Tips from the Cyborg
Hydration Strategies Part 2: Bladders
I reckon hydration packs and bladders are the bee’s knees, particularly for adventure racing. They let you carry around enough water to get you through an event, be it a race, a hike, a ride or a paddle, as well as carry some extra gear such as food or a first aid kit. All this in a small pack that sits nice and close to your body.
I’ve managed to chew through a few hydration bladders and packs over the years. More than my fair share, which explains the look of astonishment Mr GPS gave me when I mentioned that I intended to write an article about bladders and packs. We both purchased bladder packs at the same time - cheap $20, two litre packs from Australia Post. Mr GPS is still using his. I killed mine in the 2008 Urban Polaris.
All in all I believe that does make me a bit more of an authority on bladders: I’ve had a few, and I have a much better idea of what not to do with bladders. Besides, my latest ones are over a year old and still going!
Bladders Ain’t Bladders
Bladders can vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer, and can have a variety of different characteristics, from the type of plastic used to make the bladder, to the type of bite valve and fill method.
You’re probably very familiar with the keyhole fill, such as on the CamelBak range of bladders. That’s where there is a circular, screw in lid near the top of the bladder. I’ve never been particularly keen on these for a number of reasons:
- I’ve had a few leak from the cap when I’ve filled them to capacity.
- It’s easy to cross-thread them when you’re in a rush to fill them.
- It’s harder to clean; you can’t fit much into that little hole.
Now, that may well be because I’ve bought cheap bladders in the past, so last time around I bought a CamelBak, and haven’t had any issues with it.
The Immoral Support Crew bought me a Kathmandu pack for my birthday a few years ago and it came with a three litre Source bladder, and I have to say, I really like this bladder. It has a fold-fill! The whole top of the bladder opens up to fill, then you fold it over and slide a clip over it, and voila, it’s closed, no leaks. This fill method has a few great advantages:
- It’s easy to fill - you don’t have to remove it from the pack, just open the bladder compartment, slide off the clip and fill!
- It’s easier to clean - I can fit my whole hand inside to wipe it down and dry it out.
Naturally, there are also some disadvantages to this type of fill; well, one that I’ve experienced so far: and that is the shape. With a long, straight plastic bar at the top, it just doesn’t fit into all my packs, which have a curved top.
Bite valves are pretty much de rigueur for hydration bladders; but some also have tap switches in addition to the bite valves. I used to have a preference for those, as the bit valve always seemed to dribble on me during races, however I found this dribbling stopped once I started tucking the tube and valve back up towards my shoulder, rather than hanging loose.
The tap is a nice bit of reassurance that you’re not going to lose more water, however it does add an extra step to drinking which can be a hassle during a race. When you’re riding, paddling, or doing any other activity where you need your hands, having them occupied to turn the tap can potentially be dangerous.
Here’s a handy hint for your bladder: if you want to take one on a longer trip, say a hike, and would like a bit of flavour to the water, don’t put sliced lemon into it. Just don’t. And, should you be foolish enough to put sliced lemon into your bladder, at least have the sense to clean it out as soon as you get back. Don’t just dump your pack in a corner, completely forgetting about the fruit-filled bladder for a week or so. That’s just silly and will no doubt result in mould growing in some awfully hard places to clean. Pretty much impossible. Which spelt the death of bladder #2 for me...
I prefer to use my bladder for water, and use a bottle for any sports drink during an event. It’s just much easier that way - if you’re just putting water in a bladder, it’s pretty easy to clean - just give it a good rinse.
If you’re filing your bladder with a sports drink mix, particularly anything with sugar in it, it will need a really good wash. Fill it maybe a third of the way, close it up, slosh the water around, hold the bladder up and open the bite valve so the water flows out. Do that a couple of times. If you find it’s smelly, or really needs a going over, just put in a teaspoon of napisan or something. But, if you use any sort of cleaning agent, make sure you give it a good rinsing - as in, go through that rinsing process at least three times.
Believe it or not, cleaning a bladder is the easy part. Drying it out is the hard part! Drying the wide-opening bladders, such as the Source Bladder is much easier - just unfold the top, rub around inside with a paper towel to get the bulk of the moisture out, then put something in (preferably something that won’t trap water itself, like a pair of tongs) to hold it open so that the last of the moisture can evaporate. It’s the same for the screw tops, though you won’t be able to get nearly as much water out using paper towel (and will more likely just wind up with bits of mushy towel through your bladder).
The key for either is to ensure it is open, so the front and back of the bladder don’t press against each other and there’s a good airflow. I like to hang the bladder upside down, by the drinking tube - that way the water runs out of the tube and out the bladder (in theory!)
Speaking of Freezers: a great way to ensure you have a nice, cool drink throughout an event is to slightly fill your bladder the night before, then seal it up and lie it flat in the freezer. You’ll have a large, flat ice-cube in there for the next day!
Or, if you have room in your freezer, you could not bother drying it out entirely. Just clean it, rinse it, get all the water you can out of it, and throw your bladder into the freezer. That’ll stop any nasties growing in there!
Finally, I’d strongly recommend getting a hose-cover for your bladder. I picked mine up at Mountain Designs, but a lot of places probably stock them. It’s just a long neoprene tube that goes over your hose and keeps the water in the hose cool (it probably even offers a bit of protection to the plastic of the hose too). The hose is exposed to the sun, which heats the water in there, and gives it that plastic taste, so keeping it cool is definitely a good thing!