Hydration packs have come to dominate all manner of sports where the use of one’s hands is a mandatory part of the sport because they allow the participants to drink without using their hands. Most hydration packs are backpacks that contain a bladder that holds liquid. The bladder is connected to a hose that runs to the person’s mouth. At the end of the hose is some sort of valve, frequently one that can be opened and closed by biting on it, that releases the liquid while on the go.

Since the mid-1990s, hydration packs have become extremely popular, beginning with bicyclists and motocross riders, now all kinds of athletes use them regularly. As a consequence, most of the manufacturers have specially designed packs that are suited to particular sports. Further, since it is a competitive market, many companies offer unique features that may or may not be worth the investment for you. Everyone has their own preferences, so here are ten things that a prospective hydration pack buyer should take into consideration.

Tip #1 – Capacity, or how much liquid does it hold?

You can find hydration packs that carry less than one litre of water to more than three litres. Obviously, the more liquid it holds the heaver and the more unwieldy it becomes, so it is worth taking the time to determine the right pack for you. The real question is one of how much you drink and under what conditions you are using the pack. If you are out on a long ride on a bicycle or motor bike in the heat of the day, you can afford to carry more water, since the weight does not directly slow you down. Conversely, if you are running a marathon or hiking and know that you can refill your water – or exchange bladders – periodically as you go, having a smaller capacity is probably better.

Tip #2 – Additional capacity, or what else can it hold?

Most modern hydration packs are more than simply packs containing bladders of liquid, but also have additional capacity to carry other things as well. Popularly they will have one large compartment that is big enough to hold a jacket or rain gear, as well as several smaller, well defined pockets and sections. These can be used to carry tools, food, your electronics (mp3 player, mobile phone, etc.), and other supplies that you may want to bring with you. As is the case with the liquid capacity, the right pack differs depending on what you are doing. If you expect to be off the in the middle of the wilderness, obviously you need to carry more gear with you than if you are doing some sport where the necessities are readily available.

Tip #3 – Adjustability, or is it comfortable and can you keep it so?

The whole idea of the hydration pack is to allow the athlete to perform longer without having to stop to take water breaks, but this competitive edge is completely lost if you have to stop repeatedly to keep your hydration pack secure, positioned wear it should be, and comfortable. Further, this is something you cannot really test until you have already purchased the hydration pack, so having a wide range of adjustments available is important. You should carefully study the pack before buying it to ensure that the shoulder straps, the waist strap and chest straps are all adjustable and – ideally – even removable. Once you are in the middle of the wilderness it is too late to learn that the waist straps have a tendency to chafe you, so it is nice to have the option of adjusting or removing them.

Tip #4 – Maintenance, or how easy is to take care of?

As with all your other serious sporting gear, taking care of your hydration pack is important, so you should take a few minutes to see what care is required before purchasing you hydration pack. The bladders have to be regularly dried out and kept clean and the same is true of the hose and bite valve. Failing to dry them out and keep them properly cleaned can result in the growth of mould and other problems. You can use the sterilizing fluid designed for baby bottles to keep the hose and valve clean and uncontaminated when it is not in use. As for the bladder itself, it should be emptied immediately after use and held open to allow it to dry. Most hydration pack manufacturers provide comprehensive instructions on how to take care of the hydration pack and little common sense should make it fairly easy.

Tip #5 – Comfort, or is it comfortable to wear?

Anyone that has ever been engaged in any sort of strenuous physical endeavour with a back pack on knows how tough it can be. Your back quickly becomes sweaty and overheated, making it susceptible to irritation. Similarly the shoulder straps may chafe or otherwise be uncomfortable. As noted above when describing the desirability of having lots of adjustment options, you cannot really tell how comfortable a hydration pack will be in sport until you actually try it, or, after you have already purchased it. However, there are things you can do before hand. Try it on and see how it feels. Look for breathable fabrics and meshes as well as for padded supports and ventilation channels through the pack, especially on those parts that are in direct contact with your body.