Panniers or Trailers?

Bush camping in the Kimberley region in Western Australia – copyright R. Ian Lloyd

Bush camping in the Kimberley region in Western Australia – copyright R. Ian Lloyd

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.

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16 Comments

  1. Graham Thompson February 27, 2013 at 7:54 pm #

    Very interesting write up Roff and a good insight to a question I have been pondering for a while. Although I will never do the great distances you have done, I did see a lightweight trailer as a viable option. Not so much for packing more in, I would not need that much for a one or two night camping trip anyway. What I thought made a trailer an option was that it took any strain off the bike, especially the back wheel which has enough on carrying me!

    Also, as I am not likely to do great distances or even that many trips, the idea of having a trailer available to carry other things is quite attractive. I am more likely to use it to carry stuff back from the shops than camping gear in truth. As I have no bike bags at all, other than a recently purchased bag that sits on top of my rear rack and has enabled me to stop using a backpack for the daily commute, what a real pleasure it has been to achieve that, I am looking at a complete investment. For this I have to weigh up the cost of something that may not get used that often for any one thing but will serve the duality of everyday or short trip with a couple of nights on campsites.

    At the moment a £100 plus trailer appears to fit the bill as it would be far more suitable for a trip to the garden centre than panniers but against that is the extra bulk getting through gates and, of course, storage. I still have not made my mind up but your balanced view of having used both is certainly very good food for thought, thanks again.

  2. Ron Clark February 28, 2013 at 2:49 am #

    On my first trip across the country on the Harley, I ended up stopping in Arkansas and mailing about a quarter of my gear back home. I see a lot of people hauling trailers behind their motorcycles, and I can’t imagine needing that much stuff. Whether it’s a motorcycling or a touring bicycle, if it doesn’t fit in your saddlebags, you probably don’t need it….

  3. Mr Will February 28, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    Overpacking is a problem in lots of areas of cycling (and life!). I was on a club run last summer with a guy who had a tool roll on his downtube, a large saddlebag and his jersey pockets stuffed full. I cannot possibly imagine what this guy was carrying that took up so much space and whatever it was it certainly wasn’t needed for a couple of hours club ride on a sunny Sunday morning.

    He was an extreme case but there are many others who stray close. Strangely though, when one chap snapped his chain I was the only one carrying a chain-tool despite the fact my entire emergency kit fits in to one jersey pocket…

    • Ron Clark February 28, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

      A lot of the roadies I see in my area don’t seem to carry anything on them except a cell phone, I guess so they can call for a ride when they have a breakdown. Seems like a waste of good riding time, if you have to call a friend just because you flatted. I’m somewhere between them and your friend with the full bike shop attached to his ride…

      • Mr Will March 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

        If you saw me riding you’d probably think I wasn’t carrying anything; my emergency kit is not much bigger than a cigarette packet. Despite this it contains a spare tube, decent tyre levers, multi-tool, chain tool, patches and a tyre boot – enough to deal with most situations IMHO.

        On a short summers ride I’ll sometimes leave the spare tube at home as well, which shrinks the whole lot to substantially smaller than my mobile.

        Admittedly I’ve chosen my kit with small size in mind but it’s not hard to do. A little bit of careful shopping can cover most bases without breaking the bank or giving up functionality.

        • Ron Clark March 4, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

          I’m sure you’re right about the roadies that I see around here. I’m not weight conscious on the bike (I ride a Trek 520 with 35 tires and a rack trunk on the back lol), so I probably carry a few additional tools than most guys. One thing that has come in handy more than once is a full size set of needlenose pliers, rather than the folding leatherman style ones.

          • Roff Smith March 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

            I find that a lot of multi tools re actually kind of hard to use in the field. THey look and sound great, fold up neat and seem to offer everything in one neat package, but in practice I find that it is often better just to bring a judicious selection of regular tools – ones that fit your hand nicely and are genuinely useable. I came to this conclusion after experimenting with an elaborate Topeak multi tool and becoming frustrated with it.

          • Mr Will March 5, 2013 at 10:22 am #

            I think you are both touching on an important point here – there is no point carrying a tool that doesn’t work. Either carry a bigger one that does, or leave it behind.

            I agree with Roff’s point about multi-tools, a lot of them fit in the “doesn’t work” category, especially the more fancy tools on them. My personal favourite keeps it simple; it’s got four decent Allen keys and a Philips screwdriver on it and that’s it. All five tools work and between them I can undo just about every bolt and screw on my bike.

            Out of interest Roff, what do you pack in your tool kit? Might make an interesting article considering your expertise in bike repair.

    • Roff Smith March 4, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

      Funny to think these people pack so much and forget a vital thing like a chain tool. I always carry one. I’ve never had to use it for myown chain (knock on wood) but I’ve certainly helped out others.

      I always like to travel as light as light possible and like you, I wonder what is carried in these over-stuffed jersey pockets, tool rolls and saddlebags.

      • Ron Clark March 5, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

        LOL…I think a chain tool has been my second most used tool on a ride. I’ve broken two chains at two different times, and had to use the tool to remove a link and reattach the chain. Mine isn’t even one of those wimpy multitool versions; I carry a bigger version with lots of leverage. I even carry a couple Shimano pins…

        • Roff Smith March 5, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

          Yes, there is no way to fix a chain other than with a chain tool – a must have, in my opinion, if you are travelling far, or indeed anywhere other than just down to the shops. I use the Park Tools CT-6, a foldable chain tool that is shop quality or near enough to it. An ingenious piece of kit, it folds down to the size and shape of a Swiss Army knife and is very easy on the hand when you’re using it.

          I never got on with the Shimano pins, but prefer the clickable KMC links (the trade name escapes me at the moment). Have you ever tried them.

          • Ron Clark March 5, 2013 at 9:49 pm #

            Never used those, Roff. I’ll have to research them, if they are easier than the Shimano pins. Shimanos are a pain when you actually have to push a new one in on the road.

          • Mr Will March 6, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

            Another vote for the KMC links here (Missing Links IIRC) – make life so much easier whether repairing on the road or simply cleaning.

            A different suggestion for chain tool though, I go for the Park Tools CT-5 rather than the CT-6. It doesn’t fold up, but is small enough and flat enough that it doesn’t really need to (and I don’t trust folding tools!)

  4. Graham Thompson March 6, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    I had one of those ‘amusing’ moments at work the other day when discussing tools with a cyclist work colleague. He was looking at my tool kit and mini pump of which I was quite proud until he said”Your bike does not have quick release wheels does it?”

    Nope, it doesn’t which did not bother me one bit until he pointed out I didn’t have a spanner in the kit to take the wheels off!!!!! I had been riding around safe in the knowledge I could fix a flat with no way of dropping out a wheel. Oh dear, must be my age…….

    • Roff Smith March 6, 2013 at 9:18 am #

      I did something similar not long ago. I had taken the randonneur bag off my Enigma tourer and was using a knapsack to carry my camera, and a 5-section Manfrotto tripod as well as a few tools. (The tripod wouldn’t fit in the bar-bag) Anyway, I had been riding around like that for a week or so when I realised that I had not transferred my air pump to the knapsack. I had tyre levers, patches, spare tube but no pump…

    • Mr Will March 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      Assuming you patch the tube rather than replacing it can be done in a pinch without removing the wheel. It’s a bit of a faff though so mainly of use in situations where the wheel is tricky to remove such as hub gears, fixed gears or mudguards+horizontal dropouts (or if you’ve forgotten your spanner!)

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