Bikepacking With Panniers Vs Bikepacking Bags: Which Should You Choose?

Bikepacking pro Robbie Ferri shares his thoughts on whether you're better off with panniers or dedicated bikepacking bags for long-distance cycling

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reviewed by Rory McAllister

The opportunities to go and explore are endless as a cyclist, and there’s always a road or trail waiting for you that you haven’t been on.

As a professional endurance cyclist with a vast amount of bikepacking experience, I’m often asked: “Which is the better for bikepacking storage – panniers vs bikepacking bags?”

Having the correct kit when it comes to adventure cycling is important and can heavily affect the trip that you’re going on. Getting it right is going to improve the experience greatly, and not only that, it can help you carry more, go faster, and stay organized. 

In this article, I’ll be sharing my views and experience on whether you’re better off opting for panniers or dedicated bikepacking bags for your next bike touring trip.

There’s a lot to dive into – but in short, if you’re long-distance bikepacking and don’t care about speed, I’d recommend panniers, or if it’s a short or competitive trip, I’d go with bikepacking bags!

Bikepacking with panniers vs bikepacking bags in England and Chile.
© Robbie Ferri/Jack Gazeley/BikeTips

What Are Bike Panniers?

Bike panniers have been around for a very long time – since 1884, in fact. They are an excellent way of carrying large amounts of belongings and are very popular amongst touring cyclists who like to go on very long trips and pretty much live on the bike.

The pannier itself is a bag which attaches to a rack mounted on the bike.

Panniers on a green mountain bike.

Panniers are a very simple system mainly used on touring bikes and come in both front and rear options. On the rear, you have a rack that attaches to the bike’s frame via mounts, and then the panniers can clip onto either side of it.

Front panniers have a small rack on the front. Then, you can add a bag to it and secure it into place. Rear panniers typically have around 40 liters of capacity, and front panniers tend to have around 20 liters, allowing you to carry a lot of gear if required.

What Are Bikepacking Bags?

My mountain bike set up with bikepacking bags.
My mountain bike, set up with bikepacking bags. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

The term bikepacking was first used in the 1970s. It was about traveling far while carrying minimal kit. Over the past 15 years, the kit used has advanced a lot, and we have many different options for carrying essential tools, spares, and clothing.

Bikepacking bags come in many different forms. Firstly, we have saddle bags, which sit behind the saddle and strap to the seatpost. Then we have a frame and top tube bags, which sit in the center of the frame, and finally, handlebar bags, which sit on the handlebars.

As far as rough capacity for each type goes, saddle bags are around 10 liters, handlebar bags are 10 liters, top tube bags are 2 liters, and frame bags are around 10 liters. So, although the capacity is small, there are many bag options to customize your bike or kit list.

Bikepacking With Panniers Vs Bikepacking Bags

BikeTips editor Rory bikepacking with panniers on the Carretera Austral in Patagonia.
BikeTips editor Rory bikepacking with panniers on the Carretera Austral in Patagonia. © Jack Gazeley/BikeTips

Panniers and bikepacking bags are very different, and depending on what you pick, you will get a unique experience. As someone who has used them both extensively for long-distance bikepacking trips, here are the real-world differences I have found.

Carrying Capacity

The first thing to mention is carrying capacity. Panniers have a huge amount of storage, and if you have one on the front and back, you could have over 60 liters of storage, which is more than enough for an adventure.

With bikepacking bags, you have a lot more bag options, but you are going to struggle to get more than around 40 liters comfortably. If you are looking for space and want to carry more home comforts, panniers could be for you. 


Not all bikes can use traditional panniers. Many rear racks need rack mounts, which don’t come on all bikes, especially ones that offer high performance.

There are some retrofit racks for touring bikes, but you have to be careful as they can damage bike frames and don’t work anywhere near as well. 

Bikepacking bags can go on anything you like, and because there are so many different options for bags and sizing, you can make them compatible with any bike. I have even seen bikepacking bags on unicycles.

The gravel bike setup with bikepacking bags I use for short-distance racing.
The gravel bike setup with bikepacking bags I use for short-distance racing. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips


Loving your bike’s aesthetic may not be the most important thing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

I know for myself I’m very particular about the way my bike looks and always looking for practical bag solutions that make people say, “Wow, that’s a cool bikepacking bike!”.

Although it comes down to personal preference, I love how bikepacking bags look on a bike. Panniers are a little too classic for my liking, and I’m not the biggest fan. The modern bike look is definitely more suited to bikepacking bags.

Bulk on the Bike

Although I never thought this would be an issue, for some reason, it was on a trip for me. The bulk of the bags does matter. Large panniers on tight single tracks, around cities, and on cycle paths make it a little more challenging to maneuver or squeeze through tight gaps. 

Bikepacking bags not only take up less space, but they are in a more convenient place out of the way while you’re riding. The bags are generally in and around the frame or above the wheels.

Rory not looking especially aero on his bikepacking rig with panniers.
Rory not looking especially aero on his bikepacking rig with panniers. © Jack Gazeley/BikeTips


Another very important factor is aerodynamics. If you’re planning on doing some ultra cycling and need to be as fast as possible, then you are going to want to be as aerodynamic as possible. 

Panniers, especially on the rear, are not very aerodynamic. They can lose you valuable Watts, and over a long bikepacking trip that sucks up valuable speed and energy. That might not matter much if you’re on a casual trip, but for endurance racing it could be vital.


When it comes to the stability they offer, panniers are fantastic, especially when they are on the rear because they sit so low down. It makes hauling lots of heavy goods really easy and makes keeping the bike upright much simpler.

It’s vital with panniers to get the weight distribution right, not only from front to back but also from left to right. Putting too much weight on the rear or front can stress components, and if one side is heavy, it causes the bike to lean.

Bikepacking bags tend to sit much higher, which raises the bike’s center of gravity and can make it feel less stable. That’s not always a bad thing, though. The bags being in a different position can make the bike more agile and fun to ride.

My bike on a beach in Oman at the end of my bikepacking route.
My bikepacking rig with bikepacking bags on the beach at the end of the BikingMan Oman race. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips


If you’re looking for a quick and lightweight setup, consider bikepacking bags over panniers. Panniers need a rear or front rack, and the bags are not very lightweight. This could cause your setup to get heavy.

Bikepacking bags can end up weighing much less as they are primarily made of fabric. You don’t need a rack, and generally, you can save around a kilo or two, which for performance ultra cyclists does make a big difference. 


When it comes to good cycle touring and bikepacking, being organized is very important. I have always found with both systems, it’s pretty easy to be organized, but panniers can be more difficult compared to bikepacking bags. 

With panniers, you typically have two large spaces to fill, and then you find yourself distributing your stuff depending on the weight and how often you are going to need it. For myself, I found this quite messy and often annoying. 

With bikepacking bags, it’s a bit simpler, weight distribution is much easier, and because you might have up to five bags, you can compartmentalize and move things around to suit how often you need a particular item.

For example, food and water in an accessible place, a tent hidden away.

Ease of Use

Another big factor to mention is ease of use. Most panniers are typically very easy to mount and take off. So if you’re stopping at a hotel or hostel where you can’t have your bike in the room, it’s easy work.

Bikepacking bags can be a little bit more challenging to remove, and then when getting them back on again, it’s even more time-consuming, especially when you have four or five bags.

Handlebar pack as part of my bikepacking bag setup.
Handlebar pack as part of my bikepacking bag setup. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

Which Should You Choose: Panniers Vs Bikepacking Bags?

When it comes to picking either panniers or bikepacking bags, the answer comes from the trip you’re on and the experience that you want to have with your bikepacking setup.

If you love long-distance touring and plan on going away with lots of gear to stay comfortable and are not worried about speed, then panniers are the way to go.

They have huge capacity, are very stable, and are ideal for round-the-world adventures where you might be away for longer. 

If you are looking for performance and speed and don’t plan to go away for more than a few days or race, I feel bikepacking bags are the better option.

They are lighter, more aerodynamic, and also smaller. If you’re interested, you can check out my regular endurance racing bike loadout here!

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Robbie has traveled the globe as an endurance athlete and bikepacker, breaking world records and competing in international ultra-cycling events such as the BikingMan series and the Transcontinental Race. He's also worked as an ambassador for some of the industry's leading names, including Shimano and Ritchey. If Robbie's not on a bike, he's either fixing them or out walking with his dog!

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