Do I need a Hydration Pack for Hiking and Backpacking?


Throughout the years hiking hydration bladders have become increasingly popular among hikers and backpackers. Hydration bladders have been flying off the shelves in the past 5-10 years. With a sudden increase in popularity and drop in cost, are hydration bladders actually worth it?

Are Hydration Packs Necessary?

Do I need a hydration pack for hiking and backpacking? No, nobody actually needs a hydration pack, but they sure are convenient. Hydration bladders give you easy access to water so you don’t have to stop every 15-20 minutes for a break. With a handy drinking hose, you’re more likely to stay hydrated over a long hike.

What is a Hydration Bladder Pack?

Hydration packs are plastic water reservoirs/bladders designed to transport water in a convenient easy to drink way. With most hydration packs you don’t have to take a break to drink water, allowing you to stay more hydrated on the trail.

The included water reservoir(aka hydration bladder) is connected to a convenient tube allowing you to take a drink on the fly.

Types of Hydration Packs

There are two main types of hydration packs: Hydration Backpacks and Hydration Waistpacks. Most hiking backpacks have a built-in area to store your hydration bladder and insulate it from the heat.

  • Hiking Hydration Packs: Hiking hydration packs are just like typical hiking backpacks, but they have space for a hydration bladder. Most packs have enough cargo space for everything you’d need on a short hike. For extended multi-day trips buy a dedicated hiking backpack with a reservoir pouch.
  • Adventure Packs(Cycling, Winter Sports, Running Packs): These packs are designed specifically for their intended use. Most of these packs have more adjustability and a little more padding with less cargo space.
  • Hydration Waistpacks: Hydration waist packs are perfect for short day hikes when you don’t want to deal with a hydration bladder. Sometimes it’s just not worth dealing with a hydration bladder on short hikes. I use one of these Osprey Savu Packs on short hikes(here’s the same model with a hydration bladder)

What is a Pressurized Hydration Bladder?

Pressurized hydration bladders (check out my favorite) add pressure to your water system so you can get the last drop of water out of your pack. Use the hand pump to force water through the tube creating a high pressure system.

After using various Camelbak, Platypus and Osprey bladders for years I finally made the switch. It’s so much easier to draw out water when you don’t have to create suction. Plus, with a pressurized system you can actually spray the water out washing off your face, hands, etc.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hydration Bladders

Advantages

1) Easier to Stay Hydrated

It’s much easier to stay hydrated when using a hydration bladder. You don’t have to stop for water breaks since you have easy access to the hydration tube. As a general rule you should drink at least 1 liter of water every 2 hours of hiking(maybe more on hot days).

2) Less Likely to Run Out of Water

On long day hikes and backpacking trips, most people use a hydration bladder. Water bladders come in way larger sizes than water bottles. The standard 100oz camelbak bladder holds almost 3 liters of water. That’s enough water for a 6-hour hike. For the same amount of water, you’d have to carry 6 standard water bottles or 3 large Nalgene bottles.

3) Easier to Carry Extra Water

Think about how much water you need on an 8-hour hike. You should be drinking at least 4 liters of water. Having a hydration bladder spread across your back is so much easier than carrying multiple 1-2 liter water bottles.

4) More Comfortable

Hydration Packs spread the weight of water across your entire back rather than centering it on your lumbar region. Everybody has experienced lower back pain on the trail and it’s not fun.

5) Easier to Navigate Difficult Terrain

When you have to do serious climbing and crawling through rough terrain you want the water close to your center of gravity. Bottled water on the outside of your pack can throw off your balance or become dislodged/smashed.

Disadvantages of Hydration Bladders

1)Hard to Clean

Hydration bladders are much harder and more expensive to clean than water bottles. You need to buy a bladder cleaning kit and cleaning tablets to clean your bladder. Don’t worry, the cleaning supplies aren’t all that expensive, but a little dawn soap is so much more convenient.

2)Harder to Refill

You can’t conveniently refill a water bladder on the trail without taking your pack apart. When your buddies are refilling their water bottles in a cold stream you’re left standing there like a dope.

3)Harder to Gauge Water Intake

With a water bottle, you can easily ration your water intake. Just drink 1 32 oz water bottle every 2 hours. If you aren’t drinking enough you can adjust your pace accordingly. The hydration bladder is inside your pack so there’s no way to know how much you drink.

4)Never Know When Bladder is Running Dry

Once again you can’t easily see how much water is left in your pack. You have to take your pack off and physically take out your bladder to check how much water is left.

Sometimes You Shouldn’t Use a Hydration Bladder

When it comes to hiking/backpacking gear I have terrible impulse control. Throughout the years I’ve bought more hydration bladders than one man could ever need. Hydration bladders really are awesome, but they don’t always make sense.

Water Bottles are Better on 1-2hr and Multi-Day Hikes

Personally, I only like to use a hydration pack on long 6-8 hour day hikes. It’s so much easier to just grab a water bottle for a short 1-2 hour hike and easier to refill a bottle on long multi-day trips.

You never know when you’re gonna run across a small water source on the trail. It’s just a pain in the butt to take out your bladder and refill.

How Do You Use a Hydration Pack?

Using a hydration pack is pretty straight forward. You basically just fill it up, put it in your hydration pack, suck the water out of your tube and clean the bag between uses.

How to Use a Hydration Pack

  1. Rinse Out Your Hydration Bladder

    Make sure you always rinse out your hydration bladder before and after you use it. To rinse out your pack just fill it with warm water and shake the water around. Drop-in a cleaning tab and let it do its job.

  2. Fill Up Your Bladder

    Unscrew or unzip the top of your hydration bladder and use a water source to fill it. Just put the bladder under your faucet at home or use a local water source with a purifying method. To purify water found on the trail use either a filter or potable water purification tablets.

  3. Place The Bladder in Your Pack

    Once you’ve filled up your water bladder place it back in your pack. It’s easier if your pack is empty. Run the tube up through the hole in your pack and clip it outside.

  4. Drinking-Water

    Place the tube in your mouth and bite down sucking inward(just like using a straw). The suction will force the water through the tube(some tubes have a twist valve).
    With pressurized hydration packs you need to build up pressure by squeezing a ball pressure-valve 10 times and then biting down. Pressurized systems don’t require as much suction to drink.

  5. Clean Out Your Bladder

    How you clean out your bladder really depends on the design. Use a bladder cleaning kit to make sure you get in all the nooks and crannies. Getting everything out is impossible with a brush, so toss in a cleaning tab and give your bladder a good shake.

Do Hydration Packs Keep Water Cold?

Hydration packs have built-in insulation to keep your pack cool, but they won’t stay cold. Quality packs always have better insulation which will keep your hydration bladder cold longer.

I always throw my bladder in the freezer for an hour or so before putting it into my pack. The water usually stay pretty cold for the first few hours of a hike. Not sure if this method damages the bladder in the long haul, but it works for me.

On a long hike in 90-degree weather you might just have to suck it up and drink lukewarm water or throw in a little ice.

Can I Put Ice in My Hydration Pack?

Honestly, adding ice to your hydration bladder won’t really do all that much to keep your water cold, but that doesn’t mean I don’t use ice. Unless you’re drinking a lot of water fast, the water in the tube will be warm anyway. Since the tube is on the outside of your pack it quickly gets warm in the summer sun.

That being said, I do fill my hydration bladder with ice on hot summer days. I just love how the ice keeps my back cool on a hot day.

How to Make a Hydration Pack Taste Better

First, you need to figure out what’s causing the nasty taste. Does your bladder taste like plastic? Or could it be that weird aftertaste mold/mildew leaves?

Don’t worry if it tastes like plastic. After refilling and washing the bladder a couple of times, you will start to lose that plastic taste. It normally takes 5-10 days of use to completely wash out that weird plastic taste.

If that doesn’t cure the problem throw in some baking soda or a teaspoon of lemon juice and swish it around and suck some through the bite valve. That should cure the problem.

When the bag tastes nasty, but not like plastic you probably have a mold/mildew problem(probably in the bite tube). In this instance you need to thoroughly clean out the reservoir using a cleaning kit and toss in a cleaning tablet.

What Drinks Can You Put in a Hydration Bladder?

Technically hydration bladders should only be used with water, but lots of people ignore that advice. You can drink just about any non-perishable liquid out of a hydration bladder.

Powdered drink mix is great if you can thoroughly clean the bladder at the end of the day(which isn’t possible on multi-day hikes). If you don’t completely wash out the bladder you’ll end up with mold in a couple of days.

How Do I Choose a Hydration Bladder?

Choosing a hydration bladder comes down to 4 main factors. You have to think about your needs, bladder size, weather, and price.

  • How Will it Be Used?: You have to consider the type of activity you’ll likely use the bladder on. If you’re actively running/biking you’ll want a fairly lightweight bladder. On longer all-day hikes you might need a larger 3+ liter reservoir.
  • Bladder Size: As a general rule, you should drink 1 liter of water for every 2 hours you hike. On extremely hot days you might need a little more water.
  • Weather: In extremely cold/hot weather you should seriously consider buying an insulated pack. Insulated packs will slow down freezing in the winter and keep your water cool in the summer.
  • Price: Cheap hydration bladders will eventually leak all over your pack and leave you without water. It’s so worth spending the extra ten dollars on a name brand like Camelbak.

Go With a Name Brand Hydration Bladder

You’re never gonna go wrong with a name brand bladder from companies like Camelbak and Platypus. These packs will end up saving you a lot of hassle and money in the long run.

They cost like 10$ more, but they’re so much easier to use and you won’t have to worry about water getting all over your gear. Nobody wants to have a soaking wet shirt/pants over the course of a long hike.

What Size Hydration Bladder Do I Need?

Hydration bladders range from 1Liter all the way up to 6+ Liters. What size hydration bladder do you actually need? Doctors recommend drinking 1 Liter of water for every 2 hours on the trail. On multiple day hikes, you have to find a way to fill up your water reservoir everyday.

Most hikers/backpackers should buy either a 2L or 3L hydration bladder. There’s a fine line between coming underprepared and carrying extra weight. Since 1 Liter of water weighs 2.2lbs you probably won’t want to carry more than 3 Liters.

What does it mean when a backpack is hydration compatible?

You can buy a designated hydration pack, but most of them don’t have a lot of room for extra gear. Instead of using a hydration pack, most backpackers choose hydration compatible backpacks that offer no storage.

Backpacks that are hydration compatible have a compartment to store your reservoir and hole for your tube to go through. Most of the modern hiking backpacks are hydration compatible.

How to Clean a Hydration Pack

How Do You Get Water Out of a Hydration Pack?

How Do You Store a Hydration Bladder?

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