What is a bike pannier? It is the telltale mark of a bikepacker, a sure sign of a commuter, the hallmark of a bike tourer. When I’m on a bike trip, the panniers are a dead giveaway, a sign I’m doing something special. And it is an opening for others to inquire where I’m going.
Panniers are bags to hold your gear on a bicycle by attaching to your bicycle. They mount to either side behind the saddle and come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the intended use. The word pannier comes from the French word for breadbasket.
In this article, we’ll discuss bike panniers, how they work, and if they are waterproof or not. We’ll also look at what you should look for when you purchase your panniers and which ones are best for touring and commuting. But first, let’s talk about what a pannier actually is.
What is a bike pannier bag?
Bike panniers are bulky bags that hang off either or both sides of the back of a bicycle. Pannier is a highly Americanized word that was originally borrowed from the French word for breadbasket. Many years ago, the French would carry their bread in baskets that hung over either side of their mule, giving you a clearer picture of where the modern bike pannier may have originated from.
While the French might pronounce it Pan-Yay, the American Miriam-Webster dictionary pronounces it more like “pan-yer” and, in some areas, pan-ny-er. For a more in-depth look at the history of the word pannier, check out this video. But no matter how you say it, these handy bags will carry all your gear for bikepacking, bike touring and commuting.
Are panniers good for commuting and touring?
Panniers work great for both commuting and touring or bikepacking. If you are going on a trip by bike, you’ll likely use two large panniers, one on each side of the bike. For bikepacking, you can fit your clothes, sleeping bag or blanket, inflatable pillow and sleeping pad, food, toiletries, and just anything else you might need for camping. If you are taking a tent, though, you might put this in a handlebar bag because of its shape.
On the other hand, if you are commuting, you might choose a different shaped pannier that will hold your laptop, files, and work clothes. You might pack your lunch or even different shoes if you wear cycling-specific shoes for your commute. Oftentimes, commuters will only use one pannier, while bikepackers will use two.
Commuter-specific panniers will often be convertible into either a messenger bag or a backpack. This makes it easy to go from your bike to the office.
Best convertible bike pannier backpacks for commuting
For commuting, you may prefer a convertible pannier that turns into a backpack or duffle bag. You’ll need to make sure you can attach it correctly to your commuting bike. You’ll also need to consider which bag will hold your work essentials, such as laptop, phone, or files.
I love this pannier backpack for the following reasons:
- Super durable design
- Good organization for stuff
- Looks good when worn as a backpack
- Bottle holders and reflective details all over
I love this pannier/backpack for the following reasons:
- Unique, stylish design
- Easy to open top
- Mounts to bike quickly
- Goes from backpack to pannier in seconds
What makes this pannier/backpack super practical for commuting:
- Stylish looks
- Available in 2 sizes
- Comes with a rain cover
- Excellent layout to organize your stuff
- Converts from pannier to backpack in seconds
You will love this for commuting!
- Waterproof design
- Built-in helmet and bottle holders
- Lots of compartments to organize things
- Converts from backpack to pannier in seconds
Here are my favorite parts of this bag as a commuter:
- Reflective details all over
- 18 l capacity, sufficient for daily items
- Backpack, messenger bag, pannier in one
- Waterproof out-of-the box: no cover needed
What you will love about this bag:
- Huge, 35 L capacity
- Separate compartment for shoes or dirty laundry
- Attaches to the bike in seconds
How do panniers work?
When using rear panniers, you’ll need to attach a rack to your bike first. The rack attaches to the rear fork of your bike frame and provides a platform for the panniers. On the backside of the pannier (away from the zipper opening) will be a clip that comes down overtop of the rack and tightens to hold it in place. You can use one pannier or put one on each side of the rack.
When you are ready to remove the pannier, loosen the clip and pull it straight up. It will come right off so you can lay it down and unzip it to remove your items.
Front panniers, on the other hand, will screw onto the braze-ons on either side of the front fork. These are much smaller than the rear panniers, but they may not be as easy to remove. They may come with an attachment so you can clip and unclip them from the fork more easily.
Rear panniers generally run 11 to 35 liters per bag. Much like backpacking, you can figure out the volume of what you want to pack by stacking it into a cube shape and measuring it. This will give you a rough idea of how large of a pannier you will need.
Front panniers are usually only 10 to 15 liters, so they do not interfere with the steering of the bike. You can supplement your panniers with a frame bag and a handlebar bag.
Best panniers for touring or bikepacking
For bike touring or bikepacking, you‘ll want to consider panniers from some of the major manufacturers to get high-quality bike bags for your money. These include Ortlieb, Moosetreks, Ibera, and Burley. You’ll need to consider size, cost, and of course, how it fits onto your bike.
Here are some reasons why you will love these panniers for multi-day adventures:
- Large capacity
- Fully waterproof design
- Highly adjustable to fit your bike
- Left and right can be used independently
This is an entry-level pannier set perfect for short biking adventures. What I really like about them is that they are waterproof straight out of the box without the need for a rain cover.
Ortlieb is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to waterproof touring pannier bags. They are super durable too.
Here is why you may want to consider these Ibera panniers:
- Top flap gives you quick access to contents in the bag
- Quick mounting and good adjustability
- Waterproof covers come included
- Can be mounted independently on either side
Things I love about these panniers:
- Fully waterproof
- Can be used on touring trailers
- Perfect for bikes with small wheels
- Quick access zip pockets for small items
Are bike panniers waterproof?
Most panniers offer some protection against water, and some are completely waterproof. In order to make the bag fully waterproof, it needs to be designed in a way that no water could seep in through the zippers and the stitching.
Fully waterproof panniers are mostly roll-top style, which is not very practical for quick access. They are mostly used for bike touring.
When I started commuting, I used a roll-top style pannier, which was great when the weather was bad, but it was very impractical to carry around and it had no compartments, which meant that my laptop, clothes, and everything else was kept together in one compartment.
Commuting panniers usually offer a certain level of weather sealing, but in order to make them fully waterproof, you need to cover them with a rain cover. You can stash the covers inside the bag when you don’t need them.
One of my favorite panniers for commuting is the Arkel Bug. It has several compartments and a practical layout. You can access them with zippers, which compromises full waterproofing, but I’ve never had issues with water getting into the bag.
What to pay attention to when buying a pannier bag?
· Purpose. If you are purchasing your first set of panniers, you’ll want to think about what the main purpose of your bag or bags will be. Are you going to be commuting with them? If so, will you carry your laptop or electronics in your bag? On the other hand, will you primarily be using your panniers for trips? If so, will they be longer trips or shorter? Will you stay in hotels or camps? For longer, self-support trips where you camp, you might want larger panniers. But if you’re taking short trips, only you might prefer smaller ones.
· Rack. If you are going to be using rear panniers, you’ll probably need a rear bike rack to clip them on. Rear racks will go on most bikes that have braze-ons for mounting. But if your bike doesn’t’ have them, you can still mount a rack. You’ll need to find a rack that mounts with clamps rather than mounting screws. Here’s an article where I walk you through the process and the possible solutions.
· Front or rear. If you want larger bags, you’ll attach them on the rear to a rack. However, if you want small bags instead or in addition to large rear panniers, you can attach them to braze-ons on the front forks of your bike. Not all bikes have them, but bikes designed for gravel or touring usually do.
· Bike fit. You need to consider the fit of the bags onto the bike. If you have a very small frame, you might be limited to smaller bags. For example, on my 44cm Jamis frame, I can fit large bags onto the rack. However, if I’m not careful, my heel can get caught on the bags when pedaling. I have to make sure to put the bags in the furthest position from my saddle as possible. Also, you need to adjust how you mount and dismount your bike, so you don’t fall when trying to swing your leg over the bike with the panniers attached.
· Bike type. The type of bike you ride will affect the type of panniers you can use as well as the type of rack you can attach. For example, Canyon’s Grizl comes with plenty of spots to mount your rack, panniers, bottle cages, or whatever you need. A race bike, on the other hand, may not have any spots. Hybrid bikes and commuter bikes will have different places to mount panniers from gravel bikes and e-bikes. Make sure your panniers will work with the type and model of bike you own.
· Budget. Panniers can be very expensive. And while quality is important, so is your budget. If you don’t have room in your budget to purchase panniers, you might try to make some of your own. Check out the video on kitty litter bucket panniers here.