- Buyer's Guide
The Best Panniers for Bike Commuting
What’s the one downside of biking to work? The backpack-sized sweat stain on your shirt when you arrive at the office. After biking year round to work in Boston, MA and experiencing a sweaty back in all four seasons I finally decided to outfit my bike with a rack and see what all the hype with panniers was about. Here goes a roundup of the best panniers for urban bike commuting.
Why a pannier?
Really two reasons. First, a pannier takes the weight of your work bag and puts it on the frame of your bike. It makes for a much more comfortable ride. Second, and my motivation for delving into the world of panniers, is that you don’t have a sweaty back when you show up at work.
There are other options besides a pannier such as a basket. However panniers (and the rack to mount them) are generally smaller than a basket and provide a more sturdy and locked in ride than tossing a bag in a basket does.
The main downsides of a pannier are twofold. First, you need to invest in not only the pannier but also a rack for your bike. For this review I used a Tubus rear rack. This rack, while on the higher end, cost $150. Second, putting a pannier on your beloved bike is probably a similar feeling to trading in your sports car for a minivan. You won’t win any points in the swag department with a pannier on your bike.
Why focus on ‘urban’ panniers?
There are a ton of options in the market for panniers. However many of these panniers are aimed at bicycle touring. While you can definitely get by using a touring pannier for commuting and vice versa, generally speaking commuting-oriented panniers are a smaller volume, have a hard backing to help carry a laptop, and the good ones take into account how the bag will be carried off the bike.
What makes a great commuting pannier?
Weatherproofing. Anyone who has rode a bike in the rain knows how wet everything on a bike gets in the rain thanks to spray from your tires and cars. Bike lanes commonly turn into swimming lanes which doesn’t help the cause either. Having a pannier that is weatherproof is critically important, especially if you’ve got a laptop inside.
Second, and my motivation for delving into the world of panniers, is that you don’t have a sweaty back when you show up at work.
Attachment Mechanisms. How easy does the pannier attach to the rack? Does the pannier come off with a simple pull or does it take 3 minutes and some choice words to pull it off your bike? I didn’t think much about this point until it was -20 C and I was fumbling with panniers.
Carrying. We’ll take it as a granted that all these panniers will attach firmly to your bike and not wobble when you hit a pothole. But beyond this, how do they carry at your side or on your back when not on your bike? Are you constantly being jabbed in the leg with the mounting mechanism or does the plastic latch fold away for a comfortable carry?
Second, putting a pannier on your beloved bike is probably a similar feeling to trading in your sports car for a minivan. You won’t win any points in the swag department with a pannier on your bike.
Accessibility. Does the pannier have a single, cavernous compartment or are there multiple smaller pockets to catch your EDC? And does the pannier have only one access point or a clamshell zipper to quickly get into the bottom of the bag? And finally, how well does the bag carry a laptop?
Notes: there are a plethora of panniers on the market so this list is by no means definitive best guide but is meant to be a starting point and good snapshot for someone looking for a pannier to commute with.
All panniers mentioned here were received as a sample from the manufacturer.
The Thule Shield Pannier is the most well rounded bag in this roundup. It’s extremely waterproof, has one of the better attaching mechanisms, and is a good value because it is sold as a pair ($129). Like most bags in this roundup it’s a roll top design though features a bit more interior pocketing/organization.
The Shield Pannier can be carried comfortably at your side and includes a shoulder strap, which is much welcomed. The main gripe I had with this bag was the lack of rack attachment points. There are two sturdy points on top, but this pannier lacks a lower attachment point so is very wobbly and loose on bumpy roads.
-Well built and durable
-Good value as they are sold as a pair
-Good interior organization
-Flexible material so does not hold shape very well
-Very loose when attached to a rack
In the world of panniers, these Brooks Lands End Panniers ($150) are as luxury as they get. Yes they’re a bit more on the touring side of things but Brooks understated style fits in very well for someone biking to work with a white collar job. The material on these is top notch with metal and leather hardware to boot. The attachment mechanism is also the easiest to pop on and off a bike as it’s spring loaded.
On the interior there’s 23L of space and some small pocketing. The Lands End Panniers are much looser than other bags in this roundup so unless it’s full, it tends to sag. It’s also a bit too small to comfortably hold a 15’’ laptop. That said, this pannier looks great and won’t hit your leg when carrying it – very nice.
-High quality material and hardware
-Very stylish design
-Spring loaded locking mechanism
-Comfortable and non obtrusive when carrying at your side
– Not wide enough to carry a 15’’ laptop horizontally
-Buckling mechanism takes some time to open and close
-Unstructured material so can get lumpy depending on your carry
The Arkel Signature V Pannier came out of left field for this roundup and left with the editor’s choice. Based out of Canada, Arkel isn’t a household name on Carryology which is a shame because the Signature V pannier is fantastic. At 30L it’s the largest pannier in the roundup. At $165 it’s the most expensive. But this bag is wonderfully designed for the bicycle commuter. While the outside of the bag is cordura, it’s lined with waterproof material. Internally there’s a laptop sleeve and loads of space.
It can be carried as a tote, at your side, or over your shoulder. On the back it’s got the most heavy duty attachment mechanism I’ve seen but it’s dead simple to attach. It is rather loose however because a third attachment point is absent on the bottom of the bag. My favorite bit about this bag is a velcro flap, which while simple, works wonderfully to cover the metal hardware to make sure you don’t get jabbed in the leg. Finally, an ironclad lifetime guarantee tops off this pannier. Love it!
-Handmade, signed by the sewer, durable, and a lifetime guarantee.
-Durable mounting hardware, and a flap to cover it when not on a bike
-Sleeve for a laptop and plenty of space
-No third attachment point on the bag results in a looser ride
-Plastic buckles and shoulder strap attachments feel cheap and out of place on an otherwise high quality bag
Timbuk2’s Tandem Panniers remedy not one but two downsides of riding with loaded panniers. If using only one pannier, your bike becomes heavy and unwieldy on one side. If you then try to balance the load by using two panniers, lugging them around becomes ungainly real quick.
Instead the Tandem Pannier ($129) is a pair of dual panniers attached at the top. They drape over a pannier rack and effortlessly snap together when off the bike, making it very easy to walk with them. There’s sufficient space and pocketing between the two of them. The major downside of them is the lack of dedicated rack mounting mechanisms, making riding with them very wobbly.
-Large volume and small pocketing
-Easy to carry
-Very loose attachment to a pannier rack
-No shoulder strap
I was surprised by the Portola Pannier. Despite being only $50 this pannier was one of my favorites. Timbuk2 really nails cycling-specific bags and this one was no different. There’s a main bucket pocket, a front zip pocket, and a side stash pocket.
For being a basic bag it carries very well on a bike with a quick locking mechanism. However off the bike this pannier constantly hit my legs no matter how it was carried with a subpar carry handle.
-Cheap (the cheapest on this roundup!)
-28L of space
-Durable and reflective coating
-A rigid back portion
-No laptop sleeve
-Not easily carried at your side
-Exterior pockets are useless when the main pocket is full
If there’s any gems we’ve missed, please share in the comments!