This article is from the Bicycles FAQ, by Mike Iglesias with numerous contributions by others.
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.