The prospect of kitting out a bike with luggage can seem a daunting one at first. There are a number of different options and all have different considerations as far as weight, bulk and cost go. When we first started travelling on our bikes we were (by our luggage choices) considered to be cycle tourists. This means that we carried our luggage in panniers or using a luggage trailer. Along the way we ditched the trailer in favour of rear panniers and then lost the panniers altogether in favour of bikepacking luggage. I will show you some examples below and then try to explain why we chose bikepacking luggage.
An early example of cycle touring luggage (not ours btw!). Bags were made of canvas or leather and were very heavy. This bike and it’s luggage carried the rider from Germany to Australia.
Our first luggage setup with front panniers, a rear trailer and a handlebar bag.
Although the trailer was a useful way of carrying gear I found it cumbersome when obstacles such as ‘kissing gates’ were encountered and trying to get bike + trailer into a station lift or onto a train was stressfully difficult. For our next trip I replaced it with rear panniers and a rack pack. At this stage I was still carrying the gear for both of us so I needed plenty of volume in the bags to be able to fit everything in.
Back home in Scotland I wanted to try bikepacking – essentially cycle touring on mountain bikes over much rougher terrain. Having experienced some sub-optimal conditions on our Portuguese tour while touting panniers, I recognised the benefit of bags which were carried much higher on the bike out of the way of bushes, rocks and so on and also above water on river crossings. Bikepacking bags such as the ones in the photo below are also a lot lighter to carry than panniers which are heavy in themselves and also require heavy metal racks to attach them to the bike. Hopefully what this all adds up to is greater freedom – a lighter bike setup that can be taken more easily to even less accessible places.
In the photo above you can see three bags on my bike. Later we added a couple of other small bags which I will talk about in a bit. The red bag on the front is a 20l double-ended drybag called an Airlok Dual from Alpkit. At time of writing (2019) this costs £19. It comes with the straps and loops fitted so all you have to do is loop it over your handlebars and away you go. For most people the 13l version of this would be sufficient – Joe uses one of these and it takes all his sleeping gear, ie sleeping bag, mat, pillow, liner and a bunch of other stuff like a down jacket, waterproofs and so on. I have the larger volume bag as I carry the tent as well. These bags are not guaranteed to be waterproof but I have always found them to be so. I have never used them with a harness as these are really expensive. After many miles of use I don’t consider the harness to be necessary – our the bags are a bit rubbed but not holed at all. I would suggest buying these bags in bright colours to help make you more visible when on the road.
The blue rear seat pack in the photo above is an Airlok tapered 13l from Alpkit again. This currently sells for £21. It is not really intended as a stand-alone rear pack but more of a liner to a rear pack. It does though have loops stitched to it to allow you to attach it to the seatpost and saddle rails, making it the cheapest saddle pack I could find at the time. It doesn’t have much rigidity though and this often means it bends in the middle and rubs on the tyre. Alpkit do now sell a metal rail to fit to the top of the pack to hopefully prevent this, but it adds £20 to the cost of the setup. It might be possible to fit a piece of plastic inside to form a sort of internal skeleton to add rigidity but I haven’t tried it. Unfortunately proper rear seat packs with a decent (12l+) volume are a bit pricey – they start at around £50 and go up to £120 (see update below).
As Joe’s saddle was at the time much closer to his tyre than mine, he wasn’t able to use one of these Airlok saddle packs. I found a 2.7l Ortlieb pack for him which worked very well. It had a bracket fitted to the saddle which allowed the bag to be removed very easily and also held it well clear of the tyre. I have since found that Ortlieb make a version of this that has elastic shock cord on the top – this would be a better choice as it allows you to store your spare footwear there more easily.
The triangular bag above is a £5 frame bag from Sports Direct. It was useful but the zip broke on it fairly quickly so I can’t really recommend them. I also found that I don’t really like frame bags as they get in the way of fitting your hand under the rear of the top tube to pick the bike up and carry it.
Joe has now switched to a Podsacs rear bag for the bargain price of £25 from PlanetX. This is working out well so far. You can see our current setup in the photos below. We both have a 13l Alpkit front bag, plus waterproof stem cell and fuel pod. I have the Orlieb 16l rear bag and Joe has the 12l Podsacs one. Even for winter camping this seems to be sufficient to carry all we need.
For extra items that don’t quite fit in our luggage (for example when we have just visited a supermarket and bought more than we have room to carry), we use a tiny folding backpack from Joe’s shop. They cost £4.99. They are surprisingly comfortable to ride in.
Making the switch to bikepacking luggage can seem daunting at first and does require a lot of discipline – there really isn’t room for luxury extras – but you will love the freedom that riding a much lighter bike brings.