Bladder Up! – Winning with Hydration Bladders

Tips, Tricks, and More Bladder Madness

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!

The Platypus Hoser
The Platypus Hoser

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.

A Camelback Bladder
A Camelback Bladder

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.

Star San
Star San
Getting Clean
Getting Clean
Foaming Bubbles
Foaming Bubbles

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.
Ultimate Direction's Hydration Bladder
Ultimate Direction’s Hydration Bladder

In Summary…

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.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

13 Comments

  1. Jeff
    August 1, 2016
    Reply

    I can’t figure this out, but, when I have my 3l camelbak in my HMG 2400 pack, tightly packed – something is causing it to leak. I can remove the camelbak, sit it on a hard surface, squeeze it as hard as I want, turn it upside down, squeeze it tightly by the cap, by the valve — I can Not get it to leak. But pack it in the HMG and it leaks. I’ve taken it on long hikes in other packs with no problems.
    Any ideas?

    • August 3, 2016
      Reply

      Hey Jeff. That’s a really weird problem. If it leaks, it leaks… there must be a pinhole or something along those lines. I can’t imagine any pack being able to make a bladder leak and not being able to reproduce it. I had a similar experience with a running vest of mine. The hydration bladder had a pinhole in it up near the top seal (slightly different type of bladder) and it didn’t seem to leak, until I wore the vest. It turned out that a it was a very slow leak and hard to notice until I had spent a few hours moving around. It took a really close inspection out of the pack to find the pinhole. It sounds like you’ve done that though, so I’m at a loss!

  2. Jeff
    July 11, 2016
    Reply

    Hi – interesting take on starsan for the bladder. I homebrew as well, so I was wondering about the feasibility of that (which is how I found your article).. Makes sense for the bladder – do you have any thoughts about using it on a filter? I have a sawyer mini and am wondering if it would be safe to use starsan to flush it, rather than bleach. I don’t know much about filter media, and how starsan would react with it… Appreciate any thoughts…. Take care!

    • July 14, 2016
      Reply

      Hi Jeff. I wouldn’t use StarSan on a filter and I don’t think it’s necessary. Just backflush with water and you should be good, if you’re worried about potential microfilm growth in there, using some bleach should be ok, but I never bother with anything but water. There is no filter media in the filter by the way, it’s just fiber filter element. Cheers!

      • Jeff
        July 14, 2016
        Reply

        Thanks for that. I try to avoid bleach, but I guess that’s what I’ll go with. Concerning growth, since it’s a fiber element, wet from use, and in the dark, isn’t the element almost guaranteed to get moldy or “mildewy” without some kind of cleansing? Take care….

        • July 14, 2016
          Reply

          It’s possible the “dirty side” may harbour some biological growth, but the Sawyer Mini is a 0.1 micron absolute filter. Generally speaking, that means most things larger than .1 microns are not going to get thru, or intrude into the filter. Bacteria and molds are larger than 0.1 microns thus the filter element is not going to be conducive to their intrusion and growth. Due to irregular shape of organisms/particles a small number may actually make their way through, or nearly through. The ones that become trapped can actually increase the filter efficiency (sometimes this is a counter intuitive concept). It’s not uncommon for filters to be designed with this concept in mind; they will tend to out perform their stated flow rate initially, but once slightly dirty they’ll perform on spec, and eventually they’ll become too obstructed and need cleaning. This is getting a little beyond the scope of a backpacking filter, but the same concepts apply.

  3. Ben P.
    April 8, 2015
    Reply

    Hate to necro an old thread, but now you can find bladders that are pressurized that would combat the problems some people have experienced toward the end of the bladder being full. Its basically like a blood pressure cuff that you pump up to keep pressure in the bladder. This means you can also actually squirt the water out, which is always nice little add-on when you want to soak down your head a little bit once you start getting hot etc.

    • April 16, 2015
      Reply

      Hi Ben. No worries about commenting on old posts; it’s always good to get some new perspective. I haven’t seen any of the pressurized bladders yet. I’ll have to look that up!

  4. Tim F
    July 3, 2013
    Reply

    Adam- when it gets to that point, try blowing a little bit of air into the bladder. It should relieve enough pressure to make it easy to drink from again.

    Jacob- I agree that hosers are a good, lightweight way to stay hydrated. I have an Aarn pack with the pockets in the front and sometimes have to carry a lot of water (4 liters). Two 2-liter hosers (but only one hose) work great for this and allow me to balance between those front pockets. Add a .5 liter bottle for mixing flavored drinks and this is my go-to system when I need large water capacity.

    Keep up the good work.

    • October 23, 2013
      Reply

      Tim, Thanks and sorry I missed your comment until recently. I’m usually better at replying to them!

      Good insights. I have an Ultimate Direction pack and a Nathan Pack and I prefer the UD for its ability to carry bottles on the shoulders for mixed electrolyte drinks, maltodextrin, etc… Having the main reservoir in the back is great for the rest of the time. The last long run I did I had it backwards; all MD in my reservoir and a small bottle of fresh water. After 30 miles all I could think about was how good that fresh water was going to taste when I finally cracked it open!

      As a last note, I don’t like mixing any flavored drinks in my Platy reservoirs. Sometimes a taste can hang around after they’ve been cleaned. Ever made the mistake of mixing Heed in a Camelback or Platy? Yuck. Never again!

  5. June 14, 2013
    Reply

    Hi Jacob,

    I agree that bladders are a convenient way to stay hydrated on trail. My one problem that I have with them is that once they get low, say 1/2 to 3/4 of a liter, it gets increasingly difficult to get the water out of them while they are stored in the pack. It gets to the point where I am sucking on the tube with all my strength and nothing comes out, even though I know there is more in there. This has frustrated me to the point where I don’t use them anymore (with a drinking tube, I do use them for carrying) and just reach around for a water bottle in the side pocket. Have you found a way to get around this?

    • Jacob D
      June 14, 2013
      Reply

      Adam, I haven’t really experienced that problem. Now I’m wondering how common of an issue it is, and what might cause it?

    • doghiker
      July 31, 2014
      Reply

      Adam: the only time I’ve had difficulty sucking water out of the bladder is when the excess hose was a) coiled too tightly or b) was kinked. Also, for optimum gravity drainage, if you’re storing the bladder vertically within a pack, you want the hose connection to the bladder to be at the bottom, not the top; this is obvious to most folks, but I have seen a couple of people with their bladder oriented with the connection at top–didn’t work for more than a few sips.

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