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Luggage Racks For Bicycle Touring

Posted February 6th, 2012

Tubus RacksOnce you’ve bought panniers, you’ll need racks to hang them on and – like panniers – you get what you pay for when it comes to racks.

If you plan on doing any amount of touring, it’s worth spending a bit of extra money for a decent set that will withstand months of bumping and jostling on the road.

As long as you don’t scrimp on quality, you shouldn’t need to do much to your racks during a tour. Just check occasionally to see if any screws or bolts are coming loose. With a cheap set of racks, pack some hose clamps and zip ties in your repair kit. Less expensive racks are more likely to break under the strain of a heavy load.

What To Look For?
Our favourite racks are made of steel; not because there aren’t good aluminium racks on the market but because steel racks can be easily welded back together, if necessary.

We also look for racks with a high load capacity. The most robust back racks are rated for about 40kg (90lbs) of weight. You won’t likely carry that much but it’s nice to know the racks are more than strong enough for the job.

As a bit of extra insurance, get a rack with a guarantee.

If we had to pick out just one brand of luggage racks to highlight, it would have to be Tubus Racks. They have a well proven track record in terms of strength and durability. Even better, they come with a 30-year guarantee, including shipping of free replacements anywhere in the world for 3 years.

topeak super tourist

A good value alternative is the Topeak Super Tourist DX rack. After buying two of these racks in 2009, we can definitely recommend them for light touring. They’re fairly light (700g), fit almost all bikes and have held up admirably on 10-14 day tours of Denmark and Spain, as well as numerous shorter trips and countless trips to the grocery store.

A Final Word On Racks.
No matter which one you choose, chances are the paint will wear thin with time, especially where the panniers rub up against the racks.

Keep some touch-up paint handy (nail polish will do the trick in a pinch). This helps keep the racks free of rust.

You can also wrap duct tape around your racks at the points where the bags make contact with the metal, to prevent scuffing.

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Picking Out Panniers For Bicycle Touring

Posted February 6th, 2012

Panniers are the most common way for touring cyclists to carry their equipment.

In case you’re not familiar with the lingo, panniers are bags that attach to luggage racks, so you can carry equipment over the front and back wheels of your bike. Most panniers are commercially made out of heavy-duty fabric but you can make your own out of backpacks or even plastic buckets.

A standard touring set-up is 2 large bags on the back and 2 smaller panniers on the front. You can also strap a tent and sleeping mat across the top of the back panniers.

Stephen Lord and his bike
A touring bike loaded with panniers, a handlebar bag and a dry sack. Photo by Stephen Lord

Pannier Advantages
Panniers are popular for several reasons, starting with versatility. A well designed set of panniers will let you clip and unclip the bags from the racks within seconds.

That means it’s easy to get your panniers off the bike and inside your tent in a rainstorm. You can also quickly grab a single pannier (for example, the one with your laptop and other valuables in it) to take along as you go supermarket shopping.

Detail of Chinatown Grocery Bag

In a city, an empty pannier can be used as a day bag while sightseeing. When you fly with your bicycle, you can check your panniers as normal luggage. A “Chinese shopping bag” is helpful for this.

Panniers help you stay organised as well. You can sort your equipment into different bags. One for food and cooking gear, one for clothing and yet another for tools and emergency supplies. Most importantly, there is very little that can go wrong with panniers, especially if you get a good set to begin with. They have almost no moving parts. Any problems that do arise are usually small and easily fixed.

In addition to front and back panniers, you might also want to add a:

Vaude Bag

  • Handlebar Bag – Clips to the front handlebars of the bike. It’s ideal for storing your wallet, camera and other valuables and can be easily taken along when you need to leave the bike for a few minutes. This brings peace of mind and makes it much easier to lock your bike up and run a few errands because you know the most important items won’t be lost, should disaster strike. Most bags also come with a map case on top to make navigation easier. We like Vaude’s Road I Handlebar Bag.

dry bags

  • Dry Bag – A waterproof sack, often used for canoeing or kayaking. Cyclists use dry bags too because their tubular shape fits a rolled up tent and poles perfectly. This protects the tent from rain and sun damage, and keeps it in one compact package that can be easily strapped onto the bike with bungee cords or compression straps. Read more on dry bags.


Brands to Consider
Everyone wants to know which brand of panniers are best. The better question to ask is “Which panniers are best for you?”

Ortlieb Panniers

Almost any pannier on the market will be fine for occasional tours but don’t expect cheaper brands to perform well over time or in heavy rain. When you spend extra money, you’re paying for durability and ease of use. That means panniers made with more robust fabric, better quality zips and a system that makes them easier to remove from the bike.

For a good set of panniers, you won’t go wrong by investing in a set of Ortlieb panniers. They’re by far the most popular brand and relatively expensive but for your money you get waterproof panniers that are a breeze to get on and off the bike and will last for a lifetime of bike touring. We only recently replaced our Ortliebs after over 60,000km of touring and we only bought another set because someone sold us their nearly-new Ortliebs for a bargain price. The old ones are still working (if a bit sunfaded).

There is one big downside to Ortlieb panniers: most models don’t come with pockets and that annoys people who like lots of compartments to organise their things. However, Ortliebs are so popular that even if you don’t like them, you should have no trouble reselling them to another cyclist.

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Other Options
Other pannier brands to check out include Vaude, Carradice, Jandd, Lone Peak and – at the luxury end of the scale – the exceptionally well designed but expensive Arkel bags.

As you are researching panniers, consider these features:

  • Waterproof or Not – Some panniers, like Ortlieb, are 100% waterproof. When it starts to rain, this means you don’t have to jump off the bike and put on rain covers to keep everything dry. Other bags are more water resistant than waterproof – fine if you’re cycling in a dry climate or are willing to protect sensitive equipment in waterproof bags. If you choose non-waterproof bags, you may also be able to patch them up more easily with a sewing kit.
  • Type of Closure – Zippers. Rolling tops. Clips and buckles. Who knew there were so many ways to close a bag? In general, try to minimise the number of zippers on your bike bags because the dirt from the road and repeated opening and closing motions make zippers prone to failure. We prefer other options such as bags that roll closed like a dry bag. They can be rolled very tight to form a waterproof seal in even the heaviest rainstorm. Equally, you can leave them open when you need room for extra food. Panniers that have a clamshell-type top and buckles aren’t quite as easy to overstuff when you need to carry extra supplies (in our experience) but they are a little easier than roll tops to open and close.
  • Weight and Volume – Like backpacks, panniers come in all different shapes, materials and sizes. There’s no point getting a bigger, heavier bag if you don’t need the extra space.
  • Attachment Systems – Make sure the panniers are easy to put on and take off the bike. You’re going to be doing this at least twice a day, if not more, so it shouldn’t be a long and tedious process. The best panniers unhook automatically when you lift the bag up by its handle.

Pannier Packing Tips
Packing your bike panniers can be confusing, especially when you do it for the first time. Here are some quick tips to get you started:

1. Everything In Its Place – Sort gear into categories. Cooking equipment and food can go in one bag, clothes in another. Bike tools should have their own spot that’s easy to access, so you can quickly find what you need when a tire goes flat.

2. Balance The Weight – Make sure that your bike is balanced. This means that bags on the right and left sides should weigh about the same. Between front and back, most people go for a 60-40 split, though you’ll find differing opinions on whether more weight should be up front or in back. Putting more weight in front takes some pressure off your back wheel, lowering the risk of things like broken spokes, and can also make the bike feel more stable when going up a steep hill. However, because your back panniers are bigger it’s sometimes easier to put more weight in back and often the difference in handling isn’t really noticeable.

3. Leave Extra Space – Don’t fill your panniers to the brim. You’ll want extra room for food and souvenirs as you travel. Ideally, leave home with at least half a pannier’s worth of empty space.

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Chapter 13: Loading Up The Bicycle

Posted February 6th, 2012

Now that you have camping gear, clothes and a whole pile of other stuff to take on tour, how will you carry it all on your bicycle? The options are numerous.

Loading up your touring bike
Will you use two panniers or four? Or maybe a trailer?

You could go for the classic combination of panniers and luggage racks, or you might opt to tow a trailer behind your bicycle. Some people have both luggage racks and a trailer. Other folks travel ultralight and get away with barely more than a handlebar bag.

There’s no one correct answer. The only way to know for sure is to try some different combinations yourself and see if you’re happy with that solution. That said, here are some starting points to get you thinking about what might be best for your trip.

1. Panniers
2. Luggage Racks
3. Trailers
4. Still Confused? Trailers vs. Panniers


Free eBook: 20 Tips For Bike Touring In The Netherlands

Posted February 6th, 2012

We’ve had a lot of time on our hands lately, while waiting for our newest little cyclist to arrive; time that’s allowed us to create some fun things for all of our readers.

Last month, we gave you our free Bike Touring Basics book and this month we have another free eBook with 20 Tips For Bike Touring in the Netherlands.

20 Tips For Bike Touring In The Netherlands

Click on the book cover to grab your free copy.

Download it. Pass it around. Or just enjoy the preview below. Most of all – come cycling here. We think the Netherlands is one of the best countries in the world for a bicycle tour.

P.S. We’re writing a much longer bike touring guide to the Netherlands (a.k.a Holland) so if you have any tips to share or requests for what you’d like to see included, please get in touch!

Posted in Books, Map, Netherlands

Bicycle Locks For Touring

Posted February 6th, 2012

I came off the twelve hour ferry from north Cyprus, tired, a little crumpled from the lack of sleep. I made my way to the station as I was about to cheat to make haste, wanting to catch the apricot harvest and spend three days at Cappadocia before shooting east, pretty much non-stop over the mountains and into Iran to be part of the action unfolding. The bike was just behind me and in plain view while I went to get the ticket. Turned around -GONE! –Keith Hallagan 

Don’t worry too much about your bike being stolen. Although it’s every bike tourist’s worst nightmare, this is one thing that honestly is very unlikely to happen.

Bicycle tourists tend to stay with their bikes most of the time and are drawn to rural areas instead of high-risk big cities. Also, a loaded touring bike is a fairly obvious thing. It’s not easy to ‘fade into the crowd’ or make a quick getaway with such a big, weighty bicycle.

If you’re worried about your bike in places where poverty is relatively common we have one word of advice: relax. We had no bike security issues when we cycled through some of the world’s poorest countries. The people there were among the most hospitable of our trip.

In general, they would not steal a bike because the traveller is an honoured guest and because your bike would be very obviously something stolen, when compared with local bicycles. Also, if your bike is taken in these countries then community leaders are likely to launch a search to find the offenders! Often the thief is known to the community and has taken things from locals before.

The biggest chance of your bike being stolen is when you leave it unattended for ‘just a second’ in a town or city. “I’ll only be a minute. It’ll be fine,” you think but that’s all the time an opportunistic thief needs to hop on and ride away. It’s in these situations when you need a lock to secure your bike so it’s there when you return.

Here are some of our favourite locks:

1. Cable Lock

A good cable lock is perhaps the most useful type of lock for touring. It’s relatively lightweight, not too expensive and can be stretched around anything from bike racks to telephone poles. Make sure you get one that’s long enough (over 1 meter) and don’t go for the cheapest one. The very thin, flimsy cable locks that tend to be sold in supermarkets won’t slow a thief down at all. There are many types of cable locks. We like two locks from the Kryptonite KryptoFlex range: the 1007 Looped 7’ cable and the 815 Combo Cable Lock. Both can be used in combination with a U-lock or separate padlock.

Two locks from Kryptonite: the 1007 Looped 7’ cable (left) and the 815 Combo Cable Lock (right).

2. U-Lock or D-Lock

These locks are effective and secure but very heavy to carry on a bike tour. It’s up to you, whether the extra security is worth the added bulk. If you plan on passing through a lot of cities on your tour, a big lock like this may be worth it. For many bike tourists, however, a U-Lock is probably overkill. We like the Kryptonite Evolution Series 4 U-Lock.

U Lock
If you’re going to get a U-lock go for a heavy-duty one that will be of use to you in high-risk areas such as cities.

3. Wheel Lock


This type of lock is known by at least 4 names: o-lock, ring lock, wheel lock or frame lock. It’s standard equipment on many bikes in Europe. The varying names all refer to the same thing: a lock that attaches to your frame. You put the key in and push down on a lever so that a metal ring slides between the spokes of your back tire, locking the bike.

We love wheel locks because they’re so darn convenient for quick stops while on tour. Coupled with a cable lock, they also make for a fairly secure setup. Our current touring setup includes the ABUS 4850 LH NKR wheel lock, plus a compatible cable lock that slots into the wheel lock.

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In addition to buying a good lock, there are several things you can do to make your bike more secure:

1. Tip a local shopkeeper $1-2 U.S. to be your ‘bicycle security guard’.
2. Get a hotel room when staying in a city (instead of staying at a campground or in a hostel dorm room) and keep the bike in your room.
3. Lock your bike to something secure in a highly visible place – not down a dark alley.
4. Make the bicycle look undesirable. Cover brand names with tape and string your laundry across the back to dry.
5. When wild camping, lock the bike to something solid like a picnic table or tree.
6. On trains and buses, take responsibility (where possible) for loading your own bike into the cargo area. On a train, lock it inside the luggage car or take off the saddle and turn the handlebars so it can’t be easily ridden away.

For a humorous look at bike theft, read this story about a bike being dragged away by horses in Mongolia.

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