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Hiking Hydration Bladders:  necessity or luxury?

Hiking hydration bladders are a popular piece of hiking gear, and for good reasons.

However, these water bladders can be tricky to choose and even trickier to take care of.

Know what you're getting into when you look at hiking hydration reservoirs, also called water bladders and hydration bladders.

Kind of apt, isn't it? You pour water into the hydration bladder, pull water into your bloodstream, and dump it back out in your urinary bladder.

The circle of life, right there on the hiking trail!

Sorry for the Disney diversion. Let's get on with choosing the best hiking hydration bladder for your hiking style.

Hiking hydration bladders capture (treated) surface water and deliver it to your backpack!

Hiking hydration bladders:
the good news

The advantage of a hiking water reservoir is pretty obvious:

Rather than stopping on the trail, pulling out a water bottle, unscrewing the lid, and knocking back your hiking water, all you have to do is take a sip from the so charmingly named bite valve (i.e. mouth piece with stop valve) on the hose that connects to a water reservoir in your backpack.

Sounds so easy, right? 

We'll get to the downsides in a bit. For now, let's cruise along Easy Street and admire the view.

If you don't have a backpack that is compatible with a bladder, you'll need to read about hydration backpacks.

To buy the right hydration bladder for your existing (and hopefully beloved) backpack, consider the following factors that will determine whether or not a hydration bladder is going to work for you on the trail.

Choosing a hydration reservoir

Here's the best advice I can give you: don't skip any of these details. Using a hydration system is a commitment, and you want to go into it with eyes wide open.

  • Capacity: How much water do you need for your daily activity level on the trail? Two liters is a good number to steer by, and adjust it up or down depending on mileage and weather. More on the importance of hydration here.

  • Compatibility: Don't buy a hydration bladder without knowing that it fits into your backpack. The spec sheet (specifications) should help you figure this out by giving dimensions. Shape isn't the issue, it's how much expansion will occur when the bladder is full.

  • Filling Option #1: Where will you be filling up the bladder? If you use tap water, consider how hard it might be to line up the bladder with a faucet: campground, public rest room, your own kitchen. A screw lid is a good way to go.

  • Filling Option #2: If you're a backpacker relying upon surface water, you want lots of surface area for flowing or standing water to flow into the bladder. A zip lock style will make life easier for you.

  • Hydration Hoses: Now that you've got a full hydration bladder, you've got to have a mechanism for delivering water to your mouth. Enter the hydration hose. The hose needs to be compatible with the bladder on one end, and provide a bite valve on the other end. Consider how easy (or not) it is to get the hose onto the bladder, and also visualize cold and hot conditions as you play with pulling the hose off and putting it back on (do this with an empty bladder at first. Just sayin'!).

  • BPA Free: The dark days of poisonous plastic are behind us. Your bladder will probably be made of BPA free material, but check just to be sure.

Looks like the learning curve on purchasing the best hiking hydration bladders can be a bit daunting.

What else should you consider?

Hydration reservoirs: the dark side

  • Hygiene: I am cursed with a microbiology background, so I view hiking hydration bladders with deep suspicion. You should, too, because they are hard to clean. Your best defense is to select a bladder that is going to give you the best shot at getting a cleaning brush and fluids inside. The zip lock is the obvious choice here.

  • Hygiene Part Two: What about the hose? So glad you asked! Cleaning the hose is a challenge. Two tips: Only use your hydration bladder for water, because anything with sugar in it is an invitation for microbial party animals. And there are brushes you can buy to maximize the chances of evicting the microbes.

  • Ease of use: Is it as easy to drink from as a water bottle? Do you have a steep learning curve before you can fill, use and maintain it properly?

  • Leaking: Imagine the consequences of a flash flood inside your pack. No big deal on a day hike, perhaps catastrophic on an extended backpacking trip in cold, wet weather when you really need dry gear. No way around it: plastic has failure points and an unpredictable, yet finite, life span. 

  • Trail usage: There is no way you're going to avoid contact with sharp and rough surfaces as you manipulate your hydration reservoir in outdoor conditions. So if you're only going to use it for day hikes and fill it at your kitchen sink, you can minimize abrasions and gouges. Everyone else, beware!

  • Filling sagas: If you hike a lot, inevitably you will be in a situation where the bladder is darned near impossible to fill using the the existing surface water. My advice: carry a cup or empty water bottle (as counter intuitive as that may be) to assist you in your water reservoir filling efforts.

  • Time budgeting: If you're on a schedule (section hiking or through hiking, or with plans to meet someone back at the trail head), factor in some extra time when you have to refill the bladder. Hiking gear is going to have to come out of your pack so you can remove, fill, and replace the bladder. You will also have to wrestle with the hose: does it stay inside? Can you access the contact point easily if it does stay inside? Will it leak? 

  • Life span: Plastic is forever in a landfill, but sadly not so on with functional hiking hydration bladders and hoses. This is especially true if you use the system a lot, and if UV radiation exposure accumulates over time. Buy a bladder with a generous warranty.

  • Price: Consider the cost of two water bottles, versus the price of the hiking hydration system (including brushes and cleaning tablets) you're considering. Granted, if you only need the hydration bladder, you're ahead of where you would be if you also need a hydration backpack. But water bottles last a long time (as in decades, which probably isn't a good idea), are easy to clean, and super easy to remove from your pack.

Do you need a hydration bladder?

You can probably tell that I'm not a fan of hiking hydration bladders.

And not only for the functional and maintenance issues outlined above.

I believe that water breaks are an intrinsic part of the rhythm of the trail.

When I stop for water, I am also stopping to smell the air, admire the vivid colors and shapes around me, and do a quick mental body scan:

  • How are my feet holding up?
  • What's up with the twinge in my right ankle?
  • Am I hungry already?

The deeper, more sinister reason I'm not a fan of hydration bladders is because they play into our persistent time poisoning: hurry hurry on the trail is not the way I like to hike.

However, you might disagree with me.

If so, here is one of the top rated hydration reservoirs, backed by REI's stellar return policy and customer service.

  • Be sure to read the specs carefully for backpack compatibility, dimensions, capacity, and all that other stuff mentioned above.
  • Maintain the heck out of it! Keep it dry, clean it often, and if it begins to smell mildewy, don't use it without taking evasive action (vinegar rinses, cleaning tablets, bleach - all carefully rinsed away before you sip from it again).

Here are words of wisdom from a hiker who uses a bladder.

Don't hesitate to shoot me an email (CONTACT link at top left or bottom of page) telling me why I'm all wrong about hydration reservoirs!

I'm an old trail dog, but eager to learn new tricks. Or at least pass them along...

Hiking hydration bladders or not, stay hydrated on the trail!

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