Buying Right

Outside magazine, August 1996

Buying Right

Above and Beyond Hydration's Call
By Andrew Tillin

If a hydration system seems only so much contraption to you, consider this: Last year a course marshal at a world cup mountain-bike race in Mount Snow, Vermont, was hit by a careening rider, and if the suddenly airborne official hadn't landed on her water-bed-like CamelBak, her injuries might have been far worse. "We don't promote our products for their safety features," says CamelBak's Liza Montgomery, "but it's a nice fringe benefit."

Hydration systems, however, are really about hydration. Runners, in-line skaters, bikers, and hikers can carry more than four times as much water in the plastic bladder of one of the bigger systems than in a large cycling water-bottle (22 ounces), and drinking is as convenient as bringing a plastic tube to your mouth. Most systems are contained in small daypack-style carriers that also provide room for essentials like food and spare clothing. The distinctions lie in comfort, convenience, and storage space.

From the progenitor of hydration systems comes the CamelBak M.U.L.E. ($70), which holds a 90-ounce bladder and is my favorite for mountain biking because it offers plenty of room--three pockets and a bungee-style compression strap--without feeling obtrusive. Its shoulder straps are slight but sufficiently padded, and the removable nylon waist belt secures bulky loads well enough without digging into your gut on a climb. The drinking tube is dramatically bigger than previous generations, allowing for greater flow; coupled with a simple bite valve, it makes the M.U.L.E. very convenient.

For long trail runs and fast hiking, consider the Ultimate Direction Nimbus ($89). It has 650 cubic inches of storage space--more than three times the M.U.L.E.'s--and its comfortable harness is up to the carrying task, with a one-piece, U-shaped shoulder yoke and padded hipbelt that cling to you. Zippered pockets on the belt keep small necessities handy. The 82-ounce reservoir has baffles to prevent sloshing, but one tall friend complained that the drinking tube isn't long enough.

Gregory's Anza ($85) is really an 1,800-cubic-inch technical daypack with a separate pocket for its 110-ounce bladder. With a padded back, wide shoulder straps, sternum strap, and waist belt, the Anza is perfect for approach hikes or all-day excursions. With a nifty optional attachment you can hook the reservoir directly to a water filter.

Ascetics should consider the Traveling Light Water Chest ($27.50) and Platy's Suspenders ($10). The ingenious 80-ounce, collapsible plastic water flask can attach to a water filter or function as a shower. Coupled with the thin suspenders, this pocketless hydration system is the perfect back-mounted canteen for scrambles from base camp, though it's less suitable for a run or ride.

The best system for runs is the waist-mount CamelBak Go-Be ($60). Its 50-ounce reservoir is the perfect size for such efforts, and the two pockets on the comfortable, vented hipbelt hold car keys, energy bars, or a phone card--since the well-hydrated athlete can now roam that much farther, you may need to call for a lift home.

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