How to Choose a Running Hydration Pack

A woman wearing a running hydration pack runs on a trail with friends.

A running hydration pack is a handy addition to every runner’s kit. Many runners choose to wear a pack on a long run when they need to carry water and extra gear. But whether you plan to be out for hours or just a few miles, packs are a convenient way to carry anything you need on the run, from extra water to your phone or mid-run fuel.

There are many brands and styles of packs to choose from, including belts or packs and vests, and narrowing it down can be tricky.

Since a pack can be a pricey investment, you’ll want to make sure you pick the right one for your needs. There are four key things to consider when choosing a running hydration pack:

  1. Hydration system
  2. Capacity
  3. Features
  4. Fit and comfort

1. Hydration System

A man sips from his running hydration pack.

You might choose between bottles, soft flasks or a reservoir. Here’s a bit more about each option plus pros and cons.

Bottles are best for waist belts. They can range from 10 to 20 ounces. Some waist belts are designed to hold a single bottle or have holsters for two bottles.

Pros: easy to clean, can split water/electrolytes between bottles

Cons: heavy/stiffer material

Soft flasks, also called speed flasks, are made of a lightweight, flexible material. They can be handheld with a special strap or tucked into the front pockets of a running vest. These can be used with bite-valve caps or straws depending on how you carry them.

Pros: quick to access from front pockets, can split water/electrolytes between flasks

Cons: smaller, can be difficult to place in pockets when full

Reservoir, also called a bladder, is also made of a lightweight, flexible material. It’s designed to carry 1-liter (or more) of water and uses a straw that snakes from the back of your vest or pack to your front where you can easily sip without stopping.

Pros: hands-free, efficient, best for longer distances

Cons: heavy when full, can be difficult to open/close, can be difficult to clean

Pro tip: If you find the sound of sloshing water in a reservoir annoying, all you have to do is flip it upside down and suck the air out. Then flip it back upright and tuck it back in your pack. No more sloshing noise!

The hotter or longer your run is, the more water you’ll want to carry. For some runners, a 1-liter reservoir is more than enough. For others, a 2-liter bladder is ideal. While individual needs vary, a general rule of thumb is to drink 8 ounces every 20 minutes during your run. Drinking electrolytes for runs longer than 60 minutes will help replace those lost through sweat.

2. Capacity

Runners hang around eating chews from their running hydration pack.

There are two things to consider when it comes to the capacity your hydration pack can handle: water and gear. Pack capacity is generally measured in liters. This means the volume of space available for the stuff you’re carrying. This does not account for the weight of what you carry, and you’ll want to be mindful that you’re not weighing yourself down with too much gear.

You’ll want to make sure your pack has room for the essentials. This includes nutrition, spare layers, skincare, first aid, your phone and car keys.

Depending on the hydration system you select, consider how much space you’ll need for water and everything else. For example, a 1-liter water reservoir will take up space when you first load up your pack, but will decrease in size and weight as you drink, making space for any layers you might start your run wearing and need to stash in your pack as you go. Or, if all you need are a couple small items, a waist belt might be your best option.

3. Features

A runner runs through the forest in a running hydration pack.

Picking a hydration pack with the features that make your run easy and comfortable can be the hardest part. Key things to consider include pockets and their placement, safety features, bungees and more.

Many runners appreciate having easy access to items like gels and their phone during a run. Having access pockets on the chest or sides is a game changer. Plus, having different sections inside the pack makes it easy to keep gear organized, but it’s not necessary.

Bungees on your pack make it really easy to roll up a shirt or jacket and strap it down to the outside without taking up valuable interior space. For trail runners, trekking-pole keepers on the outside of a pack are a handy way to stash poles when not needed.

Running packs often have a variety of safety features built into their design, including things like a built-in whistle on the chest (sometimes it’s part of a buckle), reflective elements for improved visibility or straps to clip a blinking light on your back. You might also consider a pack in a neon color for extra visibility at dawn, dusk or dark.

Some packs use webbing straps with adjustable clips to secure the pack, and others use bungee cord with hooks. Either way, being able to adjust the fit as you’re removing or adding layers, drinking water and fueling up is essential to guarantee a comfortable fit.

4. Fit and comfort

Speaking of fit, your running hydration pack should sit comfortably without digging in and you should be able to tighten the straps to control bouncing and sliding.

Some packs are designed with a 3D mesh that sits against the body for a bit of cushion with enhanced breathability. Others are made with stretchy solid and mesh materials to fit more like a jacket than a pack. Many runners appreciate a running belt instead of a pack or vest style. These smaller styles are designed to sit at the waist or hips. It can take some practice to figure out the best way to wear them to eliminate shifting and bouncing.

There are packs and vests designed for unisex fit and for a women’s-specific fit. Depending on your body shape, you may want to try different styles to see what fits best. Pay attention to where front pockets rest on your chest (it’s best to avoid having them drift towards your arms where they can chafe) and how straps feel under your arms.

Running hydration packs can vary in price, from $80 to $200 or more. We recommend heading into your local Fleet Feet to try on different packs to find one you like. Load it up with some goodies and take a jog around the store to check the fit.

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