In defense of panniers
Panniers are the worst. They’re heavy. They rattle. They’re not aero. They require racks. They bump into you when hike-a-biking. Sometimes they eject from the rack and tumble along the road behind you. Why would I ever want to use them?
All of the above are valid reasons why panniers aren’t worth using when there’s a vast and growing market of bags available that you can strap all over your bike to carry your stuff on a tour. These bikepacking bags are great. They are lightweight and aero. They’re perfect for races when you don’t plan to carry a lot of gear. And they’re ideal for singletrack since they don’t add much if any width to your bike.
But what if you’re not racing or riding singletrack during your trip? What if your trip is entirely on paved and unpaved roads? This is where I believe panniers are in their element.
Let’s say you’re planning a 4-week trip on a mix of paved and unpaved roads. You’ll be riding in 3-season conditions: some rain, temperatures potentially down to freezing at night and hot during the day. You’ll be camping most nights. And you’ll mainly be eating out of grocery stores instead of restaurants. Resupply points will never be further than two days apart. This is what I’d consider being a fairly typical tour you could do in most of the world.
In this scenario, my favorite touring setup includes a randonneuring-style handlebar bag up front with a pair of medium-size panniers in the back. With this setup, I can easily carry my bedroll, a 3-season wardrobe of clothes, a cook kit, food for about 2 days, spares and tools for the bike, and my tent. This amounts to about 45 liters of stuff.
My bedroll takes up most of one pannier. The other houses most clothes and some food. In the handlebar bag, I can stash clothing I might need mid-ride and more food. I can strap the tent to the rear rack. This saves about 11.5 liters of storage space inside my bags.
Panniers are handy when you need to carry more volume. Sure, you can lash several bikepacking bags to your frame to get the same carrying capacity, but then your stuff is so segmented into little bags it becomes hard to remember where anything is. A pair of panniers elegantly holds your goods.
To prove my point, let’s compare the bikepacking bags you’d need to use to get the same carrying capacity as my setup above. The goal is to carry 45 liters of stuff. I’m going to use Revelate Designs bags in this example because they have a big selection and they’re one of the pioneers of the recent bikepacking system. And I’ll stick with commercially available panniers and racks for my preferred setup to keep the comparison out of the realm of custom-made possibilities.
- Spinelock seat bag 16 liters, 24 ounces
- Sweetroll handlebar roll 18 liters, 16.4 ounces
- Tangle half frame bag 6 liters, 11.9 ounces
- Mag Tank top tube bag 1.4 liters, 5.2 ounces
- 2x Polecat cargo bags 7 liters, 7.4 ounces
- 2x Salsa HD Anything cages to hold the Polecats on your fork 10.5 ounces
- Total volume 48.4; Total weight 75.4 ounces
- Arkel Dry Lite panniers 28 liters, 19 ounces
- Gilles Berthoud handlebar bag 11 liters, 19.5 ounces
- Rene Hersé front rack and decaleur to hold handlebar bag 13 ounces
- Tubus Vega Evo rear rack to hold panniers and tent 11.5 liters, 21 ounces
- Total volume 50.5 liters; Total weight 72.5 ounces
As you can see, the weight and carrying capacity of both systems are similar. There are of course many ways in which both systems can trim weight and increase volume. It’s impossible to compare all of the potential setups you can dream up. That’s a good idea for a website!
What I prefer about my touring setup is the ease with which everything is accessible and simple to organize. Unlike the narrow sausage shapes of the bikepacking bags, the panniers open up wide. They can also be left open for the bonus storage of food.
And when you arrive at camp, it’s quick and easy to remove the panniers and handlebar bag to tuck them inside your tent. Bikepacking bags can take some fiddling to remove and remount. It’s that convenience factor that gives panniers a leg up.
With all of this being said, I have a love for every type of touring or bikepacking setup. I’ve experimented with all sorts of combinations of bags, including a mix of bikepacking and traditional bags. As long as I’m out touring, the way I pack has only a tiny amount of influence over how well I’m enjoying the trip. But so long as I’m free to pack as I like, I’ll include a set of panniers almost every time.