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Hydration Strategies Part 3: Packs

Tips from the Cyborg

Tips from the Cyborg

Hydration Strategies Part 3: Packs

Now that we’ve covered off on why it’s good to stay hydrated, and how good bladders are to help keep you hydrated throughout an event or activity, it’s time to discuss how to carry those bladders. Because carrying them on their own isn’t very convenient!

Adventure racers wearing packs
Everyone wears packs in a race!

There are all sorts of different packs on the market, in many shapes and forms to suit any purpose, or anyone. For me, there are three key attributes to any bladder pack which I bear in mind when picking one out; for someone else it may be how well it matches their uniform. You just never know really.


The first, and to my mind most important, is the fit of the pack. Now, bear in mind here that I’m coming from an adventure racing background, so I run, ride, paddle and occasionally swim wearing my pack. And there’s nothing worse than running along with the pack bouncing around on your back! So, something that fits well, that can really suck onto your back is excellent. To this end, look for good adjustment and straps - chest straps as well as waist straps; and nice, thick straps going over your shoulders so you can really lock it down without it biting into you.

Pockets & Storage

Pack with gear next to it
All the gear to go into the pack - note the only things waterproofed are the phone and first aid kit.

I still use the storage in my pack; that’s where things like the first aid kit, spare bike tube, tool kit and race phone go. I’d have to stop to use all of those things anyway, so it doesn’t matter so much.

It’s great that you can have extra storage on you, to carry more food and the like, the problem is that most of the time you can’t reach it! When you need to refuel during a race you have to stop and either ask someone to pull it out for you (meaning they have to know where it is), or remove your pack, and get it out yourself. Both methods waste time, and involve stopping.

There are a few packs on the market that have little pockets tucked into the waistband, or (like my Salomon XT Wings vest) decent pockets on the front. I can fit the all-important gels, muesli bars and bananas into these pockets. I can even carry my camera in the front pocket of my Salomon vest, which is really handy (you may have noticed we are posting more photos with our race reports!)

Bottle of sunscreen clipped to pack
As you can see, it's lasted me a while!

It’s a good thing to have multiple compartments on your back, say a back pocket, a main compartment, and side pockets. And the bladder compartment should be isolated from all of these. I’m not saying that because I’m a bloke, and I like the Swiss-army knife style functionality of it. That way everything can have a place, and it helps if someone else is pulling something out for you. It’s much easier for them to locate if you ask, “Can you please grab a muesli bar from the back compartment of my pack?” rather than “Can you dig into the bottomless pit that is my main compartment, watching out for those steak knives I stuck in there this morning (just in case!) and grab me a muesli bar?”

Slings and clips are handy items on your pack too, so you can hang things off it. I picked up a little sunscreen bottle with a carabiner from the Cancer Council of Australia, which I just clip onto the back of my pack. I can’t quite reach it myself, but anyone can easily grab it for me (and you generally at least slow down to reapply anyway!)

Removable Bladder

Does the pack come with a bladder built into it? Does it only fit specific bladders? More importantly - does your bladder fit into it? Okay, this probably should’ve been the first point. But it’s fairly obvious. If you can’t remove a bladder, you can’t clean it, and that’s just dangerous! And, if you happen to trash the bladder somehow (like I so often do) the entire pack becomes useless!

But more than that: how easy is it to pull the bladder out during a race? How easy is it to refill the bladder? Can you refill it in place? These are probably less important considerations, unless you’re doing a freaky event that goes for more than six hours!


There aren’t many packs on the market which are waterproof; so there are two ways to protect your gear: you can stick it all into a dry bag, and put that in your pack, or you can waterproof everything individually. People can go overboard on waterproofing their gear. Sure, you need to make sure your phone stays dry, but if you’re carrying cash on you - that’s not so important. Australian money is plastic, so won’t disintegrate if it gets wet (I’ve seen a $5 come up from 40m underwater and be fine!) Similarly bottles of sunscreen, tyre tubes and the like are probably fine on their own.

But not muesli bars. Don’t trust their wrappings! I opened a muesli bar once after an ocean swim in a race, only to be treated to briny-nuts! Sure, salts and electrolytes are important during a race, but so is being able to keep it down!


Paddler wearing a PFD with bladder
That PFD has a bladder pocket in the back - you can see the hose coming out of it.

No, no, not PDF (Portable Document Format - you geek!) PFD - Personal Flotation Device or, if you’re old school, life jackets. A few PFDs these days (such as the UltraTrek) come with a bladder pocket. These PFDs have a number of benefits when you’re paddling, and I think they’re a great idea.

First of all, you don’t have to drop your paddle to drink. Your paddle is the only truly reliable way of controlling your kayak, it’s not just that if you stop paddling you might stop moving-you stop being able to brake and steer as well. This is particularly handy if you happen to get caught out in rough conditions - where you’ll be constantly paddling just to keep upright.

Secondly, and just as important a safety factor - it runs true to the idea that you should carry all you need to support your life on your body. Having an EPIRB in your rear day hatch does you absolutely no good when you find yourself swimming two metres from your kayak. Similarly, having water on you could potentially be a lifesaver should you find yourself separated from your kayak.

Pack Care & Maintenance

Do you remember the end of grade two in primary school? You were so excited when you got home that you kicked your bag under the bed and ran straight outside to start enjoying summer. Six weeks later, just before school resumed, your bag crawled out from under your bed, carried by a multitude of legs of various life forms based on the single piece of fruit left in there?

Your pack looked after you during a race, so you should look after it, and get it ready for the next event! After all, you don’t want the preparation for your next race to be chasing your hydration pack as it runs down the street!

The first step is to clean it out - pull the bladder out, clean and dry it. Then remove anything else inside, particularly food! Open every compartment. Once every zipper and clip is undone, loosen all the straps. Let the waist band go to it’s full length, similarly the shoulder bands and any other adjustable part of the pack. This will prevent any kinks forming in your straps - which makes it harder to make those fine adjustments as your body shape changes over time (yes, Christmas does fall in the middle of the Paddy Pallin series!) It also means the next time you put on your pack, you’ll have to fit it to yourself properly.

With everything open and ready to go, it’s time to give your pack a good clean. I like to fill my laundry tub with some warm water and a dash of disinfectant. If my last race included a swim in Lake Burley Griffin, this becomes a tub of disinfectant and a dash of water! Let your pack soak in that mix for a while, then give it a good scrub to remove any dirt and mud - pay careful attention to the zippers to make sure you get any grit out of them.

Hopefully by this time any nasties that may have taken residence in your pack will be exterminated, so rinse it through completely with a bit of fresh water. Then, hang the whole thing out somewhere nice, warm and dry (but not directly in the sunlight) to dry.