FORGET FOR a moment the fact that severe dehydration can result in kidney and heart failurehell, even high-school football coaches know that. (We hope.) Just a slight dip in your body's H2O reservoir can diminish coordination, reduce mental acuity, and provoke overheating; more simply, dehydration makes you stumble around like an idiot before you ultimately bonk and drive your face into the gravel. For top-flight athletes, this can mean the difference between a cash purse and a DNF; but for the rest of us, whether we're balancing a mountain bike on an off-camber trail crawling with wet roots, or limping to the finish of that first ultra run, a mouthful of cool water can better the odds of success. Bicyclists, of course, have known the benefits of no-hands drinking for years, but pack manufacturers have recently begun producing hydration systems that let you gulp on the run regardless of your sport. Here are our top selections for getting over that drinking problem of yours. Cheers.
Trail Running, Mountain Biking, and Mountaineering
Ultimate Direction Endorfun $75
Weighing only 18 ounces empty, with a harness that can be adjusted to match your torso, the no-frills Endorfun (previous page; 96 fl. oz., 150 cu. in.) is ideal for any trail, whether you're running the Wasatch Front 100 or out for a post-work jaunt in the Sierra foothills. Even nicer than the reduced weight, though, is the vest design with its breathable mesh-lined shoulder straps and yoked suspension system. Chest pockets up front keep energy bars, sunglasses, or a can of grizzly-bear pepper spray within quick reach. This design mastery, however, makes our beef with the Endorfun all the more ironic: The bladder, which you fill by lifting a Velcro flap, requires extra care when closing or water leaks out the top. (The valve also oozes and spits if it isn't secured upright.) Still, this is the lightest system of its size we know of, so it's tough to quibble with the dribble.
Your buddies are trying to pass you and just ahead is a series of granite ledges you know only too well as the Stairway to Hell. This is no time to have your water bladder sloshing around on your back. The ultra-ergonomic Rocket (far left; 72 fl. oz., 100 cu. in.) is only three inches thick fully loaded, and the pack's unique baffled reservoir collapses as it empties, eliminating the splish-splash. A sternum strap and a removable waist belt cinch the pack to your back, while an insulating sleeve on the tube keeps the next sip cold. An oversize bite valve delivers ample agua. Slip a multitool, pump, tube, bagel, and a thin shell into the outer compartment and you're set for a Saturday epic. We wondered if the energy-gel-pack holster in front was really necessary, but it's easy to get used to the convenience, and lest we forget, the Rocket was made for singletrack mavens.
The North Face Reservoir Hog
If you need a pack for summiting backyard peaks or overnighting
at altitude before heading out for the real deal, The North Face and MSR have teamed up to provide you with the Reservoir Hog (second from left; 70 fl. oz., 1,342 cu. in.). This bulletproof number weighs 2 pounds, 10 ounces empty (that's light for a pack this size), yet because it's constructed from durable 210-denier ripstop nylon and boasts an aluminum stay, the Hog is stable even when crammed full of gear. Unfortunately, the durable MSR CloudLiner Bladder lacks any real insulation, so you won't want to carry it in the desert, but freezing isn't a problem because your body temperature warms the bladder--in cold weather simply blow the water out of the tube and back into the reservoir. Truly a backcountry-worthy system, the Hog is compatible with MSR's superior filters so you can pump that stagnant pool of mud bugs directly into your pack's bladder. Bottoms up.
Paddling, Multisport, and Adventure Travel
Where to find it:
CandleBak, 800-767-8725, www.camelbak.com;
Eastern Mountain Sports, 888-463-6367, www.emsonline.com;
Hydrapak, 800-776-5677, www.hydrapak.com;
Platypus, 800-531-9531, www.platypushydration.com;
The North Face, 800-447-2333, The North Face;
Ultimate Direction, 800-736-8551, www.ultimatedirection.com
Platypus Kayak Hydrator
Who wants to be stuck sucking suds in the Potomac? The no-frills Kayak Hydrator (third from left; 60 fl. oz., no cargo space) can be snapped to a boat's deck or stashed in the cockpit for a clean shot of water even in the nastiest of brown runoff. A bladder made from three-layer flavorless polyurethane features a user-friendly bite valve with a soft nozzle--you could easily keep it in your teeth through an Eskimo roll. Closed-cell foam insulation keeps liquids cool, and a pair of narrow shoulder straps makes it easy to haul the system when it's time for a little land-based exploration. One caveat: Lean on the bladder hard and you can make the bite valve leak, so don't stow it in your drybag with your fleece jacket.
Eastern Mountain Sports Waterslide $75
If you happen to be one of those cash-poor folks who worked for ILostMyJob.com, send a thank-you note to Eastern Mountain Sports. With the Waterslide (second from right; 100 fl. oz., 1,550 cu. in.) they've eliminated the need to buy more than one pack. Indeed, the Waterslide is two packs in one. This hybrid design lets users pull a streamlined, bikeable hydration system out of a larger rucksack. Feel like hiking? The daypack has room for a box lunch, notebooks, a camera, and raingear. Want to squeeze in a road ride? The smaller pack has a mesh pocket appropriate for small bike sundries, and the X-strap of bungee cord is perfect for lashing on a shell or a vest. While the Waterslide might not be the most ergonomic pack on the market, it's certainly the most versatile.
Most of us need to perform with aplomb in both the natural world and urbania. To that end, the gearheads at Hydrapak designed the Keg (far right; 100 fl. oz., 1,310 cu. in.). A traveling office with pockets for your laptop, PDA, and cell phone, it's also roomy enough to load with a cookset, sleeping bag, and pad instead. Don't worry about stowing water in the same compartment as your electronics; there's a separate sleeve for the bladder that's accessible through a clever hatch in the foam back. Hydrapak's drybag-style reservoir is so simple to clean we'd consider filling it with a sports drink (although the mouthpiece, which requires you to tongue a little button to drink, is annoying). A built-in rain fly keeps your gear dry on Wall Street or the Ho Chi Minh Trail.