Are bicycle panniers the best way to carry stuff? We take a not-at-all-biased look at your options in bags that hook on your bike and the racks they hang on to.
Bicycle panniers make it easy to carry stuff that's too bulky for your pockets or too heavy for a backpack
The best bicycle panniers are waterproof to protect your gear, durable and easy to fit and remove from the bike
For commuting, look for bicycle panniers that are large enough for a laptop and provide organising pockets for other stuff
For touring, durability and capacity are key, but don't be tempted to go too big; you can always leave the kitchen sink at home
The best pannier racks are stiff so your panniers don't sway, and designed to fit around complications like lowered seatstays and disc brakes
Folks who choose to carry stuff in bike panniers tend to be a bit fanatical about it. They point to the advantages of bicycle panniers over shoulder bags and backpacks: no sweaty back, larger capacity, far more comfortable, easier to waterproof and did we mention you don’t get a sweaty back?
I’ve got to admit to a strong preference for bike panniers. Sure, I’ll grab a backpack or courier bag if I’m just nipping into town for the evening as an easy way of carrying the stuff I don’t want to leave on the bike, but to carry more than a couple of light items, it’s panniers every time.
Another big advantage of bicycle panniers is that they can only be used on the bike, which means a) I know where they are (on my bike) and b) neither of the teenagers is going to go to the hassle of borrowing them so they’ll stay there.
But I’ll try not to be too evangelical here.
We're just looking at traditional bicycle panniers and here. For a look at the new generation of 'bikepacking' bags see our article The best bikepacking bags — luggage for lightweight adventures
Bicycle panniers hang at the side of your bike, on purpose made racks. They can fit in three main locations: next to the rear wheel; by the top of the front wheel; and next to the front wheel hub.
The rear location is the traditional place for large bicycle panniers, though there’s no obvious reason why – perhaps early cyclists were just aping the way horses are loaded behind the rider.
For this position to work well, your bike needs fairly long chainstays so that the panniers can be over the rear wheel contact point and still leave heel clearance. That means carrying rear bicycle panniers on a typical road racing bike isn’t ideal. Not only will a light frame be flexible with a load at the back, but assuming you can bodge a rack on in the first place (see ‘What if my bike doesn’t have eyelets’, below), the bags will be so far back they’ll tend to sway and wobble.
However, touring bikes have longer chainstays and are usually stiffer so this is a good place for panniers on a touring bike; many such bikes come with a rear rack as part of the package.
If you need even more capacity, for a long tour or camping trip, then you’ll want to put bicycle panniers on the fork as well. You can get racks that put them up high, at the same level as rear racks, or down low by the wheel hub.
A high front rack is good if you want to carry light items on top of the rack as well. It’s a good place for a sleeping mat, for example. Typically, front panniers for high-position racks are smaller than bicycle panniers rear .
Back in the 1970s Jim Blackburn (founder of Blackburn Design) and Jim Gentes (who later founded helmet-maker Giro) did some experiments with luggage placement on bikes. They found that the best handling was achieved with a load spread between a low front rack and a conventional rear rack. Handlebar bags were very popular among cycle tourists at the time, but Blackburn and Gentes found they should only be very lightly loaded; too much weight in a bar bag adversely affects the handling.
It turns out Blackburn and Gentes could have gone further. In 1984 adventurer Nick Sanders set a the first Guinness-ratified round the world cycling record, carrying his gear in just a pair of 45-litre bicycle panniers on a low-rider rack. I ran a similar set up for a while and they coped fine with a few days’ shopping as well as touring.
Racks are usually made from steel or aluminium rod or tubing. Steel rod racks are the cheapest, but are usually only found on very cheap round-town bikes. They tend to be, frankly, rubbish: flimsy, rattly and flexible. Aluminium rod is next up and is light and inexpensive. Racks made from aluminium rod start from about £10 and, if designed right, can be stiff enough for moderate loads.
Steel and aluminium tubing is where it’s at if you want to carry more substantial loads. Aluminium tubing racks start from about £20, steel from around £50.
If you want the ultimate combination of strength and light weight, German rack maker Tubus offers a titanium rear rack, the Logo Titan, for a bargain £185, though you can find it cheaper on line.
As important as the material is that the rack have some sort of triangulation to help make it laterally stiff. A rack that’s a simple rectangle when looked at from behind will be more flexible than one that has struts that slope inward from the bottom. Large-diameter tubing also increases stiffness, just as it does with bikes, though there are practical limits to how large rack tubing can get; you still have to be able to fit a pannier and hooks are usually a centimetre or so across.
Racks often have extra features as well as the ability to hang a pannier. Some rear racks have mounts at the back for a light, which is handy if you’re likely to stack things on top of the rack and so obscure a light on your seat post.
Ideally, any bike you’re going to use to carry bicycle panniers will have eyelets on the frame to bolt on a rack or racks. The popularity of gravel/adventure bikes and the rise of ‘soft’ cyclocross bikes means more and more bikes do have eyelets, though often only on the dropouts.
However, many still don’t. Fortunately there are plenty of options if you want to put a rack on a bike that’s not intended for one.
Several manufacturers make racks that will fit a bike with no eyelets. Thule’s Pack n Pedal rack straps on to the seatstays and will fit just about any bike that has a few inches of space there, including suspension mountain bikes. Pack n Pedal racks are intended for use with Thule’s matching panniers which have a dedicated hook attachment and are held against the rack by magnets. They’re very nicely made, but the steel plate for the magnets to grab makes them heavy. Thule makes a side frame for the Pack n Pedal racks that allows the use of any panniers.
Other manufacturers such as Tubus and Old Man Mountain also make racks that will fit bikes without eyelets, and accessory kits that can be used to fit other racks to such bikes.
If your bike has mudguard eyelets but none on the seatstays, a simple and elegant solution is to replace the seat clamp with one that’s threaded for rack attachments.
You can also get racks that fit on the seatpost, though these should only be used with very light loads as they tend to sway.
The range of bicycle panniers out there is truly vast. There are small panniers for commuting and front rack use; big ones that’ll take everything but the kitchen sink for long-distance touring; shopping panniers designed to be easily carried off the bike; commuter panniers that’ll easily take A4 documents or a laptop; convertible bicycle panniers that turn into rucksacks and lots more.
Given the range of choices, you need to think about what you’ll be using the bags for. If the answer is ‘everything’ — shopping, commuting, touring — then large rear panniers are the way to go. You’ll probably only need one of them for the office run, but there will be times when you’ll be grateful for the capacity of a pair.
If your needs are more specific, then take a look at purpose-made panniers. A briefcase pannier, for example, will do a better job of carrying a laptop and A4 files than the less-shaped and unpadded space of a general-purpose bicycle panniers, unless you don’t mind bent corners on your files.
Carrying the bag a further than the few metres from the bike to the office? There are bicycle panniers that have lurking shoulder straps to make toting gear on foot easier. They don’t tend to work brilliantly as backpacks — you wouldn’t want to go on a day hike with one — but they’re plenty good enough round town.
The extent to which a bicycle panniers protects its contents varies. They’re generally better than the days when you much had to use thick plastic bags to line all bicycle panniers, but the level of waterproofing still varies.
At the ‘seriously waterproof’ end of the scale one manufacturer leads the way: Ortleib. This German bag-maker started out by making bicycle panniers from truck tarpaulin after Hartmut Ortlieb was inspired to use the material when his gear got wet on a cycling tour in the south of England in 1981.
Ortlieb soon added welded seams and a roll-top closure to his original idea and a waterproof legend was born.
Thanks to Ortlieb’s influence other pannier makers have raised their game. Even the most traditional of British pannier makers, Carradice, has added welded PVC panniers and other bags to its range, alongside its classic Super C panniers in cotton duck fabric. Cotton duck is also waterproof but needs more careful handling to keep it that way.
Modern bike panniers are securely attached to the rack by mechanisms that lock closed so the hooks can’t bounce off the rail. For anyone who remembers watching a bag roll down the road after bouncing off a rack on a steep descent, these systems are a blessing.
Many pannier makers use attachments from a third party like German fixing maker Rixen & Kaul. Rixen & Kaul’s Klickfix designs started with a handlebar bag mount and now include ways of fixing almost anything you can imagine to your bike. R&K also makes a wide range of its own bags.
Ortleib has its own systems that either grab a standard rack or include attachments that amount on the rack. This QL family of mounts all include a grab handle that opens the hooks so you can lift them off one-handed. QL1, QL2 and QL2.1 will fit any rack, while QL3 needs a custom mount but sits the bags further down on the rack for a lower centre of gravity and better stability.
Vaude's Aqua Back panniers are tough, waterproof and roomy; they should last for literally years of commuting or touring.
At 48 litres for a pair, these are some of the biggest panniers around, with eight litres more capacity than rivals the Ortlieb Back Roller Classics. They're less tapered than many panniers so there's room in the bottom for bulky items like shoes and they'll cheerfully swallow a laptop.
An external plastic plate helps the Aqua Back panniers retain their shape and also supports the internal pockets. The thick waterproof material used for the bags themselves makes them incredibly tough, and the super-versatile mounting system is a doddle to use.
This single pannier gives you one big compartment for shopping and is comfortably carried by its handle or shoulder strap because the hooks fold away into the back when not needed.
It works best with Thule's Pack n Pedal racks, but it'll fit almost any rack if you fit Thule's clamp-on magnet that grabs the steel plate inside the bag and stops it from swaying.
Thule makes a whole range of panniers with this stow-away hook system, but this is perhaps the best application of the idea.
The Upso Potters pannier is a striking-looking thing which should last for years and years. It does an excellent job of keeping its cargo dry and secured to the bike.
Upso makes a range of bags from mostly recycled materials, most prominently the tarpaulins that go on the sides of trucks. It also uses things like fire-hoses and seatbelts where possible.
Take a peek inside this pannier and you'll see a label sewn in, saying it was handmade by Sue. That's a familiar touch for anyone who has a Carradice bag, and in fact Upso is a sub-brand run by the folk at Carradice. As with Carradice products, the bags are handmade in England and they do a cracking job. The design is relatively simple, without much in the way of bells, whistles or indeed pockets, but it's all neatly finished.
This is a made-in-Britain pannier that does what it says it will and is built to last.
Carradice luggage has a well deserved reputation among mile-eaters for being tough, no-nonsense and durable. The 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 Carradice's 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. It also gives Carradice bags an idiosyncratic retro look.
The pannier is shaped to take A4 files, and does so well.
Is it a pannier or is it a rucksack? The first thing you notice about the Ortlieb Vario is that it’s got all sorts of complicated looking bits and pieces attached to it.
Setting these aside for the time being, it’s a well made and sturdy fully waterproof pannier style bag with an effective and simple roll-top closure. It fastens securely to a rack with Ortlieb’s standard QL2.1 or QL3 fastenings (anti-theft locks are available as an extra) much as a normal pannier. It’s both left and right side compatible. Ideally sized for commuting, the bag will easily take a 15.4” laptop in protective sleeve as well as a change of clothes, although that’s pretty much the lot.
The main point of difference for the Vario, though, is its ability to transform quickly and easily into a rucksack, making it ideal for extended carrying. A discrete zipped stretch fabric compartment on the front of the bag houses the rucksack harness which simple clips on to eyelets on the back of the bag with sturdy and secure clips, without needing to do anything at all to the clips.
The harness itself is robust and well padded, offering good wear comfort, but is a little tricky to put away again, as the front stretch pocket is quite neat in size.
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 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 accommodate 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. It's simple and pleasant to use.
The Ortlieb Commuter is a really well-designed bag for those who ride to work. The QL3 system suits this bag brilliantly – easy to use on a bike and with no real compromises once you arrive.
If you've used Ortlieb gear, the construction quality won't come as a surprise; it's beautifully made, in Germany. The fabric used is a PU-laminated Cordura which manages the neat trick of being tough, waterproof and looking really good at the same time. It's not wipe-clean in the same way as tarpaulin, but dried mud brushes off easily.
The main advantage of Ortlieb's QL3 system is that the back of the pannier is flat, with no protruding hooks, so it's much better-suited for carrying off the bike. This is possible as there's an extra bracket which stays fixed to the rack, and the sticky-out bits are on that bracket – two at the top and one below – fitting easily into matching slots on the back of the pannier.
This low-rider rack is essentially a copy of Jim Blackburn's design from the 1980s, which Blackburn Design no longer makes. It bolts on to the mudguard eyes on the fork and is held at the top by a clamp round the fork leg.
The design works well if you have a fairly simple hook-on pannier, but the stiffening plate gets in the way of hooks that close all the way round the bar. It's nothing you can't fix with judicious Dremelling, but you might want to get a more modern rack and avoid the hassle.
This minimal rack lacks a top platform, but many people find they never put anything on there anyway, so why not do without it? There's room between the 10mm hollow aluminium struts for 32mm tyres or 28mm tyres and mudguards, and it'll take up to 25kg.
Velocity users like its sleek looks too, though to preserve them, as with most coated racks, protective tape on the contact points is a good idea.
The alloy version of Tortec’s beefy stainless steel Epic rack is a sensible weight, very stiff and, if you shop around, excellent value for money. Made from 6061 rod and available in a choice of anodised silver or black powder coated finishes, it's a subtly clever set up designed to fit a full range of frame sizes, shapes and types.
Like many modern rear racks it has an extra set of top bars so you can carry your panniers a bit lower and so drop the centre of gravity of the whole lot. Its best feature is that the Epic Alloy's lateral stiffness is vastly superior to similarly priced competition, especially when loads sneak past the twenty kilo mark.
Madison's Summit heavy duty rack is a quality item at a sensible price. Madison claim that the wide base offers greater stability and while that may be a bit of marketing spin, the rack certainly does feel very solid.
The most unusual feature of the Summit is the way the struts attach to the frame. Rather than a single hole either side through which a bolt screws into the dropout eyelet, the Summit comes with a separate footplate on to which the strut bolts. In fact you get a choice of two different footplates to allow for varying frame designs.
Each strut attaches with a pair of rather long nuts and bolts. Again Madison make a bold claim, that this design "dramatically increases strength and lifespan" and while they may be right, it can also make the rack more awkward to fit with the long bolts potentially fouling mudguard stays. It's not the end of the world, but was the cause of a few early medieval oaths during the fitting process.
The Blackburn Central Rear Rack is a no-frills choice that should fit just about any bike imaginable. With a 20kg weight limit it's good for touring as well as commuting, and with a lifetime warranty it should outlive you.
It has stepped-put lower attachments to clear disc brakes and a wide range of nuts, bolts and clamps so it should fit any imaginable seatstay design.
In use we had no rattles, shifting or other issues. The Loctited bolts held fast, as you'd expect, and apart from a bit of paint loss where the panniers mount it performed perfectly.
Overall, this is a utilitarian workhorse of a rack that's pretty much infinitely flexible in installation, and with a lifetime warranty should be one of the things you hand on to your children.
Tubus' Tara low rider has been tweaked and improved over the last 18 years, making it a thoroughly mature design. It's made in Germany from 10mm steel tubing and puts the bags nice and low for stable handling.
It'll take up to 15kg, and Tubus offers clamps for bikes that don't have fittings on the fork. Tubus says it'll fit most forks, though the clamps should not be used with carbon forks.
The Tubus Disco is a rear pannier rack for a kind of bike that isn't designed to take one: a cyclocross, mountain or (these days) road bike with a disc brake caliper attached to the seat-stay and no rack eyelets at the dropouts.
In a sense, it's a solution for the cyclist who bought the wrong bike. But it's easy to be wise in hindsight, and this sturdy German rack lets you carry luggage on a bike you didn't anticipate equipping with panniers.
It's made from chromoly steel tubes. That means it's stiff and strong for its weight. It's rated to carry 20kg, as much as many sturdier-looking aluminium racks. Steel is easier to weld if you do break it on the way to Timbuktu or wherever, although for the vast majority of owners that will be only a hypothetical advantage.
Instead of bolting to eyelets on the frame or fork, Thule's Pack 'n Pedal Tour rack mounts on your bike with ratchet straps. That makes it one of a few options if you want to carry bags on a frame with no rack mounts, and while it works well, it's a bit heavy and expensive.
The Cargo Classic rack from Tubus is the company's original rack. It's a solid rack that is really easy to fit and is compatible with most frames on the market.
If you want a rack that can take a heavy load, the Cargo is rated up to a whopping 40kg, plenty for a couple of stuffed panniers and a tent on top. Despite its load capacity, it's impressively light.
Fitting to the frame couldn't be any easier. The two adjustable struts are easy to install and they provide a wide range of adjustment so you can get the rack perfectly set up in the right position. All bolts are supplied.
Riding with a pair of Ortlieb panniers mounted to the rack showed there to be no clearance issues. Even with heavily loaded bags, the rack is impressively sturdy. It doesn't budge over rough roads and cheerfully handles you heading off-road too.
Tailfin's unique carbon fibre rack and matching panniers are ultra-light and can be fitted to pretty much any bike. It's a pricey setup, but makes a real difference if you ride with luggage a lot. The rack weighs 350g, and the pannier is 650g – or 800g if you include the removable pocket insert. The rack is the expensive bit; the prices above are for a set with one or two panniers, so the bags aren't unreasonable for top-quality lightweight luggage.
You can buy the rack on its own, likewise the panniers, as they'll work with other bags and other racks, but there's no doubt that they are best when used together. The combination saves a useful amount of weight over the competition, but the main advantages are the rock-solid, zero-rattle stability of pannier mounting and the simple, elegant, tool-free attachment to just about any bike, rack mounts or no.
In use, the weight difference is significant, sure but the main difference is the absolute solidity with which the pannier and its contents are held in place. There are no rattles when you ride over broken tarmac. Stand up and swing the bike on a climb and you don't have the sensation of the pannier moving independently of the bike. If you need to put panniers on a top-quality bike and want it to still ride like it cost a hefty four-figure sum, this is the way to go.
Tailfin has recently introduced several new bags and racks, including aluminium racks that are cheaper (but heavier) than the carbon fibre racks and a top-mounted trunk bag.
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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.