A Guide to Backpack-Panniers

Should you use a pannier or a backpack? It’s one of the great, dumb, debates between cyclists. There advantages to each mode, so why can’t the answer just be yes?

I own panniers as well as several backpacks. Some mornings I’m like a socialite trying to decide what shoes to wear.

Is today a pannier day or a backpack day? Should I wear the green one or the black one with the laptop sleeve?

Why can’t you get a pannier that is also a backpack, or a backpack that is also a pannier? It’s a great idea, in principle.

So has anyone yet nailed the backpack-pannier concept?

Besides this guy.

Until recently I was hauling everything on my back around Tucson, which not only limited my carrying capacity, but I was starting to believe all of the people who say backpacks make them too hot and sweaty in the summer.

I needed a rear rack that would not interfere with the foldability of the Montague Boston 8 folding bike.

Thule Tour Rack

So I got my hands on a Thule Tour Rack ($98.99), which doesn’t require any mounting eyelets. Instead, it mounts to the seat stays with these weird little things that remind me ratcheting tie-down straps.

I also liked the idea that it could be removed quickly with a little quick-release tool.

I was happily surprised to find out that the bike still folds completely without removing the rack.

Montague Boston 8 with Pack 'n Pedal Tour Rack
Ready for loading

I’m really appreciating the difference in comfort, coolness, and the reduction in sweat when I complete my bike commute.

But as a habitual backpack user, I want to be able to remove switch from backpack mode to pannier mode quickly — if possible.

I took a look around the shop, and this is what we have:

Ortlieb Vario Commuter Backpack Pannier

What I’ve had now for a couple of years is an Ortlieb Vario ($122.39).  The transition from backpack to pannier is not quick. You have to remove the backpack strap system from four snap-on points, fold it in half, and then stuff it into a zippered neoprene pouch on the back. Oh yeah, and to use it as a pannier, you need a Vario Fixation Strap ($8.99) in order to hook it to the bottom of your rack. And hopefully your rack has a feature to receive the hook at the end of the strap.

One of those four snap-on points dangled into my spokes once or twice and brought me to inconvenient stops. And by “inconvenient” I mean “terrifying.”

Ortlieb Vario Spoke Hazard
Snap, Crackle, Stop.

I still like the Vario. I really do. But I only use it as a pannier when I’m using a rack with good stays that would hold that corner of the bag well away from the spoke zone.

Ortlieb Pannier Carry System

What if you already have invested in Ortlieb panniers? Clearly, your a pannier person at heart.

The Ortlieb Pannier System can transform one Ortlieb pannier into a backpack. It works in the opposite way of the Vario, in that it turns a really good pannier into a half-assed backpack. Still, if panniers are your primary mode and you don’t want to transfer your stuff into a separate backpack — or carry a backpack with you, it’s not that bad.

The padded panel protects you from the pokey pannier mounting parts.

Ortlieb Pannier Carry System Inside
Pannier mounting parts between you and your back.

However, if you have your mounting hooks off-center for the best position on your bike rack, well, as a backpack, your bag is going to slump to one side.

This attractive model almost makes the pannier look like a well-fitting backpack.

On me, it hung off my back and a weird angle, like it was trying to escape.

I’m not sure if this is a commuter thing. Maybe it’s best for bike tourists who want to take day hikes with some of their stuff.

Vaude Cycle 22 / Cycle 28 Backpack and Rear Pannier

Disclosure: I haven’t laid my hands on these. People who know the quality of Vaude Bags snatched them up about as soon as they were in stock. I blinked and they were gone.

Vaude Cycle 22 Backpack Pannier Attachment System
Adjustable top hooks, cursed strap and lower hook.

The Cycle 22 has a 22 liter capacity and the Cycle 28 has a 28 liter capacity. (Do you need to write that down?)

Regarding construction quality, I give these the benefit of the doubt because of the Vaude brand.

The pannier attachments are on a big flap that flips over the backpack straps, and then you zip the flap up. It seems like these bags will have a pretty fast transition from backpack to pannier and back again.

My only prissy complaint is that I don’t like messing with lower hooks on panniers — I’ve become spoiled by easy-on/easy-off attachment systems like Ortlieb, Timbuk2, and other Vaude panniers have.

Still: Vaude.

Timbuk2 Especial Viaje Backpack Pannier

Now we’re talking. Timbuk2 put the backpack bits on one side, and the pannier bits on the other side, making the transition between modes pretty fast.

We’re also talking sticker shock ($228.99), but this bag is pretty huge — 26 liters by my math. The construction seems great.

The pannier attachment system is both flexible and stealthy. Everything folds down when not in use. I was able to adjust the pannier mounting hardware to both the Thule rack and a more traditional rear rack.

Timbuk2 Especial Viaje - Two Racks
L: A Topeak Rack. R: The Thule Tour Rack

If you’re anal retentive, you can stuff the backpack shoulder straps into a pocket inside of the main flap. But if you are lazy you can also just tie a little bow knot on the adjustment straps to keep them from dangling on the ground. The shoulder straps are covered by the main flap when the bag is in pannier mode.

Timbuk2 Viaje Backpack Pannier -- Hiding the Backpack Straps
Hiding the backpack straps — The lazy method

Yes, this is my personal favorite.

Timbuk2 Shift Commuter Pannier

Timbuk2 Shift Pannier Messenger - On Rack

Finally: The Shift Commuter Pannier ($128.99). When it’s not a pannier it’s messenger bag instead of a backpack. This is the same bag that Karen Voyer-Caravona raves about, but with an updated attachment system — the same as the Especial Viaje (above).

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22 thoughts on “A Guide to Backpack-Panniers”

  1. Joel says:

    I used a backpack initially from September to May of my first commuting year. This was a dedicated backpack. Any efforts to attach this to my existing cheap rear rack were met with frustration because the size and weight of the backpack changed daily due to what I needed. Bungee cords would keep working themselves loose after the backpack took a few bumps and the load shifted inside the bag as the bungee cords squeezed different areas (making the bungees loose in the process).

    Backpack Pros:

    A. No initial start-up costs because I already used it for moving things back and forth to work.

    B. Easily worn for longer walking distances after the bicycle is parked.

    Backpack Cons:

    A. My shirts were damp or wet from perspiration where the backpack makes contact.

    B. The center of gravity was noticeably higher during my ride.

    C. My shoulders would sometimes scrunch trying to keep backpack centered (even though I had a top horizontal strap to keep the shoulder straps from separating).

    After my successful six-months trial period of bicycle commuting, I felt much better about investing in additional equipment and bicycle parts for my commute. A new rear rack and rack bag/pannier were added.

    During this process, I am always weighing my investments against returns. My bicycle is locked at a public Park-N-Ride for over nine hours per day. Anything that cannot go with me is subject to being stolen or damaged. As much as I would want to invest in the highest quality equipment, I cannot afford to leave anything that catches the eye behind to get stolen (I would hate to have my mechanically perfect cheap bicycle stolen just so they could remove the expensive rack later in their garage and sell the bike for scrap).

    I purchased the largest Topeak DP/MTX rack bag with panniers available on-line from Amazon for $76 (about half of its listed price). This was a model that was being discontinued and it was larger than the new models being offered. The MTX rack was $29. I ordered a custom rain cover for $16.

    The rack attaches quickly and securely with the MTX system. Some users prefer to save a little weight and gain some inside space by buying it without the MTX mount and just use the Velcro straps. I use this strictly on my commuting bicycle so I have never had to use the Velcro straps.

    The side panniers are expandable from built in side zipper compartments. I leave mine out all of the time. My U-Lock, mini-pump, tube repair kit, levers, helmet rain cover, rack bag rain cover, go into one side pannier with room for my light windbreaker/rain jacket. There is still room for more items like an extra pair of socks and gloves if necessary.

    The second pannier carries my six foot aircraft bike cable and lock (I use two separate systems). A old plastic bag for my seat and whatever I will wear when I take off my helmet at the bus station.

    The center top section holds my wallet, sunglasses, bus passes, extra flashlight, bus schedules and everything else that needs quick access. The main section is expandable. Lunch, additional clothes, and what ever else I need goes in it with room to spare. An outside rear bottle holder is for my insulated sealed coffee cup. It has an adjustable tension bungee which goes around my handle to ensure that it is not thrown out on a bump.

    When I get to the Park-N-Ride, I put the locks on first. I remove my lights into a plastic bag, place them inside my helmet with my gloves, and insert the whole helmet into where the cable lock was stored. I put my reflector vest in the other pannier, Clip on the bag strap (the front side is always clipped and I just clip the back side, during my ride, it is folded under the top bag bungee net). I get my bus pass out and away I go. Start to stop, three minutes, five if I am feeling lazy.

    The bag strap is thrown over the shoulder so my coffee cup is facing forward, ready to be enjoyed on my bus ride. The bag sits well balanced over one leg (my leg being the rack). I often use the aisle seat with the armrest up and the bag goes over the aisle leg, not bothering anyone on the ride.

    I never walk more than four blocks with my pannier bag. When it is fully loaded with lunch and other goodies, I can see where it is going to be shifted from one shoulder to the other after a few blocks. It might not work for someone who has a significant walk after they leave the bike.

    This set-up has worked well during some hard rainstorm rides with the rain cover installed. I do have fenders on the bicycle which protects the bag from underneath. The bag itself is not waterproof and I would advise anyone to put any water sensitive items in plastic bags as a precaution.

    Sooner or later (years from now most likely), I hope that bicycle storage lockers will be made available at my Park-N-Ride so I could invest in a better bicycle and equipment without the worry of it being stolen.

    Did I tell you that I enjoy riding my bike?

  2. Lisa says:

    I’m surprised not to see Arkel’s backpack-panniers, the Bug (http://www.arkel-od.com/us/all-categories/laptop-bicycle-pannier/bug-cummuting-bag-1.html) and the Switchback. I use the Switchback for commuting, and although it does tend to look like it’s “escaping,” as you had described the Ortlieb, it does have sturdy straps and is comfortable as a backpack.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      The Arkel solutions look interesting. I only looked at the bags we have at Bike Bag Shop, and hadn’t heard of those two.

      (It looks like we used to carry the Bug before my time.)

      Looking at the Bug and the Switchback, two potential issues come to mind.

      First: the backpack surface would get very hot, unlike the options I mentioned which all have some kind of channel ventilation to flow air over your back.

      Second: The backpack surface is the same as the surface that is next to the wheel when it’s in pannier mode. If you had water, mud, or road grime collecting on that surface, you’d end up putting that on the back of your shirt if you switched modes without cleaning it.

      And, of course, it has that hook/strap system.

  3. Freddy says:

    I have the Arkel GT-18bp (and a matching GT-18) that is also a backpack pannier…its a great idea, but instead of making a backpack that can be attached to a rack, its a pannier that has hidden backpack straps. I think it is more about what to do with your bag once you get there. The bag, like any Arkel I have used it seriously put together…super tough. But as a a backpack it is defenitly for a trimmer built person.

  4. BluesCat says:

    Those rare times I do carry a bag on my person, I prefer a single-yoke sling bag hung diagonally across my body. That way, I can just spin it around in front of me to root around in it and I don’t have to stop, take off the backpack, get what I need, put the backpack back on, get back on the bike, get down the road a couple of blocks, say “Nuts! This wasn’t what I wanted,” stop, take off the backpack, etc., etc.

    A while back I had to go over to a buddy’s house to help him with his computer. I needed to take my own laptop with me, and I needed to make a stop on the way. My “quick trip” bike doesn’t have a rear rack, and my sling bag is too small for my laptop. I used my old Vaude Egger Pannier in briefcase mode, stretched out the shoulder strap to make it an over sized messenger/sling bag slung across my body, and it worked pretty well.

  5. Peter Davis says:

    I wrestled with this problem for the longest time, and finally discovered the Arkel Shopper, a large grocery bag pannier that I could drop my backpack into. It’s deeper than other grocery panniers I looked at, and has a pull-up drawstring top, so it swallows up nearly the whole backpack (an L.L.Bean Quad backpack), and keeps it clean and dry during the ride.

    The only drawback is that there’s no obvious way to lock the pannier to the bike so I can simply pull out the backpack and go when it’s time to switch modes. I solved that with a luggage cable lock around the pannier mounting rail and the bike rack. Works beautifully.

  6. Brim Stone says:

    If you need a backpack then you need a backpack that is designed to wear comfortably without the compromises of ‘bikepacks’. In that case just strap a plywood platform on your rack to support a real backpack and strap your bag to it. Make it a folding platform if necessary. If you’re not that creative get a Rixen & Kaul ‘Vario Rack’. This is a short, wide ‘L’ shaped rack which will support a pack upright. It attaches front or rear with one of several KlickFix adapters to seatpost, handlebar or stem (folding bike). It can be adjusted high or low and snaps right on or off and locks on It has a strapping system to carry odd shaped loads. Used on the front it makes a good adjunct to a rear rack.

    If you’re not carrying stuff far just get a good quality pannier and use a shoulder strap with it.

  7. NYCeWheels says:

    I’ve always been fond of the Topeak rear trunks. When they’re used in conjunction with the Topeak racks they can quick release on and off with the push of a button, and usually have shoulder straps to make them into decent messenger bag-type setups.

  8. Adam says:

    The quickest way would be throwing a backpack in basket, if your pack is not too big. I’ve seen people do that, although I have never attempted this myself. The closest thing to being satisfied was the Ortlieb office bag that transforms into a shoulder bag. Getting it on and off is easy and it’s waterproof. But it requires the attachment to be mounted to the rack which prevents you from using other bags.

  9. Peter Davis says:

    Thanks for the tip on the Rixen & Kaul Vario Rack. It looks like a perfect way to carry a backpack or other cargo on my ElliptiGO.

  10. Peacecat says:

    I DIY’ed my backpack pannier using this tutorial:

    I’ve turned two backpacks into panniers that way, and also an old messenger bag. I toss my purse and my workclothes into it every morning, then take the whole bag off the bike and into the office, bungee & all.

  11. Cdub says:

    I just threw an Arkel cam lock hook kit onto an overnight rolling suitcase. Lots of pockets and compartments, and easy to roll anywhere. It works for me anyway.

    1. Jim says:

      Seriously! you helped me a lot

  12. ABQDude says:

    I’ve been using a Lone Peak bag for the past 12 years or so and it’s been great. You just zip the straps into the back of the bag and clip it to your rack. Because the pannier surface rolls up and underneath when used as a backpack, there is no issue with getting mud on your back.

    Do people really not know about combo backpack/panniers?

  13. AdamDobleV says:

    The Especial Viaje is a great bag- I’ve been using it to commute to work, school, and social events for a little over a year. The functionality is great, as is the amount of stuff it holds- allows me to carry everything I need for a long, busy day (and gives my friends a chance to quip that I’m carrying a 2nd person on my back.) I have found some issues, though, with the durability of the rack attachment mechanism. The t-bar that keeps the bag from sliding has snapped off twice mid-ride, and I once lost a rack hook after hitting a bump. Timbuk2 has been great about replacing the bag for me (twice now) but I’ve gotten a bit frustrated that these plastic pieces keep breaking. Of course, I probably tend to carry too much weight in there, but I’m curious to know if you have any similar experiences, going forward (assuming you continue to use the Viaje.)

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      I did not use the Especial Viaje at all, actually. I just looked it over and fitted it to my back and to the Thule rack. I’d like to give it a try, because I feel it has advantages over the Vario.

  14. Sandrine says:

    I like my set up, I have a removable front basket, I love it for all the good reasons but also because I put my u-lock on my handlebars and set it up in a way where it gets “stuck” between the basket and the handlebars, it hardly moves, is easy acces, fits perfectly.
    Now, in the basket itself I have a backpack that carries most everything, in it which is secured at all times but a bungi cord going on top of it from one end to the other end of the basket. In my backpack I always have a tote bag, if I need more groceries I put them in the tote bag, tight the handles around the bungi cord I have over the basket and the backpack is on my back.
    Simple, easy and really really practical.
    Safe travels to all

  15. Michelson says:

    I’ve use the Arkel Bug and it has proven a great purchase. Quality is great and weel worth the extra $$. The new model has a zippered back panel to hide the shoulder straps and keeps the back of the bag clean. Looks like a great improvement.

  16. Commuterjohn says:

    Hi, I live the often damp UK and have used the Arkel bug for my daily commute for quite a few years now.
    It is a great piece of kit and I would not be without it.
    The point you make about the road dirt on the back of the bag is easily overcome by using their featherweight rain cover that slips over and keeps everything off the bag then packs away to nothing when your finished.
    The hook and elasticated strap that hold the bag very securely on the bike simply lift up out of the way under a flap when not in use.
    Not the cheapest of bags but definitely have out lasted many times all the other makes I have tried.
    Cheers John

  17. Andrew says:

    The pack that I use is a Biria Quatrone handlebar bag. It has a capacity of about 550 ci folded and 1000ci as a full sized daypack. See the review at http://www.amazon.com/Biria-Handlebar-Bag-Quatrone/dp/B0013CU0IG/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8 Amazon doesn’t carry it anymore, probably because of the first guy’s review. The upper folded portion is made of ripstop nylon and holds up beautifully. I’ve found it to be one of my favorite and useful pieces of touring gear. It has now been on three month long bicycle trips, including New Zealand, and has weathered superbly. It looks like PruBuy still has it http://prubuy.mx/handlebar-bag-quatrone-4-in-1-by-biria/sku/SEM34AEV9So0Nc8kCSsekCWuKU/ I’m thinking of buying one as a backup before they disappear altogether.



  18. Reid says:

    Concept nailed. The Two Wheel Gear Pannier Backpack Convertible. https://www.twowheelgear.com/collections/pannier-backpacks Quickest to convert, waterproof materials with additional rain cover to protect seams and zippers in downpours. The only Pannier Backpack comfortable enough to actually call a backpack. Its my daily work commuting bag and weekend bike bag. Changed the game for function. Far ahead of the curve.

  19. Ian says:

    I’ve been using an Altura Morph Verso backpack/pannier for my commute for 2 years.
    I picked mine up in a sale half price (RRP is £80 here in the UK).

    – switches quickly from backpack to pannier.
    – very comfy as a backpack (though it comes with a useless chest-strap which fell off).
    – fits quickly and reasonably securely (it fell off once in 2 years of commuting) as a pannier.
    – lots of pockets/compartments: 2 main compartments, several interior pockets of various sizes including a laptop sleeve for a 15″ laptop and a smaller sleeve for a tablet).

    – I’d like it to be a little bigger (I think they claim 25 litres but I think I’ve overloaded the zips with my Surface Pro and a change of clothes – not including shoes).
    – after a year one of the should straps started to fail (Altura replaced the bag under their 2 year warranty). Another year later it’s failing again as are the zips on both main compartments. If I’d paid fully price I’d be disappointed in its durability.

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