Fight! Panniers v Backpacks

Two members of cycle training organisation BikeRight debate which is best

Transporting your stuff when commuting – do you shoulder the burden or let the bike take the strain?


Two opposing views from a couple of staff at cycle training organisation BikeRight! In the red corner fighting for panniers we have Nick ‘Juggernaut’ Higgins, bikeability instructor. In the blue corner, bringing it for backpacks, we have marketing manager Andy ‘Speedster’ Tucker.

Round 1: Panniers

Nick higgins talks up using panniers: nick higgins talks up using panniers

Nick Higgins

Pannier versus backpack, the age old question when commuting: well let me tell you the answer and let’s not beat about the bush. It’s the pannier of course.

I use the pannier system on my commute and during my day to day work. Sometimes I may use the left pannier and sometimes I may use the right, but more often than not I use both allowing me to carry up to 15 kilos of cargo. Imagine that in a backpack, straining muscles, distorting your spine and causing extra fatigue.

Allow the bike to take the weight. My work as a cycle instructor requires me to access equipment, removing and replacing it regularly throughout the day, and what a palaver with a backpack, allow me to list the procedure:

  • Slacken the shoulder straps – previously adjusted to perfection
  • Slacken chest strap – again adjusted previously
  • Undo waist band used in an attempt to re-distribute excess weight – often futile
  • Remove from back by heaving weight to the left or the right causing a twisting moment about the spine (could result in back injury. See numerous articles on cost to employers and NHS).
  • Undo fiddly draw strings – imagine when fingers are cold and wet
  • Root around for item required, usually soaking wet – it often helps to stick your head right into the backpack and use a head torch
  • Reverse above procedure to replace on your back

As you can see this is a ridiculous position to put yourself in when very easily you could pop down to your local bicycle shop and purchase a superior set of panniers, offering easy, one-buckle-access to a waterproof compartment, with a large opening to allow the light to fall on your well stowed belongings.

I rest my panniers.

Panniers – letting the bike take the work: panniers – letting the bike take the work

Round 2: Backpacks

Andy tucker sings the praises of the backpack: andy tucker sings the praises of the backpack

Andy Tucker

I won’t beat about the bush either. I only ride at two speeds, stop and fast. If stopped I’m usually in a café or pub and therefore have no time to remove those heavy and stupid pannier bags as this would waste valuable cake eating or ale drinking time.

I also want all my possessions with me at all times, close for comfort.

At speed the backpack is the only solution. Little impact on bike handling, no extra weight over the back wheel to ruin weight distribution and it offers back protection. You can even put a bladder inside for constant hydration when on the move. Try this with a pannier!

Off the bike is where the backpack really scores. No fiddly brackets to disengage and with two free hands it’s easy to browse the cycling magazines in WH Smiths whilst waiting for the train home.

Panniers only have one use – on a bike. Backpacks can be used for many many things.

I use a Berghaus Freeflow 20 – small but perfectly formed with a great air flow back that has a neat rigid frame and hard plastic plate to protect your back and the contents. The H2O sleeve makes an ideal iPad pocket too. With a rain cover and easy to access zip front which allows almost 360 degree opening, so no need for a head torch – touché.

Game over.

The good old backpack – no fiddly brackets to worry about: the good old backpack – no fiddly brackets to worry about

The final round: who wins?

We’ll end on a serious note. Panniers are best if you have lots to carry and are not too worried about speed or bike handling. Make sure your bike is up to the job. Fully laden panniers can kill a wheel in no time at all on potholed roads. You might want to upgrade to robust tyres too such as Schwalbe Marathon Plus, deigned to take the hammer.

Front panniers are also an option, they slow down and alter steering feel but tend to be smaller and lighter than rear mounted models.

There are lots to choose from but Ortlieb are hard to beat. Fantastic quality, waterproof and available in lots of sizes. If you want something more flamboyant then look at the Basil range, they do some funky designs in all sorts of colour combinations for both male and female riders.

Don’t go for a rucksack that is too long as it will clatter against the back of your helmet. Look for sculptured shoulder straps so that you don’t get sore armpits. Avoid garish colours unless you want to look like a ninja turtle.


There are many cycling specific ones out there. Camelbak obviously spring to mind as offering a large range. Look at small hiking day-packs too as there’s a vast choice and prices can be lower than cycling specific packs and they’re just as comfortable.