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Rec.Bicycles Frequently Asked Questions Posting Part 2/5
Section - 7.18 Cycling loaded: bags, panniers, and trailers

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Top Document: Rec.Bicycles Frequently Asked Questions Posting Part 2/5
Previous Document: 7.17 Electric Bikes
Next Document: 8a Tech General
See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
Date:    Tue, 28 May 2002 20:52:00 -0500

A FAQ covering courier bags, backpacks, panniers, saddle bags, and 
There is an existing FAQ on panniers, but it doesn't cover courier bags, 
etc. However, for more info on panniers, please refer to it.

Courier bags, backpacks, panniers, and trailers, 
Which system is superior?

The real answer is  "None." But that's a little confusing, and not very 
illuminating, eh? In this article I try to offer some of my experience, 
that of other experienced cyclists I've known, and opinions that have 
been found on rec.bicycles.misc from time to time. 

Critical Questions To Answer.
1: Distance. How far are you traveling?
2: How much weight are you carrying?
3: What is YOUR sense of style?
4: What kind of cyclist are you, and what is your ability level? 
5: How do you feel most comfortable dealing with traffic? 
6: Traffic levels and roadway conditions, i.e. off-road, city, Mongolian 
track or US highway?

Changing your answer to one of the above may well change your decision 
about how to carry your cargo. 
These questions are all important, but numbers 1 and 2 are at the top 
because they are arguably the most 

Technical factors to consider:
Center of gravity.
Load stability. 
Ease of access.
Personal style (again).

There are a lot of options! You can get panniers, front and rear, in a 
thousand different styles. Then there are handlebar packs, for which 
every manufacturer has different mounting hardware. You can choose from 
backpacks, fanny packs, courier bags, Carradice bags, and trailers! I've 
used all of these at some time, and, I've worn out a few. In this article 
I discuss backpacks, Carradice bags, courier bags, fanny packs, handlebar 
bags, panniers, racks, underseat bags, and trailers. 

Following the description is a table showing how I rate the systems for 
the characteristics above. A rating will vary, possibly a lot, due to 
hardware particulars of a brand or design, how the hardware is packed, 
and purely from subjective opinion. A user may find they prefer, say, the 
ease of access of a set of panniers over that of a backpack.

The bottom line is "Do you feel in control of your bike, and comfortable 
with your choice?" The ratings in the descriptions are for a useable 
range of load capacity. This is not a maximum capacity, nor a minimum. 
This is what I have found to be a wise capacity in real life, used on a 
bicycle. On one extreme, you can use touring panniers for a single jacket 
and camera, but it would be total overkill to use a trailer for that same 
load. Obviously, too, some people will safely use their system with 
larger loads, and they will happily tell you so. But, the rider with the 
100 pound touring rig knows how to pack those panniers - very well. 
Larger loads increase the likelihood of problems. There is a lot of gray 
area here. Higher quality equipment will enable larger loads, but the 
principles still apply.

One ng commentor wanted prices. I will say that this is the easiest thing 
for the reader to find. Since the systems vary so widely it is a hard 
question to answer here. 
But some generalities may be useful. Quality costs more. Backpacks can be 
real cheap, but the ones designed for cycling are only available at 
medium backpack prices and above. Right now that means at least $50 to 
$90. Courier bags, good ones, can be had for under $100. Panniers mean 
you have to buy a rack too, so you're probably over $100 there, for 
quality. Fanny packs can be cheap, or expensive. Trailers are easily over 
$100, and most likely more; they are not a cheap solution. Carradice, or 
saddle bags seem to be competitive with good backpacks and courier bags. 

Backpacks are convenient, cheap, readily available, and the first thing 
an Average Joe looks to for carrying a small load. They are also not 
particularly well-suited to using with a bicycle. There are two reasons I 

give them any positive thoughts at all. First is because masses of less-
experienced cyclists pick them up and use them simply because they are 
the most convenient answer to carrying cargo. Second is because many 
cyclists on rec.bicycles.misc use them and argue persuasively in their 
favor. Those cyclists who do so universally note that they use one of the 
backpacks designed specifically for use while cycling or other heavy 
physical activity - they are designed for lateral stability and with 
good back ventilation. 
Most backpacks are directly next to the back, and thus have an instant 
ventilation problem. A loosely fitting backpack carrying a few textbooks 
can be a dangerous threat to your stability. Personally, I think the 
stability problem here is a little less dangerous than instable panniers 
or handlebar packs, because an inexperienced cyclist will readily feel 
the instability of the backpack. Panniers and  handlebar packs can and 
will go instable with little or no warning to an inexperienced or less-
skilled cyclist. But instability is easy to recognize in backpacks. There 

is one circumstance where load instability will occur that may be less 
readily recognized by the inexperienced: leaning in a turn. When this 
happens the pack, or its contents, slides to one side of the body, 
creating a situation where the pack changes the center of gravity - its 
weight is then pulling to one side or the other. This is the worst 
possible time for this to happen, with the cyclist already in a balancing 

Things to look for are back ventilation, and adequate suspension for the 
load (waist straps for heavier loads). 
	C. of G. 	Very Poor-Poor
	Stability	Poor
	Ease of Access	Good	
	Comfort	Very Poor-Good
	Typical usage: Short distance/around town, Commuting
	Weight carried: very light to medium (25 lbs.), more could be 
carried, but would create extreme stability and control problems.

Actually a brand name for saddlebags. They are convenient and simple. The 
smaller ones don't require special 
hardware (racks), and are pretty much out of the way for the cyclist - 
off the body, and on the bike. They can also easily be unstable, and care 

must be taken to avoid shifting loads. I would choose something like this 

to carry those few extra items (eg. Camera, cell phone, etc.) on longer, 
casual, day rides, century rides, and short tours. The larger seat bags 
will usually require some sort of rack to keep the bag off the tire. 
Like backpacks and handlebar bags, these are not my preference, but other 

riders seem to like them. My use of one was quite a few years ago. They 
have made quite a comeback in the marketplace since then, and the designs 

today appear to me to be more advanced. They were ok at that time, and 
then it seemed to me to be more a matter of preference. I thought 
panniers were more convenient, and simpler to pack and fuss with. 
However, the hardware for larger Carradice bags would be less in the way 
of wheel maintenance than a rack. This is where a seatpost mounted rack 
device would, in my opinion, be worth something. I will also say that I
might look at Carradice bags again in the future, as they might carry a 
load while not creating a foot clearance problem, something that larger 
panniers do. 
Carradice bags
	C. of G. 	Good	
	Stability	Poor-Good
	Ease of Access	Poor		
	Comfort	Very Good
	Typical usage: Short distance/around town, commuting, day 
	Weight capacity: Up to 25 lbs. would be typical. 

My favorite for around town shopping and shorter commutes, they are 
generally stable, simple, and convenient. I find them only becoming less 
comfortable at distances over 10 to 15 miles. In my opinion, for comfort 
and convenience they are unmatched. They are easy to get into and out of. 

They are completely unfussy as to how they are packed. You can toss in a 
laptop or a briefcase - they will carry unweildy and oddball loads any 
other system (except trailers, or baskets, which aren't covered here) 
would choke on. They are readily available, relatively inexpensive, and 
don't require hardware on your bike.
They are also easily misused and can easily be unstable. Stylish, look-
alike, copycat designs are often much less stable. However, if they are 
unstable, in my experience, they do so in such a way that this can be 
controlled by the rider. Example, if the load is going to shift on you, 
it does so before you are all the way into a lean, and not when you are 
already deep in a lean. You can easily compensate for such a shifting 
load with a simple blocking move of your elbow. 
Design features that make the courier bag stable (and convenient) are the 

width of the bag, the width of the strap, and the addition of a chest or 
waist strap. The courier bag design is wide. Chest straps have been added 

in recent years for greater stability. The bag is worn low on the body, 
putting the weight on the hips. This keeps it from being top-heavy. The 
width of the bag also allows it to "wrap" around the hips; which helps 
provide extra security against load shifting. A wide (2") shoulder strap 
means it is comfortable on the shoulder, and also helps keep it from 
shifting.  It is worth noting that a CHEST strap is preferred by most 
couriers over a waist strap for stability. The reason for this is quite 
simple: a waist strap allows the bag to rotate (load shift) around the 
body, which is exactly how it wants to shift when it is unstable. So the 
waist strap, for most, prevents nothing. On the other hand, the chest 
strap triangulates the load security and greatly decreases the likelihood 

of a shifting bag. 
My first courier bag was made before there were chest straps, and I found 

that I knew when it was unstable, and would ride accordingly. I pretty 
much wore that bag out. My second and current bag has a chest strap. 
And, last of all, there is the matter of style. I found when I commuted 
and shopped with panniers I got more "odd looks". I have a certain level 
of tolerance, but I generally don't like getting "odd looks". A courier 
bag, on the other hand, is not out of place in an office today. The 
grocery store clerk who looks at panniers with a completely bewildered 
expression doesn't give my courier bag a second glance. 
Final analysis: what else can I toss my laptop, a 6-pack, or a watermelon 
into with equal ease? 
Courier bags
	C. of G. 	Poor-Very Good
	Stability	Good-Very Good
	Ease of Access	Very Good		
	Comfort	Very Good
	Typical usage: Short distance/around town, commuting, light 
	Weight capacity: Up to 35 lbs. would be typical. 

Convenient and simple for light and small loads. You can't get an easier 
way to carry the camera and phone. But for heavier loads, and longer 
rides, most people will prefer other systems. Larger fanny packs are 
made, but for riding most people find they are less comfortable, due to 
ventilation issues. Stability and control are generally not an issue. If 
you can load it in the pack, you can probably safely carry it. 
fanny packs
	C. of G. 	Very Good
	Stability	Very Good
	Ease of Access	Very Good		
	Comfort	Good
	Typical usage: Short distance/around town, commuting, 	day 
	Weight capacity: Up to 5-7 lbs. would be typical. 

Handlebar packs or bags are a subset of panniers, but I treat them 
separately because they have many avid proponents, and have enough 
individual considerations that they need to be treated separately. And, 
really, there are two types of handlebar bags or packs. There are bags, 
which strap to the handlbars without the benefit of a frame, and packs, 
which use an external rigid mounting frame or rack of some sort. I'm not 
going to distinguish between them for this article, and I will use the 
names interchangeably.
Handlebar bags have two distinct advantages: they can be used to carry a 
map that is always visible, and they are highly accessible. They also 
have distinct and potentially dangerous disadvantages. They are extremely 

easy to overload. When they are overloaded they readily cause instability 

and a steering effect on the handlebars that can be dangerous. Their 
mounting systems tend to be less than ideally stable. 
I have used them for their advantages, and I find that to be a small 
advantage, indeed - too small for me to bother with. But, they have folks 

who love them, and who really appreciate the advantages I mentioned. So 
if you like the idea, I will say this: don't overload them. They are 
suitable for a jacket or two, a camera, a cell phone, and a map, and 
nothing more. They are not suitable for school books, laptops, or other 
dense items. They have enough space to pack this way, an inexperienced 
cyclist probably wouldn't even think about it, they would just toss in a 
couple of textbooks because there's enough room for them. A couple of 
textbooks can easily weigh 10 pounds, and this would be an overload! 
As for me, I'll pass on looking at my map all the time. A fanny pack or 
pockets will be fine. The one exception would again be long distance 
self-contained touring. Long hours in the saddle would mean my comfort 
level demands as little constraint on my body as possible. So, then, 
combined with whatever else I used for the real load, there would be a 
place on my bike for a handlebar bag.
Handlebar bags
	C. of G. 	Very Poor
	Stability	Poor-Good
	Ease of Access	Very Good		
	Comfort	Very Good
	Typical usage: Short distance/around town, commuting, 	day 
trip/century, touring (self-contained)
	Weight capacity: Up to 5-7 lbs. would be typical.

Please note that there is a more complete coverage of panniers in a very 
good seperate FAQ. 
Handlebar packs actually fit in this category, but have enough individual 
characteristics that I discuss them separately. Panniers are the original 
champion load-carrier, but in my opinion they have been dethroned. 
However, for long distance touring with load, they and trailers are still 
the only reasonable choices. When I started looking around they were the 
"only" choice for "cyclists". Carradice bags (large saddle bags) were 
then almost extinct, known mostly as a throw-back to an earlier era of 
riding. Trailers were rare and mostly handmade, although there were a 
couple of brands just coming to market. Backpacks were pooh-poohed by 
anyone serious about their riding (for which there were good reasons, as 
we will see) Panniers are attached to the bike at multiple points; which, 
when done properly, has several advantages. Properly loaded, panniers 
have a low center of gravity, lower than any other system except a 
trailer. Load stability can be high. They are not the best for ease of 
access, although they can be good. Since the rider is unencumbered, 
comfort is usually rated highly. 
Things to watch for are: your racks, how the panniers mount to the racks, 
and the pannier design. The racks should have multiple mounting points. 
More mounting points mean greater stability. Stability is critical. A 3-
point mount can be fine for the lighter load generally associated with 
commuting, but can fail under the higher pressure of loaded long-distance 
touring. Quality is important. Unlike many other parts that, on failure, 
will give you time to find a repair or replacement, a failing rack can 
easily fall into the "catastrophic" failure class. A failed rack can drop 
a rack leg into your spokes, or suddenly loose a loaded pannier 
As for front low-rider racks, when they first came out they were a little 
controversial. Now they have proved their point. I suppose somebody could 
make an argument for the original front rack style, but I can find better 
answers to any problems that might solve. 
The pannier design should include a solid connection to the rack. A 
pannier that is only held on by the spring pressure of a bungee-type cord 
at the bottom and a hook at the top is not suitable for larger loads. Hit 
a bump with a big load and you can loose your load. Bah-da-bing, that 
fast. For lighter loads, though, they are ok. I may be dated, as I think 
most panniers sold today have a firm connection at the top. Good thing! 
Most people also want an "easy-on, easy-off" system. My first set of 
panniers had a solid connection to the rack (they were strapped on with 
nylon belting), but took several (irritating) minutes to get off. Pannier 
manufacturers today do provide hardware systems that answer this 
On bag design: foot clearance is important with rear panniers. If you 
have long feet, clearance can be a big problem. I could never use the 
type of pannier that you can just drop a shopping bag in. If I fit them 
to the bike so that they didn't interfere with my feet, they would be so 
high as to be instable, or so far back that my front wheel would be in 
the air. But, if they work for you, great! 
Bag design greatly impacts ease of access. One of the biggest complaints 
I have with panniers is that they have to be packed with the care one 
reserves for packing a full backpack for self-contained hiking/camping. 
In other words, carefully, and with attention to detail. This also means 
that if you want to get at that heavy item you had to put on the bottom, 
you have to unpack everything on top. Larger items are difficult to 
manage, as are odd sizes and shapes (i.e. map tubes, or a light cardboard 

box for shipping).
On the good side, you can drop considerable weight (a laptop, for 
instance) in a pannier without noticing it much on your ride. A well-
designed system is easy to get on and off your bike. A well-designed and 
properly packed system can carry very significant loads with relative 
ease. If I were ever to do self-contained touring again I would elect to 
do it only as a group of riders, with a combination of panniers for most 
riders combined with a trailer for bulky and heavy items. If I had to go 
solo, my decision would lean toward panniers, but only very slightly. 
Final analysis: A must for self-contained touring, but it seems like a 
different bag is required for each type of riding and load. In my opinion 
they are best saved for serious loads. 
	C. of G. 	Poor-Very Good (only poor for odd shapes or poor 
	Stability	Good-Very Good
	Ease of Access	Poor-Good		
	Comfort	Very Good
	Typical usage: Short distance/around town, commuting, 	day 
trip/century, shopping, touring (self-contained)
	Weight capacity: Up to 50 lbs. More is possible, but I don't think 
you'd want to peddle the bike with that. 

A word or two about racks and attachments. Stability and strength are 
your prime considerations. I have had loads shift and break loose in a 
number of ways. I have seen racks bend, break, and sway. A rack should 
have a firm mount to the bicycle at as many points as is possible. It 
should be of firm and rigid construction. Look for triangulation in the 
legs - the struts should be mutually supporting. Quality 3-point mounted 
racks are almost as good as quality 4-point mounts. Brazed-on 4-point 
mounts are the ultimate. 
Single point mounted racks and flimsy racks are only suitable for very 
light loads. The only exception to this is using one of these racks to 
keep a Carradice bag off the rear wheel. 
Trailer attachments are either on the seat-post or the rear triangle. 
Mine is on the seat-post, and I've never had any reason to be unhappy 
with it. Mostly you want strength in this attachment.

Available in a huge variety of sizes, of which the Carradice bag is a 
premium version. Carradice is a brand name for saddle bags. They offer 
models ranging from small up to pannier-competition. 

The ordinary smaller versions are absolutely essential for the emergency 
tools, spare tube and patch kit, or spare tire for the sewup set. They 
are also very inexpensive. For larger loads and bags please see the 
Carradice bags review. 

Trailers are the ultimate load machine. Giving up the car and going 
grocery shopping? I guarantee you a trailer is the only way to go. 
How else can you carry cases of soda on a bicycle? How about taking that 
cooler on the bike club picnic? I've used mine to carry a side of beef 
and many cases of soda. Want to go surfing, and ride your bike to the 
beach? I remember as a teenager trying to carry a surfboard under my arm 
while riding. Whew, talk about stability problems! Every little breeze 
blew the board one way or another, and each way was in my way! The first 
commercial bike trailer I ever saw was produced to tow a surfboard.
Towing children versus putting them in bike seats is a topic all its own, 
with good points on both sides. 
I won't get into the debate over attachment points. My trailer uses a 
seatpost clamp, and I like it just fine. 

So, when it comes to carrying loads, the trailer is king. It does 
increase your riding width profile, and it slows you down, but trailers 
are stable when riding, and it matters little how you pack them. Ease 
of access is the best, once you've dismounted. Some trailer designs are a 
bit problematic in parking stability, but to me, this is an inconvenience 
issue, and not a safety item. 

	C. of G. 	Very Good
	Stability	Very Good
	Ease of Access	Very Good		
	Comfort	Very Good
	Load capacity: the only way to go for truly heavy loads. Two kids 
could easily weigh 75 - 100 lbs. My trailer is rated up to 125 lbs.
Typical usage: for bringing the kids on a recreational ride! Also suited 
to serious grocery shopping or self-contained touring. What else can you 
use to carry your surfboard or cases of soda?

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