If you’ve ever spent time hiking with only bottles to drink your water from then you will know how annoying it can get stopping every mile or so to have a sip or two. Sometimes to the point where taking off your heavy pack to get to your water becomes so tiresome that you end up foregoing drinking altogether. The invention of hydration bladders has made drinking on the go so much easier, and dehydration brought on by laziness is very much a thing of the past!
Since the early days of a simple plastic pouch with a hose attached to it, hydration bladder technology has come a long way. From quick connect valves to antibacterial plastic, the bladders of the last couple of years are really giving more than just a means to carry and drink water easily. They are becoming more and more easy to use, clean and maintain, with improved water flow and even compatibility with filters. So if you’ve never used one before then you’re in for a treat. And if you’ve had your existing one so long that the mold inside it has finally started to grow arms and legs then you too are going to love what’s new in water bladder world.
What will you learn from this guide to hydration bladders?
Whether you’re totally new to the concept of water bladders or you’ve used them loads before and are in the market for a new one, our guide will tell you everything you need to know about them. We’ve also outlined some cracking options that you may want to consider adding to your gear stash. Read it all, or skip to the sections that are most useful to you from the following:
- The benefits of hydration bladders
- Key features of hydrations bladders
- Things to consider before you buy a hydration bladder
- Reviews of the 7 best hydration bladders
- Hydration bladder accessories
But first, here’s a sneaky peak of the best hydration bladders around, and our top choices on offer in 2020. Click on the product to read a full review of each bladder.
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|Polar Bottle Cenote Single Pack||2 and 3L||112g (4oz)||Screw top||$|
|Geigerrig Hydration Engine||1.5, 2 and 3L||272g (9.6oz)||Fold top||$$|
|CamelBak Crux||1.5, 2, 3 and Lumbar 3L||235g (8oz)||Screw top||$|
|Platypus Big Zip LP||1.5, 2 and 3L||170g (6oz)||Zip top||$|
|Hydrapak Shape-Shift||2 and 3L||152g (5.4oz)||Fold top||$|
|Osprey Hydraulics||2 and 3L||220g (7.8oz)||Fold top||$$|
|Source Outdoor Widepac||1.5, 2 and 3L||180g (6.3oz)||Fold top||$|
The benefits of hydration bladders
- They are really easy to drink from on the go
- You can sip little and often to stay hydrated
- They only become smaller in your pack as they are emptied, saving valuable space
- Their shape fits into backpacks easily
- The weight of the water can be kept close to your body, making carrying it easier
- They are easily compatible with water filters
Features of a hydration bladder
It’s highly likely that the main reason you chose a hydration bladder over a good old-fashioned water bottle is to make life easier. So you may as well choose a bladder that has all the bells and whistles that makes paying that extra worthwhile.
The main features to look for in the best hydration bladders include:
Good water flow
This is a difficult to judge until you’ve tried it so take the time to read what other people have to say about the water flow. A good bite valve shouldn’t be difficult to get water out of. Some water bladders, like the Geigerrig Hydration Engine, even include a pressurisation system to keep water flowing strongly.
Bite valve on/off
To prevent any unwanted leakage good bite valves should have some kind of on/off mechanism to totally stop water flow when not in use. Different brands adopt different methods for this – some of which are much more user friendly than others (especially when cycling!). Choose a mechanism that is easy to use with one hand if possible.
Bite valve cover
Only 1 of the hydration bladders in this review come with a bite valve cover: the Widepak. For some people having one is essential from a hygiene point of view. And for others it’s important to keep dirt from clogging up the valve. Thankfully you can buy covers separately – see our hydration bladder accessories section.
Removable bite valve
If you intend to attach a water filter to the hose of your water bladder then the bite valve needs to be easily removable (without the use of plyers!). This also makes cleaning much easier, and should you need to replace or change your bite valve, you won’t need to replace the whole hose.
Bladder opening: screw top
The CamelBak Crux features a screw top. And whilst many users love how quick and easy they are to open and close, and fill from a tap or sink, screw tops also have limitations. Scooping water from slow flowing streams can be difficult and it’s also more difficult to get inside them when cleaning and drying.
Bladder opening: zip top
Zip tops are very like a zip lock freezer bag but with a much more robust fastener that seals the whole top securely like the Platypus Big Zip. They open up to create a reasonably wide opening that makes cleaning and drying much easier than screw tops. They are also easier to fill from streams and rivers.
Bladder opening: fold top
This style of opening is much like the zip top but instead of the plastic joining together, the top simply folds over. A fastener then slides over the fold to ensure the top is totally sealed. The Geigerrig Hydration Engine features a fold top which opens up really nice and wide making it mega easy to clean and dry, and filling from a stream is a breeze.
Quick connect valves
In recent years most hydration bladders have evolved to have hoses that disconnect easily. These valves should automatically close when disconnected to prevent leaking, and they are a big plus compared with bladders that don’t have them. It makes refilling the bladder so much easier – you don’t have to disconnect the hose from its place on/in your bag each time you refill. In my opinion, quick connect valves are a must.
To ensure that your water bladder stays where it should be in your bag, most hydration sleeves feature a clip or loop to attach to the top of the water bladder. So it’s important to that your water bladder has some kind of loop, clip or hook to enable this to happen. All of the bladders in this review have something to make this possible, some of which are also big enough to hang the bladder up for drying, storage or when using with a gravity filter.
Some hydration bladders don’t have a carry handle at all, usually in order to save weight. However, they can be really useful if you are refilling often, especially if you have to carry your them to and from your water source. Some carry handles are also good for stabilising the bladder when refilling, opening and closing the bladder.
Cleaning and drying
Some water bladders, like the Hydrapak Shape-shifter are fully reversible making cleaning a breeze. And some are also dishwasher compatible. The bigger the opening the easier it is to get your hands in there to clean and dry the inside of your bladder, so look for those features to make your life much easier. Cleaning the hose requires a long brush or pipe cleaner. See our hydration bladder accessories section at the bottom.
Things to consider when buying a hydration bladder
As tempting as it may be to just go for a classic, tried and tested CamelBak hydration bladder, with their lifetime guarantee, be sure to take a look at your other options. Having always loved using CamelBak I am veering towards other designs now, and I much prefer using zip or fold tops to the CamelBak screw tops.
However, many many people will always buy CamelBak for the superb quality and durability. Here are a few other things to consider when looking at the best hydration bladders:
01Water bladder capacity and size
All the bladders in this review have a 3 litre capacity, but most of them are also available in smaller sizes (1.5 or 2 litres). Which you choose highly depends on where and how you are using it, what you are doing when using it, and whether it is compatible with the bag that you are using to carry it. These are all very personal and specific things, but here’s some guidance as a starting point:
- 1 – 1.5 litres are best suited to shorter trips, trail runners, or those adventuring in places where there are lots of opportunities to refill. Doing this means you don’t need to carry so much weight but also can be a bit of a pain to keep refilling if you are out all day.
- 2 litre hydration bladders are a safe bet if you’re not sure what to go for. They will fit inside most daypacks for hiking and biking and will hold enough water for a day of activity (providing you can get more water on board at the end of your day out).
- 3 litre hydration bladders are ideal for long distance trekkers and backpackers or in situations where refilling may not be possible. If you know that your bag can accommodate the larger dimensions of a 3 litre bladder then it’s worth getting the bigger capacity. You don’t have to fill it up the whole way on shorter adventures, but the option is there if you need it making 3 litres bladders much more versatile (and better value for money!).
Many daypacks for hiking and biking will have a hydration sleeve that can hold a 2 litre bladder. Whereas larger backpacks for trekking and hiking can often accommodate a larger bladder.
If you are buying a hydration bladder to go in a bag that you already have, it’s a good idea to take the measurements of the hydration sleeve in your bag to make sure they match with the dimensions of the bladder you intend on buying.
It is very unusual to find plastic water vessels of any kind that aren’t BPA (bisphenol A) free. But many brands that make hydration bladders also ensure that the plastic they use is BPS (bisphenol S) free, PVC free and phthalate-free.
Bladders treated to inhibit bacteria growth is another recent development in bladder technology. This is a really important feature for long distance hikers and trekkers who may go for weeks without the means to properly clean the inside of their water bladder and hose.
As with carrying almost anything whilst being active, the lighter the hydration bladder is, the better! A good hydration bladder should weigh under 250g (8.8oz). But be wary of anything too light as the durability and strength can be effected.
The 7 best hydration bladders in 2020
The Polar Bottle Cenote Single Pack is an affordable and competitive alternative to the higher-priced hydration packs on this list. It’s made from Food Safe, BPA-free plastic with zero chemical coatings, so there’s no bad taste or smell. The bladder features a wide and easy to fill opening – although not as easy as a top-opening bladder – and comes with a 360-degree bite locking valve.
The Cenote Single Pack also has a removable cap gasket but, like most hydration bladders, it’s still a little tricky to clean. Unlike most hydration bladders, however, the Cenote is fully recyclable. When the Cenote reaches the end of its life, you can dispose of it guilt-free. Recycling instructions are printed on the bladder. The company also sell individual replacement parts so you can choose to repair the bladder before recycling. The Cenote Single Pack is available in two or three-litre sizes, both of which fit inside most backpacks.
- Fully recyclable
- 50+ uses (when filled with water)
- Easy to fill
- No plastic taste or smell
- Not as durable as some bladders
- Short hose
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The Geigerrig Hydration Engine may be the most expensive item on review, but it offers something that none of the others do: pressurised water flow. A second hose with a power bulb on the end connects to the top of the bladder via a Plug and Play connection. The bulb can be used to pump air into the water bladder to maintain high pressure as the bladder is emptied. This feature is really excellent when drinking during high energy activities as you don’t have to work to get the water out. It’s also good for sharing your water (you can squirt it), cleaning your gear and even keeping your dog hydrated!
The bladder itself features a fold top with a Hydrapak slide top and the mouthpiece. It is fully reversible for cleaning and although it is by far the heaviest system on review, it weighs much less when not used with the pressurisation system.
It is the go to choice for adventure racers and an excellent and reliable option for those looking for high pressure water flow.
- Water flow can be fully pressurised
- Very lightweight when not used with the pressurisation system
- Reversible and dishwasher safe
- Durable – has nylon backing for extra protection
- The slide top can be a little clunky to get on and off
- The bite valve on/off twist mechanism can be difficult to use
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New to the CamelBak range is the improved and redesigned Crux. This shape is available in 1.5, 2 and 3 litre capacities, and there is also a Crux Lumbar 3L Reservoir. This is more square shaped and designed to be stored low in your pack to maintain a lower centre of gravity during high energy activity.
The Crux features a newly designed and large ergonomic handle for easier pouring and holding, as well as a quick connect vertical hose attachment. CamelBak have also improved upon the water flow in the bite valve, which now allows you to get 20% more water out of each sip.
The on/off lever on the bite valve is one of the easiest in this review to use with only one hand, and the bite valve also does a good job at preventing drippage – it selfs seals after each sip.
With Hydroguard technology that inhibits the growth of bacteria, 100% BPA, BPS and BPF free plastic, and a lifetime guarantee, the renowned durability of CamelBak reservoirs makes this an excellent choice that will last many years.
However, the screw top can make cleaning and drying a little troublesome and the new model doesn’t feature markers on the lid to help secure the lid easily. It is also one of the heavier options.
- Very strong and durable
- Lifetime guarantee
- Good water flow
- Good bite valve lever
- Bacteria growth inhibitor
- Screw top not as easy to secure as previous model
- Top hook is not very robust
- Difficult to clean and dry
The Platypus Big Zip LP Reservoir owes it’s name to the large zip lock lock opening at the top of the bladder. Sealed with a Slidelock closure, this system is much easier to use than the CamelBak screw top and competes fiercely with the fold tops of the other products on review which can be a bit clunky sometimes. The low profile (LP) of the bladder is a result of the internal baffle that provides some stability when using it in higher energy activities. Unlike the Hydrapak Shape-Shift this baffle isn’t removable making it less easy to clean. However, the top is large enough to get your hand and a cloth inside for cleaning and drying.
There is a standard quick release hose valve, and a good but not excellent silicone bite valve which can be twisted open and pinched closed fairly easily with one hand, especially compared with the Geigerrig and Hydrapak.
There is embedded mold and bacteria protection, and the fairly robust plastic is BPS-, and phthalate-free, as well as the usual BPA-free.
Finished off with a very good top hanger that doubles as a carry handle, this is a simple and streamlined option that is good for those needing something strong but lightweight for high tempo adventures.
- Good carry handle
- Low profile
- Mold and bacteria protection
- Not the easiest to clean
- Internal baffle isn’t removable
- Bite valve is on the large side
On the face of it, the Hydrapak Shape-Shift Reservoir looks no different to a standard hydration bladder. It features a fold top with a Slide Seal like the Geigerrig Hydration Engine, a Plug-n-Play hose connect system, and an easy flowing bite valve that is also featured on the Geigerrig.
Look a little closer and you will see that there is an internal baffle similar to the Platypus Big Zip. Where Shape-Shift differs, however, is the ability for the internal baffle to be removed. Not only is this good for to increase the capacity, but it also means that cleaning and drying it much easier than the Big Zip – it can be turned completely inside out. The baffle is reattached using a zip lock system.
This hydration bladder is also the lightest in this review and is 100% BPA and PVC free.
- Removable internal baffle for easy cleaning and stability
- Lightest setup on review
- Can’t hold 3 litres when baffle is in place
- Twist bite valve can be a bit difficult
- The slide top can be a little clunky to get on and off
Osprey have adopted a slightly different hose connect system to the rest of the reservoirs in this review. Instead of the quick connect valve being placed on the bottom of the bladder, it is placed halfway along the hose of the Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir. This actually makes accessing the connection much easier when you have a full pack as you don’t need to delve right down inside the bag getting the inevitable dribbles of water seeping onto your gear when you disconnect.
This system also features an anatomically shaped back plate that adds stability to the bladder making it so much easier to slide it, when full, into an already full backpack.
The angled bite valve twists on and off in a similar way to the Hydrapak and Geigerrig and it also features a very handy little magnet to secure the tube onto your backpack. To finish it off, the fold top with Slide Seal also has a pour shield and good carry handle for easy filling. With these extra features, however, comes a little extra weight making it one of the heavier bladders in this review.
This is a good option for those hiking with lots of other gear – the extras make refills more convenient and easy.
- Backplate adds structure
- Quick connect valve in middle of hose
- Good carry handle
- On the heavy side
- Top hanger not the strongest
- Bladder not as durable as CamelBak
If you’re after a simple no-frills hydration bladder then look no further than the Source Outdoor Widepac. As the cheapest item in this review, the Widepac offers everything you would expect from a standard fold top reservoir including Slide Closure seal, quick connect hose valve, twist to open silicone bite valve, and low profile carry handle.
But what makes this seemingly straight-forward bladder stand out slightly is the bite valve cover which you don’t have to buy separately. A big plus. There is also some invisible magic going on behind the scenes: Sources GrungeGuard technology and Glass-like Film prevent bacteria growth and bio-film build up on the inside of the reservoir and hose. Fancy stuff which makes it even easier to keep clean!
- Bite valve cover
- Bacteria growth inhibitor
- Bio-film build up prevention
- Good value
- Not as durable as CamelBak
- Bite valve pressure could be better
- No tie to attached slide top to bladder
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Hydration bladder accessories
In the ideal world the best hydration bladders would come with all the accessories you might need. But unfortunately that isn’t the case, which is a shame, especially when it comes to essentials like bite valve covers. Most things you might need can, however, be bought separately:
For some people a bite valve cover is an essential. Most brands have a version of this that is compatible with their specific bite valves.
This is an essential item if you plan on using your hydration bladder in sub-zero winter conditions. Without it your water will freeze in the tube before it even gets to you!
This is a really good way to keep the hose of your hydration system under control. And really easy to pop on and off with one hand.
These are great if you have an older hydration bladder that is still going strong but you want to upgrade.
Not all of the items in this kit are essential, but you really can’t beat having a hose brush to clean out the tube.
For some handy tips on how to clean a hydration bladder take a read of our reservoir cleaning guide.
If you love to get the most out of your active time in the wild then you really can’t beat using a water bladder to stay hydrated on the go. With some great options to choose from all that’s left is to drink to good times and get out there!
Happy hydrating, happy hikers!