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.
31st January 2010 at 12:32 pm #
I always choose one pannier bag and make it what I call my “Survival Kit.” This is the one bag that I can pop off the bike and take with me for a walk or into a restaurant/coffeeshop.
Therefore, it contains my maps, journals, a book to read, camera & camera gear, etc. I imagine that my bike and all the other bags can be stolen as long as I still have the Survival Kit. So it also contains all my essential ID, airplane ticket, address book, and other things I can’t afford to lose. The addition of a stripped down tool kit, patch kit, and pump means that this one bag contains everything that is absolutely essential.
By having one pannier bag as my Survival Kit, I don’t have to think when it comes to where the important stuff is. I don’t have to keep running out to the bike to grab a pen or a map or something to read. I also don’t have to worry as much when I leave the bike locked up outside a restaurant or something like that.
31st January 2010 at 12:42 pm #
Wonderful tip Doug! We used the handlebar bag as our main ‘survival kit’ but I can see a pannier working well for this purpose too.
31st January 2010 at 2:39 pm #
Rather than bungee cords, we used an old tire tube to tie down that extra gear on the back rack. We found that the bungees broke down with too muchsun exposure. The old tire tube lasted a full year before it was replaced – and replacement was free!
The other tip I would add is to try to keep heavier items down low. Of course, this was much more critical on our bikes (recumbents), but even on regular bikes, the lower the weight the easier it is to balance.
31st January 2010 at 8:02 pm #
For us, in our front pannier we use 4 eagle creek ‘cube’. 2 ‘cube’ per pannier. They fit perfectly in the panniers and they double up as a pillow for a good night sleep.
6th November 2013 at 5:23 am #
which ‘cube’ are you referring to? there are several sizes.
4th February 2010 at 3:33 am #
Another tip. You do not use all your clothes at the same time. Make a small pack with the clothes that yuo normally use after cycling (after the shower). Put it on the top of one luggage (inside) and when you stop you do not need to look for your clothes to change. Also my towel and soap is easy to catch.
Same with the tools. I have two kinds of. One only for reparing punctures and the other one with the rest of the tools that you normally do not use. First kit is easy to get from the panniers. And next to it a small box with laundry soap to wash my hands after the work. You will not like to open the pannier with your dirty hands to look for the soap.
And the last one. I use big pannier also in front. Not need to be full but more space to put 1 kg of bananas on the way, or my rainy jacket…
20th February 2012 at 9:25 am #
Here’s a tip – if you have a down sleeping bag and space in a pannier, let the sleeping bag use the space – the less you compress them by day, the warmer they are by night.
15th April 2012 at 12:23 am #
Interesting info on survival gear. I carry things that allow me to get food/water, cook/eat, some antibiotics and vitamins, syringes/needles for administering them, and cut needles (3-5/0). Cut needles have thread already built-into them, and the aforementioned items are only for an “in the gravest extreme” type of situation. I’ve noticed some folks have many other things I don’t carry or use. I’ve had my first flat and my first fall on separate occasions just last year after over 40 years of cycling. I got up and rode on within moments after the fall, and I’ll add spare tubes in the future. My survival kit is just that….for survival rather than comfort, although some things can also fit the previous category. Thermal blanket, some LARGE heavy plastic lawn bags and heavy-duty ziplocks in gallon/quart sizes can have many uses, as well as a water purifier.
I should add that the items I’ve chosen take up little room and cost relatively little if you shop carefully. Do I have to remind you that knowing the various ways these items can be used is as important as having them?
30th September 2012 at 1:20 am #
To cut down on costs of laundry on a 40 day tour, I brought a bar of Sunlight soap, as a light, economical way to wash my clothes, no matter where I was, I never spent any money on laundry (as the soap was given to me for free!). I would also recommend checking how long different tops you plan to wear take to dry, I found polyester-based was quickest, cotton slowest. The point being with quick drying clothes, you won’t need to bring extra for when you are stuck waiting. Also, be careful of overreach, when cycling with a heavy bike, which caused me a lot of back and neck pain, a simple lowering of the seat solved the problem for me, bike stores can be maniac about placing seats too high. Another tip, which I found useful, instead of having 3 containers for coffee, sugar and milk powder. I mixed them together, which saved weight and also time in getting a coffee made in the morning.
1st January 2014 at 11:36 pm #
Also I try to pack the kerbside (usually left) rear pannier with softer stuff, usually clothes as this side is leaned against walls etc when stopped. Less bike falls and or damage to contents. Rain gear is road side to enable access while bike is leaning or stopped. Usuallay I get off the bike roadside so all the panneires that side are filled with more often required items. I agree with the Survival kit and use the Ortlieb front handlebar bag which even locks to the bars. Enjoy enjoy. D
25th January 2014 at 9:44 pm #
Great tips, everyone! I am currently knee deep in figuring out how to efficiently pack all my panniers for the TransAmerica Trail in June, 2014. I have the added complication of taking along a full grown Black Labrador Retreiver and all his requirements (food, water, leashes, bedding, etc.).
Anyway, I’ll try to remember to come back here and post any tips I have. I’m sure I’ll have a post about this whole affair at my blog as well:
Blue skys and tail winds,
26th July 2014 at 11:41 pm #
Some good tips here! Here’s a couple more… We use compression bags for our tent and sleeping bags. They cut the bulk to a third of what there volume normally takes up in our panniers. I also have used Ortleb panniers and an Arkel (made in Quebec Canada) handlebar bag for years and can highly recommend these for their durability and weatherproofness!
Happy trails everyone and always charish your tailwinds! 🙂
10th February 2015 at 2:28 pm #
I used a bungee cord style ‘cargo net’. This held down my Ordlieb drybag bag on top of the main rack and i could always strap on other things in really quickly and easily due to the webbing this didn’t come loose also this didn’t affect the stability or the main bag.
It may be a little tricky to secure something as big as that chinese bag though.
I was just looking for an example but there’s actually one on the main image for this article.
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