How to Choose the Right Hydration Unit

Everyone who spends any part of their professional or recreational time outdoors knows the importance of staying hydrated. Water is the key to not only mission success but also life. The hydration pack revolutionized outdoor survival by providing not only a convenient means of transporting water but also easy, on-the-go access to it. But having even the best hydration pack available will not allow you to achieve success unless it is also the best system for your particular activity or mission. Today I’m going to provide some basic information and tips to help you make sure you select not only the best hydration pack out there but the best hydration pack for YOU.


Why Do You Need a Hydration Pack?

The human body relies on water for almost every basic function. Fail to consume enough water and you will slip into increasing states of dehydration. At first, you will simply be thirsty, but before long, you will experience decreased energy, cramps, headaches, and decreased performance. Eventually, if left untreated, dehydration can result in serious medical conditions and even death. Although dehydration can be treated, the best treatment is to avoid it, to begin with, and the best way to do this is by drinking water regularly when involved in strenuous activity.

Regular hydration is where then hydration pack comes in. Not only does it allow you to transport water with you and keep it close at hand, it also allows for easy and continuous access to the water. Because you do not need to stop your activity, find and remove a water bottle or canteen, drink, and then return the water to its storage location, you are more likely to drink regularly, thus increasing your chances of avoiding dehydration. Of course, for maximum benefit, you need to select the right hydration pack: one that meets your needs and those of a specific mission or activity.

So how do you select the right hydration pack? I am glad you asked! I’m going to share the basic information needed to understand what type of packs are available, which is best suited for your mission and how to compare different models.

Types of Hydration Packs

Hydration packs have come along way since first being introduced. Gone are the days of simple “one size fits all” units that consisted of nothing more than a reservoir (or bladder), drinking tube, and a carrying pouch with a sling or straps. Today’s hydration packs are available in a variety of sizes and designs, include many more features or options than ever before, and some even double as day packs. Many models are specifically designed to meet the needs of different outdoor activities such as hiking, trail running, cycling, paddling, and even skiing or snowboarding (yes, hydration in winter is just as important!).

Hiking hydration packs – larger than other models, this unit combines a hydration system with a traditional backpack and allows the user to carry all necessary gear in a single pack. They can vary in size when it comes to gear and water capacity, and sizes range from those suitable for simple day hikes to others capable of outfitting you for overnight trips.


  • Versatile, many can be reconfigured to meet needs of different missions
  • Provide easy storage of gear and water in a single carrying system
  • Many modern packs are already designed to accept water bladder


  • Larger and heavier than other designs
  • May need to sacrifice water capacity if more gear space is needed
  • Not suitable for all activities
  • Best suited for longer hikes, short overnight trips, or other activities requiring additional gear

Running Hydration Packs – as the name suggests these packs are designed with the runner in mind, especially those who run trails or in remote areas. While all include a bladder pouch, many also offer pockets suitable for carrying water bottles as well. Most include some degree of storage, ranging from small pockets for snacks or valuables to pouches for a change of clothing. Few running hydration units offer anywhere near the gear capacity found in hiking systems. Although most resemble a more streamlined version of a hiking pack, some utilize a vest or body harness system rather than the traditional strap. Some users prefer the vest version as it allows for a snugger fit when worn and less movement when running.


  • Lower profile, tighter fit allows for less interference with high mobility activities
  • Allows for use of both water bottles and/or bladder with drinking tube
  • Many include storage for small items


  • Not generally suitable for long trips
  • Storage of gear will diminish water carrying capacity
  • Not well suited for cold weather use
  • Best for running, trail running or short hikes.

Cycling Hydration Packs – you would not think a cycler would need a specially designed pack, that is unless you are a cyclist. Most are lightweight and low profile, a combination that provides increased stability and reduced wind resistance when riding and negotiating obstacles. They generally include limited storage especially designed to hold repair kits and tools where they can be easily accessed. Packs designed for mountain biking or trail riding tend to be a bit larger with more storage. Straps, waist pads, and storage pouches are also specially designed to complement the low profile, out-of-the-way design.


  • Allows access to water without stopping your ride
  • Low profile design does not interfere with pedaling
  • Storage for small items you will typically need while riding


  • Even large off-road models still offer only limited storage
  • Best suited for cycling, with specially designed models for trail riders


Winter Hydration Packs – outdoor adventures do not stop when the temperature drops, and neither does the need to stay hydrated. Unfortunately, many traditional hydration systems are unsuitable for use in subzero temperatures, as the water will freeze and be inaccessible. Enter the winter hydration pack. These models include insulation for the bladder, drink tube, and even bite valve to make sure your water will be available throughout the day. They are available in a variety of sizes and varying storage capacities to meet a wide range of outdoor sports. Some even include exterior lashing points, bungee straps, or tie-downs for hands-free transportation of ski, snowboards etc.


  • Allow for year-round access to water supply
  • Available in a variety of sizes and storage options
  • Some are specially designed for transportation of winter sport equipment


  • Although suitable for all seasons, you will want one with removable insulation to avoid skunked water supply
  • Can be a bit more difficult to access bladder for filling or cleaning
  • Using exterior tie downs can limit access to storage compartments or bladder
  • Best suited for any winter sport including skiing, snowboarding, hiking and even hunting.

Hydration Pack Capacity

Now that we have introduced you to the various styles available, it’s time to narrow your search so you can focus on which is best for you. After deciding which type of hydration unit you’ll need, the next consideration should always be capacity. After all, it doesn’t do any good to carry only some of the water you will need. Sure, some adventures will require more than you can carry in a single bladder, but we will address that later.

Most bladder capacity is measured in liters, and the most common sizes are 0.5 liters, 1.5 liters, 2 liters and 3 liters. Less than 0.5 liter is not really worth carrying, and more than 3 liters is likely to be too heavy for comfort. Two liters is the most common size available, although most packs are designed to accept a bladder as large as 3 liters. I prefer to have a larger-than-might-be-needed capacity; I can always fill to less than full if I know I will not need all three liters.

When it comes to overall pack capacity, you are likely to encounter several different measurements, sometimes used in conjunction. Again, the bladder capacity as well as the bladder compartment capacity is measured in liters. The storage compartment may be measured in either liters or square inches. When it comes to the overall capacity (gear and water), you will find this is also measured in liters. The normal pack capacities range from 5 liters (2-3 liter bladder and small storage area) to 21 or more liters (3-liter bladder with a 1 or 2 daypack).

REMEMBER – when calculating storage volume, you will need to deduct the size of the water bladder from overall capacity.

Features of Hydration Packs

All hydration packs will share similar features when it comes to the water storage and delivery system: a bladder, drink tube, and a bite valve. Some may offer additional features including insulation, a clip to secure the drink tube in an easy to reach location and even disconnect points to assist in cleaning the drinking tube. Some units may also provide tube portals, or small tight-fitting openings, that allow easier access to drink tubes. However, as with any piece of gear, the features on hydration systems or packs are not all created equal. Here is what I recommend you look for:

  • Bladder – larger than needed capacity, with a large opening to accommodate hassle-free filling or cleaning. I also prefer clear or nearly clear bladders, so I can visually inspect for available water level and dirt.
  • Bite valve – this is one of the areas new owners have the most problem with, especially in terms of leakage. I recommend installing a high-quality model with cover and shut off valve, even if this means adding an after-market design to your system.
  • Wide opening – having a wide mouth on the bladder will come in handy during both the filling and cleaning of your system. I like to be able to get my whole hand into the bladder for scrubbing, especially if I have been carrying a drink option other than water.
  • Quick disconnect fitting – whether you are cleaning your system or replacing worn bites valves and drink tubes, you will appreciate the ability to do so without a trip to the garage.
  • Clips – this is a feature that not only allows easy access to the tube while remaining active. You will want to select a model with clips that can be relocated depending on specific mission needs.
  • Moisture barrier(s) – this is one of those features that is typically overlooked until needed. Carry the wrong pack on a hot, humid day, and you will soon find your back and any gear you may have been carrying is wet. No, the bladder did not leak. The moisture is the result of a transfer to those areas because the lack of a moisture barrier allows condensation through.
  • The pack itself – if your pack is uncomfortable, it is unlikely you will not wear it as much as possible. You can counter this by trying it on to make sure the straps are in the right place and comfortable and getting the right size for maximum carrying comfort as well as your body shape/size.


Don’t let the plethora of possibilities out there overwhelm you. First, start with the activity you’re doing. If you’re doing more than one – get more than one pack. Next, consider the load you want to take with you, along with how long you’ll be on the trek. Then, consider the design of the pack in terms of its features to make sure they accommodate your needs. And finally, try the pack on before you hit the trail so you know it’ll be comfortable to carry. If you need help, the experts at US Patriot are just a phone call away! Check out their selection.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Tom Burrell

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell

1 thought on “How to Choose the Right Hydration Unit

  1. Thank You! I learned a couple of helpful things from your article. Most important: I never thought about condensation in my pack. My qualifications as a product-tester include clumsiness, inability to follow directions ( especially when poorly translated ), and an innate tendency to experience failures in even the simplest, “fool-proof” year. As an example of the latter, I had a Camelback bladder that I could not open with my hands: I had to use a wrench on it! Most people would probably not believe this could be possible.

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