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Do I Really Need Ortliebs? A Buyer’s Guide To Panniers For Cycle Tours & Expeditions

CEO Tinh Phung
Last updated on November 25, 2023. One day in 1884, Thomas Stevens left California on a bicycle, carrying a bag of gold and a pistol rolled up in a blanket, and became the first person...

Last updated on November 25, 2023.

Do I Really Need Ortliebs? A Buyer’s Guide To Panniers For Cycle Tours & Expeditions

One day in 1884, Thomas Stevens left California on a bicycle, carrying a bag of gold and a pistol rolled up in a blanket, and became the first person in recorded history to cycle round the world.

Today’s cycle tourists, of course, pack much more gear than that. That’s because we want to enjoy seeing the world, rather than bribing and bullying our way through our bike tours as Stevens did.

To carry all the cycle touring equipment commonly used today - ultralight tents, camping stoves & cookware, clothes, toolkits, and other core kit-list items - most bike tourers attach panniers to their touring bikes.

Indeed, the humble bicycle pannier has been the traditional luggage of cycle tourists for more than a century. (Even dirt-road bikepackers are finally starting to catch on!)

A scene every experienced rider will be familiar with: rebuilding bikes and attaching panniers in the arrivals hall of a faraway international airport. A scene every experienced rider will be familiar with: rebuilding bikes and attaching panniers in the arrivals hall of a faraway international airport.

This article is all about how to choose a set of panniers that’ll match your budget, your style of cycle touring (or bikepacking, if you prefer), and the equipment and supplies you’ll be carrying with you.

It’s based not just on my own 16 years of bike touring experience but that of countless veteran riders who I’ve cycled alongside and interrogated about their own gear setups, with the goal of creating the most well-balanced cycle touring pannier buying guide possible (no pun intended). Not a single AI chatbot was used to write it.

Within the listings of the best touring panniers on the market right now, I’ll include direct links to manufacturers’ webpages and buying links for retailers in Europe and North America (affiliate links are identified with an asterisk (*); click here to read my full affiliate policy).

But I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge, so let’s start by laying out the basics about panniers for cycle touring before we dive into the details.

(If you prefer to skip the newbie questions, you can also go straight to the pannier listings.)

What Exactly Are Bicycle Panniers?

Touring panniers needn’t be a fashion  <a href='https://shopmrkatin.vn/c/accessory' title='accessory' class='hover-show-link replace-link-35'>accessory<span class='hover-show-content'></span></a> , but now Brooks have entered the market they’re starting to become one. A scene every experienced rider will be familiar with: rebuilding bikes and attaching panniers in the arrivals hall of a faraway international airport.

Panniers are purpose-made bags designed to be hung off the sides of a bicycle or motorbike (or, originally, slung over a pack animal). They are almost always designed to be used in pairs, for what I hope are obvious reasons of balance and stability.

I am reliably informed by several readers in the comments section that the name ‘pannier’ originates from a French word meaning ‘bread basket’. So now you know.

Do I Need Two Or Four Panniers For Cycle Touring?

Literally a ‘classic’ setup - two pairs of Ortlieb Classic panniers on front and rear racks. A scene every experienced rider will be familiar with: rebuilding bikes and attaching panniers in the arrivals hall of a faraway international airport.

The traditional setup for long-distance cycle touring is four panniers - a small pair at the front and a larger pair at the rear - plus a handlebar bag and a few other bits.

This is simply because, when you make a list of everything you’d need for a transcontinental or round-the-world ride, buy it all, and try to fit it onto a bike - it usually fills four panniers.

If you can live with the compromises of packing light, a single pair of rear panniers can suffice for fair-weather road trips of many months. If you can live with the compromises of packing light, a single pair of rear panniers can suffice for fair-weather road trips of many months.

For lighter-weight bike tours, two panniers (either front or rear) can offer sufficient capacity. Many short summer rides close to home, with lots of bike shops, resupply stops and other facilities on your route, would fit this category.

You might also use two panniers on longer rides with a minimal approach to packing, especially as camping equipment grows ever lighter. You’ll often see more experienced riders taking this approach because they’ve spent a long time learning what they don’t need to pack.

Increasingly you’ll also see a hybrid approach, with a pair of small front or rear panniers supplemented by frame bags, seat packs and cockpit pouches. Panniers can then be removed for side trips off the beaten track, allowing more flexibility over the traditional setup.

In any case, you’ll rarely see panniers used exclusively as a means of storing belongings and supplies. They’re almost always used alongside rack-top drybags, baskets, handlebar bags, backpacks, or other more easily accessible bags which don’t require you to stop and unpack everything just to find one commonly-used item.

Sometimes, in very special cases such as deep winter, desert crossings, or just because you want to bring your guitar and jewellery-making kit, you might consider a trailer instead of (or as well as) panniers. This is a topic I’ve covered in detail elsewhere.

How Do Cycle Touring Panniers Vary In Design?

There are as many ways to use a rear carrier rack and panniers as there are cycle tourists! There are as many ways to use a rear carrier rack and panniers as there are cycle tourists!

Bicycle panniers for cycle touring (as opposed to panniers for, say, grocery shopping) come in a variety of sizes, colors, and materials, and are generally marketed separately as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They are usually (though not always) sold in pairs, sometimes with physical differences between left and right, and sometimes without.

Front panniers tend to be smaller, and for good reason: whatever weight you’re carrying on the front wheel will directly affect the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter loads at the front mean more maneuverability.

A typical front pannier might have a 10-15 liter capacity (i.e., 20-30 liters per pair). Larger panniers at the front would also be at risk of hitting the down-tube of the bike (or even the ground) when turning sharply, or interfering with disc brakes.

Rear panniers tend to have about twice the capacity; around 20-30 liters each (i.e., 40-60 liters per pair). Tandem panniers can be even bigger.

Most pannier manufacturers make complementary front and rear pairs of the same model. As mentioned above, however, a pair of rear panniers might suffice for even the longest trips if packed thoughtfully with lightweight gear.

What Kind Of Pannier Rack Attachment Systems Are There?

Brooks’ high-end panniers use tried and tested Ortlieb mounting hardware. Brooks’ high-end panniers use tried and tested Ortlieb mounting hardware.

A variety of attachment systems exist today, but they almost all make use of a pair of hooked clips attached the top of the back face of each pannier, allowing them to be hung from the upper horizontal rack tubing, plus some kind of adjustable retaining tab on the back of each pannier to hook around the lower, vertical or diagonal sections of the rack tubing and stop them swinging about.

Although pairs of panniers can be identical out of the box, setting up the attachments to fit your racks will usually result in them being configured as ‘left’ and ‘right’ panniers from that point forward.

You’ll occasionally see a pair of panniers attached together with a strip of fabric between them, the whole of which is then slung over the rack. As a general rule, don’t buy these unless it’s the only thing you can get, as this style is far less durable and versatile than individual panniers and rack mounts.

What Materials Are Panniers Made From?

In terms of design and construction material, there are two main categories of pannier: fully waterproof and semi- or non-waterproof (often aka: “water resistant”).

Fully waterproof panniers are usually made of laminated fabric with sealed seams, often using the same ‘roll-top’ closure system found in drybags for paddlesports. As with any waterproof gear, you should always pack a simple repair kit - a length of Gaffa Tape at the very least, or perhaps a roll of Tenacious Tape.

Non-waterproof (or sometimes “water-resistant”) panniers are usually made of heavy canvas, with backpack-style lids with zips or buckles, and have some degree of water resistance and/or a waterproof backing plate on the rear to protect against road spray. The repair kit you should pack for this type of pannier is a heavy-duty needle and thread.

(As for which type is better, we’ll come to that later on.)

Some people get hung up on the color of the material. There’s an argument that using black waterproof panniers in sunny climates will result in your belongings being well and truly cooked. Conversely, some people think high-visibility panniers are better for safety, although panniers of all colors are adorned with the same reflective patches.

Personally, I don’t believe there’s much practical difference. If it’s really that hot, lighter colors will be of limited benefit, and you - the rider - should always be more visible than your panniers. My advice is to choose whatever color panniers you like… and make a hi-viz vest the first thing you put in them.

In short, there’s a lot of variety out there. There are, however, a few specific makes and models of bicycle pannier that have proven themselves over many decades on very long and demanding tours.

We’ll start, however, by looking at basic, budget-friendly panniers, and work our way up to durable and hard-wearing panniers capable of withstanding years of constant daily use.

No-Budget Panniers For Cycle Touring

For the most ultra-low-budget of trips, you are very welcome to stop reading this article; take whatever cheap or free second-hand panniers you can find on eBay*, Freecycle, Gumtree, or get donated or lent to you; add a basic sewing kit, a roll of Gaffa Tape, some cable ties and a few plastic carrier bags, and leave.

I did this in 2013, wrote a detailed article about it, then cycled the length of England with no money to prove the theory.

If you’re good at DIY, consider making your own panniers (or getting good at DIY).

Rectangular buckets with lids are available from hardware stores and pet shops and can be converted into panniers with a few commonly available fixings. Cool-boxes have travelled across continents in the same way (see photo above). The REI blog has a lengthy and useful post on making your own DIY bucket panniers*.

One reader even emailed me a video he’d made about how to make a pair of panniers out of a discarded pair of jeans. Get creative!

Cheap Panniers For Cycle Touring

When it comes to cheap panniers at the bottom end of the market, a trip to any mainstream bike shop or outdoor retailer (eg: Go Outdoors or Decathlon in the UK, REI in the USA, or MEC in Canada) will demonstrate the endless options in this category.

None can really be said to be better or worse than any other, due to the lack of substantial documentary evidence besides customer reviews (which should always be taken with a pinch of salt, because who exactly are these customers anyway?).

To help you choose reasonably durable cheap panniers and keep them on the road as long as possible, here are a few tips:

  • Cheap panniers are often aimed at commuters and shoppers, rather than cycle tourists, so see if you can find something that at least claims to be designed for touring use.
  • Avoid anything that relies on zips for closure of the main compartment, as cheap zips are liable to break. Go for something with straps and buckles/clips instead.
  • Avoid cheap and flimsy ‘waterproof’ material in favor of thicker canvas, then waterproof everything inside the panniers with plastic bags or drybags as necessary.
  • Consider buying or making waterproof pannier covers, which are essentially giant elasticated shower caps; they’ll get you to the next shelter (especially when paired with an effective mudguard to stop road-spray soaking the bags from behind).
  • Finally, pack a sewing kit, Gaffa Tape, and cable ties. I know I’m repeating myself, the point being that you can save a lot of money and solve a lot of problems with a pragmatic attitude.

Recognizable budget brands in the UK and Europe include Altura, Topeak, and Elops (Decathlon’s in-house bike luggage brand, which includes the Ortlieb-esque roll-top waterproof panniers pictured below).

What you’re looking for at this end of the spectrum is a capacity that matches your packing needs, compatibility with your racks, and as few things to go wrong as possible.

Of course, if it’s a simple question of what you can beg, borrow, or steal, anything is better than nothing!

Mid-Range Panniers For Cycle Touring

There are a few mid-range models of pannier that don’t quite meet the criteria for high-end expedition panniers but have nevertheless been shown to cope well with some very long and arduous bicycle journeys. Here I’ll list a few of the best-known examples, as well as introducing a couple of lesser-known brands that show promise in this category.

Crosso Dry (Poland, £55/£60 front/rear)

A pair of Crosso Dry 30-litre front panniers mounted on the rear rack of a Kona Sutra touring bike (in combination with frame luggage). A pair of Crosso Dry 30-litre front panniers mounted on the rear rack of a Kona Sutra touring bike (in combination with frame luggage).

Crosso is a Polish company that has been manufacturing panniers commercially since 2006. If you’re based in Europe and can find a retailer, they make for a good option in the mid-range, being considerably cheaper than the big-brand panniers. They’re quite basic in terms of design and materials, but in many ways, this is a good thing, and they will serve you well if you look after them.

The waterproof Dry panniers come in front/universal and rear pairs with a capacity of 30 and 60 liters per pair, respectively, with roll-top closures and welded seams, and a choice of 10 colors. (I’ve had a pair of the rear ones for 12 years, which I’m still happily using after a few repairs.)

The standard attachment system features two fixed steel hooks at the top, with an inverted hook on an elasticated strap at the bottom to secure the pannier in place. Once you get used to the system, it is very easy to mount and dismount the panniers, and it’s surprisingly stable.

Not all racks have a lower horizontal rail to attach the bottom hook, so there is also the more expensive Click option, using traditional-style fixtures from the German company Rixen+Kaul (who make the popular and widespread KlickFix system). These might be a better choice for extremely long journeys as the fixtures are replaceable.

Carradice CarraDry (UK, £55/£85 front/rear)

Carradice’s CarraDry panniers are waterproof, feature a generous capacity (58 liters per pair at the rear), and are very good value for money. They share a very durable mounting system with the heavy-duty Super C expedition panniers (below).

Though they can’t be described as 100% watertight, with a lidded drawstring closure system rather than a roll-top drybag-style closure, they’re made of a similar laminated synthetic waterproof fabric as the other panniers in this section, with welded seams and waterproof zips, which will still keep out the heaviest rain. Like other Carradice products, they feature outer pockets as well as the main compartment.

The CarraDry might be a good choice if you’re looking for a high-quality pair of waterproof panniers (and you don’t plan on floating them across deep rivers), but your budget can’t quite stretch to the top-end Ortliebs, and/or you want to support this long-running British maker.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller City (Global, €85/€95 front/rear)

The City series of Ortlieb panniers is a cheaper, simplified version of the Classic/Plus series usually chosen for touring (see below).

The Ortlieb City range is marketed to commuters, but in reality they are the same as the higher-end Ortliebs in terms of shape, capacity, waterproofing, and construction materials, made slightly lighter and quite a bit cheaper by a couple of missing features.

So what do you lose by saving some cash? Aside from the limited choice

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