Pannier, Basket, Or Backpack: What’s Best For Your Bike Commute?

Last updated: July 17th, 2023

Every new bike commuter has to figure out the same question: what’s the easiest way to safely haul my things to work?

The right set-up makes this a breeze. Carrying your daily essentials becomes a quick, set-and-forget task that doesn’t take a second thought.

Your bike, equipment, and route make a difference, of course. But in most cases, the answer is straightforward.

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Here’s how to carry things when you bike to work

A rear rack-mounted pannier is the most stable and flexible way to carry things to work on your bike. It avoids the sweat and discomfort of a backpack, it’s weather-proof, and it doesn’t negatively affect handling like most baskets.

However, baskets and backpacks are fine for short distances, on a tight budget, or with awkwardly-shaped items that panniers can’t accommodate.

Remember, you can use any combination of the above, such as a pannier for your laptop and clothes plus a front basket for oddly-shaped cargo.

You’ll see far fewer commuters with only a basket, due partly to effects on handling and partly to lack of weather resistance. It generally comes down to a choice of pannier vs. basket—which the pannier wins hands-down.

Below, I’ll cover the pros and cons of each cargo option and suggest specific models that are well suited to most commuters’ needs.

Bicycle commuting with a pannier

A bicycle pannier is a specially reinforced bag that clips onto a rack.

They’re not cheap, especially since you may need to buy a rack if your bike didn’t include one. But if you regularly commute by bicycle, then it’s money well spent.

Pros: practical and pleasant to use

Most daily bike commuters (myself included) prefer them for comfort and convenience. By keeping the load off your body, it’s easy to avoid back/neck pain and excess sweatiness.

Panniers’ weight is nowhere near the fork or handlebars, so they have virtually no effect on how your bike handles. What’s more, they ensure a low center of gravity that keeps your bike steady through corners.

With a pair of panniers (to balance the load), you can safely haul as much weight as your rack is rated for—often more than 50 lbs. You can also supplement one or two panniers with a rack trunk if you need even more volume.

Cons: pricey, with possible installation problems

Panniers are the most expensive option, especially if you don’t already have a rack. Plan on at least $100 (but easily $200+) for a worthwhile rack and pannier combination.

Rear racks are also difficult to mount on some bikes, most notably certain MTBs and racing-style road bikes. They may be completely out of the question on carbon-fiber frames, so check with your bike’s manufacturer if in doubt.

Even once your rack is installed, it’s not universally compatible with all panniers. Most combinations work just fine, but you may encounter a rack with extra-thick tubes or a pannier with extra-narrow clips.

On bikes with short chainstays, like most road bikes, your heels may strike the pannier while pedaling. That’s especially common for riders who have large feet or who position their feet far back on the pedals. It’s not dangerous, but can be extremely annoying, and is just one of several reasons I prefer long chainstays when possible.

Finally, bulky items don’t easily fit inside most panniers. That issue usually arises when you need to diverge from your usual cargo (e.g., to run errands). Supplementing with a front basket is wise (and cheap) even if you don’t regularly use it.

What to look for in a commuting pannier

A capacity of 15-20 liters will work for a standard office commuting load. We’re talking laptop and charger, lunch, a couple items of clothing, and a few small items. There’s no harm in going larger, especially if you carry large goods like a pair of shoes.

Whatever the volume, a roughly rectangular shape will help you pack your pannier more efficiently. Fortunately, that’s the standard design.

I highly recommend a waterproof material (usually coated nylon or polyester) with a roll-top closure. You still shouldn’t submerge it—not that you’d want to—but it’ll easily fend off a torrential downpour. And even though roll-tops aren’t as sleek as waterproof zippers, they’re far simpler and more durable.

Quick-release mounts will make life much easier. They’re nearly universal these days, too, although you might still find belt strap-and-buckle mounts on deliberately retro bags. And while buckled straps are tough and basically universal in fit, they’re also a headache to install and remove—all the more so when you’re cold, wet, and hurried!

Speaking of mounting, make sure the inner diameter of those clips are at least a couple millimeters wider than the diameter of the rack’s tubing. Otherwise, it may be finicky or downright impossible to attach.

Many panniers double as backpacks, usually thanks to additional straps you can detach or tuck away. Keep in mind that it’ll be a very dirty backpack after year-round commuting use, but if wearing that wouldn’t bother you, then it’s a nice way to get more utility out of your gear.

The best panniers for biking to work

A go-to choice for year-round commuters: Ortlieb Back-Roller line ($110 and up)

If there are other bike commuters in your area, odds are you see Ortlieb panniers aplenty.

The coated polyester material is tough as nails, with a five-year warranty and even an available patch kit if you happen to damage one in a crash. By most accounts, they’re as close to indestructible as it gets, and will easily last many years of daily use.

Come to think of it, I’ve never even seen a ratty-looking Ortlieb bag, which tells you something.

The “City” variation of the Back-Roller line.

Another highlight of the entire Back-Roller line is its ingeniously simple mounting system. Rather than getting fancy with overly clever clamps, most Ortlieb bags use large, spring-loaded hooks that will fit any reasonable rack with ease, and take virtually no time to lift off the bike.

Your only dilemma will be which model to choose. There are several variations in size and shape, all with basically the same mounting system and construction quality. Some are also sold in pairs (ideal for touring) whereas others are single.

It’s simply a matter of choosing the capacity and strap configuration that make sense for your daily haul.

None are cheap. Some even push the $200 mark for a single bag (let alone a pair), but that’s not half bad for a bag your children could inherit.

Ortlieb’s line-up is sizeable, but if it still doesn’t meet your needs, then check out brands like Arkel, Two Wheel Gear, Chrome, or Swift—to name just a few.

There are too many excellent high-end panniers to name a clear winner. After all, making them isn’t rocket science, and it’s hard to go wrong with anything from the mid-$100s and up.

A great budget alternative: Banjo Brothers Waterproof Pannier (check prices)

If you’re an occasional commuter, or trying to stretch a tight budget, then you can do without Ortlieb-level toughness.

And in that case, Banjo Brothers has you covered. They make bike bags in just about every form imaginable, but for now, but we’re looking at their aptly named Waterproof Pannier.

Their capacity is just over 16 liters (1000 cub. in.), which is fine for typical commuting loads. The roll-top design is simple and effective; customers unanimously attest that it keeps their goods dry in rain.

But compared to higher-priced bags, you’ll make two significant trade-offs. These generally aren’t deal-breakers, but it’s always good to know why a cheaper alternative is in fact cheaper.

The first is mounting hardware. Banjo Brothers uses simple, non-latching upper hooks to bear weight plus a lower hook on an elastic band for tension. This system is extremely durable, and nearly universal. Just take care over bumps, since it isn’t as secure as the latching hooks on high-end panniers.

You can’t move the upper hooks side-to-side, either. That limits how far back you can mount the pannier to clear your heels. This isn’t often a problem, but it’s worth considering if you’re on a racing bike with short chainstays.

The second is materials. Rather than a single piece of coated fabric like Ortlieb, Banjo Brothers panniers have a separate, waterproof liner. This adds a little weight and slightly reduces the already modest capacity (although it is removable if weather permits).

Some customers have also had issues with the seams breaking and fabric developing holes after extended use. To be fair, the bags aren’t flimsy, but they’re far from bombproof. Banjo Brothers does have a lifetime warranty, although it’s a little vague about eligibility, and excludes wear items like liners and buckles.

But at the end of the day, it’s a genuinely waterproof bag, with totally serviceable construction quality, at a price that’s hard to argue with.

Bicycle commuting with a basket

Bike baskets are a quintessential city bike accessory, and perhaps the most convenient option for short commutes with light loads.

By the way, we’ll focus just on front-mounted baskets from here on out. Rear-mounted baskets exist, but they’re often tricky to swing a leg around.

Pros: simple, versatile & comfortable carrying

Baskets are inexpensive and require no further accessories besides a cheap, bungee-style cargo net.

They can accommodate all sorts of cargo shapes, including bulky items. This makes them terrific—indeed, better than panniers—for errands like grocery shopping.

They don’t cause sweatiness or discomfort while riding, either, since the bicycle bears all the weight.

Some bikes have frame-mounted front racks, which eliminates the handling issues of a front load. However, that’s basically limited to Dutch-style city bikes, cargo bikes, and some folding bikes like the Brompton.

Cons: handling issues plus practical considerations

Front baskets put all their weight around the steering axis, so handling gets less predictable as weight increases.

At lower speeds, the front wheel feels as if it were flopping suddenly into and out of turns. At higher speeds, the front wheels feels resistant to turning (or straightening). Those sensations are hard to describe, but can be disconcerting, especially if you haven’t experienced them for.

Baskets are best avoided with a carbon fork and/or handlebars. Carbon fiber doesn’t resist perpendicular and twisting forces like metal does, so loading a basket is asking for trouble. Plenty of people actually do this without issue, but I believe it’s an unwise risk.

Front basket options may be limited for bikes with disc brakes, since the brake calipers may interfere with the rack struts.

Your handlebar height and design will affect mounting options, since most baskets need to hook around the handlebars on both sides of the stem.

Their width can make it hard to park in some bike racks; what’s more, you can’t easily remove a basket to save space.

You’ll still need a waterproof bag if you plan to ride in the rain. Practically any waterproof bag will suffice. Just avoid flimsy plastic, like a garbage bag, since it tears easily.

What to look for in a commuting basket

Bicycle baskets are every bit as simple as you’d think. As long as you avoid massive delivery baskets or impractically tiny ones, you’re unlikely to have a problem.

Given the effect of front baskets on handling, avoid any model that weighs more than a couple pounds empty.

I strongly suggest a basket that mounts with struts to the front axle or fork. It’s also possible to mount one directly on a front rack, which looks a bit cleaner. However, that arrangement is a bit risky because the basket is typically much wider than the rack, which may create a lot of leverage.

An elastic cargo net will keep larger items in place over bumps in the road. Smaller items may fit through gaps in the net, so they should always be carried inside a bag.

If your commuting load needs to stay dry, then store it in the cheapest available waterproof sack. If you have a popular basket, like the Wald models we’ll look at below, then you can also pay more for a specially designed liner-bags. They’re not necessary, but their perfect fit and (sometimes) attachment loops make life a little easier.

Commute-friendly bicycle baskets to buy

The best choice for almost everyone: Wald 137 or 135

Wald bicycle baskets have been the go-to choices for a long time. Alternatives abound, but these are simple, cheap, sturdy, American-made, and available in a vast range of sizes and styles.

For most commuters, the shallower 137 (15″ x 10″ x 4.75″) and deeper 135 (14.5″ x 9.5″ x 9″) are the best choices. Both are typically $25-$30, making them perhaps the cheapest possible way to carry essentials on your bike.

These sizes easily fit a mid-sized grocery bag, too.

The classic Wald 137 is my personal favorite

No rack is required. Rather, the rack is support by the included struts, which mount to the fork near the front axle. (Touring bicycles often have extra rack mounts along the fork, too, which increases stability by shortening the struts.)

All you’ll need in addition is a cargo net to keep items from bouncing out. Any of these will suffice…but I recommend one with six hooks, since four (one per corner) aren’t always enough for large cargo.

Wald doesn’t give clear weight limits. Given how badly front baskets affect handling, I try not to load more than 10 lbs, and almost never exceed 15 lbs. The basket can certainly support more weight, so a reasonable maximum depends on your terrain and comfort level with the handling.

You can also make heavier loads more manageable with some mounting tricks like in this Reddit thread.

Some folks like to mount their Wald (or similar) front baskets to a front rack. That’s a perfectly fine option, and usually less wobbly under loads. But if you’d need to purchase a new rack, then I suggest buying a rear one plus a pannier instead.

Bicycle commuting with a backpack

We all have a backpack or two on hand, so there’s no easier way to haul essentials. That’s especially true if you don’t carry a load regularly or just don’t want to attach accessories to your bike.

Pros: foolproof, simple & probably on hand

You almost certainly have one on hand, in which case there’s no expense or effort at all.

What’s more, backpacks are as versatile and self-explanatory as can be. A single bag is just as useful (or more so) off the bike as on it.

They obviously don’t attach to your bike, which has three major benefits.

One is that they don’t affect handling, since there’s no wobbling or swaying cargo to tug at your frame or fork.

Another is that they don’t interfere with parking or storing your bike, unlike baskets or racks that often get in the way.

But perhaps most importantly, there are no hardware mounting or compatibility issues to consider. This makes them the best option—or the only option—when installing a rack or basket is out of the question.

Cons: sweaty, often uncomfortable & potentially expensive

Many bike commuters experience upper back, shoulder, or neck pain after riding with a backpack. That’s especially true for heavy loads, and all the more if the backpack doesn’t fit properly. (Of course, not everyone struggles with this, and I hope you won’t, either!)

Anything beyond a quick, gentle ride practically guarantees a sweaty shirt. I try to integrate cycling into daily life by commuting in regular clothes and minimizing sweating. Wearing a backpack makes that hard to pull off.

Certain pointed or oddly shaped objects may press uncomfortably against your back while riding.

Along those lines, a backpack that’s comfortable for casual use isn’t necessarily comfortable for cycling, so you may still end up needing specialized gear.

And if you do need an upgrade, then you’ll save little or nothing over a basket or pannier set-up. As we’ll see below, good bike commuting backpacks cost at least as much as a decent pannier. The former have straps and the latter have hooks, but otherwise they’re nearly identical.

What to look for in a commuting backpack

The best backpacks for bike commuting will have firmly padded shoulder straps connected by an adjustable sternum strap and (ideally) a waist strap. In that sense, they’re just like other sport and travel backpacks.

I’d generally avoid messenger bags, since they’re inherently lopsided. That’s fine for quick jaunts, but it’s a great way to cause subtle postural imbalances over time. Unless you need frequent access to your bag’s content—like, you know, an actual messenger—you’re better off with a nice, symmetrical backpack.

As mentioned above, a sweaty back is basically inevitable. That said, you can minimize it (and maximize your comfort) by choosing a backpack with ventilation channels. These usually come from carefully-placed foam blocks that push the pack away, leaving room for circulation.

You can reduce strain by using the smallest, lightest backpack that still holds your gear. I consider 20 liters (1200 cub. in.) plenty for commuting, but that obviously depends on what you carry and whether the backpack needs to pull double-duty for other purposes.

While it’d be nice to save a couple pounds with an ultralight packable bag, those may prove uncomfortable. For one thing, they have little to no padding in the straps. Just as importantly, their lack of structure causes their fit to change as the load shifts. At minimum, the panel that faces your back should be stiff and somewhat padded.

Finally, as with panniers, I suggest a waterproof fabric and a roll-top design to seal the elements out with minimal fuss. In a pinch, a generic waterproof cover (like any of these) will also work.

Try these cycling backpacks for your commute

Unlike other gear in this article, backpacks are quite personal, so it’s not reasonable (or helpful) to give a universal suggestion.

Your physique, posture, and riding position make all the difference in the world. The same backpack that’s painful for one person may be comfortable all day for another.

Furthermore, most of us cycle and walk in very different positions, so you may need to optimize for comfort in one over the other.

Treat the two models below as starting points, not absolute suggestions. They’re well worth trying (especially if returnable), but they’re equally useful as exemplars of good design while you browse elsewhere.

Besides, what’s already in your closet might do the job at no further cost.

A top-tier backpack for bike commuting: Ortlieb Velocity ($135+) or Commuter-Daypack ($160+)

Ortlieb got my top pannier recommendation above, so I won’t wax poetic about the brand again.

Suffice to say that they get where commuters are coming from. And if you have the cash—we’re talking $150 or much more for most options—then you can get one of the sturdiest and best-ventilated cycling backpacks on the market. They’re also fully waterproof, of course, and even come in high-visibility options with permanently reflective threads.

The Ortlieb Velocity is a simple, thoughtful design for all weather.

Ortlieb backpacks don’t have the internal organizers, numerous outer pocket, or webbing and straps you’d find on bags from, say, Chrome or Mission Workshop.

They also have slightly smaller options than most brands (optionally down to 17 liters for the Velocity). That’s about the same volume I prefer in a pannier, and it’s nice counterpart to the behemoths that plenty of other brands offer.

Seeing as we don’t live out of a bike commuting backpack like we would a travel backpack, I prefer to avoid lots of organization or huge volume anyhow.

Note that most Ortlieb straps run a little narrow and thin, so they’re not optimal for very heavy loads. (I’d contend that a backpack is the wrong tool for the job, with massive cargo, but to each his own.)

A budget waterproof commuter backpack: Skog Å Kust BackSåk (check price)

Not only does Skog Å Kust have the weirdest name out there, but also one of the best bargains with their BacksSåk.

Its minimalist, waterproof, roll-top is proven and familiar. Likewise, you’ll notice a simple interior with just a few pockets for organization.

As with panniers, there’s a trade-off at this price point.

In this case, it lacks the structured back and exceptional ventilation channels you’d get from Ortlieb, Osprey, Thule, and so forth. Presumably those features are not cheap to produce. There’s no waist strap, either.

A few reviewers have indicated stitching and zipper failures, which seldom afflict higher-end brands.

It also weighs several ounces more than the aforementioned Ortliebs, although part of that marginal weight comes from thicker padding in the straps.

It’s clearly not intended for max comfort and decades of use. That would be unreasonable to expect at under half the price of its high-end counterparts. But if you just want a useable waterproof cycling backpack on a budget, then it belong on your short list.

Wrap-up: the right bag for you bike commute

I strongly recommend panniers for regular bicycle commuters—and I believe most fellow commuters would concur. They’re the most comfortable and convenient way to carry your work items without affecting your bike’s handling.

Baskets are also worth considering as a cheaper alternative and/or a flexible choice for bulky loads. Just be prepared for funny-feeling handling, especially if you carry more than 10-15 lbs in most baskets.

Backpacks also remain popular, especially with those whose bikes aren’t rack- or basket-friendly. They’re also fine for very brief trips, especially if you already have a suitable bag on hand.