for Selecting Bicycle Panniers
By Blair Paterson
Whether commuting, touring or mountain biking, I’d be lost without a set of panniers on my bike. For me, good, reliable panniers make the pleasure of bicycling even more pleasurable because I can pack extra clothes for changeable weather, an assortment of tools for running bike repairs, and food and drink to keep me nourished while enjoying the outdoors on long rides.
There are plenty of methods for carrying gear on a bicycle, but I am a ‘pannier man’. I like the unencumbered feeling of shoulders free of weight from a backpack. Some prefer to tow a bike-trailer and there are some excellent models available – a friend of mine who recently had a baby swears by his trailer which also doubles as a pram. I haven’t used a trailer so am not at liberty to comment – there has been plenty written elsewhere about the pros and cons of trailers verses panniers.
Through the years I’ve experienced my share of pannier malfunctions. I’ve had panniers unfasten and tangle in my spokes; done more repairs and modifications with rope, tape, wire, needle-and-thread or nuts and bolts than I care to remember. And I couldn’t begin to add up the items lost – fallen out of poor quality fastenings or through holes, tears or splits in the fabric.
With panniers, from experience, I’ve seen the good, bad and the ugly. So I thought it worthwhile to compile a list of 8 tips I consider important for selecting and maintaining the ultimate bicycle pannier, the utopia of panniers – the pannier I might dream is attached to my bike the night before embarking on my next trip.
Tip 1: Rack and mountings
The rack is the fitting between the panniers and the bicycle. Overlooking a rack while buying a set of panniers is like putting the cart before the horse.
I’ve skimped on racks in the past and paid the price. I therefore consider it an imperative to upgrade flimsy or broken racks as a cost priority over that of the panniers. I recommend fitting a good quality, sturdy, well-mounted rack, and working out from there.
New products and designs are always entering the market, so it’s an opportunity to shop around and experiment with new racks. I tend to select a rack (or racks) able to accommodate a number of pannier-carrying options – for front, rear, side or top mounting panniers – depending on how I’m setting up my bike.
The mountings connecting the panniers to the rack are equally as important as those connecting the rack to the bike. I like to be sure the mountings are constructed of robust materials; and that everything fits snug and tight once in place.
Things will rattle and vibrate loose – in the past I’ve permanently mounted panniers to the rack to avoid these inconveniences. Otherwise, it is worthwhile being familiar with your equipment’s fixings and carrying the appropriate tools for tightening or adjusting where required.
Tip 2: Size and application
Size of pannier is important but has pros and cons. I’m one for travelling light, but I always manage to pack more gear into my panniers than originally anticipated. The extra space is nice but I try not to go overboard, particularly for mountain biking, because over-sized panniers can catch on snags while pedalling through the bush.
There are many panniers on the market to suit any array of your bicycling needs. If planning an overnight or multiple-night touring trip, I’d obviously select larger panniers. Depending on what I need to carry I may choose a combination of panniers mounted on the front and back of my bike, but I find a good set of large side-mounted rear panniers usually suffices; even if I need to attach some items to the bike externally.
If commuting or day-tripping there are some excellent top packs on the market with enough room for light items such as lunch, snacks, tools and a change of clothes. The newer models, when combined with a compatible rack easily detach and slide off the bike. I’ve found top packs useful for mountain biking but they add some weight to the bike itself, so may affect manoeuvrability on technically challenging trails.
Tip 3: Durability
Like anything, good quality panniers are costly. But a durable set of panniers means piece-of-mind when on the bike. I certainly find comfort in knowing all my gear will still be safely packed inside the panniers at the end of my ride, and the panniers still reliably intact for the following days’ riding.
Panniers cop a pounding, especially when heavily packed and while riding over rough roads and bush tracks. Regardless of style or expense, it’s worth packing repair items (among your tools), such as zip-ties, rope or builders tape; just in case in situ repairs are required.
Tip 4: Design and Functionality
In the past I’ve experienced the frustration – while packing or unpacking poorly designed and fiddly panniers – of the bike becoming unbalanced, falling over and spraying the contents of the panniers all over the ground. For this reason, among others, I like a well-designed pannier to get gear in and out with minimal fuss. Some design and construction features I look for include:
- Materials used in construction: Look for durable, tough-wearing fabric, thread and fastenings.
- A rigid inner wall (abutting against the rack) is important to prevent the pannier from folding into the wheels.
- Seams, sewing, gluing and heat-sealing: it’s worth looking inside the pannier for any obvious fraying, manufacturing faults or weak-spots.
- Rack attachments: Ensure the panniers fit correctly, securely and in a functional position on the rack so as your heels move freely past the panniers while pedalling.
- Compressibility and neatness: a well-designed pannier compresses or expands in size depending on the amount of gear packed inside. This serves the dual purpose of minimising rattles, along with limiting excess bulk.
- Attachments for lights and night reflection strips: Obviously important for safety, considering the extra bulk, weight and width of the panniers on the bike.
Tip 5: Pockets and compartments
Pockets and compartments are a facet of great importance for my ultimate bike pannier. On longer bike trips I’m amazed at the time I’ve spent searching for smaller items in seemingly bottomless panniers.
A bicycling buddy of mine swears by her single-compartment panniers for other features such as durability and water-resistance, she reckons it was worth spending the extra money and has had the same set of panniers for many years. But she has lamented that she’s found it annoying when looking for her lipstick. Apparently some cupcakes she bought recently were a little worse for wear once she’d hauled them home too. As noted, there are pros and cons with the many choices of panniers available.
But I like compartments. For me, a good set of panniers is like a kitchen pantry, sock drawer, linen cupboard and toolbox all rolled into one. My ideal pannier has a compartment or pocket for everything, yet is also flexible in design to allow for the reshuffling and evolving of the packing process which naturally occurs over the duration of a trip.
Tip 6: Fastenings and accessibility
Modern bicycle panniers are constructed with a multitude of fastenings including: zippers, Velcro, plastic clips, compression straps, press-studs, carabiners and elastic bungy cords.
Design is important in this regard because certain fastenings work better in different applications. Like a well-designed backpack, I consider ease of access into the pannier and its compartments of high regard. Openings need to be substantial enough to remove and repack gear of a variety of shapes and sizes, and the fastenings need to open and shut easily and reliably, every time.
Tip 7: Water resistance
Reliable water resistant panniers come at a cost. And some brands also forego the extra pockets and compartments I am so obsessed about. (Some modern panniers offering excellent water resistance are merely one singular compartment, as mentioned above.)
Items can be easily packed into smaller parcels within a big compartment, or a top pack could be used in combination, but in wet weather I prefer to line a pannier of lesser water resistance and extra pockets with a plastic shopping bag. Let’s face it though, in heavy deluges, no amount of water resistance will keep your gear dry. And anyway, once the moisture gets in, without being properly aired, the panniers will keep sweating throughout your trip.
But that’s part of the joy and excitement of riding a bike – the feeling of being close to the elements. Rest assured though, the annoyance of a wet day of cycling will be balanced by the beauty of the dry days to follow.
Tip 8: Freedom
The other day I saw a fellow riding a bike with his shopping packed in two green eco-bags strapped to each side of a rear-rack which looked as though it was manufactured from a discarded fridge shelf. While I found this amusing and resourceful at the same time, it emphasised how practical and versatile panniers are as a means to move oneself and their gear about on a bicycle.
How do panniers offer freedom? How is ‘freedom’ a tip for my ultimate pannier? Because panniers are attached to bikes; because bicycling is great way to experience the outdoors in a variety of capacities; because bicycling is an efficient way to get around.
I love how the world opens up while I’m riding my bicycle, have loved it the minute I learnt how to ride. My radius instantly widened and continues to do so through my adulthood.
A bike with a good set of panniers can go even further than a bike without. Because of the ability panniers provide for carrying extra gear, adventures and journeys become even more exciting and enduring; the car tends to stay in the garage for shorter trips or commuting which is definitely a good thing on our grid-locked urban roads. And the incidental exercise while going from ‘A’ to ‘B’ is invaluable.
So, really, this last tip is more about encouraging you outdoor types to jump onto your bikes, tap into your imagination, grab your friends and family, or go solo – just get out there and enjoy the freedom of your bicycle, be it commuting, for a day or multiple-day outing, or whatever your delight. Pack a lunch, pack your tent, pack some clothes; fill your panniers, get pedalling and enjoy your freedom.