As an avid adventurer, I am always interested in products that can save time, add convenience, or generally enhance my overall hiking, biking, or camping experiences. Over the past decade or so, I have noticed an increase in the popularity of hydration systems, also called hydration bladders, or simply, water bladders. Hydration bladders have been around for a while now, but with continued focus on environmental issues and reducing plastic waste, along with better overall technology in hydrations systems, they seem to be more popular than ever right now.
What are Hydration Systems?
To simplify, water bladders are essentially pouches where hikers, bikers, and campers can store water on their backs while they are on the go. The pouches clip into a backpack, many of which have a dedicated pocket for the hydration system. A line of tubing runs from the bottom of the water pouch, up and through the top of the backpack and can be clipped onto a shoulder strap, so the user has continuous access to fresh water. Most hydration systems utilize a bite valve, which allows you to control the flow of water by putting pressure on the valve with your teeth. Other systems have more of a free-flowing style of valve that can be switched on or off, but the bite valve is the more common solution, as it allows for truly hands-free drinking. Depending on your level of activity and the type of activity you are engaging in, the hands-free aspect may be extremely important, thus the popularity of the bite valve.
Hydration bladders come in a variety of sizes, from 1L up to 3L. Different backpacks and vests, accommodate different sizes of bladders. The sizes also accommodate different activities, as well as all-day and overnight trips. Deciding on size really depends on several factors. Water is heavy, so you want to be sure to pick a size that is physically comfortable, fits in your pack, and allows you to easily engage in whatever outdoor activity you choose. For example, cyclists typically wear slim vests that offer little wind resistance and allow the user to move their upper and lower body freely. Most cycling vests would accommodate a smaller, 1L water bladder. For an overnight camping trip, where your pack is large enough to carry first-aid equipment, a change of clothes, cooking gear and a tent, it would also easily accommodate a larger 3L water bladder. Bigger isn’t always better, so choose what feels most comfortable based on your size and strength, plus the activities that you will typically engage in with the hydration system. For all-day hiking trips, a 2L bladder is typically more than enough to keep you hydrated for the duration.
What Works Best? Water Bottles or Hydration Bladders
Having spent most of my life camping and hiking, I have used both bottles and hydration systems. For anyone trying to decide what system works best, here is what I have found.
Cycling on Paved Road
First, let’s consider cycling. For a simple ride, when the path is well established, paved, and easy to ride, my recommendation for hydration would be reusable water bottles. Simplistic and no-nonsense, there are several brands of reusable water bottles that simply clip onto a bike frame for easy access while riding. You simply reach down and unclip it with one hand, while using the other hand to control the bike. It’s an ideal solution for this type of ride. If you stop for a refill, it only takes a moment and you are back on your bike again, ready to complete your ride. It is the easiest, most convenient way to stay hydrated.
Cycling Off Trails
However, for longer excursions, or any riding off trail, where terrain may be rugged or unfamiliar, I would always recommend a hydration bladder. There are several low profile bladders that fit easily into lightweight, airy riding vests. This is the perfect set up when riding by the beach, mountain biking, or any other off-road type of biking. This allows totally hands free access to drinking water. You never have to take your hands off your bike to unclip a bottle, or change your position in any significant way. The flow of water is easily controlled by the bite valve on the hydration system. It is the ideal solution when biking on rough terrain, mountain biking, or any ride where you need both hands available to control the bike at all times.
Next, let’s talk about hiking. Deciding on hydration methods when hiking really depends on the length of your hike, and the difficulty of the terrain. For simple or short hikes in areas that are easy to navigate and relatively flat, I would recommend bottled water. It’s a quick and easy solution for hydration when you aren’t hiking for long periods and don’t necessarily want to get outfitted in full hiking gear. Often, when I hike, my final destination is a lake or a beach, and in those instances, it is much easier to throw some water bottles in my backpack and be on my way. However, for full day hikes, or any hike over 6 hours, or a trip of any length where I will be navigating difficult terrain, I definitely prefer the water bladder. Another great feature of a hydration system, is that it fits nicely on your back, in your backpack and stays tight to your body. It doesn’t shift and move around the way water bottles can. You don’t have to stop to pack and unpack items to access your water. On difficult hikes, mountain hikes, or hikes that are otherwise difficult to navigate, it isn’t always possible to stop safely and access bottled water, but with a hydration bladder, you have hands-free access at all times, which is very safe as well as convenient.
Another important factor with day long or strenuous hikes is maintaining consistent hydration, in which case, a hydration system is ideal. When drinking from a hydration bladder, the water trickles out in a slower, easy way. This allows you to sip the water as you walk, keeping you hydrated throughout the trip. In contrast, when depending on bottled water, you typically walk for a period of time, stopping here and there to drink large amounts of water at one time. This is not nearly as convenient on day long hikes, and doesn’t allow you to stay as consistently hydrated as you would be with a hydration system in place. There are some situations where using a hydration system and water bottles in tandem makes the most sense. When camping, for example, having bottled water for cooking, or mixing with other ingredients is ideal, while a hydration system can be used for basic drinking water.
Regardless of which method you choose, each has benefits and weaknesses of which you should be aware
Strengths and Weaknesses of Each System
First, we will look at disposable water bottles. Single use water bottles are inexpensive, convenient, and very easy to store, and dispose of. There is no cleaning involved, they are small enough to fit easily in a cooler or a backpack. However, plastic water bottles create a ton of waste material. When camping in remote areas, you will have to keep space in your backpack for waste materials and bring the used bottles back with you.
The next option is reusable water bottles. There is a vast array of reusable bottles available today. There are different styles that are constructed with specific activities in mind, and bottles that are insulated to keep water cold for longer periods of time. They are also incredibly convenient, easy to refill, and very simple to clean. There is no learning curve with a water bottle, and you can easily control how much water you use, and easily see how much water you have left when using portable reusable bottles. However, they also have their limitations. They rarely hold more than 1 liter of water at one time. If you are camping or hiking in an area where you don’t have access to clean drinking water, you may not have enough water available without bringing multiple bottles with you. Water bottles can also be rather cumbersome. While there are plenty of sleek styles designed for ease of use and storage, multiple bottles are often needed for day or overnight trips. They aren’t pliable, and can really take up far too much space in the interior of a small day pack or even an overnight backpack. Lastly, they can be difficult to access while on the move.
Hydration systems are perfect for day hikes, mountain biking, overnight trips, or rock climbing adventures. They store easily in a backpack, in fact most modern packs are built with clips to hold the water bladder, a separate pocket to store it, as well as a space to pull the tubing out for easy access. They come in different sizes, including up to 3 liters, to allow users to carry a significant amount of fresh water very easily. While not as cost effective as water bottles, a decent hydration system can be purchased at a relatively low cost, with optional accessories that can be purchased as needed. Water bladders however, are more difficult to keep clean than reusable bottles, and require additional tools like cleaning brushes. Also, if not kept dry, the pouches can grow moldy if not properly managed.
All in all, both reusable water bottles and hydration systems both have advantages for hikers, campers, and cyclists. I hope I have provided a little insight that will make it that much easier for you to decide the best way to store your water on your next adventure!