Water Bottles and Hydration Gear for Backpacking
Choosing water bottles and containers for your travel adventure can be difficult but it isn't impossible. This guide was created to help you with choosing the right type of hydration gear for your specific needs. Here we've summarized the basics you need to know about water bottles and hydration gear, including main designs, materials, capacity, weight, best use, etc.
There are usually several problems you need to solve on the trail but avoiding dehydration is crucial, especially when backpacking in deserts and other arid areas without access to any water. Dehydration causes blood vessels in the skin to constrict and limit sweat production slowing down self-cooling of the body. This increases the risk of heat-related illnesses.
When you hike in a place where the air is hot and dry, sweat evaporates instantly, making its loss almost imperceptible. When you hike in a place where the air is cold and humidity is low, the little moisture that is around is quickly sucked up into the air. Moisture evaporates more quickly from your body drying out your skin, nose, and throat. Actually, cold weather further increases the risk of dehydration because lower temperatures suppress thirst even when the body requires fluids. That’s why people just don’t feel thirsty when the weather is cold. As a result, they don’t drink enough water, which causes dehydration. Scientists found that cold weather reduces the body’s release of fluid-regulating hormones resulting in a 40% reduction of the body’s sensation for thirst compared to warm weather so walking in cold and dry environments can dehydrate you as quickly as desert walking.
On the trail, having enough food and water is not just necessary but compulsory. And of these, water is more important because you can survive without hydration just a few days. Water supply is among the most important things you want to know about a region you’ll be hiking in. How much water you need per day varies from person to person and depends on the weather conditions, the amount of energy you expend, and the type of food you carry. Sometimes carrying just a full water bottle can be enough if you go to a place where there’s plenty of drinkable water. However, on some occasions, you may have to carry much more water with you. In such cases, you’ll have to carry several bladders full of water in addition to a water bottle or a flask.
Simple plastic bottles are perfect for ultralighters on the trail
Types of water bottles, containers, and hydration gear
Even where water is plentiful, you need some form of a water container. In dry, hot conditions having two or more water bottles may be essential, and they need to be of good quality since a container failure could have serious consequences. For that reason, it’s better to carry two or more containers instead of just one large one. Here are the main advantages of having two or more water bottles on the trail:
- Smaller bottles are compact and portable - it is easier to hold and fill smaller bottles.
- If something happens with one of your containers - you lose it or find a puncture or crack in the water bottle - you will still have an extra bottle.
- You can keep your smaller water bottle of 1/2L-1L (16.9-33.8 fl oz.) handy because most hiking packs have side pockets that can hold smaller bottles but not bigger bottles. This way, you can have a bottle within easy reach inside your pack. You can also hold your bottle(s) in a pouch on the hip belt.
- It is way easier to track your water consumption and thus stay well-hydrated.
Water containers used to be simple items but nowadays, we have hydration systems and reservoirs with drinking hoses, all made from flexible plastic. There are even smart water bottles designed to keep track of how much water you drink.
Traditional rigid bottles come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and makes and in both plastic and metal.
Plastic water bottles
Plastic bottles are light, easy to carry, and efficient water containers. These come with wide and narrow mouths and in a wide variety of sizes. The wide-mouth design is probably the most useful since it facilitates loading, drinking, and cleaning. The most popular brand among backpackers is Nalgene. Their plastic water bottles are famous for their extreme durability, low weight and prices, and simple design that hasn't been changed for decades. Nalgene bottles with basic design such as Nalgene Ultralite Wide-Mouth Water Bottle weigh between 99g (3.5 oz) for 0.95L (32 fl oz.) and 156g (5.5 oz) for 1.42L bottles. Their price is between $7 and $10. You can learn more about them on their Wikipedia page. The narrow mouth bottles are easier to drink from but they are also more difficult to refill and clean.
Quality bottles are leakproof and hardwearing, unlike some cheaper bottles that leak and crack along the seams after a relatively short time. You may be skeptical about their durability but you shouldn’t because there are some really tough plastic water bottles that can take a beating and survive unfortunate accidents from being dropped to the floor to being abused by a dog or another aggressive animal. Made of BPA-free and BPS-free materials, they make sure that you taste your beverage not the bottle. The Loop-Top bottles with attached caps are useful if you’re careless - using one of these lets you flip your lid, without losing it. Some plastic bottles allow you to remove the cap with one hand.
Plastic bottles are great for everyday use as well as for the gym, trail, camp, travel, car, office, school, etc. The biggest downside is that they can’t keep cold or warm for long but you can’t really expect that from a plastic bottle.
Looking for versatile water bottle suitable for both your travel adventures as well as for gym, car, office or school? A good option is to get a lightweight and reliable plastic water bottle.
The Santeco Oural sports bottle is a leakproof water bottle with a sweatproof design so you don't have to worry about water spills and leaks. Made of BPA free Eastman Tritan, it's lightweight and eco-friendly - a perfect choice for those who like to travel light. The multifunctional cap with an O-ring handle is comfortable to grip and carry attached to your backpack or a belt. A perfect combination of functionality and comfort, this plastic bottle is convenient for everyday carry everywhere you go.
Empty soda bottles are good water containers for backpacking, especially if you want to carry a lighter pack and save some money at the same time. Soda bottles are very popular among thru-lighters and ultralighters because they’re lightweight, tough, cheap, and easy to fill. Needless to say, soda bottles should be replaced more frequently than plastic water bottles, however, if you’re like most people you probably buy enough bottled water or soda to get a regular supply of these bottles.
Main limitations of using soda bottles on the trail is that they’re no good for holding hot water and can’t withstand repeated use carrying hot liquids. Additionally, you have to prevent them from freezing during winter trips when temperatures drop below zero. The easiest way is to keep your soda bottle close to your body (below your jacket) while traveling and at night (in your sleeping bag). Be extremely careful of leaks, especially if using it as a nightly hot water bottle to warm your feet on a winter trip. You don’t want to wake up with wet clothes in a bag soaked with water.
Metal water bottles
Quality water bottles are made of food-grade stainless steel. They keep cold liquids cold in warm weather - up to more than 12-24 hours for quality stainless-steel water bottles. At the same time, they can keep your hot drinks hot in cool weather for as much as 6 hours. A vacuum insulated water bottle won’t burn your fingers, which means that it can serve as a cup for hot drinks. There’s nothing better than a nice warm drink after hiking for hours in cold weather and environments. Just fill your stainless steel water bottle with hot tea or coffee and you will have a warm drink throughout the day. A lacquered inside stops fruit juice or sports drinks from dissolving the metal and tainting the drink. Food-grade ones are resistant to bacteria and odors and don’t add any taste to the water. They come in various sizes as the most widespread ones are 500 ml to 600 ml, although if you need to carry more water, you can also find and bigger metal water bottles.
Insulated water bottles are more durable than plastic water bottles and have leakproof screw tops with rubber seals that are safe for dishwashing. Keep in mind that there’s one exception - when filled with carbonated drinks they may actually leak. Some bottles have lid handles for easy grab and go. Wide mouth opening allows easy filling, pouring, and cleaning. Additionally, it fits many existing water filters and lids and is suitable for keeping hot meals such as soups and stews. Vacuum bottles are more reliable than plastic bottles and hydration systems in cold temperatures because of their excellent insulating abilities.
Metal water bottles are convenient, however, quality and comfort come at a price - a stainless-steel water bottle can be 3-4 times as heavy as a plastic water bottle of the same size and up to ten times more expensive. Stainless steel water bottles of popular brands such as Klean Kanteen and Hydro Flask usually cost between $25 and $50 depending on their capacity and features but you can also find cheaper brands and models in stores like Walmart.
Stainless steel water bottles have different designs and capacities
Thermos/Flask and food jars
In winter and in cold temperatures, in general, a thermos is very useful. By filling it with hot water in the evening, you have hot/warm water in the morning, speeding up breakfast. Good flasks, thanks to the double-walled vacuum insulated construction, keep liquids hot for up to 12 hours so if you fill it before leaving camp, you can enjoy hot drinks during the day without needing to stop and fire up the stove. Additionally, they can keep your beverages cold and refreshing for up to 24 hours. The best ones are unbreakable stainless steel and usually weigh 400-700 grams depending on their size. Among the other features of a thermos are a skid-resistant bottom for stability and multifunctional cap with a handle that can be used as a serving cup meaning that you can save some space in your hiking pack. A good vacuum insulated flask is durable and long-lasting, never retains or transfers flavors, and never leaks in your pack - it can be in regular use for more than five years and still be in good condition.
Flasks and metal bottles can give some comfort in the fast-paced world we're living in. If you're looking for a high-quality vacuum water bottle for everyday use as well as for your travel adventures, check out this one.
Haers Vacuum Water Bottle 1L is made of an extremely durable food-grade 18/8 stainless steel material resistant to odors and bacteria. Thanks to its solid double-walled vacuum insulated construction, this thermos can hold hot drinks hot for up to 12 hours and iced drinks cold for up to 24 hours. The wide-mouth opening makes it easy to fill and clean. The leakproof and dishwasher safe cap is multifunctional and can be used as a lid or as a serving cap. This stainless steel flask is eco-friendly, portable, and reusable.
Food jars (also called food flasks or thermos) are designed to keep liquidy foods hotter or colder for longer. They can hold hot foods hot for up to 12 hours and cold foods cold for up to 24 hours (not sure about ice cream though). High-quality food flasks are durable double-walled stainless steel constructions with a compact and insulated screw-on cap that won’t leak into your backpack. Wider and less tall than water bottles of the same volume, food jars still can hold 0.5-0.75L. The wider mouth diameter makes them easier to clean than water bottles. However, keep in mind that most flasks and food jars should be hand-washed in order to keep their ability to retain heat. Food jars are used for packing lunches and smaller models fit nicely into a backpack. Food jars are rarely used on the trail because of their weight - the smaller volume sizes usually weigh around 350-500 grams. Food flasks are convenient for meals away from home but they’re not critical and you can manage without them even in bitterly cold conditions.
Some of the most significant factors affecting the prices of flasks and food jars include: brand, capacity, and features. The prices of quality flasks and food jars vary greatly - from less than $20 for basic models and not-so-popular brands to more than $100 for bigger bottles produced by some more popular brands.
Food flasks are convenient for meals away from home
Many bottles have caps with valves that allow drinking water by squeezing the bottle. These are convenient if you want to drink while hiking, but sometimes they leak easily, so you’d better carry them outside the pack in a mesh pocket or external bottle holder. They are also no good for holding hot liquids. There are two main types of squeeze bottles:
Collapsible water bottles
Light, foldable and compact water bottles and containers with a flexible design perfect for carrying or storing larger amounts of water. Ergonomic design offers easy grip, tip, and sip; flatten and roll up when empty, save space; easy to fill and carry. Made of nylon, polyethylene, silicone, thermoplastic urethane or another light and relatively durable material, collapsible water bottles are great for day hikes, camping, traveling, backpacking, etc. They are ultralight, compact when empty, and offer unrivaled water capacity per weight - an empty collapsible water bottle can weigh as little as 20g (Platypus SoftBottle 0.5L), whereas larger containers weigh around 50-100g (Platypus DuoLock SoftBottle 2.0L and Platy Water Tank 4L).
Collapsible bottles and reservoirs with wide mouth technology are easy to fill and pour from and are water filter compatible. They are far superior to the narrow mouth bottles in winter when you need to transfer water (especially hot water) from pot to bottle. They are also easy to clean. Some backpackers report a noticeable plastic taste in the beginning. It can last for several trips but you can try to remove it faster by washing the bottle with water and a little soap. Simply shake it and rinse to get rid of the soap. Use only for storing and drinking water because materials like polyethylene can retain odors and tastes and stain very easily. The prices depend mainly on the capacity of the container. For example, Platypus DuoLock SoftBottle 2.0L costs around $16, while smaller bottles like Platypus DuoLock SoftBottle 0.75L-1L cost $12-14.
Squeeze water bottles
Made of LDPE (low-density polyethylene), polyurethane or silicone, they are light and handy. Ideal for cycling, yoga and fitness, running, travel, camping, backpacking and any other indoor or outdoor activity. Squeeze water bottles have a valve, instead of a regular cap, which operates with a squeeze so there’s no need to pull open the top with your teeth if your hands are full. Squeeze water bottles usually have wide mouth opening fills for easy fill and clean. Just like collapsible water containers, squeeze bottles can be much cheaper than stainless steel bottles.
Hydration systems are flexible water containers (also known as water bladders) with long tubes attached that dangle over your shoulder so you can drink while hiking. Most hikers go from one extreme to the other - they either like using bladders or totally dislike them and prefer to stop and use a sports bottle for drinking water. Nowadays, hydration systems are so popular that many packs come with sleeves for the water bladders. Having quick access is a good idea, of course. Carrying a water bottle in a side pocket of your backpack means that you can reach it easily. However, be advised that most hydration bladders may not survive a puncture so you should protect your water bladder from sharp objects.
Many backpacks used for outdoor activities are hydration compatible
There are various kinds of insulated water bottles and bladder covers:
The main function of hydration packs is to transport water and make drinking convenient and efficient on the move. With most hydration packs, you don’t have to stop, or even slow down, to drink as you hike because of the drink tube with a bite-valve attachment that’s connected to the included water bladder (usually with a capacity of 2-3L). Hydration packs are used for mountain biking, running, day hiking, and other outdoor recreational activities. When you’re shopping for a hydration pack, your main considerations should be things like capacity, fit, and extra features. Common features of most hydration packs are ventilated back panel, adjustable sternum straps for a better fit, various pockets with zippered closure for storing items secure and organized.
There are several problems regarding hydration packs and their use. First, they can be a bit uncomfortable against the back especially if you aren’t used to carrying a water bag. Secondly, is too difficult to clean water bladders and tubes well in the backcountry. Thirdly, the bite-valve attachments have a tendency to leak with long-term use especially if not sealed correctly. And finally, hydration packs don’t work well at high altitudes and in cold environments because it is difficult to keep the tubes from freezing. The best way to deal with this problem is to experiment during winter camping, skiing, etc. and see what works and what doesn’t work before using hydration packs for multi-day hiking trips.
Hydration compatible packs with a sleeve for water bladders (often such kind of a pack offers 2.5 liters of hydration) have become more and more popular in the last few years and today you can find one of these easily. Such backpacks fit well and can offer plenty of features, great suspension system, and mesh-covered back panel and straps for added breathability. Of course, one of the main features is a hydration pocket with an exit hole for the drinking tube. Hydration compatible backpacks can be used for extended day hikes or light overnight trips.
Hydration vests offer easy to access hydration on the move. The carrying capacity varies between 1.5L and 5L or more (for long-distance runs such as half marathons and marathons). They are used mainly for running and bike riding. With stabilized design, main compartment with tube holder, secure zip pockets, phone pocket, adjustable straps for an individual fit, breathable mesh shoulder strap, reflective trims and so on. Generally, hydration vests are great for hot weather runs but not very convenient for hiking.
Hydration vests are great for running and not so good for backpacking
Hydration belts are functional and have a stabilized design to reduce bouncing as you work out. Good models are lightweight, easy to adjust, and comfortable to hold. Hydration belts have contoured shape for a great fit to your body and might have some other features such as secure zip pockets, reflective accents for nighttime activity, additional pouches for mobile phones, etc. Hydration belts can be used for walks and short distance runs.
Light and functional, a hydration handheld is a pouch that can hold everything you need to include for shorter runs - water bottle, keys, ID, energy bars, and phone. Hydration handhelds allow for natural grip and easy access to fluids; adjustable hand strap enables grip-free movement. Additionally, they might have a zippered pocket for on-the-go storage of small items. Hydration handhelds are convenient for running but not that much for hiking.
All these hydration packs, vests, and handhelds won’t keep liquids hot for long, so they aren’t suitable for coffee or tea unless you like it lukewarm. However, they’re fine for other drinks.
Storing and maintenance
It’s best to store water containers uncapped to promote airflow, so they can fully dry and not become musty. If ordinary washing doesn’t clean them fully, soak them in a mild solution of bicarbonate of soda, lemon juice, and white vinegar overnight. Then wash the water bottle. Iodine, chlorine, or bleach can also be used for cleaning and disinfecting bottles. Charcoal absorbs odors and can be used for removing really unpleasant smells. Wash your water containers regularly to prevent the buildup of dirt and to keep it safe from germs.
Having access to enough drinking water should be one of the major considerations in planning your hike. The types and sizes of your water bottles, and your water purification system, should be dictated by the frequency and quality of water sources. You don't need more than two water bottles when water is readily available. In drier locations, you’ll have to carry more capacity and give greater consideration to the weight and volume of the containers when not in use.
There’s a trade-off between weight and comfort. Rigid metal water bottles are heavy and bulky compared with the flexible ones, however, they can keep liquids hot and comforting or cold and refreshing for much longer than plastic water bottles or collapsible bottles can. Now, knowing more about water bottles, flasks, and hydration systems you can choose the right water containers for your next hiking trip.