Picking Out Panniers For Bicycle Touring

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.

Read more:

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.

Read more:


  1. karl
    16th May 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Yep, I got myself a pair of Ortlieb Back Roller Plus panniers last year and they have been fantastic for a variety of uses, including winter commuting and shopping. The main downsides are the price, lack of availability in Australia, the non-square bottom (means it tips over if not propped up, a bit annoying if loaded with groceries) and the lack of pockets, with only two small areas inside the bag to put things.

    These are very minor annoyances though and the quality of the fabric and the mounting system is top notch. I ordered a pair of Front Rollers recently in preparation for my future tour and for general use.

  2. Paul
    8th October 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Thanks again for your info, I ended up snagging a set of Ortlieb Roller City Front panniers AND Roller City Rear panniers for only $160 inclusive of delivery. I went to ProBikeKit.com, and at the top of the page just before I was about to pay, there was a banner that read, “Enter this code at the checkout to get a further 10% off”. So I did! Very impressive…

  3. Karl
    8th October 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    Be warned! I used a large ‘Chinese shopping bag’ and after the second flight it had ripped almost 1/3 open. Thankfully all my panniers were packed with everything loose. They were all strapped and tied together and have my name and phone number written on them in permanent marker.. just in case!

  4. gregory chauvet
    10th March 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    we are a couple going for a 3 week trip to Cuba – we plan to take 2 rear panniers and one handlebar bag.
    Could someone please recommend what size of Ortlieb Panniers to take? 40l or 25l?

    Also I am 6ft2 (1,90m) and I tried both sizes – when I try 40l panniers, my heels hit the panniers. Any one experienced similar problem? Tips?

    It is our first tour….

    • Jack Kessler
      26th October 2015 at 3:06 am #

      Answer: Don’t get Ortlieb nor any other waterproof panniers. They are expensive, heavy, and inconvenient. Plus they you won’t keep your stuff dry because you will be putting wet clothes inside them when the rain stops. And the rain on your rain clothes will get everything else wet. And if you open them to get rain clothes out the rain will fall in them while they’re open.

      I suggest cheaper, lighter, non-waterproof panniers which come with several external pockets for things you use more often, like your wallet, camera, and cellphone. Before you set out, organize your stuff into ziplock plastic bags. The come in quart, gallon, two gallon, and sandwich. They are cheap, light and waterproof. With them there is a place for everything and everything in its place which obviates the misery of forever rooting around in you panniers for something and totally disorganizing them every time you do so it is even harder to find things next time. Ziplock bags are transparent so you can see what’s inside without opening it.

      They are available at convenience stores and grocery stores in many countries so they are easy to replace.

    • Jack Kessler
      26th October 2015 at 3:18 am #

      Also do not get any sort of canteen or water bottle other than one frame bottle. A two liter soda bottle is a feat of mechanical and chemical engineering. It is strong, light, and cheap. The cap-bottle interface when you study it is a fine engineering accomplishment. The rubber gaskets in aluminum water bottles are unreliable leaky trash by comparison. Plus it is transparent so you can see what’s inside.

      They are dead cheap compared to any LBS/REI product, are available everywhere, and even come supplied with two liters of soda to pour out. Nowadays you can even get them already filled with water.

  5. Rideon
    9th August 2014 at 8:41 pm #

    Excellent article. Looking at the axiom Lasalle’s with rain covers included. Like the versatility for front or rear rack use and nice size for using single set for commute.

  6. Jon
    25th August 2014 at 1:29 am #

    The best panniers I found are sold by Rivendell, made by Sackville. Very durable, water resistant but not waterproof – waterproof can mean condensation inside the bag, not good.

  7. Gary Jakacky
    24th January 2015 at 1:13 am #

    The problem with ortlieb bags is that wet clothing and items put into the panniers AFTER a rainy day are not able to dry out because the bags do not breathe. You are better off with breathable bags; put your dry clothes in one plastic bag inside, and wet items from yesterdays riding in a second, separate bag (if it is STILL RAINING), or just into the pannier as is on sunny days to allow the breathability to dry your clothes and other items out. Ortliebs also weigh an effing TON for their size.

    • Alex O'Donovan
      11th November 2015 at 6:05 pm #

      Hey Gary I’m doing my first tour how many litres for the panniers would you recommend? I am completely clueless. I will be cycling the world so need a bit of gear but will be going light as possible.

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