How (and Why) to Ditch Hydration Bladders

I remember when I purchased my first hydration bladder. It felt like a superpower. I could basically just conjure water like a wizard. Abrakadabra… Hydration. Several years, experiences, and broken hydration bladders later, I now question whether they are even a good idea.

Why…

A list of grievances:

Hydration bladders are more fragile than almost any bottle. I have broken at least 6 hydration bladders from a wide variety of manufacturers including your favorite. In the best case, your stuff gets wet. In the worst case, you lose your most vital resource.

They don’t handle the cold as well as a bottle that is built for cold. Granted, the bladder itself is usually well insulated enough inside your pack to prevent freezing but your mouthpiece and hose will likely freeze. This can happen even if you are careful about blowing out the hose if it is cold enough.

They are more expensive especially compared to free bottles. That’s right. There are some really good bottles that are basically free with the purchase of something like Smartwater, Gatorade, or maybe those tradeshow freebie sports bottles. Even if you have to buy some bottles for specific purposes, they are less expensive than a bladder (and they lost longer with less maintenance).

They are terrible to clean. If something requires tablets, special brushes, and weird expanding drying rack to clean, it kind of sucks. Those bladders and hoses get really, really nasty if you don’t clean them well.

They make it easy to over-utilize your resources. “Gee whiz, this climb is kicking my tail. I’ll just take a quick swig.” Do that a few times and before you know it, you’ve knocked back all 3 liters and you’re looking for a place to refill. You need to hydrate but hydration bladders make it easy to take in more than you need.

They have the word “bladder” in their name. That’s a little weird, right?

I will grant you that they do have some advantages. The convenience can’t be beat but, again, this is a double-edged sword. They are also often lighter in weight than the bottles required to carry the same volume of water.

This pack in this photo (HPG Ute) has 6 liters of water on board. 5 liters are in bottles on the outside of the pack and an extra liter is tucked inside in preparation for an overnight trip with no water access.

How…

The “how” basically boils down to a few key factors. The first is having the right gear. You need to make sure you have the bottles you need to carry a sufficient amount of water and then you have a pack that will support your new hydration bladder-less existence.

The bottle part is easy. Just find bottles that will let you carry as much water as you would have with a hydration bladder. I like to use the big Nalgene 48-ounce bottles. They are the same diameter as the typical 32-ounce bottles so they fit all the same pouches. Two of them will carry roughly the same amount of water as a 3L bladder. Alternately, the 1-liter Smartwater bottles are a great shape for packing in a backpack.

Speaking of backpacks, I like Hill People Gear packs for carrying a lot of water since they typically have ample bottle pockets and provisions for attaching bottles to your pack belt. I can easily and comfortably carry 5 liters of water on my Umlindi or Ute without even having to stash any water inside the pack. I can place additional bottles in the pack as necessary.

This Hill People Gear Umlindi has almost 5 liters of water on board in preparation for a day far from any water source.

Once you have the gear sorted out, you can address the convenience aspect. This is important because, while hydration bladders can lead to over-hydration, you still don’t want to make it hard to take a drink. My standard is that I must have at least once bottle that can I drink from without having to stop to access it, drink from it, or stow it again. I like to use a sports bottle as you might use on a bike but really, almost any bottle will work. The key is to make sure this bottle is easy to access like on your waist belt or lashed to your pack strap. I just rotate water to the easy access bottle from other bottles when I get a chance.

Don’t submit to the tyranny of hydration bladders any longer. Save money, save headaches, and save water by switching to bottles.

Attaching a bike bottle to your pack strap is easy. Photo Credit: Hill People Gear

5 Responses to How (and Why) to Ditch Hydration Bladders

  1. Kango September 11, 2019 at 12:42 #

    Pro tip

    Ditch all those heavy plastic bottles and just use 1L water bottles and a smaller bottle like a Gatorade with a squirt mouth piece. Easy to drink from on the move and can put in mix powder. And if you need to carry lots of water because theres no resupply, then just use two 2L.

    Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong people, but I’ve never seen anyone carry that many individual bottles of water.

    • Matt September 11, 2019 at 13:53 #

      Good point – 2 liter bottles are efficient, light, and free. Regarding all the bottles, it is a lot of bottles and it probably looks weird because they are all on the outside of the pack. I find that the weight carries well spread out over those locations on HPG packs and it leaves the full internal capacity of the pack for other stuff.

  2. Moose Knukle September 11, 2019 at 14:31 #

    I’ve seen the bearded HPG Wizard run lines to his bottles instead of to a bladder.. It looked far more convenient, for what it’s worth.

    • Matt September 11, 2019 at 16:19 #

      I have a hydration tube kit that works well with my Nalgenes. That can work pretty well unless it’s cold. It also takes more sucking (which is a weird thing to type) because the hose drains after each use, unlike a bladder.

  3. carrioneater September 14, 2019 at 20:57 #

    Nice post, Few people talk about water supplies. If your going out for the weekend 48 hours, taking into account travel hydration back and fourth, cooking/ect and backup. 5 Litres seems to be adequate. You could also hand carry a gallon and chug from it while walking in.

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