The hip pack vs hydration backpack argument seems to be debated among mountain bikers regularly. And for good reason. Both options are widespread and offer great options for carrying tools, fuel and hydration.
Having been in the backpack crowd for more than a decade, I recently had a peek over at alternatives to alleviate my back on MTB trail rides. Despite the fear of looking like a dork with a manpurse or fanny pack. But that’s of course only true if you spin it around … obviously.
What over 50% of mountain bikers use
While researching my new hip pack and after noticing an increasing amount of hip packs even in downhill bike parks I was wondering what the actual distribution between the carrying options on a bike is right now. So I went through MTB forums on this topic and counted what nearly 90 users reportedly use.
So there you have it: Between hip packs, backpacks and bottle cages an overwhelming 54% prefer a hip pack. 33% stay true to their backpacks and 13% use the minimalist bottle cage and frame straps combo.
Pro-tip: Bigger backpacks are generally better for big rides. You can find the best-rated ones on Amazon here. For a lighter, easy-to-use carrying solution, check out the best hip packs on Amazon now.
There might be a bias as most riders with a hip pack have used a backpack at some point, while not all preferring a backpack tried out a hip pack.
What’s noteworthy in this context is that under 10% reported having used a hip pack and turning back to a backpack for regular use.
Interestingly enough, there is a sizeable group of hip pack users reverting to backpacks for long-distance mountain bike rides.
Which is a fair point I can agree with. A lot goes into planning, navigating and actually riding long distances – storage and hydration being right at the top of the list.
Plus, panniers or rack bags are no option on an MTB. So backpacks are still widely used as a secondary option, just not as daily drivers.
The best option for you depends on your riding style, riding duration and climate.
- unrestricted movement on the bike
- less sweaty back
- accessible while wearing
- unnoticeable with little weight
- 1.5l bladder, 1l bottle or both
- minimalist for shorter rides
- bulky with a back protector
- bounces with more weight
- pulls on your stomache
- danger of ridicule from friends
- storage space
- 3+ liter bladders
- large range of options
- self sufficient solo rides
- optional integrated back protection
- helmet carry options
- restricting, uncomfortable
- irritating with a neck brace
- bounces with less weight
- heats up water
- may invite to carry more for no reason
- high center of gravity (new back pack designs keep the hydration bladder down at the bottom)
In general, the cost between MTB backpacks and hip packs is not too different.
On average, hip packs are around $ 80 – $ 100 for a quality product, with a couple of exceptions in either direction. There are slight variations in overall capacity and hydration options.
My Camelbak Classic HydroBak 2.5L (2L bladder) is, and has been for years, around $ 70 (€ 65) depending on the color option. The extra 0.5L is hardly any additional space, it’s basically a bladder and a third pants pocket strapped to my back.
Something similar in overall storage capacity would be a Camelbak Ratchet 3L (3L bladder and magnetic tube clip included) for around $ 100 or € 90. Overall, backpacks offer a lot more variability in hydration and storage.
Again, prices vary between brands and design – I haven’t even touched integrated back protectors – but you can get similar functionality for a similar cost, no matter how you prefer to strap it to your body.
This is probably the most discussed topic. Storage, bladder volume and protection options are widely similar, but the ergonomics of actually wearing one or the other is a huge divider.
With only one pivot, the shoulders, a backpack is swinging around quite a bit. A hip strap key for backpacks. Mine doesn’t have one and it’s what turned me to look into hip packs initially.
Another thing to consider is that it’s one thing walking around with a backpack on and another sitting on a bike with your arms and shoulders raised. The natural riding position is what turns a convenient package into weight dangling on straps that are cutting into my shoulders and neck.
The harness around your chest seems to take a lot of the weight off of your shoulders – if tight enough. A good fit in a riding position with shoulders rolled forward is then too tight when standing upright. That weird constricting feeling that I could never quite get used to since the tightness changes with body position and content inside the hydration bladder.
The EVOC Pro hip pack actually has a pretty genius system to regulate fitting based on your riding without taking it off or re-adjusting it. It’s called Venti Flap and you basically just pull on one strap to loosen the fit a touch for climbing and pull another strap to tighten it up before descending. It’s enough to be noticeable and help with varying fitting during the day.
That way it’s secured well at all times, which I could never get quite right on a backpack, even with waist straps. My scientific test method: bending over to tie shoelaces. The backpack always hits the back of my head, waist strap or not. The hip pack won’t budge. And this translates to riding on the trail.
One idiosyncratic difference in the comfort and annoyance while riding between the two is actually the carrying load. The lighter the backpack, the more bouncy it gets. It’s the exact opposite with a hip pack: The heavier it is, the more noticeable it is, and the more it pulls back on your belly. For sensitive stomachs, this may be a show-stopper even with a wide belt like on the EVOC Pro.
All in all, I noticed less lower back discomfort from long days in the saddle, a less strained upper body, and generally unrestricted movement with a hip bag.
A minor detail from riding so long with backpacks are the shoulder straps flopping around in front of me. You can see the loose strap hanging down to my forearm. I can’t just cut it shorter because the overall smaller form factor requires loosening the strap so much to even get out in a comfortable manner.
As you would assume, the difference is night and day. Simply due to the actual surface areas touching your body. But which is preferable depends on the season. In winter I don’t mind having a warmer back, but in frying summer temperatures I do.
In terms of sweating my but off, I’ve really come to appreciate what EVOC did on the backside of their pack. This design improves both comfort and breathability. Some higher-end backpacks offer similar designs or mesh shoulder straps. Due to the surface directly in contact with your back, they are inherently limited tho.
There are options out there combining the best of both worlds, like this hip pack with shoulder straps from Henty. Breathability, stability, storage capacity, and center of gravity are all on point. This brings me to my next point.
A lower center of gravity definitely helps with keeping your arms and upper body fresh, handling on the bike and bouncing cargo. This is basically a decision between back and hip. There is no way to largely alter the overall placement on your body with a given carrying option.
And then there is weight distribution within a pack.
Obviously, depending on overall space and compartment design, there can be shuffling around in a backpack, but even if that’s somehow possible in modern ones, it’s not as critical. Stuff tends to fall towards the bottom, where you want it to be. So it’s more hands-off in that regard.
With a hip pack, the distribution of weight from side to side has an impact. Most bottle holders are on the side, and some have one right in the middle for exactly this reason. Even with the two bottle straps on either side, one is getting empty sooner than the other. It’s not a deal-breaker with a securely sitting hip belt, but worth a consideration. And irrelevant with a hydration bladder system, which sits in the center.
To be fair, my 2.5L Camelbak isn’t up to an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of available extra storage, even tho the overall capacity is similar.
Closer to the 3L hip pack would be something like the 3L Camelbak Ratchet (their second smallest) with two extra compartments. And that’s exactly the biggest advantage of backpacks in general:
There is just more variability for up and downsizing depending on your needs. A hip pack can only be that big before it gets irritatingly cumbersome.
That being said, you may have heard of Parkinson’s law: “work expands to fill the time allotted to it”. The same is true for the space in your gear. There is a real chance you are going to fill it up with not really necessary stuff just because you can.
That’s a good thought to keep in mind if you ever go bike touring, by the way. Space and weight are inherently limited on two wheels, plus you are the motor pulling it all along.
One thing to keep in mind is that capacity for extra gear can get drastically reduced by a full bladder. A half-full one or a missing one frees up a lot of usable real estate.
Many hip packers report that they still rely on a bottle cage for their hydration instead of putting an extra 1.5 kg in the form of a bladder into their hip pack. The idea is to keep the weight to a minimum. So bottle cages are not out of style just yet, but rather used in combination with other options – mostly frame bags or straps and hip packs.
Less so with backpacks. The space in a backpack is it’s main benefit. You’ve got everything in one place, so why distribute all over the bike. You can even delegate the helmet carrying to some backpacks.
Anyway, stuffing any of our two options full is changing how it can conform to your body, especially filling up the hydration bladder. Again, fitment readjustments as the load gets lighter is a thing.
One completely underrated aspect that I never saw mentioned by anybody else, but probably the feature I am most excited about in my hip pack is the accessibility while wearing!
Just lift it up to give it enough room to rotate freely and wha-bam snack away at your power bar, snap a selfie, grab your wallet for the drive-in at your favorite burger joint or pull out tools for a trailside repair.
My pre-ride ritual is to drink enough BEFORE any ride. There is no downside to it, and it’s a free performance boost anyway when your body is sufficiently hydrates.
Any of my two hydration bladders (1.5L and 2L) can last for a 2-3 hour ride in moderate temperatures without refilling stations. In the baking sun it can get double that.
In terms of technical details, my tube that came with the hip pack is 37.5 in (95 cm) long, which is around 6 in (15 cm) too long because it wraps all around my waist back to the pack.
That extra length is just flopping around while being more than enough to comfortably drink from in an upright position for me at 5 foot 9 inches (180 cm).
The Camelbak’s tube is 35.5 in (90 cm) and perfectly sized for drinking. Less so for riding as it’s a little too long and swings around before my face. It’s also too short so I can’t quite get it to the other shoulder strap.
To get that tube situation under control, manufacturers introduced magnetic clips, some of which can be moved to a place of your choosing. Those improve ease of use drastically and are highly recommended for any hydration option you decide to go for (except bottles of course)
Let’s talk about water temperature real quick. It often falls a little under the table, but has real world implications. There is a noticeable difference in the temperature inside a hydro bladder depending on how you wear it.
As I said before, a backpack has more contact with the body, thus heats up what’s closest to your back. If that’s a back protector, problem solved. If not, you got some warm water coming your way.
That’s less of a problem on a hip pack because of generally smaller bladder volumes and compact form factors not stretching all over your back.
Another issue with larger volume bladders is water slushing inside them. The larger the volume, the slushier. That’s why you can find compartments on high-quality bladders, which reduce the movement of liquids but never quite eliminate it entirely. This can be heard while moving your body riding, less so felt.
I’ll be honest, neither is great combined with upper body protectors in my estimation. Getting comfortable with a protector vest or just knee guards is one thing. The more you wear it and move in it, the more it becomes second nature.
A sensation I could never achieve with backpacks or hip packs. They will always remain feeling foreign.
In combination with extra protection, I find both options incredibly restrictive. It’s just awkward. I only ride with upper body protection on rough trails i.e. bike parks where I store my water bottle at the lift station. This way I eliminate that problem entirely.
If I had to pick one to go over upper body protection, I would probably go with the hip pack. Only because I can actually comfortably lean on my back in the gondola or chairlift by rotating the fanny pack forward.
That and the backpack just bounces around more, which is exaggerated on rough tracks and jumps.
By the way, I got the POC protector vest, which has the longest back protector I know of. So the waist strap of a hip pack or backpack would help in keeping it in place.
For all of you not planning on wearing separate back protection, a bigger backpack with an integrated pack protector is definitely the way to go. Hands down.
Please don’t mistake your water bladder or your other stuff as helpful in case of a crash. I’ve seen nasty get-offs firsthand that would have benefitted, had there been something actually protective in the backpack.
If you are an avid neck brace user (which I stopped a while ago), a hip pack might be the only option. Unless pressing the brace up to your helmet is something you fancy.