How to carry stuff and bike?
June 2, 2014 7:30 AM   Subscribe

I've recently gotten into bike riding. What is the best way to carry stuff?

I'll be heading to graduate school in the fall and will likely be riding 1-2 miles each way on a bike in most weather, as well as leisure. I will need to bring my laptop, one textbook, lunch, and notebooks/writing materials. I might also make trips to the grocery store.

What is the best way to carry things? A backpack? A basket (for groceries)? A pannier?

I won't be buying the bike until later this month at least, so just looking for ideas.
posted by Aranquis to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I personally use a rack and a pannier or trunk bag. Sure, it's less weight on your back and shoulders, but what it really means is LESS HEAT.

No matter how cool you dress or how cool it is outside, riding with a bag means you arrive with a sweaty back. Not the end of the world, but life is so much easier with a rack.

I am not a fan of front baskets, but if you want one, why not. They tend to interfere with cable routing. Rear baskets are handy. You can do the standard "ten thousand zip ties on a milk crate" which works really well, of if you want something easily detachable I like Topeak's MTX system (you have to get the Topeak MTX rack, which is a good rack, I use it). Be aware that with some baskets they slam into your butt, which is uncomfortable. Also, you have to be more aware of how you mount/dismount, as your leg can swing into a basket.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:36 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pannier(s) and rack will probably be your best bet. See if you can't get one of the ones that turns into a bag you can sling over your shoulder. Head to a bike shop to check them out; don't buy online unless you've had a chance to see the thing in person.

Backpack will give you back sweat, so don't use a backpack.

Usually I use a messenger bag but I think with a laptop and textbook and lunch and groceries it'd be a non-starter. Either it wouldn't hold everything, or it would hold everything and it'd be way too much weight on your shoulder.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:37 AM on June 2, 2014

You want panniers/saddlebags. I have these and they're awesome, but probably bigger than you need.

I used to have collapsible wire baskets, which were very convenient (I could throw my purse or grocery bags into one and didn't have to bike wearing/carrying them) but I found they were pretty flimsy and after a couple seasons they wore out. They also didn't hold as much as panniers.

I should mention that even when I'm using panniers I carry my laptop in a backpack because I don't think all the jostling is good for it. I might be wrong about that though.
posted by quaking fajita at 7:38 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have double panniers permanently strapped to the back of my bike. When I need to bike somewhere with my laptop, though, I always wear a backpack with a laptop slot. Other stuff usually goes in the panniers; when I was biking to class, lunch and other stuff that needed cushioning aside from the laptop would go in the left pannier, and textbooks/notebooks/less delicate stuff and my locks would go in the right pannier.

I've found that if you have anything resembling a *basket* on your bike, though, people will use it as a trash receptacle. Doesn't matter if it's a front basket (even with a latching cover), or back baskets either atop or hanging off your rack, could be a milk crate or wireframe or nice wicker, it attracts mostly-empty coffee cups and soda cans like nobody's business.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 7:40 AM on June 2, 2014

I'm currently loving Banjo Brother's new Pannier Backpack. When on a rack, you can let the bike carry it and keep it off your back. When you get off, you can comfortably wear it. It's really well thought out. I've tried a much more expensive one that I didn't like, but this one is great.
posted by advicepig at 7:42 AM on June 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I rode around for a long time with a backpack and a small front basket, then moved on to strapping bags to a rear rack. Getting Ortlieb panniers have changed my life. The weight is off my back, less sweaty and more secure. Panniers are big enough for groceries but also secure enough to trust putting my laptop in. I have the backroller classics which are expensive but can be found on sale at places like REI (if you're in the US). I found really nice Tubus racks used on a bike forum and Ortliebs last so long that buying used should be an option if cost is an issue.

On preview, my bike with the big front basket does end up with empty beer cans in it all the time (as well as other trash) which is annoying but not a dealbreaker.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:43 AM on June 2, 2014

I commute to grad school every day with a little messenger bag. It easily holds a laptop, lunch, a notebook and all the usual miscellany. I carry extra bags for impromptu grocery trips, though.

Panniers are great, but often clunky off the bike: the messenger bag is useful all the time.
posted by katrielalex at 7:50 AM on June 2, 2014

I also have Ortlieb panniers and I love the heck out of 'em, although they're bulky and stiff to carry around once I arrive at my destination. If you're going to be walking between buildings or classes at school, you'll want to make sure you have a comfortable carrying strap for your panniers.

Vaya also makes a convertible pannier backpack that's colorful and cute, if those are things you value. I have a small messenger bag from them that I like for shorter rides.
posted by torridly at 7:57 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I present to you, the cavern of backpacks. This backpack took me through college doing much the same routine; biking a couple miles. I had a good breakdown of it, and another phenomenal backpack over here. The black hole that is an Ortlieb messenger can carry a 6 pack of beer and a regular bag of groceries, and still have a bit of room leftover.

Paniers are nice, and really comfortable to ride with, but I agree with the notion that they're a bit cumbersome to use when they're not fastened to the bike. They're designed for a bit longer distances than you're riding. At 4 miles a day, you would probably be just fine with a regular old, comfortable-to-you, backpack.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:00 AM on June 2, 2014

I think comfort with carrying that much stuff on your back while on a bike may also be a body size issue. If you're not all that large, putting all your gear on your back not only gives you a sweaty back, but raises your center of gravity significantly. For me, riding with stuff on my back is uncomfortable and makes me feel less safe even on short rides. The most I'll put on my back when I'm riding is a light handbag, and even that I don't like since it tends to shift unpredictably.

I go with either traditional capacious waterproof bag-style panniers (mine are from Axiom and have held up very well over the years), sometimes with an easier-to-carry bag or two inside, or a convertible pannier/messenger bag. I've got an older model from Racktime and can vouch for the magnetic flap they use over the mounting equipment being reasonably comfortable on my back on days I'm not riding.
posted by asperity at 8:06 AM on June 2, 2014

I prefer backpacks myself, and the reason for that is unsprung mass. With panniers, all that weight will affect ride quality.

That having been said - my wife really prefers the panniers and doesn't mind them for her commute.

I'd start using a backpack since it is the cheaper option and see what you think. If it sucks, switch to panniers. There is no right answer, only what works best for you.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:07 AM on June 2, 2014

I did exactly this using a Chrome Metropolis messenger bag. Groceries could get to be a bit of a bear, but weren't that big of a deal.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:12 AM on June 2, 2014

I hate, hate, hate wearing anything like a backpack or messenger bag while riding. Throws off my balance and makes my back sweaty, even on short jaunts.

I used a waterproof pannier-messenger bag when I was doing the daily commuter thing a couple of years back, with a mounted-full-time folding grocery pannier on the other side. I could run errands on the way home or take extra stuff to work as needed. The brand I used (Knogg) no longer makes 'em, but Arkel, Jandd and a bunch of folks on Etsy make convertible (backpack or satchel briefcase) bike panniers with built-in laptop sleeves.

As a cheaper option, I used a set of long Wald wire panniers to hold a messenger bag plus groceries plus camera equipment (photo student) two decades ago when I was in college.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:13 AM on June 2, 2014

Unsprung mass isn't a problem for an ordinary commute on decent roads. Heck, for that matter, bikepackers carry their gear on the bike on singletrack. I think it's much better to let your bike carry the weight. Balance doesn't matter; I have ridden for 40-50 miles with a pannier on only one side of my bike, without problem.

For my commute (3 miles each way), I use a bike with a rear rack. On one side of the rack is a Wald folding basket, which I attached with hose clamps and outdoor (UV-resistant) zip ties (the basket comes with hardware, but my rack tubing was slightly too fat for it to work). On the other, I put an Arkel briefcase pannier or a shopping bag pannier, depending on what I need to carry.

I have a set of Ortlieb waterproof panniers for touring, but they're probably overkill for a commute. The Arkel is water-resistant and comes with a waterproof cover that you can stow in a pocket; it also provides padding over the pannier hardware. The attachment hooks have a self-locking mechanism that works very well.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:34 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

P.S. My wife's commuter has two of the Wald folding baskets on its rack; she carries a backpack that just barely fits into the basket. When I don't have a lot to carry, I use a smaller briefcase that fits (sideways) into a basket or grocery pannier.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:35 AM on June 2, 2014

Seconding that you want panniers, and probably a nice pannier that doubles as a messenger bag/backpack. I wouldn't consider any of the other options serious contenders.
posted by jsturgill at 8:46 AM on June 2, 2014

I have panniers that are Velcro strapped to my bike kind of like these.
I go grocery shopping with them all the time. I don't really have a problem with uneven weight, even with a gallon of milk on one side and toilet paper on the other. Once you get going, it's just not an issue.
posted by domo at 8:58 AM on June 2, 2014

I'll echo some of what others have said later but the best piece of advice I can give you when it comes to bike commuting is this - buy it right the first time. Don't cheap out because you'll inevitably have to replace it once it falls apart or realize it doesn't fit your needs. I bought a cheap rear rack and panniers years ago when I first started commuting by bike and it turned me off to using panniers. I switched over to courier bags and had success but that was before I started doing tours and grocery shopping by bike.

I use the Topeak MTX rack that SpikeMajor recommend with Ortlieb classic rear panniers for touring and grocery shopping and wish I had bought those when I first started commuting. I got a great deal on the Ortlieb's from ProBikeKit ($100 delivered) and have been really impressed with them when I've used them for grocery shopping. Because of the connecting clips (specifically the bottom hook) I don't think I'd want to lug them around a college campus, but for carrying heavy cargo they do a great job.

For short rides with my laptop I use one of my two Chrome bags - a Citizen (medium) or Metropolis (large) - depending on how much extra stuff I'm bringing along. While I really like my Chrome bags doing long rides with a heavy laptop and other stuff can give me some serious back pain. However, walking around is much easier with those since they're designed to be on your back for long periods of time.

Before I bought my Ortliebs I consider getting the new Chrome Saddle Bags that will clip to a rear rack but has shoulder straps so you can use it as a back pack. I have a ton of Chrome gear and have been really happy with all of it and when I have had a problem they've corrected it immediately. It is a little pricey but if you buy it right the first time you only have to buy it once.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 9:04 AM on June 2, 2014

I think it's entirely a matter of personal preference. My boyfriend and I are both bike commuters; he likes to wear a GIANT BACKPACK whereas I am a pannier girl all the way. My main problem with the backpack is backsweat. I hate backsweat.

I keep my laptop in my pannier, and I ride on bumpy roads. I have a solid-state drive; it's probably better to keep the laptop in a backpack if it has an old-school harddrive. My panniers are REI house brand and don't convert to any other kind of bag. I park my bike inside (with panniers on) most of the time; I keep a grocery bag in the pannier for times when I need to ditch the bike and walk around (I either put the whole pannier in the grocery bag or I put the stuff I'm not comfortable leaving locked to a bike rack in the grocery bag). If you're leaving your bike locked to outdoor racks a significant distance from your final destination, it's probably a good idea to have a pannier that converts into some other kind of bag, OR something that's cheap and weatherproof enough you don't feel uncomfortable leaving it out.

You can also just bungee an existing bag onto your rear rack. I do this when I have stuff that's too bulky to fit in my panniers. I have something similar to this bungee net that I really love. But I don't know that I'd trust it with a laptop.
posted by mskyle at 9:25 AM on June 2, 2014

You'll encounter bike riders who wear messenger bags or backpacks, are used to that, and think it's fine. But any serious rider has a rack, doesn't want their payload on their back, shifting around. Riding a bike while wearing a backpack is like riding an elevator and not setting down your burden, on the floor. Get a rack, with bungee cords to strap down your cargo.
posted by Rash at 9:59 AM on June 2, 2014

You are going such a short distance it really doesn't matter. Yes, a back pack can make your back sweat. It never bothered me, but my wife hates it. You can carry a lot of weight and not really notice. It's amazing. Get one with a chest strap.
Advantage: Cheap, always with you.

I use panniers, and like them because I haul too much crap around, including student papers, a laptop, lunch and clothes.
You'll need a rack for them, and don't want to leave them on your bike because they WILL get stolen.

You can also just go with one. It seems like it would unbalance you, but it doesn't. You can also use it as a brief case if it comes with a strap

As others have said: Ortlieb. Costly, but water resistant, and good looking (as far as these things go.)I like this one with the QL3 mount system as it makes carrying it very easy.

Can I self link in an answer? I sure hope so. Here's my story about my rack and pannier stuff

Ortlieb makes two similar bags, the downtown office bag and the Office Bag. I have both. The Office is larger and works better for me. The Downtown get's very full with my laptop in its case.
posted by cccorlew at 10:47 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

While I use panniers on a rack, there are ventilated cycling backpacks that minimize back contact & have air channels. The Osprey Manta has a "trampoline" of mesh against the back.

Does your laptop have an SSD or spinning hard drive? I carry my SSD laptop in neoprene sleeve inside a pannier & it's been fine so far.
posted by morganw at 12:02 PM on June 2, 2014

The best piece of advice I can give you when it comes to bike commuting is this - buy it right the first time. Don't cheap out because you'll inevitably have to replace it once it falls apart or realize it doesn't fit your needs.

This, a thousand times this. You get what you pay for.

I am a fan of carrying the weight on the bike, not on my body. A messenger bag isn't the end of the world, and it's ok for short trips, but for a regular commuting setup a quality rack and panniers/baskets is way preferable. I recently had to take my bike rack off to install a tagalong bike for my six year old, and I feel a pang of regret every time I put that messenger bag on.
posted by ambrosia at 12:42 PM on June 2, 2014

You're really not riding far, so it's not going to that big of a deal.

I have a Wald folding basket on one side that is fantastic. (I have panniers. I rarely use them - I just toss my normal bag in the basket). You could then get a messenger bag that fits in the basket, so that you could toss it on your back if you've got groceries. Also much easier to carry off the bike than most panniers.
posted by kjs4 at 7:50 PM on June 2, 2014

nthing Ortleib panniers - they're pricier, but they maintain their value, so you can resell them if you fall out of love, and they last for ages. I prefer to cycle with the mass on my bike than on my back, and most days I only have one pannier on, and I don't feel lopsided. The temptation to carry too much should be resisted if you have a larger volume pannier: I usually have lights & a pump in there, but for a while I was carting around whatever I thought I might need, just cos I could. No concerns about laptops - it's easy to cushion/support them in there.

Other solutions not mentioned above: ALPKIT have started a range of 'bike packing' luggage, and I've read a few reviews, and it seems to be good stuff. I rate their stuff highly in general, and this looks innovative and unusual, so there are bonus points for being the only person in your city with bags like these. Take a look, there are different units for all parts of the bike, like a bag that fits in the triangle in the frame, another one that goes up from the seatpost, and a couple of things that sit in front of you, either on the handlebars (a variation on basket, I guess) or on the main tube (like a fuel-tank pack on a motorbike).
posted by Joeruckus at 2:28 AM on June 3, 2014

The ALPKIT stuff is more for touring/bike camping. It's traditional saddlebags, bar bags and and framebags in modern materials. (Rivendell has them in more traditional canvas.) Fantastic for what it is, but it's not really for commuting.

If she wants to go the megabuck route with something similar, a Rivendell large saddle sack with a Brooks saddle with saddle-bag mounts and a Nitto quick-release would be a fine commuter solution, albeit one that almost costs as much as the bike.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:28 PM on June 3, 2014

Bike buckets. Unlike fabric panniers, they won't develop the problem where they sag into your wheel. Bike buckets are inexpensive and waterproof.

Bike trailers for larger loads.
posted by aniola at 1:47 PM on October 21, 2014

You can get flat tubes from any bike shop. They make great bungee cords for strapping thing to your bike rack.
posted by aniola at 1:50 PM on October 21, 2014

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