How to Choose Between Bike Panniers and a Backpack

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You have several options for storing things when you cycle. Panniers and backpacks are the most popular options, but which should you choose? Each offers advantages and disadvantages. The choice you make will depend on the type of bike you use, what your commute looks like, and of course, your personal preferences.

Cyclists have their preferences and will often debate one another about which is best. But the only way to discover whether you’re Team Panniers or Team Backpack is to learn more about both options.

Man riding a mountain bike on a dirt road with panniers on his bike and a backpack on his back

What are bike panniers?

For those unfamiliar with it, a bike pannier is a pack that typically fits over the rear rack on the bike, meaning you don’t have to put it on your back and carry it that way. Bike panniers are perfect for people who carry heavier loads, who have a long ride ahead of them, or who ride their bikes in warmer weather. Why? Because you don’t have to carry it on your person, where it could get uncomfortable after a while and even make you sweat.

You’ll almost always see bike panniers on a well-equipped touring bike.

Touring bike with panniers parked on a waterfront wharf

On the other hand, if your ride is going to be short, you aren’t planning to take a lot of things with you, or the climate is cooler and more pleasant, a backpack might do just fine. On a short commute a backpack doesn’t have time to make you uncomfortable, and if you’re not carrying a great deal of stuff, it won’t suddenly feel like a lead weight after you’ve been riding for a while.

That said, you can also get convertible pannier backpacks that offer the best of both worlds—but we’ll get to those a little later.

Advantages and disadvantages of panniers

The weight of the bag rests on the bicycle, not on your shoulders.Some are awkward to carry after you remove them from the bike, even though some do come with straps.
On average, panniers are bigger than backpacks and therefore can carry more stuff.Distributes weight unevenly on your bike frame, so your bicycle will handle a little differently.
You’ll sweat less because the pannier is not sitting on your back the entire time.Some bikes may not be able to accommodate a pannier.

Also, consider the possibility that you may need a kickstand on your bike to keep it upright while you unload your panniers.

What is a backpack?

I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain this one, but if you’ve forgotten then here’s a picture:

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07/16/2024 07:57 pm GMT

Advantages and disadvantages of backpacks

You can use any style of bicycle since you don’t need one with a rear rack.It blocks air circulation and therefore can make your back sweat.
As a general rule, backpacks have better compartments for keys, phones, and so on, than pannier bags.All of the extra weight of the backpack falls on your shoulders, which can lead to pain or discomfort.
It is better aerodynamically than a pannier.It’s difficult to carry bulky or large items in a backpack.

The commute makes a difference

If you ride your bike to work, you may only be cycling for a mile or two before you reach your destination, so a backpack can be just perfect. It won’t get too heavy, and since it doesn’t have to be removed when you get to where you’re going, you can just get off the bicycle and go on your way. There is always a shoulder strap on a backpack, so it’s super easy to carry around to wherever you’re going next.

Rear view of a cyclist pushing his bike while wearing a backpack

On the other hand, longer commutes or commutes over rough terrain are usually much more comfortable with a pannier. Your shoulders won’t get tired from the extra weight of a backpack, and if you pack a change of clothes or other accessories that are usually required with longer commutes, a pannier bag can accommodate you.

For a longer or rougher bike ride, panniers simply make more sense.

An alternative to bike panniers and backpacks

Now that you know a little bit about the difference between a pannier and a backpack, let’s take a look at a third option: a backpack or bike messenger bag that doubles as a pannier and is usually made to attach to the bike’s rack.

One great example is the convertible bike pannier backpack from Two Wheel Gear:

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07/16/2024 07:25 pm GMT

These bags, which are made to carry either a light load or a heavy one, are well-designed, practical and stylish.

There are also solutions, such as the Mundo Airpannier, that quickly and easily turn any backpack into a pannier bag. In fact, these bags are so good that you can carry large musical instruments in some of them, without needing a permanently mounted basket.

Since each of these bags offers its own capacity, you can choose the pannier setup that accommodates all of your belongings.

You could also attach a basket to the rear rack of your bike, which allows you to keep the backpack in the basket as you ride so you don’t have to carry it on your back. This is the personal preference for a lot of people who love the advantages of both a pannier bag and a normal backpack. It truly does give you the best of both worlds.

Consider your type of bike

Finally, you’ll need to look at the bike you have to determine what type of bag you’ll need. Some bikes come with a rack, while others allow you to install one easily with just a few extra pieces of equipment.

On the other hand, many bikes simply aren’t compatible with installing a rack. You might be able to attach one to your road bike, but you’ll wish it wasn’t there when you’re trying to keep up with a group on your weekend ride. In some cases, your best option will be a backpack.

Rear view of bike commuter on a busy thoroughfare wearing a backpack

In the end, the choice is up to you, so you’ll have to look at your situation and determine what will work for you. Your bicycle, type of commute, length of commute, preferences and tastes will be the deciding factors, but in the end there are no right or wrong answers. Both panniers and backpacks offer perks and a few inconveniences, so you’ll have to look at your situation and decide which is best for you.

If you decide to go with panniers, be sure to read our post on how to choose between front vs. rear panniers so you can maximize your comfort.

You might also be open to using a messenger bag for everyday commuting. Check out our post on messenger bags vs. backpacks for cycling.