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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.

Photo: Osprey.com

Water Capacity

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.

Cargo Room

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 andmaybea 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 CamelbakHAWG. 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 whofrequentlygo 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.

Features

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.

Photo: ful.com

Fit

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!

Recommendations

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. TheCamelbak Fairfax andOsprey 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 likebike 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 theVerve 13 orRaptor 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 watercapacity.

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!

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# Comments

  • trek7k

    Great overview.

    One category that wasn’t mentioned is bikepacking packs (overnight packs). One of my buddies took the Camelbak Vantage 40 on our Durango to Moab trip last year and I was amazed at how much stuff he fit in there – it’s listed at 2700+ cubic inches of storage! I’m testing the Osprey Talon 22 and while it’s not technically a hydration pack (no bladder is included but there is a sleeve for one), it’s a favorite of ultralight bikepackers for its light weight and 1300+ cubic inches of storage.

    There are also packs coming onto the market, most notably from Camelbak, that shift liquid storage into the hip belt/lower back area for improved stability on the trail. Camelbak even has a jersey with a built-in bladder but for now it seems to be marketed toward roadies more than dirt riders.

  • dgaddis

    I’d love to try out one of those Wingnut packs, hear good things. I’ve heard you can’t get all of the water out of the new Camelbak models where the bladder sits on your hips.

  • ollysj

    I have no idea, how to survive without my 70oz blatter on my back

  • GoldenGoose

    Not sure if source products are yet availible in the US for purchase. No US retailers listed.

  • muttonmark

    I own and use an Osprey Viper 7, which has a 70oz bladder and I love it. It has just enough storage for tools, a micro hand pump, and plenty of room to carry a spare tube. The strap system is rather comfy, and I really like the magnet on the bite-valve to keep it right on the sternum strap. There is a bungie strap system on the outside to stuff a fleece in, a helmet clasp, and an Ipod/Phone/GPS messh pouch on the left shoulder strap. I used this for a 20 mile race this year, and I still had a little left after the 2hr ride. Replacement parts are available, and are a little less costly than Camelbak, just not as common in the retailers in my area. The only issue that I have with any bladder system is cleanning and drying them. My FS Jamis Dakar XCT doesn’t allow for room for more than a small water bottle/Cage, so this pack is almost perfect.

  • ollysj

    I just learned, that the German manufactor Deuter, is using the source blatters

  • CrispyMTB

    I currently use a Camelbak Blowfish. 100oz Bladder and expandable cargo area. I always carry a spare tube, hand pump, tools, snacks, cell phone, extra gloves, first aid supplies, and keep my spare sunglasses in there. This winter I even had room for ski gloves and any layers I shed during the ride. The padding on the back is very comfortable and the straps are easy to adjust for a perfect fit.

    I still have an old Camelbak Lobo from the late 90’s the bladder and bite value are still going strong and I use it when I don’t need the cargo space.

  • BUDDAH

    I think I might go with a Deuter for my next purchase. I really dig the bladder for the easy fill opening but the packs don’t really have the separate compartments like my pack now… sweet review maddslcker..

  • mtbgreg1

    Hydrapak is killer, and has IMO some of the most innovative hydration technology on the market, especially in regards to their bladder. Look for a review soon.

  • whitepine

    Never forget about High Sierra! That company is primarily a backpack/luggage manufacturer and so they know a lot about making packs. I use some sort of daypack for hiking and biking that holds a 2 liter bladder and plenty of gear. My version doesn’t show up on their site but it may be an older version of the Soaker.

  • 49637

    Hydrapack bladders make water taste like a third-world garbage fire, just for the record. Stick with camelback bladders. Hydrapack packs are fine though.

  • 49637

    I like the Dakine packs. They essentially have a water tight zipper on the top so you dont have to deal with that awkward filler on the camel’s and others. I use the same packs for biking and snowboarding. Heli Pack for anything that I dont need much storage for and Heli Pro when I need to carry extra layers, food, parts, stuff from the hardware store…..

  • 49637

    What’s the source for the author’s statement that “hydration packs were first developed for the military and later modified for civilian use”? I seem to recall reading that the military started using CamelBaks after that company brought them to market.

    I tried to googling my question and found an article saying Bryce Thatcher
    invented the modern hydration pack. http://www.ultraspire.net/bryce.html.

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