Can You Use Panniers For Bikepacking: Advantages, Disadvantages, and Positioning


It feels like the question of panniers or bikepacking bags has been going on ever since I took up the hobby. Panniers have obviously been around for longer and so have a strong fanbase, on the other hand, the new kids on the block, bikepacking specific bags, have many great advantages.

Panniers are a great option for bikepacking and many people use them. They can carry more weight and have a larger storage capacity than bikepacking bags. However, not all bikes are compatible with panniers, and they are not suited for the roughest terrain where their position means that they can knock into rocks.

At the end of the day, I’d suggest using whatever works for you, but I thought I’d look over panniers and bikepacking bags in some detail to help you work out which one that is.

Advantages of panniersDisadvantages of panniers
More stableNot compatible with all bikes
Higher maximum weightNot the best in certain terrain
Larger storage capacitySlower than bikepacking bags
Easier to packHeavier than bikepacking bags
Easier to clip and unclip
More durable

What is the difference between bikepacking-specific bags and panniers?

Panniers are the traditional storage solution for bike tours. They attach to a pannier rack on the front or back of your bike and lie on either side of the wheel. This pannier rack is normally screwed into the bike itself and the bags then clip into the rack.

Bikepacking-specific bags are made from fabric materials and attach to the frame, saddle, or handlebars of your bike through straps and knots, rather than being directly attached like a pannier is.

Advantages

Bike panniers were used for years before specific bikepacking bags became more popular, and they were used for a good reason.

Do panniers affect balance?

Many people ask, is it harder to cycle with panniers? I had been told that a bike with panniers was easier to ride than one with bikepacking bags, and I wanted to test how true this actually was.

I wanted to test how much of an effect each of the bags had on my stability and handling.

Setting out a marked area in my garden, I separately attached my panniers as well as a range of other bikepacking bags to my Boardman EDV 8.9. I made sure to fill them each with the same 4kg of gear and compared how stable I was on the bikes (how long I could balance myself inside the box without touching the floor or coming out of the area).

I had 3 attempts with each setup and averaged the results (don’t judge me, balance isn’t my strong point).

Bag Combination Time within area
Saddle Bag6 seconds
Frame Bag12 seconds
Handlebar bag7 seconds
Panniers11 seconds
Saddle + Frame + Handlebar Bag6 seconds

As you can see, panniers were far more stable than saddle or handlebar bags. However, the frame bag alone was most stable overall. However, when you compare all three of the bikepacking bags together, they were far more unbalanced than the panniers (which I’d argue is a suitable comparison).

Obviously, any extra bag is going to impact your cycling. But of the options, it appears that panniers and frame bags have the least impact.

I presume these are both due to the fact that both of these bags sit low on the bike and have larger points of attachment than, for example, the saddle bag that I tested.

Maximum weight and storage capacity

Not only are they stable, but bike panniers are able to carry the most weight of any bike bag option, with panniers carrying an average of 25kg, far more than the average 4.5kg of bikepacking bags.

Not only can panniers hold more weight than their bikepacking bag counterparts, they also have much larger carrying capacities. With even average panniers carrying up to 30 L of gear (that’s almost the amount you need for a whole bikepacking trip).

Type of BagMaximum Weight Capacity
Panniers 40kg
Saddle Bag 5kg
Frame Bag 4kg
Handlebar Bag 5kg

Packability

Panniers are easier to pack your gear into, this may well be due to their larger storage capacity but it is also a result of the nice uniform shape of a bike pannier.

On the other hand, bikepacking bags such as saddle bags can come in very odd shapes making packing more difficult.

Ease of use

Panniers are much easier to remove from a bike than saddle bags, frame bags, or handlebar bags. The latter all require intricate straps and knots to secure them, whereas panniers can just clip into place.

Durability

Due to the different materials that panniers are made of, they are much more durable and waterproof than the more modern bikepacking-specific bags. This allows you to carry gear such as a sleeping bag without the need for a dry bag.

Anecdotally, I’ve had multiple bikepacking-specific bags break on me (often a busted zip), but have never had any issues with the durability of my panniers.

Disadvantages

So with so many advantages to panniers, why doesn’t everybody use them for bikepacking?

Panniers are less compatible with some bikes

First of all, panniers are not suitable for all types of bikes. Some bikes, particularly road bikes or full suspension mountain bikes do not have the attachment points required for panniers.

Even if they did, road bike frames aren’t designed to carry something this heavy, and full-suspension mountain bikes just wouldn’t work with a pannier, with the suspension causing the wheel to bang into the pannier rack.

This leaves panniers only suitable for touring bikes (which they were traditionally designed for), certain mountain bikes, and some gravel bikes.

Bike TypeCompatible with a pannier rack?
Road BikeNo
Gravel BikeSometimes (Dependant on attachment points)
Touring BikeYes
Half Tail Mountain BikeSometimes (But only if attached at the back)
Full-suspension mountain bikeNo

Panniers are less effective on some terrain

Panniers are less good at bumpy terrain. The panniers are attached directly to the bike by hard attachment points, while this can make them more secure, it does mean that they have less “give” when going over bumpy terrain and can shake more, even breaking on a large drop.

It is important to note that panniers also stick out more than other bikepacking bags. This means they are prone to knocking into trees, bushes, or large stones. 

This can also make it harder to push a bike with panniers, if you do a lot of segments of a journey requiring you to push your bike, then panniers are not the choice for you.

Do panniers slow you down?

So, we’ve established that panniers are one of the most stable bikepacking options, but how do they fare for speed?

Panniers can be heavy, weighing around 1kg each (although some of the more high-end ones can weigh less than this). This is almost double the weight of the full set of Pro Discover Frame, Saddle, and Handlebar bags. But does it actually make a difference to your speed?

I planned a route from Battersea Park to Richmond Park and back again (about as off-road as you can get in London), and cycled the route both with a full set of bikepacking bags as well as my pannier rack and 2 pannier bags.

Bag typeTime takenAverage speed (Kilometres/hour)
Panniers72 minutes 12 seconds13.1mph
Bikepacking bags69 minutes 30 seconds13.6mph

As you can see, the panniers did in fact take me longer than the bikepacking bags, but not by a considerable margin. I will note that this route does have minimal inclines, and this is the area where I felt the weight of the panniers the most.

Obviously, any bag is going to slow you down, but panniers will slow you down more than other types of bikepacking bags. I feel like this difference would have increased if there were more large ascents on my trip.

This could also be a result of the panniers not only being heavier than the bikepakcing bags but also being wider and thus less aerodynamic.

Where to put panniers on your bike?

The position that you put the panniers on your bike seems to be a much more controversial topic than I expected!

In reality, the question comes down to balancing weight across the bike. As long as you remember this when you are packing whichever bags you plan to use, you can’t go far wrong.

The problem comes when you only want to use one set of panniers at the front or the back, this leads to an imbalance and all the arguing.

Some will say having too much weight at the front is worse, as it makes handling the bike hard and may lead to you falling over the handlebars.

Others will say that having too much weight at the back will cause your front wheel to lift off the ground on hard ascents.

I personally have always used rear panniers. I find the extra weight that front panniers put around my handlebar is more uncomfortable. On the other hand, I usually run my panniers at about 70% capacity and so haven’t had to deal with overpacked panniers lifting my front tire off the ground.

Overall

Panniers have some very specific advantages and disadvantages, and only by really understanding these can you decide if panniers are suitable for your bikepacking trip. If your route is going to take you through more extreme conditions, think mountain bike single track, then having panniers will be worse than taking bikepacking bags.

Having to worry about the racks breaking and keeping your bike stable during sketchy stretches is tricky with panniers on. Also, they will get in the way if you have to walk with your bike over any stretch of your journey. However, if you aren’t planning on getting into these kinds of situations, panniers are roomier and more practical.

If I’m able to have the choice, I’ll take rear panniers and a frame bag. This feels like the best, easy to put together set up. It’s stable and has a good balance of weights across the bike.

This combination allows me to use the frame bag for easy-to-reach items such as a phone, maps, and snacks, while also allowing me to carry the heavier items in the panniers at the back.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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