Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Mtbr Guide to hydration packs, featuring the new CamelBak Low Rider line. To see all the articles, head over to our Low Rider hydration pack hub page. This article and the articles in this section are courtesy of CamelBak.
Before delving into the decision making matrix that guides the hydration pack selection process, it’s helpful to understand the importance of these ride (and life) sustaining water carriers. For that we turn to Matt Dixon, an exercise physiologist, elite-level coach, and former professional racer who sees hydration as a critical part of the nutrition equation whether you’re heading out for a short spin or an all-day epic.
“Most of us have some grasp on the fact that proper hydration is preferable over dehydration,” explains Dixon. “But do you actually know what proper hydration will accomplish?”
The answer, Dixon says, is as impressive as it is eye opening. Proper hydration delays the onset of fatigue during training and competition. Proper hydration increases one’s ability to maintain focus during hard exertions. Proper hydration improves the recovery process to facilitate repeated top-level performances. And proper hydration helps maintain a healthy immune system.
So how exactly does it work? “When we exercise we naturally get dehydrated while, at the same time, we have to deal with a rising core temperature due to the heat created by work performed,” continues Dixon. “The key to these issues is really our blood and blood volume. During exercise, blood plays a key role in performance.”
Indeed, the delivery of blood to the skin dissipates heat (think your body’s natural air conditioning). This delivery of blood also helps your muscles take in oxygen and other nutrients, as well as carry waste products away. And the delivery of blood aids the abdomen in absorption of calories.
But we only have so much blood in our body, and as you exercise more, you become dehydrated, which in turns lowers blood volume. And that’s when things start to go haywire. So how do you prevent the train from leaving the proverbial tracks?
“I like to tell athletes to think of hydration as an ‘IV’ of fluids,” advises Dixon. “That means very frequent and consistent ingestion of fluids versus big gulps every 30 to 40 minutes. Drip-feed your hydration and your body will thank you.”
Now that we understand why it’s critical to hydrate, it’s time to consider the delivery methods. Sure, if you’re heading out for a short, easy spin, the good old water bottle can do the trick. But venture much past an hour and the value of the hydration pack quickly becomes evident. Not only do they carry more liquid, but they provide easy access to your hydration concoction of choice, making it more likely that you’ll heed Dixon’s “drip-feed” advice, rather than taking the occasional chug.
Indeed, with a hydration pack, there is no slowing down to reach for a bottle. Modern technology such as Camelbak’s magnetic tube trap keep your liquid close at hand and easy to access. And since intake is easier, you will drink more, which means improved hydration — and performance.
Of course hydration packs are also great at carrying gear, be it tools, spare parts, food, and/or clothing. The key question then becomes what do you plan on doing with your hydration pack, which will go great lengths to determining necessary pack size.
If you’re a recreational rider who never ventures too far afield, a sleek pack with a 1-2 liter reservoir and modest cargo space will do the trick on most occasions. But as the length of your adventures increases (and let’s hope they do), you’ll want to add more carrying capacity for water and gear.
CamelBak recommends that you carry 1 liter for every hour you plan to ride. So for the typical 3-hour ride, you’ll want 3 liters or about 100 ounces. Just remember that a liter of water weighs about 2 pounds, so don’t bring more than you’ll need unless extra resistance training is also part of the plan. Also know that some modern packs, such as the new CamelBak Low Rider Skyline 10 LR, feature built-in compression straps that cinch down as liquid is consumed, which lessens unwanted sloshing.
The size of the reservoir opening is another important consideration. CamelBak reservoirs have a 3.5” opening that makes them easier to fill — and clean.
Next it’s time to consider cargo capacity. If your standard rides are dawn-to-dusk adventures (that sometimes last even longer), you might actually need room for the kitchen sink. That means a pack such as the CamelBak H.A.W.G., which has 17 liters of carrying capacity along with a 3-liter reservoir. Conversely, if all you require is water, the CamelBak RaceBak with a 2-liter reservoir and nothing more is the way to go.
For most of us, though, the answer lies somewhere in between. Our rides typically last 2-4 hours, and we like to carry enough gear to get us out of jam (or protect us in a hail storm), but not to set-up Everest Base Camp. We also like to go fast.
That sweet spot is around 10 liters total: 3 for water, and 7 for tools, tube, snacks, and a rain jacket. Bonus points for packs with easy-to-access pockets, fleece lined storage for valuables, a removable tool roll, and hooks and straps to carry your helmet and a set of soft armor.
Think CamelBak’s Skyline 10 LR, which ticks all those boxes, and is designed to move water weight and cargo capacity lower for a more secure fit around the rider’s hips. This lower center of gravity lets you move more freely, especially during aggressive riding over technical terrain.
Yet another key factor to consider is the sip tube itself. Does it secure to the pack when not in use? Or does it flap around like a runaway fire hose? Of course the preference is the former, so look for a pack that has a magnetic tube trap, which secures the drink tube when not in use, and makes it easy to grab a drink without taking your eyes off the trail.
Finally, focus on fit and ventilation. The best packs feature adjustable shoulder harnesses and waist belts that assure a secure and comfortable fit, and have a back panel such as the CamelBak XV, a multi-layer EVA foam that provides superior cross ventilation in a lightweight design, meaning just because you are wearing a pack you don’t have to have a sweaty back.