What are the advantages and disadvantages of water bottles versus bladders? Is there any reason to prefer one over the other, in terms of health, safety, cost, convenience, or maintenance?
This is my highly opinionated self-answer. I would be happy to see other people's answers if they disagree.
The advent of bladders such as camelbaks is a response to a pop-culture myth that dehydration is always sneaking up on us -- that "thirst is too late," so we have to constantly drink water even when we're not thirsty. Actually, the first and most reliable symptom of dehydration is intense thirst. Depending on the conditions, you can typically go many hours without drinking fluids, and nothing bad will happen. (It used to be against the rules for marathon runners to drink fluids during a race.)
Disadvantages of bladders relative to bottles:
- They're more expensive.
- They're hard to clean (including the bite valve), and people complain about the taste.
- Some types of bladders are especially hard to fill from natural sources.
- It's hard to tell how much water you have left.
- If you need more capacity than one bladder, transferring water from one bladder to another is a hassle.
- In cold conditions, it's difficult to keep the hose from freezing up.
Some advice given to me in an outdoor leadership course:
As a leader, use water bottles rather than bladders. Make an obvious show of the pausing and drinking: stopping, taking off the pack, getting out the water bottle, and drinking plenty. This is a clear signal to the clients that it's OK, advisable even, to stop and drink and do other things like rest, adjust buckles and change layers.
If, as a leader, I keep sneaking frequent sips from my bladder as I go along, I may be pushing my group unnecessarily hard.
The main advantage of a water bladder is that it's easy to drink from. You can take frequent small sips without interrupting your activity. If tend to forget to drink enough water while exercising, this is a huge advantage. If you don't have that problem, then you get little to no advantage from a water bladder.
A side effect is if you are biking/climbing/hiking/etc with a group. If the rest of the group members have water bladders and can drink on the go, but you are the only one who has to stop to drink from a bottle, you have a conflict with the group. Maybe you need to stop more frequently to stay hydrated, which they find annoying, or you get left behind and have to hustle to catch up. Or you conform the group's rest schedule and end up not drinking water for long periods, then try to gulp down huge amounts of water in the infrequent rest breaks.
As others have explained, water bladders do have a number of disadvantages. Personally I find that the main advantage outweighs all the disadvantages, but it's certainly a matter of personal preference.
If you choose a water bladder, you can mitigate some of the disadvantages by carrying an empty bottle as a backup. That way you still have a way to carry some water if your bladder springs a leak. A bottle is also easier to fill from a water source than a bladder; you can use your back up bottle to refill the water bladder. And if you're treating your water with tablets, you can treat water in the bottle, so you don't have to wait until your water bladder is completely empty before you refill.
If you choose water bottles, you can mitigate some of the disadvantages by carrying one where you have convenient access. Eg, carry one bottle on a sling, or in a holder on your belt. You also want your primary drinking bottle to have an easy-drink nozzle or nipple, rather than an open top. That way you can take a quick sip while moving.
Water bladders do have a few other advantages. These advantages are pretty minor, but may be relevant for some very specific situations.
- Weight distribution. A water bladder pouch (whether part of a backpack or a standalone pack) holds the water close to your back, which keeps your pack weight balanced, and keeps the center of gravity close to your body. As you drink from the bladder, the weight stays centered.
- No sloshing. A half-full water bottle sloshes, which causes a slight weight shift. Constantly shifting weight will slightly increase fatigue.
- Sloshing makes noise. If you're trying to be stealthy (eg, in a military, hunting, or zombie apocalypse context), you want a water bladder. Before the US military started using water bladders, groups of soldiers would only carry canteens that were completely full or completely empty. When they stopped, they would open a canteen, pass it around and drink it dry.
Note: Water bladders are quite sturdy; they don't just spontaneously rupture all the time. When a bladder finally does break, it typically has a slow leak that can be temporarily patched with tape to get you through until you can replace it. Catastrophic failure is extremely unlikely. It's good to have an emergency plan for what you would do if your water bladder does fail, but you can reasonably expect that it won't happen on most trips. I've been using the same water bladder for years without it leaking.
One advantage to bladders that hasn't been mentioned yet: the less water they contain, the less space they take up in your pack. A 1L bottle takes up 1L of space whether it's full, half full, or empty. If you have a 3L bladder but don't need to carry 3L of water, you can fill it with as much water as you need and have more space available for other things.
I'm not a big fan of bladders myself but use them at times.
The main reason is that I find it hard to drink enough - although they're hands free, the flow is too low to get enough if a rare quick drink is all you have time for, unlike a bottle.
I use them on the mountain bike for reasons of balance and cleanliness (bottles get covered in mud), then on stretches of fireroad you can take quite a bit on board, slowly.
The other time is kayaking, when drinking from a bottle means popping my spraydeck, and I might not get the chance. However I'd rather not have the extra drag if I take a swim - another downside, even with a hydration pack designed for my bouyancy aid.
Road/gravel riding I stick to bottles, but I do long days and don't want weight on my back.
Hiking again I use bottles. If it's hot I'll use a belt-mounted bottle holder with a bigger bottle in my bag as well as I get through more water than some people (and snacks) and we may not always stop often enough for my liking if in a group where each stop is slow.
As for the taste/cleanliness, after a good rinse, store them in the freezer. On long trips you're filling and emptying so often it's not an issue.
After a small intermezzo using hydration bladders, I have been using bottles exclusively for the last few years. There is two events that caused me to abandon hydration bladders:
- Water leaking into the backpack. This happened with a cheap bladder and a smaller backpack stuffed full with climbing equipment. The bladder simply did not hold tight under pressure and I had water all over in my backpack and stuff was wet.
- Actually running out of water. I was climbing an alpine (rock) route and when we started to rappel from the summit (still a long way to go) I ran out of water. I had 3 liters with me which should have been more than enough, but I simply drank too much during the ascent. This is not a funny feeling.
There is some more issues that prevent me from using bladders again:
- They are heavy. Well not the bladder but with a bladder I tended to drink a lot and carry 3 liters all the time. Nowadays I am often only venturing out for a day with 1.5 liters and on hot days a 0.5l backup (PET bottles just have the right size). That is at least 1 kilo saved easily
- Fear of getting it punctured by cramp-ons, ice screws, etc
- On higher altitude or colder weather (especially in winter) anything uninsulated simply does not keep the warmth
- They require to carry a back-pack. For something like 6 pitches of climbing and rappeling to the start, I often do not want to climb with a backpack. Or only one for the team. A water bottle at the harness is enough for those.
- Many activities allow to stop and take a sip from a bottle. In hiking it does not hurt to stop every now and then, take a sip and continue. I often clip the bottle to the outside of the backpack to have easy access to drink.
Why the bladder?
I seriously forget to drink if I don't bring a water bladder on my hikes.
Before I used hydration systems, I regularly felt fatigue, got headaches, and at times altitude sickness. When I stop for a break on a cold, humid day (and I usually hike in moderately cold climates) I fail to catch up drinking the half litre I should have drunk in the past 2-3 hours.
In my experience, short stops are disruptive. In particular on an uphill, I choose a pace I can keep, then continue non-stop for two hours. During those two hours, I often overtake people who sped past me at the beginning of the slope, and although it's not a race, it suggests the strategy I learned as a kid does help for progress. Any interruption for drinking from a bottle is disruptive to this hiking rhythm. This is less of an issue on flat or downhill, but in those I probably need less water too.
Since I've started using hydration bladders, I've not suffered from dehydration once.
In my total outdoor budget the cost of the bladder is well below 1%, so that is not really an issue to me. For the price of travel and accommodation for a single trip alone I can buy several lifetime supplies of bladders. This may be different for people lucky enough to live in cycling distance of their outdoor destination, but most of us aren't as lucky.
But the bladder has serious downsides, which have been mentioned in other answers: they may leak and you may be unsure how much water you have left if you don't stop and check. Therefore I will bring a bottle.
Why the bottle?
When I do stop for a break, I drink from the bottle, for the advantages that people have mentioned. The big downside of the bottle is that I have to stop to drink from it, taking off my backpack. Any stop is an interruption to exercise, and when I'm hiking up a slope, I tend to choose a pace I can keep up for two hours non-stop. I really want to avoid unnecessary stops that bring my out of my rhythm. Therefore I will bring a bladder.
Advantages of bringing both
- It's easier to fill a bottle from a water source (and filter if needed), and we can then use the bottle to refill the bladder (using a funnel if needed);
- The bottle is a backup if we inadvertently finish the bladder early or the bladder leaks;
- I know I have /at least/ the amount of water left I can see in the bottle.
- can be accessed without having to take off a rucksack and put it back on again (sounds trivial, but if you're carrying 25kg or more, and there's no rock to balance it on...)
- can be accessed without opening waterproof containers (e.g. kayak hatch or spraydeck)
- can be sipped from in small quantities (due to the convenience shown above), avoiding the cooling effect of larger, less frequent drinks
- takes almost no more space than the water, and can pack into odd shapes
- is less exposed to the cold, and has no pipe to freeze (if packed lid-down, then the neck stays clear until the whole bottle is solid)
- is easier to clean
- is more evident when nearing empty
Like others, I normally choose a largeish bladder (2-3 litre) to drink from and a smaller (1 or even ½ litre) reserve bottle to top it up when empty.
I like the "Big Zipper" design where one end of the bladder is a huge fill neck. This is by far the easiest to fill from natural sources or via a filter (also handy for removing ice without having to thaw the whole lot).
As someone who used to do a lot of serious walking with a serious pack, I started before water bladders existed.
Certainly taking a pack off is awkward, especially if it's a large pack. But there are many other things apart from water which you also want accessible without taking your pack off - compass, money, cards, phone, perhaps a knife, perhaps a guide book. My solution was a small waist pack - what Brits call a "bum bag" and Americans call a "fanny pack". I kept this front-mounted so that it didn't foul on my pack. If you visit military-surplus stores then there are usually extra pouches available which can be attached to your pack's shoulder straps instead, if you prefer.
With this, I could easily carry a litre of water plus all the other little bits and pieces I needed. In temperate climates, a litre of water will generally last you a morning; but anyway if you've used up a litre of water sweating then it's probably time for a break.
For cycling, almost every bike frame has bottle mounts, and weight on your back is generally considered bad news ergonomically.
The one good use case for water bladders is long-distance running, where the weight of water is in a good position on your body and you can take occasional sips without needing to stop. For pretty much everyone else though, they're a solution which doesn't help the initial problem and which creates more problems of their own.
Multi-pitch rock climbing
I use a bladder when running (which others have discussed), but I also prefer one for multi-pitch rock climbing, for a few reasons.
- Less chance of dropping something. The water is inside the pack which is attached to you, so it's harder to drop. You could sling a water bottle to yourself also, but this adds some weight, occupies some gear, and increases the chances of stuff getting tangled.
- Can be used (nearly) hands free. Whether belaying or climbing, both of your hands will generally be occupied. With a bladder you can quickly place the straw in your mouth (after communicating with your partner, of course), then take as long as you need to drink with your hands back on the rock or rope.
- Harder to spill. Water sources tend to be less prevalent when traveling in a vertical direction, so this is important.
- Easier to keep track of your intake. You can see and/or hear when the bottle is getting empty. while you shouldn't ration your water, knowing how much you have left can help in planning.
- Easier to share. If somebody's bladder is empty, sharing means transferring water to another bladder (which is complicated), or else that person is using someone else's straw, which is not hygienic and requires those two people to be next to each other. But if their bottle is empty, you can hand them yours to quickly/easily refill. I actually carry a collapsible water bottle for this reason -- it fits well in my pack, and I can use a bladder straw to fill it if necessary (just hold it over the opening and pinch the bite valve).
There is an 'inbetween' option.
A tube with the bladder like stopper which is used with a bottle, any pet bottle with a common top can be used, two different tops included in the set I bought.
I used this set, usually several spare bottle and one with the tube in, while I used a recumbent bike with a seat that came up to almost mouth level, just pull the tube end to you to drink and when you let it go it will stay near enough.
This has most of the advantages of a bottle, hard sides, easy seeing the contents, option to add pills or whatever you want to.
It shares some disadvantages with bladders, the tube is much harder to keep clean than the normal water bottle tops and when the bottle comes under pressure with the tube in place it is more likely to leak.
I abandoned the tube system after enjoying its use when I changed bikes and the new did not have a good option to hold the bottles and the tube close to my head. I did not properly store them as the tube was getting grubby and should be replaced.
As at the time I could not get hold of the brand version (and I forgot the brand in those years) I had a brand-less replacement. I can still give a good review for the kind of solution.
It really depends on your use cases. I love a bladder when mountain biking, as it allows easy drinking with only a couple seconds of having my hand off the bar to put the hose in my mouth, good when climbing hard or going through rough terrain, etc. I don't like them when running or road cycling, running feels like it throws off my form and road cycling it's hot and I don't like the feeling. For both I use bottles.
Too many stories of bladders breaking. To many actual occurrences of people on my trips who had the hose freeze. And I'm cheap.
I have a 12 oz pull valve water bottle. It's easy to clean. It fits in a side pocket of my backpack. I tend to be someone who doesn't drink at all for an hour or so, then will drink most of my bottle, then refill it at the next creek crossing.
I carry a 2 liter pop bottle. Most of the time it just takes up space, but if I know I'm doing a ridge trail I will fill it up at the highest known water supply. If I think I might be camping above water, I'll bring two bottles. Pop bottles are much studier than the thin plastic water bottles.
On winter day trips, I bring a 2 liter bottle filled with hot sweet milky coffee. This is packed surrounded by sleeping bag (yes, I carry a sleeping bag on winter day trips. If I break an ankle I might not be back that day.) This will still be at least luke warm 8 hours later.
If I was into endurance racing of some sort, I think I'd get a bladder. I can see the virtue of being able to drink on the run.