Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags: The Debate Evolves (Again)

Summary

  • Panniers are usually associated with heavier loads, long trips, and road touring, though smaller off-pavement designs are becoming more popular.
  • Bikepacking bags are especially great for lightweight gear, backcountry riding, and rugged dirt roads and trails.
  • But it’s not always that simple! Many people ride with hybrid setups to get the best of both worlds.

The minute you start researching ways to load up your bike and pedal off into the sunset, you’ll run headfirst into the question of bikepacking bags versus panniers. 

I used to think this was a simple matter of bikepacking versus touring, or a question of personal style and identity, like baggy shorts versus lycra. But after 20,000+ miles of loaded riding, some with bikepacking bags, some with panniers, and sometimes with a motley mix of both, I have an updated take on the matter.

Gone are the days of choosing between a fully loaded 4-pannier Ortlieb setup and tiny soft bags. The lines are blurring! People run rear panniers only, front panniers only, or front panniers on a rear rack. We have cargo racks, pizza racks, cargo cages, and racks with cargo cage mounts on them. We have basketpacking. We have semi-rigid bikepacking bags and bikepacking-style panniers. Yikes!

So the lines are blurring and options are proliferating, which is great, but can also make the decision between bikepacking bags and panniers even harder. Or maybe easier! Read on and I’ll walk you through it. 

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Panniers (the modern version)

Panniers are a simple but brilliant concept: bags (usually waterproof) that clip or strap to cargo racks mounted on your bike. They come in a wide range of styles, from 20 liter long-haulers to mid-size “gravel panniers” to “nano panniers” designed for bikepacking (more on that later). If you want to haul a lot of stuff on a bike with minimal fuss, panniers are the way to go.

Generally speaking (there are plenty of exceptions) panniers are better suited for large loads, long trips, and paved or gravel roads. People who use them tend to prioritize the “travel” part of bike travel.

Four Panniers

Traditionally, touring with panniers meant the full 2-rack, 4-bag, front and rear setup. At the risk of stereotyping, you might picture scruffy round-the-world bike travelers, TransAm riders biking across the US, or perhaps retirees on rail trails.

A full 4-pannier touring setup – photo credit

If you need to carry a ton of stuff, four panniers are still a great way to do it (though I would recommend adding a frame bag to make the most of all that triangle space). A typical set of rear panniers like the ubiquitous Ortlieb BackRoller Classic holds 40 liters of gear (20 liters per side). Add a couple front panniers, plus all the space on top of the rack to bungee a tent and whatnot, and you have a long-haul setup fit for life on the road.

The biggest issue with carrying that much gear, as you might imagine, is a very heavy bike. At the risk of ruffling a few feathers I’ll say that a full pannier setup is not about making the riding part fun. It’s about experiencing the places you’re riding through, with the bike as your means of transportation. It’s a travel-focused setup.

Two Panniers

A two-pannier setup is a better option for many people. Sadly, most of us aren’t taking off on round-the-world tours right this moment, and camping gear has grown so much lighter and more compact lately that that fewer people need to fill a full pannier set for a local trip. Thus many folks ride with only rear panniers, or (less commonly) only front panniers.

My original road touring setup, which I rode for months in Southeast Asia and Patagonia, used two large rear panniers. It was heavily back-loaded but I was mostly riding pavement and didn’t really care; my Surly Long Haul Trucker handled it like a champ. Weight distribution would have been better with two smaller panniers on both front and back, but that would have cost more money.

Two rear panniers are a great way to get a fair amount of gear capacity with minimal cost and fuss. You only need one rack and don’t necessarily have to shell out for Ortlieb; there are cheaper options available (though you get what you pay for).

Two full large panniers is still a fair amount of weight to pedal. These days you’ll find smaller panniers in the 10 – 15 liter range, like the Ortlieb Gravel and Roswheel Tour. If you can fit your gear into a single pair of these you’re well on your way to a lighter setup that’s fun to ride.

My very early touring setup, rear panniers only (Ortlieb BackRollers) on the way to Ushuaia, Argentina

Bikepacking-Style Panniers

In the years since I wrote the first version of this article, the line between panniers and bikepacking bags has blurred. A new class of more minimalist “bikepacking panniers” has arisen to meet the needs of folks who still want to ride rugged routes but need a bit more cargo capacity.

Panniers designed for bikepacking try to mitigate the biggest drawbacks on rough off-road terrain. They’re smaller and narrower, lighter, and their soft attachments (usually hook and loop style, also known as Velcro) are rattle-free. They’re usually harder to remove from the rack, as with other bikepacking bags, but that’s less of an issue when you’re riding through the middle of nowhere and sleeping in a tent.

I use this style of panniers (REI Co-op Link Panniers, 18 liters each) for more involved off-pavement rides, like a month in the mountains of Central Asia, and for me it’s a good compromise. Other popular examples include OMM’s 14 liter Micro Panniers, Arkel’s 14 liter Dry-Lite Panniers, and Revelate Designs’ 11 liter Nano Panniers.

Bikepacking-style panniers use soft attachment straps to avoid rattling and minimize the chance of a catastrophic parts failure in the middle of nowhere.
Though definitely not ideal for this situation, bikepacking-style panniers are still better than regular panniers when the going gets rough.

Advantages of Panniers

Generally speaking, these are reasons to prefer panniers over a bikepacking bag setup.

More space: Larger capacity lets you carry more things, which can be necessary for long trips, complex routes, or small riders with limited frame space for bikepacking bags.

Simpler to pack: Large compartments make it easy to find a spot for bulky items, like tents and sleeping pads, that can be awkward to pack in bikepacking bags.

Easier to remove from bike: Traditional panniers click on and off the rack for easy removal and carrying into your tent or hotel. Bikepacking bags mostly stay on the bike, so unloading means carrying awkward armfuls of small bags.

Weight is closer to the ground which can feel better for handling, especially with a heavy load. Bikepacking bags need to be packed fairly light or the higher center of gravity can negate their advantages.

More affordable, at least for a basic version. Budget-friendly gear is available in both styles, but a pannier setup has fewer pieces and a reliable quality setup costs a bit less. Furthermore, bikepacking bags are more narrowly focused so people tend to make more tweaks over time, resulting in more gear bought and more money spent.

Simpler to choose and buy: fewer individual pieces to think about, fewer decisions to make, less of a learning curve to understanding options and compatibility.

Fortunately it was quick and easy to remove my panniers from the bike for this bus in Laos. Bikepacking bags would have made this more complicated.

Drawbacks of Racks and Panniers

As you would expect, most of those advantages also come with negatives for certain situations, particularly rough and rugged terrain.

More space can encourage overpacking, which takes more energy to pedal and makes riding less fun.

Rear panniers get in the way while hike-a-biking on narrow trails.

Less aerodynamic: not often a concern of long-distance travelers but can make a noticeable difference in headwinds.

Plastic attachment systems and rigid racks can rattle on rough terrain, and if they were to break in the middle of nowhere you could have a real problem on your hands.

Heavier than bikepacking bags when empty, usually.

Not all bikes are easy to fit with racks, though there are a few solutions like Old Man Mountain racks that can fit nearly any bike.

That thing you need is always at very bottom of the other pannier. Or maybe that’s just me.

Cyclist pushing loaded touring bike across rickety log bridge
The position of rear panniers can be awkward for hike-a-bike on narrow trails.

Bikepacking Bags

Loosely defined, bikepacking bags attach directly to the bike, usually (but not always) with flexible systems of straps and spacers. The goal is to keep weight close to the frame and distribute it evenly, making use of every last inch of space with cleverly shaped smaller bags.

Generally speaking (there are plenty of exceptions) bikepacking bags are better suited for lightweight loadsbackcountry trips, and dirt roads and trails. People who use them tend to emphasize the “bike” part of bike travel and want their bike to be fun to ride.

A typical bikepacking bag collection includes a frame bag, seat bag, handlebar bag, a couple accessory bags like a top tube bag or stem bag, and possibly fork cages with dry bags. Here’s an illustration showing the typical parts of a bikepacking bag collection:

The bikepacking bag style is much newer than panniers. Though people have been strapping stuff to bikes since time immemorial, you could say the modern bikepacking movement was born roughly 15 years ago when Revelate Designs and a handful of other early gear manufacturers started getting scrappy and creative. The goal was to streamline and lighten up the gear situation to make rugged exploration more enjoyable on a bike. 

Here are two examples of my own bikepacking bag setups over the years:

My bikepacking setup from a few years ago, mostly for gravel riding
My latest lightweight bikepacking bag setup, geared more toward mountain biking

Bikepacking bags can be (relatively) affordable or they can be incredibly expensive, depending on your needs and taste. There are SO many ways to approach a bikepacking bag setup that I can’t cover them all here. See my Beginner’s Guide to Bikepacking Bags to learn more.

Advantages of Bikepacking Bags

Generally speaking, bikepacking bags are a more complex setup than a rack and panniers, with more decisions to make and a steeper learning curve. But the rewards can be big, especially if you’re drawn to rugged and remote riding.

Narrow streamlined shape works better on singletrack, both while riding and for hike-a-bike.

Smaller size encourages selective packing, which saves energy and unlocks more rugged routes.

More aerodynamic profile, if you care about that kind of thing, and you might find that you do while riding into a blasting headwind.

Usually a bit lighter than rack and panniers when not loaded.

Soft attachments are rattle-free and less likely to suffer catastrophic failure in a crash, which is especially important in remote areas where bailing isn’t an option. A few zip ties or an extra Voile strap can repair most issues until civilization is reached.

The bikepacking aesthetic is trendier and arguably cooler than the touring look (personal opinion) 🙂

A lightweight bikepacking bag setup is much easier to manage on singletrack trails.

Drawbacks of Bikepacking Bags

Limited space, especially on small frames and full-suspension bikes. Some people simply can’t use only bikepacking bags for certain trips and need to add a rack and small panniers.

Hard to pack large bulky items, like a tent, into small or awkwardly shaped bags. Packing becomes more of a puzzle.

Often harder to remove from bike and bring into tent or hotel, though more handlebar harnesses and seat bags are using detachable dry bags now. In remote areas where you can camp right beside your bike this is less of an issue.

More fiddly to mount and adjust, sometimes prone to slippage and tire rub, sometimes bag straps conflict with each other. A tight bikepacking setup that works for rough terrain usually takes some trial and error.

More complicated to choose and buy, more styles and sizes to choose from, more decisions to make.

Can be more expensive, especially at the top end (custom bags, etc) though affordable options are available.

There’s definitely a learning curve with bikepacking bags, and my first attempt at a budget-friendly bikepacking bag setup was a saggy overloaded mess. But I still enjoyed riding it!

Hybrid Setups

Though you’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise, it’s not actually against the rules to mix and match styles. In fact, I’m of the opinion that hybrid bikepacking bag + pannier setups are one of the best ways to tackle a longer or more involved trip. Imagination is really your only limiting factor here (well, and money, and physics), but here are a few common ways to approach a blended setup.

Bikepacking Bags in Front, Rack in Back

I went through a phase where I’d fallen hard for bikepacking but was still taking long road tours abroad. I owned a set of bikepacking bags but sometimes needed more space, like for 12+ liters of water in Sudan, for example. I loaded up my touring bike with Ortlieb Backrollers in rear, full frame bag in the middle, and handlebar harness and fork cages in front. 

Touring bicycle in front of pyramids in Sudan desert
Bikepacking bags in front, panniers in back for carrying tons of water through the desert.

In my opinion this hybrid setup makes excellent use of space, both on the rack and on the bike frame. I always think it’s funny to see touring setups with four overstuffed panniers and a big empty frame triangle, and this hybrid setup avoids that.

I do something similar today for international trips with more of an off-pavement focus, swapping in REI Link Panniers for my seat bag and using the rest of my usual bikepacking bag setup. In this case the choice really comes down to panniers versus a seat bag, since everything else stays exactly the same, and gear capacity is my deciding factor.

My off-pavement pannier and bikepacking bag hybrid setup for Central Asia

The panniers versus seat bag dilemma can also come up for small bikepackers using dropper seat posts. For these folks it’s less about capacity and more about being able to actually drop their seat without rubbing a hole in their seat bag. A minimalist rack and micro-panniers can be a great solution; more on this below.

Also, just because you have a rack doesn’t mean you need to put panniers on it. There are creative (and cheaper) solutions using just straps and dry bags. I rode across the United States with this scrappy hybrid setup:

Moving away from panniers, but not quite ready for a seat bag, on a cross-USA tour.

Rack in Front, Bikepacking Bags in Back

I’ve never personally tried this style, so I went poking around the internet to see what I could find. It seems to work best for a) people who have plenty of seat bag space and b) drop handlebars that limit the capacity of a handlebar roll bag.

Here are a couple examples from bikepacking.com’s Reader’s Rigs collection to illustrate:

Minimalist Racks and Cargo Systems

If neither panniers nor bikepacking bags quite fit the bill, a few clever alternatives exist in the niche between them. For riders who like rugged terrain but can’t or don’t want to commit to a full bikepacking bag setup (hello other small people!) minimalist racks like the OMM Elkhorn and Tailfin AeroPack are a great solution.

Related: OMM Elkhorn Review: Minimal, Flexible, Practical

Strap something to the top and/or mount some cargo cages on the side, and you have a mid-range capacity setup that isn’t limited by frame size or suspension and is still fairly agile on rough ground. The best of both worlds?

The OMM Elkhorn rack is a minimalist cargo carrier designed to bridge the gap between panniers and bikepacking bags. Read my review here.

Practical Recommendations

If that list of pros and cons left you saying “Great, but I still don’t know whether bikepacking bags or panniers are right for me, let me break this down in a different way. If I were advising you on your choice, which I guess I am given that you’re here on my website, here’s what I would say to consider (in this order):

Terrain: If you want to ride significant amounts of singletrack trail, I strongly recommend a bikepacking bag setup unless you simply can’t fit it on your bike (small riders, some full-suspension rigs). Even then, consider adding a backpack to try and make it work, or go with a minimalist rack like the OMM Elkhorn. For everyone else, continue to the next point.

Bike size: No matter how badly you want that slick bikepacking bag setup, the available cargo space on your frame can be a deal breaker for shorter bikepackers riding small or XS frames, especially with 29” wheels and smaller frame triangles typical of modern mountain bikes. The dividing line depends on how minimalist you’re willing and able to pack, and a bikepacking bag setup is often still possible with a backpack and heavy use of fork cages (I’m 5’5” and have made this work for multi-month trips). But the reality is, smaller folks will need to pack lighter than larger folks in order to avoid needing a rack and some kind of panniers or hybrid setup.

Your personal aesthetic: Identity is a powerful force. The rest of these considerations are practical, but at the end of the day, if you feel more like yourself when rocking one of these styles or the other, that’s the style you’ll gravitate toward and you’ll find ways to make it work.

Your gear style: The puzzle of minimalist gear appeals to some folks more than others. If you’re the type who enjoys the process of optimizing a lightweight bikepacking gear list, whether through fine-tuning your needs, upgrading your gear, or both, then you’ll probably have an affinity for bikepacking bags (and I’ll warn you, it can be a slippery slope!). You could also ask yourself: Are you optimizing to enjoy riding more, or to enjoy camp more? This is another good proxy for how much you’ll enjoy the lightweight gear puzzle.

Food and water resupply: Really remote and/or dry routes pretty much require a rack and panniers. Even the roomiest bikepacking bag setup isn’t up to carrying a week’s worth of food and ten liters of water. 

Gear requirements of the route: No matter how light we try to pack, some trips just need more stuff. Long-term travel often falls into this category if you like taking time off the bike to sightsee (town clothes needed), hike (shoes and backpack), work (laptop), etc. Cold weather or long routes through multiple seasons and climates require bulkier gear. Trips in rural places with limited bike shops and medical care lend themselves to more spare parts and a bigger first aid kit.

Cost: Both panniers and bikepacking bags come in affordable versions these days, and at the high end the sky is the limit. But if you’re looking for the cheapest way to get some gear attached to your bike, it’s going to be a rack and some really cheap panniers or even just a dry bag or two. There’s also the issue of all the gear that goes inside. While high quality lightweight gear is more affordable than ever, it’s still a lot more expensive than the bulky car camping gear you can find at Walmart, which isn’t going to fit in bikepacking bags.

Example Setups: Cost, Weight, Capacity

So which is actually cheaper, panniers or bikepacking bags? And are bikepacking bags really that much lighter and smaller than a rack and panniers? Let’s go through a few example setups and find out.

Related: Where to Find USED Bikepacking Gear for Low(er) Prices

High Quality Setup Comparison

Here are two comparable setups from well-known brands. They’re not the very highest-dollar bags you can find, but they’re on the more expensive side of the spectrum and all are popular products from respected brands.

I’ve chosen larger capacity bags for this example, but you could certainly go smaller with both setups. You could also add extra capacity to both in the form of a dry bag strapped into the handlebar harness (bikepacking bags) or atop the rear rack (panniers), the latter having more space.

Racks and Panniers

ProductCostWeightCapacity
Tubus Logo Evo Rear Rack$1701.8 lbs
Tubus Lowrider Front Rack$1191.1 lbs
Ortlieb Back-Roller Rear Panniers$2004.2 lbs40 L
Ortlieb Sport-Roller Front Panniers$1803.5 lbs25 L
Ortlieb 5L Handlebar Bag$1101.3 lbs5 L
Total$77911.9 lbs70 L
Total without front rack$4807.3 lbs45 L

Bikepacking Bags

ProductCostWeightCapacity
Revelate Designs Terrapin 14L Seat Bag$1891.3 lbs14 L
Revelate Designs Ripio Frame Bag (size M)$1850.9 lbs7 L
Revelate Designs Handlebar Harness$950.9 lbs
Revelate Designs Saltyroll Dry Bag$400.4 lbs15 L
Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbag x 2$1100.5 lbs2 L
Revelate Designs Mag-Tank Top Tube Bag$590.3 lbs1 L
Blackburn Outpost Cargo Cage x 2 (for fork)$700.7 lbs
Sea to Summit 3L Big River Dry Bag x 2 (for fork)$420.4 lbs6 L
Total$7905.4 lbs45 L

Very interesting! Based on these two example setups:

  • A set of bikepacking bags costs the same as a full rack + panniers setup.
  • A set of bikepacking bags holds the same amount of gear as rear-rack-only pannier setup (though the panniers are much easier to pack).
  • A set of bikepacking bags is a couple pounds lighter than a rear pannier setup that holds the same amount of gear, and way lighter than a full pannier setup.
  • A rear-only pannier setup is substantially cheaper than a set of bikepacking bags that holds the same amount of gear.

Budget-Friendly Setup Comparison

If the prices in those examples made your eyes water, never fear, there are cheaper ways to load up your bike. Some options include buying used gear, adding a backpack to your setup, and some clever DIY hacks.

For purposes of comparison, let’s look at two setups comprised of cheap bike bags from Amazon. These will definitely have some limitations and would not be my first choice for a long trip, but they get the job done while you’re starting out and learning your preferences. Again I’ve chosen relatively high-capacity bags for these examples; you could go smaller.

Racks and Panniers

ProductCostWeightCapacity
Ibera Rear Rack$501.7 lbs
Axiom Journey DXL Low Rider Front Rack$471.4 lbs
Rhinowalk Rear Pannier x2$1124.6 lbs50 L
Rhinowalk Small Front Pannier x2$722.8 lbs14 L
Callcase Bike Handlebar Bag$160.6 lbs5 L
Total$29711.1 lbs69 L
Total without front rack$1786.9 lbs55 L

Bikepacking Bags

ProductCostWeightCapacity
Rhinowalk 13L Saddle Bag$401.7 lbs13 L
Moosetreks Frame Bag (size M)$500.8 lbs12 L
Rhinowalk Handlebar Bag$951.7 lbs12 L
Moosetreks Stem Bag x 2$540.4 lbs2 L
Rockbros Top Tube Bag$260.3 lbs1 L
Blackburn Outpost Cargo Cage x 2 (for fork)$700.7 lbs
Rockbros 5L Dry Bag x 2 (for fork)$260.6 lbs10 L
Total$3616.2 lbs50 L

How do the budget-friendly panniers versus bikepacking bags shake out? At the bottom end of the price spectrum, racks and panniers are an even better value than bikepacking bags. In fact, a rear pannier setup costs less than half of a bikepacking bag setup and holds just as much. If budget really is a concern, it’s hard to beat a rear rack and panniers for getting on the road cheaply.

Mid-Range Bikepacking Setup

If you’re looking for excellent value in bikepacking setups, there’s a solid mid-range tier from makers like REI (see their Link series) and Topeak. These bags will probably be more durable than the cheap Amazon bags listed above, and more affordable than the high-quality setup mentioned first.

Final Thoughts

As you can hopefully see by now, there’s no single right way to pack for bicycle travel. The question of bikepacking bags versus panniers can only be answered in the context of a specific trip and rider. Start with one, maybe try the other, mix and match both until you find the perfect setup for your needs.

Just to be contrary, I’ll finish with two examples of what could be considered incorrect choices that still worked out fine.

Cyclist pushing loaded touring bike across rickety log bridge
This is the type of trail where most people would use bikepacking bags, but we made it work with panniers while touring in Patagonia.
Riding pavement in eastern Oregon with bikepacking bags, because why not?

The most important part: just get out there and ride! The rest has a way of working itself out.

More Bikepacking and Touring Resources

Here are some other posts you might find helpful on your pedal-powered journey:

Or check out the full list of bicycle travel resources here.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 20,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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    6 thoughts on “Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags: The Debate Evolves (Again)”

    1. Panniers for me! I made my own canvas panniers got blackburn and minoura racks and rode 56,000km round the world. If you pack right you can hit 60mph and the bike feels steady and in control, I also rode the nubian desert in sudan an amazing ride impossible without panniers (stuffed with water}. i would recommend buying or making 4 panniers rather than 2 as the bike is way more balanced with weight up front I like 50 /50 front to rear If you can afford it get the ortlieb panniers you can even do your washing on the road just bung your clothes in a front bag with soap and water and ride on

      Reply
    2. Thanks a lot for all these infos! I was wondering what was what was available to bring on the road food wise and how often did you have the chance to shop. Your bags are so small, I wonder what you can bring along!

      Thanks a lot for this work.

      Reply
      • With the more minimalist bikepacking setup I usually carry 2-3 days of food because I’m in remote places. Sometimes I need to add larger dry bags on the fork. On those kinds of trips I eat a simple backpacking-style diet that packs down small: ramen or instant rice, oatmeal, cheese and tortillas, trail mix, etc. With the panniers I rarely need to carry that much because I use that setup for road riding in more populated areas, but obviously it could hold more if needed.

        Reply
    3. I’ve been bikepacking for years with traditional bikepacking bags but recently went all in on Old Man Mountain Divide racks for trail bike and fat bike, with Revelate Designs Nano panniers, or 15 litre touring panniers if I need the volume. And a 5 or 8 litre dry bag to strap on the deck. Why? I wanted to ditch my 10 litre backpack and reclaim the use of my dropper seat posts. One thing you may want to mention is that, for bikepacking, panniers need to be securely attached to the rack with hook and loop straps and/or the Rixen and Kaul Modul attachment system (or equivalent). Panniers with hooks or bungie cords will perform poorly over rough terrain, potentially ejecting from the bike.

      Reply

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