The Chainlink

Messenger Bags (or Backpacks) vs. Panniers (a.k.a. Saddlebags)


By Brett Ratner

Ok, I'll admit it. It would be kinda cool to have the Mavic neutral support vehicle (bristling with spare wheels) follow me around on my rides. Or to have a domestique fetch my water bottles, and a team car to roll up with a spare bike if mine develops a mechanical problem.

But sadly, for those of us not named Nibali or Quintana, we gotta carry our own stuff. And it goes without saying that if you ride your bike for transportation, a lot of times that stuff is heavy.

There are an increasing number of cargo hauling options for people who ride bikes for utility. Examples include porteur racks, Carradice-type bagsRandonneuring-style front bags and (of particular interest to bikepackers and gravel riders) frame bagsTrailers and dedicated cargo bikes are also an option.

There are alternatives to panniers and messenger bags. Tank bags and over-sized seat bags (popular with gravel racers) are some examples.

But, at least for the time being, the majority of utility cyclists seem to wind up in one of two camps; messenger bags or panniers.

For a cyclist who bikes for transportation, the decision which camp to pitch your tent in is as much a philosophical choice (and even an aesthetic choice) as it is a practical/functional one. Do I want to keep my bike light, nimble and uncluttered while I carry a bunch of weight on my shoulders? Or should my bike be carrying the burden, sacrificing a bit of zippiness, but letting my back glide along unencumbered? Do I want to look like a bike messenger, or do I want to emulate those grizzled cross-country touring types?

I've personally spent equal time with both setups (about five years apiece) so I figured I'd share my opinions on the pros and cons of each.

My personal progression of cargo carrying methods.

Panniers:
For the uninitiated, "pannier" is simply a fancy name for a saddlebag that latches onto your rack. Typically people ride with a pair on the rear rack, but some people prefer them in the front. Unsupported long-distance bike tourists often have four. Sometimes people can get away with one for daily riding.

For about three years, I rocked a set of the ubiquitous Ortlieb Back Rollers. When they started to wear out a bit, I picked up a set of Arkel GT-18's. These are technically front panniers designed for unsupported cross-country touring, but I think they work great as rear panniers for commuting and riding around town. (Side note, I also own a set of full-sized rear panniers for that cross-country trip I'm only ever going to take in my dreams.)

All dressed up and no place to go. My setup for the cross country trip I hope to one day take. At least I'm getting good use out of the front bags.

Pros of Panniers:

  • Your back doesn't get sore
  • Your back doesn't get sweaty
  • Less wear and tear on expensive jackets and jerseys (abrasions from backpack straps)
  • A pair of panniers offers more cargo capacity than most messenger bags. This becomes a factor on trips to the grocery store.
  • Arguably better at carrying heavy items over short-to-medium distances
  • Clearly better for carrying heavy items over long distances

Cons of Panniers:

  • Bike is more cumbersome to carry up stairs, through doorways, etc.
  • Harder to switch bikes (panniers are useless unless the bike has a rack, and different bikes might require reconfiguring of the pannier's mounting points)
  • Arguably more of a hassle to carry when off the bike and walking around
  • Arguably more time consuming to deal with when locking up your bike (but not too bad)
  • Less capable at carrying over-sized or oddly-sized cargo
  • Less aerodynamic, will noticeably slow you down

While handy for carrying larger loads (like groceries) I've found that full-sized rear panniers can be overkill for everyday riding. Using smaller front panniers (which also can be used in the back) has worked out great for me.

Messenger Bags:
Traditionally, a "messenger bag" has one strap. This makes it convenient to access items in the bag's main compartment without physically removing the bag (simply spin it around your torso). The downside is this also puts all of the weight on one shoulder, which can increase the likelihood of soreness, especially over a long distance.

Using a messenger bag can help keep your bike light, stripped-down and sleek-looking.

As such, a lot of companies that make "messenger bags" are starting to favor a two-strapped backpack-style format. Savvy urban cyclists are often pairing this type of bag with what can only be described as a modern, cooler version of the fanny pack. This is used to carry items that are frequently needed mid ride (thus negating the need to access the contents of the main bag until you reach your destination). If you don't mind wearing a fanny pack, this is a super smart way to go, IMO, especially if you make lots of stops requiring you to frequently lock up your bike and walk around.

Pro tip: Using a hard backed folder like this one keeps your documents neat, helps the bag retain its shape and keeps sharp things from poking you in the back.

The important thing to note is that I'm purposely using the term "messenger bag" a little differently. To me, regardless of the number of straps, a messenger bag is designed specifically to carry cargo when riding a bike (in other words, what an actual bike messenger does). To serve this purpose it has to be durable, cut/shaped for cycling and it absolutely has to be waterproof.

Like pretty much everyone else I knew in the late 2000s, my Chrome messenger bag was surgically attached to my upper body. If I were to ditch my panniers nowadays, however, I'd probably look into a Mission Workshop backpack. Sadly, local Chicago company Wig Bags seems to have stopped selling their well-designed product. But I've heard really good things about Trash Bags out of Minneapolis and would want to give them a look too.

Adding outside pockets like this one can help give you quick access to items you frequently need mid ride.

Pros of Messenger Bags:

  • Bike stays light, nimble and uncluttered
  • Easier to get in and out of buildings and up stairs with bike
  • A little quicker/easier to lock up bike
  • Arguably easier to deal with a messenger bag when you're off the bike, in restaurants, etc.
  • Messenger bags typically offer long straps and other features to enable carrying of over-sized and oddly-shaped items
  • Switching bikes is easy
  • More aerodynamic, will not noticeably slow you down

Cons of Messenger Bags:

  • Back can get sore
  • Back can get sweaty (and even smelly if you don't wash the bag regularly)
  • Straps wear out expensive clothing and jackets
  • You really feel it when carrying something heavy
  • Typically less cargo capacity, unless you get one of those crazy huge ones that make you look like a turtle.

The Bottom Line:
IMO, both methods are completely viable to a serious cyclist who rides for daily transportation. Like most things, much of the decision will come down to personal preference.

That said, I personally think the decision should be based on the type of riding you do.

Specifically, if you're doing most of your riding in an urban environment, traveling relatively short distances, making lots of stops and locking up your bike a lot...messenger bag all the way.

If you're traveling longer distances and/or carrying more cargo, you're often riding in a suburban or rural setting, and generally going from "point A" to "point B" with few stops in between, you might prefer panniers.

About the Author

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by Kathy Schubert 'n Suzy Schnauzer on July 2, 2015 at 9:44pm

You haven't mentioned carrying things in a crate or a grocery basket.  I have carried 30 lb. water heaters home from MENARDS in my grocery basket.  Also I'm known for carrying my 17 lb. schnauzer in the same basket.  And why do you not like fanny packs?  I've heard they are coming back in style.  

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