Staying well hydrated when you’re running is a no brainer – and buying a top hydration pack is generally the best way to do that.
The equation is simple: fail to get enough liquids into your system and your performance suffers. However, unless you’re running a race with water stations, reliable sources of drinking water can be hard to find.
There are plenty of choices out there from the likes of Inov-8, Camelbak, Salomon and OMM – all great brands with plenty of expertise. But buying is so easy to get wrong – so check out our tips below, followed by our reviews.
- Store more: The best running backpacks
What are the options?
Running backpacks with hydration bladders: Sometimes called reservoirs, these let you carry water in the main section of your backpack. Good if your priority is a big supply of water rather than loads of kit.
Ultra vests: A more minimalist option, these hug the body more closely. Most come with front pockets for soft flasks that you can whip out and refill without removing the vest – though there are larger options that’ll take a bladder too. Because they’re lightweight, they’re great for those 60-90-minute runs around town too.
Backpacks with front-loaded plastic bottles: These tend to be bigger packs designed for multi-stage ultra runs where the hydration is a secondary consideration. The adjustable bottle holders clipped to the front straps are good for quick refills at aid stations.
Hydration belts and waist-worn holsters: Ideal for stowing smaller bottles or a single horizontally slung 650ml plastic bottle. Marathon runners tend to use these to keep a small amount of water handy for between the water stations. They're also great for shorter training runs.
Hand holsters: These super-minimal handheld solutions are essentially running whilst holding a bottle but instead of clutching it, the bottle is actually strapped to your hand. These mainly work with soft flasks for comfort and can be ideal for that short run commute or a dash around town where you don’t need a lot of fluids.
Bottle it or get bladdered?
In addition to the pack, there’s also a choice to make for the vessel you use to carry your liquids.
Plastic bottles: These range from 200ml to 750ml. The larger ones tend to be easier to fill with wide openings and can be good if you plan to add hydration powders, though they do weigh more. Some options have built-in tubes and bite valves in the cap meaning that you can drink on the move without raising the bottle.
Soft flasks: Soft flasks carry around 400ml to 650ml of liquid. They have the benefit of moulding to the body better and can be more comfortable to run with, although it is harder to add powders. They can also come with tubes and bite valves and they fold down for easy stashing when not in use. A great option for carrying extra storage capacity.
Bladders: Some packs come with bladders while others have space for you to add your own. They offer much more capacity, often up to 2.5 litres, and they let you carry the weight of your water on your back. Hydration tubes with bite valves then feed to the front of the body for easy drinking. You will have to take the pack off to refill though, while the water in these gets warmed by your body and cleaning is a pain.
The best hydration packs out there
So which options out there are worth spending your money on? Here we run through the best for everything from short distance city runs to mountain ultras.
Best on test: Salomon Skin Pro Set 10
Salomon knows a thing or two about running big distances in the mountains and this single-size, unisex pack has been designed primarily for trail runners. The slim-fitting pack comes with a soft 1.5l reservoir that's designed to hold firm in the pack without moving around.
Unlike most bags where the hydration tube goes over the shoulder, this one runs under the arm, making it much easier to empty fluids from the tube should you need to. There’s also a handy click valve that makes it easy to remove the hydration tube from the bladder even when it’s full. If you’re looking for flexibility, two front pockets can hold additional soft flasks but these have to be bought separately.
When it comes to comfort, two adjustable double front chest and sternum straps keep the pack stable. There are large clips on these which are ideal for ultra-tired fumbling fingers as well as attachment points for running poles. If you want more capacity you can also upgrade to the larger Skin Pro Set 15.
Weight: 279g / 9.8 oz | Gear capacity: 10.0L
Arc’Teryx Norvan 7
The Norvan 7 is a sleek-looking hydration vest that keeps things simple with enough combined water and gear capacity to tackle longer trail runs. It’s not the lightest option on this list but at 265g it’s still race-friendly with an unfussy design.
The main compartment has room for a 2-litre removable hydration bladder with an internal clip that helps keep it in place. Wide shoulder straps add stability and larger cut outs in the overall silhouette make for freer feeling on the run. Fixed guides route the hydration tube under the arm and keep it firmly in place.
There are also two chest pockets that’ll happily take your standard soft flasks if that’s your preference. It also comes with weather-resistant storage bag, rear mesh pockets for stashing extra gear and essentials. On the front there are four easily accessible front mesh pockets for stuff you need more readily to hand.
Weight: 265g / 9oz | Gear Capacity: 7L
Raidlight Responsive Vest 6L
French ultra and trail running brand, Raidlight will be well-known to anyone who’s run the Marathon des Sables. It’s a popular bag of choice for the iconic multi-stage desert race. This 6-litre vest pack probably won’t quite see you across the Sahara but it’s a solid option for single-stint ultras.
Another versatile hydration pack, the Responsiv comes with two 600ml bite-valve soft flasks that tuck snugly into chest pockets and there’s room for a 2-litre bladder in the 5-litre main pouch. Though you have to buy the bladder separately.
What you do get is a whopping nine pockets to stash all your other race gear, including a zippered front pocket, a GPS tracker pocket on the shoulder and layered internal sections for easier internal organisation. It also features hiking pole holders, a built-in whistle and reflective print on the front and back for a bit of added night-running safety.
Weight: 195g / 9oz | Gear Capacity: 6L
CamelBak CircuitVest 50oz
CamelBak pretty much invented the bladder-based hydration pack and unsurprisingly for a brand that specialises in hydration solutions, it offers some fantastic options, including the Circuit – the company’s top-selling vest.
This one-size design comes with a 1.5-litre reservoir and a bite-valve tube that’ll keep you covered for the longer runs. There are also two front pockets that can take soft flasks, giving you an extra level of versatility. Another zippered front pocket is big enough for a smartphone or a couple of gels, however, the vest sadly doesn’t have any stretch-mesh side pockets, so if you’re using soft flasks in the front, all you gear has to go in the back.
At 160g it’s nice and light, a dual sternum strap system lets you adjust the fit for comfort and the shoulder straps are nice and broad so they don’t cut in.
Weight: 160g / 5oz | Gear capacity: 3.5L
OMM Phantom 20
OMM’s attention to detail in its packs is incredible, and the intelligently engineered Phantom 20 is a well thought out backpack-style hydration solution with a big focus on comfort.
For hydration, it features a 750ml bottle holder pocket, a soft flask pocket and a 20-litre capacity main pack that could easily take a bladder. But what really makes the pack stand out is the comfort.
A unique 7-point harness with a Y-shaped yoke supports the pack nearer the neck rather than the shoulders, so the whole thing is better aligned with the spine. Two lower side straps also work together to cut out the dreaded pack bounce and there’s 6mm of back padding for added comfort.
The same system comes in a more minimal Phantom 12 or a bigger capacity Phantom 25 as well.
Weight: 315g / 11.1oz | Gear capacity: 20L
inov-8 All Terrain Pro Running Pack
A good option for those runs where a pack is overkill but you still need a way to carry water, a bit of food and your various other running paraphernalia.
This waist pack-style solution comes with two 250ml soft flasks that fit into pockets slung to the side of the body. This positioning of the flasks makes for much less bounce than in a lot of the options available. There’s also one rear zippered Stretchmesh pocket that’s big enough to hold a small amount of food and kit.
You can also add extra carry space with a separate removable compartment – complete with two open stretch mesh pockets – for easy access to your more important items.
Weight: 100g | Gear capacity: N/A
Nathan Vapor Air and Vapor Airess
Another vest-style hydration set-up but with backpack capacity, the Vapor comes with a 2-litre bladder and a quick-release tube and valve. The Nathan Air (for men) and Airess (for women) are both slightly heavier than the other vests on this list but offer a brilliantly robust, flexible hydration solution with two front pockets that can hold 625ml soft flasks.
Comfort is taken care of with an adaptive fit system – consisting of chest and sternum straps and hidden side strap adjusters. These let you tweak the fit to your torso so that the pack barely moves. You also get ample space for stashing extra kit with two zippered front pockets, a larger back Kangaroo pocket and a large main compartment, if you’re not using the bladder. The pack comes in two gender-specific models and two sizes XS-M and L-XXXL.
Weight: 235g / 8.2oz | Gear capacity: 7.0L
Osprey Duro 6
While this vest-pack can take a hydration bladder in the roomy back section, it doesn’t ship with one. That’s because it’s really made with for carrying water in two 500ml soft flasks in the front pockets. The included flasks come with handy short extension hoses and bite valves that make it much easier to drink on the move, as you don’t have to lean down to take a swig of water.
If you run without a bladder you get ample space in the rear to hold your waterproofs, spare socks or whatever running essentials you need. There’s also a combination of stretch mesh and zippered front pockets so you can keep the really essential stuff – phone for run selfies and gels to avoid bonking – where you need it.
If you’re hitting steep trails there’s a Stow-and-Go loop for stashing running poles securely, while the adjustable elastic sternum straps expand when you’re puffing hard and doesn’t restrict your breathing.
You can also upgrade to the Duro 15 – a slightly bigger pack that gives you the best of both worlds including a 2.4L bladder and the ability to carry two soft flasks in the front.
Weight: 310g / 10.9oz | Gear capacity: Not stated
Ultimate Direction OCR Vest
The clue is in the name but this unisex hydration vest has been designed for runners who like to bust over obstacles during their run. We’re looking at you Spartan warriors and Tough Mudders.
It’s brilliantly lightweight and gives you the option of a 2-litre bladder and/or a 600ml soft flask, though sadly neither is included. What you do get is a removable water-resistant phone case with a clear window at the front and back so you can use your smartphone to capture the moment you plunge into a skip filled with ice water.
Weight: 160g / 5.6oz | Gear capacity: 5.01L
CamelBak Ultra Handheld 17oz
If you really want to go super minimal, the Ultra Handheld comes with a 500ml (17oz) Quick Stow soft flask that molds to the shape of your hand. It works in tandem with the elastic X-Grip system to provide a comfortable and stable grip. You really can ‘let go’ and the bottle stays where it’s supposed to.
You’re obviously limited for space to carry other kit, though there is a zipper pocket that’ll take a smartphone (maybe note the largest models) and an extra stretch pocket for additional gels, keys, card and cash.
Weight: 40g / 1oz | Gear Capacity: N/A
Nathan HPL 20 Race Vest 2L
In comparison to some of the weightier options in the guide, this minimalist vest from Nathan is designed to carry just enough to keep you going over a few hours of running in the outdoors.
The upshot of that focus on lean logistics has enabled Nathan to produce a pack that offers a high level of comfort, an impressive amount of adjustability and a sleek, lightweight fit that you'll barely even notice. The downside? It's only going to allow you to carry enough water and kit for a few hours of trail running.
The HPL 20 has long been a favorite with runners due to the noticeably airy design. The functional storage areas across the pack take up very little space against the body meaning it's a great option for hot, sweaty runs when you really don't want a lot of material pressed against you.
The straps across the pack have some of the best adjustable connectors we've seen on a pack, allowing wearers of different shapes and sizes to find an almost perfect fit with some slight adjustments. Once found, that fit makes for an incredibly secure and enjoyable ride.
Connection to the hydration bladder works well and incorporates an easy to use clip on the front strap. The front and back pockets offer enough space for the essentials – but don't expect to use this pack for a full day out on the trails.
Additional features include: a 3-way propulsion harness, dual front Power Stretch mesh pockets (one with zip), two zippered rear compartments, shock cord with for jacket or gloves and a vertically adjustable sternum strap.
Weight: 340g / 13.6 oz | Gear Capacity: 6L