How To Mountain Bike Without a Hydration Pack

I know, it’s a shocking concept, but I’m here to argue that it is, in fact, possible to ride your mountain bike without strapping on a backpack to hold your water, snacks, extra layers, tools, and emergency supplies. How is this possible and why should you consider it? Read on to find out.

How to Ditch the Pack

For mountain bikers, hauling water is of primary concern, and hydration packs offer a convenient way to carry up to 100oz. of the wet stuff. But water is heavy–100 ounces tips the scales at about 6.5 pounds. which is close to what most bike frames weigh. And you want me to carry that on my back while whipping up and down the trail? No thanks.

I’ve found water bottles hold enough liquid for average rides in average temperatures. The largest water bottles hold up to 28oz. so with two, you’re more than halfway to 100oz. Also, the weight is off your back and on your bike, where your wheels can do all the heavy lifting.

For epic rides, getting enough water without a pack takes a bit more strategizing. You can sag yourself by planning your route to loop back by your vehicle to re-supply, or you can carry a small filter, UV pen, or sterilization tablets if you know there’s a water source along your route.

Water is absolutely necessary on any MTB ride, and so are a few key emergency supplies: a pump, spare tube/patch kit, multi-tool, and other doo-dads (like a chain quick link and derailleur hanger). I use a small saddle bag to carry these essentials and it’s amazing how much I can actually cram into one of these things. Make sure your saddle bag is strapped on securely so it’s not bouncing around, and you’ll forget it’s even there.

Ok, water and tools are stored and I still have nothing on my back! Now I’m not completely opposed to carrying items on my back, but I try to limit those items to things I can fit in my jersey pockets. The jersey pocket is a great place to stash things I want to grab quickly or things I don’t want scratched and bounced in my saddle bag. Keys, cell phone, ID, snacks, and batteries for night riding work well here.

That’s it for the essentials, but there are other items (such as extra layers, a DSLR camera) I really like having on some rides. For that, I’ve started riding with a fanny pack (or as I once overheard a redneck kid call it, a “butt bag”). I’ve found the fanny pack is super convenient for grabbing my camera on the trail because I can just rotate the pack, unzip, and start shooting. It’s also a good spot for snacks for the same reason, and keeping an extra layer inside helps pad the camera. Yes, this is added weight on my body, but it’s not nearly as constricting as a backpack and the weight is low and off my shoulders.


Now that I’ve convinced you it’s possible to ditch your pack, let me quickly list some of the benefits to riding free:

  • Less weight on your shoulders/back. This improves your comfort and form and prevents an unbalanced load from harshing your ride.
  • It’s cooler. Riding without a pack I sweat less, especially here in the Southeast where the weather seems to stay hot and humid most of the year.
  • Gear is easier to access when it’s not buried in a pack. Now, I’ll admit, swigging from a water bottle isn’t as easy (or even as sanitary) as slurping from a hose, but I love being able to grab a tool, snack, or my camera without completely taking my pack off.
  • No pack means no extra junk. For me, anyway, I found I would take too much stuff on a lot of rides just because I had room for it. Now I stick to the essentials and tend to lose less stuff.
  • Easier to breathe. No sternum strap to constrict your chest on those lungbuster climbs.
  • Easier to clean. No funky reservoir to try to keep clean.
  • Save money. Ok, going without a hydration pack may not save you a ton of dough over water bottles, a saddle bag, and a fanny pack, but each of these items is much less expensive than a good hydration pack.

Unless you’re planning an overnight trip, I say ditch your hydration pack for your next ride and see just how freeing it can be!