Bikepacking Bags vs Touring Racks with Panniers

Bikepacking Bags vs Touring Racks with Panniers

Which set up is best for you

So, you want to go bikepacking, but aren’t sure what setup for carrying your gear is right for you. You’ve stopped at the right place. In this piece, we will compare the pros and cons of using more traditional style touring racks with panniers vs the more modern style of using soft, strap-on bikepacking bags. We will also feature alternative ideas for carrying your kit.

Why Choose Touring Racks and Panniers

Touring racks have been a staple for decades for anyone looking to carry gear on their bike. Look at bikes from the 80’s and 90’s and you’ll find many have eyelets for mounting a rack to the bike. The racks are usually made of metal and most commonly mount over the rear wheel, but sometimes go over the front wheel. They straddle the wheel creating a platform above the wheel to mount bags or gear directly to and can accommodate pannier bags. These hang from the rack and sit on either side of the wheel. The bike rack is a simple, tried and true method for carrying equipment.

Requirements

Most racks use 4 support struts – 2 lateral and 2 vertical. This gives them a high load capacity but does require a frame has the mounts to accommodate the rack. To use a rack, your bike will usually need to have eyelets for the mounting hardware – 2 up near the seat post tube or seat stays and 2 near the dropout. Depending on the frame material and size and shape of the frame tubing, occasionally racks can be mounted with adaptors if the frame does not have eyelets.

Advantages

  • Common and inexpensive – racks can be found at most bike shops and are typically inexpensive.
  • Semi-universal – any bike with 4 rack mounting eyelets should accommodate most racks. There are differences between racks designed for use with disc or rim brakes, but aside from that, almost any rack will fit almost any bike with the mounts for it.
  • Secure – if you plan to commute with your setup or intend to lock your bike in public places, a bolted on rack, although not theft proof, is theft deterrent.
  • High carrying capacity – Rack weight limits vary based on how they are made, but are very high. They also offer lots of opportunity for carry large or bulky items by mounting things on top of the rack platform.
  • Panniers – most pannier bags fit most racks meaning you have lots of options to pick from. You can plan out for your exact needs and get the right size, shape, configuration, material (weight, waterproofness, etc).
  • Racks act like a fender – they don’t provide as much coverage as a full fender, but are much better than nothing. If wet conditions aren’t on the menu, but are encountered, it’s nice to have a rack to keep some water off your rear end.
  • Lower center of gravity – riding with a fully loaded bike is a challenge. But the lower you can get that weight, the better the bike handles. There aren’t too many points on the bike lower than your wheels, so placing bags next to them is a great option.
  • Pannier capacity – If you need to carry 45+ liters of gear, almost the only way to do it is with large capacity panniers.
  • Out of the way – racks place bags in a location that your body doesn’t typically contact or interfere with while pedaling. Your gear is totally out of your way.
  • Stout and durable – Metal rack and metal hard means your carrying system is solid.

Disadvantages

  • Weight – A rack system means you have a metal rack, struts, metal hardware, and your panniers. Before you put a single piece of gear on your bike, by installing a rack and panniers, you’ve already added quite a bit of weight to you rig.
  • Aerodynamic drag – loaded panniers stick out in the wind. Most people touring aren’t concerned over speed, but all that drag is noticeable and really ads up over time, especially in windy conditions.
  • Ease of set-up – putting a rack on requires tools. Although racks come off, very few people will routinely install and remove their rack.
  • Width – paniers not only stick out in the wind, but stick out in space. If you want to ride single track, you’ll likely encounter sections that are difficult if not impossible to pass through with bags. Even bollards on paved bike paths require you ride through with precision.
  • Off-road/bumpy terrain – panniers hang from racks and although are very secure, ultimately are more prone to jostle and bounce around. They just aren’t ideal for off-road riding.

Who are they for?

Choose a rack system if your bike has the mounts for it, you plan to leave the rack on all the time, most of your use of the rack and panniers is on paved or smoother surfaces or you need to carry a lot of kit on your adventure. Racks are great crossovers for the bike commuter that wants to get groceries on their trip home as well.

shop racks and panniers

Why Bikepacking Bags

Requirements

Using bags to bikepack has come into vogue in recent years. This is partly due to the complex shapes and materials used in modern frames. Carbon can’t support a loaded rack with an eyelet connection like a steel frame can. Also, Gravel riding has become very popular and off-road touring, or bikepacking , require different tools for the job. Bags have a huge advantage in that they are soft sided and can strap to almost any tube shape. Although bags are much less universal than racks, frames are more unique than ever and nearly all bikes can accommodate some combination of bags. The main requirement is matching up the bag manufacturer’s fitting guide to the frame you intend to use. The other requirement is deciding how many bags you will need and where to place them to haul your kit.

Advantages

  • Weight – fabric bags are light. There is not metal and no hardware. The system has the potential to be very light compared to a rack system.
  • Aerodynamic drag – a frame bag is usually located on the handlebars, the seatpost and/or in the frame’s main triangle. All the bags sit in line with the rider and bike putting them in the wind shadow. Drag is about the same with or without bags. It could even be argued that a full frame bag acts as a faring and could improve your aerodynamics.
  • Access – with panniers, if you need anything from the bag while riding, you’d have to stop, dismount, and open the panier to access it. Frame and bar bags often allow access while riding. This may not be important for your sleeping system, but could be very important for sunscreen, cash and water.
  • Set up and teardown – Most bags use a strap system that is tool-free and is very easy to install or remove.

Disadvantages

  • Capacity limitations – Bags must fit within some constraints. If it’s a frame bag, its can only be as big as the frame triangle and as wide as the rider’s knee clearance. If it’s a bar bag, it can only be as wide as the bar will allow without interference of the controls. If you use a bar bag, a frame bag and a seat post bag, your total carry capacity in volume may be high on paper, but all your gear must be divided between the 3 locations. If you have bulky items, this can be a challenge.
  • May be limited to a single bike – certain bags may fit really well one of your bikes and really poorly on another. If you plan to bikepack on multiple bikes, you may be required to invest in multiple setups.
  • Frame fitment/less universal – A bag must be shaped and sewn to fit a bike. But tube shapes, frame sizes and varying geometry mean getting a bag to fit your bike isn’t always easy. Universal bags don’t take advantage of all of your frame’s potential capacity or nooks and crannies. This is where custom made bags come in. There are many brands out there that will make one-off bags just for your frame.
  • Stability – Most fabric bags lack the structure and support of a rack. This makes them prone to flopping while riding. This is especially true of seat bags. Seat bags are usually the largest capacity bag on a bikepacking setup, but are mounted very high. They tend to “wag” like a dog tail. Bikepackers will need to be extra careful to how they load their gear to reduce this.
  • Knee rub – frame bags tend to rub against your knees while pedaling. This gets annoying.

Who are they for?

Choose a bag system if plan to own your bike a long time and can get bags that fit it well, have a minimalist and ultralight camping kit, or plan to do most of your touring on unpaved surfaces. It’s also a good choice for anyone riding a bike made of carbon, or a suspension MTB or any odd frame shape. Lastly, if you ride a bike that you commonly want to remove the bags from, bags are a better choice.

shop bikepacking bags

Other

  • Thule Pack N Pedal – Want to run a rack, but don’t have eyelets? Thule has your solution!
  • Aeroe – A tool-free mounted rack system that works great on most frames, even suspension frames, allowing for a solid rack setup that works well off-road and on.
  • Backpack – If you already own a large capacity backpack for backpacking and camping, there’s nothing wrong with wearing that on you ride! It’s a great introduction to bikepacking and will work well. If you fall in love with bikepacking, you can invest in bags or a rack system later.

Final Thoughts

At this point, touring to most people means multi-day outings on paved surfaces while bikepacking means multi-day outings on unpaved surfaces. Racks and panniers are designed for touring. Bikepacking bags are designed for bikepacking. In general, you can use that as your staring point when picking a setup. But, it comes down to personal preference. Half the fun of touring and bikepacking is refining your kit. The most important thing is you don’t overthink it, load your bike up and get out there! You won’t know what works best for you, your bike, and your gear until you test it out.