Home / For Beginners / Hiking and Backpacking Hydration Systems: Pros and Cons

Hiking and Backpacking Hydration Systems: Pros and Cons

Hiking and Backpacking Hydration Systems Pros and Cons

Many people like to carry a hydration system (reservoir and hose) on day hikes and backpacking trips, but others prefer carrying water bottles instead. While you can chalk up the difference to personal preference, there are definite pros and cons to hiking with a hydration system in different circumstances, depending on the expected duration of your hikes and whether you’ll need to refill your hydration bladder.

Expected duration

While day hikes vary widely based on the distance travelled and expected duration, carrying a hydration system on shorter, half day trips can be convenient because it’s unlikely that you’re going to run out of water. As a general rule of thumb, you should drink about a liter of water every two hours when day hiking. So a three liter hydration system, should provide you with about six hours of water.

For all-day hikes or overnight/multi-day backpacking trips, you’re probably going to need to refill your hydration bladder from a backcountry water source. The problem is knowing when, since you can’t see how much water is left in your hydration bladder when it’s packed inside your pack. That’s the main reason people carry external water bottles, so they can see how much water they have left and regulate their intake.

While may people do use hydration systems for long day hikes and backpacking trips, refilling them is less convenient than if you use water bottles, because you’ll need to unpack your hydration bladder and then repack your pack once it’s been refilled. While kits do exist that let you fill a packed bladder through the hose, it’s still difficult to completely fill an empty bladder in a tightly packed backpack once it’s empty and you can’t be sure how much water you’ve actually gotten in without unpacking it to see. There’s also the risk that your hydration bladder can leak inside your backpack, which can have dire consequences if it soaks your gear.

Refilling a hydration system can be difficult without unpacking and then repacking an overnight backpack.
Refilling a hydration system can be difficult without unpacking and then repacking an overnight backpack.

Terrain type

There are still times when carrying a hydration system is better than carrying water bottles, even when you’re backpacking. For example, if you’re doing a lot of rock scrambling, it’s better to carry your water close to your center of gravity (back and hips) in a hydration pocket than in bottles on the outside of your backpack. A hydration system also eliminates the chance of losing your water, when your water bottles fall out of your backpack during a rugged scramble. I had this happen to me, just last week.

The same holds if you’re bushwhacking through dense brush, where overhanging vegetation can rip bottles out of your backpack’s pockets. Carrying a hydration system is usually better in this case because your water is protected inside your pack, even though you have to monitor your usage to avoid running out.

Summary

Hydration systems are best used for shorter day hikes when you’re unlikely to run out of water, or when scrambling or bushwhacking, when there’s a chance that you could lose externally stored water bottles if they fall out of your backpack. Hydration systems are more challenging to use for backpacking trips and long day hikes because you can’t see how much water you have left if its packed inside your backpack. They’re also less convenient than bottles if you need to refill them frequently, because you’ll have to unpack your backpack and then repack it after your refill is complete.

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34 comments

  1. I also don’t like bladders because I can’t see how much I’m drinking while hiking, regardless of the bladder approaching empty. I and most people I know over-drink with using bladders compared to bottles. Having a nozzle in one’s face constantly trains one mentally and physically to “need” more water. You start to think you need a sip every ten minutes, and if you succumb to that pretty soon you think you’re dying if you ever have to hike an hour or more without water. Plus the need for extra bathroom stops and electrolytes if you really overdo it.

    Bladders are harder to keep clean in the field and afterwards long-term. And heavier. And use significantly more plastic without a corresponding increase in useful life, on average.

    If I’m in especially steep terrain I might transfer the water bottles inside the pack, the same secure location a bladder would be. So I don’t see that as a pro/con.

    • Depending on where I happen to be, and knowing ahead of time where back country water source are,I bring an empty filtered refillable water container such as the OPA . Which is certainly a better option when when every ounce counts.

    • I agree with everything you say, Schrauf. With bladders I tend to drink too much and not eat enough because if I feel like I need to eat something, I just drink some water because it’s much easier. And I hate filling them and even emptying them after a hike if I didn’t drink all the water.

      So bottles are better for me overall. Even if I have lost two on steep rock scrambles. Not the end of the world, though I don’t like the idea of being a litterbug.

    • Bottles vs. bladders aside, I can’t imagine “over-drinking” water while hiking. Peeing will take care of any over-drinking. There’s a much greater risk of under-drinking and becoming dehydrated.

      • Check here for the dangers of drinking too much water: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-hyponatremia#1
        It is possible to drink more than is good for you.

      • You’d have to finish and refill a 3 liter bladder at least 3 times within a single day to run the risk of devloping Hyponatremia symptoms. Let’s not spread webmd fear. Besides, a little himalyan salt sprinkled in does wonders and takes no weight. Plus it helps with night time leg cramps.

        In both of my packs, the bladder is very easy to reach from it’s own zipper access and I just slide it out and have a look. Small sips vs big gulps. I’ll take small sips thank you very much. less chance of cramping too.

    • I agree with Schrauf. People tend to suck on the nuzzle more as if was a pacifier than the need to drink water.

  2. U.S. Army studies showed that soldiers drink more water from a bottle than a bladder. It seems soldiers drink less in total from small sips more often from a hose than from larger gulps less often from a bottle. Personally, I think the results may have been skewed by sergeants yelling at grunts to drain the whole bottle, while it is hard to tell how much a soldier has drunk from a bladder. I sometimes use a bladder and sometimes bottles, but usually rely on bottles for the flexibility to carry various sizes and shapes for different conditions. A little off-topic, but I find a bladder is convenient for hands-free drinking while bicycling.

  3. I have not had any use for bladders since I realized the huge weight penalty they incur. An empty half liter water bottle, such as you get at a grocery, store weighs .25 ounce. So for 1.5 ounces of plastic I can carry 3 liters of water. The lightest 3 liter bladder that I own, with hose, weighs 4.5 ounces and the heaviest is pushing six. Plus, I can reuse those half liter bottles many times, and keep a few of them out of the oceans for a while. I agree that for hands free, safe bike riding, a bladder makes sense, but for backpacking, or even just day hiking, I always take bottles-4 when backpacking and 1 or 2 for day hiking (depending on water availability on the trail). I never carry more water while backpacking than I need to get me to my next water source, so often, 2 of the 4 bottles will be empty. And, since most of my backpacking is in the Wind River Range of Wyoming where water is plentiful, I have never had the problem of running out of water.

    Thanks for the great site! I always look forward to your posts.

  4. I’ll never really understand this arguments since I consider it a false dilemma. I carry a bladder and bottle on almost all hikes, both day hikes and backpacking. The hose gives the convenience of drinking while moving and increased storage, and the bottle is nicer for rest breaks. Especially if you choose to keep drink mixes in the bottle only, and water in bladder. There’s no either or stance for me, I like both.

    • Ditto that, I do both, my bladder is easily accessible, easy to refill and clean, and if needed attach a filter to my badder and I’m good to go, a bottle for drinking electrolytes. Water is life.. no skimping here :)

      • I’m with Zach & Peggy, carry both. I consider the bottle a “reserve gas tank” if i were to empty my bladder plus as mentioned you can carry it mixed with electrolytes. You may not feel like hiking down to your water source once you reach your campsite. A bottle will hold you till you get rested up.

  5. WOW! Just had this discussion last Friday while packing out down the Davis Path when our bladders ran out of water well before Mt. Crawford. We were sucking it down on a dry warm day.
    Fortunately, we had both – no dilemma here. We need those bottles to hold our emergency duct tape;)
    As we were heading out, others were packing in. We warned them – there was NO water on the trail. nothing. They were a little shocked -and maybe unprepared.
    And we got to talking how much water there is in the ADK (where we grew up) vs. the Whites. and What are the driest trails in the Whites? We really want to know (and be prepared).
    Thanks for all the info from everyone here.

  6. Sucking on a tube to drink never appealed to me. Plus how do you ever really clean those things?

    Philip’s write-up rightly complains about water bottles falling or getting pulled out of open side pockets. Side pockets made without a closure ostensibly for easy access, but, with most packs, most people can’t seem to reach those pockets while wearing their packs. What’s wrong with that picture?

    I carry my “available” water bottle in a sleeve attached to my pack’s waist belt. Sometimes it bangs around on my hip/thigh a bit, but it doesn’t bother me. A full backup bottle is in a pocket somewhere, as often is a smaller container with some kind of bug juice (currently Vitalyte and some coconut water plus, maybe a bit of sugar). I might try to rig that smaller bottle up on a shoulder strap for easier access. Plus extra (empty) capacity for camp in the form of a Hyrapack Stash and/or a Nalgene Canteen.

    Speaking of water bottles, i was just researching plastics and leaching, especially in the context of cold weather use where boiling or near-boiling water is going to be poured into one’s bottle. Apparently, the BPA-free plastics aren’t necessarily “safe.” See: www (dot) motherjones.com/environment/2014/03/tritan-certichem-eastman-bpa-free-plastic-safe/

    I had kind of ruled out any kind of metal vessel for backpacking, assuming they’d be too heavy, but then i remembered titanium, and came across the Miir bottles which are heavier than plastic, but not much. Worth the trade off for not ingesting leached toxins, for me at least.

    Anyone have any experience with those?

    • Why rule out metal? Aluminum bottles are widely available and lighter than Nalgene bottles. I consider aluminum fairly lightweight. Seems like overkill to spend that much money on titanium bottles when you can buy light aluminum on Amazon for $10.

      • Thanks for the suggestion, but from what i can tell, all aluminum water bottles look to have some kind of plastic or synthetic something (polyamide) liner, the safety of which in contact with hot water seems not to be documented. Sigg lied for years that their bottles didn’t contain BPA, so i wouldn’t trust them now. Amazon is a nefarious company. I don’t buy anything from them.

      • Suit yourself. Not every aluminum or steel bottle has a liner. And you can buy those bottles from many retailers, not just Amazon.

      • (Reply to 7/26, 1:12 pm post)

        I’ve been looking but haven’t been able to find a single-wall aluminum bottle that unambiguously doesn’t have a plastic/epoxy liner. Where have you seen these? I use steel bottles for daily civilian use. Most steel bottles don’t seem to be lined, but steel is relatively heavy for backpacking.

      • Look for Ecocare or Tritan linings, they leach very little compared to older liners. The fears are overblown about how much is leached unless you continually put boiling water in them. You could always buy titanium bottles, and steel bottles honestly aren’t that heavy. You see backpackers managing just fine with Nalgene bottles, which are heavier than steel.

      • I just checked the cheap bottle I typically use, it is steel 32 oz and very light. It is like 2-3 oz heavier than the cheapest plastic bottles of that size and only 1-2 oz heavier than titanium while being $40 less, to me that is nothing. You can find better weight savings elsewhere, the titanium and steel bottles are perfect for long-term use and drink mixes. My vacuum bottle is also steel. My dented aluminum bottles must be in my soccer bag at the moment.

      • Sorry, but your responses aren’t helpful. Use for boiling/hot water is kind of the whole point i asked my original question about the Miir bottles, so unless someone can show me some research information about how these liners react with hot water, they’re a no go.

        You said steel isn’t heavier than plastic (it is), then go on to note that is is heavier. Weight *is* important for each piece of equipment, especially for winter, so i’m looking to reduce wherever i can without compromising safety or performance. Two ounces here, four ounces there, and before you know it, there are pounds extra weight.

        I’m done now.

      • Then buy titanium bottles.

      • By the way, I said Nalgene is heavier than steel, and that steel was heavier than the cheapest plastic bottles (water, Gatorade, and equivalent bottles). Only trying to make the distinction between disposable and higher quality plastics..

      • Titanium is for fighter planes not for drinking out of.

      • You should tell that to Vargo, Snow Peak, MSR, and TOAKS lol

  7. I haven’t bought a plastic water bottle in over a decade. I’ve been using 750ml/25oz stainless steel bottles some I’ve had for years. They weigh like 6 oz so plenty light. I do carry a Platypus 2 liter container as well. A filter too if necessary. I’m a contactor and bring water to the jobsite so I am rarely without one of these bottles. Indestructible.

  8. I don’t think there is as much science here as the discussion might suggest. Whatever blows your hair back.
    Personally, I run a drink hose to an outside canteen since I like sipping but hate bladders.

  9. I like (Smart) water bottles when backpacking and a hydration bladder on day hikes and when canoeing, situated in a thwart bag so I can just grab the tube for a quick drink, thereby eliminating the need to handle a water bottle. It also doubles as a reservoir in camp.

  10. I tend to get dehydrated with hydration bladders. I’ll drink enough to sate the thirst, but not enough to fully hydrate. Two .7L bottles on the my shoulder straps works well for me, plus I and my hiking buddy can see exactly how much water I’ve consumed. Never hurts to have an extra pair of eyes monitoring your intake.

  11. A 3 liter bladder combined with an additional 3 liters in Nalgene bottles are pretty much mandatory here in AZ. Water sources are few and far between, so we have to carry as much as we can, and the bladder allows that extra weight to be carried close to the back. I use the bladder for drinking, and the bottles for cooking, etc. Whenever I do find a water source, I’ll drink up the bottles and then refill them so I always the bladder for drinking. Sometimes the water situation here is so tight that I’ll bring MRE’s to eat only, to minimize the amount of water I have to carry.

  12. I’m a “Purist” In that i carry the First Need Purifier by General Ecology. . Since I solo and cross country hike so much I do not need chancing getting sick out there.. And since I have been carrying the First Need I have not been (20 plus years).. I fill the Bladder and also carry a Smart Water 2 Liter and a Nalgene quart size, the two bottles resolves all my “in camp’ water needs without having to stop an Filter more. The First Need screws directly on to the top of the Nalgene and or pumps directly into the Smart Water bottle. I’m a “Mouth Breather” due to a broken nose in the Military, yeah been trying to get the VA to fix it,,lols… So I find sipping on the Bladder hose a real good thing..Though I am often surprised at how little i consume versus drinking from a bottle so when hiking in the Desert i have to be real careful to drink more than I think I need…For example, we have a 18 mile green belt trail around the town I live in. I make the trip in 5 and half hours and I consume less than half a Liter of water…… For a Backup Unit I do carry the Sawyer unit but have not had to use it, it replaces a tiny bottle of Bleach. In my Day Pack I carry a Life Straw which works rather nicely at Stream stops… A product you might want to review for Cleaning out Bags and Bottles.. It is called “Steramine’. It is used by the Restaurant businesses to Sterilize glasses and dishware and other food service items… I found it in a Restaurant Supply Company business when I was hunting for a small Spatula etc. etc. last year and have been using it about once every other month…. A warning, if your home has a Septic System, do not pour the rinse water or any of the water down the drain, it will kill out all the beneifical bugs in the septic tank.. Other items you might want to review are the offerings from the SnugPak company. I’ve purchased 5 products from them in the past year and have been very happy.. 2 sleeping bags 9 (Cold weather to 20 deg. and a jungle bag), a Bivy Tent, a waterproof insulated Blanket, and a Bivy Bag.. So far they have all performed perfectly for my needs.

  13. Except for winter trips I use a bladder all the time. I rarely carry a full three liters and rarely run out even on a longer day. The bladder acts as my clean water bag for my Platy gravity system. I also carry a BeFree bottle in case I need to get water while hiking. I like not having to stop moving to drink. I am not coordinated enough to drink from a bottle while hiking :-) I have zero issues refilling the bladder mid day if required, even though it is seldom required. I like having lots of capacity for dry camps.

  14. There is a third option for carry water while hiking or backpacking that utilizes some of the advantages of both a water bottle and a hydration bladder. For the AT 100 mile Maine wilderness last summer I carried two 1 liter Smartwater bottles in my backpack side pockets. One was carried right side up. The other was inverted with a hose so it worked like a hydration bladder allowing me to drink on demand (the Platypus hose available separately is compatible with Smartwater bottles). I could always access see how much water I had left and could easily refill the bottles with the Sawyer filtration system and add electrolytes. I have a special brush for cleaning the hose. I just dispose of the bottles after a long trip or several hikes rather than attempt to clean them.

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