Advice: Fill 'er up! - Water Bottles, Bladders and Trail Hydration Know-How!

You are about to go hiking and you think that out of all the stuff you have been putting together, water bottles must rank down near the bottom of your packing priority? Well you would be wrong, water bottles, water bladders and the hydration they provide to you are probably the single most important aspect of hiking and backpacking. Without the proper amount of water you will get dehydrated and you could die.  At the very least you will have a very unpleasant hike.

For a lot of people, they just buy a bottle of water or two at a convenience store and throw it in their backpack before they start hiking. There are a couple of things wrong with this kind of planning. One, how do you know that a liter of water is going to be enough for your hike? Perhaps if you are just going for a quick jaunt then it is okay, but for a hike of any length, you will need a lot more water, more than a single bottled water. Two, while you might think those bottles are tough, if you have a good fall on a trail and hit that bottle, it’s going to smash right open and you will not have any water left.

So what should I look for?

Hikers and backpackers have two main options nowadays for hydration when they are out on the trails. The first and most familiar is the canteen or water bottle. They come in many different sizes, shapes and materials, but their basic function is to hold water in a strong and not easily broken container so that you can drink throughout your hike.

The second major option is the water bladder, which is basically a big bag of water (a “soft” water bottle) that either fits into your backpack or is built into it and allows you to drink water slowly and constantly by using a small hose with a mouth controlled nozzle. These bladders can hold varying amounts of water, smaller ones hold 2 or so liters of water, while larger ones can hold around double that (too much water gets very heavy very quickly).

Well, which one do I want?

If your hiking and backpacking consist of occasional day trips to places that are not very rugged or remote, then you would probably be more than happy with a few quality water bottles. However if you are planning on longer hikes or more rugged ones, the convenience of being able to constantly drink whenever you want with the bladder, plus it’s larger capacity to reduce refilling probably makes it a better option for you.

When it comes down to actually picking out a specific water bottle or a hydration bladder, there are several things to consider. The first is probably cost. Water bottles run anywhere from around a few dollars to about $10 for the most expensive bottle, while a hydration bladder starts somewhere around $25 and goes up from there as you get larger and/or more fancy bladders (such as one that is built into a backpack).

Another consideration is the ruggedness of the bottles. If you’re planning on using the bottles year-round, you’ll want one that can handle its contents freezing without cracking or being otherwise damaged. For this kind of situation, you should be looking at the high-density polyethylene bottles, or lexan bottles, both of which are made of materials that can take temperature extremes. Water bladders, whether they are alone or built into a backpack, usually have their own case that protects the bladders from punctures and other damage. In addition, since the bladder is generally inside a backpack, there is some insulation and unless you' are hiking for a long time in very cold water, you are less likely to freeze the water. However, the hose and nozzle, unless they too are insulated can quickly freeze and make the bladder useless.

I would stay away from the old fashioned metal canteens that are what you would expect a boy scout to be carrying. Not only do these canteens not carry that much water, they are relatively heavy compared to the bottles constructed today out of plastics and even compared to the bladders, which when empty, weigh almost nothing.

There are newer stainless steel containers that are lightweight and a good choice if you want to stay away from plastics.  They are almost as strong as the lexan or HDPE bottles, but can be damaged if the liquids in them freeze.  This is especially true of the ones made from aluminum, they can easily break when the liquid freezes in them.  This does not make them a great choice for use in the winter months.

Where should I look for these things?

Just about any outdoor store will have both traditional water bottles and hydration bladders. REI, EMS and Campmor all offer a multitude of different bottles. Additionally you can find bottles in the “outdoor gear” section of most major stores like Walmart or any sporting goods store and most online stores like Amazon have huge selections of these water bottles and bladders..

I would suggest sticking to the outdoor gear stores or places like Amazon where you can get the name brand gear though, as water bottles from department stores are generally not made of the high density polyethylene or lexan and are more likely to break.  For water bottles, Nalgene is the standard bearer or quality and in the world of bladders Camelback is a good choice.

And exactly what do I look for?

Either online or in a brick and mortar store, you’re likely to run into a “hydration” area in any outdoor gear store. You’ll find a huge selection of water bottles and probably several different kinds of hydration bladders. The water bottle selection usually breaks down into three major section, the high-density polyethylene bottles, shatter resistant lexan bottles, and the more traditional canteen type bottles (though you are seeing less and less of these).

Hydration bladders come are broken down into two major categories, those that are stand alone bladders that can be put into any backpack, and bladders that are built into backpacks.

The polyethylene bottles are generally the cheapest and all around best if you’re looking for a basic water bottle. They come in multiple sizes and shapes, from cylinders to cubes and just about anything in-between. There are wide-mouth models and narrow-mouth models, depending on how you like to drink and if you’re going to need to put in, say ice cubes. These bottles can also easily handle extreme temperatures without being damaged.

Older bottles contained the chemical BPA which could leach from the bottle into the water.  When shopping for bottles make sure to find bottles that are labeled BPA free.

With regards to bladders, the stand-alone bladders are significantly cheaper but generally don’t quite fit as nicely into your existing backpack as the bladders that are built into backpacks do. The bladders also come in various sizes and offer different levels of insulation and protection for the bladders.

How many do I need?

If you’re looking at water bottles, you probably want to have at least a few liters of water with you, which means you can have an assortment of bottles or a few larger ones. I've always been partially to carrying two 32-ounce bottles, as this is sufficient for most trips, but some people like having several smaller 16-ounce bottles so that one is easier to carry in a fanny pack.

You’ll only need a single bladder (though I guess you could get multiple ones if you really wanted to) and you’ll have to decide what size to get. A two or three liter bladder should be more than enough for most people.

How do I use it?

Rinse the bottles or the bladder before you use it and then simply fill them with water. Drink the water as you need to.

For the bladders, make sure any protective seal is removed from the nozzle on the house and simply bite down on the nozzle and drink like you would from a straw.

How do I take care of them?

With proper maintenance, water bottles and bladders should last for a very long time.

For water bottles, after a trip make sure all the bottles are empty, rinse them out and then allow them to air dry without the lids attached. If you had something other than water (say ice tea or juice), wash out the bottles with soap and water and then allow it to air dry to make sure mold isn’t able to start growing. Most bottles can be run through a dishwasher if they need to be.

Hydration bladders should be completely empty after you are finished with them and should be left open so that the bladder and the hose can completely dry. To sanitize the bladder you can fill it up with a very dilute bleach solution and then rinse it out several times. You don’t have to do this after every use, but every few times you should, to make sure there are no bacteria gaining a foothold in the bladder, the hose or the nozzle.

Final Thoughts

Water bottles and hydration in general are probably the most important aspects of hiking and backpacking. Without the proper amount of fluids, most hikers will quickly become dehydrated and sick with potentially fatal consequences.

There are many options for proper hydration, from the old fashioned metal canteen to today’s hydration bladders built into backpacks, and you can pick and choose from these many options to develop what works for you and is applicable to your hiking situation.

Take some time in considering your water bottle needs and choices and then head to your local outdoor gear store and stock up on what you need. You’ll be happy you did when you are enjoying a hike in the future and have all the water you need.

Need more hiking and camping advice?

Adventures in the Outdoors has a number of guides and advice columns on a number of different hiking, camping and outdoor adventure related topics, including our introductory guide to hiking, Hiking 101.  Browse our Advice Section for more information and to get out and start enjoying the great outdoors!