Rain jacket, shoes, lock, laptop, lunch… cycle commuters have plenty to carry. The two most popular ways to do it are panniers and backpacks.
Updated June 2019
Unless you're a master at minimising your commuting clobber, you'll probably want a backpack, seatpack or panniers for your ride to work. Each approach has pros and cons.
Whichever you prefer, check the capacity you need. Collect your commuting gear and eyeball the pile. If you want to be precise, put it in a cardboard box and measure its length, width and the depth it's filled to, then multiply them. Use centimetres. That will give your load's volume in cubic centimetres. Divide that by a thousand to get the volume in litres.
All commuter bags benefit from being rainproof. If the bag you fancy is not itself waterproof, check that it comes with a rain cover. Reflectivity is useful, particularly for backpacks as they can obscure conspicuous jackets.
Below is our guide to some of the best bike bags for commuting. If you’re ready to shop for one remember that Cyclescheme isn’t just for bicycles - you can get all the accessories you’ll need for your commute too.
Carrying the load on the bike instead of your back is easier on your body, because you've got less weight bearing down on your shoulders, backside and hands. You'll sweat less too. The further you're riding and the more you're carrying, the stronger the argument for panniers.
Two small panniers are more practical than one big one. Your bike will be better balanced and you can divide the load: work stuff in one bag, bike stuff in the other. Small panniers also provide more heel clearance. That's important if you've fitted a pannier rack to a bike with relatively short chainstays – such as a road bike or cyclocross bike.
If the bag will double as your briefcase, get an office pannier: a rectangular, sober-coloured bag with internal dividers and (usually) a padded laptop pocket. Otherwise, ordinary panniers are fine. Look for durable, waterproof material, and attachment hooks that go on and off the rack easily when you want to (when parked) and never when you don't (going over a bump). Pockets are useful to prevent having to dig around for small items like a phone, wallet or tools.
Here are some of the best panniers for commuting:
Ortlieb Front Roller City
Like all Ortlieb gear, these small panniers are completely waterproof. They're made from tough, PVC-coated polyester and PU-coated nylon, with the seams welded together. The top rolls over and buckles down to so rain can't get in. Lifting the handle retracts the rack hooks, so each bag can be removed one-handed. There are Scotchlite patches outside but no pockets inside.
Altura Dryline 32
They don't have the shiny PVC feel of the Ortliebs, but these Altura Drylines are as waterproof as the name states. The main compartment has a drawstring-and-lid closure, so you can overfill it a bit if you want, and there's a useful outer pocket. Though sombre, they have a reflective trim for nighttime visibility. The base is well reinforced to prevent wear. Rixen Kaul Klick-fix hooks are an industry standard.
Carradice Super C Universal/Front panniers
A favourite of touring cyclists for their toughness and longevity, Carradice's Super C bags are equally suitable for commuting. They're made from cotton duck – a durable, waxed-cotton fabric that shrugs off rain like its namesake. There's an outer pocket for tools or other small items and 3M reflectives front and rear. The simple, secure hooks will fit racks up to 13mm in diameter. Capacity: 28 litres per pair.
Backpacks for cycling
A cycling backpack is convenient for short trips, particularly those where you're on and off the bike, because the load goes with you as you stop. Cycling backpacks enable you to commute on a bike that won't take, or simply doesn't have, a pannier rack – for example, many road bikes, mountain bikes, and folding bikes.
Backpacks are more comfortable than courier bags as both shoulders bear the load. Courier bags give quicker access to its contents, as they can be swung around your body and opened while being worn, but for A to B trips, a backpack is better.
Backpack shoulder straps should be broad and comfortable. Look for a waist strap and/or chest strap too. These will hold the bag snug against your body, enabling you to pedal rapidly and to ride on the drops without the bag bouncing around.
Some padding is useful to stop things poking in your back, but take any 'ventilation channel' claims with a pinch of salt: if it's hot or if you're riding any distance, you will sweat. It's no coincidence that many backpack-using commuters cycle in bike kit rather than normal clothes.
Here are some of the top cycling backpacks for commuting.
DHB Waterproof Rucksack
Like the Ortlieb pannier, this large cycling backpack rucksack uses waterproof fabrics, welded seams and a roll-top closure for complete imperviousness to rain. A moulded foam back makes it comfortable, while a waist strap keeps it stable. There's a thin outer pocket with a waterproof zip but no inner pockets. It also has reflective patches and a mount for a small LED rear light.
Brooks Dalston Knapsack Small
Named after the hipster haunt of Dalston in London, this premium-priced bike backpack offers substance as well as style. This waterproof bike bag is made from waterproof fabric and leather, and there's a chest strap to stop it moving on your back. Although small (12 litres) it has a 13in laptop sleeve as well as three wide pockets inside and two pockets big enough for a bike bottle outside. Similar, bigger bags are also available from Brooks.
Henty Wingman Backpack
This is a tarpaulin suit-bag that goes on your back. It will accommodate a suit and one shirt or blouse or three shirts/blouses. You put them in flat, then roll up the bag into a tube, keeping creases to a minimum. A removable 12-litre utility bag for other items goes in the middle. Features include chest and waist straps, a 13-15in laptop pouch, a removable phone pouch, a hi-viz rain cover, and a folding coat-hanger.
Seatpacks for bicycles
A small cycling bag under the saddle is ideal for day rides - or to keep tools and spares separate from office gear on your commute. Seatpacks or saddlebags attach to a bike's saddle rails, and often the seatpost too. While some are huge, most are small, being designed to carry only essential spares and tools.
Of course, different cyclists will have different definitions of 'essential'. The roadie who doesn't want to weigh down his carbon racer might be happy with a tiny bag that will take just a spare 700x23 innertube, a tyre lever or two, and a minimalist multitool. But you might also want to carry a puncture kit, phone, wallet, mini-pump, gas cannister, a second innertube, an energy bar, a compact wind or waterproof jacket, or lots of other things. Your best bet is to buy a seatpack from your local bike shop. That way you can take along everything you plan to put in it to see what size you need.
The simplest attachment is by velcro straps: one around the bag and the saddle rails; the other around the seatpost. This works well. If you'll be taking the seatpack on and off the bike a lot, a quick-release bracket that fits to the saddle rails is more convenient.
Most seatpacks will shrug off light rain, in part because they're shielded by the saddle and your body. Many seatpacks have reflective details, and a loop at the back for a small LED light. Bigger seatpacks might have dividers or pockets, so you can keep your phone separate from your spares, or get at your multitool without emptying the seatpack.
Here are six good quality seatpacks:
Vaude Racelight M
Also available in sizes S, L and XL, the Medium measures 7.5x7.5x15cm so is big enough a spare tube and a few other essentials. There are two small inner pockets to organise the contents. The rear of the pack has reflective stripes and a strap for an LED light. It attaches by two velcro straps. It's simple, but good value.
Altura Speed Seatpack - Large
This comes in sizes S and M as well. The Large is big enough to hold a smaller mini-pump as well as the usual odds and ends. It's nevertheless narrow enough not to rub your legs. Reflectivity is good, and the LED light strap is rubberised to stop the light jumping off. It attaches with two velcro straps.
Lezyne M Caddy QR
As well as a dinky Micro QR version and a waterproof Dry QR model, there are Lezyne Caddy seatpacks that attach via velcro straps. QR stands for quick release: it attaches to a saddle-rail mount that's sturdy enough not to require a seatpost strap. The 0.5L Medium bag has a couple of neoprene pouches inside, and an external pocket for a multitool. Its LED light loop is reflective, and the zip is water resistant.
Axiom Fondo H20
Designed as a day-bag for sportive cyclists, this is useful for anyone who commutes on a bike that won't take a traditional bottle cage – such as a folder or full-suspension mountain bike – because the bag does that job. The separate main compartment has a one-litre capacity and includes a credit card pocket. It attaches by three velcro straps, and there's a loop for an LED light. Axiom's Gran Fondo H20 has a 2L capacity.
Ortlieb Saddle Bag Medium
All Ortlieb bags are waterproof, and this seatpack is no exception. It uses welded-seam waterproof fabric, with a buckled, roll-over fastening. The Medium is a capacious 1.3L; the 'Small' is 0.8L and the Large a vast 2.7L. The bags attach via a saddle-rail quick release and a seatpost strap – although an alternative strap-only fastening set is available. There's a reflective panel on the rear of the bag.
Brooks Challenge Tool Bag
If you fancy a more upmarket seatpack for your classic roadster or cool fixie, how about this Brooks leather tool bag? First made in 1896, the Challenge is available in nine different colours in 2015. It measures 175x78x45mm, and there's a strap inside to stop tools rattling about. It's designed to attach to 'bag loops' on the back of traditional saddles. It's expensive but, being real leather, should wear well.
How To: Lighten Your Load
Carrying less clobber on your commute means less effort and more chances of enjoying the ride.
There’s a charge for excess baggage when you’re riding to work: you pay it in sweat. The more weight you carry, the harder it is to accelerate the bike, particularly uphill. A lighter load lets you ride faster or arrive fresher. Commuting isn’t racing, so weight-saving need not be obsessive. It’s more a matter of losing any dead-weight items in your commuter bag.
Lightening the load makes a bigger difference if:
Your commute is hilly
It’s a long journey
You carry your bag on your back
You have to lift your bike at any point
You’re riding a lightweight bike to begin with
It makes less of a difference if you have a short-distance, flat commute, and carry the load on your bike. But even then, you might be surprised by what you can leave behind – or ahead.
Clothing: wear or carry?
The simplest, lightest way to get your office clothes to work is to wear them as you cycle there. You need a few things for this strategy to work.
Your commute needs to be undemanding enough that you don’t break into a sweat.
You have to be content to cycle at a steady pace.
Your luggage must go on the bike.
Your bike must be comfortable and practical to ride in normal clothes, with full-length mudguards, perhaps a chainguard or chaincase, and a comfortable saddle that doesn’t require padded shorts. Good choices include a roadster, a fully-equipped hybrid or a pedelec.
If your bike or your commute isn’t best suited to everyday attire, you can still avoid carrying in clothing by choosing casual cycling gear that is smart enough to double as work-wear:
Cycling shoes with recessed cleats
Cycling jeans that don’t have thick seams where you’d sit on them
Shirts or tops made from wicking fabric,
You’ll also want mudguards, on-the-bike luggage, and an easy-does-it attitude.
If you’re a Lycra commuter, try to avoid carrying all your office duds every day. If you’ve got somewhere to store them, you could take in five shirts/blouses, your trousers/skirt, and a towel at the start of the week. Three days a week, you’ve then only got to carry your undies.
You could take your bike by train on Monday morning and home on Friday if the accumulated clothing is too awkward to carry all the way. Your shoes and jacket could stay semi-permanently at your workplace.
Leave the lock
Security corresponds closely to weight when it comes to bike locks.
Good D-locks and chains rated Sold Secure Gold typically weigh 1-2kg – or more. That’s a lot to lug about. So don’t. You have the same destination each day, so leave the lock at work – in your locker or attached to a cycle stand. If you need a lock at home as well, just buy two; you’re not restricted to one in your Cyclescheme package. A lock that lives outdoors will need lubricating occasionally to stop it seizing up.
You might be able to do without a lock at all at one or both ends of your journey. If you can park your bike behind a locked door, that may satisfy your worries about theft – and the small print in your insurance policy. If you commute on a compact folding bike, you may be able to keep it in sight at all times, parking it under your desk at work.
Do your digital homework
A laptop may allow you to work in different locations with access to all your important files, but it’s a lot of weight to haul daily on your bike: 2-3kg for a typical 15in model. Consider:
Getting a smaller, lighter laptop. An 11in ultra-portable might weigh only 1kg. Peripherals, such as bigger screen, DVD drive, or keyboard can be plugged in at either end of your journey.
Carrying just the data. A portable hard drive could contain all your work files and will weigh a fraction of your laptop. A flash drive can fit on a keyring.
Cloud storage. Documents that live online can be accessed anywhere.
Don’t accumulate clutter
Use the smallest pannier(s), saddlebag, backpack or courier bag that will accommodate everything you need. Lay out everything you plan to take and then put it in a carrier bag or shoe box. That’s the size of bag you need. A big bag is easily filled with non-essentials, and you might even forget what you’ve ‘temporarily’ stashed there. De-clutter periodically by emptying and repacking.
But don’t leave home without…
Anything you’re likely to need on your journey that can’t be jettisoned. Find room somewhere for your essential tools, a waterproof jacket, and your bike lights (if not fastened to the bike).
Commute Smart: How to pack and carry your kit when cycling to work
British Cycling offers sound advice on the spare parts and tools to carry when cycle commuting. You’ll also get a run down on cycling with your work clothes in tow, and hear the pros and cons of different luggage options. Check out the video below to discover the essential items that should be in your commuting kit.