Cleaning your hydration pack’s bladder is probably the last thing on your mind right now. It’s one of those chores that’s remarkably easy to overlook and even the most experienced backpackers sometimes forget to scrub out the water bladder after every trip.
Yes, you read that right, you’re supposed to clean your water reservoir after each use! It may sound extreme, but water bottles, hydration packs, and other hydration reservoirs are the perfect environment for growing mildew, mold, and bacteria.
Thankfully cleaning and drying your hydration bladder isn’t too complicated. There are a few different ways to do it and we’ll cover them all below. First, let’s take a closer look at why it’s so important to keep your hydration pack clean.
Dangers of a Dirty Hydration Pack
Like many pieces of camping and backpacking gear, hydration packs are rarely cleaned as often as they should be. Most people are content to clean a water bladder only occasionally and just get used to the kind of nasty plastic taste that develops after a while. The thing is, that plastic taste means something is wrong!
At the risk of getting too nasty, part of the problem is that you can’t see into a hydration bladder. Unless you have a model that can be turned inside out, it’s anybody’s guess what’s in there. If we could see it, though, the necessity of cleaning your water bladder often would be clear.
It only takes a tiny bit of leftover water to grow mold and mildew in storage. Most of what grows are just gross, but there are also some dangerous pathogens that thrive in moist environments, so it’s important to take gear cleaning seriously.
There are a surprising amount of people who think that if you just put water in it, you don’t need to clean a hydration pack at all. This is not true! Not only does regular cleaning protect you from nasty bacteria, mold, and more, it will also make your water taste fresher and cleaner. This is what actually sells people on regular clearing. So try it once, taste the difference, and you’ll never go back.
7 Ways to Clean a Water Bladder
There are a few different kinds of hydration packs out there, but most used by hikers and backpackers today utilize a water bladder of some kind. And bladders have really been a game-changer for backcountry explorers of all kinds. You can carry more water much more easily in bladders than in water bottles.
Besides, most use a tube and bite valve to allow you to access water at any time without digging all through your pack for it. While some water bladders may need special kinds of care, the following methods should work on most models and are focused on removing build-up from the inside of the bladder.
You can and should also clean the outside to some extent, but it’s less important than the bladder itself. After all, the water you’re going to drink is what you want to keep clean. So here are the seven best methods for cleaning a water bladder.
1. Hydration Reservoir Cleaning Tablets
Perhaps the easiest method is to use cleaning tablets made specifically for water bladders. All the major hydration reservoir brands offer cleaning tablets. Just mix them with warm water and you’re ready to go. Be careful not to use hot water or boiling water as this can damage the lining of your hydration bladder.
You can also buy full reservoir cleaning kits for Osprey, Hydrapak, Platypus, and Camelbak bladders, among others. These will provide you with brushes and scrubbers designed specifically for the hydration pack you have and can make it easier to clean the mouthpiece and drinking tube. You don’t necessarily need a branded kit, however. DIY methods can work just as well.
2. Use a DIY Solution
So just what are the best DIY cleaning solutions for a hydration bladder? There are a lot of DIY recipes out there and many of them work to some degree. It’s going to depend somewhat on how dirty your bladder is. But any of these should be enough once you’ve started cleaning it out after every use.
One additional tip to keep in mind is that mixing chemicals can be dangerous. Make sure you have a clear idea of what you’re doing and be aware of which cleaners you should never mix. So, one option you have is to make a solution of baking soda and bleach and soak your water bladder in this before rinsing it out.
You’ll need a teaspoon of baking soda, and just a few drops of bleach per liter of water. You can use up one teaspoon of bleach if needed, but generally, less is plenty. Mix throughout in warm water to create a cleaning solution.
3. Other Natural Cleaning Solutions
Baking soda and bleach are far from the only options, however. For a more natural DIY solution, you can use white vinegar and baking soda. You’ll need a teaspoon of each per liter of water and you can use it in exactly the same way that you would a cleaning tablet or the bleach and baking soda solution.
Some people also add lemon juice, either before the main cleaner or by adding it to the mixture. Lemon juice is great for breaking down organic matter and build-up inside the water bladder. If you’ve used your bladder for something other than water, lemon juice can help break down any leftover organic material and combat residual smells.
You might want to play around with your DIY cleaning solution a bit too. Depending on how often you use your bladder, what you’re putting in it, and the climate you’re in, different solutions may work better. With all of these, you can adjust the ratios a bit as well. Just be careful not to overdo it!
4. Denture Cleaner
This is possibly the weirdest water bladder cleaning option out there, but it really does work. It makes sense too. After all, you want dentures to be clean enough to go in your mouth without damaging the material of the dentures. So, if you find it easier to get denture cleaner tablets, or if you want to save a little money (they’re cheaper than hydration pack cleaner tablets), this is a great option.
With all of these options, you can take off pieces like the mouthpiece and bite valve and soak them in a bowl for better access. If you need to scrub inside, the cleaner kits are really convenient for getting a good deep clean. You can find similar scrub brushes with general kitchen cleaning supplies as well.
5. The Classic: Dish Soap and Water
The simplest option out there is to use a small amount of dish soap with warm water. The advantage of this method is that almost everyone has dish soap on hand. But it can be tougher to rinse out thoroughly than some of these other solutions and you may want a more natural solution, especially out on the trail (More on that in a moment!)
With any of these solutions, or with a cleaning tablet, you’ll fill the bladder and then hold it over your head with the valve open, until water starts to run out. This ensures the cleaning solution or soapy water has reached every part of the hydration pack. After that, let it soak for 20-30 minutes, and then rinse thoroughly.
6. Can I Use a Dishwasher?
So, it depends. Some hydration bladders are dishwasher safe and others are not. In particular, Hydrapak bladders are known for being safe to clean in the dishwasher. In particular, these are generally reversible which allows your dishwasher to actually reach the inside of the bladder. Otherwise, it’s not going to be of much use.
If you use the dishwasher, make sure to turn the bladder inside out and place it on the top rack. If your dishwasher has multiple settings, use the lighter ones, and possibly wash with warm water versus hot. After you remove your bladder from the dishwasher, you should still air dry it. Many washers have drying features, but they’re not strong enough to get all the moisture out.
7. Cleaning Your Bladder on the Trail
One particularly tricky aspect of keeping your hydration bladder clean is how to clean it on the trail. For long treks especially, this is essential. So what should you take into account for cleaning a water bladder as you go? The first thing you want to consider is to make sure you have a cleaning solution that’s fully biodegradable.
Natural soaps are one option, and Bottle Bright makes biodegradable water pack cleaning tablets as well. You use these the same as any other cleaning tablets. If you’re sourcing water on the trail, make sure to boil it before bringing it down to the temperature you want for cleaning.
After that, you fill the water bladder, let it soak for 20-30 minutes, and then rinse thoroughly. You’ll want to pour the soapy water into a cathole a good distance from your water source. Again, you don’t want to end up drinking soap any more than you want to be drinking mold! Other than that, it’s pretty easy to clean and dry a hydration bladder on the trail. You can use use-specific drying racks, clothespins and a line, or even just a Y-shaped stick to dry it out.
Drying Your Hydration Bladder
The drying step is a little easier at home. But no less important! In addition to thorough rinsing, you want to dry your water bladder as fully as possible. It’s the moistness that allows mildew and mold to grow, so making sure your bladder is totally dry before you put it away is essential. The best way to do this is to air dry your bladder in a way that maximizes airflow into the bladder.
So you want to find a way to prop it open somewhat or hang it. If you do have a reversible bladder, turn it inside out to dry. Otherwise, you can use a cup hanger, clothes hanger, paper towel holder, or a clothespin on a line to hand dry your hydration bladder. Personally, I find a paper towel holder works best. Plus, it’s right there in the kitchen if you’re cleaning your bladder over the sink.
A Few Extra Camelbak Care Tips
Okay, by now it should be clear that cleaning out your water pack every time you use it is the best option for avoiding mildew, mold, and bacteria inside. There is, however, an extremely easy option if you don’t have time to dry it, or if you have to skip cleaning for some reason. Freeze it! This can also be a good storage option even if you do take good care of your hydration pack.
Freezing will prevent mildew from growing. After all, even the most careful attempt to dry out a water bladder is sometimes unsuccessful. You should also avoid putting especially smelly or strong liquids in your water bladder. For a group camping trip where you’re partying all day, it can be tempting to load up some wine or liquor in a water bladder.
Not only is this a bad idea from a hydration standpoint but it’s also likely to leave your bladder permanently smelling of pinot grigio. Fruit juices can also have this effect (and promote mildew growth), but whiskey is the absolute worst for this. Really, it’s not worth it!
Another Reason to Clean Your Hydration Bladder
In addition to keeping you healthy and happy while camping, cleaning your hydration bladder can help you out in a few other ways as well. Regular cleaning gives you a great opportunity to examine your bladder for mold growth, tears, and other issues.
Taking a close look at what comes out when you rinse it can help you identify a big problem before it gets worse. Or, it can give you a push to replace a bladder that’s seen better days. Finally, regular cleaning and maintenance can impact your warrant!
A lot of hydration systems come with warranties, but they’re only valid if you’ve been taking good care of the pack. If you do want to try and repair small problems, however, it’s not an unreachable goal. Small tears can be patched with silicone-based sealants, and again, lemon juice is a great way to get rid of stuck-in smells of build-up.
It may seem like a silly thing to get so worked up about, but cleaning your hydration bladder regularly can save you from some big headaches. After all, no one wants to come down with a nasty illness while out on the trail. And regular cleaning can extend the life of your bladder, help you get replacement gear if something breaks, and even gives you a chance to examine your hydration set up for issues at the end of each use.
Thankfully, there are many ways to clean a hydration pack, and they’re all relatively simple. In fact, you shouldn’t have to buy anything at all to do a good job of cleaning your water bladder. Just remember to use warm water rather than hot, rinse the bladder thoroughly, and make sure it’s completely dry before you put it away!
Bonus tip: Check out this great video on hydration pack storage tips for keeping your bladder in great shape between uses!