Panniers Vs. Backpack for Commuting – Which is Best?


Choosing the right gear for bike commuting is a tricky job at the best of times, but even more complicated when there are lots of different options.

Many bike commuters often wonder whether they should buy panniers or a backpack to carry their gear to and from their destination.

So, in terms of panniers vs backpacks for commuting, which is best? Panniers are undoubtedly the best option for most commuters since they prevent back strain, keep you sweat free and can carry just about everything you could need. 

Backpacks are only recommended if carrying extremely light loads and for short journeys.

Now that you have a good idea of the options, let me run through some of the finer points to help you make the right decision regarding your choice of bag for commuting.

Advantages of Backpacks for Commuting

Backpacks are most people’s first choice of bag for bike commuting simply because most of us have a backpack already.

Using a backpack for your ride is both fast and easy because you can just throw it on your shoulders after you filled it with everything you need and ride off to your destination.

Obviously, not having to spend extra money is a big help because nobody wants to buy things that we don’t need!

Backpacks are also good for commuters who need to to walk around a lot while they are at their work or or college. this added functionality is really helpful comma specifically if you work or study somewhere like on a College campus, and you might be covering a lot of ground during your day.

I say this because backpacks have the best shoulder straps of any of the cycling bags you can get and they offer the most support. 

If carrying a laptop or tablet, then backpacks work well as most of them have the padded insert for this ready to go and you will be carrying on your back so you know that it will be safe and upright all of the time.

Disadvantages of Backpacks for Commuting

However, there are several key aspects of using a backpack for commuting that make them less than perfect.

The first key point about using a backpack for bike commuting is that you will almost always get a sweaty back by the end of your right. even the most expensive backpacks, and there are many for bike commuters which cost a small fortune, will still give you a sweaty back!

This then means at the time at the end in terms of either changing your clothes or freshening up after you arrive since nobody wants to be the smelly person at their work or college.

The other key downside two riding with a backpack is that they can cause back strain, discomfort and even back pain.

This is to do with both the riding position while cycling and also to do with the weight you carry in a backpack. This is also a point to think about in the long term because this will only get worse over time if you consistently right with a backpack that has anything more than an extremely light amount of items in it.

Added to the above, is that if you are going to be sitting down or sedentary most of your day, then you might already have the first signs of back pain, and carrying a backpack while riding your bike might only add to this.

The last point to note about backpacks is that many of them are not waterproof so, even if you are carrying a laptop that is nicely padded, or any other important items, you will have to buy an extra waterproof cover for your backpack and carry this with you at all times. 

Advantages of Panniers for Commuting

Panniers are extremely helpful for bike computers because they allow you to carry a large amount of items, you can carry several pannier bags on your racks at one time, and they work on almost all kinds of bikes.

As distinct from backpacks, pannier racks clip onto the rear rack so you can have one on either side. This means you can carry heavier bags without really noticing it since the frame does much of the heavy lifting.

Carrying more then obviously gives you more options when you get to your destination at the end of your commute. Contrast this with backpacks, where you constantly have to think about keeping your bag light, and the options are much greater. 

If you have a road bike or a similar bike without eyelets for attaching a pannier rack, you can still buy a seatpost rack that attaches to the seat post of your bike and will function almost identically to a standard pannier rack or rear rack.

However, for seat post mounted racks, you might want to take a slightly lighter load just because they are not designed to carry as much weight as your usual pannier rack.

Mothercare advantage of pannier racks is that you will never get a sweaty back from them because they will never be on your back! This means panniers are preferable for riders who have lots of hills and who do not want to spend time freshening up at the end of their journey.

And as you might have already guessed, panniers do not cause any issues with back pain or strain, so they are definitely recommended for long-term bike commuters to avoid back strain. In turn, using panniers while commuting also means less chance of getting back pain while riding.

Disadvantages of Panniers

Despite lots of benefits, panniers do have some disadvantages for commuters. 

If you have to carry your bags around or during your working or study day,  then panniers can be be a little annoying as many of them do not have very good shoulder straps.

I have found that the cheaper panniers I’ve used have had almost no padding and so carrying around a very heavy bag with a poor strap can make for an uncomfortable and chafing experience.

Most pannier bags are also one big bucket, making it harder to find things that you need and also a bit more difficult to pack. 

To give you an example, I often found myself reading through all my items in my one pocket pannier bag in order to find the one thing that I needed.

Having one compartment also meant that your food will likely be in with other items like your laptop, documents or water proof clothes. 

With that in mind, make sure you get yourself a good commuter lunch box

Another point to note about pannier bags is that they are often quite upright InDesign. By this, I mean that it’s hard to put wide objects in them because the paneer itself is designed to fit vertically on your bike and it doesn’t stick out much. This means items in your pannier bags will often be stacked up vertically with little width to use.

My Solution for Bike Commuting Bags

As you can see from the points above there is no one perfect solution but I lean heavily towards recommending panniers for bike commuters.

However, the best solution that I have found for bike commuting is to use a convertible pannier backpack. 

If you get the right one, these then convert seamlessly between a normal backpack and a good pannier bag, giving you the best of both worlds and making your bike commuting experience much more pleasant, as well as your day of work or study while carrying the bag.

These convertible pannier backpacks are a little bit more than a backpack, but then they deliver so much more when you are reading regularly that I think it’s worth the extra expense and would not hesitate to recommend them to any bike commuter.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw_rouK1crE

Summary

So to summarise some of the key points with discussed above about backpacks or panniers, here are some of the key points in brief for you to take away.

Key points in favour of panniers:

  • More versatile
  • No strain or back pain
  • No sweaty back
  • Can carry heavier loads
  • Much better for riders with hilly routes

Backpacks are only recommended for commuters if:

  • Carrying a very light load
  • Going a short distance (< 3miles each way)
  • Have a flat route
  • Have facilities to clean their sweaty back or change clothes
  • Using an ergonomically designed bag

Related Questions 

Should I get a pannier or basket for my bike? A pannier is a much better option for carrying a wider range of items, while baskets are only really suitable for lighter loads. Panniers do not affect the control of your bike while baskets can since they are usually on the handlebars.

Although baskets might look pretty and elegant, they are far less practical the panniers so think carefully about what you will use them for.

Are you faster with a backpack vs. pannier? On flat routes with a light bag, you might be a little bit quicker with a backpack than a pannier when cycling. This is because the panniers can weigh down the rear of your bike, making it feel harder to pull along.

That said, it’s unlikely that most cyclists would notice much of a difference, and even if you go faster with a backpack than you do with a pannier, you’re still going to have to spend time cleaning up your sweaty back at the end of your journey after riding with a backpack, so don’t discount that from the time it takes for your ride! 

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