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Panniers versus trailers, the battle royale

by Josh Lipton

Your trip is going swimmingly. You’ve seen truly beautiful places, enjoyed great weather, no flats so far, and met some amazing people. In fact, you’re sharing tonight’s campsite with some fellow tourists, nice people from some far flung land. Dinner’s been eaten, the dishes washed, and you’re digging into the evening’s conversation. Then it happens. From nowhere, things take an ugly turn. By morning, you’re no longer speaking and are staggering your departures so as to never meet again. How did it come to this, you ask. You made the rookie mistake of broaching the one subject that isn’t discussed in polite touring company: bike panniers versus bike trailers.

Ok, relations may not be that bad yet, but there’s some bad blood and more than a few misunderstandings surrounding this issue. For every person who claims to have been in a trailer-induced wreck there’s someone who was, equally violently, taken out by their panniers on a fast descent, and both would cross their heart and swear that the other system is better. Having used both extensively, I humbly offer up my experiences as a bridge, to divide two halves of a bruised and divided family. In the interest of fairness, I’ll flip a coin to determine which I cover first: heads, panniers; tails, trailers. [Actually flipping coin.] Heads.

Panniers

I actually started using trailers and panniers at about the same time, and for a long time was blissfully unaware of the simmering conflict between the two clans. For me, trailers were for work and panniers for everything else. Panniers carried my lunch and change of clothes to and from work and books back and forth from class. And when I started leading bike tours, they carried trip gear. They have been around forever and, as a concept, have been tested over and over in numerous configurations.

Pros

  • Your system is light-weight
  • Relatively low rolling resistance
  • Low system complexity

Cons

  • Your things end up scattered between two, four, or more bags
  • Panniers are often awkward to load/unload
  • Bike racks have a high center of gravity (lowriders alleviate this problem)
  • Your system is heavily dependent on rack quality
  • Loads are generally hard to secure
  • When you remove the bags, you’re left with cargo paraphernalia (racks)

Trailers

While bags are great for carrying your trip gear, they don’t do so well with, say, a lawnmower. Bike Trailers offer versatility in ways most cyclists never imagined.

Pros

  • Trailers are easy like a car trunk
  • You can keep everything together in one place
  • Loads are relatively easy to secure
  • Removing the trailer removes almost all cargo paraphernalia
  • You can carry larger, heavier loads

Cons

  • They add a lot of extra length
  • Riding with a trailer requires some getting used to
  • Heavy trailer + fast, steep descent = potentially scary handling
  • Trailers have slightly greater rolling resistance
  • Parts may be hard to find/replace on the road

So, which side am I on? I guess you’d say I’m doomed to pedal the no-man’s-land between panniers and trailers, sometimes using both at the same time [gasp!]. But this is just one cyclists’ experience. Which side are you on?

 
Burley nomad 229

14 Responses to “Panniers versus trailers, the battle royale”

  1. S Mac says:

    As someone who’s done most of their bicycling touring using panniers but is now contemplating a trailer, I have some comments on the pros and cons of each.

    Panniers:
    Con: I have experienced scary descents with fully loaded front and rear panniers. It’s critical to balance the weight equally.
    Pro: I like being able to compartmentalize my gear — throwing everything into one big “bob” bag means I have to dig to find anything.

    Trailer (this specifically relates to the bob trailer):
    Con: broken spokes. My husband used a bob on a long trip down the Oregon coast and after a few days, he got several broken spokes and the situation just kept getting worse. We now think beefier spokes are in order or a trailer, like the burley flatbed, that attaches via an axle adapter hitch.

    I would also recommend disc brakes for stopping with heavier loads. This is a personal preference, I simply feel more secure in my stopping power.

    In a nutshell, I do not favor one over the other. I think they each have their uses depending on the type of trip.

  2. Murray Langton says:

    On cycling/camping trips I use both front panniers and a trailer. The panniers hold my clothes and other personal bits and pieces (toothbrush etc.), while the trailer holds all the camping gear and food. Admittedly I do have a rather large tent (5 Kg, interior 14 feet by 8 feet by 5 feet high) but I do like a touch of luxury and room to spread out.

  3. Bill Heinrich says:

    Well the closest I have ever came to using a pannier was a using a back pack while hiking the AP trail in 1976. That aside I recently finished a bike trip around Lake Ontario with a friend. We were both driving Tour Easy’s and both had BOB trailers. Overall experience was very good. A few improvements could be made to the BOB Dry sac, a couple of mesh
    side pouches would have been nice. Possibly a couple of compartments on the inside would also be nice. Digging through the sac is a bit of a hassel when looking for stuff. Even if I was sure that I had put something like a guide book on top in front I would usually find it on the bottom and in the back. Pre- alzheimers I’m sure. I had my bike and trailer topple over a few times which is quite annoying as it does take two people to get it up again. Now I see that there is a kickstand available for the trailer , I sure wish that would have been a basic part of the package when it was purchased. My vote is overall for the BOB!

  4. David Shuey says:

    The first time I ever used a BOB trailer was on a trip from West Yellowstone, Montana to Jackson, Wyoming. I rented a hybrid bike and trailer from an outfitter and carried all of my gear, about 40 pounds. This ride include some fairly steep climbs and desents (cross the Continental Divide twice) and I had no problems with control. I was shocked at how quickly I became used to the trailer and for most of the ride, I didn’t even think about pulling that extra length or weight.

    I came home and bought one and used it the following year for a ride the length of the C&O canal. Now here’s the problem…I wasn’t three miles into the ride when the fender vibrated off and swung beneath the wheel causing me to come to a rather quick stop. The C&O canal trail surface isn’t smooth so I was constantly having to tighten screws and bolts to keep my trailer from falling apart.

    I am riding across America next year and will only be using panniers (four total…2 low riders in the front and 2 standard on the back) on my Tubus racks. I bought waterproof Transit brand bags which were reasonably priced and tested once in Oregon this year where it rained for an entire day…all my stuff was dry at the end of the day. I am trying to keep my net additional weight for the cross country ride to 25 pounds…a minimalist load…we’ll see.

  5. dave.m says:

    the debate can be further refined, perhaps for the sake of spreading even more disharmony.

    single wheeled trailers or double?

    i’ve ridden with the BOB yak, & also solely with panniers but now travel with the Carry Freedom Y-frame.
    for me the yak doesn’t really alleviate the real problem i have with heavily loaded panniers, with panniers one has to balance the overall weight which can be tiring all the yak does is tranfer this weight backwards but because of the single wheel design the moentum still shifts from side to side when cycling out of the saddle for example.
    the Y-frame simply doesn’t have this issue, therefore the handling of the bike is improved(increasing safety) and also larger loads can be carried, it’s shorter too, but it is a bit wider.

  6. [...] ← Panniers versus trailers, the battle royale End of Summer BOB Trailer Sale [...]

  7. Quinn says:

    I agree with dave.m, I have used both types of trailors, and there needs to be a division, I like the single wheel, because it is in line with your bike, aka no width issues, on the other hand the through axel connection was a pain!!
    another issue, the small wheel, not many shops carry 16″ tubes.
    I am now using a 2 wheel trailer, almost every day, I don’t own a car, Love it, a (Bell) Co Pilot 2 kid carrier, Stable, 100 lb wait limit, not the typical 50, 20″ wheels, and no goofy thru axel mount, just have to give the clamp a good crank, I spent 2 days hauling stuff all over town (40 miles) Never had an issue,

    As for the Bigger issue, I am currently rebuilding my Kona Jake to handle Pannier f&r, for s24o/bike packing, and I did that, 1 history, ever since I knew of touring, I always pictured bikes with loaded racks/ not pulling a trailer. Secondly there is a “principle” a “pride” of, being self sufficient with the stuff you can fit On your bike, I say get Heavy Duty racks, and if you can’t fit it, or the racks can’t handle it, its too much.

  8. David Shuey says:

    I’m now planning to ride across America starting June 5th in Seattle and finishing in Cape May, NJ on August 9th. I’ve decided on lowrider racks on the front and standard on the back…using lightweight Tubus racks and the small, waterproof Trans-it bags. I used the bags on the back for a ride in Oregon last summer and they performed well in an all-day rain. I plan to carry 25 lbs of net weight (including my small laptop) so I consider this a “minimalism” trip.

  9. JohnC says:

    I will be riding across Australia (5000kms)unsupported/camping later this year and have decided to take my touring bike & BoB Ibex. Having suspension definitely helps the trailer track better when loaded heavy. I regularly do S24O with a mate who has a hybrid with panniers and although he climbs hills quicker his gear always appears as though it is going to fall off the bike. Trailers are tidy/neat in their own unique way. As a side note, the so called extra drag of the trailer’s extra wheel is nothing when compared to the aerodynamics of panniers hanging out in the wind like a parachute. My touring frame has long chain stays and a tall set back head angle so maybe the slower geometry assists in better handling with the trailer.
    Safe cycling & see you on the road, JohnC.

  10. Robert Keith says:

    After riding 3300 miles this fall with the bob trailor, I say never again…It was totaly painful, impossible to park.. It had to be kept under 20 miles an hour, bruised my legs many times looking for campsites, hated the extra weight, I just wanted to throw the untested garbage over a cliff…. I am going back to a rack…nuff said

  11. Alec says:

    I had a Bob with small panniers on a MTB with slicks and ‘bar end’ grips. This was trip was faster (total km per day) than a previous ride, with panniers only.

  12. [...] one you prefer and why? Check out this article we wrote awhile back discussing this very dilemma, Panniers VS. Trailers, the battle royal. Share and [...]

  13. Ray Chaplin says:

    For years I used a Burley Nomad trailer. Absolutely awesome, loved it immensely… but eventually it decided it had had enough abuse. I guess 50,000km is far enough with one trailer :)

    Struggling to get another one, I got a Bob Ibex and, apart from the balance issue when trying to park, I love it!

    However, my next trip requires so much gear that I need to use a rear rack too. So, based on input from others, I have bought a Tubus Cargo rack…. and they don’t fit together!!! I can’t mount either while the other is fitted, leaving me with a weight & space issue.

    Any advice regarding which rack will work on a 29er MTB with a Bob Ibex?

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