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What's the Best Way to Carry Water While Hiking?

Materials, Style & Weight: All of the Considerations

Everyone knows the importance of hydration while trekking, and most of us know how much water to carry while hiking, but even the most grizzled vet occasionally thinks about one question: What is the best way to carry water while hiking?

Part of the reason this question persists is that there is no “right” answer.

First of all, the best hydration solution for you may not be the ideal choice for your hiking buddy. It’s a very personal decision.

Secondly, the best answer for you will likely change over time.

New products hit the market.

New technologies are developed.

New materials become available.

And the things you value will also change over time.

So, we invite all hikers – from the greenest noobs to the most accomplished vets – to take a stroll down this road with us. We’ll outline the various water-carrying options available and point out the pros and cons of each.

The Options Available: What Is the Best Way to Carry Water While Hiking?

what is the best way to carry water while hiking

There are essentially three water-carrying options available for hikers:

  • Hard Plastic Water Bottles
  • Stainless Steel Bottles
  • Soft Plastic Water Containers (Bladders)

These are all time-tested options, which have all worked for thousands of hikers. But they all offer different benefits and drawbacks, which we’ll discuss below:

Hard Plastic Water Bottles

hard plastic water bottles

Hard plastic water bottles are likely the most common variety you’ll see on the trail, and they’ve been popular for decades. In fact, you may run into old-timers who continue to carry the same hard plastic water bottles that they’ve used for more than a decade.

In the past, hard plastic water bottles were made from materials that turned out to be more dangerous than we thought. Many contained chemicals called BPAs, which are thought to be hazardous to human health. That’s not the case with modern, high-quality water bottles, as they’ve shifted to BPA-free materials.

The hard plastics used by modern manufacturers are surprisingly durable, yet they’re still very lightweight.

And because most hard plastic water bottles are uninsulated, they weigh much less than their stainless steel counterparts. That does, however, mean your ice water will get warm as you hike.

You can find hard plastic water bottles in an array of colors – some even have liquid measure markings to make it easier to monitor your hydration or mix up drink-powder concoctions.  

Stainless Steel Water Bottles

stainless steel water bottle

Stainless steel water bottles are the newest of the three main types to really secure a big market presence, but many hikers swear by them.

Stainless steel is an attractive material for hiking water bottles, as it is strong, non-reactive (it won’t make your water taste funky), and durable. It isn’t, however, as light as some other materials used in hiking water bottles.  

Most modern, high-quality stainless steel water bottles incorporate a vacuum layer in their design. This essentially means that they’re like a bottle inside a bottle. The manufacturer removes the air inside the space between the bottles, which serves as a fantastic form of insulation.

There are three different ways heat moves – conduction, convection and radiation. Vacuum bottles often help prevent all three, but they’re especially effective at preventing the first.

Conduction occurs when warm materials allow heat to move via contact. But because the vacuum layer between the two bottles is devoid of molecules (well, it has very, very few, anyway), there’s nothing for the materials to touch.  

The end result is that the ice-cold drink you put inside your stainless steel vacuum bottle will likely remain pretty arctic for hours and hours (or vice versa – many stainless steel vacuum bottles can safely contain hot liquids).

Soft Plastic Water Containers (Bladders)

soft plastic water container

Soft plastic water containers are essentially flexible bags or bladders.

Some are designed to be used like normal water bottles – these usually feature some type of semi-rigid support structures to make it easier to drink directly from them.

Other soft plastic water containers are designed to be used as part of a hands-free hydration system. These will attach to a long tube or straw, which you’ll usually thread out of a backpack and to your shoulder for ease of access.

Soft plastic water containers usually won’t “break” or suffer dents if dropped from reasonable heights, but they can tear or split at the seams (if present). They’re also pretty tricky to wash, which is an often-overlooked consideration.

But they also have a number of strengths. For starters, they’re flexible, which means you can use them to carry water in unusual places. They’re also very light and pretty affordable. And then there’s the whole convenience factor – there’s nothing quite like being able to sip without even stopping, let alone fishing a water bottle out of your pack.

The Best Way to Carry Water While Hiking: The Pros and Cons of Different Options

water bottle pros and cons

Essentially, your choice of hiking water bottle style comes down to one key question:

What’s most important to you?

  • If you value drinking easily, without even having to use your hands, you’ll want a soft-plastic water container that you can use as part of a hands-free hydration system.
  • If you want a super-durable option that’ll likely last for longer than you do, it’s hard to beat stainless steel.
  • If you want something that’s as light as possible, opt for a soft- or hard-plastic water container.
  • If you want what is likely the safest option, stainless steel is probably the best pick.
  • If you want the most affordable option, hard plastic will usually be your best bet.

These are all great guidelines, but there’s a lot to think about when picking your hiking water bottle. So, check out our infographic below to see some of the pros and cons of different types of hiking water reservoirs.

As we said at the outset, there is no “right” answer when you’re trying to decide the best way to carry water while hiking. As long as you bring enough water and use and maintain your water reservoir safely (and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions), you can’t go wrong.

But you’ll certainly have a better time and get better value for your hiking-gear dollar if you select the one that makes the most sense for your situation. So, just be sure to think through the issues carefully before hitting that “buy” button.

And don’t be afraid to change things up – we all value different things at different times. You may have liked using a hands-free hydration system last year but want to try some vacuum-sealed and ice-cold awesomeness this season.

No matter which kind of water carrying container you like, we want to hear about it! Let us know your thoughts and the things you considered when making your choice in the comments below!  

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