Backpacks, racks, and panniers, oh my!

Recent question from reader Rebecca: “At the moment I’m using a backback, but it has limited capacity. So I’m wondering what you do… baskets? panniers? racks? I’d love any advice on that subject.”

Great question.  I used to be a backpack gal, too.

At first, I carried a regular back pack, plus a small gym bag.  I found that carrying two bags was awkward (and sometimes unsafe), so I switched to the internal frame backpack pictured above (yes, I’m in the picture too, hiding behind the pack).  With a volume of 50.5 L (3082 cubic inches), this pack easily handled everything I needed most days, and, with the waist belt and suspension system, felt pretty comfortable, even fully loaded, when riding my hybrid.

Once I switched to a road-style bike, with the bent-over riding position, the huge pack was a) more awkward and less comfortable and b) somewhat dangerous — when I turned to look over my shoulder, I couldn’t really see the road behind me — not good!

I took the plunge and bought a rear rack and panniers.

With a total volume (for the pair) of 20 L (1220 cubic inches), the panniers (Cartier by Axiom) provide much less space than my pack.  Although they come with a detachable over-the-shoulder carrying strap, it is not very comfortable, making these panniers great while on the bike, but not so good when you want to take them off and carry them around.  I hesitate to leave them on the bike, even when empty, because they’re not cheap.    For some errands, I need more volume (or a different configuration) than these provide.

I experimented with adding a milk crate (which is what my husband uses).

I like the milk crate because I can use whatever bag I want — just toss it in the crate.  With the milk crate and panniers, I have lots of carrying capacity, although the panniers are a bit difficult to access and pretty much impossible to remove while the crate is attached (which is good from a theft perspective, not so good when I want to remove them quickly).  For now, I just use bungee cords to secure the crate when I want extra space, but my hubby uses zip ties for a more permanent attachment (just make sure to carry a couple extra, as zip ties eventually wear out and snap).

Cool green tip: Over the weekend, I heard about people using cat litter buckets as make-your-own panniers (see here and here).  I wish I knew about this innovative reuse solution before I sunk $100 into my panniers.



  1. Rebecca says:

    Thank you SOOOO much for all of the wonderful information! In my research on panniers I found several interesting (but rather pricy) items. One was a pannier that had backpack straps like this one:

    The other was a “commuter” or shopping pannier that closed at the top with a carrying handle:

    Yikes! Hope those links don’t flag this comment as spam!

    And speaking of the do it yourself variety. Check out this guy: Now that’s a serious touring bike! I contemplated attempting something like that but alas, I fear I don’t have the technical skills to pull it off.

    But my new best friend from freecycle is gifting me collapsable baskets AND a rack which I’m going to pick up today… so I’ll let you know how it works out!

    Thanks again!

  2. Rebecca says:

    BTW – I’m totally impressed with your biking/backpacking abilities! Mine is just a small day pack. I don’t think I’d have the balance to pull off a full pack like you’re showing!

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