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 simply grab the drink tube that’s connected to the included water reservoir (sometimes called a bladder).
When you’re shopping for a hydration pack, you first want to make sure the pack 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 pack that’s designed for the activities you do
Keep in mind that nearly all newer daypacks and backpacks that don’t come with a hydration reservoir are designed with an interior sleeve that can hold a reservoir. If that describes an existing pack you own or are thinking about purchasing, you can simply add a reservoir to it to make it a hydration pack.
There are two general types of hydration packs: hydration backpacks and hydration waist packs. Within those groups, there are packs made specifically for different outdoor activities, including hiking, running, mountain biking, cycling, skiing and snowboarding. The common feature among nearly all of them is the included hydration reservoir that makes drinking easy. A handful of packs (usually ones designed for running) include water bottles rather than a reservoir.
Hiking hydration packs: These packs are a lot like standard packs for hiking and usually feature ample cargo space for food, extra layers and the Ten Essentials that you should carry on every outing. They range in size from small packs for short hikes to ones that are big enough for ultralight overnights.
Cycling hydration packs: These packs are designed specifically for road cycling and mountain biking. Those designed 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 a bit larger to accommodate extra gear, clothing and bike tools. All cycling hydration packs typically have low-profile waist belts that won’t interfere with your pedalling.
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 snug 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 hip belt 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 hip belt (a few have no hip belt at all) and a bunch of pockets that are easy to access while you’re running. They sometimes provide more storage than vests (mostly 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 (reservoirs are sometimes sold separately). Many also include pockets on the shoulder straps or sides if you prefer to use water bottles.
Hydration Waist packs
As the name implies, these packs are carried around your waist. Many of them include water bottles rather than a reservoir, and the cargo space is smaller than most packs provide.
Waist packs can be nice for light and fast adventures, like a hike, trail run or cross-country ski, where you don’t need to carry much gear and you don’t want your movement hindered by a bigger pack on your back.
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 litre weighs approximately 1 kilogram), so think about how much you really 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-litre reservoir, you can fill it halfway for a quick hike or all the way for a longer adventure in a hot climate.
Here are some things to think about related to reservoir capacity:
Hydration Pack Gear Capacity
The gear capacity of hydration packs ranges from less than 5 liters up 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 favourite jacket? Does it provide enough snack space for the length of trips you take?
Here are some considerations for gear capacity:
Once you’ve figured out the type of hydration pack you want and the capacity, it’s time to make sure it fits you properly. The right fit offers:
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 hip belts usually fit a wide range of hip sizes, from the mid-44cm to the mid-88cm or bigger. You can find this measurement on the product specs tab.
Women-Specific Hydration Packs
These packs have hip belts and shoulder straps that are contoured with the female form in mind. Torso dimensions are generally shorter and narrower than men’s packs, too. Because they are available in 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.