Staying hydrated on the trail: Bottle or hydration pack?

Hydration is key on the trails, and when it gets hot over the summer, the quickest way to get into trouble is to run out of water. If you find yourself with a headache or feeling thirsty, you’re already getting dehydrated. Here are some pros and cons we’ve found for the ways to stay hydrated on the trail.


More traditional, the best bottle to carry is a hard plastic or stainless steel as compared to the softer plastic of disposable water bottles. One clear benefit to a water bottle is that it’s typically cheaper than a hydration pack system. Our favorite brand is Nalgene, in part because they’re guaranteed for life. The standard Nalgene bottle carries 32 ounces, which is just under one liter.

Other sizes are available, typically a half size bottle at 16 ounces or about half a liter. The options don’t end there; you can go for a wide mouth bottle (easier to put in ice, can be harder to drink from quickly) or a narrow mouth (won’t easily fit ice) or a squirt bottle.

Narrow-mouth Nalgene bottle

Narrow-mouth Nalgene bottle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With clear bottles, you can easily see how much water you have remaining, which can help keep you focused – if you’re halfway out of water and not halfway done with your hike, maybe you should turn around.

They are also easy to clean. You can put a hard plastic or stainless steel bottle into a dishwasher. Nalgene recommends using the top shelf in the dishwasher, and then just leave it to air dry – don’t screw the lid back on until it’s completely dry – better to store it with the lid off to help prevent any mold growth.

Smaller water bottles can be easily held in your hand, and this can make them more convenient than a hydration pack for trail runners as there is no pack to bounce around on your back as you run. Many bikes also come with water bottle holders.

Bonus! You can show off your love of your favorite hikes or other past times by plastering your water bottle with stickers.

Some things to aware of with bottles

For a full day of strenuous activity, you’d want to carry more than one or be close to a potable water source to refill.

You’ll likely have to stop, or at least slow down, to get to your water, unless you have an easily accessible squirt bottle.

You may still have to carry a backpack or bag for other essentials.

Hydration Pack

Instead of carrying your water by hand, you can sling it on your pack. Flexible plastic water reservoirs can be slipped into a backpack, and you get to it with a hose. Bite on the mouthpiece and suck, and, presto!, hydration. If you keep it clean and take care of it, it should last a long time.

I used a reservoir I got from Wal-Mart for awhile, and I often ended up setting my bag down on the mouthpiece, and losing water and getting clothes and other items in my bag wet as water pooled beneath the bag.

Coughing up a bit more cash, I got a Platypus Big Zip 3.0 L that comes with a mouthpiece that can be closed and will shut off the flow of water, and I fell in love. It was my hydration source of choice this summer doing research on the trails. Another brand we trust from experience is CamelBak. Both companies design water reservoirs and the packs to carry them.

Hydration pack manufactured by CamelBak

Hydration pack manufactured by CamelBak (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three liters (about 100 ounces) is on the higher end, and filled up, you’re looking at carrying nearly seven pounds of water. Though throughout the hike or ride it will get lighter, it can be too much. A two liter reservoir is fairly standard for a day hike or ride, and kids or those going on shorter trips can easily get away with carrying one liter.

Like a bottle, there are options beyond size. Most companies differ in the opening size for getting water in, though nearly all are big enough to easily add ice.

While you can carry the water reservoir in nearly any kind of backpack, there are specially designed hydration packs that have a space for the hose to come out without having to keep the bag open. You’ll find that many backpacking bags will have a hydration “sleeve” where you can slip in the water bag.

You can get minimalist packs for your reservoir that may not have many or any storage options, or you can go for a larger pack that has room to carry snacks, your Kansas trails guidebook!, and a waterproof layer.

Some things to be aware of with a hydration pack.

Combined with the pack, the water reservoir can be significantly more expensive than a water bottle.

Other than weight or stopping to check your water level, you can end up running out without noticing until you get down the last sips of water. And you have to pay more attention to cleaning, especially if you use a sports or energy drink in the reservoir.

Keeping it dry and free of mold can be a tad more challenging than with a bottle that can be tossed into a dishwasher easily. But as long as you rinse and dry it out after using it, it should be fine. I’ve kept water in it for a week at a time, just topping off the water until I had some days off when I wouldn’t be using it. Emptying it and setting it out to dry, and I had no problems with mold. But if you’re using a sports drink in it, you’ll want to rinse it thoroughly, possibly with a couple of teaspoons of baking soda and hot water, and leave it to dry every time that you use it.

Either bottle or hydration pack, if taken care of, can last you for years.

Finding the way to carry water that works best for you will help keep you safe and comfortable on the trail, and it will help you go further and faster. Always remember to balance your water intake with keeping your electrolytes and sugars balanced. Snacking on pretzels or salted nuts can help.

What’s worked best for you? Let us know in the comments.

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