Panniers or a trailer?
February 28, 2006 8:20 PM   Subscribe

Which is better for carrying stuff on a long, self-supported bicycle tour - panniers or a trailer?

If all the stars align just right, I might be doing a solo bicycle tour across the U.S. this summer (the "classic" Trans America, east to west). On the short (couple of days) "tours" I've done so far, I've carried everything on a rear rack, but that obviously won't cut it for an extended trip (I'll be taking a tent, etc.) I will be riding a Cannondale T400 touring bike.
posted by JeffL to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This guy says trailers,and recommends a few, but this one is the coolest only has one wheel.
posted by hortense at 8:34 PM on February 28, 2006

i use panniers everyday for small loads to-and-from work; but i use a bob trailer for large loads, such as groceries... i know bike tourists who have done it both ways, so personally, if it were me it would depend on the terrain, the load, and my own preferences... i'd take the bob if only because the bob is nearly bottomless, detaches in less than a minute, and nearly disappears behind me, even when loaded with a cart's worth of food.
posted by RockyChrysler at 9:04 PM on February 28, 2006

I've done no touring, but I'd search for journals/photoessays/etc by those who have. I remember one fellow who traveled extensively through Alaska and as I recall used both panniers and a trailer. Surprisingly enough, Sheldon doesn't have much help in this department.

slight derail: email me (in my profile) re: lodging
posted by attercoppe at 9:11 PM on February 28, 2006

Best answer: I've toured extensively with panniers. It depends how heavily loaded you are. When they are heavy they can really throw you if you get into trouble. I've never used a trailer but I'd imagine that with heavy loads they'd be preferable. However the point is really to get your load down so that you're not pulling too much.

A bike with heavily loaded panniers becomes a kind of unguided missile, especially at speed. At low speeds it is somewhat easier to ride because the center of gravity is lower and it is less twitchy. But as your speed builds, the kinetic energy and inertia build up and when you are going fast and things go wrong it can be very frightening (not to mention dangerous).

I suppose the same is true more or less with trailers since you still have the same combined mass but at least you are not trying to balance it.
posted by unSane at 9:25 PM on February 28, 2006

Response by poster: I've toured extensively with panniers. It depends how heavily loaded you are. When they are heavy they can really throw you if you get into trouble.

I've been reading lots of touring journals in the last few weeks, and that's something that keeps coming up... but it seems like most people use them instead of a trailer, even though it seems like the trailer would work better. What I'm curious about is if the reason I don't read as many negative things about trailers is simply because they aren't used as often.
posted by JeffL at 9:36 PM on February 28, 2006

I'm assuming you've looked at journals on
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 9:40 PM on February 28, 2006

Response by poster: I'm assuming you've looked at journals on

Yeah, that's a great site. So far, I've been concentrating on the journals that describe the trip I'm (hopefully) going to take. Ideally, I'd like to find opinions from people that have done long tours both ways (panniers and a trailer).
posted by JeffL at 9:49 PM on February 28, 2006

Lots of debate on this on the various cycling forums.

The only thing i have to add from personal experience is from a trip last summer where of the three of us one had a trailer (a bob as liked above). As we were camping each night (as opposed to bed and breakfast trips) the trailer proved worth its weight in gold for ferrying firewood and ice after setting up camp.

oh and it carries a case of beer or so rather well also.
posted by skinnydipp at 9:59 PM on February 28, 2006

I think an unasked question here is, how much can you pare down your load, and how much do you want to? My own inclination would be to do everything I could to get my load down to a point that could be managed easily with panniers (I'd use rear and lowriders front); if I still came up too heavy, then I'd get a Bob trailer. The next unasked question is, what is that magical weight? Different for different people, I imagine. 40 lb or so?

I also wonder if the people who have trouble with panniers have flexy racks.
posted by adamrice at 10:22 PM on February 28, 2006

Best answer: Either. This is one of those personal preference things. I've used both. No problem with either, but I prefer panniers. I'm assuming you'll be staying on reasonably surfaced roads.

The biggest drawback to trailers is their size - they're too big. Because you can carry everything including the kitchen sink it tempts you to do just that. Great for groceries, not necessarily for a long trip. Panniers enforce a bit more discipline when packing. If you put your mind to it, it's amazing just how little you can get away with carrying even on an extended tour.

Other trailer problems they don't tell you in the ads: If your itinerary includes flying, getting a bike + trailer on a plane is more hassle than a bike + panniers. Whenever you stop to shop, at a cafe, etc., finding somewhere convenient to lean a bike + trailer is more bothersome than a bike with panniers. You need to carry extra tubes of a different size for your trailer's wheel(s) and possibly other tools as well. Whatever else you carry, the weight of an unloaded trailer is always going to be greater than the weight of a set of empty panniers. If you're going through mountainous country, it's something to think about.

In precise combinations of load, bike frame geometry, speed, road surface and other subtle variables a bike + trailer can shimmy. This is a low frequency resonating flex about the trailer hinge that causes the bike to oscillate from side-to-side disconcertingly. It's rare and usually fixable by adjusting the weight distribution between bike and trailer, in my experience. But it's not something you want to discover on the first day of a long trip. To be fair, a bike with panniers can shimmy sometimes as well.

On a properly set up and loaded touring bike with decent rigid racks (don't economize here, you really do get what you pay for) there's no need for the weight of panniers to upset the handling of the bike. If anything, it should make it more stable. Most of the problems people run into with panniers is from botching their fitting to bikes that really aren't designed to be used as loaded tourers. You don't have that problem.

Whether you're using panniers or a trailer, your combined weight is increased compared to an unloaded bike and the handling does feel different and a little strange when you're not used to it. Stopping distances are longer and brakepads wear faster. Take it easy on those long descents until you're confident you know how the bike + luggage handles. Always stop and check the bike and baggage if anything feels or sounds not right. Try out whatever setup you choose on a couple of shorter trips before the big one.

If you think you need panniers and a trailer, you're carrying way too much (tandems excepted).

Whatever you do, carry nothing on your body.
posted by normy at 10:24 PM on February 28, 2006

Best answer: Listen to normy. Panniers is what you want to use. I've ridden with up to 30kg of gear in my panniers and my bike (a British touring bike) handled it very well (even at 60–65kph down hills with bad road surface). I feel that trailers fill a rather narrow niche. Basically tandem touring, extreme expedition touring, and possibly off-road touring.

If your bike shimmy while carrying panniers on then it's likely that the panniers are positioned incorrectly, their center of gravity should, as much as possible, lie inside the wheel centers. It could of course be other things, but in essence, on a good quality bike you shouldn't have to accept anything other than a very smooth and cooperative ride, even while fully loaded. You'll learn to handle the more lumbering feel of the bike soon enough. You also be really surprised when you ride your bike unloaded for first time in many weeks (I nearly fell off).

I'll correct normy on the last point though. You should never carry anything of weight on your body, lightweight small stuff is ok. For example, I recommend carrying your mobile phone on your body as much as possible. In the event on an accident, it's easy to become disoriented and have trouble first locating the bicycle and then digging out the mobile phone to call for help. Better to have it easily accessible on your body. This is of course a judgement between the keeping the phone relatively safe in a bag and the keeping it relatively exposed on your body. I feel the easy access is the most important here and I carry the most rugged phone I could get a hold of in a place unlikely to suffer a direct hit so it should survive a crash.

On the topic of heavy stuff on your body though, during my tour last summer I met a German dude who rode with a huge back pack, must have been 50liters or more. I looked extremely uncomfortable when he rode. It swung from side to side and I could really see how much effort he had to put into not having it swing him off balance. I guess we all make are own personal hells :-)

Anyway, good luck with the ride. It'll be a fantastic experience even though it might not seem like it while riding though endless monotonous landscapes in freezing rain.
posted by rycee at 1:16 AM on March 1, 2006

Religious issue, like Campy vs. Shimano. Have fun on the trip.
posted by fixedgear at 1:52 AM on March 1, 2006

i wouldn't say trailer-shimmy is 'rare'. i've toured with skinnydipp and our friend who had a trailer and he experienced the shimmy quite a lot actually, without remedy by shifting the load around. in fact, the manufacturer warns you not to exceed a certain speed (40 km/hr i believe), as it can be dangerous. that extra tire(s) also creates a lot of drag, reducing speed and increasing work.

Personally, i favour panniers for stability, safety and aesthetics.
posted by drgonzo at 2:48 AM on March 1, 2006

also, there's the added risk flats with more wheels, and it can be difficult to find tubes for trailer tires.
posted by drgonzo at 2:55 AM on March 1, 2006

i have long been intrigued by the sport utility bike.
posted by paradroid at 6:50 AM on March 1, 2006

Panniers are mechanically simpler (therefore more reliable) and cause less drag (therefore easier to travel long distances with). Unless you need to bring your rock collection with you, I'd go with panniers.

Whichever method you choose, the more you keep the load down, the more you'll keep your spirits up. I would look into -- don't laugh until you've thought about this! -- plotting your route and calculating your speed, then shipping stuff ahead in the morning for pickup in the evening. Whether it's the bus station or the post office or UPS -- which service has the best hours and prices? -- you ride to the sending point early in the morning and mail a sleeping package (tent, sleeping bag, etc.) to yourself for pickup that night. Now you have to ride that distance before they close for the evening or you sleep without a tent and sleeping bag and whatever else you shipped ahead, but you don't have to carry that weight all day, so your speed and ease and fun increases. It would be especially cool for shipping from one side of mountains and valleys to the other. ("Oh, look! The Rocky Mountains! Cool! But I wish I didn't have to ride over them with all this shit...")

If you want to try this method, you'll need to come up with a reusable lightweight shipping container for stuff you don't need during the day, a container that fits nicely in the pannier (or trailer?) you choose. And the container will have to be light enough to ride with should you decide to skip the ship-ahead stuff for the day. Maybe some kind of standard shipping sack that could hold an entire pannier?

Yes, shipping ahead would cost you a little money (for example, try here for Greyhound rates), but it would be cheaper than a hotel room (unless you really are bringing your rock collection), you wouldn't have to do it every night, and it could raise the pleasure of your ride considerably.
posted by pracowity at 7:25 AM on March 1, 2006

Or, to make pracowity's plan a little easier logistically, why not have two or three sleeping sets that you mail forward?
posted by COBRA! at 8:10 AM on March 1, 2006

Best answer: my friend who does not have a mefi account, has used the Bob trailer has the following advice:

"I love the Bob Trailer. Of course, I have no basis of comparison as I have never ridden with panniers. But i loved the 'freedom' of the trailer for lack of a better word. It was easily detached for off roading, could carry large loads (which admittedly could be pared down), and I found it very useful for just what skinnydipp mentioned, carrying items obtained after camp was setup (beer, ice, wood, etc). The shimmy was noticeable (only at speeds above the manufacturer's recommendations) but never really caused any handling problems. On the downside, it does cut down on the amount of drafting that following riders could enjoy. I will certainly continue to use it for long trips, and my only fear is that skinnydipp will purchase the latest model and I will experience trailer envy."
posted by drgonzo at 10:15 AM on March 1, 2006

Best answer: The idea pracowity presented sound like a variant of credit card touring or one of those package deals you can get where you have prearranged camps and the company drive your gear in advance.

While I guess this can be enjoyable enough it definitely doesn't make a self-supported tour and for many, like myself, the self-supported part is essential to the experience. I can just imagine the empty feeling I would have after crossing an entire continent but (in my mind) "cheating" while doing it. Another bad thing is that shipping stuff ties you 100% to the goal of the day. You have no room for improvisation. What if you find that the road if much worse than you anticipated and you need to find another route? What if somebody invites you over for dinner? What if you happen to ride past a beautiful spot and wish to camp there? What if the shipping company screws up? I could go on all day... Basically, I feel that this scheme makes you lose a great part of the experience.

I won't even go into how scary I find the idea of having two or three sets of gear and shipping them around left and right.

Of course, I can only speak for myself and many others do ride in this fashion to their great enjoyment. But if JeffL goes for this type of thing I would recommend using one of (probably many) companies which provide this service especially for touring cyclists. I feel that there are too many things that can go wrong if you do it all yourself.

Another thing. If you are able to refer to anything in your gear by "this shit", then you need to strongly reconsider whether to bring it at all. Basically, you should be able to look at any item in your gear and imagine a reasonable situation where the item saves your life or the lack of the item makes your journey unbearable. The items in the first category are for the most part the same for everybody. The items in the second category can differ in the extreme and it's often lots of fun to talk about these items with people you meet :-)

I'll end this novel by reiterating my support for panniers, you have a fine touring bicycle. Provided you have good quality racks it should handle panniers very nicely, since, well, that's basically what it's made for. Think it through carefully and choose whichever you feel suits you best, the important thing is having this journey be a fantastic experience for you. Feel free to ignore purist grumps such as myself.
posted by rycee at 1:59 PM on March 1, 2006

This is another vote for the Bob. I rode 800 miles around Lake Erie with it, my first tour ever. It held up mostly, but the damn connectors to the lugs on the rear wheel got bent somehow. That only became a problem when I had to disconnect the trailer and carry it and the bike over a fence so that I could ride on a closed section of road... :-) (hey, there were sand cliffs there and I couldn't miss them!)

I have never used panniers, can't say anything about them. It seems like either one works, if possible go find someone who has one type of rig and test it out for a few miles.

The trailer tracked behind me literally like it wasn't there. I am a quite strong rider though and averaged about 15MPH and 100 miles a day, so keep that into account. For slower riders panniers may be better. The only thing the BOB sucked with was starting to ride on an uphill. You jump up onto the bike, try to get it moving, and it's like a fish flopping around under your feet, because the trailer has an extra effect.

But other than that it was a solid piece of equipment.
posted by zhivota at 2:42 PM on March 1, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your responses. I guess at this point I'm leaning toward the panniers. If anyone is still reading this - which panniers/racks do you recommend?
posted by JeffL at 6:25 PM on March 1, 2006

i used these panniers

and this rear rack (i didn't have enough gear to necessitate a front rack)

They worked just great. Pockets on the side and top make for easy access to granola bars, tools, etc. You may want to line the insides with plastic bags in inclement weather - they'll keep light rains out, but your gear will get soaked in a downpour.

fwiw here is a link to a Bob trailer

and lastly, Ken Keifer has a REALLY great and comprehensive site about cycle touring. Reading his page I was fully prepared for anything. Have a great ride!
posted by drgonzo at 9:33 PM on March 1, 2006

A lot of folks think Arkel are the state-of-the-art in panniers. They're certainly excellently made, but personally I find their designs a bit fussy.
I like Ortlieb or Carradice.

The Arkel site also has a good page with comments about racks. My favorites are Tubus and Nitto.
posted by normy at 12:39 AM on March 2, 2006

no offense, but those are some seriously over-priced, butt-ugly racks and panniers.
posted by drgonzo at 1:00 AM on March 2, 2006

I use the Carradice Super C panniers and love them. Look beautiful with the rugged cotton cloth. The only thing I've found troublesome with them is that it can be hard to unhook them from the rack when your fingers are cold and wet. It is possible to fix this problem rather easy but they should have thought of it when designing the system.

My rear rack is the blackburn aluminium rack that came with the bike, it's held up very well but looks rather beaten up by now. I'll probably switch it to some Tubus CroMo rack when it gives up. For the lowrider, I use Tubus Duo. They've been wonderful.

The Tubus and Carradice gear are quite expensive but in my mind they are worth it (and I'm a student with a rather restricted budget). Very good quality, I expect to use the racks and panniers for many years to come. I also expect to use them in more harsh conditions than they have encountered so far. If you aren't absolutely sure you want to continue with self-supported touring in the future or if you simply don't want to pony up that much money then you should do just fine with pretty much any good quality aluminium racks and panniers.

Another company that makes nice panniers is Vaude. Jandd also makes panniers I believe. I don't have personal experience with these though.

A final note on trailers. If you need to fly with your gear then it can be a bit tricky ($$$) to convince the airline to bring both your bike and trailer.
posted by rycee at 4:07 AM on March 2, 2006

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