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Bikepacking Bags vs Panniers: How to Choose

Bikepacking Bags vs Panniers

Bikepacking is an emerging sport that combines bicycle touring and backpacking. It’s different from conventional paved bicycle touring because it favors off-road routes over gravel and dirt roads, ATV and snowmobile routes, XC ski trails, logging roads, and even hiking trails where bikes are permitted to travel. Instead of road bikes, mountain bikes and fat bikes are the norm, with an emphasis on ultralight and highly compressible backpacking gear since off-road cycling is so energy intensive.

Bikepacking Bags

Bikepacking bags come in all shapes and sizes, but the emphasis is on keeping your load as close to your bike’s center of gravity as possible for balance, and so you can ride down narrow single-track without having overhanging vegetation tear off your bags. As a consequence, bikepacking bags are low volume and can’t hold much gear, so you need a lot of them, or you need to slash your backpacking gear list to a minimum and only carry the absolute essentials.

Here are some of the key types you’ll find available:

  • Frame Bags – fit into the gap under your top tube and seat post. Good for carrying tools and tubes.
  • Handlebar Bags – a higher volume dry bag that hangs off the handlebar. Good for tents and food.
  • Seat Packs – a higher volume dry bag that attaches to the seat post. Good for sleeping bags and clothing.
  • Top Tube Bags – small bag that goes on top of the top tube. Good for snacks, phone keys.
  • Fork Bags – bottle-sized bags that connect to the front fork. Good for less fragile accessories.

Bikepacking bags are also surprisingly heavy and overbuilt because they need to incorporate some sort of attachment system to hang off your bike, be it a metal rack to connect to your front fork, or velcro strapping to wrap around your top tube and seat. When push comes to shove, many riders also carry a hydration pack or even a backpack so they can haul all their gear and food – which is pretty sub-optimal on long rides.

While panniers provide less side clearance than bikepacking bags, they're much easier to pack
While panniers provide less side clearance than bikepacking bags, they’re easier to pack.

Panniers

Panniers are waterproof bags that hang off racks situated over your rear wheel or on your front fork. They come in a wide range of sizes, making it easy to over pack for a bikepacking trip and haul too much heavy gear if you’re not disciplined. They also require more side clearance than bikepacking bags and front panniers (if you use them) can seriously impede the visibility of your front wheel, something that’s very important when riding over rough terrain.

While pannier racks are almost universally compatible with road bikes, the same can’t be said about mountain bikes or fat bikes, which often don’t have the braze-ons or mounting points for adding pannier racks. That’s changing, but it’s one of the reasons why bikepacking bags evolved for off-pavement riding. You also need to be careful to buy a rack that’s compatible with the mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes commonly found on mountain bikes and fat bikes and has clearance for a wider tire.

Panniers on a Fat Bike
Panniers on my Fat Bike

How to Choose

I wrestled with the choice between bikepacking bags and panniers for most of last year when I was first getting into bikepacking. If you’re an experienced lightweight or ultralight backpacker, it’s easy to assume that bikepacking bags are the way to go and that you won’t have any problems minimizing the gear you need to fit into them. Ah hem. It wasn’t easy. It was expensive and I ended up preferring panniers much more than bikepacking bags.

I own two bikepacking bikes, a gravel bike with drop bars and a fat bike with 5″ wheels, and use panniers on both. I never ride single-track and prefer piecing together routes from many adjacent roads and trails that travel through the backcountry. It’s a fun planning these route using satellite imagery, historic maps, and whatever other odd maps I can find for the area I want to explore.

Here’s a summary of my key takeaways comparing the pros and cons of both packing systems:

Bikepacking Bags

  • Pros
    • Easier to access gear while you’re riding, so you don’t have to stop.
    • Easier to separate bike repair tools from backpacking gear and keep track of it.
    • Removes the temptation to carry non-essentials.
    • Compatible with all types of bikes.
  • Cons
    • Outrageously expensive.
    • Spend lots of time attaching and removing bags in the morning and at night.
    • Hard to develop a consistent packing system across different trips w/ different gear.
    • Often requires the use of a backpack to augment storage.
    • Hard to secure when you stop in town to prevent theft.
Carrying a backpack for "overflow" storage
Carrying a backpack for “overflow” storage and hydration.

Panniers

  • Pros
    • Inexpensive.
    • Interchangeable – use different pannier sets with the same rack for different length trips.
    • Easy to remove and carry when you stop in town to prevent theft.
    • Pannier rack is a convenient shelf to carry more gear with straps.
    • Often only need rear panniers if you pack conservatively, preserving front tire visibility.
    • Easy to organize gear because the storage works more like a backpack.
    • Easy to use the same panniers on different bikes.
  • Cons
    • Wider profile than bikepacking bags makes it harder to carry your bike across obstacles or push uphill.
    • Increases temptation to over pack.
    • Some bikes lack mount points to attach pannier racks.
    • Can be difficult to find a rack that is compatible with disc brakes and fat tires (try this one).
I like using a frame bag to sore my bike repair gear and panniers for my camping gear
Mix and Match: I like using a frame bag to store my bike repair gear and panniers for my camping gear

Comparison Table

When comparing bikepacking bags and panniers, remember that you’ll probably need multiple bags to get the same amount of storage provided by provided by a pair of rear panniers.

Make and ModelTypeVolumePrice
Revelate Designs TerrapinSeat Pack14L$145
Ortlieb Seat Pack LargeSeat Pack16.5L$160
Oveja Negra Gear JammerSeat Pack12L$130
Blackburn OutpostSeat Pack11L$120
Revelate Designs SweetrollHandlebar Bag14L$110
Ortlieb Handlebar PackHandlebar Bag9L$125
Salsa EXP Anything Cradle and BagHandlebar Bag15L$200
Revelate Designs TangleFrame Bag4L$90
Salsa CutthroatFrame Bag15L$200
Topeak MidloaderFrame Bag4.5L$56
Ortlieb Bikepacking CockpitTop Tube Bag0.8L$55
Relevate Designs Mag tankTop Tube Bag1L$59
Ortlieb Gravel Pack PanniersRear Pannier Bags (2)25L$170
Ortlieb Bikepacker PlusRear Pannier Bags (2)42L$240
Arkel Dry-LitesRear Pannier Bags (2)28L$90

Wrap Up

Most bikepackers aren’t orthodox about the type of storage they bring on bikepacking trips. The best approach I’ve found is to mix and match, depending on your preferences and budget. For example, I like riding with a frame bag because it lets me keep my bike repair tools and tubes separate from my camping gear. But the simplicity of using a pair of panniers over a million little bikepacking bags seals the deal for me, regardless if I’m riding a fat bike or a more conventional gravel bike.

Published 2018.

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15 comments

  1. I’ve tried a bikepacking bag (undersadle 7L option) and just found it really puts too much weight over the rear wheel. I didn’t like it but YMMV.
    For all the trips I do now I stick with an Osprey Talon 44L pack (it’s a bit too large but okish for what I do) then strap a 3x3m silnylon tarp across the handlebars. This setup allows me to move weight by moving my body around as needed.

  2. Great overview. Two quick comments: It seems bikepacking bags are a lot easier to portage with if needed. Of course, not usually the case with fire roads.

    Second, when looking at cost, two makers of less expensive bags and panniers are Banjo Brothers, which have nice MSRPs and are easy to find, even on Amazon; and Jandd when they run sales, which is every couple of months.

    For me, I found that the least expensive option was Wald baskets. I got a 520 rear basket (http://www.waldsports.com/index.cfm/store/rear-baskets/) and two front basket (I think it’s the 1372 and a 1392). I found them very inexpensive on Amazon last winter (between $20 to $25 for the front baskets and $30 for the rear), and I like that I can see the contents when I need to grab stuff. They are easy to fill with dry bags if you already have them, or if you have some sewing skills, easy and inexpensive to make. For the rear double basket, I prefer small color coded dry bags and I can see the contents and separate stuff.

    My son actually crashed a couple of times with the front basket, and I was surprised to see it bend back into “shape” (not that we spent much time making perfect again).

    As Philip mentions with racks, you have to see whether these fit your bike or if you need to find a work around. I fit them into older rim brake 26″ wheel bikes without hiccups…

    Finally, there seems to be a typo on the Panniers paragraph: “come in a wide range of sizes and sizes”…

    As always, thank you, Philip! Glad to see bikepacking back on the site :)

  3. I don’t own them, bit I like the look and price of the Banjo Brothers Saddle Bags Panniers and they seemed like a great value paired with a rack until I went the Wald baskets route

  4. Hi Philip, Great article. Would you share with us the brand/model of panniers and other bikepacks you like and are currently using? Also, what are your two bikes mentioned in the article? I’ve read your other excellent articles on bikepacking and like how you help readers deal with the myriad of confusing choices. Many thanks!

    • The red bike in a Diamondback Haanjo Trail Gravel bike that I really like. I reviewed it last summer. A couple of my friends got it and really like it.
      https://sectionhiker.com/diamondback-haanjo-trail-gravel-bike-review/

      The white fat bike is an inexpensive Diamondback I picked up last summer at closeout from REI to see if I liked Fat biking (I do). Nothing wrong with it and will keep using it for the foreseeable future. Here are the specs, but it’s not available anymore.
      https://www.rei.com/product/893051/diamondback-el-oso-de-acero-fat-bike-2016

      If you’re just getting into bikepacking, get yourself an inexpensive middle of the road bike. You can always upgrade it later.

      The bikepacking bags/Panniers I currently use are:
      Arkel Drylite Panniers
      Revelate Designs Tangle Frame Bag
      Superior Wilderness Designs Lunch Bag (straped to pannier frame)
      Salsa EXP Cradle with a conventional drysack (if needed)

  5. Good looking bike Phil. I’ve run a nearly identical setup with the two panniers I already had and a frame bag I MYOG for about $13. Sometimes I attach my quilt in an old tent bag onto my handlebars, affixed with those yellow gear twist ties.

  6. Andrea Cattolico

    Some valid points there, but some things that I don’t agree either.

    For a start, it’s not true that pannier bags are “almost universally compatible with road bikes”. In fact, most road bikes will have a rear end of 410-425mm and when on the shorter side of this measure and the rider does have normal to long feet, it’s likely the panniers will clash with the heels while pedalling.
    Let alone the lack of real mounting points for a rack. Surely you can use p-clips or bodge something, but ain’t the real McCoy.

    Another thing about price and weight of bikepacking bags vs panniers: it’s true that the former are more expensive, but not all are “outrageously expensive”. Bikepacking bags are most often made with better materials (how many panniers are made with X-Pack, and if so how much would they cost?) to give them a better shape (because bikepacking bags are almost always self-supporting) and resistance to wear in the contact points; also there are the straps and attachment systems that add considerable work to be done.
    While panniers rely on a rack, which is an additional cost and weight.

    As far as capacity, I only need +5lt when using a bike, mainly because the distances covered are longer. So a total capacity of 30lt is more than enough for me on a 2-3 days self-supported trip.
    I prefer to balance the weight, so the light and bulky stuff (sleeping bag, clothes, dry food) goes on the seatpack, the regular shaped stuff (sleeping mat, tent) in the handlebar bag, and the food+tools in the frame bag. Depending on the situation I may carry the smallest hydration rucksack (Terranova Laser) or use a bladder inside the frame bag+stem pouch.

    And I prefer to use light dry bags inside the bikepacking bags, so there’s no need to remove the bags form the bike but I only have to remove the drybag with the required contents: i.e. the tools and stuff like that can stay where they are, while spare clothes are rolled in the dry bag to work as pillow.

    By the way, in UK one ends up riding a lot on “bridleways” which are most often infested by brambles and lots of nettles, panniers don’t work well in that scenario. Let alone crossing fords :-\

  7. Alan Hayford Jr.

    Very good review. I’m doing my first tour of Vermont this summer. After much research and soul searching settled on Arkel panniers , a Blackburn frame bag and a Moosetrack handlebar bag for snacks, bandanna etc. So far so good. Riding a Trek 520 this summer.
    Thanks for all the great reviews. Look forward to your gear reviews every Sunday. Take care, Al

  8. Good info, thank you! I did a short bikepacking trip a few years ago, and would like to do this more frequently. For that trip, we actually pulled a modified bike trailer behind one of the bikes. It worked fine on fire roads (and we were able to bring some great food!-it was almost like car camping) but I know I’ll need a different system if I want to do more remote trips. Thanks for the comparison, it’ll help me determine which option will work best for me.

  9. I’m a long time backpacker, MTB and road biker and was looking to get into bikepacking/touring for the non-Summer months in CA. As Philip mentioned, I took a look at the price of backpacking bags and was astounded by how much they cost. I got on aliexpress and found prices for 1/3 to 1/8 the cost of Philip’s “name brands”. My frame bag was $15, seatbag $19 and handlebar bag $9. Before you go and give me the spew about how reliable Chinese made goods aren’t, you should know that many of the “name brand” bags are designed in the developed world then produced in China. It’s could be that the same factories that made the name brand bags made the ones on aliexpress. You can see how much of a mark-up name brand bags are when for less than one of your cheapest bag, I can dip my toes into bikepacking and see if I like it.

    So far, the bags seem to be of decent quality.

  10. I prefer to method that removes weight off the bike and onto my bike trailer.
    http://www.bobgear.com/bike-trailers/ibex
    They haul a lot of equipment leaving me to pedal with relative ease. Unhook and hit some more trails at camp or along the way

  11. The always forgotten Vaude makes a line of decent waterproof bike packing bags.

  12. I’ve been Bikepacking and road touring for 5 years or so, and I find that the author missed a few key benefits to Bikepacking bags. One is the weight of racks and panniers themselves, a difference of multiple pounds of metal and plastic. Furthermore, with a weight bias toward the rear, the front tire becomes unweighted on steep climbs and will tend to wander the harder you pedal. Finally, in a point the author conceded, panniers largely preclude you from riding singletrack due to the increased width of your bike. And backcountry singletrack, my friends, is where the best Bikepacking is to be had. Simply put, racks and panniers are great for road touring, but a savvy bike packer will soon find reasons to ditch them for soft bags.

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