Best Bags Buying Guide

A multitude of bike-mounted bags and panniers are available to help you transport cycling essentials or heavier loads comfortably and securely, while protecting the contents from the elements. These can range from small-volume alternatives to the jersey pocket for stowing your tools and tubes, or a high-capacity luggage system for long-distance overnight touring.

Meanwhile transporting your bike and gear for holidays and foreign trips will also require secure, protective storage in the form of bike, wheel and gear bags, while commuting cyclists can also choose from a range of courier bags and backpacks.

Our guide to bike bags, panniers and more will help you choose the options to suit you and your bike.

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Backpacks for commuting, off-road cycling and other outdoor pursuits are available in an infinite number of variations so the one that is right for you will be extremely dependent on your needs – Enduro MTB riders gearing up for big days out in the hills will have very different requirements, for example, from city commuters looking to protect their work essentials.

Whatever you have in mind for your backpack, some features are desirable across the board – a ventilated rear, for example, will help to promote air flow between your back and the backpack, preventing uncomfortable buildup of moisture and heat, while waist and sternum straps will help to distribute the load, making your backpack easier to carry for long periods.

With that in mind, backpacks can be roughly divided in to trail and day packs and city packs.

Trail and day packs: These are designed for riding on- and off-road with storage capacity of between 10 litres (for a typical slimline day pack) and 30 litres (for a large volume trail or Freeride pack). For road riding and short trail blasts look for a slim, low-profile day pack that sits high on the back for optimum aerodynamics, while with larger-volume packs a multitude of additional features come into play. All riders will appreciate easy-access storage compartments for things that need to be grabbed in a hurry (such as tools or energy gels) while gravity riders will look for external bungees, nets or other attachments that allow full-face helmets and/or body armour to be stored when not in use (some gravity packs may even feature an inbuilt back protector shield as part of their design). Most trail packs designed for outdoor pursuits will be designed to accommodate hydration systems but check if a bladder must be purchased separately. Backpacks for specific pursuits may have additional features: Triathlon backpacks, for example, often include a separate dry storage compartment for wetsuits.

City packs: These may share many of the design features of trail packs – ample storage, comfortable fit etc – but with additional touches to optimize them for commuting duties. Look for padded/softlined internal storage compartments for laptops tablets, headphone ports for music on the go and reflective piping to increase visibility to traffic.

A full range of accessories for bike bags and pannier systems including spare/replacement mounting brackets for bike-mounted bags and a wide range of rain covers for backpacks.

Bike bags and cases are used to protect your bike while in transit or storage, with security straps and padding to ensure that your frame or components are not damaged when they come into contact with other bits. For riders who frequently travel to races and events, especially by plane, a big bag is an essential investment. There are two main types: soft bike bags and the more expensive hard case bike bags.

Soft bike bags: Made from rip-resistant polyester, these are the lighter and more inexpensive option, but offer a lower level of protection. Soft bike bags may range from thinly-padded units which will protect against scratching – and prevent the inside of your car from getting dirty – but which will not offer much protection against impact damage, to more heavy-duty bags with semi-rigid construction and thick padding. Most bike bags will include compartments for wheels, but if this is not the case check if separate wheel bags are include, or if you will need to purchase them. Also look for useful additional features such as integrated wheels and/or carry straps as well as internal storage compartments and tool rolls for biking essentials (shoes, bike wear, helmet and tools etc).

Hard case bike bags: Rigid bike cases – made from impact-resistant EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) material and typically with a ‘clam shell’ design – are a significant investment, but one worth considering for any frequent flyers who want to afford their steeds the best possible protection. Look for models that comply with airline baggage-handling regulations and that have useful features such as integrated wheels for ease of transport through the departures lounge.

Characterised by single shoulder straps and large flap-top openings, messenger bags and courier bags are the stylish and practical option for short city bike commutes and off-bike transport of work essentials such as documents and laptops/computers. Look for durable fabrics, padded sleeves for electronic devices and useful additions such as reflective graphics, bike light attachments, headphone ports and transparent pockets for airline tickets, etc.

These are triangular bags that strap into the frame’s front triangle, between top bar and downtube or top bar and seat tube, or box-shaped bags that strap onto the top bar behind the stem. These are useful for carrying ride essentials, especially among tourers, but not as popular as saddle bags and may not fit many frame designs (e.g. full suspension frames or road bikes where carrying two bottles is desirable).

As the name suggests, bar bags attach to the front handlebars and are suitable for most bikes. Offering more stowage space than saddle bags they are handy for commuting duties and ‘day-trip’ tourers as a place to keep essentials – camera, phone, sunglasses or sunscreen, for example – to hand. Another appealing feature of most bar backs is a transparent pocket on the top of the lid into which a map or smartphone/GPS device can be slotted, meaning riders navigating in unfamiliar territory don’t have to stop and fish around for maps to do so. It must be noted however that due to their high position on the bike, bar bags are not suitable for carrying heavy loads as too much weight will adversely affect steering. For heavier loads a transport system with a lower centre of gravity (e.g front panniers – see below) is required.

Protect your helmet from damage in storage or in transit with a dedicated helmet bag. Specific models are available to fit full-face (moto-x style) and XC/road helmets, with soft-shell bags offering protection against scratch and moisture damage and hard-shell cases providing the ultimate in impact protection.

Runners, riders and tri racers heading to events at home or abroad need versatile and sports-specific holdalls that offer an excellent balance of capacity and interior organization. Look for easy-access pockets for essentials such as tools and eyewear, separate interior compartments to allow dry storage of wet or soiled sports gear and a tough, abrasion-resistant fabric that can stand some punishment. For higher-capacity holdalls and travel bags, inbuilt wheels or rollers with retractable pull handle is essential.

Panniers – front, rear or both – are the classic storage solution for riders who need to transport a lot of gear. They are mounted to the bike by means of special racks (available for both front and rear) – with most manufacturers offering an attachment system that enables the bags to be easily clipped on and off.

Panniers are available in a wide range of sizes and configurations – your choice will determine how you intend to use it. Panniers aimed at commuters will often feature a host of extra internal pockets – with padding to protect fragile items such as laptops, mp3 players, cameras etc – as well as external pockets to keep keys etc easily to hand. Some such models aimed at the urban market can also be removed from the bike and reconfigured for use as day bags, with back or shoulder straps.

However extra pockets and features mean extra seams and zips, and in many cases, extra places for water to get in. Long-distance touring cyclists may prioritise waterproofing at the expense of nifty stowage solutions, preferring to have the security of knowing that a dry set of clothes awaits them at the end of a long day’s riding in the rain. The vast majority of panniers will offer some level of water resistance but 100% waterproof bags – often with roll-up closures systems so they can be individually sealed to fit different-sized loads – are worth the extra expense in the eyes of many riders.

NOTE: Loading a long-distance tourer is an art in itself, with riders needing to ensure that loads are balanced in a way that will not affect bike handling. As has been discussed, heavier loads are best kept as low on the bike as possible to maintain a low centre of gravity, with handlebar bags only suitable for light items. Ideally pannier loads should be evenly distributed on either side of the bike or it will ‘pull’ in one direction (although commuters carrying light to medium weights – lunch, a laptop and a change of clothes – will get away with using one pannier). However many experienced tourers recommend that in terms of the front-rear load ratio, the front panniers should carry more than the back. This will prevent the front wheel lifting on climbs, without hampering handling (once the weight is kept low down) and help prevent damage to the rear wheel, which is already carrying the bulk of the rider’s weight when he or she is in an upright riding position.

Another type of bag also used with panniers is a trunk bag. Trunk bags are used in conjunction with a rear rack, but sit on top of the rack (as opposed to panniers, which are attached to either side). Trunk bags can be a good option for riders wishing to carry more gear than a bar or saddle bag will allow, but not as much as high-capacity panniers. The position of trunk bags also tends to keep their contents more out of the way of road spray than panniers. Again however, their higher centre of gravity makes them not ideal for heavier loads which should be located as low as possible on the bike (i.e. packed in the bottom of pannier bags).

Because they can also be used in tandem with rear panniers, trunk bags also offer tourers the ability to pack more as the occasion demands – touring enthusiasts will often invest in a bike transport ‘system’ with separate elements that can be used or detached according to the needs of each trip. Riders must however be careful not to exceed the upper weight limit for their trunk bag/pannier racks, especially with lightweight racks or those that attach to the seatpost only.

These are small, wedge-shaped bags that fit neatly under the rear saddle with enough stowage space for ride essentials – spare tube, multitool, energy gels etc. They are a popular choice for lots of road and MTB riders who like to travel light, and an alternative to using the rear jersey pocket or a more cumbersome backpack. Most models clip onto the saddle rails and are also secured to the seatpost by means of a velcro strap. Better-quality saddle bags provide a secure fit that will not shake loose from trail or road vibration, and are made of tough water-resistant fabric. Reflective strips or a loop where a rear light can be clipped on are good features for bikes likely to see commuting duty.

Protect your wheels from scratches and other damage while in transit or storage with a pair of wheel bags (or one double-capacity bag). Look for a durable, rip-resistant outer covering, ample interior padding and rigid plastic inserts to prevent axles or other parts penetrating the fabric.

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