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Trail Running Gear: Hydration Systems

No water fountains on the trail. Aid stations 4+ miles apart. Mouth is parched. You need water!

If you are new to trail running, you may not be aware of some options available that allow you to keep your attention on the trail and also remain hydrated.

Most trail runners will use some type of hydration system during their training especially as the time on your feet increases.  Almost all runners use one during a trail ultramarathon.

What options are available?

There are three main categories of hydration systems often used on the trails.

  • Handheld – This system often contains a water bottle that uses a tightening strap to attach to your hand.
  • Waist-Pack Carrier – A bottle or bladder carrying system that attaches around your waist.
  • Backpack Carrier – A bladder carrying system that resides on your back and attaches like a backpack.

Which system runners like best is very much an individual choice. It is definitely advantageous to get comfortable with a system prior to a race. If you are running 50km, 50 miles, or 100 miles, gear does not need to be one of your problems. There will be plenty of other challenges to keep you busy.

Let’s look at each option in more detail.


Handheld systems are basically a bottle tied to your hand. An adjustable strap is often used to secure the bottle. Also, some handhelds may include neoprene insulation and/or small storage pockets.

Here are a couple pictures of my Ultimate Direction handheld. You can see the small storage pocket (left) and adjustable strap (right).

My Ultimate Direction Handheld Bottle

Adjustable strap.

A nice perk of the handheld is that it can break your fall and save your hands if you would happen to catch a toe on a root or rock. It had saved me in more than a couple occasions.

Who makes them?

Note: Purchases through Running Warehouse will also include an additional Endurance Buzz visitor discount at check0ut.

All of these manufactures use bottles that are  BPA-free and that is a good thing!

I personally am a fan of the handheld. It is simple and easy to refill (unscrew the top and fill) at aid-stations. The strap allows you to consciously forget about carrying the bottle and focus on the trail.

Yes, there is extra weight in your hand when running but that gradually decreases as you drink the fluid. I also like to switch hands after a set period of time (every hour or so) to balance out the work required by an arm.

Waist-pack System

The waist-pack systems typically carry one or two standard sized water bottles or an array of smaller flask bottles. The bottles are held in various types of holsters that mount around your waist. The bottles will be held near your lower back area. Some of the small flask systems do carry the bottle in front of you.

There is also one (that I know of) manufacturer (Camelbak) that creates a waist-pack bladder system. No water bottles used here.

The waist-pack systems will attach to your waist using either a clip-system or Velcro (some of the flask systems). Most all systems will have some type of pocket or storage area. This will vary by model.

Here is a picture of a waist system that I own.


Waist-pack systems allow you to keep your hands free while running except for the brief moments you need a drink or refill the bottle. These systems also provide a way to carry additional water if you need to bring a large number of ounces with you  on the trail (ex: using handhelds and a waist-pack system).

Who makes them?

Note: Purchase through Running Warehouse include an Endurance Buzz visitor discount at checkout.

All bottles BPA-free as well!

I will use a waist-pack system if I need to carry extra water in addition to my handheld.

Some people are sensitive to things strapped around their waste so it is definitely wise to use in training prior to a trail running race. Also, the flask systems can be a bit of a pain to fill during a race due to the small opening in which to pour the water.  One flask, maybe not a big deal but four, six, eight flasks, this will take a bit of time and may not be worth it.

If you need to carry some extra stuff (nutrition, maps, etc), the extra storage area can be useful as well. Some of the waist-packs have a fair amount of storage room and others are more minimalistic.

Backpacks System

The backpack hydration systems sit on your body, well like a backpack, and water is held in a bladder. These bladders hold a significant amount of water with around 70 ounces seems to be quite common but there is a range of bladder sizes depending on the pack. A small hose connects from the bladder and terminates at a area on the shoulder strap near your mouth so you can easily take a pull when needed.

These hydration systems also have varying amounts of storage which can be useful depending on your needs.

Who makes them?

Note: Purchase through Running Warehouse include an Endurance Buzz visitor discount at checkout.

The backpack systems take it up another notch with respect to being hands free as compared to the waist system. The bladders also typically have a large screw top opening so when you need to refill, you can get it done in a hurry.

I have yet to train or race with a backpack hydration system while trail running.

Go Hydrate

The three main types of hydration systems all have a variety of bells-and-whistles but the most important is providing you with fluids to drink while trail running. Depending on your preferences, there is something for everyone.

Now go hydrate and enjoy the trails!

Which type of hydration system(s) do you prefer?

Be active – Feel the buzz!

David –

About the author

David Hanenburg David Hanenburg is the passionate dirt-lovin' creator of Endurance Buzz and has been playing in the endurance sports world since 2000 after knockin' the dust off of his Trek 950 hardtail thanks to a friend asking to go ride some local dirt. In 2007 he ran his first ultra on the trails and fell in love with the sport and its people. For more information on David's endurance sports journey, check out the About page.

One Response to “Trail Running Gear: Hydration Systems”

  1. on 21 Sep 2009 at 9:00 am Carolyn

    I would also recommend you check out a new hydration system called the Body Bottle. It is a water bottle that straps to your bicep, so it keeps your hands free, and doesn’t result in anything bouncing around on your waist or back. I designed, prototyped and am now spreading the word about it because I was frustrated with all the other products out there. If you get a chance to check it out, I would love to hear your thoughts. The site for it is