Raising the subject of panniers versus trailers for bike touring is a bit like talking politics and religion at the dinner table.
Every cyclist seems to have an opinion. Stories will be told about superiority on both sides. And that’s even without getting into the discussion of trailers with one wheel or two and waterproof or non-waterproof panniers.
We’ll stick our necks on the line and declare our bias for old-fashioned panniers. Waterproof Ortlieb panniers, since you asked. You may feel differently and you’re welcome to share your thoughts, but here’s the reasoning behind our love of panniers.
A trailer can certainly be convenient at times (see more on the advantages of trailers and different types) but for us personally, on a long tour a trailer seems like too much potential hassle. Every time we consider it, we end up thinking like this…
- The wheels on the trailer are just another place where we might get a flat tire or a broken spoke.
- The trailer as a whole is a bulky package that’s difficult to lug up steep sets of stairs when we take a hotel room.
- We don’t even want to imagine how to get it on a plane, although we acknowledge that some trailers pack down flatter than others.
- With panniers, it’s easy to lighten your load for shorter trips. You can take just 1 bag to the supermarket, but you can’t take half a trailer.
Perhaps most importantly, we already tend to carry too much. A trailer gives the potential to pack A LOT of gear. Probably more than we need to be tempted into carrying on most rides.
We’re not the only ones to favour panniers. Recently, while writing our Bike Touring Basics ebook, we asked several cyclists to tell us about their experiences with trailers. We thought we’d get lots of replies from trailer lovers, eager to share their passion. Instead, we found people who tried trailers but still preferred panniers for future tours.
Hard To Manoeuvre
“The inconveniences were mainly concerned with manoeuvrability,” said Jon Tringham, who attempted a world bike tour on a Brompton folding bike.
“A trailer adds about a metre to the overall length of the vehicle. This made parking in a town more difficult. The length also became a problem when having to push the bike, for example up a hill or through a field to a good free-camping spot, as the trailer was usually in the way of one leg or the other.”
Jon also found the two wheels of his trailer a challenge, because he then had to seek out a wider smooth path on the road, without potholes, for the trailer to follow.
“Since my tour with a trailer, I have done a shorter tour down the Rhine cycle path with panniers. I experienced none of the problems I had with the trailer, and did not discover any additional problems. For me, I would not choose to tour with a trailer again if I can avoid it.”
Doug Nienhuis is another bike tourist who echoed Jon’s thoughts on trailers.
“The combined length of the bicycle and trailer was an inconvenience, even in Canada with all its open space. It can be a challenge finding a parking spot for a loaded touring bike outside a convenience store or coffee shop. Add to that another five or six feet of length for the trailer, and it can be an impossible challenge!”
Doug also points out that the way a trailer takes weight off the back wheel, while generally good for minimising strain on the bike, can be bad in certain extreme terrains.
“In Ethiopia, with its very steep mountain roads and loose gravel and rock, it was a disadvantage. With no weight on the rear wheel, I had no traction, and my rear wheel just spun around and couldn’t get a grip. I found I needed the weight of the pannier bags over the rear wheel to give me traction. The children also grabbed the trailer a lot to hold me back, and because the trailer was so long, I couldn’t do anything about it. That wasn’t as big a problem with just pannier bags.”
“There are advantages to a trailer, but they are outweighed by all the disadvantages. Where my trailer really shined was when I used it in Canada in my day-to-day life to make trips to the grocery store and things like that. You probably wouldn’t put four pannier bags on the bike to go to the grocery store and get a weeks’ worth of groceries. But the trailer is ideal for that. For a bike tour, though, I’d say that pannier bags have the upper hand.”
What do you think?
We don’t want to sound too negative about trailers. We know there are people out there who love them. And we also know that when we see a set-up like the one in the picture, of a trailer being used as a table, we think that’s pretty neat (thanks Sue for sending the photo). But overall, we won’t be giving up our panniers any time soon.
What about you? Vote in our poll for your favourite way of carrying things on a bike tour. And leave a comment to tell us why you love your trailer so much, or why you agree with us and will be sticking to panniers for your next tour.