My boyfriend, an avid runner, backpacker, and mountain biker, has owned the same hydration bladder for 8 years. He never once washed it. When I found out, I was horrified.
“I rinse it out,” he reasoned, “…sometimes.”
Though impressed by his fortified immune system, it was time to drop everything and clean out his hydration bladder (I kiss this guy). This wasn’t just going to be a spring cleaning; we were going to use every chemical in the book, any and everything that could potentially eat through 8 years of bacteria, without eating through the rubber or plastic.
We turned to the popular Facebook group, Hikers, for suggestions.
36 comments later, we cultivated a solid list of 8 different methods from 8 different individuals (1 method for every year of neglect). We tried them all and narrowed the list down to the 4 best hydration bladder cleaning methods, rated on convenience, effectiveness and flavor of the water. Here are our results.
1. Most Convenient: The Dishwasher
“I can throw my Geigerrig in the dishwasher and it is ready to rock for the next adventure” –Ren Hern
If you’re short on time and dirty on dishes, kill two birds with one stone by throwing your water bladder in the dishwasher. That is, if you own a dishwasher-safe brand like Geigerrig.
First, verify that your bladder is dishwasher-safe. If it is, follow the company’s recommendations to a T. Besides Geigerrig, I know Osprey’s Hydraulics series is dishwasher safe, but must be put on the top rack.
While using the dishwasher is the most convenient method we tested, it is far from the most effective. It can be awkward to angle the bladder just right so that it receives a scrubbing.
Verdict: Putting your hydration bladder in the dishwasher should be used sparingly as a preventative measure against mold and mildew, not a cure — and only with dishwasher-safe brands.
2. Most Effective: Bleach & Denture-Cleaning Tablets
“Cheapest way is a couple of non flavored efferdent cleansing tablets for dentures. Same chemicals, fill the bladder, drop a couple in and seal it…Lastly a couple of tablespoons of bleach into a full bladdet [sic], rinse and rinse again, let dry.” – Bill Wicks
This is a neat and easy method. It’s my favorite and doesn’t take much time.
Just drop 1-2 denture-cleaning tablets in a bladder filled with warm water, bite the drinking valve and pull the water to the end of the tube. Don’t drink it, dingus.
Let the water sit for as long as recommended on the denture tablets’ package. Massage the package and drain the water. Refill with warm water and a tablespoon of bleach and repeat the same valve-biting routine. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
Verdict: Quick, easy and the most effective method we tested! If you don’t have denture-cleaning tablets, you can use 2 tablespoons of bleach instead.
2 Natural Cleaning Methods
For those who want cleaning methods that are a little more ‘natural’, try these alternatives.
3. Baking Soda & Warm Water
“Baking soda and warm water, natural corrosive to kill bacteria and drain, hang it till dry and put away.” -Irene Morton
Put warm water and 2 tablespoons of baking soda into your bladder and massage the bag. Repeat the same valve-biting process discussed before.
We liked this method because it’s both preventative and remedying. Baking soda is a great natural cleaner and it won’t produce any harmful effects on your bag.
Verdict: The most effective ‘natural’ cleaning method we tested, and one that is also recommended by Camelbak.
4. Lemon Juice & Freezer
“I clean mine with lemon juice, drain it then stick it in the freezer.” Why the freezer? “I’ve found that it helps prevent mold or mildew and I don’t have to worry about thoroughly drying it.” – Josh Ebersole
The citric acid in lemons elicits antimicrobial activity against some molds and bacteria. That, along with lemons being a common kitchen item, make this a cleaning routine that is commonly mentioned online.
This method didn’t work well for us, though. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re past the preventative stages of bladder care like we were. However, if your bag isn’t yet moldy it might work for you.
Always rinse thoroughly after applying this method to avoid a sticky residue of lemon juice.
Verdict: I’d recommend it more as a preventative measure than an effective cleaning method.
Which Cleaning Methods Aren’t Worth the Effort?
Of the 8 methods we tried, we only recommend 4. Here are the others that aren’t worth your time.
The first method we tested, which involved paper towels and canned air, focused only on making sure the bag stayed dry, but didn’t provide any form of sanitization.
The second method required us to use boiling water with a hearty helping of baking soda. While this is a powerful way to disinfect your bag, we don’t recommend filling your water bladder boiling water. If boiling water can distort water bottles, it can likely warp your bladder over time. Also, handling a poorly insulated plastic bag of scalding water seems silly when warm water will (and did) work just fine.
The third method recommended using Dawn dish soap, which we don’t recommend because it can be incredibly difficult to scrub out of your bag.
Finally, the last method we tested involved throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the bag. It was a 4-step cleaning method involving hot water, baking soda, lemon juice and soap. For the time that it took to go through this routine, we didn’t notice a worthwhile improvement in its effectiveness.
How to Dry & Store Your Hydration Bladder
Half the battle of keeping a clean water bladder is keeping a dry bladder. Never leave stagnant water in a bag after use and make sure that it’s bone dry before putting it in storage. There are several ways to do this, but no perfect way. It’s a matter of preference.
As mentioned by Ebersole above, throwing it in the freezer can be an effective way to prevent mold or mildew.
If you don’t want to store it in the freezer, dry it thoroughly with paper towels. Shape a wire hanger and fit it inside so that it can air dry. Purchase a case of canned air (like the kind with the straw for cleaning a keyboard) and spray it through the tube.
When it’s time to store your hydration bladder, look for a dry and cool place where it can sit (or hang) unsealed. Depending on your frequency of use, this may be the freezer. For those who use it less often, you can keep it hanging on the wire hanger in the closet for easy access, or left open in the gear closet.
How Frequently Should You Wash Your Hydration Bladder?
You should rinse your bag and make sure it’s entirely dry after every use. Under consistent use, you should thoroughly clean it once or twice a month, following the instructions in one or a combination of the methods listed above.