4 packs tested

Comparing 4 modern hydration packs

Backpacks: there is no celebration for dehydration!

Beyond Otter Pops, sun burns, and the occasional grease fire in the old family barbecue, summer means a ton more daylight, and therefore longer rides, where carrying some essentials is a good idea. However, I’m not here to tell you to wear a backpack on every ride- personally, I often forgo a pack COMPLETELY for most of those morning ride vlogs I publish. But there are definitely those longer, more memorable adventures, or those scorching hot days where a comfortable pack makes the difference between a miserable slog while seeing spots from dehydration, or an amazing day on the trail that makes all the rest of your worldly worries disappear. After all, there is no celebration for dehydration.

This video and article was made possible thanks to Jenson USA. Jenson is a leading online retailer with a great inventory of everything you need to stay on the bike this summer. Anything you purchase from Jenson via my links will directly help support my videos. I’m also supported by PNW Components, Industry Nine, and Shimano. I did purchase all of these packs on my own through Jenson, though since I’m working with them, I’m not paying full retail. Cost of the packs is not something that I’ll be discussing in the video at all.

Again, you don’t have to buy a fancy hydration pack to enjoy this sport, but they definitely have a place. I’ll do a quick comparison of four packs that I recently purchased myself from Jenson USA. I did not buy these at retail, and my feedback on these packs has NOTHING to do with price. But like an overly caffeinated, extreme-with-an-X version of consumer reports, I’ve learned a lot about these packs, and it’s my job to tell you what’s great, and what’s not so great about them.

4 packs compared
Here we’ve got two bigger units- the Camelbak Mule and the USWE Airborne 15, and two smaller packs- the Osprey Syncro 5 and the USWE Vertical 10 Plus.

Keep in mind, hip packs are also popular, especially for summer riding, but I’ve been preferring backpacks. If I land flat on my back, I want to have the protection afforded by that bladder, and padding. Furthermore, I don’t want my pumps positioned perpendicular to my spine- I’d rather them parallel.

I don’t carry a ton of stuff, but here’s roughly what I bring when I don’t forget stuff:

what inside your pack?
Spare 29” tube, a pump, a shock pump, allen wrenches, a multi tool. If I look to the heavens and see grey clouds of turmoil, I’ll pack a waterproof jacket. If I’m going more remote, I’ll grab some small gorilla tape, a spoke wrench, maybe consolidate the allen wrench to just one multi tool, some trail mix and energy bars, and if it’s a fitting location, a water filter. How much of this do you carry as well?

What you don’t have to carry, but if you’re trying to yell, “Hey Look At Me!” on the internet like I often do, means I’ll carry at least an audio recorder, and GoPro gimbal, heck, sometimes even a drone and spare gimbal batteries. If you aren’t trying to show the world how great you are at mountain biking, you can forget the AV gear, and instead bring some sunscreen, and some sort of emergency locating device.

To start us off, let’s look at the two smaller packs first:

Osprey Syncro 5

An Osprey is also known as a fish hunting bird of prey. Much like the bird, this pack soars in the air above your back, and was perhaps the pack I was most looking forward to seeing in the wild- I mean, using.

The Osprey is by far the most comfortable for seated riding. The small pack can barely fit my minimal “pack” contents, but the external pouch works great for holding a thin jacket. The Osprey branded bladder and nipple are all made for Osprey by another brand called Hydrapak, and they work as they should. I do always feel like I’m breaking the bladder when I go to fill it, but I think with time that’ll fix itself. Routing the straw takes a bit of creativity- it lives behind the rider’s left shoulder, but my best experience has been to have it cross over and go down the right shoulder, through the sternum strap, then the magnetic clip can actually hold it. The magnet here isn’t quite as strong as I’d like, but it’s generally sufficient.

On the bike, the way the back panel is made allows for GREAT ventilation, and doesn’t feel like you’ve got last week’s Caesar Salad pushed up against your back. However, the waist strap is minuscule, and the Syncro bounced around on my back by far the most of all these backpacks. Furthermore, the straps are pretty small. A few times I even noticed the pack would whack the back of my helmet. I noticed this with the Fox Speedframe and the larger Giro Tyrant.

helmet on pack
The external helmet carrying strap works as it should, though I don’t really condone riding without a helmet on your head.

Final verdict of the Osprey? GREAT minimalist option for less aggressive riders, especially those in humid or hot environments.

USWE Vertical 10


Originally born in Sweden, the USWE Vertical 10 looks strikingly different from traditional hydration packs. As Sweden is known for its herring and music, it’s also home to some amazing motorcycling. Some moto guys hated how their old packs would flop around, so they came up with the crossover strap system, and promptly gave it an acronym.

In practice, this is a very different pack than the more traditional Osprey. It has a bit more internal carrying capacity than the Osprey, but the external cargo system is a little bizarre. Much like the USWE Airborne 15, it’s divided into two very different segments- the left, and the right, and they seem to have very little to do with each other. (I’ve been struggling to connect these two, and maybe you can relate.)

When storing things inside the USWE, there is no real separation between the bladder and the contents. I am legit concerned that my Allen keys will puncture the bladder.
Speaking of the bladder, it uses a smaller 2L unit which is made by the same company that makes Osprey’s bladder- Hydrapak.

USWE’s big claim to fame is that there is no “dancing monkey” on your back. The X-strap system seems to resist the smaller bumps and motions really well- but I have found that these packs WILL move quite a bit on bigger impacts. I’ve become so accustomed to the smaller movements that I don’t notice them much, and when the pack suddenly moves on a big hit it’s a little disconcerting. The traditional packs seem a tad more predictable. Also, with the lack of external compression, it seems that sloshing contents might be creating this feeling.

“Neither the Osprey Syncro nor the USWE Vertical 10 have hip pockets. This isn’t the worst, but it means you have to fully remove the entire pack, should you need to dig that pepper spray out to fend off that attacking Cougar. In reality, I’m sure it’d just make a large carnivore laugh, watching me flail my way to spraying myself in my own face with the stuff. But still, I’m a fan of hip pockets.”

-Jeff Kendall-Weed

Final verdict of the little USWE? It’s a good option. It has a comfortable, unique feel, but it will be better for cooler, or less humid environments. For those that carry softer stuff, this is a good option. Heck, anyone who is taking the pack off and on a lot, like a parent carrying snacks for their kids, will really like this pack. Internal organization is limited, and there’s no key ring. All the things that make the USWE not so great for mountain biking would make the pack GREAT for dirt-biking!

Now we’re on to the BIG BOYS! I prefer this size, as if I’m gonna use a pack, it’s usually because I have tons of stuff that day. The 14 liter Camelbak compares closely to the 15 liter USWE.

Camelbak M.U.L.E Pro 14

With my history of using Camelbaks, it felt like I was at yet another McDonald’s, and everything from the Big Mac bladder, to the hip pockets, to the side compression strap Mcnuggets, were all right in their usual place on the menu. But again, just like a Big Mac, while the bladder was good, it certainly was not great. It’s quite a trick to get the full bladder into the pack, and the screw-on lid has to be properly tight to seal. The nipple will leak all the fluid if it’s contacted by anything- and not switched off with the giant, clunky manual lever. Once we’re beyond that, the pack is mostly great. The stiff back panel provides decent protection from your junk. There are hip pockets, as well as a soft pocket for sunglasses.

I wasn’t a fan of the mule‘s back panel. It dug into my back…ouch!

While I’m familiar with Camelbak bladders, I gotta say, I am preferring the Hydrapak derivatives.

The main drawback to the mule is that the back panel can fold over itself, and then pushes directly into your spine. Not comfy. NOTE: since publishing this video, I’ve logged a few hundred more miles in the Mule, and even clamped it down for a few days in an attempt to fix this “crease” that pushes into my spine. No luck. While I really like a lot about this pack, this crease is very uncomfortable and I can’t recommend this pack as a result.

The Camelbak is one that I’m quite familiar with, though it seems Camelbak has tried unsuccessfully to imitate Osprey’s air pad system. As a result, the rigid plastic back-piece can fold incorrectly and becomes very uncomfortable. Despite that, the pack itself is fantastic. Throw a Hydrapak bladder in there, and dial in the Osprey styled back panel, and it’d be a great option.
The Camelbak mule includes a little tool roll, which is nice, but I never seem to use those as the internal pockets are simply easier and faster to get to.
camels for real
Camel Back. Need I explain more?

Final verdict on the Mule? I like the way it moves around only a little on smaller impacts, but stays well put during larger hits. Overall it would be my favorite- IF the back panel wasn’t so dang uncomfortable.

USWE Airborne 15

The USWE Airborne 15 has a lot going for it. It’s generally more comfortable than the Camelbak, and the separation of pockets is handy. However, the way to cinch down the external compartment is a little clunky.

The way this pack fits me isn’t quite as good as a traditional pack, but it’s also faster to put on and take off!
Cargo bounced around a lot. Heck, the whole pack bounced around quite a bit. With more time riding with this pack, I’ve become accustomed to it, and it’s not a big problem, but be aware that it’s not as magically planted as the marketing claims.
I really appreciate the ease of putting on and removing the USWE– it’s QUICK! It uses a Hydrapak bladder and hose, and that stuff is great. The straw is a little flimsy, but works without issue- though it might be sticking out at an odd angle on occasion.

Since I first published my video with the info on the Airborne 15, I’ve had time to log a TON more rides with it. It’s a great pack! It does not have the floating/air net style system that Osprey pulls off so well, so on hotter days it’s not ideal, but on cooler rides this pack is great. The size is just big enough to carry my mega ride stash. Hip pockets would have been an awesome item to include, but I’ve been stashing more items in my shorts instead (bear spray, GoPro batteries, etc). Overall, the Airborne 15 is now my favorite pack of this whole bunch.

I want to try another couple Osprey packs, as I feel their design has good potential. With USWE being a new player to the market, I expect them to be aggressively improving their packs these next few years. I’d also like to try some Dakine and even some Evoc models as well.

Now let me end on a question or two: How old is your current hydration pack? They might have just got a lot better over the years…

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