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The Great Debate: Nalgene, Smart Water, or Water Bladder?

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

For some, this is a non-issue. "Who cares so long as you have water?", they ask. For others, this subject prompts derisive looks to outright mockery and destroyed friendships. OK, I exaggerate slightly with that last one, but you get the idea. Before jumping into this controversy, I'll come clean and tell you I'm in the Smart camp. I even have a video comparing Nalgene to Smart Water bottles ( However, I have purchased one of those kits that enables you to use your Smart Bottle like a Water Bladder. So it's not necessarily an either/or situation. (Bonus section below the pros and cons)

It's difficult to say which type of hydration system is the "best" for hiking, as it can vary depending on individual preferences and the hiking conditions or situation. All three options - a Nalgene bottle, a Water Bladder, and a Smart water bottle - have their own pros and cons.

Let's go into those pros and cons, shall we?

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Nalgene Water Bottles Pros

A Nalgene 32 ounce water bottle
  1. Durability: Nalgene water bottles are made of tough, BPA-free plastic that can withstand rugged outdoor conditions, including drops, impacts, and rough handling. They are less likely to crack or break, making them highly durable for outdoor adventures.

  2. Large capacity: Nalgene water bottles typically have a large capacity of up to 32 ounces (or more), allowing you to carry a significant amount of water, reducing the need for frequent refills during hikes or backpacking trips. This can be especially useful in areas with limited water sources.

  3. Wide mouth design: Nalgene bottles usually have a wide mouth design, making them easy to fill, drink from, and clean. This can be beneficial when you need to refill your bottle from a stream or a water source with limited access.

  4. Versatility: Nalgene water bottles are versatile and can be used for more than just water. They can also store other liquids like hot beverages, soups, or cold beverages, making them suitable for various outdoor activities and meal options.

Nalgene Water Bottles Cons

  1. Weight: Nalgene bottles can be relatively heavy compared to other lightweight water bottle options available in the market. When backpacking, every ounce counts, and the weight of multiple Nalgene bottles can add up, potentially increasing the overall pack weight.

  2. Bulky size: Nalgene bottles are relatively bulky due to their large capacity and wide-mouth design, which can take up significant space in your backpack. This can be a concern when you have limited space or need to pack efficiently for a multi-day backpacking trip.

  3. Limited insulation: Nalgene bottles do not provide good insulation for temperature-sensitive liquids. For example, they may not keep hot beverages hot or cold beverages cold for an extended period of time. This can be a drawback when you need to keep your drinks at a specific temperature.

  4. Leakage risk: Nalgene bottles can be prone to leakage if the cap is not tightened properly or if the bottle is not stored upright. This can lead to wet gear or loss of precious water, which can be a significant inconvenience during a hike or backpacking trip.

Water Bladder Pros

A two liter water bladder with drinking hose.
  1. Hydration convenience: Water bladders, also known as hydration reservoirs, typically come with a long drinking tube that allows you to sip water on the go without having to stop and reach for a water bottle. This can help you stay hydrated more easily and efficiently during hikes or backpacking trips.

  2. Hands-free operation: Water bladders can be stored in a backpack or hydration pack and are often designed to be compatible with various backpacks, making them hands-free and convenient to use while on the move. This can be especially beneficial when you need your hands free for other outdoor activities.

  3. Large capacity: Water bladders can hold a significant amount of water, typically ranging from 1 to 3 liters or more, providing ample hydration for extended periods without the need for frequent refills. This can be particularly useful in areas with limited water sources.

  4. Space-saving design: Water bladders are typically flat when empty, taking up minimal space in your backpack compared to bulkier water bottles. This can help you save space in your backpack for other essential gear and supplies.

  5. Insulation options: Some water bladders come with insulation sleeves or are made of insulated materials, which can help keep your water cool or hot for a longer period of time. This can be beneficial when you need to regulate the temperature of your water during outdoor activities.

Water Bladder Cons

  1. Cleaning and maintenance: Water bladders can be more challenging to clean and maintain compared to water bottles. The drinking tube and the reservoir may require special brushes or cleaning tablets to prevent mold, bacteria, or other contaminants from accumulating, which can add extra effort and time to your outdoor gear maintenance routine.

  2. Limited durability: Water bladders are generally made of thin, flexible materials such as plastic or silicone, which may be less durable compared to rigid water bottles. They can puncture or tear easily if not handled carefully, which can be a concern in rugged outdoor environments.

  3. Difficulty in monitoring water intake: Unlike water bottles, it can be challenging to gauge how much water you have consumed from a water bladder, as they don't provide a clear visual indicator of the water level. This can make it harder to monitor your hydration levels and plan accordingly during hikes or backpacking trips.

  4. Risk of leakage: Water bladders can be prone to leakage if the reservoir or the drinking tube is not properly sealed or if the tube gets accidentally disconnected. This can result in wet gear or loss of water, which can be inconvenient or even dangerous, especially in arid or remote environments.

  5. Dependency on backpack compatibility: Water bladders are designed to be used with specific hydration packs or backpacks, and their compatibility may vary. If your backpack is not compatible with a water bladder, you may need to purchase a new backpack or find alternative solutions, which can be an additional cost or inconvenience.

Smart Water Pros

Three Smart brand water bottles, 20 ounce, 700ml and 1 liter.

  1. Lightweight and durable: Smart Water bottles are made of lightweight and durable plastic, making them ideal for hiking and backpacking where weight and durability are important considerations.

  2. Availability and affordability: Smart Water bottles are widely available at most convenience stores, grocery stores, and gas stations, making them easy to find during hikes or backpacking trips. They are also affordable compared to specialized outdoor water bottles, which can save you money on gear costs. They also come pre-loaded with water.

  3. Compatibility with water filtration systems: Smart Water bottles are compatible with many popular water filtration systems, such as Sawyer Squeeze or LifeStraw, which allows you to easily filter and treat water from natural sources like rivers, lakes, or streams. This can be crucial for staying hydrated during outdoor adventures where potable water sources may be limited.

  4. Multiple size options: Smart Water bottles come in different sizes, ranging from 500ml (16 oz) to 1L (32 oz), allowing you to choose the size that fits your hydration needs and pack space requirements. This flexibility allows you to customize your water supply according to the duration and intensity of your hike or backpacking trip.

  5. Recyclable and eco-friendly: Smart Water bottles are typically made of PET plastic, which is recyclable in many recycling programs. This makes them a more environmentally friendly option compared to single-use disposable water bottles, as they can be recycled and reduce plastic waste in the wilderness.

Smart Water Cons

  1. Limited insulation: Smart Water bottles are typically not insulated, which means they may not keep your water cool or hot for an extended period of time. This can be a drawback if you need to regulate the temperature of your water.

  2. Lack of convenient drinking options: Smart Water bottles do not come with built-in drinking straws or caps, which means you need to unscrew the cap or open the bottle to drink water, requiring both hands and potentially slowing down your hydration process compared to bottles with built-in drinking features.

  3. Less convenient for on-the-go drinking: Unlike water bladders with drinking tubes, Smart Water bottles require you to stop and open the bottle to drink water, which can disrupt your pace or rhythm during hikes or backpacking trips, especially if you need to drink frequently.

  4. Potential for leakage: As with the Nalgene bottles, Smart Water bottles can leak if the cap is not properly sealed or tightened. This is especially true of some of the cheaper brands of water bottles.


Water bottle conversion kits are a great way to combine the pros of Nalgene or Smart

A conversion kit including a cap and hose that hikers can use to combine the benefits of a Smart water bottle and a water bladder.

water bottles with the pros of Water Bladders. You get the easy-to-clean ability found with bottles and the convenience of a bladder. Because the conversion kits usually come with attachments for either Nalgene or Smart water bottles, you can switch between the two as the hiking conditions require. They can be a little tricky to set up and I've had a cheaper brand leak so it's worth it to buy a better-quality conversion kit.

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