drink it through a special straw.
Consider these factors when choosing a hydration pack:
It’s not surprising that the CAMELBAK M.U.L.E. ($115, camelbak.com) has long been a bestseller. With a narrow profile, moderate weight, multiple pockets and features, helmet attachments and a 3-liter bladder, it’s a favorite for mountain bikers, but crosses over seamlessly to hiking and other sports that don’t demand an ultralight pack. With 12 total liters of cargo space, it swallows extra layers, tools and food for a multi-hour adventure. 1 lb., 6 oz. The KIDS’ MINI M.U.L.E. ($50, camelbak.com) holds 1.5 liters. 7 oz.
Does it hold enough water and other stuff for your needs? Water capacity often ranges from 1.5 to 3 liters, plus just enough space for a light shell jacket and snacks — perfect for a long day hike.
Whether on the trail or around town, the GREGORY NANO 18 H2O HYDRATION PACK ($70, gregorypacks.com) delivers basic functionality at a good value. The Nano 18 offers a magnetic sternum strap to hold the bite valve when not in use. The bladder holds 3 liters of water and has its own designated pocket. 1 lb.
Mouthpiece-hose designs vary; some are much easier to clean, which matters if you’re adding a drink mix. Some have magnets for attaching the hose to the pack’s sternum strap.
For mountain bikers, the OSPREY SYNCRO 12 ($130, osprey.com) scores high on every measure, from comfort, support and fabric breathability to ease of use, accessing contents, drinking or refilling water. Its 12 liters of gear space will hold your extra layers and food, and the trampoline-style back panel and shoulder straps shaped for the way your arms reach forward onto handlebars provide superior comfort. The pack’s reservoir can hold 2.5 liters. 1 lb., 11.5 oz.
A pack for, say, mountain biking will often be too heavy for running but might cross over nicely to hiking.
For ages 8 to 12, the REI TARN 15 ($60, rei.com) is a light all-purpose hydration pack for virtually any activity. Padded shoulder straps, a ventilating back pad and a thin webbing belt give it comfort for carrying several pounds. The Tarn sports enough capacity for clothes, snacks and incidentals, and features multiple pockets, a 1.5-liter bladder and durable materials. 15 oz.
Will it fit you? The smaller designs come in one size or a couple of unisex sizes, while larger packs have two to four gender-specific sizes.
You’ll want the pack to fit snug and not slung low on your lower back, otherwise it’ll cause painful pressure and bounce around like crazy while you’re moving.
For girls whose shoulders and back length don’t yet fit an adult pack but have outgrown a kid’s pack, the OSPREY KITSUMA 3 ($65, osprey.com) fits the bill. The low-profile shoulder straps and slender body, along with the mesh back panel, keep the pack stable and you cool. The 2.5-liter bladder supports longer trail outings, and a pocket holds small items. The OSPREY KITSUMA 1.5 ($55, osprey.com) fits kids under 5’6″ better. 7 oz.
Does it have the features you want? If you have one use in mind, there are specialized packs for it. For example, running packs and vests are slim and light, have multiple pockets within reach while wearing it and tend to ride high on your back — some hikers might like them, too. For multiple activities, find a multipurpose pack.
A mesh harness that makes the pack almost unnoticeable on your back and a secure, zippered pocket for a phone makethe CAMELBAK CLASSIC ($60, camelbak.com) a top choice for short adventures. A sleeve holds the 2.5-liter bladder. 5 oz.
EASE OF CLEANING
If you don’t keep your hydration pack clean you’ll risk getting sick. If you leave water in something for a while, it gets stale and can develop bad bacteria.
If you’re lazy, look for something dishwasher-safe. (It should say so on the label.) Hydration packs are notoriously tough to clean. The easiest are ones that have openings large enough for you to stick your hand inside. Some have detachable hoses, but to really get one clean, you may need to buy a special brush.