Packing your bike panniers can be confusing, especially when you do it for the first time.
Once on the road, you’ll quickly discover what works for you but until then, here are some tips to put you on the right track. We used Ortlieb Panniers but the tips here should apply to just about any type of bicycle luggage.
1. Organise And Categorise.
Panniers have a natural tendency to act like black holes. The most important things always seem to get sucked down to the very bottom of the bag. That is the last thing you want during a storm, when you’re trying to find the rain gear. Happily, a little organisation goes a long way towards avoiding pannier frustration and confusion.
Start by sorting things into categories. Put all the food and cooking gear in one bag. Then bring your clothes together in one pile. Do the same for any bike tools and spare parts you are carrying, things you’ll need in the tent at night and so on. Doing this helps you remember where everything is and ensures that you don’t have to unpack 4 bags to get the job done. Fixing a tire takes far less time if the spare tubes, puncture repair kit and tire levers are all in one place and not spread across your panniers.
You can organise further by getting multi-coloured bags or zip-lock bags and putting things into sub-categories. We have one bag for socks, one for underwear and so on. Finally, consider printing labels and putting them on the back of your panniers, so you remember exactly what goes in each one.
2. Balance The Weight.
Your bicycle should be reasonably well balanced, both from side to side and from front to back. We have traditionally gone for about 40% of the weight in front and 60% in back but other cyclists prefer the reverse. Putting more weight in front takes some pressure off your back wheel, lowering the risk of things like broken spokes. This probably isn’t important for most people but could be an issue if you are exceptionally tall or big boned.
There is no ‘correct’ answer. Just experiment and see what works for you, remembering the general rule that your bike should not greatly unbalanced in any one direction. A lopsided bike will be difficult to steer and dangerous to ride. Uneven weight also puts unnecessary pressure on the racks and frame of the bike.
You don’t need to carry a scale and weigh everything to the last gram. Instead, pack your bags and then pick them up. How do they feel? Are the front ones lighter than the back ones? Do the right panniers weigh roughly the same as the left panniers? A difference of a couple pounds is unlikely to make a big difference but if you feel that one is significantly heavier than the other, try to reorder a bit until the distribution is better.
3. Important Things On Top.
Think about what you are likely to need during the day and then put these things near the top of a pannier, where they’re easily reached. Rain gear, snacks and your tool kit all tend to fall into this category. You might also include your journal or a warmer layer of clothes.
We strongly recommend a handlebar bag for the most critical items like maps, your camera, wallet, passport and other valuables. It can come with you when you need to leave the bike for a few moments (we’re currently using the Vaude Road I handlebar bag). The peace of mind that comes from being able to take these crucial things along 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.
4. Bulky Items Outside The Panniers.
Not everything has to go inside your panniers. Bulky things can be strapped on the outside of the bike. The normal place to strap things is on the back rack, resting on top of your rear bags.
A tent is the obvious thing to put here. We also carry our sleeping mats and extra food outside of our panniers.
To hold everything together, we often use a cheap “chinese shopping bag“. It’s made from thick, woven plastic and available in any dollar store. We attach it using bungee cords or compression straps. It is surprisingly water resistant, and has the extra advantage of being great for packing luggage for a flight! Garbage bags are another popular choice to weather-proof things carried outside of panniers.
These low-tech options are never 100% waterproof, so if you plan to store your sleeping bag on top of your racks, invest in a dry bag (a long, cylindrical waterproof bag that easily lays on bicycle racks) to ensure you don’t suffer a night in a soggy blanket.
5. Leave Extra Space.
There is always something you’ll want to add to your bags en route, whether it’s a souvenir you pick up along the way or extra food for a particularly remote stretch. If your bags are bursting before you leave, they’re too full. Unpack and re-evaluate until you have at least half a pannier free.
6. Protect Sensitive Things.
Some things don’t do well with the bumpy nature of bike travel. Anything liquid like cooking oils, honey or shampoo should go in the strongest container you can find and be placed so it stands upright in the bottom of a pannier.
Electronics also need special care. A soft padded case will protect your mp3 player, laptop and other gadgets from dust and vibrations. Add further protection by packing electronics between layers of clothes, to minimize their exposure to bumps and shocks.