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.
A touring bike loaded with panniers, a handlebar bag and a dry sack. Photo by Stephen Lord
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.
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:
- 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 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?”
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.
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.