Panniers are used by most cycle tourists I encounter. They can carry large amounts of gear, while keeping the centre of gravity low for good handling. Most are waterproof or have a waterproof cover so your gear is kept clean and dry.
However, they have a number of disadvantages:
They are difficult to carry off the bike
Carrying one pannier is awkward, even with a shoulder strap. Carrying four is not practical for more than short distances. It can also be tedious to remove them all from the bike. This can make things like sightseeing and even going into shops a pain because leaving your panniers on the bike entails the risk of theft. On tours this can lead to a feeling of being ‘tied to the bike’ – you would like to leave the bike to explore places on foot but are afraid to leave your gear, which is too much hassle to carry.
Although generally lighter than a trailer the weight of two racks and four panniers can be considerable, even before you fill them. In addition the weight is far to the back and front of the bike which can cause frame flex and heavy steering as well as straining the racks and attachment points.
Hassle of finding compatible racks and panniers
Considering the simplicity of the system – essentially just hanging something from a metal bar – it’s surprising how poor the compatibility between bikes, racks and panniers can be.
Unless you have a bike with very long chainstays (luckily most touring bikes do) heel clearance is something you should consider when choosing a rack and panniers.
You can buy cheap panniers but they probably won’t last long. Good panniers and racks are expensive. If you use front and rear panniers the cost can be considerable.
Prone to wear and failure
The stresses in most pannier systems tend to be concentrated at a few points. This makes them prone to failure which can be very hard to repair while on tour. Panniers are also not generally easy to repair – though gaffer tape should work on Ortliebs!
Not well suited for off-road cycling or very rough roads
Panniers tend to shake a lot and flap about, partly due to the inherent nature of the design and also because of their position. This puts considerable stress on the racks and bike.
To ensure your bike is well balanced you need to distribute the weight evenly between left and right panniers. Depending on the gear you carry this might be surprisingly tricky if you want to use a logical system of arranging it.
Can interfere with brakes, suspension, lights and mudguards
All rear racks should have a point for attaching lights, as when you bung a tent and other stuff on top as many tourers do, a seatpost mounted light won’t be visible. Many racks have no such attachment. Racks can also interfere with mudguards, need special fittings for front suspension and can even interfere with brakes. There is usually a workaround but it all adds to more hassle.
Can be a nuisance on planes
Racks stick out and can be damaged easily so you should probably remove them when flying. If using front and rear panniers you have four bags to take which could be awkward and cost extra.
Can be awkward getting the bike through gates and other obstacles
A major issue I have with the ‘cycle network’ paths in the UK is that they tend to have numerous gates, steps and other obstacles that cyclists must negotiate. Many of the gates are too narrow for panniers meaning you must remove them from the bike just to get through.
Alternative Ways of Carrying Gear
For carrying very large amounts of gear a trailer is probably the only viable alternative to panniers. Some cyclists even pair one with panniers to increase their load-carrying capacity. Trailers are better than panniers for off-road touring and very rough roads. They take the load off the bike wheels meaning you can use a lighter bike. However, depending on how they’re attached they can add extra stresses to the rear wheel making it more prone to failure.
A big advantage is that you can carry one big bag or rucksack instead of several little ones, making carrying your gear off the bike easier. On the other hand you now have a trailer to park and secure! You also have one or more extra wheels to maintain and a lot of extra weight to tow. Plus the handling of the bike will be affected. If you want to take your bike on a plane that is another logistical problem to consider.
For my first cycle tour I simply packed all my gear – about 15kg of it – into a rucksack and carried it on my back. I managed about 40 miles before the strain forced me to hop on a train and go home (though I did manage one night’s camping). Carrying a lot of weight on your back isn’t recommended. As well as the strain it puts on your back and shoulders it could be dangerous in a crash.
Light loads however, say up to about 5kg, are really not that uncomfortable. A backpack also has many advantages compared to panniers. You don’t need a rack, with all the attachment and compatibility problems described above. It is very easy to carry a backpack away from the bike. It is always on your person so you can forget about it being stolen. A backpack is cheap and easy to replace or repair. You don’t have to worry about rack failure. For cycling on rough ground a backpack is much more suitable than panniers, for the bike at least – maybe not your shoulders.
Rucksack and Rack
If you want to use a rucksack but can’t be bothered having it on your back, particularly if it’s heavy, it is possible to strap it to a rack (or attach it to the seatpost for smaller packs). Obviously this will bring up many of the problems with racks described above and introduce a few new ones. Attaching a rucksack securely can be challenging – bungee cables work, however you may need to add something to your rack to increase the top width. You may also have stability problems due to the high centre of gravity. The length of the rucksack can also be a problem as it will need to extend to the rear of the bike or to the sides. This will adversely affect the handling of the bike so it’s best not to use very heavy rucksacks. Putting some weight up front is a good idea using suggestions below.
I combine cycle touring with hiking and have found using a rack-mounted rucksack the best solution. The rucksack is a 60 litre one I got from Argos. It cost £10, weighs under a kilo and has lasted for years. I pair it with a one-piece pannier set from Lidl which only cost £15 and is very light. I keep bike specific stuff and odds and ends in the panniers and other stuff in the rucksack. In the top section of the panniers I put a metal rack from an old fridge to help support the rucksack. I carry my tent at the front to equalise the weight. It works pretty well and allows me to leave the bike and head off into the hills with ease. However, it is less stable than a panniers-only solution.
There is a company that makes rucksacks that convert into panniers. They are quite expensive, however, and seem to be available in the US only. Other manufacturers make single panniers that can be used a rucksack but these are less useful.
If you’re pretty handy you could make something like the above, presuming the company above hasn’t patented the idea. I fancy having a go at this myself but have never quite found the time. If you are inspired by the idea and succeed in making one yourself please let me know and I’ll be happy to feature it on the site.
You can’t carry as much as with panniers or a rucksack but saddle bags are well balanced between the front and rear wheels as well as laterally. However they aren’t usually good for carrying off the bike. A big advantage is that you don’t need a rack. For light tours and for increasing carrying capacity they are pretty handy.
Seatpost Mounted Rack
If you need to use a rack but aren’t carrying much weight a seatpost mounted rear rack is an option. They are much simpler to fit than a stay mounted rack and I would only use them with very light panniers or a rack bag. Alternatively you could use one to carry a lightweight backpack or a tent.
Most of the weight on a bike is concentrated at the rear. However, the rear wheel is generally weaker than the front one so it makes sense to put some extra weight up front, though too much will adversely affect the handling. There are a number of front rack styles from the urban-type used to carry pizzas and other deliveries to the low-riders used for touring. Brake-mounted carriers are light and solid and useful for strapping tents to.
Handlebar Mounted Bags and Baskets
The stem and handlebars of a bike are pretty strong so can be used for load carrying but it’s a bad idea to overload them as it will affect the steering. Handlebar bags are used by many touring cyclists and are pretty useful. They usually are waterproof to some extent and have a map case for navigation and can be carried off the bike with a shoulder strap so are good for carrying valuables. Baskets are a cheaper option and will carry a bit more but are neither aerodynamic nor water resistant.
Modern touring bikes usually have several bottle-cage mounts. You might not use them all for carrying water so why not use them for carrying other stuff? They should be able to hold at least a kilo each given a decent mount. There are bottle-shaped carry-cases or you could improvise one or simply roll stuff up and bung it in. They are pretty handy for storing smallish things like tools and waterproof jackets.
Frame Mounted Bags
The frame of your bike is much stronger than a rack and you don’t have to worry about screws coming loose or breaking. In addition, the weight will be between your wheels rather than at the ends of the bike giving better balance and smaller chance of wheel failure. It isn’t alway easy to utilise the frame space but is worth the effort.
A Combination of the Above
Using a combination of the above methods, and discarding non-essential stuff, you can carry enough gear for cycle camping without using panniers. Granted, panniers will allow you to carry more, and ensure that your stuff is dry, but that extra load carrying capacity comes at a price. Getting the amount of stuff you carry down to an absolute minimum is a worthwhile end in itself as just managing stuff can become tedious plus the weight all adds up. Many cycle tourists use front panniers simply to balance the bike and improve handling, even when they don’t need so much carrying capacity. This can lead to ’stuff creep’: you take or buy stuff you don’t really need simply because you have the space to carry it.
Of course, you could also combine some of the above methods with panniers to allow you to carry even more, or simply take some of the weight off the panniers.