The 5 Best Hydration Packs for Day Hikers | Reviews by Wirecutter

2023-01-13 13:18:19 By : Mr. DAVID ZHU

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After testing new versions of our former picks against other new options, we still choose to carry the Osprey Skarab 18 (for those over 5-foot-8) and the Osprey Skimmer 16 (for those under 5-foot-8). Greenhouse Covering Clear Polyethylene Film

The 5 Best Hydration Packs for Day Hikers | Reviews by Wirecutter

Do you need a special backpack to help you stay hydrated during a hike? The short answer: no! But a hydration pack (a backpack with a built-in water reservoir) makes it easier to stay hydrated on the trail. After three months of hiking, we like the Osprey Skarab 18 (for people over 5-foot-8) and the Osprey Skimmer 16 (for those under 5-foot-8) because they’re well made, relatively inexpensive, and big enough to hold the gear and water you’ll need for a three-hour hike.

We tested the packs’ water reservoirs by leaving them in a freezer overnight and taking them on a day of hiking (with up to 20 pounds of gear).

The best packs have hip belts, to ease the weight on your shoulders, and mesh or foam back panels, to help keep your back cool.

Reservoirs with the widest mouths are simpler to wash and air-dry—in our tests, they dried twice as fast as the others we tried.

The packs we recommend can accommodate lunch and trail food, a first-aid kit, an extra layer or two, a hat, gloves, a phone, and incidentals.

This pack is affordable, easy to use, and comfortable for hikers who are taller than 5-foot-8. The hydration system holds more than enough water (2.5 liters) for a hike of three to four hours.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $85.

This slightly smaller version of the Skarab holds just as much water and shares that pack’s simple-to-use, comfortable design. It will work well for anyone under 5-foot-8.

The Osprey Skarab 18 and the Osprey Skimmer 16 are our favorite hydration packs for half-day hikes. Though Osprey designates the Skarab as a men’s pack and the Skimmer as a women’s pack, we think the Skarab is right for anyone over 5-foot-8, and the Skimmer for people 5-foot-8 and under. These bags have been our top picks for day hikers since 2017 for several reasons. For one, due to their padded straps and articulated backing, they’re comfortable to carry. Also, their HydraPak bladders are easy to fill, and the double-diamond ripstop nylon is durable. And they have more than enough storage and water capacity (2.5 liters) for a day hike. Osprey updated both bags in 2020 and eliminated certain features, like separated sections and many of the internal pockets. But we still think the Skarab and Skimmer packs offer everything you need (and pretty much nothing you don’t).

This pack offers everything we love about the Skimmer, plus features to make longer hikes more comfortable, including a cushioned hip belt, extra pockets, and breathable mesh. It works best for people under 5-foot-8.

Similar to the Mira in every way but size, the Manta has a slightly taller profile, making it a good fit for people who are over 5-foot-8.

If you need a pack with added space and features to accommodate you on an all-day hike, we recommend the Mira 22 (for people under 5-foot-8) and the Manta 24 (for people above that height). These bags have more storage space and better support, and they are more comfortable than the Skimmer and Skarab. They also feature many pockets and zipper pouches and are made with durable double-diamond ripstop nylon material. Also, they come with the 2.5-liter HydraPak Hydraulics LT water bladder with a detachable hose (this makes loading the bag and cleaning the drinking hose easier). These bags are on the larger side, so they’re easy to overpack (do you really need that extra down jacket?). They’re also more expensive than the Skimmer and Skarab packs. But we think the cushioned hip belt and breathable mesh backing override those factors for hikers who are spending longer out on the trail.

Of our picks, this pack carries the least amount of water. But the Arete 18 is also the lightest, and it’s small enough to stuff into a suitcase. It’s perfect for staying hydrated during days of sightseeing and light hiking.

May be out of stock

*At the time of publishing, the price was $0.

For people who want a basic, lightweight hydration pack—one that’s affordable and perfect for traveling (when we’re all able to travel again)—we recommend the CamelBak Arete 18. Constructed with nylon that feels thinner than that of the Osprey offerings, this pack easily folds up to tuck into your luggage. It lacks the padding and articulated backing of our Osprey picks, yet it’s comfortable when carrying modest loads. The 1.5-liter reservoir holds just enough water for a pleasant afternoon of sightseeing in a foreign city or strolling along an easy trail. (However, those going longer distances or over more-strenuous terrain may miss the extra liter of capacity in our picks from Osprey.) The Arete 18 is also the smallest and lightest of any of our picks, and we found it comfortable enough that we sometimes barely noticed we were wearing a pack at all.

This pack is affordable, easy to use, and comfortable for hikers who are taller than 5-foot-8. The hydration system holds more than enough water (2.5 liters) for a hike of three to four hours.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $85.

This slightly smaller version of the Skarab holds just as much water and shares that pack’s simple-to-use, comfortable design. It will work well for anyone under 5-foot-8.

This pack offers everything we love about the Skimmer, plus features to make longer hikes more comfortable, including a cushioned hip belt, extra pockets, and breathable mesh. It works best for people under 5-foot-8.

Similar to the Mira in every way but size, the Manta has a slightly taller profile, making it a good fit for people who are over 5-foot-8.

Of our picks, this pack carries the least amount of water. But the Arete 18 is also the lightest, and it’s small enough to stuff into a suitcase. It’s perfect for staying hydrated during days of sightseeing and light hiking.

May be out of stock

*At the time of publishing, the price was $0.

We spent 10 hours researching hydration and looking at the most popular hydration packs on the market. Then we spent an additional 15 hours testing each pack during day hikes around the Pacific Northwest, including in the North Cascade mountains, the San Juan Islands, and along coastal and mountain trails on the Olympic Peninsula.

This guide builds on research from James Meigs and Jennifer Stern, who wrote a previous version in 2017. For the current iteration, writer and editor Jenni Gritters interviewed new experts about hydration, including Julie Stefanski, RDN, CSSD, a certified sports dietitian, licensed nutritionist, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and a frequent day hiker. Jenni also spoke with Evan C. Johnson, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Wyoming who studies optimal hydration, physical activity, and heat exposure. And she read several journal articles about the benefits of hydration during short and extended periods of moderate exercise.

Jenni is a freelance journalist with a decade of experience writing about health, the outdoors, parenting, and purchasing. Jenni has previously edited guides for Wirecutter’s outdoors, baby/kid, and sleep sections, and she has covered gear ranging from headlamps and down jackets to hiking poles and backpacking tents. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her son, husband, and dog.

If you’re planning to head out for a half- or full-day hike and you want to stay hydrated, this guide is for you. (If you ride mountain bikes or run, you might also want a hydration pack, though you might be happiest with one designed specifically for your activity; we discuss a few in our Competition section.) Do you need a hydration-centric pack for a day hike? No—you can stay hydrated during a hike by drinking from a water bottle. But water bottles also mess with your backpack’s weight balance; as they slide from side to side, your pack can tip, leaving you less stable. Packing 2 to 3 liters of water could also mean carrying multiple bottles. And if you stick a bottle in an outer pocket of your pack, it’s apt to fall out when you bend over, leaving you with no water at all if it rolls down a hill or pops open.

Hydration packs aren’t necessary, but they are convenient and comfortable, especially on longer day hikes. They make it easier to stay hydrated because the drinking straw sits several inches from your face; this is more important than it seems, said dietitian and nutritionist Julie Stefanski, since hikers are often so distracted by their surroundings that they can forget to hydrate regularly.

Water makes up between 55% and 60% of most adults’ bodies. We normally lose between 5% and 10% of that water every day (PDF), and when we exercise, that water-loss percentage increases even more due to sweat. If you don’t replenish the water you lose through sweat, you may become dehydrated. Fortunately, mild levels of dehydration are no big deal over short periods of time. If you keep pushing yourself without replenishing that water, however, you may experience headaches, fuzzy thinking, and nausea. Dehydration (or not having enough water in your system) also means that eventually you’ll have trouble producing sweat, and a vicious cycle of overheating can set in. Severe levels of dehydration can lead to an elevated core temperature, convulsions, and even death.

How much water do you need on a hike to make sure you don’t become dehydrated? The answer to that question depends on the intensity and length of the hike; the temperature and humidity of the climate; and your clothing choices and individual sweat rates. The more you sweat, the more water you’ll need.

After hiking 160 miles in 18 pairs of hiking socks, we chose the men’s and women’s Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew as the best hiking socks for most people.

After more than 2 million steps over all sorts of terrain, we chose the Salomon Quest 4 Gore-Tex Boots (in men’s and women’s sizes) as the best hiking boots.

“Hikers can consider how they felt after their last hike to consider if their fueling and hydration plan is meeting their body’s needs,” Stefanski said. Checking the color of your pee post-hike is a good way to track hydration so you can adjust for the next time. “The color of urine is a very personalized indication of whether you’re drinking enough. Lack of urine or very dark urine is a sign that you’re not replacing what the body is using up,” she said.

As far as general guidelines go, Stefanski said the ballpark is aiming to drink 4 to 8 ounces of water per hour of hiking. If your pace is intense or you’re sweating a lot, you’ll want to bump that number up a bit higher. Johnson said you can make do with less than that if you’re on a short hike or expending only moderate effort. By this metric, you’d want to pack at least 1 liter of water for a four-hour, moderate-intensity half-hike, and 2 liters for a full-day hike. And you should take a bit extra, “just in case you get off course and the hike takes longer than expected,” Stefanski said.

In recent years, hydration systems have become so popular that even backpack makers that don’t provide reservoirs with their packs include sleeves and slots so that a bladder can be added later. For this guide, we limited our evaluations mostly to packs that are sold with reservoirs included. We also focused on packs designed for single-day hikes rather than longer excursions; most ranged from 16 to 28 liters in storage capacity and had bladders that held at least 1.5 liters of water.

To start our search, we surveyed reviews of hydration systems from sites like Gear Lab. We perused user reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. In selecting packs for hands-on (or on-back) reviewing, we prioritized top-reviewed models with a history of performing well over several years. We also focused on packs with reservoirs that were easy to fill and clean, and we made notes when a brand offered a replacement hydration system. (The plastic on the reservoirs can break down over the years, often outpacing the packs; being able to get a new bladder on its own is important.)

Most hydration bladders come with a hose that attaches to the pack’s straps; we looked for systems that were simple to set up (no complicated configurations of snaps and ties, please!), and for those whose mouthpieces were rated by online reviewers as comfortable to use. Some mouthpieces clip to the pack’s straps, while others snap onto a magnet. Some hoses also detach from the bladder themselves, which makes loading and unloading a bit easier. We ordered packs in all configurations, to get a sense of what we liked best. All of the hydration systems we recommend in this review are BPA-free.

We also prioritized packs with hip belts, which help to place the bulk of your pack’s weight on your hips, relieving your shoulders and leading to more stability during rocky, root-filled hikes. And we looked for bags with articulated backing, usually made with some kind of mesh; this keeps the pack away from your back and therefore prevents excess sweat from building up throughout the hike.

And when packs came in versions marketed as men’s and women’s (some companies, like Osprey and Gregory, do this) we tested both versions. In general, we found that “women’s” packs usually come in colors like pink and blue (sigh) and will fit anyone with a smaller frame, under 5-foot-8. Some companies say their bags accommodate wider hips, but we didn’t note any marked differences in hip accommodation between the men’s and women’s packs, even during our longer hikes. People under 5-foot-8 will likely be most comfortable wearing so-called women’s packs. People over 5-foot-8 will probably prefer “men’s” packs.

Once each bag arrived, we filled up the reservoirs in the sink (spoiler alert: not always an easy task!). We then did an initial taste test, making note of any plasticky tones in the water. Then we took each pack out for a 3- to 5-mile hike in the Pacific Northwest. We trekked through the North Cascade mountains on hot summer days; carried our own gear (and that of an 8-month-old baby) during hikes through the Olympic Penninsula’s coastal, mountain, and rain forest paths; wandered through fog and smoke on the San Juan Islands; and endured long, drizzly fall days in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

During these hikes, we packed each bag to its full water-and-gear capacity, including:

A pack’s weaknesses—those nagging pressure points, or a lack of balance—reveal themselves more quickly when you’re carrying a full load. While out on the trail, we took notes on comfort, moisture-wicking, ease of access to water and gear, any leaks, and overall bag experience.

Then we put the hydration bladders through additional paces at home: We filled them up, compressed them under 20-pound bins for five hours (to simulate being thrown in the trunk under lots of other packs), and then checked for leaks. Then the bladders went into the freezer overnight, to see how they might handle being accidentally left in the car overnight in winter. We checked for damage again. After this, we left the packs out to dry for 12 hours, checking for retained moisture (so much!) and making notes about how easy the bladders were to clean (not easy!).

Finally, we took our favorites out on the trail for a final spin. And we scoured online reviews for notes about durability over time and looked back at our own long-term-testing data.

This pack is affordable, easy to use, and comfortable for hikers who are taller than 5-foot-8. The hydration system holds more than enough water (2.5 liters) for a hike of three to four hours.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $85.

This slightly smaller version of the Skarab holds just as much water and shares that pack’s simple-to-use, comfortable design. It will work well for anyone under 5-foot-8.

The Osprey Skarab 18 (for people over 5-foot-8) and the slightly smaller Osprey Skimmer 16 (for people under 5-foot-8) are our picks for moderate-length, half-day hikes. They combine good hydration capacity (2.5 liter) with a relatively spacious, comfortable, simple pack, all at an affordable price. These bags have been our picks since 2017 because they’re easy to fill and drink from. They offer a basic, no-frills option that’s ideal for a half-day hike of around 3 to 5 miles.

Though they’re designed for shorter outings, these packs are not as small as many of their minimalist competitors, like the a href="#also-great-camelbak-arete-18">Camelbak Arete 18 or the ALPS Hydro Trail 17. Both versions of the pack include Osprey’s 2.5-liter Hydraulics LT reservoir, made by HydraPak. Even when this bladder was full, we were able to easily fit an insulating layer, shell, hat, gloves, first-aid kit, and lunch into the packs. The only downside is that the pack’s new wide-mouth, bucket-style setup may have you fishing around for the item you need, because of the lack of divided pockets. (The previous iteration had more dividers and more pockets, so it was easier to keep gear organized.)

Both the Skarab and the Skimmer have just one mesh internal pocket, which is big enough for a wallet or keys (although probably not both). There are two outer side pockets, and the 2020 update includes slits in the side pockets (these are presumably for ease-of-access, but there’s also a risk that your small items could fall out, so we recommend that you keep those inside the bag). Because of well-made loops, the zippers are blessedly easy to maneuver, and the 2020 models have daisy-chain attachment points across the front, which can be helpful if you want to clip on extra gear.

As with most of the packs we tested, the chest strap linking the two shoulder straps can be adjusted up or down for comfort on both bags, although the process requires some elbow grease. A magnetic, daisy-chain-style clasp holds the mouthpiece of the water hose close to your face, against the chest strap.

We found the Skimmer’s and Skarab’s water bladders (manufactured by HydraPak, a leading maker of reservoirs for various companies) to be the best of the bunch. They’re fairly easy to fill and drink from (you may dump some water during the first few gos, but the learning curve is quick!), and we found them fairly easy to clean. These reservoirs have a zip-lock setup: A strip slides across the top of the reservoir’s panel to seal water in after filling up; this also makes it easier to push out any air bubbles. This setup also made the HydraPak reservoirs the quickest to dry—after 12 hours they were mostly free of residual moisture because the entire top can be held open; most competitors still showed signs of moisture after 24 hours of dry time. The hose on the Skarab’s and Skimmer’s hydration packs doesn’t detach, and the bite valve can be turned off (to prevent leaks during transport) by rotating the barrel, but you’ll need two hands to do this. It’s tricky to see at a glance whether the valve is on or off.

The HydraPak 2.5-liter bladders hold more than enough water for a short day hike, even in hot climates, and we didn’t experience any leaking. When you slide the reservoir into the back of the pack, make sure to clip it to the buckle in the bag to hold it upright. We did note a very faint, plasticky flavor in the water when we left the reservoirs filled overnight, as well as during our first few times using these bags. So we recommend washing the bladders once or twice before you take them out on the trail.

Our testers found the design of the Skarab and Skimmer to be perfectly comfortable when carrying loads of up to 15 to 20 pounds. Unlike Osprey’s higher-end packs (including our upgrade picks, the Manta and the Mira), the Skarab and Skimmer don’t have a fancy suspension or ventilation system for your back, nor do they have an articulated hip belt. Instead, the back panel is made of mesh-covered EVA foam, which is ideal for keeping the bag off your back on hot, sweaty days, and it allows for decent (though simple) venting. The Skarab and Skimmer also both have an easy, removable, unpadded waist belt. It doesn’t come close to the load-bearing hip belts of our upgrade picks, but it’s better than nothing, and it helps prevent shoulder and lower-back pain.

Are the “men’s” Skarab and “women’s” Skimmer packs much different? According to Osprey, the Skarab is designed to fit an 18- to 22-inch torso, whereas the Skimmer is designed for people in the 15- to 19-inch range. We agree that the Skimmer’s pack shape is perhaps slightly narrower and a bit shorter than the Skarab’s, but our tall male tester and short female tester were both able to carry the Skimmer comfortably on a half-day hike. Thus, we think it’s better to make a buying decision based on your height. If you’re over 5-foot-8, go for the Skarab. For those under that height, consider the Skimmer.

These bags are also durable: One of our testers has owned a Skimmer going on five years, and it looks nearly as good as it did on day one. The nylon ripstop fabric is decently water-resistant, plus it’s easy to clean and tough to snag or rip. After five years, our tester’s HydraPak reservoir is also still going strong, though it’s a bit discolored. However, bladders typically fail before the bags; that’s why we appreciate that Osprey is one of the few companies to offer stand-alone replacement reservoirs. Osprey also has an All Mighty Guarantee: Aside from the reservoir (which is covered for only a year), the company promises to repair or replace the pack if it suffers any sort of damage or defect—forever. The Skimmer also comes in additional capacities of 20 L and 28 L, and the Skarab can be purchased in larger 22 L or 30 L configurations.

This pack offers everything we love about the Skimmer, plus features to make longer hikes more comfortable, including a cushioned hip belt, extra pockets, and breathable mesh. It works best for people under 5-foot-8.

Similar to the Mira in every way but size, the Manta has a slightly taller profile, making it a good fit for people who are over 5-foot-8.

Osprey’s updated Mira 22 and Manta 24 are significant upgrades on the Skimmer and Skarab bags. So we think the Mira and Manta are best for full-day hikes. For a higher price, you get capacity that can keep you supplied for twice as long as you get with the Skimmer or the Skarab. Plus these packs have more pockets as well as trekking-pole attachments (which would come in handy when you’re hiking over tougher terrain). The articulated hip belt is incredibly comfortable, and it significantly reduces the bag’s load on your shoulders. The mesh backing allows for excellent venting on hot days. And the 2.5-liter HydraPak Hydraulics reservoir adds a detachable hose (otherwise it’s the same one used in the Skimmer and Skarab). These two bags provide more than enough space for a whole day on the trail, and our testers often forgot they were wearing them, which is truly the goal. The Mira 22 and Manta 24 have identical features; the “men’s” Manta pack is simply taller than the “women’s” Mira. We think the Manta is best for people over 5-foot-8, and the Mira is ideal for those under that height.

The best thing about the Mira 22 (also available in 32 L) and the Manta 24 (also available in 34 L) was their adjustability; they offer many more pulls and straps than any of the other bags we tested, and they can be tailored to your body. The cushioned hip belt eliminates the load of the bag on your shoulders (putting it instead on your hips, which is much more comfortable during longer hauls). And the ventilated, open mesh backing kept us cool and dry, even on the hottest summer days; one tester remarked that wearing this pack was like wearing a Tempur-Pedic mattress on her back. Straps at the top of the shoulders allow you to pull the bag’s weight forward or release it backward, depending on your posture. And the hip belt contains pockets to hold important gear; they’re large enough to fit most phones.

The Mira and Manta also offer the most storage options of any of our picks. There are four zippered pockets and three internal mesh pockets. And the main compartment on the Mira and the Manta is big—so big, in fact, that our testers found it easy to overpack. These upgraded Ospreys are decked out with trekking-pole attachments, zipper pulls, and an integrated rain cover. They also have side pockets, with the same back-facing slits as on the Skarab and Skimmer (these slits risk dumping small items but make it easier to grab bigger ones).

The Mira and Manta have the same great HydraPak water bladder as the Skimmer and Skarab, but with the added element of a detachable hose. This add-on isn’t necessary, but it makes the bladder easier to fill and empty, and it makes the hose easier to clean. (A word of warning: Before you detach the hose from the reservoir post-hike, make sure to close the spigot at the attachment point, and suck all the remaining water out of the hose—otherwise you’ll end up with water on the floor.) As on the Skimmer and Skarab, the hose emerges from the top of the pack, and the mouthpiece snaps into a magnetic snap across your chest; the new daisy-chain-style chest strap is sometimes tough to wiggle apart with one hand.

Although the zipper-style setup of the hydration bladder is tough to figure out at first, we ultimately found it to be the easiest to clean, the quickest to dry, and the least apt to leak. Osprey sells replacement reservoirs, should yours spring a leak. (It likely won’t: Even after a night in the freezer and a day spent under 20-plus pounds of gear, these held up just fine.)

Osprey’s bags are generally durable, and the Mira and Manta are no different. If something does happen to your pack, Osprey offers an All Mighty Guarantee. Aside from the reservoir (which is covered for only a year), the company promises to repair or replace the pack for any reason—forever.

Of our picks, this pack carries the least amount of water. But the Arete 18 is also the lightest, and it’s small enough to stuff into a suitcase. It’s perfect for staying hydrated during days of sightseeing and light hiking.

May be out of stock

*At the time of publishing, the price was $0.

When we first saw the CamelBak Arete 18, we questioned whether its lightweight design could go the distance as a hydration pack. Constructed with fairly thin nylon and little padding, it didn’t look like all of the rugged packs we had in our test pile. But those minimalist qualities are what make this pack ideal for traveling (once that’s a thing we can do again): If you’re planning on going to Asia or South America and you want to hike, this is the bag to take because you can easily tuck it into your suitcase. Once you get to your destination, it makes a fine daypack for knocking around town and taking on moderate hikes.

The Arete comes with the 1.5-liter size of CamelBak’s reservoir (a full liter less than the bladders of our other picks). It’s also not as easy to fill as the Osprey bladders. And we found that the CamelBak reservoirs retained a bit of a plastic taste, which lingered even after we’d used them several times. But for a trip around town, the Arete’s bladder will do just fine. If you screw on the lid tightly, it doesn’t leak. It also comes with a panhandle for easy filling, and the only true downside is that it doesn’t dry quickly (even when held open by a wire hanger or whisk), so you’ll need to watch for mildew development over time. The Arete’s hydration pack doesn’t have a detachable hose, and the mouthpiece hangs over your shoulder, because there’s no clip. You can lock the hose with a shut-off valve while you’re in transit.

The Arete is a dry-bag-style, unconstructed pack, just like the Osprey Skimmer and Skarab, but with even fewer features. It has two outside pockets, no hip belt (which means all the weight is on your shoulders), and no articulated backing. We found that our shoulders held up just fine because the pack was too small to overfill, making the load blessedly light. But our backs did get sweaty throughout a half-day hike.

The Arete was the lightest pack, in terms of weight, of any of our picks. However, its materials aren’t designed to stand up to a lot of rough treatment, so we think this pack is best suited to occasional use or for shorter excursions. Overall, the Arete was surprisingly comfortable, considering how spare it is; it’s basic, but it gets the job done. Like Osprey, CamelBak also sells replacement reservoirs.

If your bag breaks down, CamelBak’s Got Your Bak Lifetime Guarantee program covers all reservoirs, backpacks, bottles, and accessories from manufacturing defects in materials and workmanship for the lifetime of the product. They do not cover issues caused by regular wear and tear.

Gregory Citro 24 and Juno 24: These Gregory bags were comparable to the Osprey Mira and Manta packs in terms of size and features, but they were less high-end. The mesh backing felt a bit itchy, and the hydration bladder (which you need to buy separately) had a small fill hole (which meant a lot of spilling). That small air hole also meant it took more than two days for the bladder to dry out (even after being held open by a whisk), and this made us worry about the development of mildew. This pack will probably do you just fine if you can’t find the Mira or Manta. But for extended durability and an easier fill-and-empty experience, we think you’re better off looking at the Osprey options.

CamelBak Fourteener 26: Although our 6-foot-tall testers found this 26-liter pack to be comfortable, our shorter testers did not; it was simply too tall. The waist belt is comfortable and has nice, zippered storage for a phone or keys. But the belt is also very substantial and stiff, and we found that it loosened over and over again, so we had to keep adjusting it. Like the reservoirs on the Osprey Manta and Mira, this pack’s 3-liter CamelBak water bladder has a detachable hose. We like that the CamelBak bladders all have panhandles, which also promote easy filling—but we did find that they were slow to dry. And we had qualms about the hose placement: It’s held by a small hook about 6 inches down the right shoulder strap; if you don’t remove the hose from the hook, the water stream will be cut off. The mouthpiece was also tough at first, and it took a few hikes for it to soften up. Overall, this is also just too much bag for a day hike.

CamelBak Cloud Walker 18: This CamelBak bag doesn’t have a hip belt, which means the entire load is held on your shoulders; after a day on the trails, our lower backs and shoulders were quite sore because of that setup. The pack has CamelBak’s 2.5-liter hydration reservoir (a liter more than the CamelBak reservoir in our also-great pick), and it worked just fine, but it doesn’t have a detachable hose. Overall, the materials of this pack just didn’t cut it. It wasn’t comfortable to wear on the trail, and we think the Osprey Skarab or Skimmer are better choices.

CamelBak Octane XCT: Unlike the Cloud Walker, the Octane does have a hip belt that’s slightly padded. However, the shoulder straps are made only of mesh, and this minimalist design meant that the pack dug into our shoulders when packed full. The bladder also leaked during our hike; CamelBak’s hydration bladders have a screw-top opening with a handle, which makes them prone to leaking if they’re not screwed on just right. This pack does have some high-end elements: that padded hip belt, a detachable hose, and more storage than our CamelBak pick. But the mouthpiece is stiff, and it clips down on the right shoulder strap and can be tough to remove from the clip. And we found that the bladder still hadn’t dried out several days after using it.

ALPS Mountaineering Hydro Trail 17: The Hydro Trail doesn’t have enough storage for even a half-day hike. It’s not easily adjustable, which means it doesn’t accommodate anyone well, and our testers found that it pinched at the base of the neck. The hose was insulated, but that made it inflexible; this made it tough to drink water during the hike (which is the whole point of buying a hydration pack!). We also found the 3-liter hydration bladder to be poorly made, with a circular seal that leaked a bit. There are holes on the top of the bladder that are meant to accommodate Velcro loops (which hold the bladder up in the pack). But those holes are simply punched through the plastic and prone to ripping. And 48 hours after we emptied the bladder, it still wasn’t dry, because there’s no good way to hold it open. It’s tough to fill, tough to transport, and poured water all over us and the floor when we emptied it. Need we say more? There are better options for the price.

Camden Gear Hydration Pack: This hydration pack is one of the top sellers on Amazon, so we tested it as part of our quest for a budget pack during the first iteration of this guide. The Camden Gear pack is large enough for a 2-liter bladder, but it has a little space for additional items. It also has a small bungee configuration on the outside of the pack that can hold extra garments. However, we couldn’t get over the fact that the water from its bladder tasted terrible right off the bat—and even worse after it sat in the pack for a few hours. This taste faded somewhat after several cycles of cleaning and use, but it remained noticeable.

Unigear Tactical Hydration Pack: Another Amazon top seller and a budget contender, this pack is billed as “tactical,” which means that despite being inexpensive, it is claimed to fit military specifications. Unlike most packs, which are made from fairly light nylon, it is constructed out of a heavy-duty polyester material, and it weighs nearly 2 pounds (that’s almost twice the weight of our top picks, the Osprey Skarab and Skimmer). Here, too, serious problems with water flavor persisted even after cleaning.

We also looked at the Osprey Sylva and Syncro but didn’t test them. They’re better suited to mountain biking (some cyclists on our staff use them and like them for that purpose), and they mostly come in smaller sizes than the bags featured here.

The popular Platypus Duthie A.M. 10- and 15-liter packs are being discontinued.

Caring for the “pack” portion of your hydration pack is a matter of taste. Some of us are quick to spot-clean any smudge of dirt or mud. Others wear those marks proudly as testaments to a pack well used. But caring for the “hydration” portion is another matter. You want to make sure that your hydration reservoir (aka bladder) can provide you with clean water on every outing. Here are some tips:

1. Never use your bladder for any fluid except water. It is difficult to fully rinse sports drinks and juices from these narrow containers, and any residual sugar will encourage bacterial growth. If you must use a sports drink in your hydration pack, consider buying a second bladder just for that purpose—and be extra-vigilant about cleaning it.

2. Let the inside of the bladder dry thoroughly after each use. This requires finding some way to hold the bladder open so air can circulate. Some bladder manufacturers sell drying racks configured for their products, such as this one for the CamelBak Crux reservoir or the one that comes with this cleaning kit from Osprey. For years, however, James and Jennifer (the first writers of this guide) managed to make do with a wire hanger (bent in a zigzag shape at one end to hold the sides of the bladder apart and at the other end to hang the bladder upside down, so residual water can drain). You could also insert the cardboard tube from a used roll of paper towels to hold the bladder open, or you could use a whisk or paper towel holder.

Even with these hacks, some reservoir designs—including CamelBak’s—let water collect in the seam below the cap. Gear expert Scott Yorko recommends twisting a sheet of paper towel into a wick and inserting that into the bladder to help it dry.

3. Store your bladder by hanging it in a dry place, rather than stuffed in a pack where mildew might develop. Proper storage will allow the system to stay fresh for longer periods between cleanings.

4. Occasionally, you may want to deep-clean your reservoir. There are several approaches. The first thing to remember is, don’t overdo it: Strong solutions of bleach will leave an aftertaste, and boiling water can damage the bladder. A gentler approach is to mix a couple of tablespoons of baking soda with hot water, let it cool slightly, then pour it into the bladder, drinking tube, and bite valve. Let the mixture sit for an hour, and then drain and rinse.

If you do decide to do a deep-clean with bleach (to kill lingering bacteria), make sure to use a very mild solution (one teaspoon of bleach for three liters of water). Pour that through all the components. (Bite valves can also be removed and washed separately.) Then wash the bladder with a few drops of mild soap and plenty of hot water. (Note that Osprey advises against using bleach in its gear, and CamelBak recommends a mild bleach solution. The CDC does recommend using mild bleach solutions to kill bacteria and viruses.)

If possible, reach into the bladder itself and scrub lightly with a cloth. A tube brush like this one will help you scrub the drinking tube as well. Leading hydration-system manufacturers sell foaming cleaning tablets, or (for the more obsessive) entire cleaning kits, which usually include a tube brush. Some people swear by denture-cleaning tablets, as a cost-effective approach. We prefer Bottle Bright, a fizzy cleaning tablet. Whatever approach you use, make sure you rinse the system several times and allow it to dry fully.

Julie Stefanski, certified sports dietitian, licensed nutritionist, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, email interview, September 14, 2020

Evan C. Johnson, PhD, assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Wyoming, email interview, September 2, 2020

Scott Yorko, gear expert and year-round adventurer, interview

Michael Sawka, et al., Human Water Needs (PDF), Nutrition Reviews

Barry M. Popkin, et al., Water, Hydration and Health, Nutrition Reviews

Lawrence E. Armstrong, et al., Is Drinking to Thirst Adequate to Appropriately Maintain Hydration Status During Prolonged Endurance Exercise? No, Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, June 1, 2016

Investing in some high-quality basics can get kids excited about camping out—and help you avoid a mid-trip detour to the nearest big-box store.

These useful baby and kid products were among the most-purchased Wirecutter picks in 2021.

After evaluating a dozen popular packs, we chose six and kid-tested them in the wilds of suburban Los Angeles (and the surrounding hills and trails). We picked two that will work for most families, both from REI: the Tarn 12 for little kids and the Tarn 18 for bigger kids.

by Caitlin Giddings and Jenni Gritters

After trekking almost 100 miles, we chose the Deuter Kid Comfort as the pack to keep both parents and kids feeling like happy campers.

Wirecutter is the product recommendation service from The New York Times. Our journalists combine independent research with (occasionally) over-the-top testing to save people time, energy and money when making buying decisions. Whether it's finding great products or discovering helpful advice, we'll help you get it right (the first time).

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