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Carrying the Load on the Bike

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Now that you’ve picked out the bike and sorted out your mental and physical training issues the next step is figuring out how to carry everything you need with you while touring by bicycle. There are two main ways of doing this on a self-contained and fully loaded tour.

One way is to carry everything on the bike itself.

The second method is to tow a trailer and carry everything in that.

This page will cover both in detail.

What are the available options?

Different types of bags exist to help you make use of almost any part of the bicycle. Here’s a list of just some of the options:

Handlebar bag

Handlebar bag
This is my Arkel Handlebar bag on Day two of my Round Lake Huron tour. The bag is open because I had just removed my camera to take the picture. Notice the map holder on top of the bag as well as the handy net pockets on the sides. There is also a pocket on the front side as well.

A handlebar bag rides on the handlebars just as the name implies. This type of bag is often used to carry items that you want close at hand. Examples include a camera, notepad, touring cards and snack foods.

Some handlebar bags also have some really nice features like a mapcase and a strap that makes it possible to take the handlebar bag with you when you leave the bike.

One consideration that you should be aware of is the overall weight of the handlebar bag when it’s fully loaded. Heavily loaded handlebar bags can make steering harder then necessary.

It is possible to get a map case on your bike without a handlebar bag. Some people do exactly this to get around the potential steering and weight issues on the bike.


I use this bag for everyday commuting back and forth to work. It carries my lunch as well as tools, and a spare tire tube. This bag also features a place to mount a rear light although after losing two lights I no longer trust it. Unfortunately the bag blocks the rear light mounted under the seat making the ability to mount a light on the rear rack even more important.

A trunk is a bag that rides on top of the rear rack of a bike. This type of bag is very useful for a lightly loaded or sag wagon tour when you want to carry just a few items on the bike without going all the way to saddlebags. It’s also very useful for commuting or day rides.

Although I have a trunk bag I don’t use it on tour. Instead I prefer to have nothing on top of the rear rack allowing me to put things there when needed. One Item that typically ends up there if I use it during a particular day is rain gear.

During my last tour I mounted a water bladder above the rear rack. This allowed me to carry more water and remove the weight of a water bladder from my body but it also made mounting a trunk bag completely impossible had I wanted one.

Saddlebags (also known as panniers)

I ordered new Arkel's just before my Round Lake Huron tour. I wanted to increase visibility so I selected red bags. Notice the round tube connected to the right side rear saddlebag. This bag holds my therma rest and if I used a tent it would also hold my tent poles.

These bags ride along the sides of the racks mounted on the bicycle. These bags come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes. Additionally you can get bags with lots of pockets to help you organize your equipment or one big pocket for your gear but completely waterproof.

Two very well respected saddlebag manufacturers are Arkel OverDesigns and Ortlieb. While both companies are recognized by many bicycle tourists as having superior products the two companies have taken different approaches.

Ortlieb is renowned for having bags that are almost waterproof. Many stories have been told on the International Bicycle Touring Mailing List about how well these bags have worked to protect essential gear like a sleeping bag from getting soaked during a heavy rainstorm.

The potential downside is that the bag has only one large compartment.

Arkel has also gone with high quality materials and a very strong set of attachment hardware. They have also focused on providing lots of compartments to make packing your gear easier.

I currently use Arkel saddlebags although in the past I used Vaude RoadMaster bags until I experienced a problem while passing through the Cleveland harbourfront while going around Lake Erie. I sold these saddlebags to a touring buddy only to have them break during our first tour together.

For me having saddlebags that I can rely on makes a tremendous difference when I am touring. I look for high quality construction, a reliable attachment mechanism and some form of protection from water.

I also look for straps that I can use not only for being able to temporarily hold things on the bike but also to allow me to try to compress the fully loaded bags as tightly as possible to help reduce the impact of the bags on aerodynamics. This is an important feature especially in a headwind.

For commuting I like to use different bags that have a easy quick release mechanism. This makes the bags easier to take off the bike. When I tour I typically want the opposite since I tend to leave the bags on the bike for the whole tour. Some people feel differently about this. They like to take the bags into their shelter at night rather then leave them on the bike.

Of course to mount most of these bags you need a rack of some sort. The next section will cover that topic.

Choosing a set of panniers/saddlebags

Panniers 2

Choosing your first set of saddlebags/panniers can be tricky since you are usually coming into touring for the first time and you don’t really know exactly what you are looking for. Since this question is a relatively common one I present the following message thread. Thanks to the three people identified in this thread for contributing their comments here as well.

Matthew Corrigan posted the following question:

“I am in the market for my first set of panniers and I need to know what size is really needed for self contained touring. My goal is to keep the load to around 40lbs but that may be exceeded depending on the tour destination itself.”

Demetri Kolokotronis responded with a request for a bit more information:

“You leave off an important point, two or four panniers? 40lb is not too much for two panniers; but, as you say, you might exceed 40lb. I got 90-100lb nicely into four Madden Baby Buzzards, with tent and sleeping bag atop rack. I am now using Ortlieb Bike Packer Plus bags, slightly larger than Baby Buzzards. With Baby Buzzards I was using front panniers front and rear; with the Ortliebs I am using rear panniers front and rear.”

Gilbert Anderson responded with the following answer that goes a long way towards discussing the various items that you should consider when trying to choose a set of panniers that will work well for you:

“Demetri makes a good point on the two or four pannier thing. I’ll tell you if you can get everything in two panniers your life gets better in airports and off the bike carrying things around. In one dramatic afternoon on an overseas trip I was told that my international flight was canceled and the only plane I could get was scheduled to leave the ground twenty minutes from (….now)!

The counter agent that re-ticketed us comforted me a little by adding that the new tickets were from another airline, in another terminal ( shuttle bus required) and added the words; “you will never make the plane with those bikes.” HA!

I’ve toured on all kinds of bikes but lately have been traveling with small wheel Alex Moulton bikes. While they pack smaller than large wheel bikes I enjoy the way they carry a large camping load like a little mule. Anyway to speed assembly at the destination; Gatwick airport in the UK, I used the normal full size bike shipping boxes for the bikes and most camping gear. My carry on was a large front and rear bag (the Moulton can use panniers in the front but forgoes them in the rear for a huge unibag of similar size to a large pannier set). Anyway I brought along some cash for ready exchange on arrival and a few $5 bills to tip the Skycaps with our bike boxes. When we found we needed to change terminals those first two fivers went to this one happy fellow turned out to be prudence. We hurriedly explained our situation and pulled out my remaining bills; nothing but $20’s and gave him one. To our surprise he stopped unloading a car without a word came over, loaded our bike and luggage, transported them across traffic and into the shuttle bus. As we got on he had some words with the driver and gave some assurance that we were in a hurry. The bus pulled away with people screaming after it as we were the only passengers on board and pulled up to the proper terminal in a jiffy. We were immediately greeted by a new skycap and he with a fresh $20 in hand guaranteed the bikes would be on the plane when we arrived in London with 12 minutes till takeoff.

With 10 minutes to take off we were issued boarding passes at the empty ticket counter and were then running through the concourse to the luggage screeners. As we exited security I realized the only problem now is the plane was due to depart in 3 minutes and I have little of my required luggage for the trip. We had them call to the front counter and such but ultimately I was able to board the plane unencumbered by anything more than basically a handlebar bag. And they said the bikes wouldn’t make it, Ha?

They arrived on time with us. After we returned the bags (and my precious cycling shoes) were found in the Lost and Found having been left on the shuttle bus. So much for the discount ticket after all those tips.

This silly story just shows how hard it is to keep your eye on multiple bags when traveling. With a bike box under one arm and four panniers, a tent, pad and sleeping bag dragging along you’re also very open to snatch and grab thievery as well as your arms are well; occupied.

Now there is a downside and I’ll make my recommendations on the Pannier thing now. On size I would select the largest front and rear panniers (or rear and rear) I could find that fits your rack properly. I would try to carry as little as possible and avoid over packing and overstuffing. Why use so many large bags you ask?

One, using front bags often (it should be all else being equal) improve the tracking and stability of the loaded bike and off load the trouble prone rear wheel of weight.

Second, large bags can allow packing things out of a high mounted handlebar bag and top of rack and place them in a more stable, lower position improving stability and handling, keeps gear cleaner, eliminates exposure of delicate nylon to UV light and rain and is less likely to fall off the bike and should be much quicker to load. Tying down a tent, pad and bag to a rack top can often take considerable time each day compared to latching a pannier on. So if you can get your gear inside your pannier bags you have less bags to keep up with and the gear is more protected from the elements. A side benefit is if the rear rack top is free you can quite easily lash on groceries or other handy items you pick up in your travels (I’ve been needing a hubcap like that for a long time).

Side benefits:

Gear seems to expand on trips since after a while it is not folded just so, packed this or that way or simply cluttered. Your need for room unless you discard or ship home always tends to expand on trips so having some extra room is great. With large bags as opposed to small ones everything can fit in easily without the zipper busting tugging and squeezing to pack the panniers each morning. This is real handy when you wake up late for your plane that’s leaving that day, when the farmer is coming across the field with the shotgun or when your words sound like this, “ Well officer, just plan on me just moving along right away then.”

On pannier brand and selection:

Almost all panniers on the market today (USA) are of adequate design for occasional use. Long term and regular use will separate the better ones. Having said this the better ones can be much better with regular use; no seam failures, tough fabric is more abrasion resistant, better coating and seals, heavier tougher zippers and buckles that don’t break.

Now what is really important and yet few people talk about it? It’s always capacity or even weight that folks talk about. This is natural as these things are very easy to measure and are tangible.

The thing that you use the most and is most critical is not the pannier at all. It is the rack system and the pannier attachment system. Many if not most are somewhat incompatible (rack to pannier) with each other from my experience. I’ve heavily modified most of the panniers I’ve ever owned. I am told Arkel is an excellent system but have never used them. I do know Ortlieb, Vaude and Carradice have excellent lock on hooks and a system that is very universal to fit most racks. Racks for panniers are the most overlooked component on a bike for touring and they fail often. One thing is that good name brand racks with excellent reputations often have a carry rating that is 2.5 times less than other less known brands like the tubular steel Tubus. Tubular steel racks (list member Bruce Gordon makes one of the best) seem to be universally more reliable but there are many excellent aluminum alloy carriers on the market. The over design of a better carrier is not wasted as it will stabilize heavy loads, is more reliable and is more likely to survive a crash.”

Submitted by Gilbert Anderson

Vaude, Arkel and Ortlieb saddlebag/pannier review

So far I’ve owned three different types of saddlebags/panniers offered by three different manufacturers. These manufacturers are Vaude, Arkel and Orlieb. Although there are many more saddlebag manufacturers whose products are used for bicycle touring these three are commonly asked about and since I’ve owned all three types it made sense for me to describe my experience. As time elapses I will likely update this page since my experience with Ortlieb panniers is still limited compared to the other two types.

When selecting a saddlebag I thought about these questions related to my desired usage.

How much space do I need to store stuff and how is that space organized?

The first part of this question is really personal in nature since it comes down to you determining how much gear you want to be able to carry with you on your tour. I also tend to use my saddlebags for commuting during the year so sizing is an important consideration for that usage as well since I like to carry an extremely well padded computer notebook with me a significant portion of the time when I commute.

The actual number of pockets can make a surprisingly large difference.

The Arkel GT-54 rear saddlebags have lots and lots of pockets allowing you to do some heavy duty organizing of your gear. In addition the Arkels also allow you to easily attach an optional Therma-rest holder using a combination of heavy duty Velcro and straps.

The Vaude Roadmaster rear panniers have a main compartment where the bulk of your stuff would go as well as a water bottle sized rear pocket and a top pocket that’s built in to the covering of the bag.

The Ortlieb Classic and Classic Plus bags have only one large pocket for you to place things.

How water resistant are the bags?

All three bags differ in terms of water resistance. Both the Vaude and Arkel bags rely on a rain cover that helps prevent water from getting at the contents. One disadvantage of this type of covering is that you need to either have the covers on all the time or stop and put the covers on when a storm approaches. An advantage though is that it allows more air flow into the bags which can help dry out damp stuff or at least prevent some very wierd smells from appearing.

I’ve been on tours using both types of saddlebags and I have experienced some heavy rainstorms. The Vaude covers are elasticized so the cover stays snugly against the bag. The problem is that during a heavy storm with lots of water on the road it is very easy for water to kick up and get caught by the bottom edge of the bag’s cover. This water builds up until enough is there that the inside contents of the bag get wet as water seeps through the bottom.

The Arkel covers do not suffer from this limitation although they tend to block the wind a bit more effectively as a consequence of not hugging the bags quite so tightly. You can also obtain internal dry bags for use with their bags to help prevent critical things from getting wet. I found that even when not using the covers it generally took quite a lot of water before I could noticed any wetness on the inside of the bags.

Orlieb Classic and Classic Plus bags are essentially dry bags with a framework for the attachment points built around them. As a consequence these bags are considered to be waterproof. There is no need for covers assuming that you don’t rip the bag somehow during your travels.

How reliable and durable are the bags? Are they likely to break?

The Vaude Roadmasters were a disappointment for me. During my Round Lake Erie tour the attachment mechanism on one bag slipped out of it’s connection point forcing me to use nylon zip ties to keep the saddlebag attached. After that experience I sold the bags to a friend of mine.

In the two tours that he has done since the attachment mechanism of the bags has broken both times. At this point he is short both rear saddlebags as he awaits their repair or replacement.

I purchased the Arkels as a replacement for the Vaude bags. I have since completed seven tours using these bags including my Round Lake Huron tour. The terrain has generally been rougher but these bags have held up without any real problems. I really have the impression that these bags can take a much harder workout then I’ve given them without even flinching.

My Ortlieb bag was purchased as a replacement bag to use for daily commuting to work. I was looking for a bag that would be very durable and waterproof when going on off-road trails or pavement. So far I haven’t experienced any problems and these bags have a very good reputation for durability in reviews written by others.

Do the saddlebags help me to improve visibility while riding down the road?

I like to be very visible when bicycle touring. In fact I like arriving in a campground and being visited while setting up camp by someone who saw me on the road earlier and remembers me due to my bright red or yellow saddlebags. I figure that the more visible I am on the road the more unlikely it is that I will be hit. So far this has worked out well for me.

The Vaude bags are black and silver which tends to make them rather discreet when on the bike. Fortunately the rain covers are bright neon yellow making the bags highly visible when they are deployed. This high visibility was the main reason that the covers are visible in almost every bike picture from my Round Lake Erie tour.

When purchasing my Arkels I had a choice of colours. In addition to black there was also red (and I think green). I chose the red ones hoping for improved visibility over black bags. These bags are highly visible according to feedback from others. The rain covers are a more subtle shade of yellow that is still effective at raising visibility when out on the road. I generally ride at least a few times at night during my longer tours. During my Round Lake Huron tour I was told by one guy at a traffic light that prior to passing me I was so reflective that I looked like I was driving a truck. This is the type of feedback I want to hear!

The Ortliebs also come in a variety of colours. The Classic bag I chose was bright yellow leading to high visibility. Unfortunately the Classic Plus bag I replaced it with does not have a yellow colour so I picked red instead.

All of these bags have reflective strips built in. One very nice feature on the Vaude bags is the inclusion of a handy strap for adding rear LED lights to the bike. With this feature it is really easy to have four or five LEDs facing behind you should you happen to find yourself riding in the dark. This is one feature that I wish was present on both of the other bags.

How difficult is it to put the bags on the bike or take them off?

The easiest bag to take off and on the bike is the Orlieb by a long shot. They have perfected a mechanism that firmly keeps the bag attached to the bike while riding but makes it literally as easy as lifting the carrying handle to remove the bag from the bike. The action of lifting the handle slides the retaining pieces soundlessly out of the way so that you can continue on your way.

The Arkels have a great mounting system that gives you a real sense of stability and durability. The whole system is made out of metal so one downside is that the metal will likely put scratches on your rack. Their system is based on two downward facing hooks with a centrally located upward facing locking device. The devices are setup using allen keys so the possibility of a correctly mounted bag falling off during a tour is highly unlikely. It does take more effort to install and remove the bags when compared to the other two types mentioned here. If you are someone who takes your bags into your tent every night then this may matter to you. On the other hand, if you are like me, and leave the bags mounted on the bike except on rest days then you are likely to find the very secure mounting mechanism a significant advantage especially since it will make stealing the bags harder for others too.

The Vaude mounting mechanism is between the two. It is easier to install and remove the bags then with the Arkels but a significant amount of force is required, compared to the Ortliebs when removing them.

Weight of the bags

This was a surprising discovery for me. The Ortliebs are lighter then the Vaude bags and much lighter then the Arkels.

Rack compatibility

I use the Norco Axiom Tour du Monde racks. These racks are stainless steel and rated to carry 150 kg. I have two of them that I have been using for touring and comutting throughout the year, including the winter.

The Vaude and Arkel bags mounted without any issues other then the expected need to slightly adjust hooks etc to match the rack.

The Ortlieb experience was not as positive unfortunately. I started with the classic bag and discovered that it wouldn’t mount to my rack in a way that didn’t cause the heels of my boots to hit the bag. This is unfortunate since I really like the look etc of the bag.

The Classic Plus is somewhat better because you have more options for how you attach it to the rack. To do so I have to have the attachment hardware mounted so that it is far forward on the bag. Unfortunately I have discovered that in addition to this making the load slightly unbalanced when carrying the bag using the strap occassionally the handle will disconnect as well. This is easy to fix and only happens when carrying the bag off the bike but it is worth mentioning just the same.

My preferences about panniers?

Currently my preferred touring bags are Arkels. I will readily admit that I don’t use all of the pockets and in fact some could probably be removed without me missing them. What I would miss is the lovely Thermarest holder. You can easily put a Therma-rest and your tent poles in that carrier rather then trying to tie down more stuff on top of your rear rack. This frees up the rack for other essentials like a rain jacket, a refreshing beverage or some other snack.

As discussed above I like the fact that once the Arkels are mounted I have no concerns about them coming off the bike without me being involved in the decision. The bags are very, very good, easy to use, durable and highly visible. With the addition of the rain covers they handle heavy rainstorms without problem.

I intend to continue to use the Orlieb for everyday commuting. The very nice attachment mechanism and waterproof bag makes for a bag that works extremely well for my intended use. My commute goes through woods, across streams and other obstacles that requires a bag that can keep the contents safe from water while also giving me plenty of room to put lots of protective padding around the contents. The only remaining issue I have to work out is getting the bags attached to the rack in a way that works well for me. A bit more time will hopefully iron that out.

One activity I intend to try in the future is some off road expedition type touring. I intend to try it at least twice, once with my BOB trailer and once with a good set of saddlebags. Time will tell which type I decide to use for this activity. I suspect that I will be leaning towards either waterproof Arkels or Ortliebs.

Do-It-Yourself Panniers/Saddlebags

Bucket panniers

Bicycle panniers can be expensive. A good set of front and rear panniers can run $300 – $600. But there is a way to get a quality set of panniers for a reasonable cost, BUILD your own!

I’m a graduate student and I wanted to get into bicycle touring, but I didn’t even have $150 to spend on a set good rear panniers. So, I decided to build my own. My Buckets of Doom have served me well for the past year and a half. I’d like to share my findings with you.

There are 2 systems of home built panniers: buckets or bags. The bucket system uses rigid square buckets as the storage container. The bag system uses converted military style bags, or hiking backpacks as the storage container. Both systems are reliable.

I made a pair of square bucket panniers called the Buckets of Doom. I first wrote about them on my blog year and a half ago. Total personification. I even made a spoof on Lord of the Rings involving Bill (the pony), the One Ring, and the Buckets of Doom.

When I built these bicycle panniers I had several goals in mind:

  • Must serve at least 2 or more purposes while touring
  • Attachment system that wouldn’t fail even when partially unhooked
  • Highly visible
  • Plenty of storage space(at least 2,500 cubic inches)
  • Water proof
  • Less than $50
  • Adequate heel clearance

Well, I blew past all those goals, which destroys the #1 Theory of Outdoor Equipment: light, strong, and cheap. Pick two out of three. With the bicycle panniers you’ll build you can have all three.

Let’s get started!

Bucket pannier materials

Step #1 – Gather Materials bicycle saddlebags, bicycle panniers

  • 2 Square, four or five Gallon Buckets from U.S. Plastic
  • 2 Square Bucket Lids from U.S. Plastic
  • Arkel’s Hook Kit
  • Four M6 Lock Washers
  • Four M6 Flat Washers
  • Four M6 20mm length screws. (either flat head, Philips, or allen will do)
  • Drill
  • ½ inch drill bit
  • 5/16 inch drill bit
  • Screw Driver/Allen wrench (depends on which 20mm screws you buy)
  • Foam (optional)

Step #2 – Chunk Stock Screws

Get rid of the stock M6 16mm stock screws that mount the Hook kit to the buckets. They are the silver ones in the second photo. The stock screws are too short because you’ll be adding 2 washers this changes the shaft length needed from 16mm to 20mm. It’s hard to believe 4mm makes all the difference, but it has to done.

Step #3 – Drill Holes in Brace

Take the 5/16 in drill bit and drill bigger hole in the Aluminum Brace. Because the buckets have round edges they aren’t completely flat. If you only drill the hole the same size as the M6 screw, it’ll be harder to drill a perfectly straight hole. You will put the screw in a bind.

My dad says, “You gotta give a little room to play with.” Making the hole a little bigger will eliminated bind and make it easier to tighten.

Step #4 – Drill Holes in Buckets

Drill two ½ inch holes in each bucket. The same “give it a little room” principle applies. Use the aluminum brace to determine the correct hole spacing. The easiest way is to place the aluminum brace on the bucket. Mark the holes with a Sharpie and then drill.

Drill the holes as high as allowable on the buckets. I drilled mine just under the support ribs. Remember measure 30 times and drill once!

Step #5 – Mount Brace to Bucket

Assemble aluminum brace onto the bucket. Here’s the order:

  1. Take the 20mm screw
  2. Slide the Lock washer on
  3. then the flat washer
  4. Stick this through the bucket
  5. through strap
  6. through aluminum brace
  7. Thread it onto the D-bolt.
  8. Tighten. That’s it!

Step #6 – Attach Bicycle Panniers to Rack

This is easy since it mounts just like any Arkel Pannier.

Step #7 – Make Necessary Adjustments bicycle saddlebags, bicycle panniers Once again this works just like any Arkel Bicycle Pannier. Each rack is different. Some have as many as 2 support struts in addition to the main strut. This hook system is fully adjustable so you can make changes as needed.

These bicycle panniers are huge. If you’re riding a traditional diamond frame bicycle, foot clearance becomes a problem. However, Arkel’s Hook System is infinitely adjustable. So, move the S-hooks and locking mechanism as necessary to compensate for foot clearance. Arkel’s instruction guide is pretty thorough.

Step #8 – Road Test, Again, and Again…

Bucket bike panniers

I read a book by a mountaineer named Louise Lindgren. She makes all her own gear. Clothing, backpacks, rain gear, tents, mittens and everything else you can imagine. She stresses the point of field testing your homemade gear well in advance of your planned event. That way you’ll have plenty of time to make changes. No need to be in middle of the desert just to find out you forgot the lock washers and your bicycle panniers keep coming lose every 2 miles!

At this point you may want to add the optional foam. I use foam to line the bottom of my bicycle panniers to eliminate rattling and other noises.

So, TEST RIDE, make changes as you see fit, and HAVE FUN!

Front and Rear racks

Front and rear racks
Two fully loaded touring bikes with front and back saddlebags in addition to handlebar bags.

A rear rack is a very handy item to have on almost any kind of bicycle that you will use for commuting, touring or even trail maintenance. With a rear rack you can easily move weight off of you and on to the bike instead.

Weight distribution

It used to be common to hear people talk about just using a rear rack on their bike for fully loaded tours. I actually went on my first tour doing exactly that. I rapidly discovered that the front wheel had a disturbing tendancy to lift up whenever any uphill slope was encountered and the bike felt really unsteady with most of the weight riding on the back wheel.

When I returned from that tour I looked into ways that I could better balance the load. It quickly became obvious that with the addition of a front rack and some front saddlebags I could get even out the weight distribution between the front and rear wheels while also removing a lot of stuff from on top of the rear rack. By removing this stuff the overall center of gravity on the bike would be reduced thereby improving the stability of the bike.

It turns out that this was exactly the right thing to do! During my Round Lake Erie tour I used the front saddlebags and as a result only the sleeping pad rode on top of the rear rack. When I changed to Arkel saddlebags for my Round Lake Huron tour the sleeping pad also moved off the rear rack leaving me with a very handy temporary storage location for rain gear etc on those days when sudden storms appeared.

The tendancy of the front wheel to lift when going uphill and the stability of the fully loaded touring bike were greatly improved following the changes.

Apparently using front saddlebags or panniers is quite common in Europe. I typically have about 60% of the gear weight on the front wheel although recommendations as high as 70% are common in Europe.

Steering challenges

A common concern about running front racks is that it will interfere with your ability to steer. While steering does become slightly slower it’s something that I’ve always adjusted to in a very short time (like ten minutes). To limit the potential for problems I try to have equal weight in both front bags and use a good front rack that doesn’t shift around or flex.

Keep in mind that if you use a handlebar bag with your front saddlebags the handlebar bags weight can play a huge role in steering ability. If you notice a problem with steering try it without the handlebar bag or with a reduced load in the handlebar bag.

One more suggestion is to make sure that you don’t have any straps lying loose near the front wheel. I like to make sure the straps are very securely tucked away from the wheel. Call me cautious but the last thing I want is to experience a spontaneous trip over the handlebars courtesy of sloppiness on my part!

Center of Gravity

The higher a load is on the bike the more the bike will feel shaky or wobbly when you are riding it especially if you are someone who likes to stand on the pedals when going uphill. This can also lead to a crash when going downhill as a wobble starts up when the bike reaches beyond a certain speed. If it isn’t detected and controlled right away then it could lead to a scary adventure or a crash.

To prevent this it’s important to balance the load, have a sturdy rack, try to keep the heaviest gear as far down in the bag as possible and do a few test runs before allowing your bike to go screaming at high speed down a steep descent.

Front rack
Tubus Tara front rack on my Trek 520

Rack models

When considering racks you should consider reliability, reputation and physical requirements. The first two are mentioned because the last thing you want is to have a rack break somewhere on tour especially if you have fifty to one hundred pounds of gear onboard.

Physical requirements refers to having a rack that can safely carry more weight then you intend to have with you and the physical requirements of the rack itself. As an example some front racks are designed to work with mid-fork braze-ons. Some rear racks have a similar braze-on requirement.

The Norco Axiom Tour du Monde rear rack on my Trek 520
The Norco Axiom Tour du Monde rear rack on my Trek 520

An additional concern comes into play for bikes with front fork suspension. The problem with front suspension is that most racks will end up being in direct conflict with the front suspension. As the fork hits a bump the suspension will retract causing the front rack to also bend. Something will eventually break. There are special racks available that help with this problem. They have a reputation for being expensive but reliable. One company that makes these is Old Man Mountain. Some mountain bikes also have rear suspension and the same comments apply for these bikes as well.

Carrying a single rear saddlebag

This likely has much more significance to light touring or even commuting rather then fully loaded touring but I want to make sure it gets mentioned. Some people worry about the effect on the bike of only running one saddlebag. The concern is that all the weight on one side of the bike will cause major steering problems.

For me personally I haven’t experienced problems and I’ve had upwards of 30 pounds in one saddlebag without a second saddlebag on the other side.


The following list are just some of the companies that make racks.

  • Beckman
  • Blackburn
  • Bruce Gordon
  • Jandd
  • Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC)
  • Old Man Mountain
  • Nitto
  • Norco
  • Tubus

I currently use a Tubus Tara for my front rack and a Norco Axiom Tour du Monde rear rack. I am very happy with both and intend to keep using them.

Bicycle touring using a Xtracycle

“You’re going through the process of planning for your bicycle tour. You weigh everything, because you’ve been warned that every ounce will count when you’re tired and trying to drag your tired rump up that last mountain. The closeup toothpaste weighs six ounces and with the toothbrush you’re pushing a pound. You contemplate whether you could do without the toothbrush. You visit your local bike shop trying to decide between the beautiful new pink panniers that may or not be waterproof or go in style with the bob and a high flying flag. You’re about to make the most important decision of your trip, and, about to make your biggest mistake.

Panniers and bicycle trailers have been around for years and are certainly a necessary evil if you’re going to tour. Both have their plus and minuses and could quite possibly be the single most important decision that determines your success or failure. Just say no to the bob and walk away from the panniers that will inevitably make your bicycle wobble like a weeble. Instead, ask if they carry the Xtracycle or go to and check out the Freeradical system. Test one, you’ll surely end up buying one and for Pete’s sake please remember to repack that toothbrush because you’ve just said yes to the Xtracycle and you are about to enter a world where weight is no longer your biggest problem. The Xtracycle will carry all your gear and make touring fun.

Why the Xtracycle? It’s best attribute is it will carry all of your gear without changing the handling character of your favorite bike. Can you say that with your loaded panniers? How much fun are you having lugging that bob up that mountain? You spent all that time and money buying just the right bicycle to tour and now you’re going to mess it all up with those “always in the way panniers” or that fifteen pound trailer? Add fifteen pounds to that $2,000 bicycle of yours and what do you have? You’re no better off than hopping on your old forty pound Schwinn and trying to cross the country. Good luck.

The Xtracycle is a complete pannier system that extends your bicycle’s length by eighteen inches. It’s total weight is less than eight pounds and unlike that heavy trailer you have no third wheel. The extra wheel base of your bicycle will allow you to cruise around at speeds you thought were no longer obtainable since you got a little older and added those few extra pounds. The extra length of the Xtracycle makes for a smoother, quieter ride, using the same physics that makes your SUV more fun to drive than your Yugo. Your new Xtracycle will become your SUB and the single reason you can now pedal centuries with no problems and really start to believe that yes you truly can successfully tackle that TransAmerica you’ve always dreamed you could do. With the Xtracycle, now you can. Now that you’ve chosen the Xtracycle, not only can you put back that toothbrush but consider taking Fido along now and both of you will have the time of your life. “

Touring with a single wheel trailer

Another option for carrying your gear during a bicycle tour is to use a single wheel trailer. Although there are several brands available for purchase the one brand that is commonly mentioned is the BOB trailer.

Originally BOB trailers were produced as an option to help urban dwellers who didn’t want to have a car do grocery shopping and things of that nature. As a result you can still find BOB COZ trailers on the used market. I actually own one of these myself and wrote this article based on my experience using a BOB COZ during a bicycle tour. I should also point out that I have two different sized bins that I can use with this trailer. Since the load I carried was a standard touring load plus some winter gear that I was testing I used the larger bin. The extra items were bulky but not necessarily heavy so I stayed within the recommended weight range for the trailer. As a result it is likely that my experience may have been even better if I had been using the lighter YAK or IBEX trailers.

Other models include the more common BOB YAK and the brand new BOB IBEX. Both are single wheel aluminum trailers that are often used with a specially made dry bag. The IBEX differs from the YAK by including suspension.

Prior to this trip I had always bicycle toured using saddlebags so the contrast was interesting.

Bob trailer
The BOB COZ is the trailer on the left.
Snow trailer tracks
Two pictures showing the trailer tracking behind the bike in snow. The inset picture shows the trailer in straight line mode while the other picture shows the tracking during a normal turn. The small inside track is the BOB trailer.


  • Trailer is completely self-contained. If I wanted to go on an unburdened ride at my destination then I simply disconnected the trailer and went
  • Handling on flat land was largely unaffected and with drastically less impact on steering then front saddlebags and a map bag. There was no real adjustment period needed to accommodate the steering differences due to adding the trailer (other then accounting for the added length of the bike plus trailer of course)
  • The COZ trailer holds all items in a large plastic Rubbermaid container. This was nice at camp in bear-free areas because it was unlikely that overly interested Raccoons could go through your stuff
  • As the pictures on this page show a single wheel trailer tracks extremely well without taking up any more sideways space on the road then your bike does. When turning the trailer wheel turns slightly inside of the rear wheel. The difference between the two is minor and unlikely to be a problem for typical turns. Straight line riding results in the wheel following exactly in the rear wheels track
  • If your handlebars fit through an obstacle then the bike did as well
  • With all of your gear in one place you no longer needed to have a special gear plan where the left saddlebag is the kitchen, clothes in the right rear etc. Everything was always in the big container simplifying finding things and packing your gear so that you have an even load
  • If you wanted to take a single trailer on a tour and share it between several people it is very easy to do so. Bob quick releases and bolts are available so that you could switch the trailer between bikes
  • Single-wheeled trailers work well on single-track including the more technical kind you will find in forests away from paved roads
  • Some people have commented on the usefulness of the plastic box as a temporary picnic table when cooking etc
  • Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires are available to fit the BOB trailer as well. Based on my experience with the same tires on my bicycle then it should be a long ways between tire problems
  • Riding up hills you could still stand on the pedals to help you get up the hill as needed
  • Has a handy flagpole holder and flag pole making it easy to add a Bicycle Touring 101 flag! (grin)


  • The trailer tire is usually a different size then your bicycle tires requiring you to carry at least one more tire tube and spare tire along with you
  • Stiff rear frame on the bicycle is needed to properly support the trailer. I’ve used the trailer on three different bikes and it handles differently on each. The trailer is solid feeling and less twitchy on my touring bike. The touring bike has a stiff rear triangle
  • One big compartment is an invitation to feel it up to overflowing and if you want to find anything quickly then you really need to consider using some sort of system, most likely including small bags, to organize your gear
  • Small connecting pins are relatively easy to lose if you take the trailer on and off regularly. As a precaution you should carry several spares with you on tour. I picked mine up at a local hardware store for less then $1 each
  • BOB COZ trailer originally came with a plastic rim that required special tools to fix if the wheel needing truing. I switched this out for a standard rim so that normal tools can be used to do a self-repair if needed. The YAK and IBEX come with metal rims so this is no longer a problem for newer trailers
  • When climbing hills you feel the weight of the trailer behind you. It’s not a horrendous weight but it is a different feeling when climbing a hill
  • There have been some reports of trailers fish tailing during high speed descents. I haven’t experienced this problem myself but it has been reported. It is possible that this effect was caused by poor weight distribution in the trailer to some extent
  • If your tour includes alternative transportation like buses, trains and aircraft then the trailer represents another item that you will have to pack and stow appropriately. This is likely to be more difficult then the equivalent saddlebags

Hints and tricks

A common problem that you read about from time to time is how to go about reattaching a loaded trailer to the bike.

Trailer attachment
Attaching the trailer with the help of a protrusion of some kind makes it relatively easy.

BOB recommends attaching a trailer only when empty to prevent bending the attachment hooks. An alternative that you could consider is finding the corner of a wall, the edge of a picnic table or something else that protrudes slightly. With your bike securely attached to the protrusion grab both sides of the BOB attachment hooks and walk the trailer over to the back of the bike while standing above the attachment piece. Make sure that the trailer is straight on to the bike if possible. This signicantly reduces sideways pressure that could bend the attachment pieces. Carefully attach the trailer to the bike making sure to maintain even downward pressure on both attachment points. Place in the cotter pins and away you go.

Would I tour with one again?

Absolutely! I intend to take the trailer on a longer tour and see how I feel about it after a number of long days on the open road. I found that the trailer tracked exceptionally well and I liked the feeling that I could unhitch the trailer and do some local errands without needing to haul everything with me.

The major area that I need to get a handle on is gear management. It is very tempting to just throw everything you need in the trailer but if you are someone who likes to be able to grab the needed item in an instance then some form of organization will be needed. This should be easily fixed by using a few bags to organize the gear.

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