What Is a Bike Pannier?

How to use them to haul stuff on your bike

Bicycles parked in sheltered bicycle rack
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Ever hear people talk about panniers? Also called side bags or saddlebags, panniers (pronounced Pan-EE-yer) are the bags on your bike that store all your stuff. They typically mount over your wheels, either in the front or the back, or both. They are most commonly used for long-distance touring (including "bikepacking" or to haul stuff around town. For example, you might use front panniers to carry clothes on a bike tour, and in the rear panniers store food and bike tools.​​​

Panniers are usually mounted on racks that are bolted onto the bike frame. These frames both bear the weight of the load and keep the bags from getting into the spokes. Panniers can be water-tight or can be outfitted with external covers that fit over them like a shower cap in the event of precipitation.

Because panniers need to be very well constructed and are expected to last a long time under the demands of bike touring or utility riding, they are generally more expensive than the typical bike accessory. They are sold in pairs, and a well-made set of panniers will cost $200-300 US or more.

A number of well-known companies make quality panniers. These include Timbuk2, Axiom, REI house brand Novara, and Arkel.

Panniers are an essential part of any long-distance touring that goes more than a day. Even if you have no intentions of camping or cooking, panniers are needed simply to carry all the items on your bike tour packing list. Not only basics like clothes and gear, but also the essential things you need to have on any bike ride, 

Features to Look for in Buying Panniers

When considering buying panniers, these are the features to look for:

  • Rugged construction: panniers are used to carry a lot of weight and they take a beating as you ride day-in and day-out. Because of that, you want panniers with reinforced stitching, well-made grommets (the metal fasteners) vs sewn-on straps, and well-made, durable bungee cord fasteners.
  • Many times panniers have a rigid back that is used to keep the pack mounted firmly to the bicycle's rack. A pannier that lacks this backing will slump and wear more quickly, plus actually, hold less stuff.  Think of a tent without a frame, or a backpack without a frame.  That's what it's like if you have a pannier without a solid backing.
  • Separate compartments: look for panniers that have at least 3-4 compartments. One large one for sure will be present in all levels of panniers, but if you can afford it, go for the higher-end pannier that has multiple pockets, including on the outside and the top.  At least several should be waterproof. The large main pocket will hold your clothes and stuff that you typically don't need to get into until nightfall, but the side pockets and top pockets are the ones most readily accessible multiple times a day for things like food, maps, your camera, sunglasses, etc.

    Again, these extra features may add additional expense. However, panniers are one of those things that you're planning to buy for the long run and you want to buy ones you'll really be happy with. You'll be thankful you did.