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, an