panniers vs trailers

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Home Forums Off Piste Bikepacking & Bicycle Touring panniers vs trailers

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    Joseph Scalia


    Locale: NorthEast

    How does everyone feel about using panniers vs trailers. I find that trailers allow better bike handling and improved load carrying ability.

    Jim W.
    BPL Member


    Locale: So-Cal

    I've never used a trailer, but have done quite a bit of touring and ridden with people using a trailer. I've also done daddy duty with kids in a Burley trailer.

    Compared to panniers, I think a trailer would have the following +, -, or =. (Thinking something like the BOB.
    – Weight: trailer is usually heavier than racks & panniers. An exception is if you're carrying a very big load then a trailer is possibly lighter.
    – Rolling resistance- one or two more wheels = more drag.
    – Crosswind wind drag- more drag
    + Headwind drag. Big front, rear, and handlebar bags are probably more drag compared to a BOB.
    – Storage at hotels, hostels, trains, etc.
    + Side trips. The trailer really shines- just unhitch, lock it up, and off you go on the side trip.
    + Bike options. Use almost any bike with the trailer. Don't need rack mounts, long chainstays, low-rider mounts, etc. Works fine with full-suspension bikes.

    If I were doing a long "living on the road" tour I'd either go with a trailer or possibly a longbike like the Surly Big Dummy.

    For shorter tours, motel tours, etc. I think racks on the bike make more sense. (I can do a motel tour with a rack trunk only)

    (For What It's Worth- I haven't been on an overnight bike tour since the first kidlet arrived in 2000)

    Michael Cockrell


    Locale: Central Valley, Lodi-Stockton, CA

    I studied this issue for along time. Only the ones carrying a lot of gear (computers, etc.) liked the trailers.

    I toured all over the world, and panniers worked best.

    Most important though is practice with a loaded set & bike. The first time you stand up to tackle a hill, avoid a bump, etc., you'll be shocked with the load-throw if you lean either way!

    Like hiking, pack as light as possible, when finished with a colder section, etc., mail home your excess.

    Ted E
    BPL Member


    Locale: Morrison, CO

    one thing to consider for long distance trips too.

    a trailer will take some of the weight of your gear and spread it out better between the two rims. this may help with keeping your rim trued and also lessen the chance of breaking spokes.



    Locale: The Cascades

    I'd go with panniers, but then I've never toured with a trailer. I like the ease of panniers, and having the weight around me instead of all behind me (my body has enough of that…..).

    Just remember, you should have more weight on your front wheels than on your back. Sounds counterintuitive to most (since the front panniers are always smaller than the back panniers!). But the lower hang of the front bags keeps the center of gravity lower.

    David Chenault
    BPL Member


    Locale: Queen City, MT

    None of the above! Panniers and trailors are both automatically outside the arena of "light" anything.

    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    Now for something completely differentcarg

    Jim W.
    BPL Member


    Locale: So-Cal

    "Just remember, you should have more weight on your front wheels than on your back."

    That's without you on the bike. Once you climb on it ends up with a bit more than half the weight on the rear, a bit less than half on the front.

    Weight carries easier on a bike than on my back. It's still important to keep weight down but not as critical as when you're walking in my opinion.

    Doug Johnson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    Do neither! If you're here, you have truly ultralight gear in your closet. Panniers are heavy and require heavy bags. Overkill if you're carrying a tarptent, a pop can stove, and a quilt. For this type of work, the 40 pound Bob (which is a really cool item) is really, really overkill. So skip both and think outside the box.

    For mtb touring, I've used a bunch of things and wrote an article about a 3 day singletrack tour for our Backpacking Light print mag. All 9 riders had slightly different setups (one had a Bob) and this was the best:
    An adventure racing pack is the hot setup for mountain biking on technical terrain with UL gear, in my opinion.

    This summer, I'm getting back into road riding after a long hiatus, and I'm currently planning a long tour. The plan here is to get the gear off the body and onto the bike, but to avoid metals supports. I also really don't want to trade my 17 pound bike for a my old steel bike with mounts. Searching for a way out took me first to Topeak seatpost mount racks, and finally to this:

    I'd do a Carousel oversized seat pack with a handlebar bag. Add in a top tube bag or stuff the jerseys for your food, camera, etc. Now, I have not used this stuff yet… just the end of a lot of research.

    I'm planning quilt and tarptent in the back, pop can stove, air pad, food, etc. up front. Again, I haven't used this yet, but it seems like a solid plan to me, and avoids both the trailer and the panniers. Can't wait to try it out!


    Derek Goffin


    Locale: North of England

    Its nearly all about minimum drag. Doug is right a bag above your back wheel a frame bag and a handlebar bag is most aerodynamic, least rolling friction and most handleable. Aearodynamic is what counts if you are above 10mph. If you cannot fit your gear in that due to lots of water or food then slim rear panniers are next in the dirty air behind your legs, or a light rucksack if you must. I disagree with Jim that you want more weight on the steering wheel. This is bad for handling and drag. I would suggest 25% front 75% rear.
    The frame bag is good for dense stuff.
    A trailer is OTT, in my opinion.

    Ross P Hemphill


    Locale: PNW

    Just gotta mention that a typical Bob trailer is not close to 40#. (Which is not to say that it's efficient or anything.)

    As far as ultralight/ultracompact touring configs go: I've decided that bikepacking-style bag set ups are the best overall. (Never toured with such a setup yet, but I can't wait to, and have zero concern that I'll be disappointed. By the way, is anybody in the market for some sweet Arkel panniers?)

    I totally disagree with a 75%R/25F weight split, but the particulars of your bike, among other things, can make a huge difference here. As far as stability and handling goes, I love my Bob's but wouldn't say that those are their strong points.

    I'm not sure all panniers are automatically not "light." See: Tubus Fly rack, and the DIY panniers on the backpacking MYO gear web site (sorry no link handy). Besides that "ultalight" really means "ultraefficient," and bike gear will have a different point of "ideal balance" than backpacking gear. Words…

    Re: "a trailer will take some of the weight of your gear and spread it out better between the two rims. this may help with keeping your rim trued and also lessen the chance of breaking spokes." If you mean trailer vs F&R panniers, I disagree, if vs just R panniers, I might agree. Given the choice, I'd rather have a more reliable two wheels than an additional one to look after, though.

    To the OP! I'd agree that trailers (mostly two-wheel) can sometimes provide better handling with particularly heavy or bulky loads, but don't feel that it is typically this way with a reasonable touring load and a bike suitable for the use. A (torsionally) flexible frame is one thing that can affect this. (Another thing is that the play found in most-all bike trailer hitches can have a major negative impact on handling.)

    Derek Goffin


    Locale: North of England

    I'm not hard and fast on 75R/25F exactly, but I can see no reason for more on the front. I do know that any weight on the front should be as close as possible to the steering axis. for example a long rack top bag over your front wheel would be a bad idea. As Jim says front panniers are usually smaller than rear ones. I say maybe there is a good reason. I know that low rider front panniers hit the ground on hairpins and rough ground and higher is better. I also know that with a lot of load and non on the front, your front wheel lifts on steep hills.
    The lighter the better but more importantly the sleeker the better.



    Locale: The Cascades

    As Jim W says, once you climb on the bike, your weight shifts toward the back. That's why you 'pack' heavier to the front, to try and balance it out better. This actually improves handling, not decrease it. And a lower center of gravity, ie lower bags, also improves handling. I've never had an issue with my bags hitting the ground on hairpins or any such thing.

    Of course, I'm coming at this from long distance road touring (3 weeks or better at a time, Scotland, France, New Zealand, Ireland, E. Germany, W. Germany, Arizona). I wasn't interested in minimalist touring so I had a few pairs of bike shorts, a couple of shirts, and lots of socks. I'd certainly pack lighter now (lighter shelter, quilt, cookset, etc), but I'd still use panniers. Obviously, it's a choice thing.

    I've never done any MTB touring, so none of my advice is geared toward that.

    Whatever you do, have fun! Bike touring is a great way to see the country, and a fantastic complement to backpacking.

    Derek Goffin


    Locale: North of England

    Hi Douglas,
    I also am speaking from long distance touring experience. Although I tend to mix roads with offroad tracks and like mountains.
    I cannot see a reason why perfect balance between front and back is worth designing for. It does not in itself affect handling unless extreme. My centre of gravity is only just behind the centre of the wheel base of my bike anyway and when I lean on my aero bars I am probably balanced.I would suggest that safety is compromised by having the weight forwards. I have seen people's rear wheel lift on dry roads under heavy braking. I have seen and heard of people going over their handlebars when their front wheel locks. Bikes are very high and short compared to cars. It is advantageous to keep luggage mainly at the back and reasonably low.
    Low is also something you should not overdo. When you are moving and balanced it is not that important, Penny farthings are quite rideable if you can get up there!
    On the other hand Once you have hit your low rider front panniers on the ground in a hairpin you will not want to ever do it again.
    On rutted tracks with my wheel in the rut I often found my low front panniers scraping on the sides of the rut. Raising them has no downside. Doing away with them is better if you can lighten and streamline your load.

    Miguel Arboleda
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan

    Here is an article from the Adventure Cycling Association talking about just this topic. Maybe it will give you a little more information.

    Back in the 80's Bicycling Magazine did a study on the most stable and efficient configurations of panniers on a bicycle. They found the best was larger rear panniers off the ground (not low riders), small low-rider front panniers, and a small handlebar bag. All other configurations caused fish-tailing or shimmying or dangerous braking.

    The new UL Bikepacking style is very refreshing for me. I've toured thousands of kilometers, but never thought to put the bags on in that way. Now that I'm ultralight, I have to see what I can do with my Bike Friday, which will be a challenge!

    Here's a guy who travels around the world really lightly!

    Patrick Young
    BPL Member


    Locale: Midwest

    Checkout: or
    for rackless touring.

    Amy Lauterbach
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area


    There are several bike touring forums with threads comparing panniers vs trailers. As others have pointed out though, this site is about traveling light. So with that focus…

    The best way to carry the load is entirely dependent on how much stuff you are carrying. Presumably, anybody here on BackpackingLight is down in the 5-15 pound range (5-8 if motel touring, 8-15 if camping). If the load isn't under 15 pounds (or 20 pounds if you have a laptop and other discretionary stuff), then deal with that first. If your goal isn't to carry a light load, then this probably isn't the best place to discuss the options.

    Once you're under 15 pounds, there's no reason to consider a trailer. And the discussion about whether to put the load in front or rear panniers is not of critical importance, because a 15 pound load doesn't affect handling like a 40 pound load does.

    The lightweight solution to carrying a load on a bike is NEITHER trailer nor panniers. Instead, use the fine bags from one of these two vendors:

    Reviews of bags by those vendors:

    My two cents. Amy L
    And just back yesterday from an 8 day dirt/paved road tour in wildflower infested central california (no report yet)



    Locale: The Cascades

    Hi Derek,

    I'd say we simply do different kinds of touring (or, in my case, have done, haven't done any real touring in a few years). I never had to deal with rutted roads, I don't use aero bars at all, and I'm never going fast enough on a hairpin turn to lean so much that my bags would drag. Mountains, well, I've climbed and descended a few rather large ones in France, Scotland and Ireland!

    I would agree that having all your weight forward could compromise safety, and I'm not suggesting such. For my style of riding, putting a bit more weight in my front bags than my rear bags simply spreads the weight out better, giving me better balance on my bike. I've never crashed, never even felt near falling over (well, there was that one time doing the Whiskey Trail in Scotland, but that was without any panniers and a bit too much Scotch from the Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Glenmorangie distilleries….).

    We've all seen bad things — I've seen front wheels come off the ground as someone with all the weight on the back started pulling up a hill (they lost control and fell over). And I've heard of folks going over their front handlebars with no packs/panniers/etc. on the bike at all, it's easy to lock up your front wheel if you panic, bags have little to do with it.

    So I'll cheerfully agree that there are many ways to accomplish the task, with one way not necessarily any better than the other, only different. My way has worked wonderfully for me (I've tried it both ways), your way works wonderfully for you. And that's the beauty of it all, finding what works for us and enjoying the journey. The sun is shining, the touring gods are smiling, we should soon be on our way…

    Take care,


    Willem Jongman


    Wether it is better to have the weight at the front or the rear all depends on how your bike was designed, and in particular how much trail your front fork has.
    My suggestion would be a classic French style decaleur front bag such as by Gilles Berthoud. These are closeer to the headtube than a handlebar bag, and they have the weight as low as possible. If you have a light load this can be nicely complemented by a British style saddle bag such as the Caradice Camper Longflap or Super C. These do not require a rack, but they do need some other support. Together, you would have some 24-36 litres capacity (depending on the bag sizes you choose), and nicely distributed.

    I do also have extended experience with trailers and fully loaded panniers. Two wheel trailers are great for carrying heavy loads such as in family camping, and for use with tandems. They are also very useful if you want to go somewhere on a lightish road bike, unload and set up base camp, and then do dayly unloaded rides.

    Panniers are great if you need to take a fair bit but not so much that you desperately need a trailer. If I had to transport 30 kg I would rather use panniers. If 40 or 50, a trailer.

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