Chances are good that if you ride a mountain bike, you use a hydration pack.
Back in the early 1990s, magazines like Mountain Bike Action would harp on bikes lacking three water bottle cage mounts. At the time, few if any options for toting fluids on the trail existed (besides traditional 24-ounce water bottles). So without bottle cages adequate hydration meant stuffing a third bottle in a jersey pocket. And cramming a dangling seat bag with tools and tubes was the only solution for trailside repairs.
Now, bikes are lucky to get even one bottle cage mount, since manufactures almost depend on riders to wear a hydration pack. Elaborate suspension designs have reduced the amount of frame space for standard bottle cages, so wearable hydration solutions are becoming increasingly sophisticated to meet the needs of riders. A side benefit is that as packs become more extensively engineered, they can carry more gear more comfortably.
The Deuter Race EXP Air is a great example of this phenomenon. In addition to comfortably schlepping three liters of agua, it has plenty of space for food, a jacket, tools and more. And the way the pack is built, it rides comfortably and securely.
Airing It Out
This Deuter pack has a lot going on, but what’s most noticeable is the Aircomfort Back System. Deuter built it to help improve ventilation between the wearer’s back and the rear of the pack. Who likes a sweaty back?
Essentially the Aircomfort system suspends the pack several inches off the wearer’s back by means of an arced spring steel pack frame with a mesh screen to facilitate airflow. The mesh is tensioned by the frame and won’t go slack, so it acts to hold the pack away from the body. Even the shoulder straps are made from a highly breathable mesh, and the padded contact points at the shoulders and waist are vented as well. Deuter says the Aircomfort system can reduce back perspiration by 25 percent.
The rest of the Race EXP Air features are relatively standard these days for hydration packs. The main compartment is expandable by means of a zipper looping around the perimeter of the main cargo area. Inside the main cargo area, there’s a hydration bladder sleeve and a small zippered compartment. There’s also a smaller outer pocket with a key clip and zippered valuables pouch. Two accessories stow in dedicated outer pouches: a helmet holder and a rain cover. Both are integrated but detachable and hide in their pockets when not in use. Expandable mesh side pouches are great for quick-draw energy food, and a loop in back is meant for clip-on safety lights.
Ready or Not, Ready to Ride!
To be honest, I am not a huge hydration pack fan. I do a lot of road riding and shorter mountain bike rides, neither of which require lugging much gear. When I do wear a hydration pack, I like it to be compact, stable, and comfortable.
I like Deuter’s Aircomfort system for the ventilation benefit. It works well and keeps me feeling cool, although I couldn’t say it’s actually saved me from sweating an additional 25 percent. I also like the organization of the pack, in that it’s easy to keep gear sorted out and easily accessible.
The suspension system works well to hold the pack snugly and comfortably against the body. Despite a lack of padding, the broad mesh shoulder straps are comfortable enough. They would feel even better if they employed a softer cloth material, rather than the plasticky-feeling MeshTex, but then ventilation might be compromised. The adjustable sternum strap helps a lot to keep the pack from moving around, as do the waist straps.
My only real comment about the Race EXP Air is that the Aircomfort system, by raising the bulk of the bag off the wearer’s back, shifts the pack’s center of gravity. While the load itself is relatively stable, I can feel the weight farther from my body when I’m leaning, turning, or moving. My favorite packs keep their load low and snug against my body, which helps maintain my center of gravity. So while the pack itself doesn’t roll around, it does cause the cargo to tug harder when I’m in motion.
So if ventilation is your primary requirement, the Deuter pack is a great choice. If on the other hand you need something that will minimally influence your motion, I would suggest a pack that carries weight closer to your body.