How to Carry Hydration on the Trails

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With so much water-hauling gear to choose from, how do you know what works best for you? We break it down here.

Some days, I just don’t feel like carrying anything on a run. Not a phone, not a gel, no water. Most often, though, these are short runs in weather that’s not too hot. But for anything longer than about 45 minutes (or less in sunny, scalding temps), I carry water, electrolyte-replacement fluids, or both.

Gear companies have invented a multitude of options to help you stay hydrated on the trails. There are handheld water bottles and handheld soft flasks. There are waist-mounted hydration belts (think: fanny packs from the 80s). Even waist packs have multiple sub-options: one big bottle, or multiple small bottles. And there’s the granddaddy of hydration systems—the over-the-shoulder hydration pack, a small, lightweight backpack with a hydration bladder. In running packs, there are those that fit like a backpack but have multiple storage pockets on the sides and front for smaller bottles and other items. And there are packs that fit like vests, which distribute weight and load between your front side and your backside.

With the immense number of options, how’s a runner to choose? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each, plus ideal (and less-than-ideal) scenarios for what type of fluid-carrying device best suits your needs. 

Handheld, Hard Bottle

Hydration in hand | Photo: Lisa Jhung

[Pros] Small, relatively lightweight; easy to clean

[Cons] Can create muscle imbalances due to carrying weight in one hand; can also feel heavy!

[Best-use scenario] Run or race where refilling bottle is available

[Worst-use scenario] Long run where you need more than what your bottle can carry; run anytime when your wrist, shoulder, arm muscles, or back is sore; runs when you have a dog leash in one hand.

>>Tip: Switch hands once in a while.

>>Tip: If you need your hands to scramble over rocks or grab tree trunks, slide the handheld over your wrist to free-up your palms and fingers.

Handheld, Soft Flask

[Pros] Small, relatively lightweight; collapses on itself as you drink, becoming smaller and able to be shoved into a pack or pocket

[Cons] Hard to clean; difficult to refill mid-run or race

[Best-use scenario] Short run where you only need what the flask will carry

[Worst-use scenario] Long run or race where you need more fluids or have to carry more gear

>>Tip: Consider pairing one of these with an over-the-shoulder pack, filling the handheld with electrolyte replacement fluid and the bladder in your pack with water.

Waistpack, One Bottle

Hydration Waist | Photo: Lisa Jhung

[Pros] Hands can be free; often includes storage for gels, phones, keys, etc.

[Cons] One large bottle around the waist is sure to bounce, especially on the downhills.

[Best-use scenario] Long, slow uphill runs

[Worst-use scenario] Trail running on anything other than an uphill

>>Tip: Consider taking the bottle out of the holster on flats—and especially downhills—to carry it in-hand and minimize the bounce. Put it back in on the uphills.

Waistpack, Multiple Bottles (aka a Fuel Belt)

[Pros] Carry electrolyte fluids in one bottle and plain water in another; free hands; storage pockets

[Cons] May lead to some GI discomfort over time, especially if worn too tightly or around your stomach

[Best-use scenario] Medium-long runs when you want both electrolytes and water, plus a phone and gels or a jacket, which you can often stash away with bungee cords on a waistpack

[Worst-use scenario] A day where you have a belly ache; when running an all-downhill course where they're likely to bounce

>>Tip: Try wearing these around your hip bones for comfort and to minimize bounce.

Backpack, Hydration Bladder

Hydration packs | Photo: Lisa Jhung

[Pros] Hands-free; can carry a lot of fluids and gear

[Cons] Can be overkill; heavier than other options; can make you feel hot (temperature hot, unless you’re with someone who’s into runners with backpacks)

[Best-use scenario] Long run, or mountain run where extra gear or layers are needed; run where you’re holding a dog leash

[Worst-use scenario] Short run; race with multiple aid stations

>>Tip: Most packs have straps that adjust both vertically and horizontally so you can customize your fit.

Backpack That Fits Like a Vest

[Pros] Hands-free, can carry a lot of fluids and gear; distributes weight between your front and back

[Cons] May feel like a straightjacket; can get hot

[Best-use scenario] Long run (in Europe); mountain run (in Europe), where gear is needed and backpack-vests are common; long or mountain run in the U.S., if you don’t mind looking like you belong should be in Europe, where they originally grew to popularity

[Worst-use scenario] Short run; run with friends who tease you for what you’re wearing (if you care)

>>Tip: Ignore self-conscious thoughts and go with it.

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