Every cyclist has faced this question one day: what’s best the solution between pannier bags and a backpack to carry stuff. The answer depends a lot on what you need to carry and what type of ride we are talking about. I have decided to tackle this question in-depth and give you all my knowledge on the topic.
I have had a few years to reflect on the question and test different solutions. Indeed, I am a keen cyclist who does different types of cycling: I commute to work regularly and have done so in the past 6 years with different distances to ride. I also use my bike for grocery shopping. I have done a couple of week-long cycling trips, from point A to point B. And of course, I also do cycling as part of my triathlon training.
Ok, let’s dig into the topic: pannier or backpack? I will first look at the solution for commuting, then for shopping and finally for touring. At the end of this article, I will conclude with what is the best overall solution.
Pannier vs backpack for commuting to work?
When bike commuting, you are likely to have to carry several things with you. Generally, a laptop, clothes to get changed or even take a shower, a notebook, even a packed lunch… The number of items you need to carry varies a lot between commuters.
Pros and cons of pannier & backpack for a commute
- No back pain or discomfort
- Feeling lighter (due to the weight to carry being loaded on the bike rather than you)
- Can carry more weight
- Can carry more volume
- Easier to control sweating (more breathable)
- Heavier (empty)
- Less aerodynamic
- The bike is bulkier with panniers
- Not all bikes have eyelets to mount a rack
- Using only 1 pannier can feel unbalanced
- Carrying the panniers once out of the bike is less practical than wearing a backpack
- More aerodynamic
- More flexibility
- Easier to use once out of the bike
- Possibility to use the backpack at lunchtime
- With a flashy backpack, you will be much more visible to cars than with panniers
- Excessive sweating
- Back pain
- Can wear faster your jackets where the bag rubs
In summary, using a backpack is a bit more practical at first glance: it’s easy to put on and hop on the bike. You don’t really need to buy anything new (at least until you decide you want a better backpack more comfortable, more waterproof, etc). It will also allow you to run some errands more easily. It’s more practical for instance to have a backpack to carry your lunch if you wish to eat outside on a nice sunny day for instance.
The backpack is also a bit more aerodynamic than panniers, but at speeds below 15mph (26km/h), we are talking about a couple of Watts differences. So it won’t make much difference. What I really enjoy with the backpack is that it’s above the saddle compared to panniers, therefore it’s at the driver’s eye level. So if you cover it with a bright flashy rain cover like this one, or if you use a high visibility backpack like mine (that I love), you will be much more visible to cars than with panniers.
But the backpack has a main drawback that can easily be a deal-breaker. It tends to make you sweat a lot more against it. And if you can’t take a shower after your commute, this can be an issue. I have used a backpack a lot in the past but I admit that with a hill on my commute I prefer to use panniers than sweat in my work clothes. Sometimes I choose the backpack but carry a change of top to remove the excess sweat and wear something clean. But that’s not the best feeling in the world and I always wonder if I smell like sweat or not to my colleagues.
So what about panniers?
First, you need to realize that to use panniers you need to mount a bike rack. So the weight of a bike rack combined with 2 empty panniers is about 2-3kg heavier than an empty backpack. You can choose solutions that aren’t too bad if you keep this in mind before buying your equipment.
For commuting, panniers are convenient in my opinion because your back is free and you can feel the air against it. So you won’t arrive at work all sweaty unless you are pushing yourself really hard with the effort. It’s also easier to see behind you and look out for cars. A bulky backpack can block some of the views when you turn your head. You might not be as visible to cars as with a flashy backpack, but you are going to be a bit wider and I have noticed cars tend to give you a bit more space when they overtake. So it can feel a bit safer.
The main drawback, in my opinion, is carrying the panniers from the bike to your office. Most only have a shoulder strap or handle which is not very comfortable to carry, especially if it’s heavy. And you can’t really use the bag at lunchtime to run other errands as it’s not really convenient.
Alternative solution: a pannier backpack?
You may have heard about a few brands developping pannier backpack. It’s definitely an alternative solution where you can benefit from having a backpack once out of the bike, and carry it on the bike rack to commute. It sounds incredible because it mix the best of both worlds.
It’s definitely a solution to try. But be careful when buying one. There are different designs available where the clips to attach the backpack onto the rack are positioned differently and can make the backpack uncomfortable on your back. The best solution I have seen is the one from Two Wheel Gear, because the back is like a regular backpack and the clips are completely hidden away. Another solution is this one from Huntvp where they choose to add extra padding at the top of the bag to hide the clips. So the backpack is not flat on the back, which could feel a bit unusual.
One last comment about this type of design: remember that you will only be using one pannier, so one side only of the bike rack. It’s ok but some people don’t like it because it can feel unbalanced and uncomfortable to ride like this.
What to consider before choosing between a pannier & backpack for commuting?
The following elements of your commute are key to deciding between using a backpack or panniers for commuting:
- Distance to commute
For a one-way trip of fewer than 4 miles, mainly flat, a backpack is ideal. You won’t have time to sweat and the backpack is an easy and cheap solution to commute and will give you more flexibility.
For longer distances to cover, it depends a lot on the profile of the commute and the availability of a shower when you arrive. But panniers are generally more suited for long-distance to preserve your back from injuries. But really it will also be more comfortable.
- Quantity of things to carry (and associated weight)
The more stuff you need to carry on your commute, the more space you need, and the more weight you will have to carry on the bike. If you need a change of clothes, a towel, a laptop, and a packed lunch, that’s too heavy for your back! A pannier will be much better. But if it’s just your laptop, a few small items, and a change of shirt, then go with the backpack.
- Possibility to take a shower at work
With the opportunity to take a shower at work, you need to carry a bit more stuff with you (like a towel and some shower gel). Carrying more stuff with a backpack is taking the risk to harm your back. Sure you don’t mind sweating because of the backpack anymore, since you take a shower. But loading your back heavily is definitely not a good idea in the long run, it will lead to back pain at some point.
Therefore, panniers are almost always a better option if you need to shower. In particular if you need a change of shoes or to carry a laptop.
But if your bag doesn’t feel too heavy, sure you can use a backpack, but don’t overestimate your capacities, especially if the ride is meant to be frequent.
- Road safety & time of the day
If you travel by night a lot, or on busy roads which are not specifically designed for cyclists, you might want to be visible. A backpack with a high visibility cover will be very easy to spot for cars. Also, you will be able to move more freely between cars stuck in traffic. Of course, you still need to have lights on your bike. You can check out this article I wrote about the legislation in each state for bike lights.
Best solution for commuting
For short distances and flat commutes, using a backpack is ideal. It’s more practical than panniers. But for longer distances, hilly rides, or heavily packed, panniers will prevent injuring your back while being more comfortable when riding. And if sweating is not an option, avoid the backpack.
Any difference between commuting with an e-bike?
If you own an e-bike for commuting, you can generally do longer distances without really breaking a sweat. But wearing a backpack can still make you sweat in the back even if you are not doing a big effort when cycling. It depends a bit on how your body reacts to not being ventilated in the back. Feel free to give it a try, you might be ok with a backpack if that’s your preferred option. Else, adding panniers is generally easy on e-bikes. Many come already equipped. And the extra weight from the bike rack and panniers is not really noticeable thanks to its power.
Looking at people commuting on e-bikes around where I live, they never wear a backpack. They always use panniers and I would do the same.
Pannier vs backpack for shopping?
For grocery shopping, an empty backpack combined with 2 panniers will give you the freedom to carry almost anything and plenty of space to carry everything home. You can carry almost any shape and size while still buying a lot of stuff. But classic rectangular panniers are annoying to carry around while shopping in comparison with a backpack.
In summary, a backpack is more practical once you are in the shop. Panniers can carry more volume and weight but in the end, they end up being annoying to carry around in the shop, preventing your hands from being free while shopping.
So it all depends what type of shopping you need to do. Big stuff? Big volume? Depending on the answers, different type of panniers may suit it. Let’s go through them.
Comparison of different types of panniers for shopping
Classic panniers are generally used for touring. They are rectangular in shape, a bit narrow, and generally have shoulder straps. They can also be waterproof. They generally fit 20L and are easy to put on and off the bike but the shape is not ideal for shopping. Please see an example in the picture below.
As you can see, it’s not very practical to run errands in a grocery store. You could always leave the bags on your bike while you shop and use foldable shopping bags in the meantime. But then you need to transfer the items into the panniers before heading home. And this means risking getting your panniers stolen while you are shopping.
In the past, using a basket on the bike was quite common. Nowadays you tend to see some small baskets at the front. But did you know you could also have baskets mounted at the rear of the bike? You probably already guessed but baskets are generally made of metal and therefore are a bit heavier than classic bags. But for shopping, they can be very convenient, as you can use them while shopping instead of using a trolley from the store.
I actually own one basket as you can see in the picture below, very similar to this one. I generally put my backpack in it to avoid extra sweating when riding. It’s great because then I can run errands with the backpack which is very practical and if I buy too many things, I can use the pannier for extra room. But sometimes I just use it to drop random items in it. Last time it was a big watermelon!
Bike specific shopping bags
My preferred solution for going shopping is to use bike-specific shopping bags. They are like the average re-usable shopping bag but with a little extra feature that makes all the difference: they include a plastic rail than allows you to clip the bag onto any bike rack. I have found this little gem on copenhagenbags.com and their product is now called Bikezac (previously Cobags). They deliver internationally.
I have been using these bags for 2 years now, about 2-3 times a week, and the bags are still holding very strongly with no signs of fatigue. I enjoy the fact that you can fold the bags in your backpack on your way out, use them while shopping like normal bags, and then just clip them onto the bike rack to head back home. It’s really easy and practical! I am not sure why they aren’t famous yet in the US.
Best solution for shopping
A backpack is more practical than panniers for shopping but it’s limited in volume. The best solution is to combine a backpack with panniers. Prefer panniers than can be easily carried around while shopping, or panniers that you don’t mind leaving on your bike while you shop, like a basket.
Pannier vs backpack for touring?
When touring, you need to carry a certain amount of stuff with you. If you stay in hotels, you just need to take some clothes, a pair of shoes or flip flops, a book and maybe a laptop. But most people will choose to go on a real adventure, sleeping in the wild or in dedicated camping sites. Therefore, having to carry camping gear.
The best solution for touring with camping gear?
It is best to use panniers when bike touring with lots of gear. You can add some additional bags to the front of the bike to carry more gear but avoid using a backpack. It will be uncomfortable and will cause you back pain.
Panniers are mounted on a rack that is attached to your frame. When bike touring, having this rack is a must compared to using a backpack. You will be able to carry a lot more stuff with you. And you can fit your tent on top of the rack, without having to fit it inside the panniers.
Panniers are less aerodynamic than backpacks but the latter won’t carry much items and you will easily find it heavy and uncomfortable. Eventually, that will lead to back pain.
So if you are bike touring with lots of gear, I don’t think you can do without panniers. And I definitely recommend avoiding using a backpack even to carry light items in addition to your panniers.
The best solution for light touring
When light touring, without camping gear, panniers are still a better choice than using a backpack. But actually, if you are really riding light, a saddlebag is better than panniers. But you will be more limited in terms of weight and volume you can carry.
If you are riding for several days, you definitely don’t want to carry a backpack with you. Even if you pack it very light. It is really going to be uncomfortable, feel heavy, and can induce back pains. You will definitely regret riding with it.
A friend of mine did a 3-day bike tour in this configuration (100 miles per day) and chose to use a bikepacking saddlebag combined with a backpack to carry his work laptop. And I can tell you he regretted it. He had to stop a few times just to take off the backpack. So it wasn’t a very pleasant experience.
But the saddlebag is actually an interesting solution. Let’s see why in the next paragraph.
Pannier vs saddlebag for light touring?
If you can fit all you need in a large saddle bag and just add a top tube bag or handlebar bag, you will be much more aerodynamic than using panniers. The effort to pedal will be a bit less than with panniers. But it’s less practical to access stuff in your bag.
So, it depends a bit on your objective. If it’s not a question of speed, then pannier bags are the best solution. You can reuse them in many situations in your everyday life, like commuting. But it will give you more opportunities to do more touring trips in the future and consider carrying camping gear. It’s the most versatile option.
Bikepacking saddle bags will make you lighter and more aerodynamic. They are really good for 2 to 3-day trips where you don’t need to carry much.
Just to give you an idea about the aerodynamic gain, I am sharing with you below this video from GCN where they have taken the time to test in a wind tunnel the differences between bikepacking saddlebags, panniers, and a backpack. Just be careful, the results presented are based on a 40km/h ride, not sure you cycle so fast. So the advantage will definitely reduce at lower speeds.
Saddlebags have a few disadvantages that you should know about:
- You won’t have much space to fit your gear (about 16L for large saddlebags)
- The shape of the bag is a bit special meaning you can’t carry a laptop or bulky items
- Once the bag is packed, it’s difficult to access anything without taking it all out and repacking it entirely
- The saddlebag requires to have enough clearance on the seat tube to attach it and make sure it won’t rub against the tire.
This last criterion was a deal-breaker for me. I’m too short to use one: I only have a 5-inch clearance on my seat post. Most seat packs recommend having at least 6 inches of free space else you will damage the bag by rubbing against the brake mechanism, or the tire directly. Only short people can face this issue, so it’s more common for women with bike frames in XS or S. If you are not sure and you want to buy this type of bag, then go to a shop with your bike to try it, or at least measure the clearances of your bike.
If you are not in my situation, bikepacking saddle bags are worth considering. To choose one, ensure it is waterproof (dry bags are ideal) and with a large volume (around 15L). The lighter it is the better. It is best to use a soft bag rather than something too rigid. It will fit better your gear without wasting space.
I recommend buying Ortlieb’s large seat–pack (16L). It’s a really good bag that combines lightweight, large volume, and strong fabric. My friend has used it for a couple of years now without any issues and is happy about it. And Ortlieb is really the reference in terms of bikepacking gear.
Best overall solution between pannier & backpack
Riding with a backpack does not require buying new equipment for your bike. It’s convenient on short rides with little to carry. Panniers are more versatile and can carry much more items without getting back pain. Panniers will give you new opportunities to ride your bike, from commuting to touring.
So personally, I think that in most situations having a bike rack with panniers is very useful. It’s definitely not a waste of money to invest in them. While the backpack is very practical in some specific commute cases, you still get to sweat more.
In my case, I use a backpack when I go in town for grocery shopping, basic shopping, or just head to the post office, etc. It’s less than 2 miles away and the backpack is empty to carry my wallet and some folded shopping bags that can be attached to the bike rack when I go back home. And I use panniers for all other situations, from commuting to work to touring.
Please find below 3 articles I also wrote which I think could be of interest to you: