August in the Midwest can get hot, humid and steamy. But that’s never enough to stop outdoor enthusiasts from running, cycling, paddling or hiking. Not paying attention to hydration can, however, stop you in your tracks. If you aren’t taking in enough fluids the consequences can be serious.  

Fortunately, there are more options than ever to carry water with you on your adventures. Once limited to heavy plastic bottles stored in hip belt holsters, athletes can now choose from handhelds, belts with multiple bottles and lightweight technical vests.

In general, the needs of runners are driving design innovations in hydration bottles and carrying systems.

“Hydration equipment used to be an afterthought, but now with more people going longer distances, runners are carefully selecting all their hydration gear, realizing it is an important contributor to their enjoyment and success,” Ultimate Direction brand manager Buzz Burrell said.

Brands are responding with innovative designs tailored to a wide variety of runner preferences. “One of the big trends we see is products that are shaped and designed specifically for the way the body moves,” Jim Frazier, vice president of product for Nathan, said. “We’re applying this trend of body-smart design to all of our hydration products from handhelds to belts to vests.”

Mirroring trends in footwear design, hydration brands are focusing on lightweight construction materials.

“Performance fabrics are becoming lighter and more breathable, yet more durable at the same time. These advances in materials allow us to design form factors in hydration that fit and perform better,” Frazier said. “From options on carrying, ease of use, price and color combinations that reflect personality, athletes want to personalize their hydration products.”

Product design must balance the runner’s need to carry appropriate fluid volumes in system that is as light as possible. 

“With a safety pin being more than most runners would like to carry, the equation is pretty simple. Minimalism in weight and body coverage, low-profile physics, single-handed on-the-run fluid access, and the ability to change your set-up depending on your run that day, are critical to designing hydration products that allow the user to carry what they need while getting closest to carrying nothing but themselves,” reported June Angus, president and co-founder of Amphipod, Inc.

Form factors
Now that athletes understand the importance of hydration, they have an incredible array of ways in which to carry water. Handheld bottles and flask belts have dominated the market, but recently lightweight vests are attracting attention.

“Belts and handhelds are still the dominant form factors in the running market but we have been seeing a steadily growing trend in the number of vests being sold,” CamelBak product manager Hunter Shoop said. “The vests that are being introduced into the market are getting lighter weight, more comfortable and a more practical approach for the everyday runner. They are no longer just for the elite.”

Frazier added, “People are becoming aware of the ability to carry their water, hands-free, efficiently and comfortably.”

Vests carry water in bladders stored in large sleeved pockets on the back panel. Others use bottles or flasks in chest-mounted pockets. While attracting attention among runners and some consumer magazines, the jury is still out on whether hydration vests are preferable. 

“Unless you’re training for an ultra distance event and need the fluid or nutrition volume or are training where you cannot refill, we’re still finding that most runners who are out there looking for a hydration solution are not interested in carrying much on their back and shoulders if it’s not necessary,” Angus said.

Vinu Malik, president of FuelBelt, Inc., agrees. “Runners are definitely not shifting to vests for running unless they are exclusively focused on trail running or adventure racing. Lightweight, easy to use and functional hydration belts are the top solution for run-specific training and racing, followed by handhelds.” Malik also noted that vests may be more appropriate for off-road biking and hiking.

Vests may offer an option, but all three forms are worthy alternatives. In fact, many runners purchase all three varieties and select the most appropriate method for their chosen running workout. 

Buying tips
Bottle and flasks come in a variety of shapes. There are a lot of choices, so take some time to compare shapes and sizes to find the one that is most comfortable for you. 

Miles into your run or bike ride, belts buckles and straps can be annoying. The convenience of carrying water can be quickly replaced by painful chafing. Take a look at how the carrying systems are designed and try them on to check the fit.

Pay attention to the mouthpieces and hoses on bladder hydration models. Look for a system that gets water to you quickly without lots of extra steps. Consider how the water flows, too. Some provide a steady stream while other are designed with an on-demand approach, delivering fluid only when you suck hard on the mouthpiece.

At the end of a long run or mountain bike trek, all you want to think about his hitting the couch. So whichever hydration system you use, take a moment to rinse out your bottles, flasks and bladders. That way you will avoid the nasty surprise of funky gunk the next time you try to refill them. 

Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer who has covered the outdoor recreation beat for more than a decade.