9 Best Hydration Packs to Quench Your Thirst Outdoors
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Don't wait until you're thirsty to hydrate. Learn why you should be drinking water consistently during outdoor activities, and which hydration packs make it easy to keep your body fueled.
Dehydration is no joke
Are you feeling a bit parched on the trail or mid-run? This could be a sign you’re not drinking enough water for your activity level.
Thirst is often a telltale signal of dehydration—a state in which your body is losing water faster than it’s being replaced, explains Kaitlyn Baird, MA, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center.
Maintaining good hydration is essential for pretty much all bodily processes, she says, from our cognitive function to muscle activity and even mood regulation.
But physically active people are at a greater risk for disrupting this delicate balance. Research in the Journal of Athletic Training suggests many of us simply don’t drink enough water as we exercise, including both elite and recreational athletes.
“People go into exercise with a sports drink or a water bottle and wait until they’re panting and tired toward the end of the workout to take some big gulps,” Baird says.
For many activities, it might also be inconvenient or difficult to have consistent access to water.
Still, Baird says it’s not enough to try and rehydrate all at once. “It’s generally a lot better to be sipping small amounts throughout the day.”
How much water do I need to drink?
The most common guideline is to drink about six to eight glasses of water each day—but there are a lot of strings attached to this general rule.
“[Hydration] is an ongoing process,” Baird explains. She says a wide range of personal factors affect this ever-adjusting balance, such as:
- consuming excessive caffeine or alcohol, which can work to offset fluid intake
- how much water you’re “eating” through your diet with hydrating fruits and vegetables
- the climate you’re in, including the outdoor temperature, humidity, altitude, and sun exposure
Considerations like body composition, sweat rate, health status, stress levels, and even clothing all play a role in hydration needs as well, according to research published in the ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal.
Your level of physical activity also has a significant impact on your personal hydration balance. To get rid of the heat generated by muscle activity, the body releases sweat to cool the skin and keep our core temperature in check.
But Baird says most people don’t realize how much they sweat—especially when engaged in an activity like a long hike that makes it easy to lose track of time.
“Having about 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes is a good rule of thumb,” she says, citing the recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) “So creating a habit around [steady hydration] is going to be a lot better in the long run.”
How do I know if I’m hydrated?
“One of the easiest ways to tell if you’re drinking enough water during outdoor activities is to assess how frequently you need to go to the bathroom on the trail,” says Gaby Pilson, a certified wilderness emergency medical technician (WEMT), outdoor educator, and wilderness medicine instructor. “For example, if you’ve been hiking for the last 12 hours, but you’ve only stopped to go to the bathroom once, you should be concerned about your hydration levels.”
Baird says keeping an eye on the color of your urine is a good way to assess your hydration levels as well. Very yellow, darker urine usually means you’re not drinking enough water, per 2020 research in Frontiers in Nutrition.
Still, drinking 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes can be logistically tricky, especially during activities like longer hikes or those that limit your carrying capacity, like running, climbing, or cycling.
That’s why Pilson says one of the easiest ways to stay hydrated—whether on the trail, on the rocks, or on your bike—is to use a dedicated hydration pack.
What is a hydration pack?
Jordan Siemens/Getty Images
A hydration pack is a wearable system that makes it easier to transport and access water during almost any activity.
With a built-in water reservoir, hose, and drinking valve, the backpack allows for hands-free hydration whether you’re mountain biking, rock climbing, or out for a hike.
How to pick a hydration pack
Pilson says most hydration systems come with similar features—and so the best choice often comes down to your personal preference. Still, there are a few things to consider when choosing a hydration pack.
“The key to fitting any sort of backpack, hydration-specific or otherwise, is comfort,” Pilson says. “If a pack isn’t comfortable when you try it on at home, it’s certainly not going to get more comfortable after seven hours of hiking.”
She says there are different hydration pack designs available for different activities. For example:
- Running hydration packs fit very close to the body so they don’t bounce as you run.
- Cycling hydration packs usually have a low-profile hip belt so you don’t feel restrained while pedaling.
- Hiking hydration packs often work like regular backpacks, but with a hydration system built-in.
In general, the amount of water you should carry in your hydration pack will depend on the activity, the weather, how long you’ll be outside, and your personal preference, Pilson says.
“For example, if you’re going on a very short day hike on a crisp fall day in the Northeastern U.S., where extra water on the trail is easy to come by, you may not need to carry more than one liter of water in your pack,” she explains. “On the other hand, a long day hike on a sweltering summer day in the canyons of southern Utah might require three liters of water carrying capacity.”
While all hydration packs serve the same goal—keeping you hydrated throughout any physical activity—there are some features to consider.
Pilson cites two design elements that make a hydration pack easier to use: a large opening for easy water refills on the trail, and a locking nozzle, also known as a bite valve.
Other features also can be beneficial depending on your activity level, such as:
- a quick-disconnecting tube that makes it easier to refill the reservoir during a long hike or backpacking trip
- a built-in clip that keeps the tube in place while you’re running or cycling
- insulated tubes and reservoir covers that keep water from freezing if you’re out in the cold
Ease of care
“Cleaning a hydration system can be a bit of a hassle, but it’s essential if you want to avoid mold and bacteria buildup,” Pilson says.
Features like large openings and quick-disconnect tubes can make it easier to keep your hydration pack in great shape. Many systems have purpose-built cleaning kits available as well.
This kit usually includes a brush that can get deep inside the tube and a hanger to help the reservoir dry.
Dedicated reservoir cleaning tablets are also available, but Pilson says that dish soap, baking soda, or a bleach solution are also suitable.
The best hydration packs
While the right hydration pack for you depends a lot on your personal preferences and how you plan to use it, here are nine of the top models on the market to keep you hydrated all day long.
Platypus Big Zip EVO
Pilson says she’s a huge fan of the Platypus Big Zip EVO for longer hikes and treks. This is because the pack’s large opening makes it easier to fill.
This hydration pack features thick, durable material, reducing the risk of a puncture from a stray branch on the trail.
It also includes a wider tube than similar models, helping to increase the water flow rate through its bite valve.
Osprey Raptor 14
Osprey is known for making some of the best packs in the business, Pilson says. She points to the brand’s Raptor 14 hydration pack as an ideal model for activities like cycling and mountain biking.
That’s because this low-profile pack prioritizes comfort no matter the terrain, from the shape of its shoulder straps to its built-in suspension system that keeps the pack from jostling during bumpy rides.
It also has plenty of compartments to stash bike tools and other gear, helmet storage straps, and a magnetic bite-valve holder that reviewers praise as “pure genius.”
Nathan Hydration Running Vest
This featherlight hydration pack is custom-built for distance runners—and there are different, adjustable designs for men and women to ensure the coziest fit.
The Nathan vest itself is made from a breathable material that encourages airflow to keep it from getting damp with sweat and reduce the risk of chafing. There are also plenty of pockets for your keys, snacks, and smartphone, along with a slot to carry an extra water bottle.
Hydration isn’t just for hot weather. The CamelBak Powderhound has an insulated, freeze-proof reservoir, hose, and bite valve to keep water flowing all day on the slopes.
Its design is great for any wintry activity, however, with large zippers that are easy to use while wearing gloves, a slim profile for comfortable ski-lift rides, and moisture-wicking material that won’t get damp from the snow.
REI Swiftland Hydro
This REI running vest promises a nice, snug fit so your water won’t be sloshing around as you pound the pavement. But it’s also very easy to adjust—like if you’re adding on layers of clothing—making it a versatile, multipurpose hydration pack for a wide variety of outdoor activities.
High Sierra HydraHike
This High Sierra hydration pack is a great all-arounder that’s versatile enough to adapt to your day, whether you’re taking it up the mountain or deep into the wild.
It sports a low profile for comfortable runs and bike rides—but the lightweight material easily stretches to fit whatever gear you need as well.
The pack’s insulated reservoir pocket also keeps your water cool in the heat while preventing it from freezing in the cold, supporting your adventures all year long.
HydraPak Shape-Shift Low-Profile Water Bladder
Already have a backpack you love to take out on the trail? This adaptable HydraPak reservoir can slot right into whatever bag you already carry, whether you’re mountain biking, snowboarding, hiking, or even at a festival or concert.
The bladder’s heavy-duty material stands up to high-impact activity as well, so it’s unlikely to burst if you catch an edge on the slopes.
CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E.
The CamelBak M.U.L.E. is an all-purpose hydration pack ideal for days out in the wild. It offers a secure fit with adjustable shoulder and waist straps, as well as just enough storage for essential gear—but not so much that the pack weighs you down.
The CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. is a bite-sized version of the classic model. This kids’ version has the same features as its grownup counterpart, and includes easy-to-spot reflective straps and a safety whistle.
Ruffwear Singletrak Pack
Man’s best friend has hydration needs, too. This Singletrak low-profile harness with foam padding can adjust to snugly and securely fit your dog’s body without limiting its range of motion.
The pack’s two easily accessible hydration bladders ensure you’ve got enough water on hand for every day out with your dog—and there are stash pockets for essentials like treats, poo bags, and collapsible water bowls. It also has reflective strips and two leash-attachment points.
Now that you know about these hydration packs, check out other gifts for hikers.
- Gaby Pilson, certified wilderness EMT, outdoor educator, and wilderness medicine instructor
- Kaitlyn Baird, MA, exercise physiologist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center
- Journal of Athletic Training: "National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Fluid Replacement for the Physically Active."
- ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal: "The Hydration Equation: Update on Water Balance and Cognitive Performance."
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "The Effect of Hydration on Urine Color Objectively Evaluated in CIE L*a*b* Color Space."
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Heat Stress: Hydration - CDC."