What are the best hydration packs you can buy today? We carefully looked at 40 models and then chose 7 for our review. After our comparison in the field, we reveal what are the best options for your needs and budget. Whether you are hiking, biking or boating, we have a recommendation for you.
Best Overall Hydration Pack: Osprey Raptor 10
The Osprey Raptor 10 was the dominant winner in our review because it’s so well-rounded. Other packs scored higher in some metrics, but they made a tradeoff for overall greatness. Not so with the Raptor. It scores high for everything: storage, stability, and overall usability. Every one of our testers said it was their favorite.
Best Cheap Pack: WACOOL 2L
The WACOOL 2L is so much less expensive than the competition, we had to try it out. While it is not the most refined pack and has some annoying quirks, it’s a great value for anyone on a tight budget or who don’t expect to use their hydration pack more than a few times a year. It’s relatively light, easy to use, easy to fill and has a bite valve cover, something few other hydration packs have. The storage is generous for a pack this light.
Best Value Pack: CamelBak Classic
We find the CamelBak Classic, a variation on the original popular hydration system, is still one of the best values out there. It retails for $55 but can usually be found for $40 on sale because it is carried stocked by many retailers. Considering the reservoir itself retails for $30, this a good way to get a reservoir to use with your other backpacks and still have the option of a light and fast CamelBak.
Best Pack for hot Weather: Deuter Compact Air EXP 10
We would be amiss to not somehow award the Deuter Air EXP 10 for its fantastic chimney-like heat dispersion. Though all of the packs boast some revolutionary hot weather antidote, the Air system without a doubt did the best job in making your back feel free. With a few inches of separation from the pack itself, not only did we sweat less, therefore, needing less water, we also had cooler water! If the only thing on your list is day hiking desert canyons in the summer, this could be the difference between making your goals or not.
Analysis and Test Results
Though hydration packs are used commonly in some sports from climbing to mountain biking, certain designs are best suited for certain sports, though many of them overlap. Many of the full-sized packs are multipurpose and will be suitable for many sports. However, if you are looking specifically for a running pack or a mountain biking pack, you should look for certain features that would be beneficial to you. For example, some mountain bike packs are now integrated with spine protectors, and most sport helmet carrying systems for long gravel climbs.
These packs we see as nothing but water carriers–though they might have some small pockets for keys and a cell phone, they are not built to be a multi-purpose daypack that also offers hydration. Despite their diminutive size, these packs are typically very stable and comfortable, and suitable for trail running.
The bulk of the packs we tested fall into the full-size category. These packs are essentially daypacks with integrated hydration, which makes them extremely useful for some uses. As the designs have evolved, hydration packs are available in a variety of sizes based on your activity of choice; however, this should not be confused with the bladder size. Most packs will have a standard size included bladder, but you can typically fit a larger bladder if need be. When looking through sizes, the volume (usually measured in liters, sometimes in cubic inches) will give you a rough estimate of how much stuff you can cram into your pack. Keep in mind that this is the total volume. If you have a full 3L hydration bladder in a 10L backpack, you’ve reduced your usable space down to 7 liters
Criteria For Evaluation
Constant hydration is important, but if you’re so uncomfortable while carrying your hydration pack that you don’t use it, you’re defeating the purpose. While taking varying amounts of weight and volume as you consume your water, pack designs need to be meticulously crafted to not drastically change the fit as you hike or bike along.
Hydration packs are also notorious for trapping in the heat against the body, as the bladder usually substitutes for the frame. Not only does this make your core temperature higher, making you drink more water, but it also makes your water uncomfortably hot. Thankfully, manufacturers have listened to the feedback and have begun building in somewhat ingenious designs to dissipate heat. When on the bike saddle for eight hours in the desert, this can be the difference between bonking out and calling it quits, or finishing.
Other comfort features that are present on larger backpacking packs or daypacks are popping up in hydration packs as well, such as contoured shoulder straps, more comfortable waist straps, and even multiple sizes for different spine lengths in a few models.
For instantaneous comfort, load carrying, and that good feeling you get from a form-fitting backpack, the EVOC FR Lite takes the cake. Its comfortable straps, excellent hip band design, and integrated spine protector work in conjunction to make this one of the most comfortable packs we’ve worn. However, the close fit and solid back panel trap in tons of heat, making us feel on fire during average spring rides. For summer use, the pack is nearly unusable.
For the inner polar bears out there, we’d suggest the Deuter Air EXP as its suspension design allows for excellent airflow through the pack. To further the cool air design elements, the folks at Deuter made the straps out of a thick mesh. Though they are more comfortable than they look, we weren’t a huge fan of these straps. Under stress, we found that the straps folded on top of themselves and became uncomfortable.
For all around comfort, we loved the Osprey Raptor 10 for its comfortable cut and fit. Though the Raptor doesn’t have any crazy design elements to make it superior, all of the classic fit features are done well. The shoulder straps are ample and breathable, the back allows for enough airflow to keep you moderately cool, and the pack’s width and cut fit all of our testers well.
Floppy bags are no good; at best, they’re annoying, and at worst, you’ll find yourself over the bars in the woods next to the trail because your pack bucked you off the saddle. Either way, it’s a bad scenario.
We found stability to be a major concern while mountain biking, which was one of our primary testing sports for the hydration packs. Despite waist belts and chest straps, many designs just seemed to slide up and down more than others as we landed drops and absorbed rock gardens.
By a large margin, the EVOC FR Team Lite was the most stable product we tested, and without much surprise. Not only is the pack designed specifically for enduro mountain bike racing, at first glance its design looks stable. Its wider than average full velcro hip band confidently cinches down on your waist, holding most of the weight of the pack. In conjunction with the contoured shoulder straps, close-fitting back, and keeping the center of gravity near the user, the EVOC didn’t budge while riding the most technical rock gardens we could find.
In addition to the EVOC, we also were impressed with the stability in the Osprey Raptor 10. Though the Raptor doesn’t sport any fancy strap systems or crazy suspensions, it fit our frames better than the rest of the packs and its light rigidity helped it stay put. Additionally, the center of gravity stays close to the rider, keeping it stable.
Ease of Drinking
Drinking from your bladder shouldn’t be more tiresome than the activity you’re doing. With some bladders, it takes so much pressure to suck down a sip of water it’s somewhat discouraging. Additionally, some packs make hose management difficult to the point where it’s not fast enough to take a sip. Telling the group to hold up while you tuck your hose back in its special arrangement so that it doesn’t hit you in the face while your ride, gets annoying for everyone.
In terms of drinkability, the Geigerrig RIG 700 was the easiest to drink from. Not to be confused with light beer verbiage, by drinkability, we mean how easy sucking water out of the hose actually is. With their one of a kind pressurized pack, water flows naturally out of the hose, eliminating the energy needed to suck the water up the hose. While this was a great benefit, its usefulness to drawback balance will tip the scale one way or another for users; we didn’t mind the bit of pressure it requires to drink out of the other bladders in the test and valued their simplicity more.
But more than just drinking from the hose, wrenching your neck around for the hose makes it just as hard to drink. For hose management, the Osprey Raptor 14 sports the best system. From the pack, the hose sleeve has a zipper, making installation a breeze. The best innovation we saw out of all the packs is the simple magnet which helps clip the hose to the chest strap. We initially thought this wouldn’t stay put during rocky rides, but we were continually surprised to see it still attached after almost exploding over the handlebars.
Ease of Filling
When the first hydration bladders came out, they were…let’s say, rudimentary, as are most inventive new products. One of their main drawbacks was how difficult they were to fill, and how difficult they were to then affix inside a backpack. Even dedicated backpacks required a five-minute hose-routing battle that often left us just filling up our bladders inside the bag and suffering the consequences of wet gear.
Over the recent years, the manufacturers have improved leaps and bounds over their predecessors for filling.
The Source hydration bladders, found in the Deuter Compact Air EXP 10, features a large “zip” at the top–that is, the entire top of the hydration bladder is an opening secured by a sliding plastic bar. At first glance, it seems like it would leak, but over the years of use we’ve had with the Source products, we’ve seen no leaks when used and maintained properly. This large opening makes it a breeze to fill the bladder. Additionally, the Source bladder sports a quick-release hose mechanism, which allows you to leave your hose and mouthpiece attached to your backpack, remove the bladder to fill, and then reattach it. This really speeds up the process of refilling the bladder.
Another favorite for refilling was the Osprey Raptor 10 with their proprietary bladder. Unlike every other bladder tested, the Osprey bladder has a thin sheet of plastic giving the bladder rigidity. In conjunction with a large molded plastic handle on the front of the bladder, sliding the bladder into the backpack has never been easier. While it sounds like a small detail, we really loved how easy the bladder was to install. Like the Source, the Osprey bladder also has a quick-release hose mechanism.
While we found ourselves most commonly filling our bladders from a garden hose at the back of a bike shop, we also tested the bladders’ ability to be filled in a shallow sink. With top-zip designs such as the Source and the Platypus Big Zip, it was nearly impossible to fill entirely, as the bladder needs to hang vertically to be fully topped off. In contrast, the Osprey bladder and the CamelBak bladders both are filled from the flat side, letting the bladder be filled while held on its side. This maneuver is pretty awkward, but the addition of the aforementioned plastic handle of the Osprey pack makes it a breeze, while the CamelBak was still a bit of a wrestling match.
Don’t blindly trust the manufacturer’s weights when choosing a pack. Often the manufacturer leaves out the weight of the reservoir/bladder and hoses (and often doesn’t note this in the specs). This seems absurd to us. It would be like measuring the weight of a parachute rig… without the actual parachute canopy. Or measuring the weight of a tent… without the poles system. If you are selling a hydration pack that comes with a reservoir, then include the weight of the whole system!
Okay, the rant is over.
We tested all these packs and weighed them on the same scale. The packs varied wildly in weight with the CamelBaks being the lightest. For one thing, the CamelBak and Geigerrig bladders weigh on average around 6.5 oz, about half as much as the Osprey bladders which weigh 11.2 oz. The Osprey bladders have a lot more plastic. The CamelBak packs are also much more stripped down, which increases the weight savings. The Osprey packs’ heavy use of plastic seems both a little overkill and surprising since their backpacks (which won many awards in our tests) are much more minimalist. In fact, we were so surprised by the how heavy the Osprey models were that we created our own contender: The Osprey Talon 22 with Platypus Big Zip LP. The Osprey Talon 22 is our choice daypack and the Platypus Big Zip LP is one of our favorite and lightest reservoirs. This option is not only much lighter than the Raptor 14, but it also has much more storage and is more versatile.
Anyone who has been using a hydration bladder for the past ten years has had this experience at least once–you show up at the trailhead, make it down a few turns, go for a sip of water–and nothing. Nothing at all, despite filling it up right before leaving the house. Upon further inspection, you realize everything is soaked and your water has escaped. Although many of these incidents are from user error, a lot of designs made it easy to mess up.
Thankfully, the industry leaders have locked it down with bomber improvements to make these bladders are not only durable but idiot proof.
Ease of Cleaning
Another fallback in the history of hydration packs has been the ever-so-familiar taste of mold growing in the tube and bladder due to the bladders being nearly impossible to clean. We work hard and play hard here, leaving very little time for needed maintenance on less important pieces of equipment, like our hydration packs. During the testing period, we typically just kept sucking down 3L of water at a time and refilling the packs without cleaning or drying. Ten years ago, our doctors would likely be prescribing us some sort of antibiotic to clear up whatever we contracted from the bladders. Thanks to progression in plastic linings and hose design, we can skip the consequences of dirty hydration bladders.
While all of the hydration aspects of these packs are obviously important, there are fewer separations than there were at the advent of hydration bladders. As companies have made better designs, they function similarly, with just different quirks. However, the packs which house the bladders are still a battleground for individuality among designs–storage being near the top. Sure, it carries water, but if it can’t carry much else, the pack can be rendered useless.
The storage of the Osprey Raptor 12 was hands down our favorite. Not only did the pack have ample room, but it also had great pockets and dividers to hold your equipment. We liked the bike tool pouch at the bottom, which we kept a tube, tire irons, CO2 and multi-tool in. This helped keep some of the denser items in our pack towards the bottom. Additionally, inside is a great pocket for our hand pump, a separate pocket for keys and other valuables, and still a decent amount of room to squeeze in extra layers and food.
One of our favorite packs, the EVOC FR Team Lite, scored pretty low in storage, but we’d like to take a minute to explain. The EVOC’s design incorporates a very long torso that houses its spine protector, which essentially spreads its volume out, making the pack much thinner. This is nice as it is very low profile, but it makes packing it difficult. For a 12L bag, it holds very little. After we throw a thin layer, a trail bar or two, car keys, wallet, and a phone, it’s already tight. Try squeezing your kneepads in the pack at the bottom of the trail and it’s game over. If you’re interested in the EVOC’s design, but are looking for a model with the capacity to carry the same amount of equipment as the M.U.L.E. or the Osprey Raptor 12, we’d suggest you size up your pack to a few liters bigger than what you think you need in storage.
Deciding whether you need a hydration pack and making that final call can be tough. We’ve laid out a range of prices and quality and hope we have been able to assist you in narrowing down the right product for your needs. If you’re still not sure about which model is best for you, take a peek at our Buying Advice article and take it from there.