We sample the latest in hydration packs that are not too big, not too small, with a 10-15 liter capacity.
Dakine Drafter Pack – $100
By Karen Brooks
The Drafter is a midsize pack for all-day adventures, especially of the gnarly kind, with a 12-liter capacity plus the ability to carry a helmet (XC or full-face) and armor.
The main compartment has a few organizer pockets, either mesh or fleece, to protect delicate items. There’s a soft-lined pocket at the top for eyewear, although it’s not big enough for goggles. The Dakine branded reservoir has a baffle to keep it from “sausaging” and a slide clip closure that worked well. The bite valve has a hard plastic core, so make sure you’re not drinking just before any pucker moments.
The back panel channeling felt weird at first, but created noticeable airflow over my back. The straps are comfy, although I felt like the bag rode a tad high and would occasionally bump my helmet on steep downhills. My XC geek side sometimes wished for little pockets on the waist for food and such.
There are a multitude of color options, and a women’s version with straps that don’t squash your ta-tas. This bag looks and feels more expensive than its suggested retail of $100. Despite my slight grumbles, I’d consider it another winner from Dakine. Made in China.
Shimano Unzen 15 – $110
By Eric McKeegan
Shimano started from scratch when designing its line of hydration packs, and as a result the Unzen isn’t quite like any other pack on the market.
The most noticeable difference is the Cross Harness, which uses an X shape, crossing at the sternum. The idea is to get the straps out of your armpits for better cooling and comfort and eliminate the waist belt. The harness is adjustable to your torso length, but takes some doing to get it set up right. Once in place it is very comfortable. I did miss the waist strap though when getting rowdy on the trail—the pack still bounced around more than I’d like.
Storage is well sorted, with internal pockets for a pump, tools and tube; a fleece pocket up top for electronics; and a bottom pocket with a bungee for armor or a jacket. The tiny pockets on the harness are a good size for gels, but I found them hard to open while riding. The pack uses two horizontal zippers to open the main compartment, which is odd at first, but allows access to the contents by slipping the bag off one shoulder and spinning it to the front like a messenger bag. Pretty slick.
Pack material is lightweight, shiny and stretchy, shedding mud and water like a duck. Available in 6-, 10- or 15-liter sizes in black, red and orange. The 15-liter size was great for all-day rides and would be even better with straps to hold a full-face helmet.
Camelbak M.U.L.E. NV – $130
By Matt Kasprzyk
The NV is the upgraded version of the latest iteration of Camelbak’s venerable workhorse. Or should I say, mule? The NV version gets a few upgrades for the $30 bump in price over the standard M.U.L.E., including a rain cover, waist belt pockets, NVIS back panel and upgraded shoulder straps. With 11-liter capacity, it’s big enough to carry what you need for any all-mountain ride.
Its BPA-free reservoir gets some updates from previous generations as well, including an easy-open, quarter-turn cap with a wider opening, folding dryer arms and a Quick Link hose connection. Cleaning the reservoir has always been a challenge with Camelbak packs and it is made easier with these changes, but I would still prefer an opening large enough for my hand.
The pack itself is pretty tricked out too, featuring a bike tool organizer, media and stash pockets, four point compression, stretch overflow pocket with room for a helmet, and a high-vis removable rain cover.
The back panel is what will make you stop and look though. It is raised with a central air channel to improve circulation. On a long descent in an aggressive position the cooling is noticeable. It’s not going to dry out every last drop of sweat, but it should keep things cooler in hot weather. Available in three color options: skydiver/orange, black and chili pepper. Lifetime warranty.