The Best Bike Rack, Basket, and Panniers for Commuting
Commuting by bike with a backpack or a messenger bag leads to a sweaty back and sore shoulders. The right rack, basket, and panniers can make carrying things on your bike almost as efficient and effortless as using the trunk of a car, allowing you to haul and protect up to 65 pounds of stuff without affecting the ease of your ride. After sorting through 71 panniers, 38 racks, and 16 baskets, we chose 23 top contenders to road-test, spending nine months transporting everyday objects around on two wheels to find the most comfortable and convenient setup.
Since having all the right gear isn’t enough if you don’t know how to use it, we’ve also included tips on how to install your carriers, troubleshoot issues, and load everything up. Whether you’re bringing a week’s worth of groceries home from the supermarket or hauling 40 pounds of climbing gear to the local crag, our recommendations should have you covered.
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In addition to conducting almost a year’s worth of our own research and testing, we spoke to Mia Kohout, the CEO and editor in chief of Momentum Magazine, a commuter resource dedicated to functionality and style. We consulted Eric McKeegan, tech editor at Dirt Rag and Bicycle Times. To get a heavy-user perspective, we interviewed Andrew Blash, a Yosemite National Park host who commutes 170 miles by bike two to three times a year. And no one knows bike carry better than touring cyclists and commuters, so we referenced a wide variety of forums and blogs.
You can outfit most bikes with a rack, a basket, or a combination of the two, significantly increasing how much you can carry and making your commute a whole lot more comfortable.
If you’re just planning on running small errands around the neighborhood, a front basket might be all you need. These containers can hold up to about 10 pounds of stuff, but going beyond that can negatively affect handling.
If you plan on toting larger loads, get a rear rack. The racks we recommend can carry up to 55 additional pounds, either strapped on top or hanging from hooks on the sides, without having much impact on your ride. (A front rack, by the way, can’t carry as much weight as its rear counterpart and can have much more of an effect on your bike’s handling, so we suggest it as a later addition for experienced cyclists.)
For the most secure and stable toting, add panniers to your rear rack. Originally popularized by touring cyclists for carrying camping gear on multiday trips, these bags are designed to hook onto the sides of a rack, keeping things dry and secure in adverse conditions. Laptop panniers provide extra padding for electronics and convert to shoulder bags or backpacks for off-bike use. Classic panniers, sold in pairs and designed with touring in mind, work well for hauling heavy loads. Grocery panniers, sold individually, have simpler construction with open tops and tend to come at a third of the price of other panniers.
No matter what carrying methods you choose, some assembly is required. Unless your ride is designed primarily for sport (say, a high-end road-racing or mountain bike), you’ll likely find pairs of brazed-on (or welded, or molded, depending on your bike’s construction) eyelets, threaded for a 5-millimeter metric screw, on the seatstays, at the rear dropouts, and at the ends of the fork. These are the attachment points you’ll use to install a rack or basket, and other accessories, like fenders, on your bike. But even if you don’t have these connectors, there’s no need to worry: You can in most cases use P-clamps, small rubber-coated metal loops with a bolt hole, meant for tacking down bundles of cables in construction and available at any hardware store. Wrap them around your seatstays to add a pair of mounting points. Most front baskets can mount directly to a front axle. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
After considering 15 baskets and testing four on a string of everyday errands—going to the pharmacy, dropping off packages, and getting takeout—we settled on recommending the Wald 198 Multi-Fit Basket (about $30). This basket is sturdier and more secure than the competition, and you can fit it on almost any bike or handlebars with a little effort. At 14½ inches wide by 9½ inches front to back, and 9 inches deep, it has enough room for packages, bags, and other daily essentials. It’s also economical. (If you don’t need the adjustability, you can get the Wald 135, which has fixed-length struts meant only for mounting to a front axle, for about the same price.) I tested $2,000 worth of gear for this article, and when the testing was over, this $30 basket is the one I chose to buy for myself.
If you mainly run light errands and don’t mind adding some bulk to your handlebars, a metal front basket might be all you need. Most baskets install permanently—a basket is a commitment to everyday utility—and let you skip all the on-and-off required with panniers. They don’t have the capacity of panniers, and if you carry much more than a light sack of groceries, a takeout order, or a small shoulder bag, you’ll negatively affect your bike’s handling. But these minor tasks represent the majority of carrying that one needs to do on a bike. “For a lot of riders, the basket is actually a better idea than a rack,” said Eric McKeegan, tech editor at Dirt Rag and Bicycle Times. “They’re super simple to use. For short trips, I think they make a bike much more versatile.”
Wald doesn’t provide a capacity rating for the 198 basket, so I loaded it up. I noticed that the bike had a hard time standing on its kickstand at about 10 pounds. You’ll probably be fine loading the basket with more, but if you already know you’re going to haul heavy things, consider getting a rear rack instead (or along with this basket).
“The gold standard for baskets for years has been Wald,” McKeegan told me. “There’s a reason why they are on every single food delivery bike in New York City. They’re inexpensive, they’re strong, it handles in Big Apple weather, and they’re very made in the USA. It’s a pretty amazing product.”
The Wald isn’t perfect right out of the box. In particular, the included nuts are not lock nuts, as Amazon commenters note. Lock nuts have a bit of nylon material on the inside that absorbs vibration so they won’t shake loose. I lost two bolts on the 198 during testing, but the basket didn’t go anywhere, and they were simple to replace. If you do want to add lock nuts for extra security, they cost only a few cents each at a hardware store. You could also use a threadlocking adhesive to secure the supplied nuts in place. If you don’t want to bother with any of this, a shop can install your basket and take care of these issues in about 10 minutes.
Installing the Wald to my 27-inch bike took about 15 minutes, without issues. Two heavyweight steel attachments clamp the top portion to your handlebars, and included rubber sizers help to accommodate different handlebar diameters or shapes—so long as you can find a position for the basket that leaves enough clearance for your bars (and hands), you can generally make a Wald basket fit. It will even fit drop bars, provided that yours are wide enough.
Then you piece together two stays that support the basket above the front wheel. They extend from 14 inches to 22 inches to accommodate bikes of many sizes. You secure those stays through the front axle, or if you have a quick-release front wheel, you mount it to your fork’s eyelets. No fork eyelets? You can replace your quick release with a bolt-on skewer, or use P-clamps to create attachment points midway up the fork.
I looked at two quick-release baskets, but next to the lightweight, low-profile design of the Wald, they felt cumbersome, rattled a bit, and seemed as if they could drop out of their brackets. Wald’s own 133 Quick-Release Basket didn’t fit my handlebars. You may be able to solve such a problem with the bolt-on version, but that wouldn’t mitigate the potential hazard of detaching.
The Sunlite Standard Mesh Bottom Lift-Off Basket fit my bike properly, but the quick-release mechanism didn’t inspire confidence.
If you plan to carry more than a few pounds of stuff, you’ll need a rear rack. A solid rear rack is the foundation of any good gear-hauling setup because it enables you to attach other components to your bike and get that heavy pack off your back. After considering 38 models and testing eight top contenders, I’m confident that the Topeak Explorer (about $45) is the best rack for most people.
The Explorer fits bikes better than most models, and it’s easier to install and adjust thanks to flexible attachment arms and more than an inch of wheel clearance. The three-stay design makes it stronger and more stable than racks with only two stays, and its maximum rated capacity of 55 pounds is among the highest of the racks in our test group. Unlike cheaper racks, it still feels solid even when fully loaded down. A well-made taillight mount is integrated into the platform (which does double duty as a fender to protect you from road spray), and the rack ships with quality mounting hardware.
You won’t find a one-size-fits-all option anywhere, but if you have 26-inch or 700C wheels (most people do) or the newly popular 27½-inch size, chances are, the Explorer will fit your bike without trouble. However, if your bike has disc brakes, make sure to get the disc-specific version, because you’ll need the extra clearance around the disc. If you have a mountain bike with 29-inch wheels, get the 29er model (also available in a disc-specific version).
Because they can move, the Explorer’s flexible steel attachment arms can accommodate a wider range of braze-on locations. This design makes finding a proper fit easier compared with models that use stiff aluminum tubing at these attachment points, like the Bontrager BackRack S and the Axiom Journey.
The Explorer offered 1¼ inches of wheel clearance when installed on our 700C Trek FX2, more than any other rack we tested. That amount of clearance, in addition to the movable arms, gives you far more flexibility when it comes to compatibility with your rig. It should fit even the burliest of puncture-resistant off-road tires, if that’s how you roll. Other racks we tested, such as the Axiom Transit, left only a few millimeters between the rack and the tire.
Once installed the Explorer provides a sturdy and stable platform for carrying up to 55 pounds of whatever you need. Like all of the racks we tested, it’s fully welded for superior durability (some cheaper racks rely on rivets, which can come loose over time), and it has three triangulated stays on either side for support. This design makes it physically stronger and more stable under heavy loads. As a worst-case-scenario test, I loaded each side with 2 gallons of milk (17 pounds per side) to see if the rack swayed or otherwise came loose, but everything stayed in place, even with 34 pounds of liquid over my back wheel. Most of the other racks in our test group, like our budget pick, the Planet Bike Eco Rack, have two stays. While the Eco Rack can support about the same amount of weight, in my tests it felt more sluggish when fully loaded.
Other things we like about the Explorer include the fact that the taillight mount is a fully supported piece welded to the frame, as opposed to a thin, bolted-on piece of metal as with the Axiom Journey, Axiom Transit, Ibera PakRak, or Planet Bike Eco Rack. Topeak includes steel mounting hardware throughout, and the included nuts are locking nuts with nylon inserts, which absorb road vibration and stay screwed on better than standard nuts.
The platform can also accommodate Topeak MTX QuickTrack luggage pieces if you want them (we did not test any of these options), and otherwise it functions as a regular old platform. One nice bonus: The stays are spaced perfectly for holding our favorite bike lock between the platform edge and the frame of the rack.
Most cycling publications specialize in either road or mountain biking, so we didn’t find a lot of existing reviews for commuter racks. But Amazon reviewers support our positive findings, as currently they give the Explorer 4.4 out of five stars across 747 reviews. And in the real world, last Thanksgiving I met Andrew Blash, a volunteer Yosemite National Park host who commutes by bike from the park to the San Francisco Bay Area. The Topeak Explorer carries all the gear he needs for his 170-plus-mile commute.
If the price goes up on our top pick, check out the Blackburn EX-1 Top Deck Rack (about $40), which is nearly identical. It lacks a taillight mount (though it has a predrilled bolt hole for attaching one), Blackburn doesn’t offer an integrated luggage system like Topeak’s, and the EX-1 is rated to carry 45 pounds—10 pounds less than our top pick can hold. But the EX-1 has a matte finish, if that’s more appealing to you than the glossy black of the Explorer. And unlike Topeak, Blackburn includes P-clamps in the hardware package, potentially saving you a trip to the hardware store if your bike doesn’t have a full complement of braze-ons or if you run into other fitting snags.
Just like our top pick, the EX-1 fits 26-inch and 700C bikes and has three slightly triangulated stays for support (the rearmost stay is more triangulated for extra stiffness). From platform to bottom bolt, it measures 14 inches tall, and in our tests it provided the same 1¼ inches of clearance between rack and tire as the Explorer. The packaging also claims this rack will fit a 29-inch bike. We didn’t test it to find out, but from what we’ve heard from mechanics, if you have a 29er, you’re better off choosing a rack made specifically for that size so that you can get the proper amount of wheel clearance.
As for quality, Blackburn has been making top-notch racks for decades. According to McKeegan, “I’ve got an old aluminum Blackburn rack that’s probably 25 years old. I would have no problem putting that on a bike to go on tour. It’s very strong.”
However, if you like carrying your lock in the gap between the platform and frame of your rack, that trick won’t work with the EX-1. The space was not wide enough to fit my Kryptonite Series 2 lock, which is 4½ inches wide. That lock does fit in the Explorer.
Planet Bike’s Eco Rack (about $30) is the only other rack that installed as easily in testing as the Topeak, due to the height of the rack above the wheel (1¼ inches) and the same flexible arms that are a key feature of the Explorer and EX-1 Top Deck racks. And it comes from a company with a reputation for making affordable and hardworking products for commuters, including one of our favorite taillights.
In opting for the Eco Rack over the Explorer, you sacrifice a little stability, as this model has only two stays instead of three. It’s rated to carry 55 pounds, and it held the same 4 gallons of milk I put on the Explorer. But it felt less stable, as if all that liquid was pulling against me as I biked home. It also wasn’t completely level when I installed it—although P-clamps are included to help with problem installations. It will fit 26-inch or 700C wheels, but Planet Bike offers no disc-brake option. Overall, the Eco Rack is not a standout, but it’ll get the job done.
Among the other aluminum racks I tested, the Bontrager BackRack S and the Axiom Journey lacked our pick’s flexible, sliding steel arms, which made them more difficult to fit. Neither the BackRack or the Journey sat parallel to the ground when I put each of them on our test bike; to get both of them to do so, I would have had to remove sections with a saw. This problem might not crop up on all bikes, but on our particular model the fit was less than perfect.
You can find racks out there with adjustable legs, such as the Ibera PakRak Touring Carrier+, which we installed to see if it could give us more clearance, but I really couldn’t see an advantage. The adjustable legs stretched almost to their limit when mounted over our 700C wheel, so this rack could possibly allow for fitting smaller bikes but nothing much bigger. I got it installed properly after a bit of fuss, but why bother if you don’t have to? And the extra bolts in such models introduce another point of potential failure; though disaster is probably unlikely, no sense taking the chance if you don’t have to. Unless you’re planning to swap a rack from bike to bike, just get a rack in the right size for your bike.
The Thule Pack ’n Pedal Tour Rack is based on a design meant to modify a full-suspension mountain bike (rear suspension makes attaching a traditional rack to these bikes very difficult) into a touring bike. The Thule requires no frame eyelets for mounting, and I had no problem putting it on our Trek, but it costs $100—an extra $55 to address an issue that you can solve for most standard racks with $2 worth of P-clamps from your local hardware store. Sometimes spending extra for convenience is the right idea, but the Thule rack is unnecessary unless you have a difficult-to-fit mountain bike.
Higher-end steel racks are stronger and capable of holding more weight, but they cost a lot more ($100 plus) and appeal to intense touring cyclists who traditionally have valued the ability to repair them in the field.
We recommend against seatpost racks that have only a single attachment point on your bike’s seatpost (the thing that holds your seat to the frame). These racks can shift around in use, and they have much lower maximum capacities of 2 to 5 pounds. That’s enough to hold a windbreaker, but we wouldn’t trust such a rack with a full load of groceries.
Panniers are bags designed to be carried on a rear rack, and they’re available in various configurations meant to hold everything from a laptop computer to fresh food from the market. To find the best models for commuters, I researched 71 panniers and chose 15 to test in person. Then I spent a total of nine months commuting with them, examining the overall durability, the quality and effectiveness of the mounting hardware, and how well specific features improved (or hindered) portability and access to my cargo.
The best panniers are shaped to avoid heel strike (hitting the bag with the back of your shoe as you pedal) and made to keep the load’s center of gravity low. In general, bags that perform well are slightly tapered at the bottom and tend to be taller than they are wide. By the way, don’t worry about riding with a single pannier if you find that you need only a laptop bag or a single grocery basket—a bike will ride stably with a load on one side. You’ll have to take a little more care standing the bike up, however, if you use a kickstand.
Mia Kohout, CEO and editor in chief of Momentum Magazine, said to “always check the mounting system” when buying a pannier because “you will want one that is easy to take on and off the bike.” Unlike a touring cyclist who might leave their panniers on for days or weeks, a commuter removes them every time they park. McKeegan agreed: “If it doesn’t stay on the bike, well … that’s really what the quality of this product is about.” It’s vital that your pannier stays put once it’s on. You don’t want to start your day rescuing your laptop from the middle of the street.
It’s important to figure out what you want to carry with your pannier, because cost and features vary wildly depending on use. “The way people use them is so different,” noted McKeegan. “Some people just want something that has an open top like a basket. You drop your grocery bag in it and ride home from Trader Joe’s and be happy. But other people want something completely waterproof that will never fall off their bike, even when they’re going down a dirt road. You’re looking at price differences of $30 to $200.”
For our tests, we set aside bags that were designed specifically for bicycle touring. We also dismissed pannier briefcases, which tend to sit too high on the bike and are hard to keep out of the way of your foot. And we skipped saddle-bag-style panniers (the kind that are attached in the middle with fabric); they have their place, but they’re meant to be left on the bike and are difficult to carry once you take them off.
Thanks to feedback from a reader poll we conducted last year, we know that the most important consideration for our readers when purchasing any bag is durability. And 60 percent of our respondents said that they would be willing to pay between $100 and $300 for a bag that can deliver on that requirement.
If you regularly carry a laptop, the Arkel Commuter Urban Pannier ($180) can help you get yourself, your computer (up to 15 inches), and 23 liters’ worth of gear to where you want to go with minimal effort and maximum protection. The bag goes on and off the bike in seconds, offers extra measures to protect your laptop, stores everything you need in the place that you need it, and remains supremely durable and unobtrusive on the bike. It was the only pannier in our test group to have a metal backplate, which can keep a laptop from bumping against the ground or walls. In addition, Arkel backs all of its products with a transferable, no-receipt-needed, lifetime guarantee.
The Commuter’s convertible shoulder-bag design is the cornerstone of what makes it practical. Unlike with a rolltop, such as Chrome’s Saddle Bag Rolltop, the Commuter’s flap lid lets you quickly reach inside and grab your wallet, so you can buy a cup of coffee or find your public-transit card. And its main compartment is big enough to fit an extra layer and lunch, with space left over for workout clothes. Better yet, you don’t have to remove the shoulder strap or reattach it every time you get on and off your bike: Just tuck it into the main compartment, secure the top flap, and you’re done. Two zippered exterior pockets provide secure, dedicated places for your keys and phone.
Arkel’s Cam-Lock is the most durable and effective mounting system I looked at. Similar in appearance to a traditional hook-and-bungee attachment system, it uses aluminum hooks lined on the underside with nylon to protect your rack, coupled with a rotating, locking cam system that grips the rack bars. It also includes a lower hook and bungee to secure the bag to the bottom of the rack. This design actively pulls your bag toward your rack, cinching it down even tighter against your bike and improving handling compared with static systems like Ortleib’s well-loved QL system.
Sporting reflective elements on all sides and weather-resistant, the Arkel pannier is made of 100D nylon and Sunbrella acrylic, a fade-resistant, marine-grade outdoor fabric commonly used for weatherproof awnings and boat covers. The interior is lined with waterproof fabric that doesn’t feel as stiff as the PVC-coated Ortlieb offering; it’s just like a regular, fabric-lined bag. If you live in downpour central, Arkel does sell a rain cover as an accessory.
As mentioned earlier, the best panniers help you avoid heel strike (hitting the bag with the back of your shoe as you pedal) with a slight taper from the top to the bottom, and the Arkel is no exception. This shape also handles a little better than boxier briefcase styles such as Axiom’s Rackbook Pro and Bontrager’s Town Briefcase since it keeps weight lower to the ground. The Ortlieb Downtown shoulder bag is the most effective briefcase/pannier hybrid I’ve found, but it still has a very wide base, almost 6 inches, which felt top heavy when we tested it against our top choice.
Arkel is a Canadian company, and you might not see its bags hanging in many US stores. But Arkel is a word-of-mouth darling. I found the company a few years ago when I chased a guy down on the street to ask him about his bag. The many shop owners I consulted for this piece waved me out of their stores and to Arkel’s website. And of the brand in general, the vast array of bike blogs and forums have only positive things to say, like “Arkel produces one of the highest quality products I’ve ever seen,” “the durability and smart design of these panniers are evident,” and “High-quality, water-resistant, retro, and tough.” And as noted earlier, each Arkel bag comes with an unconditional lifetime warranty.
Half the price of our top choice, the Detours Fremonster Flap Pannier (about $90) shares a practical and aerodynamic shoulder-bag design with the Arkel Commuter, but it compromises a bit on security. Like the Arkel, it provides easy access to your things, offering a zippered mesh pocket on the interior, a dedicated laptop sleeve, and a stowable shoulder strap with solid metal buckles that makes getting it on and off your bike easy. It even adds a handy (and unique) built-in retractable rain cover.
However, the Fremonster lacks the Arkel’s metal top and bottom mounting system (opting for top-only plastic clips instead) and has no protective plate or internal security strap for your laptop. Ultimately, these omissions were minor dings that didn’t affect day-to-day performance in our tests, but they could make a difference in terms of having to replace a laptop in the event of an emergency stop or accident. We think the peace of mind the Arkel offers is worth paying for, but the Fremonster is still a great value if you’re on a budget.
The Thule Pack ’n Pedal Commuter Pannier is beautiful, but I struggled with accessibility. I was afraid my keys would fall out of the zipperless exterior pocket, and the rolltop closure makes basic access a chore. You have to remove and stow the shoulder strap every time you put the bag on your bike.
If your commute involves walking around a big campus or going up and down a lot of stairs, a pannier that converts to a backpack might be a good choice. We examined three models and recommend the Arkel Bug Pannier Backpack ($170). Backpacks are more comfortable than shoulder bags for carrying heavy loads when you’re not on a bike, but typically they sacrifice accessibility to the basics—while you’re wearing one, you have to remove it every time you want to reach for your wallet or phone. However, the Bug’s cyclist-centric design mitigates this limitation with thoughtfully placed pockets and compartments. My laptop, cable bag, and repair kit fit into the dedicated interior pockets. My shoes, windbreaker, and lunch fit inside the main compartment, which zips open along its entire length and is easier to access than a rolltop backpack.
The Bug’s exterior mesh pockets have elastic closures, good for a water bottle, bike lights, or sunglasses. The exterior also features a lock pocket, a deep zippered pocket, and a place to secure a helmet (it fit both road and urban styles, such as the Specialized Echelon, our top helmet pick, and my Bern Macon).
Conversion from pannier to backpack mode is simple: The Bug uses the same Cam-Lock system as the Commuter Urban Pannier, and to convert the bag to and from a backpack, you simply unroll a flap of material stored in the bottom of the bag to cover the straps; the bottom hook just sticks out, but in our testing it didn’t interfere with anything or cause discomfort. Built with 1000D cordura, reflective elements on all sides, and weatherproof zippers, the Bug promises to be water repellent. I stuck it in the shower for about 30 seconds, and water crept in through the zipper, so if you live where it pours heavily, a rain cover is advisable.
The Banjo Brothers Commuter Backpack is also waterproof, with an easy-access main compartment, but the crunchy interior liner that provides the waterproofing turned me off.
The Ortlieb Vario is a fully waterproof backpack pannier, but as Commute by Bike discovered, removing and stowing the Ortlieb shoulder-strap system is a little more involved than doing so with Arkel’s system, and you have to buy a separate attachment bungee to secure the Vario to the bottom of your rack. The Vario has a place to attach a helmet but offers a fraction of the exterior storage since its exterior pockets lose capacity when the bag is full, which doesn’t happen on the Bug.
The North St. Woodward Convertible has a more elegant method of hiding the pannier hardware, but it costs $100 more than our pick, and hiding a loose hook isn’t worth that much.
The WOHO Ninja Ninja forgoes the bottom strap entirely, but a bottom attachment is a must for a heavily loaded pannier, or the load will swing dangerously out and away from the bike. And overall, users report having no issues with the Bug’s errant hook.
The Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic Panniers ($180 for a pair), considered the gold standard for touring panniers, are what we recommend for hauling heavy or oddly shaped gear. They’re so indestructible, cyclists have found all sorts of uses for them: Yosemite host Blash regularly empties his out, fills one with rinse water and the other with soapy water, and uses them to do his dishes. They’ve successfully crossed over to the commuting world because of how reliable and simple the mounting system is, but they’re also extremely durable and very waterproof.
A classic pannier like the Ortlieb is basically a big bucket that you can dump anything into, with few organizational components. Its rolltop design helps to make the bag waterproof, though the drawback is that the interior isn’t easily accessible. It offers no exterior pockets, either (though the company sells add-on side pockets separately). The Back-Rollers do have some internal organization, in the form of a narrow sleeve suitable for documents or a tablet (but with no padding) and a mesh zippered pocket for tools, lights, and other accessories.
This bag features Ortlieb’s QL2.1 mounting system, a favorite among cyclists. Select a rubber pad to adjust the locking clips to the size of your rack, rotate the bottom plastic part to an angle that slides comfortably onto the rack stays (no tools required), and you’re done. It lacks the hook-and-bungee design that so expertly keeps Arkel’s bags suctioned onto your bike frame, and you have to take a few minutes to set it up, but on the flip side Ortlieb bags are loved for the simplicity of this design. During testing I had no issues with wobble, shifting, or loose panniers.
The front and sides are constructed of heavyweight PVC-coated nylon, and they have a waterproof rating of IP64; if you have the top rolled down correctly, each bag will remain dustproof and will keep your stuff dry if water splashes on it from any direction. These are not dry bags—you can’t submerge them in water and expect water to stay out—but they will withstand any downpour that Mother Nature can throw at you. Wear guards on the back corners will minimize damage to the bottom, too. Each set consists of two 20-liter bags, and I successfully biked with them from home to the climbing gym, and back, loaded with 16 pounds of gear each.
The Ortliebs come with a shoulder strap that can remain attached to the bag while you ride, but it’s very thin. Although it works fine, it lacks in the comfort department (reinforcing the idea that this bag is best for hauling, instead of everyday carry). But if you don’t fill the bags all the way, you can compress the contents of the Back-Rollers a bit by running the shoulder strap down through a hook on the front and tightening it. The result isn’t quite as secure as a touring pannier with multiple side-compression points, but after filling a bag halfway to see if this arrangement presented a problem, I found the issue minimal for a typical commuter.
Praise for Ortlieb is easy to find. McKeegan told me, “Everyone I’ve known who’s bought them has been happy with their bags. They have a pretty good variety and they seem to last over a long time.” Road.cc says they’re “a well thought out design and well worth the money.” But more than anything, they have somewhat of a cult following. REI, which typically has two or three reviewers (if any) for a given product, has had 99 people chime in as of this writing, giving the Back-Roller an average 4½-star rating out of five. The newer model just became available on Amazon, but the older model with the QL1 system has earned praise there, with a 4.7-star average over 72 reviews. People love these bags: They’ve even inspired videos with titles like “The magic of Ortlieb back roller classics.”
If you don’t need the all-over, heavy-duty construction of the Back-Rollers, Axiom’s Monsoon Aero DLX Panniers (about $100) offer a waterproof design and a reliable attachment system made by Rixen & Kaul, a German company that for more than 20 years has specialized solely in the manufacture and design of bicycle attachment systems. These panniers have no internal or external pockets; they’re just one-compartment rolltop bags, with slightly less capacity (35 liters, compared with the 40 liters of the Ortlieb Back-Roller). If you’re okay with that, these are a great deal.
The Axioms, which come with a padded shoulder strap, use a hybrid hook-and-bungee mounting system (similar to Arkel’s) that isn’t as simple to use as Ortlieb’s but is just as secure. They are also fully waterproof—I found no signs of moisture inside after they spent 30 seconds in the shower. However, their 35L combined capacity (between two bags) and their inability to stand up on their own mean that they don’t fit quite as much stuff and that they’re more of a hassle to dig through.
Axiom also doesn’t have the time-tested reputation of Ortlieb behind it. But the build quality of these bags is superb, and for what it’s worth, bike blogger commuterDude says that after three years of light daily use, his set is going strong.
Axiom’s Typhoon LX 40 panniers are close competition, but at $150 they’re in a pricing limbo. I surveyed three people, and each one said that if they were already spending $150 on bags, they’d rather spend $30 more for both the mounting system and the reputation of the Ortlieb set. And if they needed to spend less, they’d prefer to spend a lot less.
The Banjo Brothers Waterproof Pannier has the same crunchy interior liner as the company’s backpack, as well as a few reports of stitching and seams coming loose, an issue I’ve never witnessed on the Back-Roller Classic.
The Blackburn Barrier Rear Pannier doesn’t have a handle to carry it off the bike and is more expensive at $110 for each bag.
We saw two reports of quick-release levers breaking on the Ibera PakRak model—two too many. The mounting system is the number one thing that must work.
Ortlieb’s Back-Roller City is almost identical to the Classic model, but it lacks a shoulder strap, and you can’t stuff it as full. As thin as that shoulder strap is, you still need some way to carry the bag once you remove it from your bike.
Thule’s Pack ’n Pedal Tote suffers from identity issues. Not convenient enough for errands (you must attach and remove the shoulder strap, and the bag has only one external pocket), this bag is also not burly enough for hauling (the zipper strains with the weight of a full bag).
If the number one thing you want to do with your bike is make trips to the market, a dedicated grocery pannier is both practical and affordable. Such models feature a wide-open top that won’t crush your produce, as well as a flat bottom the same size and shape as a paper grocery bag. After testing four models, we settled on the Banjo Brothers Grocery Pannier (about $40) as our favorite. Despite being the cheapest grocery pannier we tested, it offers a higher build quality than the competition (including a stable mounting system with a pair of metal hooks on top and a lower hook fixed to an adjustable elastic strap), comes with a removable shoulder strap, and has handles on either side (like a tote) for stable carrying.
You can shop with it two ways, either by placing your paper or plastic grocery bags inside of it after you go through checkout or by using it as a grocery bag in and of itself. Reflective piping all the way around the top seam improves visibility at night. Button closures on the sides of the Banjo Brothers bag allow you to fold it flat against your bike or to stuff it in a backpack when you aren’t using it. You get one exterior Velcro pocket for receipts, grocery lists, or keys.
When you’re not shopping, the Banjo Brothers bag can work the same way a basket does. You can easily toss a purse or a lunch into the big main compartment and take the whole thing with you when you get off your bike, and the sides are deep enough (11 inches) that I was never worried that anything valuable would fall out. But it also has the drawbacks of a basket: It offers no dust or water protection, and you shouldn’t expect it to hold much more than a dozen pounds or so.
Bushwhacker’s economical Omaha panniers (about $60 for a pair) have no shoulder strap and only a single handle on one side of each bag, providing no reliable way for you to carry them with you or off the bike.
We looked at the Novara ’Round Town Pannier, but the plastic mounting system seemed like it would be less durable in the long term than the metal hooks on our pick, plus this bag is $10 more expensive.
Giant makes a grocery pannier, but it lacks a shoulder strap and still costs $20 more.
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Originally published: September 11, 2015