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Hiking and Backpacking Hydration Systems: Pros and Cons

Many people like to carry a hydration system (reservoir and hose) on day hikes and backpacking trips, but others prefer carrying water bottles instead. While you can chalk up the difference to personal preference, there are definite pros and cons to hiking with a hydration system in different circumstances, depending on the expected duration of your hikes and whether you’ll need to refill your hydration bladder.

Expected duration

While day hikes vary widely based on the distance travelled and expected duration, carrying a hydration system on shorter, half day trips can be convenient because it’s unlikely that you’re going to run out of water. As a general rule of thumb, you should drink about a liter of water every two hours when day hiking. So a three liter hydration system, should provide you with about six hours of water.

For all-day hikes or overnight/multi-day backpacking trips, you’re probably going to need to refill your hydration bladder from a backcountry water source. The problem is knowing when, since you can’t see how much water is left in your hydration bladder when it’s packed inside your pack. That’s the main reason people carry external water bottles, so they can see how much water they have left and regulate their intake.

While may people do use hydration systems for long day hikes and backpacking trips, refilling them is less convenient than if you use water bottles, because you’ll need to unpack your hydration bladder and then repack your pack once it’s been refilled. There’s also the risk that your hydration bladder can leak inside your backpack, which can have dire consequences if it soaks your gear.

Refilling a hydration system can be difficult without unpacking and then repacking an overnight backpack.
Refilling a hydration system can be difficult without unpacking and then repacking an overnight backpack.

Terrain type

There are still times when carrying a hydration system is better than carrying water bottles, even when you’re backpacking. For example, if you’re doing a lot of rock scrambling, it’s better to carry your water close to your center of gravity (back and hips) in a hydration pocket than in bottles on the outside of your backpack. A hydration system also eliminates the chance of losing your water, when your water bottles fall out of your backpack during a rugged scramble. I had this happen to me, just last week.

The same holds if you’re bushwhacking through dense brush, where overhanging vegetation can rip bottles out of your backpack’s pockets. Carrying a hydration system is usually better in this case because your water is protected inside your pack, even though you have to monitor your usage to avoid running out.

Summary

Hydration systems are best used for shorter day hikes when you’re unlikely to run out of water, or when scrambling or bushwhacking, when there’s a chance that you could lose externally stored water bottles if they fall out of your backpack. Hydration systems are more challenging to use for backpacking trips and long day hikes because you can’t see how much water you have left if its packed inside your backpack. They’re also less convenient than bottles if you need to refill them frequently, because you’ll have to unpack your backpack and then repack it after your refill is complete.

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