Pannier Space Design

Making Room for Gear - Pannier Space Design

A place for everything, or everything in the same place. Pannier designs typically fall into one of two camps; either multiple pockets and pouches to carefully divide and segregate gear into well-managed spaces (pocket style) or one large bucket to dump the entire load (the big bag).

The Arkel GT-54 is on the left with its vast assortment of pockets, and the Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic on the right with its single large compartment.

On several tours I brought along my “pocket style” panniers and without fail spent the first day of every trip opening each zippered pocket, disregarding the carefully orchestrated packing scheme concocted safely at home, disparately searching for the camp soap. At times discovering gear that I didn’t even remember packing - which begs the question of why it was there in the first place.

And with my “big bag” style panniers I’ve ended the same futile camp soap search by angrily dumping the bags entire mess inside my tent, thereby making an even bigger mess. It’s like digging through stuffed grocery bags searching for that elusive Snickers bar you grabbed at the checkout that somehow has managed to hide at the bottom of one of the sacks.

Yet both styles work. With my many pocketed panniers, I quickly become familiar with my organization scheme. After slamming my hand into a too close by the road side mail box (I swear it came out of nowhere) I knew exactly which pannier pocket held the first aid kit. And to compartmentalize my big bag style panniers, I rely on a common trick learned with earlier cheap and far from waterproof panniers; Ziploc bags. A couple of large two gallon bags work well, allowing me to group gear – cooking stuff, food, repair kits – and then easily balance the load across the front and back panniers. In fact with both style of panniers I still like to use at least one clear plastic bag to protect my evening wear, that set of clean shirt, shorts, and underwear for use at the end of the day’s ride and shower.

So why does it seem that more manufactures are favoring the “big bag” style of panniers? Is it recognizing that cyclists grow frustrated by too many large spaces to search? Do zippers add significant weight?

Probably not. The real reason is much more practical.

Zippers leak.

We want our gear to stay high and dry during monsoon season and it’s just darn hard (although not impossible) to make zippered pockets completely waterproof. Most companies supplement exposed zippers by adding rain covers - nylon sheeting enclosing the entire bag and held on with elastic drawstrings. Simple, and for the most part, effective. Although I wouldn’t try fording a raging river while expecting my packed socks and underwear to stay dry.

Ortlieb is famous for their waterproof roll closure line of “big bag” panniers. They integrate the tried and true mechanics of dry bags; the top of the bag rolls down to create a watertight – or as close as possible – closure for protecting valuable gear. Some cyclists have completely submerged these panniers just to prove the point.

The Back Roller and Sport Roller Classic line of panniers do have one additional inner pocket for holding small items (think Snickers), and Ortlieb has added more designs that include a waterproof external pocket as well. Built with a tough PVC coated polyester material, these panniers will plow through all types of crappy weather while keeping your roll of toilet paper satisfyingly dry. And that’s important.

Canadian company Arkel has been producing high quality touring panniers for over 20 years, and for most of that time delivered classic “pocket style” designs. My well-travelled set of Arkel XM-45 panniers (which I now see Arkel identifying as “bikepacking” bags) have a total of eight zippers and six storage compartments. As probably expected, I carry rain covers whenever on tour and never had a single problem with wet gear. And I’ve suffered through many rainy cycling days. Their classic expedition touring GT-54 set sports a stunning eleven pockets, including a cleverly designed long zippered tube for securing a tent. You have these mounted on your bike and feel you should be trekking across Europe.

Arkel also entered the “roll top” waterproof design space with their excellent Orca and Dolphin line of sturdy panniers. Like the Ortlieb’s, these bags have one large compartment, a good sized internal pocket, and one small external pocket – although I haven’t found much that will fit in the small extra pocket on the Orca’s beside car keys. Of course at the end of my first tour with these bags it was a long, panic search for my truck keys before remembering the extra pocket. Oh well, the best-laid plans of mice and men...

The Arkel Orca 45 with its roll top design.

At the end of the day, part of cyclo touring is becoming familiar with packing and retrieving gear, no matter the style of the bag. Before hitting the road carve out a little time to pack your bags and try them out on the bike. On the road, you’ll fine-tune the process to the point that even in the pitch dark of night you can still quickly locate your truck keys.

Rest assured, that Snickers is in there somewhere, and you’ll find it.