Flashy hydration systems

Michelle recently posted thoughts about her Platypus hydration system, which inspired me to write something about my own experiences. I’ve been thinking about writing about this for a while, but hadn’t really formulated it in my head until now.

In case you didn’t know, a hydration bladder is a water-holding bladder with a hose attached. They typically sit in a pack that you’re wearing, and the attached hose makes it easy to keep sipping water on an ongoing basis without having to stop and unpack a water bottle. In this day and age, a variety of backpacks are designed for use with hydration bladders, and often have a small gap through which a hose can be fed. Platypus is the brand-name for a well known line of hydration bladder products put out by a holding company called Cascade Designs, which also does a bunch of other well known outdoor brands like MSR and Therm-a-Rest. Their main competition in the trendy-looking shiny-hydration-bladder industry, at least in New Zealand, seems to come from CamelBak, which makes a range of backpacks designed to hold hydration systems, but will also sell the plastic bladders individually.

A plethora of more generic brands also exist, which are typically much cheaper and probably at least as good. Thanks to the name recognition, however, “Platypus” and “CamelBak” are often used as generic names, at least in the circles where I associate, to simply mean “some kind of water hydration system that isn’t a cheap and nasty plastic bottle”. I discovered this when I noticed that many people were referring to my Platypus as a Camelbak without really caring that it wasn’t. Ironically now that I have a Camelbak, I’ve already heard at least two people refer to it as a Platypus, and nobody has yet called it a Camelbak. They’re basically all water bladders, and for some reason not many people seem to like boasting that they’re drinking out of their bladder. Maybe this is why there’s a preference for using the brand names.

At first I didn’t have a special reason for buying a hydration bladder. I’d happily used a regular drink bottle for a lot of daywalks. When I decided to get more involved in overnight tramping, however, I saw them on the shelf and thought that it’d be neat to be able to just keep on drinking when wearing a bigger pack. Now that I’ve been using it for a while, I think it’d take some effort to adapt my routines back to using a regular bottle.

I began with a 2 litre Platypus Big Zip II Hydration System. There are several variations of Platypus to choose from, as well as many accessories. The Big Zip II version of Platypus has one end which opens widely in a zip-lock fashion. Being able to open the whole end makes it very quick and easy to fill up the full 2 litres from a river, typically by holding it horizontally into the current and just letting the water flow in, then zipping it up while it’s still underwater.

A few months ago, my Platypus finally succumbed to wear and tear. Actually, it mostly succumbed to tear, and specifically because the hose came detached. It was my own lazy mis-treatment that caused it, though. I was trying to yank it out of my pack by pulling the hose after it’d become jammed between the inside of my pack and the liner. I bought a 2 litre Camelbak bladder to replace it, since I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The Camelbak bladder also has a large opening at one end to make it easier to fill. Instead of a zip-lock opening, though, it’s a wide screw-on lid with a radius that’s almost the width of the bladder itself. I haven’t found it quite as easy to scoop up water from a river using this, but when there’s no tap to hold it under, it still beats trying to fill the thing up through a tiny bottle-neck.

Over time I’ve heard some common complaints or concerns about hydration bladders which I haven’t (yet) experienced, notably:

  • The hoses go black, implying that some kind of dirt or mould builds up inside it. Cleaning kits are available (although the official ones tend to be expensive), but personally I’ve never had this problem and I’ve never felt the need to clean my hydration bladder beyond the occasional rinse. A couple of times I did wash it out with dishwashing detergent, which I regretted on one occasion because I hadn’t flushed it out properly before I used it again. Generally though I am usually careful to avoid putting in anything except water, and perhaps the perpetually nice clean hose has something to do with this. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. I guess another possibility is that my standards are just low, and someone else might think that the hose on my hydration bladder looks disgusting.

  • They look as if they might puncture easily. They do look flimsy, but I haven’t yet had a case where my hydration bladder’s actually punctured. On the contrary, my Platypus has been very durable and it survived far longer than I expected. This is despite having been thrown around a lot, and definitely having had its share of being dragged through thick branches and scrub. (I don’t strap it to the outside of my pack any more for other reasons, though.)

As far as problems and observations that I have noticed, there are several.

  • The zipper can sometimes be hard to close. During the time that I had my Platypus Big Zip II bladder, I repeatedly had problems trying to get the zipper properly closed, especially on cold mornings. It isn’t an issue if the temperature’s okay, but the cold really makes a difference. Perhaps it’s because everything’s condensed a little more than usual and doesn’t want to fit together as nicely. The zipper stays shut very reliably once it’s shut, but trying to get it there has often been an exercise in frustration.

    On some mornings when my fingers were already numb, I’ve spent 15 to 20 minutes trying to find a nicely shaped rock to thump it with, because it’s taken ages to figure out the location of that final gap through which air was escaping before eventually being able to press it shut. Sometimes I’d just leave the bladder resting vertically against a wall for 15 minutes, and the zip would shut itself. Once or twice I’ve given up, thrown it in my pack (outside the pack liner), and simply hoped that it wouldn’t lose too much water.

    This is one of the nice differences I’ve enjoyed with the Camelbak system of having a screw-on lid. Although it’s harder to fill the Camelbak to the top, it’s definitely easier to get it to a state where it’s properly shut.

  • The bite valves tend to fall off, although so far I’ve been lucky to avoid losing one altogether. Usually I notice that it’s gone missing because there’s suddenly water dripping down my leg. So far I’ve always been able to find the valve on the ground between leaves and rocks and branches, and re-attach it. They’re small and could be easily lost, though. It took 5 minutes to locate on one occasion, and I think it’s a matter of time until I lose one properly.

    The first time this happened, alarm bells began ringing in my head because I realised that for a whole weekend trip, the hydration bladder was the only thing I had for carrying water. In other words, if I lost the bite valve or if anything else went wrong with it, I could potentially find myself in a certain amount of trouble. Soon after the first time, I went out looking for ways to mitigate the damage should it happen again, and I almost decided to buy myself a shut-off valve to go in the hose. They tend to be attached much more tightly than a typical bite valve, and allow the water to be completely shut off to prevent any leaking out the end of the hose. As I looked at the shutoff valve in the shop, though, it looked more and more familiar until I realised that I actually already had one. The Big Zip II had come with it already attached, but I hadn’t noticed this because the tap on it was impossible to twist. I couldn’t move it with my teeth and in the end I had to find some pliers. After opening and closing it several times in this way, the small plastic tap finally loosened enough so that I could twist it with a lot of effort.

    Since then I’ve decided that I still don’t want to rely on only having a single thing to carry water. I now have a collapsible 1 litre bottle which weighs almost nothing when empty, and I take it everywhere as a back-up way of carrying water in case the main thing fails.

  • It’s easier to run out of water when using a hydration bladder, and this is something I’ve also heard as a criticism beyond my own experience. Hydration bladders are typically stored inside a pack where they can’t be seen. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to just keep on sipping without realising that it’s running out. I’ve accidentally run out of water a few times, but I think the worst was during a drought in the Tararuas where we spent the whole day trapped in leatherwood on ridges in hot sunshine, and it wasn’t a fun experience. (Definitely worthwhile, though, as with any experience in the Tararuas.)

    Lately, I’ve developed a personal policy of always allocating at least some of my water to a separate place. If I want to take 2 litres of water, I’ll put a quarter of it inside my collapsible 1 litre bottle, and stash that somewhere else. If and when I do run out of easily accessible water in the bladder, I’ll still have an emergency supply and will know to be more careful about rationing what’s left.

  • With large packs, it’s easiest to stash a hydration bladder on the top. This is really personal preference, I guess, and to some extent it depends on the design of the pack.

    When I first started using a hydration bladder, I wasn’t thinking properly about physics. I naively assumed that hydration bladder systems were somehow powered by gravity, and that the hose needed to attach to the bladder at the lowest point. Consequently I spent several months trying to invent ways of slotting it down the side or on the back of my pack. This led to no end of problems.

    Strapping it to the outside is awkward, and especially difficult when its volume changes over time. It was never very stable in such places, and liable to fall off when getting caught on trees and such. Packing well is also very difficult when it’s necessary to account for a variable weight of between 0 and 2 kilograms down one side. Some packs come with pockets or straps on the front, which are advertised as being for hydration bladders, but I have trouble understanding this. I’m not the world’s expert on efficient packing, but if there’s anywhere that I wouldn’t want to strap 1.5-2 kilograms of dead weight, it’d be onto the front of a pack where it’s going to induce the most leverage on my shoulders.

    Fortunately it all finally clicked when it occurred to me that sucking all day on a hose will simply induce a vacuum effect. Consequently, it works perfectly fine to simply chuck it on top in whichever way it fits. It’s not even necessary to take special measures to exhume out all the air before closing it, because the air will just be sucked out between the water.

I’ve found hydration bladder systems to very useful, and I’m glad I have one. If and when I buy another one, it’d be tempting to just go with a cheap one and see if it’s actually any worse. Both Platypus and Camelbak products tend to be on the expensive end, and much of that cost probably goes towards the marketing that told people to buy it in the first place. Accessories and replacement parts are also expensive, especially locally where the prices might be even higher thanks to low numbers of imports. Replacement parts are sometimes priced just barely cheap enough for it to be worth actually buying them rather than just getting a new one. I guess this is part of living in a smaller economy, though, where these days the majority of gear is manufactured and controlled from somewhere else.

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