Here’s a photo of a much younger me camping in the bush on my ‘round Australia adventure back in 1996. When I left Sydney I did so well kitted out with just about anything I imagined I might need in the 10,000 miles that lay ahead. I had all of these things stuffed into front and rear panniers and my handlebar bag.
Over the next nine months, as I pedalled through mountains and desert and across vast stretches of spinifex scrub I learned a lot about what I did and did not need to bring on a long expedition. I also learned a lot about how best to carry these things – or I suppose I should say what worked best for me. In the years since then I have tried out a few variations, such as backpacks and trailers, but have always come back to using good old fashioned panniers.
On the surface, a trailer would seem to be a good idea – you can carry plenty of gear for a long expedition and still keep your bicycle unencumbered. But that seeming advantage is also it’s undoing in my experience. The fact that you can carry plenty of gear is too often an invitation to do so; it becomes tempting to add things to the load ‘just in case’, because it’ll fit, and before you know it you are fitting things in and carrying five, ten, maybe even more pounds of additional gear plus of course the weight of the trailer itself (let’s not forget that!)
This is not to say that trailers have no uses for cyclists – they do, just not for touring. For example, I lived for a while in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, without a car, and used a trailer to bring home the shopping. It was simplicity itself. Far easier than using panniers. But this was for relatively short rides and for a specific purpose, rather than an open ended ride of weeks or months. And surely, unless you are going to be on the road for a great length of time there can be no need (that I can see) to carry the amount of gear that would make a trailer, and its extra weight, necessary or desirable.
An exception to this might be family touring. I saw this years ago along the Danube Bicycle Path where families would be touring together, Mum and Dad and the kids, quite small kids sometimes, pedalling their bikes along the riverside with Mum and Dad often towing quite hefty looking trailers to carry all the gear necessary for family holidays and travelling with children. A trailer there would be indispensible.
Otherwise, I can’t really see the need. Panniers balance the load quite nicely, if they are packed well. They typically would weight less than a trailer and the demands a set of panniers put on what you can and cannot carry will force you to make some critical weight and bulk decisions before you ever leave home. At that, unless you are setting off for the four corners of the globe, or like to bring along the creature comforts when you camp along the road, there is seldom much need for front panniers – a rear rack and a good set of rear panniers will generally see you through for most trips, if you pack smart and light.
And if you are just going for a week or so, and especially if you planning to stay in B&B or hostels, a set of rear panniers will do you just fine. A trailer in such circumstances would be a burden.
Ditto a knapsack, although I can understand how someone who is just trying out touring may not want to spring for a set of panniers – especially when a good medium-sized knapsack, which they may already have, would handily carry their gear for the duration of their experimental ride. And it may well also be the easy option if your bicycle does not have eyelets or bosses for attaching racks (more on this conundrum in a later post) and of course if you are doing much of-road touring, where squeezes along narrow trails may be tight, a good trim backpack may simply be the only feasible option.
In general though, a backpack can make you sweaty and, if it is heavy enough and not thoughtfully packed, it can affect your balance on the bike as well. When I am touring I prefer to keep myself as free and unencumbered as possibly, both physically and metaphorically and for that nothing beats the old-fashioned pannier or saddlebag.