Best Bike Bags: Panniers and Backpacks

Yet another key accessory for bike commuting, the bag, be it a pannier or backpack, is something that it took me a long time to figure out and get the right one. Let’s run through some of the things I’ve learned along the way to save you the time and hassle.

But wait a second. Before we get into the detail, let me just clear up a common question about bags for bikes. Specifically:

What is a pannier bag for cycling? A pannier is a bag designed to sit on a metal rack (usually the rear) attached to the frame of a bike. The word comes from the French word of the same spelling, literally meaning a “breader” i.e. something specifically for carrying bread. The name has remained for cycle bags today but the use and function has evolved to carry a lot more than just bread!

My current pannier-backpack for bike commuting. If you look closely. you can see the distinctive pannier clips holding it onto the frame/rack.

Recommended Bike Bags for Work

In the paragraphs below, I run through the top 3 ‘bike to work bags’ for you, with a variety of designs and prices.

For a quick summary, as the most versatile option, I’d strongly recommend going for a hybrid between a backpack and a pannier bag, namely my top recommendation of the Two Wheel Gear Convertible Pannier Backpack (Plus+ Large version). This is because it has the best of both worlds: it goes on the back of your bike while riding, but you can carry it round with you as a backpack during your workday for all other activities – win-win!

Convertible Pannier-Backpack: The Best of Both Worlds

I’ve chosen the Plus+ Large version of this pannier backpack as it has a capacity of 30 liters. This should be plenty for carrying all your bike commuter waterproof gear, lunch, water bottle and other accessories each day. For comparison, and full disclosure, I currently use the Altura Morph pannier backpack (currently unavailable in the USA – I’m in the UK) and although it is very similar to the Two Wheel Gear pannier backpack, it only has 22 liters of capacity. Now, 22 liters has been enough for me to get all of my daily items in it, but it is a little tight – there’s no denying that. If I could take it up a size, I definitely would, hence the recommendation for the larger Two Wheel Gear convertible pannier-backpack.

The only real downsides to this convertible bike bag is that it doesn’t come with a fully waterproof outer fabric and that the laptop compartment is a little thin on the padding at the bottom. The lack of waterproof material means you will have to put on the waterproof cover (included) each time it rains. This is a minor annoyance but is something that you will have to live with for the convenience of having the 2-in-1 conversion between bags. The laptop compartment is, although handy, something that you might like to modify. For instance, you might find it a little thin on padding on the underside, but this can be overcome by either using a slightly more padded case/pouch for your laptop or simply by placing some bubble wrap in the bottom of the laptop pouch. Either way, this minor design flaw is worth noting, although I feel that it doesn’t take away too much from the overall offer of the product.

One last benefit of having both a pannier and backpack in one is for comfort. Namely, putting the bag in the rear rack when riding means that you don’t get a sweaty back, as you would with any backpack irrespective of the design. This means getting to work fresher and without fearing for the reaction of your co-workers! The other major plus of having a backpack during your day is that pannier bags have notoriously uncomfortable shoulder straps as their main way to carry them. From personal experience, the shoulder straps on pannier bags will chafe and rub with anything other than the lightest load, so think carefully about the weight of your bag and whether a standard pannier will be right for you.


If you are instead set on getting a backpack for biking to work, the Osprey DayLite Plus Daypack Backpack is my best recommendation for you. Osprey are a well-known outdoors brand with high-quality products at a fair price point. Their DayLite Plus has something of a ventilation system to keep your back from getting too sweaty, although I can’t guarantee it will keep you sweat-free, especially if you have a hilly bike commute!

This bag is the budget option of the three, coming at less than half the price of the convertible pannier-backpack. This backpack is also a good option if you don’t want to put / don’t have a rear rack on your bike as you can obviously just use it as normal.

Why Backpacks are Not Ideal for Bike Commuters

That said, I can’t recommend using a backpack for bike commuting on a regular or long-term basis. The first reason is the comfort factor, as touched on above. Any backpack used for riding to work will make your back hot quite quickly, with this increasing quickly if you ride faster than average or uphill. This clearly means that you will often end up with a sweaty back (and work shirt/blouse!) by the time you get to the office. The other reason I don’t recommend backpacks to bike commuters is simply the strain it puts on your back. Remember that you are hoping to ride to work regularly, so carrying a heavy bag on your back (as opposed to letting the rear rack take the load with a pannier) means you will be straining more while riding. I repeat straining, not working out – this kind of load is not ideal on a regular basis, especially if you will have a heavy bag, so consider it carefully and look to getting a rack fitted on your commuter bike in the future as a long-term option.


For a classic pannier, ever-reliable German brand Ortlieb offer the Backroller City Pannier bag set (as a pair). This has their standard waterproof protection, meaning you don’t have to fiddle with putting on a waterproof cover when it starts raining. They also last a very long time and are a safe bet for those who like to buy something that will last for years and years!

They also offer the most capacity of the top 3 bags, coming in at 40 liters of combined volume (20 liters each, just in case :D). This gives the flexibility of deciding whether or not to take both bags on any given day, and having an overflow bag if you like to go to the gym on certain days or simply need to take more stuff with you.

The Catch with Panniers

The reasons why I put these Ortlieb panniers at number 3 on the list are because of the price and pockets/design. Ortlieb is a heavyweight brand with extremely durable products, yet their prices always reflect this. Although the pricing is actually cheaper than the other two bags in the list, Ortlieb panniers, just like almost all panniers that I’ve seen, have one big pocket and not much else. Yes, they come in a pair, but from having used panniers with a similar design for my bike commute in the past, I found myself really wanting a few pockets to keep things organized as I was often digging around trying to find the things that I needed.

This design point will be particularly helpful for you if you like to carry your lunch as I used to find that my lunchbox would often fall on its side and spill when I was using panniers with a big single pocket. I did find ways to prop them up but this still made for a frustrating experience for me personally and is something I would be remiss for not mentioning here.

I should note that the Ortlieb Back-roller panniers only have a carry handle and can therefore not be carried on your back or shoulders unless you add your own strap to them.


Top 3 Bags for Bike Commuters

  1. Two Wheel Gear Convertible Pannier Backpack: a fantastic hybrid option that is great for riding and for carrying around during your work day.
  2. Osprey Daylite Plus Daypack Backpack: for the backpack enthusiasts who don’t want/have a rear rack for a pannier bag.
  3. Ortlieb Backroller City Pannier: the classic pannier bag set for the minimalist who will not be carrying much with them or using the bag much during the workday.

Things to Remember When Choosing a Bag for Your Ride to Work

Clothing

If you need to carry clothing, not only will this take up a lot of space in your bag, but it will also require a bag with a rigid form. If carrying formal work clothes, consider getting a garment bag like this BigFoot one to insert into your chosen bike bag for commuting as these will keep them clean and come with a board for folding clothes without creasing them.

Food

Carrying food in a lunchbox or a bag will also determine the choice of your bag for biking to work. Personally, I recommend a pannier backpack or standard backpack because I found that my old pannier bags were simply too loose to keep my food upright and prevent spills.

Waterproof

As discussed above, some bike bags come with a waterproof outer fabric while others include a waterproof cover. It obviously depends on your local climate how often you will need to use this but having this in mind will help you to choose the right option.

Personally, I have a pannier backpack with a waterproof cover and, although it is a little annoying to have to put it on and take it off, I prefer it since the options that my backpack gives me in terms of function far outweigh this minor inconvenience.

My current pannier backpack (only available in Europe) – the next best option to the Two Wheel Gear pannier backpack.

Good Mechanism

Try to check out the mechanism a commuter bike bag uses as some of the cheaper options will take longer to put on / take off and feel clunky while doing it.

Taking your chose bag on/off the bike should be painless and quick. If you have a clunky mechanism it will merely add frustration to your day and experience of commuting. Remind yourself that this is something you will want to use on as many working days as possible so having a bag with a good mechanism will make quite a difference here.

If you choose a pannier-backpack, converting between the backpack and the pannier should also be easy. There are a few designs on the market that simply have not figured this out and end up being

Capacity

Something you should also think about is how much stuff you will be carrying on a daily basis in your work bag. In my bag for my bike commute, I have the following every day:

  • Lunch
  • Waterproof overpants
  • Waterproof overshoes
  • Waterproof bag cover
  • Multi-tool for cycling
  • Lights

On select days, I will have the following on top of the above:

  • Water bottle (in outer pouch)
  • Sweater
  • Thermal neck layer/fleece
  • Cycling glasses (for windy days)

Considering all of the above, I pretty much use up the 22 liter capacity of my pannier backpack on a daily basis. Your situation might be different but try to gauge how much you will need by looking at your other bags and make a guess from there (you should be able to google the model of your existing bag and find the capacity somewhere online, even if you have had it for years!)

Pockets

Laptop Pouch

This is obviously a must if you will be carrying a laptop or table regularly to work. Check that your chosen bag has the right size for your device – most list MacBooks as a standard dimension gauge so see how yours compares to make sure it meets your tech needs.

Padding

Bike bags will also come with a variety of padding. Panniers generally have little to none, while backpacks offer more protection, which is reassuring if you have an accident or something falls off your back/bike.


Why I DON’T Recommend a Front Rack/Basket for Your Bag

You might be wondering why I have not included any front bike bags or baskets in my top 3. The answer is a simple one: worse handling that makes for a more difficult ride to work, which is extremely undesirable on busy roads.

I say this because I assume that the majority of bike commuters will be using bike bags that have a good few pounds of items in them, meaning that this will make steering your bike slower and more difficult.

That said, you might wish to add one on as an extra/overflow item so, provided that it’s not your main way to carry your daily things, then having one of these bags should be fine on your commute.


Panniers vs Backpacks for Commuters: The Key Differences

To summarize some of the points mentioned above, the main differences between panniers and backpacks for bike commuters are as follows:

  • Panniers will mean you won’t get a sweaty back but often have less comfortable straps/carrying options than bikes and usually only have one big pocket for all your stuff.
  • Backpacks will mean that you will be more comfortable carrying heavier loads throughout your workday but you will feel more strain on your back while riding; you will also have more options for organizing your things with more pockets in a backpack than a pannier
  • A convertible pannier-backpack is my recommended option for the best of both worlds – see the Two Wheel Gear convertible pannier backpack for more.