No matter what environment a warfighter is operating in, there’s one thing they’re going to need – water. Staying hydrated is key to staying effective, which is why logistics specialists spend so much time on water supplies. Sometimes the solution to keeping soldiers moist enough is simple – anyone who’s deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan is used to bottled water being dumped around bases by the pallet load. However, at the end of the day, dominating the ground means getting out on it, and a foot patrol can’t take a truckload of bottles with them. Dismounted infantry need to carry their own water, and there’s more to that than just tucking a couple of bottles in your pocket.
The traditional solution has been water bottles, usually about a quart in capacity, hooked on to load-bearing equipment. One or two of these used to be an adequate supply in a temperate climate as long as regular resupply was arranged or drinkable water could be collected from local sources, but these days it’s just not enough. Heavier infantry loads and body armor increase the rate of perspiration, and as if that’s not enough, most recent operations have been in hot climates. If you carry enough water on your belt, you won’t have any room left for ammunition, and if you stuff the bottles in your pack, it takes a while to get to them when you need them. In fact, even getting a bottle out of a wet pouch round the back of your belt can be a lot of trouble when you just want a quick drink on the march. That’s why soldiers were so happy when the first Camelbak hydration system appeared in the early 1990s.
Early hydration systems were just simple nylon bags with shoulder straps, containing a water bladder with a drinking tube attached. It wasn’t long before makers started adding pockets to them, then turning them into small daysacks with the water bladder built in to the structure. You can now get everything from a bare bladder and tube to full size patrol packs with integral water reservoirs. As well as the specialist gear many standard packs have hydration compatibility features – dedicated pockets to hold a reservoir, or exit points for a drinking tube. There’s almost too much choice, so what should you go for?
The first desirable feature you want is a large capacity. Yes, water is heavy, but if you have a large reservoir, there’s no law says you have to fill it all the way. If you have a small one, well, you can’t pour in more than it holds. Aim for at least a two liter capacity; that’s over four quarts, the equivalent of four standard canteens. If you can get a three liter one that’s even better.
Bare or Pack
If you use a vest or plate carrier with a hydration pocket, then a bare reservoir could be ideal for you; it saves weight and bulk as well as being a lot cheaper. Make sure to think about how you’ll use it first though. A bare system doesn’t have any carriage systems of its own so you’re limited to carrying it in another piece of gear. That’s fine on patrol, but not much good if you want to carry some water when you’re running or doing sports. On the other hand, a high end system with a bulky cover and lots of external pockets is going to be heavier and harder to integrate with your other gear, but might make a great standalone system. The ideal compromise is something like the Condor Hydration Carrier, which comes in a cover with shoulder straps and MOLLE loops but is low profile enough to fit into a patrol pack’s hydration pocket.
To Suck or Not to Suck
Most hydro packs require the user to suck water through the tube. While this is fine for most people, it can be difficult if you’re out of breath. This is solved by using a pressurized hydration unit, one of the newest innovations from Geigerrig. The pressurized system means water is sprayed out of the tube – a handy feature for more than just drinking.
There’s one other thing to consider about hydration systems, especially for commanders. Being able to take a sip whenever you like is handy, but it can burn through supplies quickly. Consider keeping drinking tubes coiled away during long foot moves, and scheduling regular water stops. That way everyone stays hydrated but nobody empties their main supply before you get where you’re going. Water rationing is a bad idea, but so is constantly drinking when you can’t easily monitor how much you have left.
From a novelty 20 years ago, hydration systems have become mainstream military gear. That means the design has pretty much been perfected and there’s a great range to choose from. Like any other bit of gear, don’t just buy the coolest or the one that has most features; think about what you want to do and what gear you already have, then choose the water carrier that fits your needs best. That way you’ll keep yourself in the best possible shape when it matters.