In-Depth Review: REI Co-op Link Panniers (900 Rugged Miles in Central Asia)

As we prepped for a month of rugged bikepacking in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, my husband and I faced a dilemma.

Complex international trip with a six day food carry = too much stuff to fit in a seat bag.

Rocky backroads, gnarly hike-a-bikes, and tricky river crossings = something smaller and more off-road-friendly than my old Ortlieb Back-Rollers.

Enter the REI Co-op Link Panniers.

While micro and mini-panniers are becoming popular with bikepackers, they were too small for our needs. The Link Panniers hold a generous 18 liters each – almost (but not quite, which is a good thing in my opinion) as much as an Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic.

We loved that the Link Panniers are designed for rugged off-road use. Instead of plastic hooks, the soft hook-and-loop (Velcro) straps attach to almost any rack with rattle-free and break-proof stability. Compression straps promised to keep our load stable, whether hauling six days of food out of town or rolling into the next town on fumes and a single bag of peanuts.

Finally, like all REI Co-op brand gear, the Link Panniers are very reasonably priced. We’d just spent a small fortune on plane tickets to Bishkek and weren’t in the mood to spend more.

So we took a risk I wouldn’t typically recommend: we bought two sets of Link Panniers and, with zero overnight testing beforehand, took them to Central Asia for a month of bikepacking. Yes, our trip prep was a little last-minute!

How did it go? Here’s my in-depth review of our Link Panniers during 900 miles of bikepacking in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The trip was “adventurous”: scorching heat, torrential rain, river crossings, high altitude carry-a-bike climbs, stomach troubles, and more. While we faced many challenges, I’m happy to say our panniers were not one of them.

My Kyrgyzstan bikepacking setup
Husband’s Kyrgyzstan bikepacking setup

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Review Summary

REI’s Link Panniers are a smart and unique solution for dirt-loving bikepackers who need more gear than a seat bag can carry. The hook-and-loop straps make for rattle-free and break-proof attachment on the roughest of terrain, and compression straps keep loads of any size as streamlined as possible. My husband and I just put 900+ rough miles on our Link Panniers in Central Asia and found them nearly perfect for the job.

Price: $80 each ($160 for pair)

Weight: 17 oz each

Size: 18 L each

Weight limit: 20 pounds each

Colors: grey or brown

My rating: 4.5 / 5 stars, almost perfect

Note: It looks like brown color has been discontinued and is on sale for a great price (yay!). The grey color has been going in and out of stock, but hopefully will be more consistently available soon.

Pros:

  • Velcro attachments are secure, versatile, rattle-proof and break-proof even on rough ground
  • Roomy enough for long or complex trips but won’t tempt you to overpack too horrendously
  • Lightweight construction won’t add too much weight to your bike
  • Compression straps can adapt to a smaller or larger load
  • External straps and pockets make it easy to dry laundry, attach a solar panel, or carry awkwardly shaped items like sandals or tent poles
  • Affordable price
  • Comes as a single pannier, in case you want to mix and match
  • Made from bluesign®-approved materials for sustainability and safety

Cons:

  • Time-consuming to remove from rack for bringing into tent or motel, carrying bike across rivers, etc.
  • Water resistant but not completely waterproof (don’t submerge)
  • Would be nice to have a right-side and left-side pannier so that both pockets could be oriented toward the back; a front-facing pocket might be unusable for some riders due to heel clearance issues.
  • Included gray stuff sacks are hard to tell apart; wish they came in different colors to make organizing easier

Attachment System

The attachment system is the primary reason we chose the Link Panniers for this bikepacking trip.

I’ve used Ortlieb Back-Roller panniers for a number of pavement-focused bike tours in the past. While they have some nice advantages – easy to remove from the rack, very waterproof – their plastic attachment system doesn’t inspire my confidence for the rougher gravel and singletrack riding I do now.

The Link Pannier system uses four smartly placed hook-and-loop (also known as Velcro) straps that wrap around various parts of a front or rear rack. The top straps support most of the weight while the bottom straps, angled at a diagonal, add stability.

Closeup of the lower straps on a Tubus Logo Evo rack

This system has two key advantages over plastic hooks on rough terrain: it doesn’t rattle, and it won’t break under strain like a plastic hook could. (To be fair, Ortlieb’s plastic hooks are extremely durable and I’ve ridden gravel with them in the past and had no issues.)

Each strap is actually a robust set of two straps that stick to the back of the pannier and to each other, creating a bomb-proof connection. They’re so sticky that it’s actually a little hard to get them on and off, but that’s ok – better too sticky than not enough.

Each attachment point uses two very sticky hook-and-loop straps that wrap over each other for a secure fit.

The placement of the straps is versatile and forgiving, and unlike hooks it doesn’t require a certain diameter of rack tubing. While I’m sure there’s a rack out there they won’t fit, we had no problems positioning the straps on our Tubus Logo Evo and Old Man Mountain Divide racks.

My REI Link Panniers fit perfectly on my Old Man Mountain rack, and would fit a variety of other racks too.

There is one downside to the Link’s attachment system: it takes a couple minutes to get the panniers on and off the rack. It’s doable, but not something you want to do every night to bring gear into your tent or motel room. We left the panniers on the bikes and just grabbed an armful of stuff sacks to carry into our tent or room; minor inconvenience but we got used to it. We were forced to remove the panniers a couple times so we could carry bikes across rivers, and while it was doable it added slightly to the frustration factor.

Occasionally we needed to remove the panniers to deal with river crossings, which was kind of a pain.
It was easier to leave the panniers on the bike rather than bringing them into the tent, so we got good at grabbing what we needed from them each night.

Compression Straps

The Link Panniers have two horizontal compression straps, which turned out to be extremely useful for more than just compression.

The straps are designed to compress partially empty panniers to keep them stable. This is super helpful for loads that expand and contract, like eating your way through a large food supply, leaving room for extra water on a dry stretch, or wearing ALL your warm layers on a chilly day.

We also found the straps perfectly positioned for attaching all these things:

  • Drying laundry
  • Our BigBlue 28W solar panel
  • Sandals, easily accessible for water crossings (and because who wants dirty sandals inside the panniers?)
  • Tail light for occasional highway riding

My only gripe with the compression straps: they’re a little fiddly to adjust. Maybe I just didn’t figure out the knack to using the buckles.

The compression straps are also perfect for attaching awkwardly shaped items, like sandals and a solar panel as shown here.
Compression straps are also handy for drying laundry, like my chamois (shown here as I help a local man pump his motorbike tire with a bicycle pump. Awkward… hopefully he didn’t notice.)

Pockets

Each pannier has a pocket running all the way down one side, which REI says is for tent poles.

I think these pockets are useful, though we never tried using them for tent poles. I used mine for wet socks and to hold the power bank being charged by my solar panel (not at the same time).

I would worry slightly about tent poles being vulnerable to breakage in a crash when using these pockets. Perhaps a shorter set of poles (like those on newer bikepacking-focused tents) would fit perfectly, but a longer set would stick up beyond the top of the bag. That said, tent poles can be tricky to pack on a bike and this solution seems as good as any.

Related: 5 Ways to Carry A Tent on a Bike

My one wish for the pockets: I would prefer a left-handed and right-handed version so both panniers can have the pocket oriented toward the back. On bikes with minimal heel clearance the forward-facing pocket is less usable.

Roll-Top Closure

The Link Pannier closes with a single buckle that secures a roll-top closure. I like this design – it’s quick and easy to get gear in and out during the day. The resulting loop is also convenient for carrying the pannier by hand when it’s off the bike.

The only drawback: it takes some care to make sure the closure is waterproof. You need to roll down the fabric several times, and if the pannier is too full it’s a struggle to do this correctly.

The roll top closure makes it super fast and easy to get things in and out, like this bag of snacks during a mid-day break.

Capacity

I love a minimalist seat bag setup for bikepacking. On longer trips I use a 14 liter saddle bag, and for short trips or bikepacking races I pare down to a 7 liter saddle bag. But for more complex trips where I need tons of food, cold weather gear, or more extensive first aid and bike repair supplies, I’m forced to go back to a rack and panniers.

Related: Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags

The REI Link Panniers fill a unique niche in the bikepacking space. Their 18 liter size is almost as large as a traditional touring pannier (the Ortlieb Back-Roller holds 20 liters), making it a viable alternative for riders on rugged and complex trips who need plenty of space. Two panniers combined hold 36 liters, plus whatever you can strap to the top of the rack – vastly more than any bikepacking seat bag.

I also love that the Link panniers are slightly smaller than traditional panniers. Panniers in general aren’t great for hike-a-bike, and every inch counts when your calf keeps brushing your bag on an endless climb. The Link feels noticeably more compact than my Ortlieb, especially with the compression straps cinched down a bit.

Hike-a-bike and panniers don’t always go well together, so it’s nice that the Link Panniers are a little smaller and can be cinched down tightly.

The bags hold their shape well even when partly empty, thanks to a plastic back panel and ballistic nylon bottom and the aforementioned compression straps.

Each pannier is rated for up to twenty pounds of load. That’s similar to many standard panniers and is unlikely to limit your packing decisions, unless you like really heavy gear. The combined 40 pound rating may actually be more than your rack is rated for!

Water Resistance

REI says the Link Panniers offer “multilevel weather protection” via DWR-treated outer fabric, seam-sealed inner liners, and three drop-in stuff sacks that are DWR-treated and seam-sealed.

What does all that mean in practice? The Link Panniers are robustly water-resistant (if closed properly) and will keep your gear dry in the rain. However, they are not waterproof. While they might survive a quick accidental dunk – a possibility we came close to testing during our river crossings – I would not trust them to be submerged for any length of time.

We encountered lots of rain in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. LOTS of rain. We never had any issues with the contents of our panniers getting wet.

We never had trouble with water getting into our Link Panniers, despite lots of stormy weather in Kyrgyzstan.

Stuff Sacks

Each pannier comes with two lightweight water-resistant stuff sacks to help with organization and weatherproofing. They fit well in the pannier and are useful for organizing if you don’t already have your own organization system. I used mine for clothes: one for bottoms, one for tops, and one for miscellaneous accessories.

As someone with my own organization systems from many miles on the road and trail, I have a request to REI: make these stuff sacks in different colors please! If you use both sacks from two panniers you have four opaque tan stuff sacks that all look the same… When they’re all sitting in my tent I pick the wrong one to open first every single time.

Weight vs. Features

The Link Panniers are pleasantly lightweight. At only 17 ounces each, a pair is a full two pounds lighter than a pair of Ortlieb Back-Rollers. When you’re pushing up a massive mountain, every pound counts!

Some of this weight difference comes from the soft attachment system, simple closure hardware, and non-waterproof fabric. As in the lightweight backpacking space, a simple design and minimal organizational features also keep weight down.

Two examples of these tradeoffs: lack of any interior pockets and lack of a shoulder strap. I wouldn’t mind a small zippered pocket against the back panel for protecting and keeping track of small items.

I also think a detachable shoulder strap would be a nice touch. We carried our panniers onto the plane and would have appreciated a shoulder strap while walking through airports. But I can understand why REI left this off, since these panniers are designed to stay on the bike.

Durability

Despite their lightweight construction – at 17 ounces each pannier is a full pound lighter than an Ortlieb Back-Roller – we found the Link Panniers very durable. After a month of rugged use ours are good as new with zero signs of wear and tear. If that changes as we put more miles on them, I’ll update this review.

Conclusion

We took a risk on the Link Panniers because REI has a history of making well-designed gear at good prices. The rest of their bikepacking bag lineup looks carefully thought out and these panniers seemed no different.

I’m happy to say they worked out really well for our bikepacking trip in Central Asia. We’ll definitely use them again for future trips with similar needs (off-pavement adventures requiring more cargo space than a bikepacking bag setup) and I’ll update this review with any future impressions.

If you’re looking for a set of dirt-friendly panniers at an affordable price, I definitely recommend the Link Panniers. As a relatively new item in REI’s lineup, they made a strong entrance in an already crowded space. If REI listens to feedback and tweaks a few minor design choices, these panniers will be perfect.

More Bikepacking Resources

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Or, head over to the complete bicycle travel section for lots more!

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve traveled over 15,000 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 or say hi.

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    2 thoughts on “In-Depth Review: REI Co-op Link Panniers (900 Rugged Miles in Central Asia)”

    1. Love, love, love these panniers for mixed terrain bike touring! I bought a set when they first came out (the tan ones with orange stuff sacks that are the same color as the liner fabric, go figure REI) and haven’t used my Ortleib back rollers since. Had too many experiences on the Pony Express route where the Ortleibs jettisoned off the rear rack….mine and another fellow’s Ortleib, when we were on the gnarlier sections of the trail.
      If you use oversized ziplock bags as liners, you can take the entire bag out, leaving the pannier attached for overnights and portaging. Just completed a tour of the San Juan Islands with these panniers again and am thinking of putting my Ortleib back rollers up for sale on the bay…

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