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How to Pick the Perfect Panniers for Touring and Commuting

With so many different options  there is a pannier for every breed of cycling enthusiast.
By Rob Woodworth ⋅ Review Editor
Tuesday October 30, 2018
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What's the best bike pannier for bike touring, commuting, or bombing around town? To find out, we analyzed thirteen of the most reputable panniers during a multi-month test that started in the Chugach and ended in the Sierra. By the end, we had a pretty good idea of what to look for in a quality pannier. Thus, we wrote this article to help you understand what qualities you should pay attention to while shopping for a new bike bag.

Why do you Need Bike Panniers?

It could be argued that bicycles are still the most efficient form of human-powered travel. Ever since their introduction 200 years ago, folks have been finding new ways to use their bikes as tools for travel and leisure. Not surprisingly, cyclists have found lots of clever ways to turn their bikes into beasts of burden. Baskets, racks, trailers, and even extended frames have all given bikes greater utility to haul more than just their operators. Though, panniers are a unique fusion that offers more than just utility on the bike—giving cyclists the option to take their gear on the go.

Bike panniers allow cyclists of all creeds and ability levels to schlep their trappings comfortably while on-the-saddle. They're more practical for cyclists than backpacks because they enable you to pedal without the nagging weight pull at your shoulders; providing a much more comfortable ride and increasing stamina via a more bio-mechanically efficient position. A well-designed pannier will also allow you to quickly switch into pedestrian mode by removing it from the rack and carrying it on your person via a sling-style strap or full-on backpack shoulder straps. If you're apt to use your bike to travel, commute, or run errands around town, then a pannier will offer you great utility in getting to your destinations comfortably with gear in tow.

Various Types of Bike Bags

There is absolutely no shortage of bike bags to choose from. Gear storage is a paramount concern for some, and an occasional consideration for others. In order to discern which bag is best for you, you'll first want to know how you intend to use it. Check out the quick rundown of varying activities and bag styles below in order to learn what options are out there.

Bikepacking vs. Bike-Touring

If you don't already know, there are two primary approaches to securing gear to a bicycle. And while we are decidedly on one side of the fence, it is important to first spell out the differences between bikepacking and bike touring. The former, Bikepacking is a relatively new subset of cyclo-tourism where all of your gear is packed into bags that attach directly to your handlebars and frame and not to additional hardware like a rack. The thought here is to minimize weight and streamline your profile for more aerodynamic travel. Bikepackers will often have mountain bikes with either front or dual suspension to allow them to travel off-road and on more challenging terrain.

Bike-touring—the precursor to bikepacking—is generally understood as the use of a bicycle to travel from one place to another, most often on paved surfaces. This activity primarily uses racks over the rear and/or front wheels that carry bike panniers on either side. Bike touring gear will generally focus on evenly distributing the weight on a bicycle for comfortable and efficient travel as well as easy removal of equipment. To be clear, this review focused on bike touring panniers and not bikepacking bags.

Touring Panniers

These type of panniers were the most common in our review. Touring panniers are designed to be fully-waterproof, or at the very least, weather resistant, so they can withstand long rides in the rain and snow without allowing their contents to get saturated. They are built from durable materials that can take repeated abuse on multi-day trips where biffs and outdoor abuse are bound to happen. The best touring panniers should have rock-solid mounting hardware and lightweight materials that provide peace-of-mind and require less pedal power during long hauls. Very often, this type of pannier will be made with a roll-top design that offers great capacity and less will have less frilly features like internal pockets or shoulder straps. They are made for hardcore bikers that are looking to crush miles while behind the bars.

Commuting Panniers

Commuting panniers are designed to offer utility to folks who primarily use their bike to arrive at work, school, or other local destinations. They aren't intended for long-distance rides. Instead, they are built to offer great comfortability, ease of use, and ergonomics to their users. Considering that they are designed for shorter distances, commuting panniers won't always be fully waterproof, but rather weather resistant. Because they get removed from the rack more frequently than touring panniers, commuting panniers should have very easy mechanisms to attach and detach from the bike rack. They should also have options to carry the bag comfortably while off the bike—preferably in the form of an adjustable, removable shoulder strap. Furthermore, a good commuting pannier will have several internal or external pockets to help organize contents like books, laptops, and keys. Commuting panniers are often the most stylish bags as well.

Townie Panniers

"Townie" panniers are a more nuanced category than touring or commuting. Probably because you could use both touring and commuting panniers to accomplish the tasks of a townie. However, townie panniers have a prominent distinction from the two other categories because they are designed for carrying bulkier (or sometimes, colder) items. Most often, a townie pannier will be used for grocery shopping or running errands. Thus, they should be large enough to fit a standard grocery bag and have square dimensions to allow for easy packing of boxed goods. Similar to commuting panniers, a good townie pannier will have handles or a shoulder strap to allow the user to carry the bag with them while running their errands.

Backpack Panniers

While some may argue that backpack panniers fall into the canon of commuting bags, it's clear that there are enough standout options for convertible panniers to receive their own categorical recognition. The genius behind backpack panniers is that they feature mounting hardware as well as shoulder straps, allowing you to seamlessly transition from cyclist to pedestrian. The storage capacity and overall function of these panniers are similar to commuter bags, except that you can choose to carry them on your back when not on the bike. Some backpack panniers have shoulder straps that stow away, while others require that you affix the shoulder straps each time you want to use them as a backpack. These types of panniers are super convenient when you spend a good amount of time carrying your bag on person as well as your bike.

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