While we'd prefer to ride bag free the reality is that jersey pockets just don't cut it - especially for longer rides where you need to carry extras to ensure you're never found wanting.
Fear not because there is a solution: the hydration pack, which is more often than not a necessary evil to carry the food, water, layers, spares and tools you're likely to need on a ride.
Hydration packs come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from low-profile packs and bum bags to large backpacks with room to bring a Sunday roast and full toolbox.
BEST HYDRATION PACKS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Water-carrying capacity
The main reason you'll be looking to purchase a hydration pack is to carry enough water to prevent you from drying out on the trail. The capacity will vary from about a litre for hip packs and bum bags to three litres for a large trail pack. How much you'll need to bring will vary depending on the length of your ride, the temperature and if there is somewhere to top up — the usual recommendation is about half a litre of fluid per hour.
2. Room for other gear
On any given ride you at the very least carry a tube, a pump, tyre levers, a multi-tool, a quick link and a snack, but you may also have layers, rain gear, pads or a full-face helmet in tow. We also recommend chucking in a space blanket and a couple of band-aids just in case. Depending on your load, something between 7- and 20-litres should do the trick.
There is nothing worse than having to unpack your entire bag on the trail in search of your CO2 inflator so make sure you look for bags that have internal pockets to keep your snacks separate from your tools.
Wearing a pack is going to leave you warmer than without, so look for a bag with channels to allow some airflow or a suspended mesh-back panel.
4. Harness and protection
A poorly fitting hydration pack can leave you with sore shoulders, hips and even whack you in the back of the head every time you hit a drop or steep section. Look for bags that fit your torso length and have plenty of adjustability in the straps. A good hydration pack will have a sternum strap and hip belt to help move the weight off your shoulders and stabilise the load. Highly padded straps aren't really necessary and look for bags with some form of venting.
Many brands also make women-specific bags, which will see the pack cut to fit the female torso. The harness will usually be a bit narrower and shorter to better fit the curves that guys just don't have. Some bags also feature removable spine protectors.
5. Bladder and bite valve
Hydration bladders come in many different sizes and shapes. For the most part, bladders are available in 1.5-, 2.0- and 3.0-litre sizes and will either have a circular screw opening or a dry-bag-style fold over closure at the top. There are pros and cons to both but look for a bladder that has a big opening — this will make refills, cleaning and drying easier.
Like bladders, not all bite valves are created equal. Most are made of soft rubber, just requiring a squeeze to start the stream of water, though some allow fluid to flow more freely than others. The tubing that comes with most hydration packs can be cut to length and should feature some sort of a lock-off valve that prevents leaks.
THE BEST HYDRATION PACKS FOR MOUNTAIN BIKING
Hailing from Cortez, Colorado, the Raptor 14 features the brand’s BioStrech harness and hip belt for maximum comfort and comes with Osprey’s 2.5-litre hydraulics reservoir which is said to reduce sloshing as you ride.
The hydration sleeve has its own zippered pocket, and the hose is routed over the right shoulder with a magnet anchor on the sternum strap to prevent the bite valve from swinging around. With a second zippered pocket for tools and food there is also a stretch mesh front pocket perfect for ditching layers.
The bag gets Osprey’s LidLock helmet carry system and small zippered pockets on the hip belt are perfect to carry snacks or your phone. The Raptor also comes with a removable tool roll to keep everything organised.
With a massive 20-litres of storage space, the Backline is a stealthy-looking hydration pack that comes with a spine protector for those who sometimes get a bit too rowdy. The included Lite Shield back protector is made from PV foam and segmented EPS, meeting both the TUB and CE certification standards.
The bag is BYO and will accept up to a 3.0-litre reservoir. To take advantage of the back protector, the pack fits close to the body but does feature channelling to allow a bit of airflow over your back.
Inside the main pocket, there are smaller mesh dividers to separate your gear, and on the rear of the bag, there are provisions to carry both half-shell and full-face helmets.
Cut slightly shorter than the men’s version, the Attack 18 SL is based around a women's fit and features the brand’s Shield system, which is a CE-certified back protector made from viscoelastic foam.
The bag has room for a 3.0-litre bladder (though you'll have to bring your own) and features pockets galore; including a goggle pocket at the top, plenty of mesh and divided elastic pouches for keeping your snacks arranged and a hidden phone pocket near the right kidney.
There's a stowable mesh-helmet carrier, and compression straps on the side are ideal for schlepping armour up long, fire road climbs. The bag also has a built-in rain cover for when the weather takes a turn for the worst.
The MULE was originally launched in 1996 when it was basically just a backpack with a few zippered pockets and a bungee on the rear. The latest version has three zippered pockets including an insulated section just for the Crux 3.0-litre reservoir. The gear pocket features a zippered pouch near the top and mesh dividers and elastic loops to wrangle your tools.
The rear of the bag employs what Camelbak calls the Air Director back panel which uses foam and mesh to ensure your jersey stays dry and sweat-free.
On the outside, there are nifty helmet carry clips, and the front flap is big enough to hold a rain jacket or extra layer.
Beyond just being available in some loud and crazy designs, the Drafter is a solid all-around MTB pack. It comes with a 3.0-litre Hydra-pack hydration pack complete with the brand's high-flow Blaster bite valve.
The back panel comprises suspended mesh allowing for loads of airflow, and gives the DK Impact CE-certified spine protector a place to slot in (sold separately). The gear pocket can be open and laid flat and has quite a few zippered and elastic mesh-organiser pouches.
The exterior features an open pocket, perfect for carrying bulky layers or helmets both full face and half shell. Hiding on the bottom of the pack are two pieces of webbing designed to securely tether unwanted armour.
Straight out of the eighties, the bum bag is back and is ideal for a short ride where you don't need to carry too much water or gear along with you. The Osprey Serial has room for a 1.5-litre reservoir and has a magnet attached to prevent tangles but can be bested by grabby trail-side fauna.
With compression straps to keep the weight close to your back, the zippered compartment has organiser pockets with enough room for a tube, tyre levers, pack kit, mini-pump and multi-tool while zippered pockets on the hip belt are big enough for a phone and sunscreen.
The Solstice pack is a low-rider-style bag which uses a short and wide bladder to situate the bulk of the weight low on your hips for added stability. This also takes some strain off your shoulders and back. By keeping the weight as close to your body as possible; the bladder is accessed by a zippered opening in the back panel.
The main compartment has a few small organiser pockets including a zippered mesh pocket complete with a key keeper and a fleece 'media' pocket ideal for sunnies or your phone.
With pockets on the waist belt, snacks can be kept at hand and there are also attachment points for a full-face helmet and armour, too.
Thule has been making bags for a while and the Vital is a unique take on the low-rider hydration pack. With only 8.0-litres of storage, you can stuff a surprising amount of gear in the bag, especially with the stretch-mesh pocket at the rear. The waist belt has two jersey-style pockets that can accommodate both snacks and tools.
Inside, there is a fleece-lined pocket for valuables and the main compartment sees a sleeve for the bladder as well various mesh pockets and loops to keep everything neat and tidy.
The hose is routed over the right shoulder with the last few centimetres shod in an elastic sleeve with magnetic panels sewn in — it's by far the best magnetic hose keeper we've come across.