12 Reasons Handheld Bottles Are Better Than Hydration Packs

Photo: Jared Busen

I used to be a die-hard hydration packer, now completely converted to a handheld bottle holder. For hydration packs, I have used the Nathan and a few different models of UltrAspire. I now use either Nathan or Ultimate Direction handhelds, combined with UltrAspire products.

While hydration options are a matter of personal preference, here are the reasons that personally convinced me to make a switch, and never look back:

1. More Fluid Choices

While a hydration pack will only hold one type of fluid at a time, I love having the choice between two drinks. I never have the same drink in both of my bottles. I vary between:

  • a carbonated drink like Coke or Gingerale (helps settle my stomach)
  • water
  • an electrolyte drink
  • some type of juice
  • ice
  • coffee (during a 100 miler)
  • soup (during a 100 miler)

The two-fluid option is a flexibility I’ve really enjoyed. I usually keep water in one bottle, so if the mix in the second bottle is too concentrated, I can always dilute it. This is super helpful in races where I’ve filled up at an aid station and the mix isn’t quite right.

At my last race, I asked for half Coke, half ice in one of my bottles. I was a mile down the road when I realized that they had only given me half Coke. The Coke taste was too sweet for me, so I diluted it with water from the second handheld. Problem solved.

2. More Visual Reminder to Hydrate

I drink more from handhelds, because I can see my fluids in front of me. When I’m wearing a pack, it’s easier for me to forget to drink. Plus I never know how much I’ve had to drink, or how much water I have left when I’m wearing a pack. With bottles, it’s all right in front of me.

If I know the mileage to the next water stop, I can monitor exactly how much water I should drink, or how much I need to conserve so I don’t run dry unexpectedly. It also helps any race aid station volunteers gauge whether or not I’m drinking enough. Because hydration is such a key aspect to running success, this is a huge benefit for me.

At the Cuyamaca 100K I crossed the last aid station in a daze. A volunteer grabbed my bottles and asked me if I had been drinking, “Um… I think so…” I couldn’t really remember. He took a look at my almost-full bottles, and immediately handed me more fluids. I left that aid stations with a fresh drink and hot soup. Enough to get me to the finish line.

3. More Minimal

Because I have significantly less room to over pack with handhelds, it has changed my mindset to a more minimal approach. I take only what I will absolutely need and this has really helped de-clutter my mind as well. I’m not obsessing about what I may have forgotten to bring with me, and I’m not carrying unnecessary gear.

The first couple of times it’s a little scary because you’re carrying much less that what you may be used to in a pack. But after a few runs, you realize that you need much less than what you previously thought. It’s a freeing realization.

4. More Dog-Friendly

Some people teach their dogs to drink from a hydration pack straw, but mine doesn’t know how. So when we’re on a trail and I’m not carrying a doggie dish, bottles allow me to stop and give my dog a drink quickly and easily.

One trick I use is to take a clean doggie poop bag (weighs nothing to carry), make it into a dish-shape, and pour water into it, holding the bag in place while she drinks. I have also dug a small hole or indent in the ground, and placed the bag over that. The water pools in the hole, held in place by the bag, and she drinks from there. I can then cover the hole back up and move on.

5. Less Injury From Falls

Handhelds reduce hand scrapes and wrist/arm injuries when you’re going down. You can use them as a barrier between you and a rock when you’re reaching out to catch yourself. They work essentially like gloves. I have scrapes on my water bottles from a few falls or stumbles, but my hands have remained untouched. By comparison, when I would fall with my hydration pack, my hands were the first things to get scrapped and bloodied.

6. Less Overheating

On a hot day, a hydration pack would cause my back to sweat uncomfortably. I would try to combat this by filling my pack with ice, and enjoying the cooling sensation on my back. But this strategy would only last for a short time before the ice melted and I was sweating again.

Switching to handhelds drastically reduced this feeling of overheating. There was more air circulation, and it was easier to stay cool. I could also fill my handhelds with ice, and enjoy that cooling sensation on my hands.

If that weren’t enough, I could use a bottle to physically pour cool water on my head and neck from any stream. I have filled up an empty bottle with cold stream water, and carried it with me to pour on my head when it got too hot. Handhelds made a tremendous difference in temperature control.

7. Less Chaffing

Unless you have a perfectly fitting pack, you run the risk of chafing. And many of us know how tough it can be to find that perfect fit. It’s easy to go through countless packs in search for one the works for us, and a lot of money can be wasted on packs that we can’t use. Handhelds are much more universal, and there is no chafing at all.

I’ve found that even if the pack itself doesn’t chafe, the sweating on my back and lack of air circulation through wearing the pack sometimes causes my sports bra to chafe against my back over long distances. I figure the less chafing potential, the better.

8. Less Weight

I’m a bit of a pack-rat when I’m wearing a hydration pack, and I weigh myself down with things I don’t need like extra food, water, or clothing. The handhelds are significantly lighter and that weight difference is a big deal when you’re running long. I feel more “free” in handhelds. I feel lighter, and it’s feels easier to run and move around.

9. Keeps Your Form in Check

Running with handhelds is a great way to assess your running form and keep it in check. The first time I ran in handhelds, I was surprised by how much my water was sloshing in the bottles. I was waving my arms around too much, wasting energy. I quickly learned to adjust my form and run in a way that didn’t slosh my bottles.

I kept my back straighter instead of hunched over, and kept my shoulders back. I also learned to keep my arms loose and relaxed, instead of clenching my fists or gripping my bottles. As i started getting tired, the sloshing of my bottles was a great way to make sure I was keeping good form, allowing me to exert less energy and run further.

10. Keeps You Moving

If you’ve ever worked at a race station, you know that handhelds are much quicker and easier to fill up compared to packs. If you add up the time it takes to remove your pack, check it for water, open it up, fill it, close it up again, adjust the bladder in your pack, and put your pack back on, the minutes add up significantly over several aid stations on a long trail race.

Not to mention that some packs and bladders are tricky to maneuver, so aid station workers need an extra minute to get them open or closed. Often, my bottles are filled up and I’m out of an aid station while others who arrived at the same time are still fiddling with their packs.  I try to be in and out of aid stations as quick as possible, and I’ve seen first hand how every minute adds up.

In between aid stations, my handhelds also keep me moving because I know that if I take too long, I will run out of water. If I have 6 to 9 miles to the next aid station and it’s a climb, I know that if I’m not running I have to hike fast to make sure I don’t run out of water. When I had a pack, I was much more likely to dawdle or walk slowly. Getting to the next water refill is a great motivation to keep you moving. It also helps you focus on only getting to the next aid station, instead of thinking about the entire race distance and becoming overwhelmed.

11. Keeps Your Upper Body Strong

The first couple of times I used handhelds, my arms and shoulders were sore the next day. I have a weak upper body, but I’ve noticed that carrying handhelds has improved my arm strength over an extended period of running time. It also brought my upper body weaknesses to my attention, and helped me address it.

12. Keeps You Looking Like a Runner

Over time I’ve noticed that many runners near the front a race tend to be using handhelds, while runners in the back of the field tend to prefer packs. I don’t have any stats on that and it’s just a personal observation, but I did start to wonder whether the elites were picking up on something I was missing with a hydration pack. This inspired me to try handhelds.

I feel that with handhelds, I LOOK more like a runner instead of a hiker with a heavy pack. This may sound completely shallow, but sometimes when you dress the part, you start to feel and perform the part as well. It’s a little bit psychological. When I think I look faster, I run more and perform better.

Troubleshooting the Negatives

1. Running Out of Water

The first argument I always hear against handhelds is that they carry too little water. For longer training runs where I don’t have the support of aid stations or water refills, I sometimes carry a bladder-less pack that will hold an extra bottle or two on my back. This is still much lighter and more minimal than a hydration pack, and very comfortable.

There are the three packs I have used that I would recommend for this purpose:

The UltraAspire Spry

The UltrAspire Kinetic

The Hydrapak E-Lite Vest  (I remove the bladder.)

2. Feels Funny at First

Many pack users don’t like the feel of handhelds, and they do take some getting used to. The first time you try handhelds, you’ll probably hate the feel. The second time is not so bad, but still weird. By the third and fourth times, I was comfortable with them.

Don’t let the transition deter you from giving handhelds a fair shot. I would encourage any hydration packers to try handhelds for one week, and see how you feel. Ultimately, stick with what works for you and keeps you drinking.

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37 responses

  1. I’ve run w/ both and love a pack for a longer race like a 100 miler. If you have a good drop bag setup and crew, there’s no need to load a pack down with extra junk.

  2. I guess you haven’t seen the studies that have been done showing how much more inefficient (wastes energy) using handhelds are. The most efficient is a pack (either waist or back pack style) then next most efficient is to always have 2 handhelds with equal or nearly equal amounts of fluid in each at all times (so you would alternate drinking from each bottle) and the least efficient is one handheld, which makes you unbalances and throws off your arm swing and makes compensating muscles on the opposite side of your body work more. Mostly the over compensation happens in the core (not good on the spine to have unbalanced core muscles) and shoulder girdle. Cheers.

    • Haven’t seen the studies, feel free to link them here! I suspect the other benefits would still sway me to handhelds. The overheating one is huge for me–it doesn’t matter how efficient I am if I can’t stay cool. Most of my races are in San Diego or Arizona, so heat is a major issue for me.

      • Maybe if you are ever back up in Ontario in the winter you will find the pack to have benefits! The bottles are also nice when you fall and you don’t tear up your hands!

  3. When I’ve used handhelds, I’ve found my hands get stiff and sore from clutching them. My compromise is a waist belt which has slots for two bottles on the back – a large one for water and a small one for feed. This offers many of the benefits of a handheld, in that it’s easy to access the bottles and carry them in your hand for a while as you run (you just reach around behind your back and pull them out). You can see how much water is left, and the bottles are comfortable and balanced to wear (at least up to half marathon distance, which is all I’ve done so far!). The belt also has a small front pocket for my phone and keys.

    • If your handhelds are properly designed you shouldn’t need to clutch them. You might want to look for one that lets you run with your hands relaxed (they’re out there).

    • I use a waist belt with 2 bottles too. If aid stations are not too far apart I only fill my bottles in half to avoid extra weight Packs feel too hot and none seem to fit my body properly. I need to try handhelds again and strengthen my upper body on shorter runs. With a handheld where do you store extra food? I frequently carry an energy bar or refill of Hammer Perpetuem for my feed bottle.
      The Spry vest look really cool, i will try it out, but I would probably pack useless crap if I had all these pockets.

      • The bottles have little zippered pockets were I can fit a couple of gels and a small bar or two. It’s very limited space, so no good for a lot of food. On races, I eat at every aid station. And my training runs are usually “short” enough where the bottles are sufficient, or I loop back to the car and use that as an aid station.

  4. One other thing you didn’t address that are indispensable to mountain runners in Europe and becoming increasingly more popular here — trekking polls! They’re great tools for longer, steeper runs, and yes, you can run with them. As others mentioned, handhelds are also less than ideal in cold weather because they draw heat away from your hands. You also don’t address the difficulty of feeding yourself regularly when your hands are always full of bottles.

    My point being, of course, that handhelds aren’t the best for all runners or even all runs. But interesting points! I wrote in because I hate handhelds. I’ve tried them plenty of times and would rather go for a 10-mile run with no water than carry a bulky, sloshing thing in my hand. To each their own.

  5. Great post–I agree 100%. I switched to handhelds this spring and can’t imagine going back. #6 and 7 are related for me, since with a pack I have to wear a shirt to prevent chafing, and that traps even more heat.

  6. Some interesting points. Seems to be a real mix of those who either love handhelds or hate them. I find that I fall somewhere in the middle, and it depends on the course and weather. I strongly feel that individual running form of each runner plays a huge role in whether handhelds, waistbelts or hydration packs are the best for each person.

    In general…
    On flat and fast courses I find that handhelds tend to slow me down significantly as I come from a road and track background originally and this just doesn’t feel as efficient when trying to run at a faster pace.

    However, on technical courses that feature more vertical, I find that the handhelds seem to be less of a factor because you are running slower anyhow.

    This past summer I tried using handhelds a bit more to try and get used to them, but without fail, on a flat trail or road, I was finding that my pace was often 10-15sec slower per km compared to when I ran with a hydration waistpack.

    I haven’t compared with a hydration back pack to the two as I tend to just use them for longer trail runs.

    Bottom line…I don’t think one is always better than the other for everyone. Find what works best for you as an individual, and for each course.

    I find it interesting looking at 3 exceptional 100 mile runners and they all have different preferences…
    Anton Krupicka – handhelds
    Karl Meltzer – bottle waist pack
    Ellie Greenwood – hydration backpack

    Just to add…there was an interesting study a few years ago that Duncan Callahan was involved with, but there seemed to be some inconsistencies in the way the testing was done if I remember correctly.

  7. Great food for thought. I’m currently injured and have to start from scratch when I start again in the new year. As part of my fresh start I might try switching to handhelds too.

    Just started reading your blog and love it.

  8. You’ve made some really valid points about the merits of handhelds versus wearing a pack.

    I always seem to run in to 2 problems when using HHs: I don’t have my hands free to eat (pizza, please!) or to use tissues blow my nose. (No farmer blowing for me!)

    How do you make sure you’re getting enough calories and blow your nose when you’re carrying a bottle in each hand?

    • I usually hold both in one hand via by the straps while eating with the other. I usually walk and eat, so it’s easier to walk with both bottles in one hand. It usually only takes a couple of minutes. Snot rockets for me! I’ve mastered the skill :)

  9. I switch back and forth, finding pros & cons with each. I never use to run with a HH but I have really grown to love it.

    My current HH is an Amphipod which works really well. I would like to try the new Salomon Sense Hydro S-Lab Handheld Hydration (developed with Kilian Jornet). My pack is an old EMS pack with a Camel Pak bladder. I plan on buying one of Ultimate Direction signature vests (probably the TK one) when they come out. I like have the ability to mix and match depending on my mood and the weather conditions.

  10. I have used hand helds, waist pack, and back packs, love them all. It really depends on the run/course, however I do find I eat less when carrying two had helds (just like when I’m carrying poles). Personally I’m just happy I have a choice! Excellent write up.

  11. I have been using an Ultimate Direction handheld for medium-length runs for a couple of months now and I must be an idiot, because I’m still trying to figure out how to drink from the darn spout. I can get a little out at a time but the bottle “collapses” down from the suction. I eventually end up unscrewing the lid and just drinking as from a glass.

    Love it otherwise for runs of up to 2 hours. Once I’m back to longer runs I may go back to my FuelBelt.

    • Haha.. I usually bite down a little and squeeze the bottle a bit. It comes right out. I think it’s made for no dripping. The Nathans come out much more easily, but sometimes dribble.

  12. I’m in between on this preference as well and am thinking the race will dictate which I prefer. I used two handhelds for the first time at the Born To Run 100k last year and because of the hot weather and the relatively easy trail I really liked it and never switched back to my hydration pack. I do find it hard to eat and run at the same time carrying handhelds, but I also just don’t like moving and eating at the same time.

    I did use the momentum of the handhelds to help me power up the last few hills which was really helpful, but I find that holding handhelds makes the tips of my fingers go numb in coldish weather. I use the insulated sleeves because of that, but I’m thinking I either need to fill them with hot tea or switch to a hydration pack for my next cold race.

    I always carry one handheld with water so I can cool myself off when the temps start rising. I REALLY like that advantage over the pack.

  13. Thanks – that is something to think about. The furthest I have run in training is 28 miles and handheld bottles wouldn’t have given me enough water (I sweat a lot and so need a lot of fluids) but maybe in events with aid stations I would be better off with handheld bottles.
    My favourite option is my camelpak waist belt which holds two 650ml bottles and has a generous pocket for snacks/phone/money etc.
    When our dogs are with us we usually have access to water troughs and streams/ponds but if i have my hydration pack I take two bottles of water in the bottle holder on the side of the pack and a very light weight folding bowl. The doggie bag idea sounds good though.
    Mark

    http://herbifit.wordpress.com

  14. Herbfit and more, I highly recommend the book Waterlogged. Great read! Always been drinking like crazy and having problems with cramps and headaches. Saturday I did 51 km and ~2000 vertical meters on just over a liter of liquid while moving, then drinking afterwards. No problem at all.

  15. Food for thought Vanessa. I’ve been a handholder since converting from a waste pack before my first WS100. I feel naked when running without a bottle in my hand and two in my backpack. After my hip replacement I have avoided anything strapped around my waste, including a backpack waste-band and am hyper-aware of balance and form. I run on rough trails and I’ve noticed that I use the weight of my hand-held as leverage.

  16. Hi Vanessa,
    thanks for all the useful tips/info. One question: is it a bad idea to just carry one hand-held? It seems like it might throw form off, but if you switch hands… Most of my training runs are under 18 miles, and usually don’t need that much water.
    Do you (or any of the rest of you knowledgeable folks) have any thoughts on this?
    Ben

  17. I switched from a Nathan pack to handhelds and will NEVER go back. Here in SoCal packs are just too hot, even in winter. An earlier comment mentioned studies showing packs to be more efficient – here is the link to one such study: [http://www.runnersworld.com/trail-running-training/study-looks-how-ultra-runners-hydrate]. It looks like a pretty comprehensive study, except it was done indoors on a treadmill – presumably in an air conditioned room – so it did not address the heat issue, and the need for additional hydration and electrolytes brought on by the pack itself. The top finishers in ultras here in SoCal ALL use handhelds. You see plenty of hydration packs milling around the start in every ultra, but very few cross the line in the top ten. That must mean something. Does anyone want to buy a lightly used Nathan hydration vest?

  18. During a road race, is it appropriate to fill it up at the aid station? I am running my first marathon in three weeks and want to bring my 20 ounce handheld, which has been so good to me my whole training cycle. However, I will need to fit it 2-4 times (depending on the weather). Great article!!

  19. Lots of studies recently stating that a pack is more efficient that using handhelds. Somewhere between 4-7% more efficient. Over 26, 31, 50+ miles that adds up quickly.

  20. Well, this is mainly about racing and aid stations. But honey, if you’re running a trail race in Alaska, there often are no aid stations. Plus training in the mountains pretty much requires extra, warm-weather gear, and there’s really no place to stash a long-sleeve tech or gloves in a hand-held. I kind of laughed at the implication that all of the “top” runners use hand-held and therefore a vest is old-school. Up here, you see hand-helds, yes, but most of the more serious distance trail runners use a vest. It’s more practical, it fits the mountain landscape and, oh yeah, in sub-zero weather it’s not much fun to carry a bottle of frozen water in one’s hands, lol.

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