If you aspire to using your bike for more than just the commute to work and recreational rides, it’s time to consider the how to carry loads on your bike. For the quick trip to the store a or commute to work a backpack might be just fine, but you can carry a lot more with a little skill and a properly equipped bike.
Load Carrying 101 – The first rule of thumb for carrying loads that are bigger, heavier or further, is to get the weight off your back on on to the bike. For most commuter bikes the first consideration is adding a rack. Assuming your bike is equipped for a rack you can then start to look at what sort of racks suit the style of bike you have and what sort of bags, boxes and other accoutrements will make load carrying easier. However a rack is not absolutely essential. There are some great alternatives to the standard rack setup and for things like bike packing there is a whole range of new bag styles designed specifically for mounting to your bike without the use of a rack.
Which brings us the subject of bags. You could say I have a bit of a bike bag problem in the sense I have far more than I need. But since I have tried just about every style of bag over the years I have plenty of experience on what works for various types of carrying duties.
Panniers – The first choice for basic load carrying duty, panniers can be mounted on either a front or rear rack. The basic vinyl grocery pannier favored by the Dutch commuters on their classic “oma fiets” is strictly a rear mounted affair with great carrying capacity and horrible aerodynamics. If you are a slow roller looking for weatherproof panniers that you can leave on the bike and can handle decent sized loads such as a few days worth of groceries look no further than a big steel rear rack and some classic Dutch style, vinyl panniers.
If you want a multi-purpose pannier that is suitable for both grocery trips and maybe some bike touring I’d suggest visiting a local bike shop specializing in touring equipment. There are lots of choices and options for how things attach to the bike including systems that make attachment and removal super slick so getting an integrated setup from a company like Ortlieb is a great option. See my rack and bag guide below to get you prepared for your visit to the bike shop. Also keep in mind that in general terms the racier the bike, the less likely it is to be suitable for cargo hauling duty.
Attaching racks to a bike can be a fiddly process of trial and error so having them installed at a shop who has all the right knowledge and hardware on hand is a great option. Finally, once you get into a touring pannier type setup there are some important considerations about how best to carry the load. Depending on your particular bike, you might find for example that a front mounted, “low-rider” rack is a better option than the more traditional rear mounted setup. The advice of an experienced touring shop makes the cost of the labor they charge you to mount your gear an absolute bargain.
Some bike specific packs can also convert from a pannier to a backpack so if you need a “do it all” bag that can be easily removed from the bike check out bags from the likes of Swift Industries, who manufacturers beautiful hand made and customizable bags.
Finally, for those looking to ditch the car altogether there is the full blown cargo bike, with a number of different variations on the theme of carrying lots of people or stuff on your bike. The other day I saw a woman in Amsterdam carrying 5 kids on a cargo bike, with four up front and one seated behind her. Kiss that minivan or SUV goodbye!
I’m personally on my second cargo bike, which in my case is a Dutch Workcycles “Fr8” model that is well suited to my needs of carrying medium to heavy loads over relatively short distances in the city. Although this bike is not that well designed from an ease of maintenance perspective and as I discovered recently something as simple as changing a flat tire is an epic exercise in frustration. Be warned…
See below for more info to guide your gear search. I’ll post more detailed info about cargo hauling skills in a follow up post
Your reference guide to load carrying bikes and accessories:
Mountain bike – Built to handle trails so they can easily carry a pretty heavy load. Any vintage of mountain bike from the mid 80’s on is a great candidate for a commuter or touring bike set up to haul decent sized loads.
Modern Commuter or “Hybrid” road bike – Not quite as heavy duty as a mountain bike but still built with enough robustness and comfort to handle light duty hauling, your average hybrid commuter is generally more than up to the task of basic cargo duty, although it would not be my first choice if gear hauling is a priority.
A classic Dutch style utility bike or vintage British style 3 speed is a Rakish vintage alternative to a more modern bike that is capable of basic cargo duty. The only penalty to be paid for all that style is additional weight, but hey, you are hauling gear anyway so a few extra pounds (or kids) is no big deal.
Full blown cargo bike – From conversion kits to dedicated designs, the cargo bike market has grown rapidly in recent years, (especially e-bikes) as more people look to replace cars for their urban transport needs. If you have kids, pets, or just want to have the peace of mind to know you can haul pretty much anything, a cargo bike is a great choice.
Front racks or baskets are the best choice for everyday hauling needs where you need to move gear of different shapes and sizes. Front racks are especially good at hauling heavier loads and when frame mounted, (as opposed to mounted to the front fork) they can haul very heavy loads while having a minimal impact on the steering and handling of the bike as shown in the picture above. If you have never hauled gear on a bike it may seem counter intuitive to put the load on the front but trust me, it is generally where heavy loads belong
Rear racks can also be set up to have minimal impact on the handling of the bike but as the loads get heavier rear racks introduce more handling issues. However rear racks and seat bags are generally very good for lighter loads.
Rackless setups such as seat bags, frame bags and some handlebar bags are becoming more common as bike packing and adventure touring grow in popularity. Combined with lighter weight and higher tech camping gear (read, more expensive) bike packing bags can turn a mountain bike into a go anywhere, haul anything outdoor adventure machine.
Other bags not already mentioned above include bags that attach to seat loops, front racks or other convenient places. Some of my favorites are the classic touring seat bags from companies like Caradice, as well as this beautiful, high capacity model from Rivendel, and the Mission Workshop porter rack bag
And then finally there are baskets and boxes. The classic Wald wire basket is the best option for for many users but if you are looking for something a little more eco friendly you can always go with a front cargo box made from recycled wood crates.