If you’re getting into bicycle touring, then you probably have a set of bicycle panniers.
Front or rear panniers are roomy bags mounted on a rack that goes over the front or rear wheels.
Traditionally, most cyclists use a rear pannier and maybe a rear rack for an additional backpacking bag. But front-loading is starting to get popular in the touring world.
Front vs Rear Panniers: Which Are Better?
When it comes to the front vs. rear panniers debate, rear panniers are better for most situations, but there are a few cases when front-loading is preferable. The answer depends on a few factors, including your bike setup, where you’re traveling, and your ride preferences. The important thing when setting up your panniers is to find a weight distribution that will not tilt you off balance or exhaust you after a long day of touring.
Here are a few factors that can affect your decision about where to mount bicycle panniers:
When you’re touring for a long time, you want to be as aerodynamic as possible because any extra drag will slow you down and exhaust you. In terms of aerodynamics, front or rear panniers are almost the same. Both will weigh you down by around the same amount.
If you’re worried that one setup is more aerodynamic than the other, it really doesn’t matter. Just pick what feels better for you. If you want to be aerodynamic for a shorter trip, skip the panniers altogether and put a backpacking bag on your rear rack instead.
Weight of Your Gear
Another factor you have to consider is weight distribution. The front of your bike is more sensitive to dragging weight, and if you pack some heavy front panniers, you run the risk of tilting over your handlebars. On the other hand, if you’ve got a rear pannier and a moderate load on your rack, you are putting too much weight on the rear wheel of your bike.
The key to packing for a tour is to evenly distribute the weight load across your bike. Using a combination of front and rear panniers for longer trips will prevent uncomfortable tilting.
If you’re only going on a short tour and want to take just one set of panniers, your choice will depend on the amount of gear you’re packing. A rear rack offers more storage space because you can set up rear panniers and attach a duffel to the top of the rack. For a lighter load, you can opt for a front pannier and maybe add a small backpack to the rear if you need more balance.
An important factor when you’re going touring is the ease with which you can handle your bike. You don’t want to spend miles and miles fighting your steering, or crash because you weren’t able to steer away from an obstacle on short notice.
For long-term handling, front and rear setups are about the same. But if you have heavy items (totaling more than 20 kilograms or 44 pounds) put them in the rear as heavier loads over the front wheel slow down your steering. Having front panniers will slow down your ability to steer, so go for rear panniers if you’re going somewhere that requires lots of quick movements to navigate the terrain.
Front panniers require a bit more effort to steer than rear ones do. This is not a problem for short distances, but if you’re covering miles and miles in one day, every bit of extra effort adds up. If you’re already pushing your body to the limit, make steering a little easier with rear panniers.
Your Bike Setup
Most touring bikes are heavy duty and built to carry large weights, but if you’re just starting out, you may be using a lighter weight bike, a regular road bike or other non-touring bike. If you have a lightweight bike frame or lightweight wheels, you don’t want to put too much strain on your setup.
When you ride, most of your weight is naturally over the rear wheel. Adding any extra weight to that wheel if you’re operating with a lightweight frame or wheels could cause your gear to break down. Unless you have a heavy-duty touring bike, front panniers are better at redistributing your weight without damaging your bike.
Besides the durability of your bike, you also need to consider the heel clearance. Depending on the space between the pedals and rear wheel (and the size of your feet), you may wind up hitting your rear panniers with your feet as you cycle. If your bike has short chainstays, opt for front panniers.
Your Riding Style
Different riding styles are easier depending on your pannier setup. Sometimes during a long touring ride you’ll want to stretch your wrists, grab a snack, or just get your body out of the hunched-up position. If you like riding with no handlebars, then rear panniers are better. Front panniers decrease the stability of your front wheel, so you’ll have to keep your hands on the handlebars almost constantly to steady the course.
On the other hand, if you like riding standing up for a good portion of your touring, then front panniers are better. Standing up throws off the weight distribution of your bike, which can cause your rear wheel to skid out of place if you already have a lot of weight balanced on it. Front panniers won’t destabilize when you stand up, and you’ll still be able to control the steering.
Check out our post on cycling ergonomics so you can experience comfortable, injury-free riding.
Where You’re Riding
Front and rear loading are better for different types of terrain.
If you’re riding on rough terrain and back roads, then front panniers are better. Front panniers are better with steep climbs because you don’t have to worry about your bike tilting backward. They’re also better for rougher roads, including dirt roads, because extra weight in the front actually improves the bike’s grip on the surface. Front panniers can give you more stability over rough terrain, while rear panniers destabilize you.
On the other hand, if your bike tour will be taking you through plenty of urban bike lanes, then a rear pannier is the better choice. A bike with rear panniers is easier to maneuver and turn even in busy environments where you’re moving at a slow, controlled speed because nothing is dragging down the steering capability. Front panniers are more likely to hit curbs and gutters because they sit lower than rear ones. They are also more difficult to park in the city.
Conclusion on Loading Setups: Front vs Rear Panniers
In most situations, rear panniers are the better choice for your touring bike. A rear rack will not drag down your steering capability or affect your ability to respond to the terrain in time.
Still, there are a few situations where front panniers are better. If you have a lightweight frame or a bike with short chainstays, front panniers are better. They also handle rough terrain better than rear panniers.
The most important thing when packing panniers is to make sure the weight load is distributed evenly, whether you use rear panniers, front panniers, a combination of the two, or front panniers and a backpacking bag.
Looking for some new tires for your next bike tour? See our list of the best bicycle touring tires.