Hydration packs have changed the way we carry our most important asset – water. We tested these to help you find the right one.
How to buy
Weight: Determine your carrying requirements and find a pack with the closest specs ‒ lighter hydration packs are better for your back.
Bladder size: You should drink about half a litre of water every hour, so on a four-hour hike you should have roughly two litres (more in hotter climates or when climbing is involved).
Storage: This is activity-specific. Check the pack for additional pockets: is there space for food, a camera and a jacket, or is it a minimal race pack?
Comfort: Packs with a hip belt, a sternum strap across the chest and ventilated back panels tend to be the most comfortable. Also check for generous strap padding.
Ability: We tested whether the hose is comfortable and works easily. Did it leak? Was it easy to get the bladder in an out to refill? Was it easy to clean? And, most important, is it worth the money?
1. Evoc Roamer 22
Best for: Mountain biking
Bladder size: 2-litre
Storage: 22 litres with two spacious organiser pockets, hip-belt pockets, a sunglasses pocket and one main compartment, plus a nifty attachment system that can accommodate a helmet.
Comfort: Exceptional ventilation thanks to large airing channels, so it sits away from your back behind mesh material. The hip belt is thinly padded, but the straps are breathable.
Verdict: The well-padded back section provides a snug fit. It’s designed for cycling and commuting, with a clever helmet attachment and a felt-lined pocket for sunglasses. The wide bladder pocket is easy to access, and the hose clips sturdily to the strap. The bottom edge of the bag sits on your bum when you’re walking, but on a bike this isn’t an issue (the pack is designed to fit the shape of your back when cycling). Extras include an integrated rain cover.
TIP For packs that don’t include bladders, the ultra-compatible First Ascent 2-litre Bladder with detachable hose is a good option and costs R419. firstascent.co.za
2. First Ascent Artemis
Best for: Full-day trips
Bladder size: 3-litre
Storage: 9 litres with a large outer shell to stash a jacket or helmet and a zippered pocket with dividers.
Comfort: The sternum and hip straps are unpadded. It has an air-mesh back panel for ventilation and the thickest, most comfortable padding of all the packs featured here.
Verdict: It’s snug and compact. The magnetic bite valve (a small magnet clips the valve to the backpack strap) is lockable and quick to access, but I’m not sold on the fact that it lies across your chest. The detachable drinking hose is my favourite feature ‒ you can remove the bladder without having to unfasten the hose from the pack. The hardy 200D fabric makes this a good investment. A padded hip belt would have made it perfect.
TIP The 2-litre First Ascent Aqueos is a smaller, hydration- focused pack with sturdy back support and great airflow. It weighs 490g, has just a small pocket and costs R999.
3. Osprey Manta AG 36
Best for: Longer treks
Bladder size: 2,5 litres
Storage: 36 litres. The large zippered outside pocket contains internal and external mesh pockets for gear organisation and there are zippered hip belts, stretchy-mesh side pockets and trekking-pole storage attachments.
Comfort: The Anti-Gravity (AG) suspension system is a seamless suspended mesh back panel that disperses the load. The stretchy shoulder harnesses and hip belt ensure a superior fit.
Verdict: This pack is easy to drink from and impressively comfortable for its generous size. It has a magnetic bite valve and the hose and bladder disconnect for easy refilling. It’s the most expensive pack here, but a solid investment if you hike regularly.
4. Capestorm Maui
Best for: Half-day rambles
Bladder size: 2-litre
Storage: A small front zippered pouch the size of an A5 notebook fits valuables such as a cell phone, and the bungee cord can be used to stash a jacket.
Comfort: Long and narrow, it fits to the spine and has super-slim shoulder straps but no padding. There is a sternum strap for support.
Verdict: My first concern was the completely unpadded straps, but it’s more vest than backpack, making it perfect for movement. I liked the easy-access Velcro-sealed pocket that holds the bladder ‒ it means you don’t have to remove it completely to refill. The simple bite valve works well and doesn’t require too much suction. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a good, stable pack that’s perfectly functional and affordable.
TIP The Capestorm Kauai is an even smaller pack that holds a 1,5-litre bladder, weighs 350g and costs R579.
5. Camelbak Antidote Bladder
This was my favourite bladder. It’s unique in that it has ‘dryer arms’, which keep the empty unit open to air when not in use (other bladders tend to stick closed and can lead to vrot smells). The hose is detachable and has a locking bite valve (tricky to operate at first, but easy once you know how).
- A full bladder can also double as a pillow on a trail.
- Clean your bladder with the First Ascent Hydration Cleaning Kit. It consists of brushes and a stand you can insert into the bladder to keep it open. R299, firstascent.co.za
- Always carry an emergency pouch of Rehidrat – the electrolytes and sodium aid rehydration. R49,99 for six sachets, picknpay.co.za