Hydration Gear Review Part 2: Back Mounted Pack Systems

Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

by Donald Buraglio

Last week we looked at the large variety of handheld and waist-mounted hydration packs on the market in 2013. We also made the general distinction that these packs carry smaller amounts of fluid, and are best suited for shorter runs or long training outings and races with frequent refueling access.

When it’s time to go longer, or more remote, or less supported…to paraphrase a line from Jaws: You’re gonna need a bigger pack. Exactly how big depends on the size of your adventure. Two main elements to consider when choosing the right pack are the fluid capacity and available cargo space. Most fluid reservoirs range from 1L (33 oz) to 3L (101 oz), with 2L being far and away the most common. Many packs also have pockets designed to stash an extra water bottle or two in addition to the fluid reservoir, so it’s conceivable to head into the wild with more than 150 oz of liquid at your disposal.

Cargo capacity is a much wider variety, and can range from a couple of small stash pockets to 10L of storage space. (Additionally, there are hydration packs on the market with up to 35 or 40L of cargo capacity, but these are quite bulky and better suited for hiking.) The trick is to determine just how much cargo space you’ll need. If you’re only carrying a few gels and enough fluid to avoid bonking, you’ll need a much different pack than if you’re hydrating for 10 hours and stowing a full change of clothes and gear in anticipation of a long, unpredictable day or night. Larger packs will of course be heavier, but that’s a fair tradeoff for the security of having all your necessary items at hand.

Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

Another factor to consider is the location of the storage areas; it doesn’t do any good to carry a ton of gear if it’s too inconvenient to access. Most packs combine larger storage areas in the back with an assortment of pouches and pockets on the front side for frequently accessed items like snacks, maps, or a camera. Some of this year’s crop even allow you to add or subtract pockets depending on your needs. To their credit, companies have become very clever at creating extra storage spaces without adding excessive girth or weight to the packs.

They’ve also started to think outside the box, breaking traditional assumptions about how packs should look or be built. That’s a good place to start the category overview, which coincidentally picks up where we left off last month’s review.

Orange Mud’s Hydraquiver ($85) is a category- breaker: it features a large-capacity (26 oz) bottle that’s worn like a backpack, effectively making it a hydration pack minus the traditional fluid reservoir. The straps cut closer to the armpits than traditional backpacks and may feel awkward at first, but can quickly be accommodated. Pockets on the front straps and back panel provide a cargo capacity of 54 cubic inches (just under 1L), making this unisex pack best suited for light and fast travel.

Ultimate Direction also decided that hydration packs didn’t have to depend on fluid reservoirs; their AK Race Vest ($90) is the result of collaboration with ultrarunning star Anton Krupicka, who is also known (some might say notorious) for refilling bottles in any available mountain stream. The AK Vest places two bottles on the front straps; it can also be configured in a conventional manner by using an optional fluid reservoir in the large rear mesh compartment and using the front bottle pockets as storage. The entire pack weighs 6 oz and has a nice assortment of pouches, pockets, and loops to accommodate up to 4L of goodies and gear.

Even among the traditional hydration pack configurations, design innovations abound. UltrAspire’s 7-oz Alpha pack ($110) is a formfitting vest with a 2L fluid reservoir and a horizontal rear pocket that can be easily accessed from either side on-the-go thanks to a user-friendly magnetic fastening system. The front straps have two standard pouch pockets in addition to a sweatproof pill pocket and zippered elastic mesh pocket.

If you want to customize the number of pockets you’re toting, Salomon’s Advance Skin S-Lab 5 ($195) or Nathan’s Vapor Wrap ($175) are attractive options. Both of these come with detachable storage pockets that can be added for high-cargo days or jettisoned for shorter outings. Reservoir size is 1.5L on the Advance, which can also accommodate two soft-sided 500ml bottles in the front pockets. The Vapor Wrap comes with a 2L fluid reservoir, and the front pouches can accommodate a standard 20-oz bottle if desired. Nathan describes the Vapor Wrap as “UTMB-Ready,” and adds 6L of cargo capacity in an assortment of stowage areas.

Storage space is constant on all Vapor Wrap models, but other packs this year have different models to pack variable volumes of stuff. For example, the Advance Skin from Salomon is available in 5L or 12L versions. Gregory makes three sizes of its Tempo packs: The Tempo 3L ($99), Tempo 5L ($129), or Tempo 8L ($149). All three have a 2L fluid reservoir and similar design features including plenty of accessory pockets on the front straps. Ultimate Direction’s dualbottle setup on the AK Vest also has a high-cargo companion model named after Scott Jurek: the SJ Ultra Vest ($125) which provides 9.2L of cargo capacity in a 7.5-oz pack. Some women find the location of the bottles in Ultimate Direction’s 2013 vests doesn’t fit their shape.

Gender differences are also incorporated into some of this year’s packs. Gregory’s Pace packs for women come in the same sizes as the Tempo packs (at the same price points), but the sternum straps attach above the bustline for increased comfort. Nathan’s Vapor Shape ($150) is the female equivalent of the Vapor Wrap, with a shorter and more slender torso for a more comfortable fit. While the other products described here don’t have female-specific models, most of them are offered in different sizes to account for differences in stature among both genders.

There’s no arguing that hydration packs are the way to go when it’s time for grand adventures; unfortunately, there’s also no getting around the fact that fluid reservoirs are typically cumbersome and time-consuming to properly clean after your adventure is done. Some innovations in reservoir construction have made this process easier – see sidebar for details as well as cleaning tips – but until someone invents a reservoir and tube that are dishwasher-ready, hydration packs will always require one additional step of maintenance to ensure their longevity.

Of course, taking one extra step has never been a problem for ultrarunners, so when you’re gearing up for something epic, strapping yourself into the right hydration pack is definitely worth the hassle.

How To Clean Your Fluid Tubes And Reservoirs

Most modern packs, including all of those in this review, feature fluid reservoirs that detach from the drink tube by a simple click-and-release mechanism. If your tube doesn’t detach from the reservoir, stuffing paper towels down the reservoir towards the tube will leave it open to air, making for easier draining and drying.

Hydrapak reservoirs are becoming the gold standard for most hydration packs, for two good reasons: 1) they’re super durable, and 2) they turn completely inside out, making cleaning and drying a breeze. See cleaning instructions below for reversible and non-reversible models.

Even if you love your tried-and-true hydration pack, you’ll benefit from upgrading the reservoir to a new model, and the convenience and effectiveness of cleaning certainly makes them worth the investment.

Cleaning Solutions

  • Basic dish soap and water is usually sufficient.
  • A mixture of baking soda, hydrogen, and peroxide can be used for more thorough disinfecting.
  • For reservoirs that have acquired a funky taste, a mixture of vinegar (used sparingly) and water followed by a mixture of water and lemon juice will neutralize the taste.

Reservoir Cleaning

  • For Hydrapak reservoirs: turn the pack completely inside out and wash with one of the cleaning solutions above. Leave reservoir inside out to towel or air dry, then return right side out when completely dry.
  • For non-reversible reservoirs: pour a cleaning solution into the pack, seal the openings, then slosh the fluid around inside the reservoir. Rinse thoroughly with fresh water, then stuff paper towels inside the reservoir to absorb fluid, leaving airflow through the main opening and tube port to allow complete drying.
  • Some companies offer hanging racks to help keep reservoirs open while air drying, but paper towels or small hand towels do the same trick for less money.

Tube Cleaning

  • After detaching from reservoir, rinse with cleaning solution or hot tap water from the connector end while holding the opposite end lower and pinching (opening) the valve to flush the system.
  • Hydrapak and CamelBak both make thin tube brushes that are essentially long, high-tech versions of those fuzzy old-fashioned pipe cleaners. These cost around 10 bucks and are effective at scrubbing away any residue caught inside the drink tube.
  • Tommy

    Orange Mud has also introduced the Double Hydraquiver, which holds two bottles on the back. The bottles supplied with the pack are 24 oz. but the size of the holsters is adjustable so you can use any size bottle you want. It features expandable pockets on each shoulder and a full pack behind the bottles on the back, as well as a bungee to hold jackets, shirts, etc. I have used it extensively and it is incredibly comfortable. It sits very high on the shoulders so it doesn’t seem to weigh you down and it does not bounce at all. Having bottles instead of a reservoir makes refilling a snap (I keep extra full bottles in drop bags so it is a 10 second swap) and you can put two different liquids in each bottle (water in one, Tailwind in another works great for me).

  • Tony Hoffström

    I got a Nathan race west, I kind of just rinse it with hot tap water and let it dry. Nothing more advanced than that. If I drank pure water mayby I would taste something wierd…

  • Matt

    a really easy way to clean them, is soap and water, and then stick them in the fridge. don’t have to worry so much about making sure they are all dried out. if you store them in the freezer they will not grow anything, it’s a lot easier then trying to hang or arrange them in such a way as to ensure all areas of fully dried. Freezing = easy.

  • Buzz Burrell

    “While the other products described here don’t have female-specific models …” is very dated information in an otherwise nice overview. Designed by Scott Jurek’s wife, Jenny’s Ultra Vesta was created from the ground-up for women and has been in the Ultimate Direction line for 2 1/2 months.

  • infad3l

    I have the Salomon Advance Skin S-Lab 5, it’s my second Salomon pack. I had the original one replaced just a couple months ago because the main zipper on the back broke during a race. It comes with a 2 year warranty but I have to say trying to get it replaced was a nightmare. Finally Runners Warehouse where I had bought it did the right thing and advanced shipped me a new one, they are great. Dealing with Salomon was getting me no where.

    My Cons:
    It is only 1.5L, however it is pretty easy to fill from a stream.
    The fit could use some work, the engineering needs some help as well. There are several ways to adjust it, two front straps and one that comes over each shoulder and pulls from the back and waist level, they have the locking tabs that the cord runs through on them to keep the fit in place, but they don’t hold the cord tight enough so as you run the cords slip through and the pack starts to bounce on your shoulders.
    It doesn’t have a sweat proof pocket so keeping your key fob or pills/salt tabs requires a ziplock.
    Price and trying to get them to honor their warranty.

    My Pros:
    It is very easy to clean and fill. There is no knob or lid like Camelbak, it is just a slider so it is easy.
    I like that it comes with an emergency blanket, it also includes a whistle, but I take that off.
    The detachable pockets are good idea but I never use them.
    The fabric that is next to your back is soft, it absorbs sweat and is honeycomb so it breathes a little.
    It is very light even when full.
    The front pockets are big enough to hold another small bottle for whatever.
    There are loops built into the vest to navigate your headphone wires through.

    My Observations:
    For people that carry poles, they do have a system to hold them. I don’t use poles so I can comment on how well it works.
    I would have preferred the zipper on the back to be on top instead of
    down the side just because it makes it easier to close when that area is
    really packed.

    The reviews on Amazon are great, but my overall experience hasn’t been great considering the cost. It gets a 50% satisfaction rate from me based on two main criteria that I have for packs. Fit and usability. The usability it fine, but the fit doesn’t stay in place and when you are coming out of an aid station with it full and it is mile 67, that bouncing really starts to bother your neck and shoulders.

  • Donald Buraglio

    Buzz: thanks for the updated info. The Jenny pack wasn’t available when this piece first ran, but it sounds like a great addition to the UD line.

  • Carl Kirkpatrick

    I have the MS-1 from Out There USA. It’s versatile with enough storage space 15+10 that I can use it for running, day hikes, or cycling. It made or rugged ripstop, water resistant nylon. Durable but still very light weight. Rain flies are available.

    My favorite features are goto pockets on the shoulder strap and easily accessible hip belt pockets and water holster. Nice internal water bladder as well.

    The top pockets for maps or cell phone/gps are a nice surprise!