In 1989, a trained EMT and competitive cycler named Michael Eidson created a makeshift hydration system using an IV bag filled with water, a tube sock and a clothes pin. Several months later, he began selling an improved version of this product, the first of the now-famous CamelBak. American soldiers began using his system during the First Gulf War, and by the time Bear Stearns Merchant Banking bought the company for $210 million in 2004 (and subsequently resold several times), it was well poised to fill enormous government contracts for hydration systems to various militaries around the world.
These days, such portable hydration systems that make use of a bladder-and-tube design are so widespread and ubiquitous that we hardly give them a second thought: Indeed, so many options abound that it can be overwhelming to differentiate one from the other. A water-filled sack held in a backpack-like pack with a tube coming out of it is basically the same thing no matter who makes it, no?
Sort of. As it is with many product categories, it’s the small differences that differentiate one hydration system from another. How big is the bladder? What materials are used, and do they provide taste-free water? Does the pack integrate with military load-bearing systems easily, such as PALS webbing (a type of grid patchwork that allows for the attachment of different types of gear)? Is it comfortable to wear for many hours at a time?
We found a convenient testing ground for three hydration systems in Colombia recently, which we visited with Waves for Water, an American NGO dedicated to bringing in clean water solutions to areas affected by natural disasters, conflict and remoteness. With support from Panerai, the Swiss-owned dive watch manufacturer with Italian military origins, Waves for Water brought in Sawyer water filtration systems to a remote village outside Medellin, and Gear Patrol had the opportunity to tag along and witness the mission firsthand.
Agilite Edge 3L Hydration Pack
The Edge 3L from Israeli company Agilite is a more traditional system in the sense that it’s a tall 3L back with included shoulder straps. Agilite primarily builds military products, and the Edge 3L can be integrated with MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-Bearing Equipment)-style vests and plate carriers. However it’s not a compact design like the Rider or the Armorbak.
The CamelBak Armorbak
The Armorbak is similar to the Source Rider in that it’s optimized for use with military MOLLE systems. It doesn’t provide shoulder straps for use as a backpack like the Rider, but this isn’t its chief purpose. It uses a 3L bladder and 500D Double-rip Cordura® Fabric to ensure a tough build quality.
The Source Hydration Rider 3L
Israel-based Source Hydration’s Rider is a natural evolution of the original CamelBak system. More compact than many hydration products, it still provides 3L of water in a Cordura 500 pack that can be used as a backpack or attached to a multitude of vest and armor carriers, which is ideal for military use.
The Agilite Edge ships in several configurations, and the user has the choice of including shoulder straps, padded shoulder straps or no shoulder straps. I was given the padded strap-version for testing, and worn as a pack, it featured probably the most comfortable fit of the three systems. If you’re in the military and you wanted to use the entire system within the pack portion of an equipment vest or plate carrier, it would be better to remove the hydration sleeve and simply use that, as the cover itself is tall. If your vest doesn’t have a pack, you could simply attach the Edge to your MOLLE gear.
The ArmorBak doesn’t include shoulder straps for use as a pack, but is rather intended for integration with a modular system such as MOLLE. In a pinch, you can toss the entire ArmorBak in a traditional backpack, which works just fine. But either integrated with MOLLE gear or used within the pack on an equipment vest, this system fits well due to its compact design — you don’t have to remove the bladder from the pack itself if you so choose.
The Source Rider is similar to the ArmorBak but features shoulder straps that tuck into the pack itself when not in use. Though they aren’t padded like the available straps on the Edge, they do provide a comfortable fit when wearing the Rider as a pack. Alternatively, as the Rider is moderately compact, you could fit the entire system in the pack of an equipment vest, or attach it to web gear.
The Agilite Edge is manufactured from 1000D mil-spec tactical nylon with plastic hardware and uses an oversized zipper to open and close the hydration reservoir compartment. The particular reservoir used is made by Hydrapak, an American company that specializes in hydration tech. It’s made of heavy-weight TPU with welded seams and, critically, features an internal divider, key to redistributing the water volume such that the bladder is less susceptible to bursting. While there’s nothing technologically novel to the Edge, it’s made of first-grade materials and tough enough for military use.
The Camelbak Armorbak is made from 500D double-rip Cordura, and the reservoir is divided, similar to that of the Agilite Edge. The zipper on the hydration reservoir sleeve, though not as large as that of the Agilite model, is still heavy-duty (there are actually two zippers on this model), and the plastic hardware for direct attachment to plate carrier systems is heavy duty and robust. The bladder includes a convenient push-button system for quickly and easily disconnecting both the hose and mouthpiece, and the on/off valve is well-constructed.
The Source Rider 3L is also constructed from 500D Cordura with a nylon liner. The zippers used are heavy-duty YKK and the MOLLE-attachment hardware is acetal thermoplastic. The included straps, while not passed like those of Agilite, are constructed of double-lengths of nylon and designed to fold away into an included pocket when the system is in use on a tactical vest, so it’s understandable that they wouldn’t be as thick. Very similar to construction and quality to the Agilite and Camelback models, the Source is well built and made especially for tactical settings.
Considered on its own, 3L of water isn’t particularly heavy, but carried for long periods of time along with other gear, this much water certainly makes its presence known. To that end, the optional padded shoulder straps that ship with the Agilite Edge are a welcome addition to the design — they attach and remoive easily, are comfortable and render a full load of water significantly less cumbersome.
As the Camelback Armorbak is made to either attach directly to a plate carrier or equipment vest (it can, alternatively, be stored inside a backpack) and doesn’t include backpack straps, I can’t comment on its effectiveness as a pack. Camelbak does, of course, have plenty of models in its catalog with this functionality.
Because the Source Rider’s backpack straps are meant to be store in an internal pocket when not in use, they’re not padded, and thus not as comfortable as those of the Edge. However, a padded shoulder strap isn’t the point, here — rather, adaptability is key, and in that sense, the straps are sufficiently comfortable to carry a load of water for short periods of time.
The utility factor is chiefly what differentiates one hydration system from another, to my mind. I’ve used different models over many years of hiking, and several different models in the military, and it’s truly the little design tweaks that will keep one particular system parked in my grab-and-go kit and another relegated to the bottom of a storage bin — or a rubbage bin.
The Agilite Edge’s (available in four colors) different K Series strap options are a great touch — I wish more hydration systems offered these add-ons at point-of-sale. The padded straps are highly comfortable and have built-in loops for feeding the hydration tube down your shoulder, as well as D-rings for hanging extra gear. Reinforced stitching and perforations for increased breathability on the shoulders are also appreciated.
The pack attaches to MOLLE-equipped vests and plate carriers via a strap system — this is easy to work with and though I didn’t have the chance to test it on my own equipment vest on this trip, I did try it on a different MOLLE vest, which worked well. Additional webbing on the front of the system provide attachment points for miscellaneous MOLLE gear.
The main compartment for the hydration sleeve opens and closes via an oversize, heavy-duty YKK zipper, which should never snag, and there are two openings near the top of the compartment for feeding through the hose so it can rest on either shoulder. The Hydrapak sleeve itself features an internal divider, which I’ve noticed is a feature on most current-generation hydration systems for good reason — previously, bladders that were simply one large “sack” full of three liters of water were highly susceptible to bursting. (I once broke three identical bladders in the military, one after the other, when each one either fell from a short height onto a hard surface or simply experienced too much pressure.) The divider ensures any one portion of the bladder doesn’t have too much water volume in it and won’t burst.
The fill design features a slider top, in which the reservoir snaps shut and then an integrated “clip” slides over top in order to seal the bag. Personally, I don’t care for this design and much prefer one in which the reservoir is accessed via a screw-top. When you’re part of a platoon (let alone a company) of forty soldiers who have exactly ten minutes to fill their hydration reservoirs from a mobile water system, I wouldn’t want to be fumbling with this system, and would prefer a screw-top.
However, I’ve seen this clip-top design in several hydration systems lately (including on both the Agilite and the Source models reviewed here), and since both of these are military designs, it may well be that I’m missing something — perhaps because the opening is larger the thought process is that these are easier to fill quickly, or that (more likely) they tend to leak less than a screw-top design. As used by a civilian, this system strikes me as easily operable, but again, I personally prefer a screw-top.
All this being said, the Hydrapak reservoir is otherwise very well made, with an internal divider, a fill capacity gauge for measuring precise water levels, and an easy on-off bite valve. Constructed from BPA- and PVC-free, abrasion-ressitant TPU with welded seams and increased elasticity, the reservoir is sturdy enough to be used frozen and up to temperatures of 140° F. Had I need to use the sleeve on its own within a pack on a load-bearing best, it would certainly work fine, but the tall form makes designs like these difficult to fit into certain packs. Overall, I think this is a great hydration system for hiking and trekking, but slightly less suited to use with load-bearing gear in a military setting.
The Camelback Armorbak (available in two colors) is made specifically for integration with a load-bearing vest, and as such I can’t comment on its utility as a backpack. However I did use it within another backpack, as I wasn’t utilizing any load-bearing kit on this trip, and in this regard it worked perfectly — the compact design means that it doesn’t poke out the top of your pack the way some conventional 3L designs tend to do. (I did attach the Armorbak to another load-bearing vest for fit purposes, and the Direct Armor Attachment System clips work well — rather than utilizing a strap system, these simply open and hook into the webbing on MOLLE-equipped vests.) A convenient hook-and-loop patch allows you to put an identifying tag on the system front for easy ID.
The Armorbak reservoir has the screw-top design that I prefer, with the benefit of a heavy plastic “handle” for easy purchase during filling. There’s also a capacity gauge for measuring up to 3L of water, a quick-release system for the hose attachment (which also seals when the hose is removed) and easy-to-use on-off regulator for the bite valve, which is itself removable. Two zippers ensure that the reservoir is easy to quickly remove from the pack itself (those small details again…), and a reinforced window allows the hose to thread through. Overall, this was an incredibly simple and effective design, and if you don’t require backpack straps, it’s perfect for integration with MOLLE gear or a backpack.
The Source Rider 3L (available in five colors, including three camo patterns) sits somewhere between Agilite and Camelbak designs, being meant for integration into a load-bearing vest but featuring integrated straps for use as a shoulder-borne pack that conveniently tuck away when not in use. These straps feature built-in elastic enclosures for keeping excess material out of the way after adjusting the strap — a smart design feature and much better than the alternative, which is gaffer tape — as well as a sternum strap for load distribution and carrying stability.
Attachment to load-bearing MOLLE gear is accomplished via a strap system, though these straps don’t feature elastic enclosures on the ends. Again, I didn’t have the opportunity to test the system with my load-bearing vest, but did try it on another MOLLE-equipped vest, to which it attached easily. The flap for the reservoir pocket features a hook-and-loop attachment point for a name tag and MOLLE webbing for attaching other gear, as well as a snap, hook-and-loop and dual zippers for secure closure. Interestingly, this flap is situated on the front of the system rather than the top to facilitate easy removal of the reservoir if the system is integrated into a vest. Again, smart design.
The internal reservoir doesn’t feature a water gauge, but does have an internal divider, a quick-release hose that terminates in a quick-release bit valve with a twistable on-off feature, and the entire thing opens with a clip system. (Moreover, it’s a compact design, rather than a tall one, which I appreciated) Again, while I personally prefer the screw-top closure system, these clip closures are proving more and more popular, and I have to imagine that we’ll be seeing more of them in the future. I do wish, however, that there was a way to better hold the reservoir when filling it, such as on the Camelback system, and that it fit better into the pack. Overall, this was my least favorite reservoir.
There are four different openings in the pack itself through which to feed the hose — two at the top, and one on either side. There are also hook-and-look straps for securing the hose to either shoulder strap and, brilliantly, a small magnetic clip on the hose itself. Using this, you can clip the hose to your uniform top or vest and simply remove it for drinking, snapping it back into place when you’re done using the magnet. This is the only system I’ve seen with this feature, and it’s a nice extra touch. Also included with the system is s bottle converter, allowing you to hook up the hose to a 2L bottle rather than the reservoir, should the need arise. This converter comes in a Cordura pack that’s integratabtle with MOLLE systems.
Verdict Each of these three systems is suited to a slightly different end user: the Agilite Edge is best, to my mind, as a standalone pack; the Armorbak works best via integration into a load-bearing vest or within a backpack; and the Source Rider falls somewhere in the middle, with integrated straps that allow use as a backpack but a compact design that lends itself well to vest integration.
Screw-type or clip-type closures are a matter of personal preference, but my personal ideal hydration system actually lies somewhere between these products. (It’s essentially the Source Rider with the Armorbak’s bladder.) That being said, for the hiker or trekker, the Rider or the Edge are both worthy hydration systems, though the available padded straps on the Edge add more comfort. For the soldier utilizing a load-bearing vest, the Armorbak is probably sufficient, though if he or she ever wants to use the system as a standalone product, the Rider would be more ideal.
Each of these systems is largely well designed, and worked well for short treks and hiking. Look out for another, shorter test in which we put these to real military use nest summer.
Agilite, CamelBak and Source Hydration provided these products for review.
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