Most bikes will carry more than just a rider. The best method depends on the load, the journey, the bike, and your own preferences.
The longer the journey and the heavier the load, the more comfortable you’ll be if the weight is on your bike instead of on your back. That’s the “too long, didn’t read” version of this article. Let your bike be your luggage wheels.
However you carry the load, more weight means harder cycling. But this is very much terrain dependent. On the flat, adding weight demands minimal extra effort. You’ll only really feel it when you’re accelerating up to cruising speed after stopping. On hills it’s immediately noticeable. (You can see the differences by putting various gradients and weights into Bike Calculator.) The effects on bike handling and comfort, meanwhile, depend on where the weight is.
A backpack is convenient for short journeys as it automatically goes with you when you dismount. It eliminates the need for a luggage rack so you can commute on, say, a lightweight road bike or hop on a hire bike. Bike handling is better than with on-bike luggage, particularly when riding out of the saddle or over rough surfaces. That’s because the load moves with you and is better isolated from bumps and weight shifts. There are two main drawbacks: it’s less comfortable and you’ll get a sweatier back. As well as the load on your shoulders, you’ll feel it on your backside and hands. Don’t buy a huge backpack that you’re tempted to overfill: a volume of 15-25 litres should be ample. Look for a padded back, wide straps that won’t dig in, and a waist or chest strap to keep the backpack firmly in place when pedalling.
A courier bag offers the same kind of short-journey, any-bike utility as a backpack. As there’s only one shoulder strap you can swing it around to open it without taking it off. Unlike ordinary shoulder bags, most courier bags have an extra strap running between one corner of the bag and the shoulder trap to stop the bag swinging around by accident when riding. It’s then as stable as a backpack and has minimal effects on bike handling. Most courier bags sit lower down than a backpack, so they don’t make your back quite as soggy. But with only one strap to bear the weight, a courier bag is even less comfortable with a heavy load. Pack lightly and, again, don’t choose a huge one: 15-25 litres is fine. A wide shoulder strap is more important than a padded one for comfort. A thickly padded back isn’t required either: a more flexible bag can be cinched more snugly across your back so contents don’t move around.
Panniers hook onto a luggage rack that’s fixed to the bike’s frame, usually via threaded eyelets (although there are workarounds). One or two panniers on a rear rack is ideal for commuting. One bag each side balances a heavy load better but a single bag is okay for light loads. Either way, the bike bears the weight instead of your body. Back, bum and hand comfort is improved and you won’t sweat as much. You can haul larger, heavier loads in panniers too. Handling with panniers depends on the bike. Touring bikes and hybrids with panniers feel stable and stately as they have sturdy, longer-wheelbase frames and wider tyres. A lightweight road or gravel bike can have an unnerving “tail wags dog” feeling with heavy panniers, and often there’s not enough heel room – so use small panniers and pack them lightly. All bikes with panniers ride better when you’re sitting on the saddle so it helps to have gears low enough to do this on your commute. Pack heavier items at the bottom of the panniers to improve stability. Make sure the pannier hooks have some kind of safety catch to stop them jumping off the rack in case you hit a pothole.
Front bag or basket
The load a front bag or basket can carry depends on whether it’s attached to the handlebar, like a tourer’s bar bag or a wire basket, or to the frame like a Brompton front bag or the basket of a traditional butcher’s bike. Luggage on the handlebar makes the steering feel sluggish and prone to ‘flop’ into turns so is best for loads under 5kg. A front bag or basket that’s fixed to the frame above the front wheel doesn’t turn with the handlebar, and the extra weight actually helps stabilise the steering – a useful byproduct on a quick-steering bike like a Brompton. Load capacity is limited primarily by the strength of the rack – and of your legs. Any type of front bag wants a quick release mounting and a (removable) shoulder strap so you can carry it easily on foot. Front baskets can stay put, as they’ll accommodate a separate shoulder bag or carrier bag. Avoid potholes when riding with a front bag or basket as the weighted front wheel will hit them harder, which may upset the steering.
Bikepacking bags are softshell bags that strap to the bike’s saddle, handlebar, and frame. Unlike panniers a rack isn’t required so they work well on road bikes, gravel bikes, and mountain bikes that don’t have one. They don’t bounce around as much as panniers on rough surfaces so are better off-road, and the narrower profile makes them more aerodynamic. This is useful for adventure racers but the only commuters likely to benefit are those with double-digit each way mileages. Bikepacking bags carry less than a set of panniers; a big seatpack, for example, will hold 6-15 litres. The straps that keep the bags secure over bumps make them fiddlier to fit and remove than clip-on panniers, so they’re not as convenient around town. They fit higher up on the bike than panniers too, so will make the bike feel top heavy if overloaded. Pack lightly and put heavier items in the frame bag, if used, as its centre of gravity is lower. Look for compression straps on bikepacking bags to cinch down smaller loads to stop the contents rattling around.
A trailer turns any bike into a cargo bike. A week’s groceries for the family? No problem. DIY supplies? Simple. Load capacities range from 30kg upwards. The limit, aside from the strength of the trailer and its hitch, is what you (and your e-bike motor?) can physically manage. Hills are very hard indeed with heavy trailer loads. As well as sufficiently low gears, the towing bike needs decent brakes and stable steering; hybrids, hardtail mountain bikes, and touring bikes work well. Two-wheel trailers carry more but require care around kerbs and bollards. Single-wheel trailers carry less but are narrower and follow the path of the towing bike more faithfully. Either type can shunt the towing bike if it’s heavily loaded and you brake suddenly. Ride sedately. Cheap plastic box trailers are available online for around £100, while better made trailers cost several times that. Trailers that attach at the axle or chainstay handle better than ones that attach at (and can tug) the seatpost. Make sure the hitch is compatible with your bike before buying.
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