Like many great outdoor products, hydration packs were first developed for the military and later modified for civilian use. While there are several brands and a number of different models on the market today, the basic functionality is to carry gear and liquid, and to provide a means of drinking without stopping what you’re doing. Here are some pointers to help you select the pack that fits for your mountain biking needs.
Most packs on the market seem to have settled on two standard capacity offerings: 70oz and 100oz. When choosing the capacity that is right for you, consider how much water you like to drink, the length of your average ride and whether your bike frame has room for bottle cages. If you live in a hot or dry climate and like to do 3+ hour weekend rides, go for the 100oz. If you tend to do shorter, early morning or after work rides, 70oz is probably fine.
Carrying water is only half of the equation; most riders will also want to be able to carry stuff along the trail. The singletracks forum has numerous threads about what to carry, but the basics include a multi-tool, flat tire repair kit, snacks, first-aid stuff and maybe a jacket or other clothing. Packs come in all sizes from ones that will hold just a granola bar and car keys, all the way up to packs like the massive 1,159 cubic inch Camelbak HAWG. Again, what you like to carry determines how much cargo space you need. Light and fast racers will tend to prefer the minimalist designs, whereas photographers and those who frequently go on epic rides with uncertain weather conditions will want to go with a much larger volume pack. When selecting the right pack for your gear carrying needs, lay out everything you already carry, or would like to, and take a picture of it. Bring the picture to the store so that you can remember it all, and maybe even grab some of those same items at the store and see if they fit in the packs you’re considering.
With capacities being a fairly standard metric, most manufacturers try to differentiate their products by offering a variety of innovative features. For example, the FuL Cargo pack has a retractable helmet storage net, Osprey models have a nifty magnetic bite valve holder, and CamelBaks have arguably the best valve system with easy to find replacement parts. Other features include dedicated cell phone / mp3 player pockets, mini-pump sleeves, and even chain saw loops.
All of the above is a non-issue if the pack doesn’t fit comfortably. Just like “regular” backpacks, each manufacturer has their own take on strap, suspension, and back panel design, and of course no two people are shaped alike. Once you have narrowed down the capacity and feature set you want, find a corresponding model from each of the available brands. Put some stuff in them to simulate a full load and wear them around the store for a bit. Pay attention to any pressure points or anything that doesn’t feel right. If it’s uncomfortable now, it will totally suck on the trail!
Racing: Some hardcore racers still do the bottle cage / seat bag thing, but hydration packs are starting to catch on, especially in the ultra-endurance segment. The Camelbak Fairfax and Osprey Raptor 6 are both small, light, and will keep you hydrated without slowing you down or throwing you off balance.
World Travelers: If you spend a lot of time away from home, Camelbak is your best bet. Every podunk sporting goods store in the country seems to have Camelbak bite valves and other replacement parts. This could make the difference between dropping $6 – $10 to fix your pack or $50 – $100 to replace it.
Multisport: If you want just one pack for mountain biking and other, non-MTB activities like bike commuting or school, check out something like the Cargo from FuL or BC2 from Ergon. Both of these have well thought out organization features to help keep all of your various doodads neatly stowed.
Pack Rats: If you need to carry a LOT of gear, check out the larger Osprey models like the Verve 13 or Raptor 18. Osprey is first and foremost a backpack company and they do an amazing job of making a big load feel small by incorporating features like load lifter and compression straps into their hydration pack models. The Camelbak HAWG can also swallow a ton of gear and has a 100oz water capacity.
Whether you you are considering your first hydration pack or are looking to replace that worn out one you’ve had for years, the quality and selection available today is better than ever. Hopefully this guide will help you sift through all the models and features and lead you to that perfect pack for mountain biking!