Hydration Packs for 2012 and Beyond

hydration bladder in backpack

Not as romantic as the flannel-sided canteen, but it works well. Photo from Amazon.com.

I expect at least three weeks of good running weather to start my running season, since Spring has arrived early and at least two weeks of 70 degree highs are now in the local forecast. Maybe we’ll get another week after that, but inevitably the temperature tables will suddenly flip. That’s one of the days I dread a bit, because instead of warm and dry the air turns into something hot and sticky that drips down your skin before you even start to sweat. That’s summer in the midwest.

To run or hike any real distance in that sort of climate you obviously need to carry water, but hydration packs aren’t just for summer runs. You will dehydrate a lot faster if you work at high altitudes in cold weather, and you might miss the warning signs. If you’re not hot, you don’t expect to run low on fluids, but I’ve personally been much more prone to dehydration when working hard in the cold than I am working in the heat. I drink more water when it’s hot.

In any climate, staying hydrated keeps you from unnecessary exhaustion and prevents unreasonable levels of stupidity. Your body can lose about two liters of fluid before you even notice symptoms of thirst, but losing that much changes electrolyte concentrations and affects how your body and mind function. You’ll have to go a ways beyond that point before you realize you’re making dumb decisions, but reaching that point isn’t necessary. Just carry water and drink enough to replace what you lose, through sweat and urine and the steam you exhale.

osprey viper 7

Osprey's Viper 7 holds two liters of water and has ample space for essential gear and biking tools.

Engineered for Mountain Bikers: The Osprey Viper 7-Litre Hydration Pack carries two liters of water and provides 400 cubic inches of storage space. The Osprey Viper 4-Litre Hydration Pack also carries two litres of water, with only half the gear storage. If you want higher water capacity, step up to the Osprey Viper 10-Litre or the Osprey Viper 13-Litre, either of which carries 3 liters of water and increased storage space for gear. With pockets dedicated to cell phones and bike tools, a mesh pouch in front for your MP3 player, and a clip system for mounting your bike helmet to the pack, any Viper pack works well. The names create unnecessary confusion.

Hydration bladders represent genuine improvements over canteens, riding safely tucked away in pockets inside your pack where they don’t adversely affect your center of balance. In winter, your body heat should keep these stout but flexible plastic reservoirs from freezing, and in the summer you can partly fill them with ice to keep yourself cooler. Drinking tubes insulated with neoprene allow use in below freezing temperatures, although you’ll have to keep the tube drained to keep it clear of ice. Many hydration packs devote most of their space just to water storage, streamlining the package for trail runners and mountain bikers who want a compact profile and offering just enough extra storage room for essential personal items and emergency supplies.

Many companies now produce these useful packs, and it’s tougher to find differences between them than to sort the good from the bad. Tactical assault packs might be popular even with some civilians, offering a moderate amount of storage space as well as room for a MOLLE Hydration Bladder. Camelbak probably is still the best known brand of hydration pack, but many others compete successfully for top quality. The biggest difference you’ll find is capacity. You can buy hydration packs big enough to get you in and out of the Grand Canyon on one of the nation’s most grueling trails, or at the other extreme, strap on a comfortable running pack with just enough water for a few miles in easy country.

camelbak mule hydration pack

The Camelback Mule Hydration Pack increases both water storage and cargo space.

Capacity and Innovation:  Day hikers might prefer more cargo space as well as extra water storage. The day-pack style of the Camelbak Mule lacks the streamlining of the Osprey series, but you’ll find much more room inside. The Camelbak M.U.L.E. 100 oz Hydration Pack carries about three liters of water and offers 840 cubic inches of cargo room. The Camelbak Mini-M.U.L.E. 50 oz Hydration Pack reduces the concept to a scale that fits children. The Camelbak Classic 70 oz Hydration Pack limits cargo to bare essentials but still packs about two liters of water in its cool and comfortable streamlined package. Camelbak manufactures a diverse line of accessories for customizing Camelbak packs.

Other options include waist belts and fanny packs with pockets for water bottles, for those who would rather have the weight at the waist than on the back. If I’m running, I side with that faction, even though there’s a lot of bouncing and sloshing from belt level. For more than a couple of liters of water I’d have to go along with the hydration pack people, unless I have a chance to stash water along the way before I do the run. For backpacking, I haven’t yet converted to plastic bladders. The old plaid-sided canteen might bounce a little, but it goes where I go, whether I carry the pack or not. Cleaning a canteen is easy enough, just rinse it out with some bleach solution and let it stand open to dry. Cleaning bladders is a little harder — they trap moisture in folds and incubate mold if not thoroughly dried, a process that can take days. Bleach solutions might harm some plastic bladders, so you might need a special cleaning chemical sold by the same manufacturer. I’ll probably keep using my old canteen as long as it lasts, and replace it with an exact copy when something happens to it. I associate that tingly metallic taste and the feel of those rough metal threads with a lot of good times. I guess I’m just not that fond of plastic.

nathan hydration race vest

Lightest hydration pack with the best water for weight ratio.

Lightest but Less Rugged: The Nathan HPL #020 Race Vest weighs only six ounces unloaded. Lightweight mesh straps and form-fitting design make this light hydration pack one of the most comfortable, even though fully loaded with two liters of water and a few energy gels it weighs about six pounds. Nathan Hydration also makes a version built especially to fit the different body shape of women. The Nathan Water Bottles Intensity Race Vest changes the shoulder strap design and pack length to fit women better, but still offers the same carrying capacity and light weight. Some owners might say the pack is a little too light, since a few people have received packs with bladders that ruptured in use. When you trim weight to the cutting edge, you get an occasional weak spot. Go for a test run before your all-important 50 mile race. Problems are rare.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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