The most important part of your bicycle touring equipment is your bicycle touring bags! After all, what good is the rest of your bicycle touring gear if you have no place to put it in? When choosing your bicycle touring bags, you will have to decide between bikepacking bags and panniers. Bikepacking bags vs panniers is a vierce debate in the world of bicycle touring. Both of these setups have their pros and cons. What you choose will depend on a number of factors.
First, let us have a look at bikepacking bags.
Bikepacking bags are soft and lightweight bags that attach directly to your bicycle using straps and Velcro. The popularity of bicycle touring has meant that a wide range of bikepacking bags are now available to fit all frame shapes and sizes. The three most common types of bikepacking pags (and the ones I use while bicycle touring) are:
Seat pack – A bicycle touring seat pack attaches to the seat post and saddle rails of your bike. They are, generally speaking, the biggest of your three bikepacking bags. The average size for a seat pack is around 9-17 liters. Most people choose to put their bulkiest items in the seat pack, such as a sleeping bag or even a TENT! I once did a bicycle tour with a sleeping bag, tent and shoes stuffed in my seat pack. I will talk more about that later!
Frame bag – As the name suggests, the frame bag attaches to the bicycle frame. You get a host of different size frame packs. The smallest frame packs are just big enough to carry a few essential items, while the biggest will fit your entire wardrobe, electronics and food. The frame bag is the most accessible of the three bikepacking bags. It is usually possible to take stuff out of your frame bag while you are cycling. I always put my most-used items in my frame bag, such as a cellphone, wallet and also SNACKS! I hate stopping every time I need to eat something. Instead of stopping every time I need to eat, I carry snacks in my frame bag and take it out while riding.
Handlebar roll – A handlebar roll attaches securely to your handlebar with straps. Handlebar rolls are small and designed to carry only a handful of small lightweight items. It is also the least accessible of the three bikepacking bags. With all handlebar rolls, you access your gear from the side of the bag. It can be difficult to take stuff out of your handlebar roll if the ends of the bag are too close to your shifters, which is often the case. That is why it is a good idea to carry items in your handlebar roll that you only need access to AFTER your ride is complete.
Besides for the three most common bikepacking bags, there are a number of smaller bikepacking accessory bags available. These bags are usually between 1-5L in size. They are meant to be easily accessible and designed to clear up space in your three main bags. Examples of accessory bags include a food pouch, top tube bag, down tube bag and a fork pack.
Pros of using Bikepacking bags:
Bikepacking bags are lightweight.
The fact that you do not need a metal rack to attach your bikepacking bags to your bike, means that they are FAR lighter than panniers. The lightweight bicycle touring setup that bikepacking bags provide, make them ideal when you want to get up the climbs as quickly as possible. It also means that you should be able to pick up and carry your fully loaded touring bike if need be. There will undoubtedly come a time during your bicycle tour that you need to pick up your bicycle. It might just be that you have to climb over a fence or maybe you have to carry your bicycle over a technical section of mountain bike trail – either way, a lightweight touring setup is far more practical in this regard.
Bikepacking bags create better bike handling than panniers.
A bicycle kitted with bikepacking bags is more predictable and responsive than a bike with panniers. It is also a lot more fun to ride! Whether you are gunning down alpine descents or maneuvering through rush hour traffic in Paris, bikepacking bags offer superior rideability. The only exception is if your seat pack is so heavily loaded that it swings from side to side when you are riding out of the saddle. This is a problem I had when I tried to put a tent, sleeping bag and shoes in my seat pack. After a few thousand kilometers riding like that, I eventually left my sleeping bag and tent in Spain. I was barely using it anyway thanks to Warmshowers!
Bikepacking bags can attach to any type of bicycle.
All bicycles can be equipped with bikepacking bags, because they attach with Velcro and straps. Nothing bolts to the frame! Not all bicycles have the required braze-on mounts needed to fit a pannier rack to it. Examples of bikes that can not run pannier racks include most carbon fiber racing bicycles and full suspension mountain bikes.
Bikepacking bags are easy to repair.
Bikepacking bags are made of fabric that is easy to repair. Let me tell you from personal experience that even the best and most expensive bikepacking bags can tear. All you need to do is to carry a needle and a thread with you while bicycle touring, so you can stich it up yourself. The problem with pannier racks is that if your metal rack breaks while you are cycling through a remote location, you might be out of luck!
Bikepacking bags allow you to ride rough terrain.
Many bicycle tourist prefer bikepacking bags for off-road riding, because bikepacking bags are stable and do not bounce around when ridden over rough terrain. You also do not need to worry about your bikepacking bags breaking when you fall over. Most bikepacking bags are designed to withstand the impact caused by a crash. On the contrary, metal pannier racks are known to crack.
Are you convinced yet that bikepacking bags are the way to go? Just wait a second, there are a few cons to bikepacking bags you should know about.
Cons of using Bikepacking bags:
Bikepacking bags have a low carrying capacity.
If you choose to do your bicycle tour with bikepacking bags, you will have to pack like a minimalist. There is no room for luxury items! If you combine the carrying capacity of your most commonly used bikepacking bags, it will come out at between 30-60L. In comparison, your most basic pannier bag setup will provide a minimum carrying capacity of 65L and a max of 130L. A huge difference. The low carrying capacity of bikepacking bags will mean that you are not able to carry much food or water. This is something I found frustrating while bicycle touring. I am never able to buy food in bulk, because I have no place to store it. Fortunately, my longest bicycle tour ever was in Europe where there are more than enough fueling stations. If you are bicycle touring in a remote location, you need to be able to carry enough food and water.
Bikepacking bags are hard to pack.
Bikepacking bags are a nightmare to pack. The main reason for this is because they are oddly shaped. Seat packs and handlebar rolls are cylindrical and frame packs are triangular. These are hard shapes to pack. Do not be surprised if you pack and unpack your bikepacking bags 5-10 times before learning where to put what. Also, no matter how hard I tried my clothing always got wrinkled in my bikepacking bags. In this sense, big rectangular panniers are the way to go.
Bikepacking bags make it hard to reach your gear.
Since bikepacking bags are small and oddly shaped, it can be hard to reach your gear while out on the road. I have already said that a frame pack is the best place to store things that you want easy access to while touring. I will go as far as to say it is the only place you want to store something that you need while riding. The handlebar roll is hard to open and even harder to get stuff out of. As for the seat pack, it is easy enough to open, but not so easy to get stuff out of. If you have mistakenly put something you need at bottom of the bag, there will be no way to reach it without tipping the whole bag out on the floor.
Bikepacking bags are more expensive.
A set of bikepacking bags cost more or less the same as a set of panniers. Where the extra cost come in is with your camping gear. You will need to buy ultra-light camping gear if you are going to use bikepacking bags. Ultra-light camping gear, such as a tent and a sleeping bag are more expensive than standard camping gear. You could expect to pay up to four times as much for ultra-light gear that will work with bikepacking bags! This will increase the price of your entire setup drastically.
Bikepacking bags straps come loose while riding.
You will have to tighten the straps of your bags often, especially your seat pack! You could make the situation better by lightening the load in your seat pack, but even then it will not completely solve the problem. If you are cycling on rough roads, be sure to stop every hour or two and check if your seat pack is securely fastened. The last thing you want is for your seat pack to come undone on one side, lock up your back wheel and send you flying over the handlebars. I am sure that will not happen, but you get my point. Another tip from me would be to connect your seat pack as close to your saddle as possible. This will help keep it stable and prevent the straps from coming undone so quickly.
Now that you know what bikepacking bags are, as well as their pros and cons. Let us move on to panniers!
Pannier Bags and Racks
Panniers are large rectangular bags that connect to metal racks at the front and rear of the bike. The metal racks bolt directly to the frame, while the panniers attach to the racks using a plastic or metal hook. The exact attachment method varies by brand. The most common rack and pannier setup consists of the following:
Rear rack with 2 panniers attached to it – The rear rack attaches directly to the frame and accommodates two rear pannier bags, one on either side of the rack. These large rectangular bags can fit up to 35L of equipment, each.
Front rack with 2 panniers attached to it – The front rack attaches directly to the bicycle fork. Just like the rear rack, it accommodates a pannier bag on either side of the rack. Front pannier bags are smaller than rear bags, but can still fit up to 30L each of equipment.
Most bicycle tourist who use pannier bags and racks, also use a bikepacking handlebar bag. The space under the handlebar is open and I guess there is no reason not to!
Pros of using Pannier Bags and Racks:
Pannier bags can carry a large volume of gear.
It should be obvious to you by now that pannier bags are designed to carry a large volume of gear. At a minimum, a pannier bag setup will allow you to carry 65L of gear and a maximum of 130L of gear. That is more than double what the largest bikepacking bag setup can provide. Therefore, pannier bags are the obvious choice when you are doing a bicycle tour in a remote location where food and water is scarce. It is also perfect when you are touring in a cold climate and need to take warm clothes and sleeping gear. Finally, pannier bags will allow you to travel in luxury! You can easily fit all your electronics and any souvenirs you collect during your trip in your pannier bags.
Pannier bags are easy to pack.
Pannier bags are large and rectangular in shape, making them easy to pack. You can literally throw all your gear into your pannier bags in a few minutes. Bikepacking bags on the other hand, take time to pack and require you to be meticulous about weight distribution.
Panniers are easy to take off and put on.
Panniers use a special clip system that allow you to take them off and put them back on in a matter of seconds. Bikepacking bags however, have a complex set of straps that can take up to 10 minutes to configure. Panniers come in handy if you are checking in somewhere for the night and need to lock up your bike, but you want to take your bags with to your room. One exception is the metal pannier rack connected to your bicycle frame. You will probably not want to take the rack off every time you go riding without panniers. For most people this is a non-issue, but if you want to mix touring with training then it is something to take into account. When I was touring in Poland I got the opportunity to do a training ride with Team Sky. I would never show up with a metal pannier rack on my bike to a ride like that!
Panniers will save you money.
You will save money if you travel with pannier bags, because you are less limited when choosing your bikepacking gear. Unlike with bikepacking bags, you do not need to buy expensive lightweight equipment if you are traveling with panniers. You can also buy food in bulk, instead of shopping day-to-day.
Cons of using Pannier Bags and Racks:
Pannier bags and racks are heavy.
The metal rack that panniers attach to will make a pannier bag setup a few kilogram heavier than that of bikepacking bags! Also, the fact that pannier bags can accommodate more bikepacking gear will mean that you naturally pack more stuff. It can be tempting to throw in anything that you “might” find useful when you have the space to do so. There are ultralight pannier bags and racks available, but they are expensive and still not as light as the average bikepacking bag setup.
Panniers can not be used on every type of bicycle.
Not all bicycle frames have the required rack mounts to fit the metal rack used with pannier bags. Most carbon fiber racing bicycles and full suspension mountain bikes will therefore not be able to run panniers. Bikepacking bags on the other hand can be used on any type of bicycle.
A bike with panniers does not handle as well as a bike with bikepacking bags.
A fully loaded touring bike with pannier bags is unresponsive and somewhat unpredictable. I would compare it to driving a large, heavily loaded truck. I do not recommend pannier bags if you are used to road riding and racing. Switching from a 6.8kg carbon fiber racing bicycle, to a bike with pannier bags and racks is not a good idea. It will make your touring bike feel slow and uninspiring to ride. If you do not think this will bother you then give it a try. As with anything in life, the more you do it the better you get. A good place to start is to spend a week riding around your neighborhood with your fully loaded touring bike. Once you feel comfortable you can venture out onto the open road.
Metal pannier racks can break easily.
The metal racks used with a pannier bag setup are known to break. This can happen over time from the weight of panniers bouncing around. It can also happen if you crash or fall over. If the rack breaks while you are cycling through a remote location it can be a real problem. Also, the bolts used to connect the pannier rack to the bicycle frame will loosen over time. You will have to stop and tighten them often. I strongly recommend carrying spare bolts for the pannier rack, in case one of them were to fall off.
Panniers bounce around on rough roads.
If you are going to ride on rough roads, you will have to get used to the annoying rattle of a pannier bag bouncing on your bicycle frame. It is not uncommon for a pannier bag to become detached from the rack and fall off. If you want to do off-road bicycle touring, you are better off with bikepacking bags. Otherwise, look for panniers that are specifically designed for off-road riding. I have never used any off-road specific pannier bags before so I can not speak from personal experience, but they are said to have a sturdier attachment system.
Bikepacking bags VS Panniers: Final thoughts
As you can tell, both bikepacking bags and panniers have their pros and cons. It is not that one is better or worse than the other. It all depends on the type of bicycle tour you are doing and what is important to you. Bikepacking bags are good when you want the lightest bike setup or if you are doing a short bicycle tour in a safe location, that requires you to take less gear. Bikepacking bags are also better if you are doing an off-road bike tour. Pannier bags on the other hand, are good when you are doing a long bicycle tour in a remote location or if you want to travel in luxury and take as much gear as possible.