Hydration packs are either backpacks or hip packs that contain a reservoir for water, with a length of tube and a bite valve to get the water to your mouth. They come in a variety of sizes and styles to suit any type of riding.
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Hydration packs have benefits over water bottles because they enable riders to carry more water (typically 2-3 liters rather than the 1.5l of two large bottles). A pack allows bringing along more food, tools, clothing and other riding essentials and they can provide a bit of back and spine protection.
You might think of CamelBak when you hear "hydration pack." That's common, as the original Camelbak appeared in the 1989 and started the genre. To say the first iteration was simple is an understatement. CamelBak founder Michael Eidson slid an IV bag into a tube sock when he was competing in a bike race in Texas called the Hotter 'n Hell 100.
Since then, the number of manufacturers of hydration packs has exploded. Hydration packs for hiking, running, snowsports, even military exist alongside the cycling-specific bags. There are low-profile packs for road use, hip packs for shorter rides, all-day packs with enough room for food, clothes and gear and even pint-size packs for kids.
Things to look for
Hydration pack fluid capacity varies from about one liter in the hip pack to three liters in the backpacks. How much do you need? That depends on you. It also depends on the temperature, how long you plan to be out, and the availability of refills.
How much should you drink? A very general baseline recommendation is roughly half a liter for every hour. This, of course, is highly dependent on heat, humidity, and your personal chemistry.
One of the best reasons to use a hydration pack is the ability to haul gear. Mountain bikes have gotten drastically more reliable but flat tires, bent wheels, and broken chains can still happen, and when they do in the middle of nowhere, it's essential to have the parts and ability to fix them.
Carrying food and extra clothes is also relatively easy with a pack.
Plus, most hydration packs also have fleece-lined pockets for sunglasses, goggles, and cameras.
Straps and harness
Loaded to the brim or riding empty, almost all hydration packs are built with modern features including padded, ventilated shoulder straps, a hip belt for stability, and a sternum strap to pull the shoulder straps together.
On the back panel, where the pack sits on your back, look out for channels to get a bit of airflow in there and help you stay cool. Some packs even have a suspended mesh back.
Bite valve and hose
Seemingly small, but oh so essential, the bite valve is crucial as it's where the water meets your mouth.
Bite valves are typically comprised of soft rubber. Some require a simple squeeze to unleash the flow of water, others require pressing a button with your tongue. Almost all bite valves have a lock or shut off feature which is invaluable when tossing a hydration pack in a car or another larger gear bag.
The hose on most packs can be trimmed to length. On the pack itself, there will be hose guides and mounting clips to keep the hose from swinging or flopping about when riding. Optional hose accessories include sleeves to keep the water warm or cold (depending on the season) and even semi-rigid set ups for angling the bite valve close to your mouth.
Built-in body armor
All it takes is one crash to realize falling on a hydration pack is a lot nicer than landing on your back. Don't worry, you're not going to pop the bladder. Reservoirs are built tough so they're able to withstand the force of a hit.
Taking that bit of protection even farther, a few pack manufacturers incorporate body armor-style padding and impact-absorbing plates into their packs to enhance this protection.
Care and feeding
Cleanliness is essential to hydration pack bladders. Ideally, they should be emptied immediately after use and hung out to dry. Several companies make drying inserts to keep the internal surfaces apart, and many riders modify a coat-hanger for the job.
Another solution is keeping it in the fridge, the cold keeps nasty stuff from growing and cold water on a hot day in heavenly.
It's recommended to only put water in the reservoir, simply because cleaning out nutrition drinks thoroughly is almost impossible. This inevitably leads to bacteria growth and then buying a new hose, bite valve or entire reservoir.
Access and filling the reservoir
Hydration packs vary in how you get at the bladder itself. Some reservoirs reside inside the main pack, which saves weight, while others have their own dedicated compartment for protection from pokey tire pumps, tube valves and multi-tools.
Most reservoirs feature a detachable hose to make filling easier. To fill bladders with a permanent hose requires either slipping the hose out of the bag or carrying the whole bag over to faucet.
Hydration pack makers have really nailed the organization part of the bags. All sorts of features are found in packs: special pockets for pumps, tools, etc; hooks for keys; whistles; elastic cords for lashing on a jacket; helmet carry straps for when you're off the bike; expandable compartments; headphone ports; and many others. It's worth reading the detailed specs to find out what's on offer.