While most backpacks these days can accommodate a hydration bladder, this category looks specifically at packs designed around the hydration system. These smaller packs are only up to 14 liters in size intended for half-day hiking excursions. Savvy and experienced hikers and/or those not venturing too far into the wilderness could probably get away with using the larger packs in this test for full-day hikes.
We researched hiking pack options from over 50 companies, narrowing options down to those within our 0-14 liter range with hydration features. From reviews and experience finally picking the final six to be fully tested this year.
More than 60 hours have gone into the testing each of these hydration packs. The majority of the testing is hauling gear on short hikes through pacific northwest rainforest. The remainder was carrying essentials around town or subjecting them to specific tests in the lab.
Testing on the packs is done primarily through hiking with them and using the packs just as they were intended. We also developed some specific tests designed to push the limits of the packs to help reveal what features were really useful, which ones were gimmicks and to see how well the pack performed beyond its intended use both to help us simulate long term use of the pack as well as to determine its versatility beyond hiking—namely, how it works running, biking or as a travel pack.
The Gregory Miwok 12 is very good all-round day pack that is comfortable and is easy to use. Good ventilation, twelve liters of space, effective hydration features, hip belt pockets and deep side pockets makes this a favorite and versatile half-day pack.
The Osprey Daylite is a versatile and comfortable pack for day hiking, as a carry-on travelling and a light commuter around town. Thirteen liters of volume provides ample room and the hydration system is comfortable to wear and easy to refill. It’s not ideal for use with water bottles—they’re prone to fall out of the side pockets.
The Matador Hydrolite is a specialist travel pack and excels at it. It’s very lightweight and packable and comes out of the box with a water bladder and filter for travelling in places with questionable water. It’s price may deter some people but those who do will find a lot of features.
The Deuter Speed Lite 12 has a back panel that is comfortable whether testers were using a water bladder or not. Thin shoulder straps made heavier loads less comfortable. No hip belt and only being able to route the hydration hose out the left makes it a little less versatile than other choices in the test.
Hiking hydration packs are fairly simple products. They are a backpack with some sort of pocket for holding a bladder. Some come with hydration bladders included but most do not. One feature we saw in this test was a water filter included and built right into the hydration hose. This is one feature we’d like to see more of on hydration bladders.
Most packs in this category tend to fall into either the standard backpack style or an niche style. The niche styles are very well suited to one thing, possibly summit bids or packing down into another bag. The standard style is well padded, has two or more pockets and a pocket for the hydration bladder. The standard style works well for a number of things, a jack-of-all-trades.
Comfort and Fit in hydration packs for hiking tend to be lumped into three categories, very comfortable, basic and minimalist. This rating looked at comfort, fit, ventilation, stability and compression.
The Osprey Daylite and Gregory Miwok 12 lead the test in comfort because of their thickly padded back panels and shoulder straps. They easily carried heavy loads and kept their shape when packed with a bladder or angular objects. While they did not have the ventilation of a trampoline suspension, the structured back panels allowed for relatively good air flow.
The Black Diamond BBEE 11, Matador Hydrolite and Deuter Speed Lite 12 fell into the basic category. They had less structure than the leaders in this category with thinner padding in the back panels and shoulder straps. Testers could feel angular objects if they weren’t packed carefully and/or padded by a full water bladder. The back panels took the shape of the water bladder when it was full. Shoulder straps tended to be thinner and less comfortable with heavy loads around 15 pounds.
The Matador Hydrolite was a unique pack in this test. It straddled the comfort and basic types. It’s back panel is inflatable and was very comfortable but not rigid enough keep a flat shape. The thin shoulder straps were wider and more comfortable than other straps of similar thickness but not as comfortable as the packs with heavily padded straps.
Finally, in the minimalist category was the Marmot Kompressor Meteor. Being so light and packable there is no space for a lot of padding. The back panel and shoulder straps are as thin as they could make them without just removing the back panel all together. Functionally it carries the load well but is not as comfortable as the others in the test. Users of this pack will have specific requirements to be light and packable.
The carrying capacity rating looks at the pockets and storage on each of the packs and how useful and functional they are. For example, a pack could have lots of pockets but be poorly placed and logistically awkward to use.
The Gregory Miwok 12 and Marmot Kompressor Meteor lead the group in this category. Each had a good amount of storage and the pockets were well-placed and easy to use. Each had additional features related to storage like pockets in the hip belts on the Miwok or a pocket the entire pack stuffs into on the Kompressor Meteor.
Next in line were the Osprey Daylite, Matador Hydrolite and Deuter Speed Lite 12. The Daylite has great storage but lacked in ease of use compared to the leaders. It’s main compartment is a bit awkward to open because the rainfly can snag the zipper. The small top pocket is placed where testers expected the main compartment to be. The Hydrolite was completely different having a waterproof roll-top for a closure on the main compartment with a stretch pocket and small pocket on the front. It held testers gear well but was a bit cumbersome to open the four buckles every time to get access to the main compartment. The Deuter’s pockets were basic but got the job done.
Finally, the Black Diamond BBEE 11 was the most basic in the test for storage. One main pocket with a small pocket inside made up all the storage. It didn’t compete with the better pockets on the leaders but testers did like the simplicity. This pack is for a specific user.
Features on all the hydration packs were similar. Minor differences make up the variation in scoring in this rating. Features tended to be things over and above what a hydration pack is required to have.
The travel-oriented Matador Hydrolite beat out the others just by its sheer number of features. The Hydrolite comes with a bladder and a water filter and had a number of other things the other packs didn’t have like waterproof roll-top. The execution of these features was very good as well.
The Gregory Miwok is runner up in this category with its features including hip belts, a sunglasses holder, and a hydration hose clip. A few other features round out the list. While not as long as the list for the Hydrolite, the Miwok had many compared to the others and each worked well.
The Osprey Daylite and Deuter Speed Lite come in next in the middle of the pack with a solid performance but nothing special. The Black Diamond BBEE 11 and the Marmot Kompressor Meteor kept things light and simple with only a few features but pleasing an minimalist user.
In this section we ranked each pack on the number of features related to carrying and using the hydration bladder as well as their ease of use.
The two majors differences between all the packs was related to where the bladder was stored. Some packs store the bladder in an external pocket, and some inside the main compartment with a seperator. External pockets tend to make it easier to add and remove the bladder when refilling. The downside is that it’s sometimes unused space when there is no bladder there. The internal pockets can be used for laptops providing some versatility.
The Osprey Daylite and Gregory Miwok 12 did well in this category with easy to open external pockets. Their rigid suspension and back panel made it easier to insert the bladder and remove it since the pack basically stands on it’s own.
The Matador Hydrolite did well in this category as well mainly because of all it’s hydration-related features. It was actually somewhat difficult to add the bladder back into the Hydrolite since there’s very little structure to it. Past that though, the bladder is included with an inline water filter rated for 100,000 gallons. The straps and routing of the hose worked well. One particular feature on the Hydrolite stood out especially and that was the mesh hose holder on the shoulder strap. It was very comfortable and effective way to hold the mouthpiece of the hydration hose.
The Deuter Speed Lite 12 and the Marmot Kompressor Meteor were in the middle with usable internal bladder pockets. It’s a bit more work to get a bladder inside the main compartment if you have any gear in the pack. When the pack is empty, there is almost no difference to a pack with an external pocket. The Deuter Speed Lite 12 made up an extra point by being able to hold bladders up to three liters. The hydration hanger buckle on the Marmot Kompressor Meteor was too big to fit through our Hydropak bladder handles.
Finally the Black Diamond BBEE 11 just has a piece of webbing hanging inside the bladder pocket to hang the bladder on. Testers had to use a piece of cord or another clip to attach the bladder.
Because of their size and comfort the Gregory Miwok 12 and Osprey Daylite were favorites for doing everything. They were comfortable to wear, carried a considerable load and were durable enough to go anywhere. The padded back panels and shoulder straps and included hip belts made them comfortable to run and ride with as well.
The Deuter Speed Lite functionally did everything the Gregory and Osprey could but just wasn’t as comfortable to wear so we were less included to use it every day commuting or taking it travelling.
The Marmot Kompressor Meteor, Black Diamond BBEE 11 and Matador Hydrolite 11 lacked features and comfort that would make them good everyday carries. They all are specialist packs, excelling in one area. The Marmot Kompressor Meteor is ultralight, making it very packable and easy to tuck inside another pack or suitcase. Similar story for the Black Diamond BBEE 11. It’s simplicity and durability make it a good choice for a summit bag. And finally the Matador Hydrolite is built for travel. The included stuff sack, waterproof fabric, shoulder strap card pocket and included water filter make it a good choice for adventure travel in places without easy access to clean water.
The majority of testing with the hiking hydration packs is through hiking with them in various configurations. We also look for packing configurations push the limits of the back panel to test how protective it is. Another test is to add weight to the pack until the shoulder straps become uncomfortable.
Other testing includes running since the speed and amount of movement is likely far beyond what any of the packs would endure while hiking. We also carry the pack around town to errands, to the office and while traveling to test travel and commuting use.
During the hiking hydration pack testing, we look at five main criteria to judge a packs performance while hiking.
Comfort and Fit covers the overall comfort of wearing the pack including ventilation and stability. This includes how well it moves while wearing it, how well the air flows through the back panel and shoulder straps and how comfortable the back panel is.
Carrying Capacity is not just how big the pack is or how much it can carry but how the pockets and other storage configurations are arranged. Factors in this score could include a pack with lots of pockets but be poorly placed, or a pack could include external methods of strapping on extra gear.
Features are extra functions beyond what a hydration pack is required to have. Extras are the nice-to-haves that can make a hike or trip more enjoyable.
The Hydration System rating is the main feature of a hydration pack and we rate the pack’s function around caring and using a water bladder. There are a variety of ways to do this. In this section we ranked each pack on the number of features related to carrying and using the hydration bladder as well as their ease of use.
Versatility within this category is how well the pack worked outside of hiking. How well does the pack work running, riding, commuting or travelling is included in this criteria.
What is a Hiking Hydration Pack?
When we review hiking hydration packs we are looking at backpacks usually in the 8-14 liter range of volume which are generally used for half-day hikes. They are designed around the hydration system and can also hold food, water, extra layers and emergency supplies. They can hold different size water bladders but usually have space for at least a 2-liter water bladder.
Within the hiking hydration pack category there are a couple of sub-categories. Some are minimalist packs made extra durable for climbing. Others are ultralight and packable for travelling.
Materials on these packs are usually 50 denier up to 400 denier nylon ripstop. They are usually somewhat water resistant, holding off light rain. Some options are made of waterproof material and do not require a pack cover.
Hiking hydration packs come with the bare essentials of a main compartment, two shoulder straps and some way to carry a hydration bladder. Extras may include a waist belt and sternum strap to help keep the back steady. Most will include other pockets as well for smaller items like wallets, keys or GPS. Some packs will have some way to promote airflow between the users back and the pack.