Arkel Dolphin 48 Pannier Review

Arkel Dolphin 48 pannier

Manufacturer's Site

When planning my tour along Missouri's Katy Trail, I looked at a number of different panniers to carry my stuff. I ended up taking up a pair of Arkel's Dolphin 48 panniers, which are billed as fully waterproof bags, and big ones at that, with a capacity of 48 liters/2930 cubic inches for the pair. Arkel is known for its array of well-made products for cyclists, including a number of different bags and packs, such as the Tailrunner Trunk Bag.

Would the Dolphin live up to the company's reputation? Five days of bike touring and we'd have the answer.

Emphasis on Water-Proof Storage

If you're going on a bike tour of any length, you have to assume that at some point you're going to get rained on. Same if you ride regularly as a bike commuter. And while you can wear a rain suit or cape to keep yourself dry, it gets old pretty quick if all your other stuff is wet. Sure, some panniers have rain covers that you can pull out and stretch over them, but that's not only extra weight to carry, but in fact it's a pain to have to pull over and slip them on each time you feel a few drops. That's why a truly water-tight pannier is an intriguing idea.

Arkel's Dolphin panniers are designed as the answer to this, and come in two sizes: the Dolphin 32 (32 liters of space in the pair) and the Dolphin 48, which is what we were able to try out.

The Dolphin panniers accomplish their watertight characteristic with a clever roll top design, where the pannier bag first meets at the top with a velcro closure.

Once the velcro is engaged, the material can be rolled down to the top of the bag's contents, then straps and buckles on each end are connected to the side of the bag. Tighten the straps to pull the top down snugly and voila! a system that will carry your stuff and keep it dry.

Durable Construction, Sensible Design

One of the first things that you'll notice is the sturdy way the Arkel Dolphin 48 panniers are put together. A molded polyethylene backplate is used as the main mounting surface that comes in contact with your rack. Designed to greatly reduce fabric wear and provide a strong structure for the pannier, this back plate is constructed from a plastic known for its resistance to cracking and its rigidity and high impact strength, as well as ability to maintain material integrity in literally every temperature a cyclist might encounter, from Arctic cold to the blazing heat of the tropics.

The next thing you'll notice is the size of the panniers themselves.

The Dolphin 48s are big enough that you could probably fit a five gallon bucket inside them if you tried. Plus, the roll-top design with the straps that you cinch down on your load from either side help you compress it, allowing you to fit in even more while still assuring a dry seal.

The bag itself is made from TPC-coated (a tough, flexible coating of water-proofing material) 400 Denier Ripstop Nylon, which is washable and a typical tough nylon material used in tarps, waterproof bags, etc. Additionally, reflective piping and reflective strips are found on the seams and at other strategic points on the bags to increase visibility of the cyclist to others in dark and low-light conditions. Little tab loops are also mounted on the exterior of the bag as a place to mount your red-light blinkies, again helping with that ever-critical cyclist task of using lighting and reflectors to make oneself more visible to others.

Finally, the Dolphin panniers feature both carry handles and D-rings mounted on the back plate which allow for shoulder strap use if desired, meaning you have the ability to carry panniers either in a practical back-to-back manner or singly as desired.

Extra Pockets for Storage and Accessibility

There are some compromises in getting a fully water-proof design.

Mainly, one large compartment with a roll-top design can take a little more work to get into, meaning possible concern about ready access to your stuff. Arkel anticipated this, however, and has worked to offset that with a couple different outside storage spaces that allow you to keep your most necessary items close at hand as desired. Each pannier has a front zippered pocket that is just the right size for items that need to be zippered and safe. Behind this front pocket is a second pouch that works well for stashing stuff that needs to be kept handy: suntan lotion, maps, gloves, that sort of thing. {See related article: Must-Have Items On Any Cycling Trip) Because that second pouch is essentially open to the elements (albeit with a fairly narrow opening), Arkel designed this with a mesh bottom that allows rain to flow through and not pool any water behind the front pocket, while still retaining any small or large items so you won’t lose them.

Ease of Mounting is a Plus

One of the features I've been most impressed with is the mounting system used to put the Dolphin 48 on one's bike rack. With a unique Cam-Lock® hook system, a cyclist can literally take off and put on these panniers with just one hand. A bottom hook mounted on a stout bungee cord connects with the bottom of one's rack. Pulling upward on the carry handle against that attachment point causes two cams to open and rotate, so that you can position the top part of your pannier against the right spot on your rack. Release the tension on the handle and the cams close securely and snugly against the rack, mounting the pannier in place. Not once did I ever have any concerns about the bag coming loose or coming off, and the design gives no opportunity for squeaks or rattle either. The only (minor) complication you might find with this is fortunately a one-time task, and comes during installation as a result of the great variance between bike racks. The actual position of the Cam-Locks are adjustable, and you may find that you need to move them forward or back a few inches to fit your bike most precisely. All-in-all, not a difficult task, but just be mindful that some adjustment is perhaps likely.

The whole set-up with the carry handle and easy installation and removal offers great portability, and makes it a cinch to take the bags quickly off the bike when needed. I faced this when loading onto a train, when a conductor suddenly notified me that I needed to take the panniers off my bike before bringing it on the train.

With a whole line of people queued up behind me waiting to board, it took literally ten seconds to pull the two panniers off the bike as requested.

Summary: after a week on the road with these panniers, we were very satisfied. The waterproof claim held true, and the durability and smart design of these panniers are evident. At a price of $195 for a pair of the smaller Dolphin 32s and $245 for the larger Dolphin 48s, these are not the cheapest bags out there. However, consider that with panniers, in particular, you get what you pay for. If you are in the position to invest in decent gear for your bicycle adventures, spend a bit more for quality equipment that you will be happy with for a number of years. And with the nice functionality and durable design of these Arkel panniers, that is exactly what you get. We believe this is a good investment and a choice of panniers that will serve you well.


Manufacturer's Site

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.