Rain is a fact of life for UK cycle commuters. As well as wet weather gear to keep you dry, you’ll want rain protection for whatever you’re carrying - laptop, work shirt, or just your lunch.
Pannier contents can be kept dry in three ways. You can use one or more plastic bags inside a non-waterproof pannier; you can use a dedicated rain cover, which will provide protection from showers; or, best of all, you can use a pannier that is itself waterproof.
Luggage fabrics such as polyester, nylon and Cordura need a layer of something like PVC to make them fully waterproof. And since stitched seams and ordinary zips will let rain leak in, waterproof panniers use welded seams and either a roll-top closure or a buckle-down lid.
How much space you need and how it’s divided will depend on what you carry. Fifteen to 20 litres should be ample for commuting. One 20-litre bag is simpler but two smaller bags balance your bike better and enable you to split your load into ‘bike stuff’ and ‘work stuff’. Note that small panniers are called ‘front’ or ‘universal’, even though they fit just as well to a rear rack.
Panniers attach to the rear rack with two top hooks. Most will fit rack rails up to 12 or 13mm thick; some will fit up to 16mm. Adjustable-position hooks fit more styles of rack and make it easier to ensure adequate heel clearance when pedalling.
The top hooks need auxiliary fastenings underneath the rack rails so the pannier won’t leap off if you hit a bump. A lower hook of some kind will stabilise the pannier. A plastic cleat fixed to the back of the bag is safer than a hook that dangles on a tensioned strap, as the latter can end up in the spokes.
Most waterproof panniers are essentially one big compartment, since internal pockets can’t easily be stitched in. An external pocket is useful for things you need easy access to or that may get damp. Other useful features include reflective patches for nighttime use and comfortable handles for carriage off the bike.
Here are some of the many good panniers available.
Ortlieb Front Roller City
Ortlieb pioneered 100% waterproof panniers with welded seams and roll-top closure. Their bags are still among the best. The fabric is tough and durable, and Ortlieb’s QL1 hooks will cope with rails from 8-16mm thick. They’re quick release too: lifting the handle retracts the retention hooks, so you can lift each pannier off with one hand in no time at all. These small city panniers have few features other than Scotchlite patches but they’re good commuter bags. Capacity: 25 litres/pair.
Altura Urban Dryline 20
As its name says, this pannier has a waterproof lining inside its robust exterior. An organiser pocket keeps key items accessible, and there’s some padding so it’s suitable for toting a laptop, if you add a laptop sleeve. It’s sold singly and will fit on the left or right. There’s some reflective detailing and the style is city-smart. Rixen Kaul hooks are secure and fit rack rails up to 12mm; oversize hooks (£7.99/set) are available for rails up to 16mm. Capacity: 20 litres.
Carradice Carradry Front
Carradice are better known for bags made from cotton duck, a super-tough canvas that’s proofed to shrug off rain – call it 99% waterproof. Carradry bags are completely waterproof, being made from welded-seam, reinforced PVC. Like the Ortlieb Front Rollers, these Carradry Front panniers fit front or rear. The C-system hooks are simple and sturdy, and will fit rack rails up to 13mm, ratcheting tighter around narrower rails without the need for inserts. There are hi-viz reflective patches. Capacity: 20 litres/pair.
Basil Forest Lowrider
It rains quite a bit in the Netherlands too, which is where this waterproof, roll-top pannier is designed. It’s sold singly, in a 15-litre size that’s a useful capacity for commuting. The Basil Hook-On System uses fixed-position R-shaped hooks and a central catch to hook under the rack rail. It will fit rails up to 16mm thick. There’s a pocket inside, reflectives outside, and a detachable shoulder strap to make a heavy bag easier to carry off the bike. Capacity: 15 litres.
Vaude Aqua Back Single
Made in Germany from waterproof, welded-seam tarpaulin, Vaude’s roll-top rear pannier can be fitted left or right. The full-length hard back of the pannier prevents wear from the rack and helps the bag keep its shape. Pulling up on the handle releases the hook catches, though in a different way from Ortlieb’s. It comes with hooks to fit either 8-12mm or 14-20mm racks. Features include reflectives, an inside pocket, a removable shoulder strap, and a wire loop for cable-locking the bag to the rack. Capacity: 24 litres.
Not a bag but a plastic box, the Bikebin is made from 2.5mm thick polyethylene. It’s contoured to clear your heels whichever side you fit it. The hinged lid fastens with two cam levers and has a key lock. Since it’s a box, you can’t overfill it: A4 items will just fit vertically. Being plastic it’s completely weatherproof but needs internal padding to stop loose items drumming. The Rixen Kaul hooks will fit rack rails up to 12mm. Capacity: 17 litres.
Cheap doesn’t have to mean nasty. Choose wisely and you can buy a decent new commuter bike for £250 or less.
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