Why cycling with pannier bags suck and backpacks are better

I’ve traveled a lot on bikes. My first bike tour was with my ex-girlfriend from Nagoya to Kyoto Japan. It was a 100-mile journey and we managed to do it in a day. My next bike tour was from southern Indiana to eastern Kansas. it was a 790-mile journey across 14 days. And my most recent bike tour is still underway but I’ve made it as far as southern Colombia from the Chicago area, about 4,000 miles away and I’m still trying to get to Argentina (you can read more about that here). So, I have a fair bit of experience bikepacking.

When you start preparing for a bike tour you’ll find that the default way to tour is with pannier bags and/or frame bags. And in fact, it is hard to find anyone doing it differently. But that is not because there isn’t a better way of bikepacking, it is because nobody knows of a better way to do it. Using a backpack, in every way, is better but backpacks can be heavy and painful. So, it is for that reason nobody bikepacks with backpacks.

Let’s list the benefits of using a backpack compared to pannier and frame bags:

  • For starters, with a backpack, your stuff is mounted on you so it is already going wherever you go. But that’s not the case if your stuff is mounted on your bike. You can’t always count on being able to bring your bike where you want to go, for example, in restaurants or stores, in transportation, up steps, or through challenging terrain. You’re bike, frankly, is not allowed everywhere nor can it be rolled everywhere. So, having your stuff mounted to a bike that can’t go everywhere you go is limiting your freedom. That is assuming you value the stuff you’re carrying, want to use your stuff while you are away from your bike, and don’t want to leave it your stuff unattended.
  • With a backpack, you’re more aerodynamic since your stuff is in-line behind your body compared to bulky pannier bags that really increase your drag.
  • With a backpack, sure your center of gravity is higher, which first might make you think that the handling is worse. But it’s not as bad as you think, especially after you get accustomed to it.
  • With a backpack, you have one bag; however, with panniers or frame bags, there are many. Of course, numerous bags may be great for compartmentalizing your stuff but it’s not great in terms of the cost for the total set-up or for when you must carry your stuff up a flight of stairs. Plus, compartmentalizing stuff can easily be done with the various compartments in a backpack.
  • With a backpack, you may have less space for stuff but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it encourages you to be more selective with the things you bring. Or this, may not even be an issue if you carry an 88L hiking backpack like I tried doing. But, I ended up downsizing to something more manageable.
  • Roadside repairs are inevitable and the only thing that makes it worse is if you also have to take off all your panniers and bike bags just to do a repair. Or, you must find a place to hang your bike so you don’t have to flip it upside down. Either way, it’s a cumbersome ordeal to an already frustrating situation. On the other hand, if you used a backpack, to begin with, then your stuff is already off your bike and repairs take less time and are less of an ordeal.
  • Bikepackers are bound to come across obstacles (like rivers, fences, or gates), rough terrain, or steep slopes. This sometimes requires that the biker dismounts their bike to walk it or carry it. This can obviously be challenging if your bike is like a tank and loaded with stuff, but it is a nonissue if your stuff is on your back instead.
  • Bike touring can also welcome curious and helpful strangers. Sometimes they would like to give you a ride down the road or invite you to their home. But if your bike is hard to manage and if it takes too long to get your bike inside the vehicle then they may not offer a ride in the first place or they may be annoyed that you’re taking too long. If you have a bike and backpack then both tend to be easily and quickly transported in any vehicle.

The drawback to backpacks

  • They are heavy and can contribute to body pain.

That’s it. I can think of no other reason not to use backpacks.

So, what if there was a solution to that single drawback? Something that supports the weight of the backpack while you ride, like a pole. Well, there is a solution and that is why I started bikebackbone.com.

By Adam W. Keen

Hey, my name is Adam. I’m a small guy surrounded by big people and a quiet observer in a complicated world, and I am trying to figure things out. I have limited time, resources, health, and capabilities, like us all, but I’m trying to do my best to maximize what I have. Born into a loving middle-class Christian family in Derby, Kansas, USA, I’ve had what people across the world can only dream about, loving and financially well-off parents and over 18 years of exceptional education. I do not earn these things based on my own merits (i.e. birth-parents, birthplace, nationality, race, etc.) and for that I am lucky. Now, it is my responsibility to make something of myself, to take all that I’ve been given and excel.