Best hydration packs

The top performing rucksacks with bladders

Beating up singletrack and nailing black runs is thirsty work so we’ve tested the coolest and best performing hydration packs.

For something as essentially straightforward as a pack for carrying a few litres of water, a spare tube and some odds and ends on your back as you ride, there is a huge range of shapes, sizes and specifications on offer.

In order to know what you’re looking for, you need to know what it is you actually need. Ask yourself what sort of riding you do. How long are your rides? Are you the minimalist type or do you like to be covered for all eventualities? Have a read of our Hydration Pack Buying Guide to help you.

Elimination process

Each question should help you narrow down your choice so you end up with the right pack for you. Do you like lots of internal compartments? Do you want reflective strips and a light loop if you ride on road to the trails? How about hip pockets, a rain cover or external straps and bungees for strapping on pads?

Each brand offers a variety of packs, some very similar in appearance but with very specific abilities. This test focuses on the sort of pack that will suit the trail rider, call it all-mountain or just good old-fashioned mountain biking – a bit of up and quite a bit of down.

What you won’t find here (though many of the brands featured here also make them) are larger, heavier packs designed to haul stuff like trail-building kit, a full-face helmet or even camping gear (if you do want this, we've got a guide for this too). We’re focusing on smaller packs that will take a spare jacket, food and water (naturally, because they’re hydration packs).

How we tested

You’ll notice there are a couple of packs that don’t come with a bladder, but are ‘hydration ready’. If you go for one of these and want to make the most of the pack’s ability, just remember to factor in the price of a suitable size bladder. If you choose wisely you’ll probably end up with a pack that will leave you stoked in its ability to haul all the stuff you planned to take, and a bunch more besides.

Testing packs means loading them up to their gills with water and kit then seeing how well they cope on the trail. When fully packed we locked the loads down tight and went riding, then we lost some water and some kit and cinched it all back down to check for load movement.

We ran each pack with only a small 500ml load of water in the bladder, just to see how it affected the performance – you’d be surprised the difference that load makes on a pack’s stability. Some are better fully loaded, others are better only partially full.

Naturally we rode test loops on which we could let rip and see if we could unseat the packs. We also tried riding them with different jerseys and jackets, just to see if the differences in friction had any effect.

Shimano Unzen U15

£99.99

www.madison.co.uk

Shimano's unzen u15 was our winner in this group test:
Shimano's unzen u15 was our winner in this group test:

The Unzen U15 (available in three sizes: 6, 10 and this 15-litre model) uses Shimano’s own patent pending X-Harness to create one of the most stable hydration packs on the market. We tried to make it feel wobbly and failed. The Accu3D X harness uses thin, wide straps that connect with a neat sternum buckle.

The pack’s ride height is internally adjustable, so you can fine-tune its position on your back, which is a neat touch. Panels that stretch slightly help with load space usability and mean you can squeeze a bit more in.

There are three internal sub-divider pockets for odds and sods, but only two external pockets – one soft for eyewear or an MP3 player, the other in the bottom for multi-tools/snacks. There are also two more pockets in the hip wings. Inside the main compartment (accessible from both sides) are a couple of subdivided pouches. Load stability was excellent and the pack felt nailed on, regardless how much we tried to make it budge. Snugging up the bungees helped tuck the lower part of the bag in tight to match the top.

The Shimano-branded Hydrapak bladder is reversible for easy cleaning and delivered a good flow without drips. It isn’t cheap, but this pack integrates with your back shape and that resets the bar for fit and stability. The Unzen wins because it lets you ride your bike over rough terrain the way you want to, not the way wearing a pack can often dictate.

  • Weight: 590g
  • Bladder included: Yes
  • Bladder capacity: 3l
  • Volume: 1.5l

Camelbak Octane 22 LR

£99.99

www.blackleaf.com

The camelbak octane 22 lr impressed us with its capacity:
The camelbak octane 22 lr impressed us with its capacity:

The Octane 22 has the capacity to take you over the tallest mountain or on a big backcountry adventure. Two internal zip pockets, an overflow/helmet pouch and twin zipped hip pockets, handy for snacks, support the large main load space. We kept on stuffing kit in to the point it was nicknamed the Tardis.

Despite having an appetite for carrying lots of kit and three litres of water, the pack’s manners, even when at full load capacity, are impeccable. We rode hard and feel that Camelbak’s move to a lumbar mounted bladder was one of the main reasons why it didn’t feel as though the pack was ever trying to overtake us.

Camelbak’s Antidote reservoir was the best on test. It’s not cheap, but it is well worth the extra pennies.

  • Weight: 690g
  • Bladder included: Yes
  • Bladder capacity: 3l
  • Volume: 22l

Berghaus Vapour Light 20

£60

www.berghaus.com

The berghaus vapour lite 20 has a distinct shape:
The berghaus vapour lite 20 has a distinct shape:

This hydration-ready pack has a distinct V shape, which we found comfortable, though you have to consider your packing to get the small stuff in through the roll-top. 

Twin alloy rods stop the pack collapsing in when lightly loaded. Small hip wings help settle the pack weight onto the hips and with the chest strap tightened, the Vapour lets you concentrate on riding. The main attribute of the Vapour is its compressive ability. The alloy ribs ensure even compression from the elastic bungees, which not only help trim the pack to size, but serve as anchor points for stuffing spare kit.

We also like the large mesh side pockets, which are angled forward to aid access on the move. The pack comes with a water bottle which sits in its own lateral pouch.

  • Weight: 695g
  • Bladder included: No
  • Bladder capacity: 3l
  • Volume: 20l

Fox Portage

£70

www.schoolbagstation.com

The fox portage is ideal for really long rides:
The fox portage is ideal for really long rides:

The largest of the three hydration packs from Fox in 2013, the Portage is designed to allow you to haul a full day’s worth of gear and water around the trails.

It was the burliest pack on test, and it does feel a touch heavy and boxy, although both those attributes turn out to be positives the more you cram into it. At low loads the bag feels overbuilt, but get it topped up and strapped on tight and you can still get your ‘trail rage’ on because the sturdy build makes the load feel locked into position.

There’s also another reason for the sturdy nature – Fox designed the Portage to be able to carry two bladders (but it only comes with one), so it’s ideal for really long rides, or if you’re going to spend a day sessioning the trails.

  • Weight: 1,200g
  • Bladder included: Yes
  • Bladder capacity: 3l (can take two)
  • Volume: 20l

Osprey Zealot 16

£80

www.ospreypacks.com

The osprey zealot 16 includes a bladder capacity of 3 litres:
The osprey zealot 16 includes a bladder capacity of 3 litres:

Osprey call their Zealot ‘gravity-specific’. This is nonsense, because it’s perfect for any sort of riding. Sure, you can strap a full-face to the outside, but you can on many of these packs. The structured three-litre bladder works well and features a plastic carry handle, although we prefer the more flexible Camelbak design for comfort.

Loading this tough pack up with gear, it swallowed more than we expected from 16 litres. It can carry a day’s worth of clothing and food with ease, and if you want to carry pads or extra stuff, use the external straps and you’re ready to go.

Despite being quite structured, the pack feels natural on the back (as do all Ospreys) and we loved using the big side pouches, which were easy to access on the fly.

  • Weight: 920g
  • Bladder included: Yes
  • Bladder capacity: 3l
  • Volume: 16l

Hydrapak Morro

£89.99

www.fisheroutdoor.co.uk

The hydrapak morro has excellent water delivery:
The hydrapak morro has excellent water delivery:

The mid-sized Morro has been the cornerstone of the range for years, and no wonder – it’s got ample storage for most trail adventures. It features good load compression to enable the pack size to be reduced and compete with lightweight packs for a more locked-on feel. There’s no external mesh, but plenty of pockets.

The Hydrapak bladder, with its slightly fiddly clip-top design, is not exactly the easiest to use. Water delivery is excellent though, and bladder cleaning is simple too, thanks to the Hydrapak having inside-out accessibility.

Three litres of liquid weighs a fair bit and the Morro has enough material in the right places to keep it from moving the pack on your back. This pack’s not cheap, but you’re paying for quality.

  • Weight: 780g
  • Bladder included: Yes
  • Bladder capacity: 3l
  • Volume: 13l

Ergon BX3

£89.99

www.bicyclehero.com

The ergon bx3 was our runner-up to best on test:
The ergon bx3 was our runner-up to best on test:

The mid-sized Ergon BX3 hydration-ready pack has a semi-rigid construction because the lower back portion is stiffer than the upper part without affecting the soft rip-stop Nylon cargo zone, meaning you can fit awkward loads in easily.

The level of fit adjustment is awesome – the back-length adjustability allows you to position the weight of the pack on the exact section of your back that suits you, without altering the independently pivoting shoulder straps.

The main space is expandable by three litres and features small pockets. The outer helmet sling is handy for extra kit too and also performs compression duties. The Ergon is great to ride with because of its comfort, adjustability and stability. For pack technology that benefits a mountain biker, look no further.

  • Weight: 885g
  • Bladder included: No
  • Bladder capacity: 3l
  • Volume: 16l

Also reviewed:

  • Evoc CC 10L – 3.5 stars
  • Saloman Synapse 20 – 3.5 stars
  • Deuter Speed Lite 15 – 3.5 stars
  • Vaude Trail Light 16 – 3.5 stars
  • Scott AirSrike Hydro Pro – 3 stars
  • DHB Luggit Slice 25 – 3 stars
  • Zixtro Vento 20 – 3 stars

This article is based on reviews originally published in Mountain Biking UK ( available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio).

This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Mountain Biking UK

Mountain Biking UK (MBUK) Magazine
This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine – for everything that is great about mountain biking. Try your first five issues for £5 when you subscribe today.
  • Discipline: Mountain
  • Location: Bristol, UK

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