[This article was last updated on January 24, 2017]
Everyone needs to carry things on their bikes, from a tube and multi-tool up to a week’s shopping and more. We look at the pros and cons of your options in loading up.
There’s no single best way to carry stuff on your bike. The right set-up for you will depend on how much you need to carry and for how far, what you need to do with it at your destination, and your personal sense of what works best for you. Let’s look at the pros and cons of the alternatives.
Carrying small loads
You’re almost certainly going to need to carry spare tube, tyre levers, multitool and a pump — but where?
In your pockets
The classic three pockets of a cycling jersey are there so you can carry stuff, so why not use them?
Pros: Very convenient; goes with you when you get off the bike; no need to switch between bikes
Cons: Limited capacity; spoils the line of your jersey; need to find everything to load up so bad for disorganised people
In a saddle bag
There are literally hundreds of small saddlebags on the market, intended to provide a safe home for your tools, spares, wallet and keys. Bigger versions will take spare clothing too if the weather’s changeable or you’re out for an adventure. Lightweight cycle tourers have always used bigger saddlebags; the latest designs to come out of the bikepacking and adventure racing world are big enough to swallow half your gear for an overnight.
Pros: Tidy; contents protected from the elements; always there ready for a ride
Cons: Easily stolen; faff to take with you or switch between bikes
Carrying larger loads
You’ve also got a vast range of choice when it comes to small-to-medium backpacks. Many people simply press into service a hiking daypack, but there are plenty of bags designed for cycling, intended either for commuting or mountain biking. The latter usually have a slot for a drinking bladder, which you’re unlikely to need unless it’s a very long way to the office.
Pros: Flexible – you can carry a little or a lot; goes with you when you get off the bike
Cons: Can be floppy if under-filled; sweaty back; uncomfortable if over-filled
The quintessential on-bike bags, panniers sit either side of your bike so a large load is balanced. However, there’s nothing to stop you using just one if all you need is to carry a day’s worth of office stuff.
You’ll need a rack to hang them on, at which point you have to decide whether you want that rack on the back of the bike or on the fork.
A rear rack is traditional if it’s going to be the only place you hang luggage, but there’s a school of thought that says low-rider front panniers are actually better. Very heavy rear panniers can dramatically affect the handling of your bike, causing the back end to wag around. Because the weight is close to the steering axis of the bike, low-rider front panniers have far less effect. You only get that advantage with a low-rider rack though; large, heavily-laden front panniers up high are a bad idea.
Pros: Comfortable; large capacity
Cons: Many are awkward to carry off the bike; easily stolen if left on the bike; negative effect on handling
If you want to carry a week’s shopping in one go, load up a lightweight bike for a camping trip, or run any number of errands then it’s worth considering a trailer. You may be able to unhitch the trailer leaving the bike almost bare, which is handy if you’re going to stay at a base and ride out from there
Pros: Capable of carrying large and inconvenient loads up to and including dogs and small children; minimal effect on bike handling;
Cons: Heavy; expensive; an extra thing to lock when parked
Associated with old-school cycle touring, handlebar bags are actually one of the unsung heroes of the bike luggage world. A bar bag with quick release mount is a great place for the essentials for leisurely riding such as snacks and a compact camera. Modern bar bags have attachment systems that make it very easy to quickly take the bag off the bike so you can take your valuables with you while you stroll around taking in the sights.
Pros: Handy place to carry on-ride essentials; easy to take with you
Cons: Negative effect on handling if over-loaded; awkward to fit if brake/gear levers have side-exit cables
With those general points in mind, here's a selection of good bags that illustrate the sort of thing you should be looking for in a range of different applications.
There are vast numbers of small under-seat packs like this around, but Topeak is particularly good at them. Topeak's bags are sturdy, easy to access and the clip-on versions all fit the same mount, so you can easily switch them between bikes, or have different sizes according to how much you need to carry.
This one has a semi-rigid construction with a good quality zip that goes all the way round. There's a reflective patch, and a light loop too. Inside there's enough space for a tube, levers, a tool and a puncture kit.
Carradice luggage has a well deserved reputation among mile-eaters for being tough, no-nonsense and durable. Their Super C A4 pannier, specifically designed - as its name implies - to take A4 files and similarly shaped objects, certainly lives up to that.
As with everything in their Super C range, it's made from cotton duck, a traditional heavy, waterproof waxed cotton fabric. Cotton duck is incredibly hard-wearing and will keep your stuff dry for decades to come. It can be repaired easily by stitching or gluing, and can be reproofed with reproofing wax. A pretty good choice to make bike luggage out of then. It also gives Carradice bags an idiosyncratic retro-look which you either like or you don't. I'm a fan.
The pannier is shaped to take A4 files, and does so well.
A good set of panniers can be an investment that sets you up for many years of happy load hauling. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll see plenty of Ortlieb's Back Rollers on both commuters and grizzled tourists. There's a reason for their ubiquity - they're bloody good.
The Back Roller Classics (please someone, start a band. It's such a great name) take their name from the way they close. They roll up, with a single clip and strap holding them shut. It's basic, but it works very well, the roll prevents water from getting through while allowing enough slack to accomodate larger loads. Total capacity for the pair is 40 litres, which is about as much as you'd want to be carrying.
Where they really score is in the ease of use. The top hooks open and close when you lift the carry handle, which makes attaching and removing them a doddle. The retaining hook at the bottom is easily moved on an elliptical track to suit your rack, as are the top hooks.
The Carradice Super C is pleasingly simple, with one main compartment and two side pockets. There is also a waterproof inner pocket, handily sized for maps and route sheets. Internal organisation is nicely straightforward and if you insist on carrying extra stuff there are loops on the lid to bungee it on. Cotton duck is water-resistant and breathable, which means that even if your stuff gets wet in a prolonged downpour it'll dry out eventually.
Any load carrying solution is going to be a compromise between convenience, comfort and capacity. Pick any two, as the old saying goes. The Super C scores for comfort (the load isn't on your body and doesn't affect bike handling) and capacity (23l is enough for a credit card mini-tour) but it loses points for convenience as it's not easy to remove from the bike, and it works best with Carradice's bag support.
The Osprey Escapist 32 is light, well made, stable and stylish, and performs well at what it's designed for: multi-purpose load-lugging.
The first thing that struck me when I picked up the pack was how light it was for such a large volume model (32 litres in M/L back length, as tested). It's mainly aimed at the commuting and mountain biking crowd, but also riders looking to undertake multi-day epics. It's a slick looking pack, with subtle reflective markings on ripstop nylon and stretchable nylon mesh, all attached to a semi-rigid back panel.
If you want super-simple, waterproof comfortable gear-carrying at a bargain price, look no further. The Gourdon 25 has one main 25 litre storage compartment with a buckle-fastened roll top, and a narrow pocket that can accommodate a 1L hydration pack. That's it. It weighs less than 450g.
For a bag that's so simple it's surprisingly comfortable to wear. The shoulder straps are padded, and there's a thin waist strap and sternum strap that keep the bag securely in place when you're in full flow on the bike.
The Proviz Reflect 360 Rucksack is a stunning way of boosting your visibility when riding at night. During the day the backpack is a subtle grey, but when a car's headlights fall on it, the entire bag reflects back the light.
As a rucksack the Reflect 360 fulfils its task well. It's spacious with a 30 litre capacity which is more than enough for a change of clothes, sandwiches and any other stuff you need to transport. There's also a laptop sleeve.
Topeak’s MTX waterproof trunk bag is brilliantly designed and a delight to use when paired with the brand’s range of compatible carriers thanks to solid construction and the clever patented quick track mounting system, combining limpet like security and effortless release. Extensive internal padding gives perishables a sporting chance of surviving rutted roads and bridle path alike but I’d stop short of risking cameras and other sensitive electrical equipment. The LED tab could also be improved and incompatibility with other brands of carrier might also be a turn off.
Heavy-duty 300/600-denier sonic welded polyester construction is built to last, offering excellent water repellence-even directing a jet of water from a garden hose over the bag for several minutes hasn’t revealed any weaknesses, so it came as no surprise to find the contents bone dry after several hours riding in torrential rain. 12.1litre capacity is certainly generous (although Carradice offers a 13 litre cotton duck model), the main compartment swallowing tubes, lunch, lightweight waterproof, energy bars, multi tools and pretty much anything else you’d want close to hand on day/training rides. However, some long shackle U locks proved a tight fit.
The Tour XL bag from SKS is sturdy and cunningly engineered bag that is just the job for short audaxes and day rides.
There's enough space for basic ride kit, pretty much everything you'd need bar a pump. You'll probably struggle to wedge a waterproof in there though, unless it's one of the flash ones that scrunch down into something the size of a tennis ball. SKS claim 1.4l for the main compartment plus an additional 0.6l if you undo a second zip and extend the bag. Fully extended it's a bit too big for some bikes but it also comes in a L version which is a couple of quid cheaper and doesn't have the extendable bit.
The real star of the show is the way the bag mounts onto the bike. There is a simple rubberised strap which goes round your seatpost and fastens with a cam-lock that snaps the catch shut on itself. It's a damnably cunning trick and works brilliantly. It's easy to fit and very secure. The strap is adjustable too, so any size of seatpost can be accommodated. The best bit is that you can remove it from your bike in seconds, handy at cafe stops, and fit it to any of your other bikes just as quickly.
The Ortlieb Office Bag QL3.1 has an attachment system that fixes on your rack, with recessed hooks in the bag, so the briefcase looks more businesslike when you're off the bike. Or as Ortlieb put it: 'Flat mounting elements ensure smooth back side.' Yep.
The hooks retract when you lift the bag by the handle, so there's no faffing with catches and cleats when you go to remove the bag from your parked bike: you just pull up by the handle and the bag comes off, one-handed.
The Office Bag is completely waterproof as you'd expect from Ortlieb.
Its capacity is 21 litres, enough for any office-bound commuter's essentials. You could jam your bike tools, spares and waterproof layers in here too. The only downside is that the QL3.1 mounting only fits QL3.1 panniers, so you have to dedicate one side of your rack to it. Fine if you have a dedicated commuter bike but frustrating if your commuter bike does other jobs and sometimes carries different panniers.
Vaude bills this 10-litre bag as an off road bag, but in fact it’s a very good road bike saddlebag for rides where you want to carry a bit more than will fit into a large seatpack. There’s room for a jacket and quite a bit of other stuff, and combined with a handlebar bag it’s even large enough for very light weight bed and breakfast touring.
It clips into place on a Rixen and Kaul Klickfix mount that's fairly unobtrusive when the bag's not there and is easy to take off to carry with you.
This seven-litre handlebar bag is made from waterproof fabric and mounts on a Rixen and Kaul Klickfix widget that makes it easy to put on and take off the bike. There’s a map case for old-school navigation, and Klickfix makes a computer mount that fits in the handlebar bracket if you prefer GPS.
There are alternatives to the venerable BOB Yak Plus trailer, but it's still probably the best all-round single-wheel trailer though it's not faultless. The trailer attaches to a special quick release and can be fitted and removed in seconds. The Plus version comes with a big yellow dry bag that will swallow camping gear and clothes for a week away, or several days' shopping.
With only a single wheel it sits tidily in the line of your bike, so for the most part if you can get your bike through, the Yak will follow. You can park a BOB-equipped bike by jack-knifing the trailer and the whole lot will just stand up, though you do have to move away carefully to keep everything upright.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.