The heat of summer is here… is your bladder cleaned, prepped, and ready to go? I’m not talking about some neo-hippy self-cleanse… talkin’ bout your hydration bladder. You do use one, right? Well, they’re not for everyone but I think I can make a few arguments in favor of their use, and shed some light on cleaning them and using them as part of a water filtration system as well. Check it out!
Hydration Management with Hydration Bladders
During a quiet day around the house we probably don’t think about how much we drink, or how often. According to smarty pants of academia, 2/3 of us Americans don’t drink enough water (source: Boston College). A quiet day walking the trail demands that we sip regularly to replenish the water (and at some point, electrolytes) that we’re steadily sweating out. Environments that are extremely hot, dry, or at higher elevations all increase the amount of water we need in order to stay hydrated.
Now, this is going to be a slight tangent but I think it’s worth the trip to sidetrack land. A common complaint about hydration bladders is: “I can’t see how much water I have left” or even “It’s dangerous not knowing exactly how much water I’m carrying”. These are fallacies that have nothing to do with hydration bladders and everything to do with poor hydration management; allow me to illuminate the topic…
So how does one manage hydration, and how does a bladder come into play? It’s simple enough that I feel comfortable giving a little advice. The hurdle that needs to be overcome is passively sipping rather rather than being proactive about staying hydrated. So, first step… be proactive about your water intake! Start by coming up with a schedule. For example, when I run, I drink every 10 minutes, when I hike it’s more like 15 minutes between sips. Next, figure out how many “sips” it takes to get the right amount of water down. What’s the right amount? Your body will tell you – your pee should be colorless (ideally). Yes, you need to check out your pee, it’s fun, give it a try. For me, around a cup of water per mile is a good baseline (works out to about a liter every 5 miles). I know through experimentation that I need about 9 “sips” (highly scientific unit of measure) from my drink tube every 15 minutes to maintain that level of hydration.
So, trial and error develops the routine, the routine eventually becomes habit. When I hear people knock hydration bladders because they can’t see how much water they have left (presumably because the bladder is in their backpack), it makes me wonder how they can actually plan a trip effectively. It’s critical to know where water sources are and how much water needs to be carried between sources. If we drink too much, too early, we’ll be shorting our self until the next water source, seeing the remaining water makes no difference.
Ok, end of tangent. My point(s) – A) learn to manage your hydration B) hydration bladders work just as well (if not better) as anything else once you develop a routine.
Pro’s of Hydration Bladders
- Packs Away: A Nalgene bottle is always the same bulky size & shape. A soft bladder can be somewhat flattened if carrying less than its capacity, or rolled up when empty.
- Distributes Weight: A bladder can be carried inside a pack along the back and only needs to be removed for refilling. This keeps the weight of all that water centered and close to the body’s center of gravity.
- Convenience: With a drink tube setup it’s easy to drink on the go. No reaching for bottles stashed in side pockets, no spilling water out while trying to walk and sip.
- Compliements Filtration: There are various setups for water filtration that make use of hydration bladders. We outlined one here and here more recently; there are simpler ideas based on gravity, squeezing, or drinking through the filter.
- Lightweight: a 2-liter Nalgene bottle weighs 6.5 oz, A 2-liter Platypus weighs 1 oz… carrying an extra/backup is very feasible.
Con’s of Hydration Bladders
- Cleaning Difficulty: See tips on cleaning in the next section.
- Cannot See Remaining Water: Really a non-issue. If you skipped the section on Hydration Management, give it a read.
- Not the best choice for pouring boiled (hot) water into (such as, in winter time when melting snow).
- Can sustain punctures
Cleaning Hydration Bladders
Keeping plastic hydration bladders clean is important but can prove frustrating. The small spout and narrow seam edges present some challenges for cleanliness. A product that I’ve found to work well is Star San. This is something I discovered in my days of beer brewing. It’s a food grade, acid-based sanitizer and is safe with Polyethylene and PET plastics. WIth a little agitation, it foams and can get into cracks and crevices which is exactly what’s needed in this case. 1/2 teaspoon mixed with 1 liter water is the appropriate solution. Shake it up (also drain some through the drink tube so it is filled with the solution) and let it sit for 5 minutes, then drain. Even though it is a “no-rinse sanitizer”, rinsing out most of the foam is a good idea. Rinsing the drink tube thoroughly is important because prolonged exposure will soften the vinyl tubing.
Let it drain dry with the cap off. I’ve heard of people using aquarium air pumps to circulate air into the bladder for quicker drying. Probably a fine idea, but not necessary.
One last tip for keeping your bladder clean (ha!) is don’t put sticky drinks in it. I use mine strictly for water and mix up electrolyte drinks and such in my cup as I need them.
Various Hydration Bladders on the Market
- Platypus: A popular choice. Very light and they offer various configurations off the shelf with filtration in mind.
- Evernew: Similar to the Platypus. They have received some mixed reviews due to some reports of leaking.
- Camelback: Offer a wide opening but are heavier than other options.
- Sawyer: Sold as part of the Sawyer Gravity filter system. Similar to Camelback, a little lighter, yet still heavier than the Platypus.
- Nathan: These are from running packs and use more of a roll top design with a slide on clip that keeps it sealed. Nice because they can be cleaned easier… not sure I would trust one in my pack though.
- Ultimate Direction: Another running product. Same idea as the Nathan.
- GeigerRig: These are marketed towards cyclists and seem to have a good reputation. Similar, yet different, compared to the Nathan and Ultimate Direction bladders.
- Others: I’m sure there are even more out there.
Hydration bladders offer a great convenience on the trail for water storage, on the go hydration, and filtration. With the right setup it’s possible to replenish water without even removing the bladder from one’s backpack. Not being able to see the water remaining is quite an over blown issue and not one worth shying away from giving bladders a shot. Dropping a couple of Nalgene bottles from your pack will cut nearly a pound… bladder up! Hike It. Like It.