Why do I choose bikepacking bags over traditional cycle touring panniers?
This is still something I get asked a lot so I thought I’d write a blog to explain my experiences. The answer is subjective depending on what you value from riding a bike, I hope my answers below give an interesting insight into why I ditched panniers for my longer tours and what situations might see me using them again.
What is the difference between Cycle Touring and Bikepacking?
To me cycle touring is the concept of riding a bike loaded with racks and panniers and riding a route without going off road much nor with much consideration to speed or efficiency.
Bikepacking is not new because the concept of strapping bags to the bike is as old as bikes themselves. In the last 5 years new ways of attaching kit with improved bikepacking bags has seen it become massively popular and I was quick to adopt them. Why? You’ll have to read on…..
Five benefits of bikepacking
The frontal area and associated aerodynamic drag of a bike and rider accounts for up to 90% of all resistance when pedaling a bike. If you look at the frontal area of a bike with bike packing bags it is hardly any different to a normal bike with a rider. If the rider tucks in behind the bar bag it is even better. The impact of cross winds can be more noticeable but overall the impact of drag is much less than with bulky panniers sticking out like sails.
2. Weight evenly spread
With bags at the rear, front and middle, the weight of kit can be really well distributed so the bike’s handling isn’t impacted. This is may be more important off road but also lets you ride gravel and paved surfaces more comfortably too. The wheel traction is much more consistent for cornering fast rather than with uneven distribution which can cause the front wheel to drift or under-steer. The risk of mechanical failure by over-weighting the back wheel/rack, which is a common touring problem, is also reduced.
This is a huge difference for going lighter. While some people may not care, I do. Based on the market leaders for each type of setup I will compare weights between Apidura and Ortlieb;
Apidura Saddlepack dry 17l 420gms
Apidura Frame pack full large 14l 390gms
Apidura Bar bag 14l 275gms
Total luggage space 45litres
Total luggage weight 1085gms
Ortlieb classic 20l rear pannier 975gms each
Ortlieb Classic front 12.5l 800gms each
Std rear rack e.g. Zefal Raider R70 1100gms
Std front rack e.g.Blackburn Outpost 550gms
Total luggage space 65litres
Total luggage weight 5200gms!!!!
Therefore before you add anything else you are already lugging uphill an extra 4.1kgs of empty pannier. To me that is just crazy and the main reason I ditched panniers. This is also before you are forced to cut back on your total kit by using smaller bikepacking bags. The total difference between average setups is normally over 10kgs. My bike and kit weighs around 22kg on longer trips. Below is a super light and fast weekend setup;
4. Better off road handling
Panniers always flap a bit, bounce and make a lot more noise than bikepacking bags which are strapped tighter onto the bike. I am happy to blast down singletrack with bikepacking bags but as yet I’ve not found a pannier setup that lets me do the same. The movement when bouncing around often leads to a rack breaking after prolonged off road usage. There are few racks that survive weeks of this abuse see point 5….
5. More reliable
If a pannier breaks it’s often much harder to fix up. The attachments normally fail first and these can be hard to bodge back together well. The most common issue is the rack breaking, a screw working loose or the mount on the bike frame failing. All of these have happened to me on trips before when I have been using a variety of different panniers and racks. Sometimes I have fixed them and other times I have been in places where can buy replacements but still a pain.
Bikepacking bags can normally be easily repaired by using a spare strap to wrap around them or a dry bag inside. If a seam goes it won’t be hard to get it repaired by someone or you can carry needle and thread with you for clothes anyway. I have never had more than a zip fail on my Apidura bikepacking bags in 4 years.
6. Works with any bike
Bikepacking bags don’t need any fixings on the frame, no eyelets on the front nor back so you can use any bike. They also work with full suspension mountain bikes without issue which is one of their key selling points.
Five benefits of Cycle Touring and pannier
- Plenty of space for kit
We met lots of people on the Pamir highway with so much kit. To me it was simply crazy to lug so much stuff up to 4600m altitude. I asked a few of them what they actually had with them. The response was cold weather kit, which I had, but then they started listing things like a phone, a tablet and a laptop. Jeans, shirts and leather shoes. Coffee, coffee grinder and cafetiere, a dog, pot plants for fresh herbs. Basically if you like taking the comforts of home with you like these guys do, then you’ll need panniers because bikepacking bags won’t work for you.
Decent bikepacking bags are normally £50 – £120 each but some can be picked up more cheaply, but I’ll be honest I’ve not seen a cheaper seat bag yet that won’t badly swing, sag or break. However compared to panniers and a rack they are about the same price…..so why is it cheaper?
Because the main investment to consider is not the bags but the cost of upgrading your general gear to light and small items that perform just as well but fit into the reduced space of bikepacking bags – this is not cheap. Sleeping bags will cost £300 tents £300+, sleeping mats £100 etc. With panniers it is much easier to pop out to Decathalon and buy cheap, bulky and heavy kit and then just load the pannier space up and head off.
Essentially with panniers you can load up and go and save a huge amount on everything else.
3. Plenty of space for food and water
When bikepacking you need to find clever ways to take water and food for long remote sections of any route. It is hard to do and needs careful thought. With panniers you have space to just bung anything you fancy in them including spare water bladders. Easy.
4. Good for family travel
If you travel with kids you’ll probably need racks and panniers again to get all the kit into them. Bikepacking is very minimal and could increase the risk if something goes wrong. With panniers you can have more spare kit to cover your back and even toys for kids to be entertained!
5. Dropper Post compatible
A problem with bikepacking bags is that it can be hard to fully drop a seatpost on more technical descents. It takes a bit of fun out of technical mountain biking. You often see bikers use bar bags but a backpack and this is probably the reason why.
6. Panniers are easier to pack and unpack
Bikepacking bags are a faff to pack and you have to leave some things behind that you’ll probably wish you had, no two ways about it panniers make life easier in that regard. In the morning you need to squeeze everything back in the bikepacking bags in the right order and very tightly. If you need those gloves you put in first everything else comes out to get at them! To stop the seat bags swaying you need to pack tightly and with structure. It’s easy once you get the hang of it but it’s more work than just dropping kit in a pannier.
If you need to take bags off the bike to cross a border checkpoint it is much easier to unclip panniers too to get them searched, having cross A LOT of borders it gets tiresome strapping and unstrapping!
You can always use a combination of setups. For example rear panniers with a front bar bag works well if need extra space with less weight. Many people use a seat pack and front panniers to spread the weight out better. I don’t get this set up personally as the front panniers are pretty small and add a lot more weight themselves. The picture below is one setup I experimented with. Essentially the panniers had empty bottles because I need the space for water for long stretches of desert in Uzbekistan.
Also be creative to add space for bikepacking; use tape to strap kit holders on, use snack pouches on the bars, bolt bottle cages to spare parts of the frame like the rear stays or down tube. There’s no rules other than these ones.
I still own panniers because occasionally I still want to use them. For example a weekend where I want to take some beers, picnic rug, firewood etc. Then I’ll dig them out and load them up. Recently we went on a tour to collect plastic rubbish on remote beaches, we took panniers for this.
However for anything else get some bikepacking bags, you can live without that extra laptop or pair of jeans, leave the real world behind and cycle with an even bigger smile on your face. Get to the top of that climb quicker than you expected or travel 20 miles further than you thought!
I hope that helps any questions then please add them in comments below;