It’s getting hot out there. (And no, I’m not going to ask you to take off all your clothes.)

Summertime mountain trail runs mean breaking through unavoidable spider webs, poison ivy, and overwhelming heat.
They also mean beautiful sunrises, lush green leaves, and epic cool-off sessions in the creek.

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Summer is one of my favorite times to run. The long days bring long miles and warm temps. Today, we’re going to focus on those temps.

Or more specifically, one of the best ways to carry water to combat the heat (and dehydration).

The big three water carrying options we runners have are (1) hydration packs, (2) hydration belts, or (3) handheld bottles. Each has their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Packs, for example are great for carrying not just water, but extra gear, nutrition, maps, and anything else you might need or want on a big run. Plus they keep your hands free.

But a pack is often overkill for your average run or race, when all you really need is a little water.

Enter the handheld — my preferred hydration tool for most runs.

When to Use a Handheld

The handheld bottle is a water bottle with a connecting strap to secure it to your hand. They’re small, simple, and keep water at the ready.

Handhelds are most practical when you want to carry fluids, but don’t need the carrying capacity of a hydration belt or pack — think shorter runs, routes that pass by a water source, and races with regular aid stations.

Plus there’s the added bonus of feeling less weighed down than the alternatives.

The Big Complaint

But … you have to carry it. In your hands.

And who likes running with something in their hands?

If it’s new to you, carrying a bottle can sound miserable, and honestly, there’s little I can say that will convince you otherwise. Except that it gets easier. During your first few runs with a handheld it may tire out your arm, but with a little time that will subside and you’ll hardly notice it’s there.

What to Consider When Selecting Your Bottle

Handhelds come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s up to you to decide which will best fit your needs. Consider these:

1. Size of Bottle

The first, and most obvious place to start when selecting a handheld is to determine how much water you wish to carry. Handheld bottles range in size from a small 10 oz. — like the Nathan QuickShot — to the large 21 oz. CamelBak Grip Chill.

If your needs are limited to an hour long jaunt around the neighborhood, the smaller bottle might work. For most race or long run situations, I turn to at least 18 ounces.

2. Comfort

How does the bottle feel in your hand?

Different companies have tried different bottle shapes. Amphipod, for example, relies on a more rectangular shape; UltrAspire, a traditionally shaped bottle with a unique top; Salomon, the soft flask (more on that later).

On top of bottle shape, companies use different strapping methods, and one may work better for your  hand than another.

3. Storage

Most, but not all, handhelds are designed with a pocket or two on the strap. They’re usually rather small — big enough for a gel or two — but some have larger carrying capacities designed for multiple gels or even your phone.

More storage means more weight, so I recommend sticking to a bottle with just enough storage for what you need.

4. Ease of Use

How easy is it to open and refill? Are you able to switch hands while running? If you need to pop a squat mid-race, can you easily become hands free?

These are all important (some more than others …) factors to consider when selecting your bottle.

5. Soft vs. Hard (aka Slosh vs. Squish)

Companies are trending away from traditional harder bottles to what they call a soft flask, or a soft bottle that shrinks in size as you drink. We’ve seen it in packs, and now we’re seeing it in handhelds. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the soft flask for most situations:

  • They prevent water from sloshing.
  • They get smaller, so you can easily pack them away when empty.
  • They’re lighter.

But, they definitely have their disadvantages:

  • Without the structure, they often have trouble staying in a carrier.
  • When held, it feels like this squishy Jello blob in your hand.
  • They’re harder to clean.

I’m all for a soft flask handheld, but it has to meet my other expectations in a bottle.

A Look at Some of the Top Brands and Bottles

The Major Handheld Players

Any number of companies are producing their own handhelds, but in my opinion there are five that stand out as leading the charge:

Each has their own set of strengths, like bottle design (Amphipod), minimalist straps (Ultimate Direction), soft flask holders (Salomon), variety (Nathan), and comfort (UltrAspire). Personally I’m not brand loyal when it comes to bottles, so I have a variety of options to fit my needs for each run.

Now, let’s take a look at a few of the newer bottles on the market from these brands.

Note: HUGE shout out to my favorite running store, Black Mountain Vertical Runner, for hooking me up with these bottles. If you’re ever in Western North Carolina, this is the place to get your trail running gear.

Amphipod Jett-Lite Thermal

This bottle has been my go-to handheld for a number of years. The bottle shape fits well in my hand, and the pocket is large enough to store four gels and a car key, and I can stuff it in the front of my SJ Ultra Vest if I’m also wearing a pack.

My favorite feature of the Jett-Lite, however, is the removable sleeve. Having that layer of isolation is clutch throughout the winter, as there’s nothing worse than a cold bottle strapped to cold hands. During the summer I just pull it off.

More pros: A large mouth for quick and easy filling at aid stations, and the shape works well for tucking in a waist strap when you want to go hands free up a hill.

My only real complaint is that the strap that attaches to the bottom of the bottle doesn’t always stay secure. I fix that by taping it down.

Loaded with 4 gels.

The specs:

  • Liquid Capacity — 20 oz.
  • Comfort — Bottle shape makes for easy grip, but the strap gets a bit hot during the summer.
  • Storage — 4+ gels … about as much as you’d ever want to carry in a handheld.
  • Easy of Use — Large mouth and simple auto seal nipple eliminate any fuss.
  • Soft vs. Hard — Hard
  • Price — $25.95

Where to Buy:

Nathan ExoShot

The ExoShot by Nathan is one of the leading examples of a company trying out the soft flask handheld with some — but not total — success.

The soft bottle fits snugly in your hand, and virtually eliminates the sloshing you get from a hard bottle. And between the bottle itself and the unique way the strap runs between your thumb and pointer finger, it almost feels like an extension of your hand — which is great.

Storage is just enough for a few gels, and because it’s soft, you can easily stash it in your short’s waist strap or a pack.

But … there are a few major faults with the design. The snug compression which keeps the bottle in place prevents you from actually filling it to capacity without removing the bottle first. Not a big deal if you’re at your kitchen sink, but it’s not practical in a race setting. The lid is also difficult to secure, especially on the move.

Nathan, these are easy fixes, make it happen.

The specs:

  • Liquid Capacity — 12 oz.
  • Comfort — Very comfortable in the hand. Rides great.
  • Storage — 2-3 gels.
  • Easy of Use — Compression from the sleeve make it very difficult to fill, and the cap is hard to attach properly.
  • Soft vs. Hard — Soft
  • Price — $35.00

Where to Buy:

UltrAspire Iso Versa

I just recently got my hands on the Iso Versa (thanks Vertical Runner!), and I already think it will become my new race bottle. I love the unique top shape, and the way it locks in your hand. Similar to the Nathan bottle above, the strap wraps around your wrist and weaves in between your pointer finger and thumb.

One thing of note, there are no storage pockets. In a race situation, that’s no big deal since I store gels and other nutrition in my shorts, but it could be a problem for a longer run when I need the extra carrying capacity.

This handheld is light, large, and simple to use and fill.

The specs:

  • Liquid Capacity — 20 oz.
  • Comfort — Very comfortable on the hand.
  • Storage — None
  • Easy of Use — Large mouth and standard nipple make for very easy use.
  • Soft vs. Hard — Hard
  • Price — $24.95

Where to Buy:

What’s Your Favorite Bottle?

With the summer heat already weighing down the trail, there’s no better time to pull out a handheld.

Share your favorite bottle in the comments below.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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2 thoughts on “Trail Runner’s Guide to Handheld Water Bottles (and a Look at Some of the Top Brands and Bottles)

  1. Nathan has two soft handheld flasks – 18oz ExoDraw and 12oz ExoShot. I love the design intent on both of these: soft flasks with bite-valve caps. Unfortunately, the execution of the design of both is poor. The cases are difficult to get on/off the bottle, and both leak. I bought the ExoDraw, had tons of issues, and then checked reviews which are consistently critical. I don’t believe Nathan actually field tested these before releasing them to the market. They need to go back to the drawing board. Until then, these products should be avoided. I find the Amphipod products perfectly acceptable.

  2. Great review. My favourite is the Ultraspire 550. I really like the soft bottle and ease if the fluid. Only small complaint is limited storage.

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