Bikepacking Bags Vs Panniers: Pros and Cons

by wheretheroadforks

Are you thinking about switching from a traditional rack and panniers setup to bikepacking bags?  I made this transition while preparing for a recent tour. After some extensive research and testing with both types of luggage, I put together this bikepacking bags vs panniers pros and cons list to help you decide which to go with on your next tour. This guide analyzes the volume and weight of the bags as well as differences in efficiency, handling, ride quality, ease of use, cost, and more. 

 I also made this short video to outline the main points of the article.

Bikepacking Bags Vs Panniers and Racks: What’s the difference?

The purpose of bikepacking bags and panniers is to carry luggage on your bike. Generally speaking, bikepacking bags are made for off-road use while panniers and racks are made for road riding.

Racks and panniers are generally preferred by bicycle tourists who need to carry all of the necessities for weeks, months, or even years on the road. Most bicycle tourists spend more time riding on the pavement and travel long distances. Often internationally. 

Bikepacking bags are often preferred by those who spend more time riding off-pavement, on long stretches of gravel roads, and single track through rural or wilderness regions. Most bikepackers take a minimalist approach to packing to keep the bike lightweight and agile. 

What are Bikepacking Bags?

Bikepacking bags are soft bags that attach directly to the frame of the bike with straps and Velcro. No metal racks are needed.

A wide range of bikepacking bags have hit the market to fit different sizes and styles of bikes. You can find bikepacking bags that will fit pretty much every frame. Many manufacturers are happy to build custom bags for you as well.

A bike with bikepacking bags

A bikepacking bike with a handlebar roll, frame bag, and seat pack

The main bikepacking bags include:

  • Handlebar harness or roll- This is basically a dry bag which secures to the handlebars with straps. A handlebar harness uses a separate dry bag. This way, you can use different size bags depending on the amount of gear you carry. A handlebar roll has the dry bag built-in. With both styles, you access your gear from the sides of the bag. Handlebar bags usually hold 15-20 liters of gear. Many models offer attachment points on the outside where you can attach a small bag or additional gear. You can even attach your tent. 
  • Frame bag- This oddly shaped bag fits in the triangle of your bike frame. Frame bags secure to the frame with velcro or straps around the top tube, down tube, and seat tube. These usually hold 8-14 liters of equipment. They are often custom made to maximize space because each bike frame has a slightly different triangle geometry. These come in full frame and half frame sizes. The half-size style allows you to utilize your water bottle attachments points in the triangle. Most frame bags open with a zipper on the top of the bag. The zippers tend to fail if the bags are overpacked. Some frame bags use a roll-top design to solve this problem. 
  • Seat pack- These teardrop-shaped bags attache to the seat post and saddle rails with straps and velcro. Seat packs usually hold 8-17 liters of gear. These often act as a compression sack. They are great for storing your sleeping bag and clothes. Many models have attachment points on the outside where you can strap additional gear like a cook pot or sandals. 

In addition to the three primary bags, a number of smaller accessory bags are also available which can add some extra capacity. Some bikepackers attach a 5-8 liter drybag to each side of the forks. Some riders mount gas tank style bags to the top tube for an extra liter or two of storage space. Feed bags mounted to the handlebars are also a good way to store food or extra water bottles. 

What Are Racks and Panniers?

Panniers are large rectangular bags that attach to metal racks on the front and rear of the bike. The racks bolt directly to the frame. Panniers secure to the racks with a plastic or metal hook system. The system varies by brand.

Front and rear racks and panniers

Front and rear racks and panniers on a touring bike

A typical rack and pannier setup includes: 

  • Rear Rack- The rack bolts directly to the bike frame. Racks are made of steel, titanium, or aluminum. 
  • 2 Rear Panniers- These large bags attach to either side of the rack. Combined, they accommodate 25-70 liters of equipment depending on style.
  • Front Rack- This rack attaches directly to the fork. Some front racks are designed to only carry panniers. Some offer a basket or flat spot where you can attach additional gear. 
  • 2 Front Panniers- These are smaller than rear panniers. They accommodate 15-30 liters of equipment.
  • Handlebar bag- These mount to the handlebars and carry an additional 8-12 liters of gear. This is a great place to store valuables because the bag detaches quickly and easily. 

In addition to the above, many bicycle tourists strap a 30-40 liter duffel bag on top of the rear rack and panniers. Another option is to strap large, bulky gear like your tent, sleeping pad, or sleeping bag to the rear rack. 

Bikepacking Bags Pros

bikepacking bags on a mountain bike

Bikepacking bags are lighter than panniers

Because no heavy steel or aluminum racks are required to mount the bags, you can save a significant amount of weight. A standard set of bikepacking bags weighs around 2 kilos (4.4 lbs). A set of racks and panniers might weigh 5 kilos (about 11 lbs).

Of course, you need to match the volume of each to get an accurate idea of the weight you’re saving. A benefit of the lighter weight is that you can often pick up your entire fully loaded bike when need be. 

The bike handles better with bikepacking bags

With bikepacking bags, the weight of all of your gear is held close to the bike’s center of gravity. This helps keep your load balanced. You won’t be too rear heavy or overloaded on one side. This allows you to corner predictably and accurately. You can follow a line better while riding on technical terrain. 

The lighter weight helps with handling as well. The bike feels much more nimble and responsive when it’s not loaded down with so much heavy gear. 

Better handling makes it easier to navigate through rough roads or singletrack. It’s also more fun to ride a bike with quick and responsive handling. 

Bikepacking bags offer better aerodynamics

According to this excellent article from Cycling About, bikepacking bags allow you to travel about 6.5% faster than panniers on average. The reason is the improved aerodynamics. Bikepacking bags keep everything streamlined. There are no big bulky rectangular bags sticking out to each side causing drag and slowing you down.

In cycling, aerodynamics are incredibly important. For example, according to this article, at speeds above 9 mph, air resistance becomes the main force acting against you. You’ll benefit more from improved aerodynamics on flat routes and paved sections where you tend to ride faster. For hilly or off-road routes, aerodynamics matter less

Bikepacking bags put less wear and tear on the bike and components

Because you are carrying around less weight, you are putting less wear and tear on your bike. Rims, chains, cassettes, brake pads, tires, and chainrings last longer. This saves you money on replacement parts and saves you time on maintenance.

Bikepacking bags are more efficient

Because bikepacking bags are lighter and more aerodynamic than panniers, you can maintain a higher average speed and cover more ground while burning the same amount of energy. Aerodynamics and weight are particularly important on long tours. A small amount of energy savings adds up to hundreds of additional miles over the course of a couple of months. 

For example, you may be able to cover an extra .5-1 mile per hour by switching to bikepacking bags. Over the course of a monthlong tour, you could potentially cover an extra 150-200 miles.

Bikepacking bags can be mounted to any bike

Some bikes don’t have the required braze-ons for mounting racks. This is particularly common on bikes with carbon fiber frames, full-suspension mountain bikes, and folding bikes. Any bike can be fitted with bikepacking bags because they attach with Velcro and straps. Nothing bolts to the frame. This allows you to tour on any bike. 

You won’t overpack when you use bikepacking bags

Most bicycle tourists overpack. Bikepacking bags solve that problem because they simply offer less volume than panniers. A typical bikepacking setup usually offers 45 liters of volume between the three main bags while a standard set of 4 panniers can hold 65 liters.

Because you have less volume to work with, you have to consider every piece of gear that you pack. There is no space for luxury items or things you’ll rarely use. You can only pack the necessities. This prevents overpacking and makes your whole setup much lighter. In fact, some riders consider this to be the only reason that bikepacking bags are lighter than panniers.  

If your bikepacking bags tear, you can repair them yourself

Because bikepacking bags are made of fabric, you can easily repair holes with a needle and thread. A small sewing kit is lightweight and takes up very little space. You can even use the same sewing kit that you use for tubeless tire repair. If you are traveling to a remote place and your metal rack breaks, you could be out of luck. 

You can ride rougher terrain

Bikepacking bags are designed to stay stable and not bounce around when riding over rocks, branches, potholes, and other obstacles. On a fatbike or full-suspension mountain bike, bikepacking bags can handle all of the sand, snow, river crossing, and gnarley singletrack that you can throw at them. If you happen to fall over, there are no racks to break. Bikepacking bags are rugged enough to withstand getting knocked around, crashed with, or tipped over. 

You can make them yourself

Many bikepackers sew their own bags. With some basic sewing knowledge and a bit of practice, you can do this too. Measure your frame and make your own custom bags for a fraction of the cost of buying from a bikepacking company. 

For inspiration, check out this guide from bikepacking.com. I plan to borrow my mom’s sewing machine and give this a try sometime soon. I’ll report back with my results. You can also make a simple handlebar harness with this guide.  

You can ride through more narrow gaps

Bikepacking bags give your bike a more narrow profile so you can ride between trees and rocks on a trail without the bags hitting. They are also better for riding through crowded cities and dense traffic because you can fit through narrow gaps between cars. This makes it easier and much less stressful to complete the last few miles into an urban center.

Panniers stick out wide and make passing through narrow gaps impossible.

You can push your bike more easily

Panniers get in the way and hit your leg when pushing. This isn’t a problem with bikepacking bags because they don’t stick out off the frame. This comes in handy if you ride in places where you need to do a lot of hike and bike. This is one of the main reasons that bikepacking bags are designed the way they are. 

Bikepacking bags are trendy right now

For most riders, this doesn’t really matter. If you care about using the most modern gear, bikepacking bags are it right now. 

Bikepacking Bags Cons

A bikepacker riding with a backpack

Many bikepackers chose to wear a small backpack

Bikepacking bags have less carrying capacity

Generally, bikepacking bags can carry less volume than panniers. For example, an average handlebar bag can hold 15-20 liters, a frame bag 10-15 liters, and a seat bag 10-25 liters. Altogether bikepacking bags give you about 35-60 liters of space for all of your gear.

If you ride a small framed bike, this volume will be on the lower end. An average bikepacking setup accommodates around 50 liters. You can increase the capacity to around 75 liters if you add fork mounted bags or some accessory bags.

Panniers, on the other hand, have a significantly greater luggage capacity. You can easily mount 4 panniers and have 65-120+ liters of luggage space. With bikepacking bags, there isn’t room for luxury items like your pillow, guitar, camp chair, etc. 

Carrying large amounts of food and water is harder with bikepacking bags

If you ride through remote regions like rugged deserts or wilderness, you may have to carry 5-10 days worth of food. This is difficult with bikepacking bags because of the reduced storage capacity. You have to be thoughtful about what types of food you buy. You don’t have the luxury of an empty pannier where you can just stuff a whole loaf of bread or bag of chips.

Hauling water is more difficult as well. Packing 10 liters of water onto a bikepacking setup requires you to use a multitude of cages, bottles, and bladders. If you’re traveling through a highly-populated area and eating most of your meals in restaurants, you won’t face this problem.

Bikepacking bags are harder to pack

Bikepacking bags are oddly shaped. Handlebar bags and seat bags are cylinders. Frame bags are triangles. These are awkward and inefficient shapes to pack. Everything must be strategically packed in its place in order to make it all fit. Packing for the first time feels like you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle. You can’t just throw everything in with room to spare like you can with big rectangular panniers.

Bikepacking bags are a hassle to take off and put back on

This is my biggest complaint. Bikepacking bags secure to the bike with a series of Velcro, buckles, and straps. They are quite tedious and time-consuming to mount and remove. They don’t just clip on and off in seconds like panniers.

It takes me around 5 minutes to mount or remove my bikepacking bags. This gets pretty annoying when I want to detach the bags to carry them into my hotel room or into my tent to protect them from theft.

While bikepacking, I prefer to leave the bags attached to the bike as much as possible. Having said this, it’s pretty rare that I have to remove the bags while bikepacking because I’m usually wild camping in rural areas and staying in fewer hotels. 

Bikepacking bags make your gear more difficult to access

Because everything has to be packed so tightly and strategically to make it fit, you may need to take everything out to access gear at the bottom of the bags. For example, if you want an item of clothing in the bottom of your seat pack, you might need to remove your sleeping bag. The small openings make accessing your gear harder.

Accessing your things in panniers is much easier because they are just big rectangular bags with a large opening at the top.

You may have to wear a backpack

Many bikepackers show off their ultralight, minimalist setup but fail to mention that they had to wear a backpack to carry gear that wouldn’t fit in their small bags. Many carry a camelback style backpack to hold extra water as well.

Having extra weight on your back puts additional stress on your wrists, butt, and back. It is also hot and makes you sweat more. To me, this is a dealbreaker. If I can’t fit all of my gear in my bikepacking bags, I’ll use my panniers. 

It’s more expensive to use bikepacking bags

A set of quality bikepacking bags costs about $300-$400. This is about the same as the cost of a good set of racks and panniers. Where the added cost comes in is your camping gear.

In order to fit everything, you’ll have to buy an ultralight shelter, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. This is the same that you would use for ultralight hiking. Ultralight gear costs much more and doesn’t last any longer than normal camping gear.

For example, an ultralight sleeping bag or quilt costs $200-$400. You can buy a normal sleeping bag at any department store for $50. An ultralight tent costs $300-$600. You can buy a perfectly good camping tent for less than $100. You’ll probably spend an extra $400+ in camping gear if you go with bikepacking bags instead of panniers

Packing up in the morning takes more time

This one area where bikepacking is slower. Because you have less space to work with, you have to take time to pack all of your gear tightly in its place. This takes additional time and care.

You can’t just throw your gear in your panniers and hit the road. On my last tour, I took about 5-10 minutes longer to pack up my things in the morning than my friend who was using panniers. I’m usually the fast one but bikepacking bags slowed me down. 

Carrying a laptop or photography gear is difficult with bikepacking bags

If you want to tour with a full-sized 13-15 inch laptop, DSLR camera, or a drone, you’ll probably have to carry it in a backpack. Bikepacking bags just don’t have enough space for large and heavy electronics.

Depending on your frame size, you may be able to fit a small laptop or a tablet with a 10-12 inch screen in the frame bag. One possible solution would be to use a Carradice style saddlebag. Check out this guide to saddlebags from Bikepacking.com for more info.

Bikepacking bags need to be adjusted and tightened periodically

Seat packs have a tendency to sway back and forth as you pedal. The solution is to lighten the load or tighten the straps a bit more. You can also install some type of support system. Some brands work better than others.

If you overpack your frame bag, your cranks can rub against it as you pedal. The solution here is to rearrange your gear to make the bag more narrow. Handlebar roll straps can loosen over time or while riding rough terrain. You might have to tighten them up once in a while. These problems become more frequent while riding on rough roads. 

There are a lot of pieces and parts

Most bikepacking setups include a seat pack, frame bag, handlebar bag, as well as a few of cages for mounting water bottles. For more space, you may also want to add some accessory bags like a top tube bag or handlebar roll accessory bag or fork mounted cages.

This is a lot of little bags and parts. The weight and cost add up fast. It’s possible to put together a bikepacking setup that costs more and weighs more than racks and panniers if you’re not careful. Keeping track of all of the little bags can get annoying as well. 

Panniers and Racks Pros

two bikes with panniers

Panniers can carry a larger volume of gear

Paniers are much more spacious than bikepacking bags. Typical panniers carry about 20 liters each for the rear and about 12.5 liters each up front. That equals 65 liters of space.

Extra larger 70 liter rear panniers and rear rack duffel bags are also available which expand the total volume to well over 120 liters if needed. This is nearly double what you can fit in the largest bikepacking bags.

If you’re traveling long term or during the winter when you’ll need bulky gear, panniers are the best choice. There is plenty of room for extra warm clothing, food, luxury items, electronics, and souvenirs. 

Panniers are easier to pack

Panniers are large rectangular bags with a wide opening on top. It is easy to just throw all of your gear into your panniers and go. They pack quickly and efficiently. You don’t have to spend time packing everything in careful in its place. I can pack twice as fast when using panniers. 

Panniers are easier to take off and put on

Panniers simply lift off the racks and pop back on in just a matter of seconds with a special clip system. You could probably remove and replace all of your panniers in less than a minute.

This is useful when you stay in a hotel. You can quickly and easily remove your panniers and carry them into your room. It’s great for security as well. When you go into a shop or restaurant, you can take your valuable panniers with you and lock up your bike. It’s also nice when you want to ride your bike around unloaded to go sightseeing in a city.

Bikepacking bags have a complicated series of straps that take 10-15 minutes to install and remove. You won’t want to take them off often. 

You can carry a laptop and photography gear

A full-sized 13-15 inch laptop will fit inside a standard 20 liter rear pannier. This is important if you need to carry your computer for work or you just want to bring it for entertainment. For more info, check out my guide: How to Carry a Laptop While Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking.

Panniers are also wide and voluminous enough to carry large cameras, lenses, a drone, etc. This is great for those who like to document their trips. 

Using panniers is cheaper

A good set of panniers and racks can be had for $300-$400. This is similar to the price of a good set of bikepacking bags. Where you save money is in your camping gear.

Because you have more space, you can get away with using lower-end camping gear. You don’t have to shell out for ultralight tents and sleeping bags. You can just buy the bulky budget version which takes up twice the space but costs a fraction of the price.

For example, instead of paying $300 for a 2 pound ultralight tent, you can pay $100 for a 4 pound tent. When it comes to high-end camping gear, you are paying for weight savings, not durability. 

Panniers make packing up in the morning faster

You can just throw all of your gear in, clip them to the racks, and go. You don’t have to pack as efficiently or tightly. This saves you 5-10 minutes each morning.

People know you’re riding long distance

When someone sees you riding by on your fully loaded touring bike outfitted with 4 panniers, they know you’re on a long trip. The reason this is nice is because people are more likely to help you out or offer encouragement to someone who’s far from home.

If you’re riding with bikepacking bags, many people assume you’re just out on a day trip and won’t bother to say hello. This is my personal experience. 

Panniers and Racks Cons

touring bike with racks and panniers

Image: “Loaded Touring Bicycle”, by Keithonearth, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Panniers are heavier

Because panniers require heavy steel or aluminum racks, the whole setup, even when empty, is generally heavier than bikepacking bags. On average, a set of panniers and racks weighs 2-3 kg (4.4-6.6 lbs) more than bikepacking bags.

Due to the larger capacity, you’ll probably be tempted to pack extra gear that you don’t really need as well. When you have empty space, it’s easy to just start throwing in useless items. This adds more weight.

Ultralight panniers and racks are available which make the weight difference much smaller. Weight per liter of storage can be lower with panniers if you use large volume bags and lightweight racks. More on this later. 

Panniers can’t be mounted to every bike

Panniers require a rack to be mounted on. Racks require braze-ons or rack mounts on the frame attach the rack to. Not all bikes come equipped with the proper braze-ons for mounting racks.

For example, you shouldn’t mount racks to carbon fiber framed bikes because the weight of the panniers can cause damage to the frame. Often times it is impossible to mount frames to full suspension mountain bikes due to the design. Bikepacking bags can mount to any bike.

Your bike components won’t last as long when you use panniers

Because you are carrying around more weight, you are putting more wear and tear on your bike and components. Wheels, chains, cassettes, tires, and brake pads all have to work harder when you are carrying around more weight. These items wear out faster and need to be replaced more often. This costs money. Maintenance will also be required more frequently.

You must distribute the weight of your gear evenly on your bike while packing panniers

If all of your heavy gear is packed on one side, the bike will not be balanced and handling will suffer. If you pack all of your gear on the back, the front wheel will want to come off the ground while pushing the bike. You need to take balance into consideration when packing panniers. Bikepacking bags naturally balance the load by design.

A bike with panniers doesn’t handle as well

A number of factors contribute to this. First is the weight. A touring bike fully loaded with heavy panniers and racks rides like a tank. It wants to power through obstacles rather than around or over them. The steering becomes slow and unresponsive.

If the panniers are poorly balanced, your steering can become unpredictable and inaccurate. This makes it hard to navigate obstacles in the trail or road. It’s just not as fun to ride a slow and heavy bike. 

Panniers are less aerodynamically efficient

Panniers are big, rectangular bags that stick out in the wind. They create a lot of drag which slows you down. The faster you ride, the more aerodynamics matter.

Panniers make you slower and less efficient

Because panniers are heavier and less aerodynamic, it takes more energy to travel the same distance with panniers than it would with bikepacking bags. The added weight makes it harder to accelerate and climb hills because you’re carrying more mass around. 

The added drag slows you down when riding through a headwind or speeding trough a flat section. Your average pace will be slightly slower when you use panniers.

Over the course of a long tour, you may average a mile an hour or so slower. You’ll also cover less ground every day. This can add up to hundreds of miles if you’re touring for a few months. 

Racks can break

With all of the weight of the panniers bouncing around mile after mile, sooner or later, the metal rack will fatigue and brake. If you happen to be far from civilization when this happens, it can become a major problem. Steel racks can be welded anywhere but you may have a harder time finding someone who can fix a broken aluminum rack. It’s a good idea to carry zip-ties to hold a broken rack together temporarily.

The bolts can also loosen over time. Periodically, you’ll have to check them and tighten when necessary. Sometimes they loosen and fall out. It’s a good idea to carry spares in case this happens. You can also apply a bit of Locktight Threadlocker blue to the bolts to help keep them in place. 

Panniers bounce around while riding off-road

Listening to your pannier rattle and bounce on the frame mile after mile gets annoying. On particularly rough roads, panniers have been known to detach from the rack and fall off. This problem is more common with some brands than others.

For these reasons, panniers aren’t ideal for off-road riding. If you do plan to ride off-road with panniers, look for a model that was designed for the purpose. They use a sturdier attachment system. 

Panniers get in the way when pushing the bike

If you have to get off and push up a steep hill, through a sandy section, or over a gnarly rocky path, the panniers will hit your leg and get in the way. They stick out just where your legs want to be while pushing.

Panniers are wider, which makes navigating narrow trails much more difficult

Your panniers can hit trees and rocks when riding singletrack. You also can’t ride through narrow gaps between cars because your panniers are sticking out too far.

a bike with rear panniers

If you don’t need the extra space, you can use rear panniers only.


More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where the Road Forks

Considerations When Comparing the Weight Bikepacking Bags and Panniers

One of the main reasons people make the switch from panniers and racks to bikepacking bags is to cut down on weight. A bikepacking bag setup is almost always lighter. The problem is that the volume is usually significantly lower. This makes the comparison unfair.

For example, a standard sized set of Ortlieb front and rear panniers can accommodate 65 liters of gear. A standard set of bikepacking bags can accommodate around 45 liters of gear. Of course, the panniers will weigh more. They are designed to carry an extra 20 liters of gear. 

The only way to accurately compare the weight of each setup is to match the volumes. When you compare a bikepacking setup with a 45 liter capacity to a pannier and rack setup with a 45 liter capacity, you’ll get an accurate idea of the actual weight savings. In many cases, the savings isn’t that significant. 

front and rear panniers

The Third Option: A Hybrid Bikepacking/Panniers Setup

There is no right or wrong way to go about packing your gear on your bike. Everyone develops a different system over time, usually through trial and error. You don’t have to choose between bikepacking bags or panniers. A great option is to mix and match your luggage to suit your style of riding. 

For example, I really like my handlebar roll. With it, I can attach a 20-liter dry bag and my tent to my bars. This is a big chunk of my gear. Frame bags are also a great invention. They provide a large space for heavy or fragile items. The frame of the bike provides a lot of protection for the contents of the bag.

I’m not really sold on seat packs. To me, they just don’t seem like a very good use of the space behind the seat. Most seat packs only offer around 12-15 liters of storage. They also have a tendency to sway.

A good alternative would be to use a lightweight rack and a small pair of panniers in the back. This setup offers a lot more storage with just a bit of added weight. The rack also provides a place to attach additional gear like food, extra water, and spare tires.

Another option is to replace front panniers with fork-mounted cages. You could also use a frame bag with panniers. There is no right or wrong way to pack. 

A bike with panniers and bikepacking bags

Adding rear panniers to a bikepacking setup greatly increases your carrying capacity.

To Recap: Bikeapacking Bags Vs Panniers

Choose bikepacking bags if you:

  • Like to ride off-road often- Bikepacking bags are more balanced don’t bounce around as much as panniers. They offer better handling on rough pothole-filled roads, singletrack, and hard to reach areas.
  • Pack light- Bikepacking bags don’t hold as much gear.
  • Are planning a short trip- For shorter trips, you don’t need to carry as much gear.
  • Don’t mind doing without- You can’t fit luxury items, extra sets of clothing, etc. 
  • Plan to use ultralight camping gear- You’ll need compact and lightweight gear in order to fit everything in your bikepacking bags. 
  • Already have them- If you already own the bags, there’s really no reason to switch over.
  • Have a higher budget- You’ll need ultralight camping gear to be able to fit everything in the bags.

Choose panniers if you:

  • Plan to tour mainly on pavement- Panniers handle paved and gravel roads fine as well as some rougher sections. Singletrack, not so much. 
  • Want to carry a lot of gear- With panniers, you can carry everything you want including luxury items such as your favorite pillow, a coffee maker, and more.
  • Are planning a long trip- If you are traveling for months on end, you may want the extra space to pack an extra set of clothes and additional gear. 
  • Are traveling in cold weather- While touring during the winter, you’ll need to bring a 4 season sleeping bag, jacket, boots, and other items that you couldn’t fit on a bikepacking setup
  • Already have them- There is no reason to buy new gear if you already have a perfectly good pannier setup.

My Bicycle Touring Setup

This is my budget touring setup. It’s an old Schwinn High Sierra from the 80s which I converted into a touring bike. Here’s how I carry my gear.

Schwinn High Sierra set up for bikepacking

My trusty old Schwinn

  • Handlebar harness- I use a Revelate Designs handlebar harness to carry a 20-liter dry bag. I also strap my tent to the harness. The dry bag holds all of my clothes as well as my inflatable sleeping pad.
  • Frame bag- The frame bag is a 12-liter Moosetreks full frame bag. I carry tools, food, some water, stove, cook pot, bike lock, a book, gloves, and my wallet inside. Read my full review here.
  • Rear rack- Instead of buying a seat pack, I wrapped my old 24-liter backpack in a blue tarp and strapped it to the back. The tarp keeps the rain off my backpack and is also my tent footprint. In the backpack, I carry food, water, sandals, rain jacket, and some other miscellaneous gear. 

The main reason I went with bikepacking bags on my first tour was efficiency. I am not the strongest cyclist. Any advantage I can gain by improving aerodynamics and reducing weight, I will take. Bikepacking bags allow me to ride faster and further with less effort. Overall, I’m happy how my budget bikepacking setup performed.

When it comes to buying bicycle touring and bikepacking gear, I’m a big fan of REI. They sell offer a great selection of panniers and bikepacking bags from a number of brands including Ortlieb, Relevate Designs, Topeak, Blackburn, and Axium.

A Note About Minimalism in Bikepacking and Bicycle Touring

These days, there is a trend toward minimalism among bicycle travelers. By cutting out unnecessary gear and choosing a lightweight bicycle and luggage setup, you can travel further and faster with less effort. This style of cycling is appealing due to the efficiency, handling, and simplicity. Bikepacking bags are perfect for this type of cyclist.

This minimalist approach is not appealing to everyone. Some cyclists prefer to ride heavy-duty touring bikes with solid steel racks and large panniers. This type of setup is reliable and allows you to carry all of the luxuries you want including a camp chair, pillow, and plenty of food and water. Cyclists choose this type of setup couldn’t care less how many miles they cover in a day.

These different philosophies make it hard to really compare bikepacking bags vs panniers. They really represent two completely different styles of cycling. 

A bikepacking setup with front panniers

Some bikepackers use rear panniers because they don’t interfere with your ability to push the bike. Some riders also find that front panniers help with stability.

Final Thoughts: Bikepacking Bags Vs Panniers

In the end, the panniers vs bikepacking bags decision comes down to personal preference. Both styles of luggage have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. You can use either style of luggage for any trip. Both bikepacking bags and panniers have been used for many around the world bicycle tours.

To complicate matters even more, you can also consider using a cargo trailer. Check out my panniers vs trailer pros and cons list for more info. 

Personally, I grew up riding mountain bikes and I enjoy exploring off-road. Bikepacking bags make sense for this type of riding. I plan to continue experimenting with my setup to find the best solution for my next big tour. Hopefully, this guide helps you decide on the best setup for your next trip.

Where do you stand on the bikepacking bags vs panniers debate? Comment below with your experience and tips!

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5 comments

Ernest December 1, 2019 - 3:37 pm

Old Man Mountain racks are super light and super strong. They center weight on the axle, not the frame, so lower center of gravity. Avenir makes super light, durable, water proof panniers. I found Avenir handlebar bag too heavy though. Handlebar bag must be small and light as possible. Electronics must be stored in handlebar or top bar frame bag or may get soaked fording a river, like I did in Africa everyday. Ziplock baggies are better than water proof bags. Underseat bag is for tools like any day trip rider.

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wheretheroadforks December 2, 2019 - 1:16 pm

Great tips! I hadn’t thought about storing electronics while fording rivers. I’ll look into Avenir panniers. I’m not familiar with that brand.

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MARIANA March 4, 2020 - 9:29 am

Hi! This was brilliant, exactly what I was wondering. A very extensive and helpful analysis of pros and cons. Thanks a lot!

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Anthony April 8, 2020 - 5:15 pm

Great article. It’s such a relief to see someone acknowledging that all methods have merits and demerits. Another thing to add to the mix is a trailer. The BOB trailers (Yak & Ibex) handle exceptionally well on and off road, pack easily, fit a full-sized hiking pack or a dog (unofficially, of course!) and unless you do really stupid things, reduce the stress on your bike. (I once did a really stupid thing and broke my bike frame, but you won’t do that.) Disadvantages are the weight, length, drag, and anything to do with public transport. There are also double-wheeled trailers (e.g. Burley) that have a couple of different pros and cons. Happy cycling!

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wheretheroadforks April 11, 2020 - 5:08 pm

Good idea about the trailer. I’m actually working on a similar article right now comparing the pros and cons of trailers and panniers. They offer a great alternative for bikes that can’t handle racks. I don’t have as much experience with trailers but I love the idea of being able to carry a full-sized hiking backpack. I’d be interested to hear about how you broke your frame.

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