How to choose a hydration pack

Finding it difficult to choose a hydration pack? We go straight to the source

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 January, 2015, 5:21pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 January, 2015, 5:21pm

Bryce Thatcher knows a thing or two about hydration packs - he invented them.

Back in the 1980s, he got fed up with running in the mountains with a water bottle jiggling around in his oversized backpack, and decided to do something about it.

He took the idea to his grandmother, who got to work on her sewing machine. That first pack started 30 years of innovation. Over the years, Thatcher has poured his experience and passion as an endurance athlete, trail runner, skier, cyclist and canyoneer into hydration packs.

He worked for well-known brands Nathan and Ultimate Direction, before establishing UltrAspire in 2011. Here, Thatcher shares his tips on picking a hydration pack.

Step 1: choose a size and type

"The first thing you need to think about is hydration is how much will you drink and how long until you're able to access water again? Bear in mind that higher humidity, altitude and temperatures will increase your hydration needs.

Next, decide between a bottle or a bladder. Which would you prefer to carry? Bottles are less expensive, easier to clean and fill, and also allow you to see how much water you have left.

But bladders carry more fluids and are hands-free. This is important for sports in which you need both hands, like mountain biking. Bladders are also easier to insulate.

"Handhelds are more popular than packs," says Thatcher, because they're easier to use and look cooler than toting a pack. "But from a biomechanical standpoint, carrying bottles, particularly when running, is less effective, as it's like carrying hand weights. Studies have shown it's less taxing on the body to run with a waist belt than handhelds."

Finally, think about what else you need to carry, such as extra clothing or food. "Any extras will influence the overall size of your pack," he says.

Step 2: consider the accessibility of core features

"When I'm designing a pack, I want to make sure that everything is at my fingertips, so that fluids, fuel and electrolytes are easily accessible on the go," says Thatcher. Put your pack on and explore pockets and other features to see how easily you can access them.

Opt for front pockets for things that need to be easily accessible such as a phone, mp3 player or a snack bar. Think about stowage of other commonly used items, like a jacket. "When I'm wearing a pack, I don't want to take it off to get the things I need," he says.

Step 3: check your balance

Thatcher warns against being too front- or back-loaded. "I like to have everything balanced, with some things on the front and some things at the back." Thatcher recommends putting the pack to the "jiggle test": jumping up and down to see how it feels.

Step 4: check your options

Are pockets and other features only good for one thing, or too small for something vital like your phone? Thatcher designs the pockets of his UltrAspire bags to be multipurpose.

Step 5: keep it simple and light

"In the past I've created packs that have been too far above a regular consumer's head," he says. "Making a pack too complicated has definitely been my biggest mistake."

Opt for simplicity over the extra bells and whistles. This will keep your bag light and comfortable. The heavier you are, the slower you are, so search for lightweight material and the size that matches your needs.

Step 6: check the fit

Thatcher and his team spend thousands of hours each year designing and testing packs to ensure proper fit and comfort.

UltrAspire packs feature ergonomic shoulder straps and a simple buckle-free chest strap for comfort, and a lower centre of gravity for better balance and gear access.

Their new women's specific pack, the Astral, was designed specifically to fit around a woman's chest, while the Quantum waist belt was designed to mould to the body and sit on the hips rather than creep up to the waist.

The water bottles are designed at an angle to avoid you having to cock your head to drink, and are narrower to fit into smaller hands.

"Every athlete has different needs but all have some basic requirements: comfort, fit, freedom of movement, function, ease of access, and a product that meets the needs of the moment," says Thatcher.