Introduction to adventure cycling

[+] Choosing a bike

[-] Carrying your kit




Camping gear

Spares, repairs & tools

Where to go


Bikes on planes

Enjoying your tour

Safety and security




"PANNIERS: Bags which have been modified to be attached to a bicycle for the purpose of carrying approximately 50% more than you need."
Definition from The Pedaller's A-Z


If you want a heated debate, take half a dozen adventure cyclists and ask them what are the best panniers to buy. No other subjects seems to generate quite the same heat and passion. In common with racks, panniers are another area where it is important to spend the money to get good quality kit. Poor quality panniers can make life a misery.

Adveture Cycling Guide Ortlieb Panniers on a bike

How many do I need?

The first law of cycle touring states that the amount of your "must take" kit expands to be just slightly more than the capacity of your panniers, no matter how many you have.
For credit card touring, i.e. staying in B&Bs, two rear panniers should be plenty. If you are really ruthless and keep your kit to an absolute minimum, you can carry enough stuff for camping in two rear panniers and a stuff sack. However, most people doing lengthy tours end up using two rear panniers, two front panniers and a stuff sack.

Design Considerations


Some panniers are made out of PVC type material that is absolutely waterproof. Others use "shower proof" woven materials, like cordura or cotton duck. Some cyclists prefer their panniers not to be completely waterproof, as it allows the contents to breath a little - the stuff they want to keep dry they pack in poly bags. Having used both, my preference is for absolutely waterproof panniers.

Closure mechanism

Closure mechanisms come in ther varieties: "Roll-top", "Strap-down" (or "Bikepacker" and Zips. Stap-down lids are a little quicker and more convenient to get into into than rollers. However, rollers are more waterproof and a little easier to overfill if you want to carry your shopping home from the supermarket. Zips are convenient, but aren't 100% waterproof and will eventually fail.

Attachment systems

Pannier attachment systems are a compromise between the need to hold the pannier securely to the rack so it stays attached even on the roughest tracks and being able to get the pannier off and on the bike easily. Personally,I place a high priority on being able to get the panniers on and off the bike easily - at the end of a hard day or when you've had a puncture or when you are trying to get your bike on a bus, you really want to be able to get your panniers off the bike with the minimum of messing around. A good test is whether you can remove the pannier one-handed in one movement.
There are two elements to most systems: vertical clips that hang the top of pannier off the top rail of the rack and a lateral "anti-sway" mechanism to keep the pannier from swinging out from the rack. For lateral stability some brands us a bungey that attaches to the bottom of the rack, while other use a rigid plastic hanger that grips one of the vertical stays of rack. Bungey arrangements are usually more fiddly than rigid hangers. Just to be awkward, not all racks are compatible with all panniers, so, if you can, try before you buy.

Pockets or no pockets

Pockets on panniers are generally a good thing. They give handy access to stuff you use during the day, e.g., sun-screen, water, and allow you seperate dirty/smelly stuff, like petrol for your stove, from the rest of your gear.

Adventure Cycling Guide Cycle Touring Information Barbag
Ortlieb barbag with click fix extender

Bar Bags

A bar bag is an essential bit of kit. You need somewhere to keep your money, travel documents, camera etc. that you can get at quickly and take with you when you leave the bike. There are two parts to any bar bag; the bag itself and the click-fix mechanism that attaches it to the handle bars. Features to look out for are a transparent map pocket on to top and internal and external pockets. If you are using butterfly bars check the click-fix mechanism and bag will fit the bar - you may well need an extender.

Stuff sack

In addition to panniers, most people also have a waterproof stuff sack which they strap on the top of the rear rack. I use mine for my sleeping bag. This leaves my panniers free for other less bulky stuff and keeps my sleeping bag bone-dry, however bad the weather. I just strap it on with a bungey.


Ortlieb are by far the most popular panniers for expedition touring. My guess is 8 out of 10 european adventure cyclists use them. The bags are simple, hardwearing, 100% water proof and very convenient to get on and off the bike. Front and rear panniers are available in both roller and strap-down versions. The panniers have a single compartment only, but it is possible to retro-fit external pockets. Ortlieb also make excellent stuff sacks.
Adventure Cycling Guide Cycle Touring Information Ortlieb pannier
Ortlieb Rear Roller Classic

Adventure Cycling Guide Cycle Touring Information Carradice pannier


Carradice have been making panniers for over 60 years. Their Super C panniers are made from a cotton duck material that is incredibly hardwearing and suprisingly waterproof. They also have a range in "Carradry" PVC.
Carradice Super C


Arkel are a Canadian company that offer a range of distinctive panniers. Compared to european designs, Arkel panniers are relatively complex with a lot of pockets, zips, internal liners and detachable bags. They also make a range of narrow/taller panniers specifically for mountain bikes. They use a hook and bungey anti-sway mechanism.
Adventure Cycling Guide Cycle Touring Information Arkel Pannier XM-45
Arkel XM-45

Copyright © Tim Barnes 2007