Carry On...

Panniers, messenger bags, backpacks, stuff sacks. Different means to carry your
while riding.

some basic bags

How do you carry what you need and still be able to get around by bicycle? This is a question that has been around nearly as long as the bike. If you are the owner of a utility-type bicycle, you probably use a basket, or a rack with panniers, or some other type of securable bag or container. The more you carry, the more ideal this is. But, it is also far from necessary. Between road and mountain, I have owned many bikes; not one of them has ever been a "proper" utility of commuting bicycle. While that means you will have never seen me making large-haul grocery trips, it has never prevented me from smaller-load errands, or commuting to work; for these types of situations packs and bags carried on my back have always, and more than adequately, filled in.

Both packs and bags come with their own unique properties, with advantages and faults. Deciding which of these are most important will help determine which type would be most useful to you. Visit any campus across the country and everywhere you turn you will notice  people with packs and bags on their backs, or slung across their shoulders. I will go out on a limb and say they are the most common means of carrying goods by bike that you are likely to encounter.

backpack - the tried and true student standard

Consider the pack first, and by pack I, of course, mean backpack, not fanny pack, not full-on expedition trail pack. I mean your basic day pack which itself can come in various sizes, with multiple pockets, and straps dangling everywhere. When I first began commuting by bike, a backpack is what I used. That first one likely had a single large main compartment and several smaller ones, and was sized to hold a change of clothes, small towel, lunch, all the various cycling repair paraphernalia I would normally carry in jersey pockets, a note pad, and a book or magazine. Shoes and sweater, or jacket, were kept at work so that I would not need to haul those to and back again each day.

Backpacks work, no doubt about it. They hold what you need, and stay where you put them. The dual shoulder straps keep the pack as secure as you would want; even being knocked for a literal loop by an errant driver failed to dislodge one from my own back (and quite frankly probably provided some cushion when I hit the ground). Even half-way decent ones will come with a third securing strap, the belly band, but I never used it - didn't like or want that constriction around my waist. The many pockets usually found on backpacks are useful because you can separate items into individual compartments. When the wife was toiling away in culinary school she discovered the French term "mise en place", roughly translated as everything in its place; I had never heard this previously, but had always lived it. The many pockets of a standard backpack can help anyone live the mise en place code.

Backpacks are not the most flexible in terms of where they are carried - middle of the back, thats realistically it. Between the pack itself and the two shoulder straps there is a considerable amount of contact area. If you belong to the sweat-like-a-horse-party, this is the one main drawback to using a backpack.

messenger bag slung low

messenger bag carried high

A second means of carrying your goods, is the recently popular messenger bag. I have been using one for at least twelve years now. In fact I have been using the same one for all that time. Other than some grime, it shows no wear, not even sun-fade. On the surface most messenger bags seem about the same - one main compartment, with perhaps a few smaller pockets of limited use, and a single strap so that you wear the bag slung across one shoulder. However, If you have considered going the messenger bag route, there are some considerations to give though to.

Do select a model that comes with an additional small stabilizing strap (see photo below). That's my advice. You don't need to use it when just walking around, but this extra strap saves you from frustration by keeping the bag from sliding off your back and around your side when you are bent over the bike. I would never buy a messenger bag that didn't include one of these straps. Sticking with strap considerations, some bags come with padded straps. This might be useful the longer your ride happens to be. Mine is unpadded, but wide. At the least look for a wider strap, as they will distribute the weight over a wider area, and will be less likely to dig into your shoulder. A padded divider is useful - I rarely ride around with my laptop, but very often have my larger camera with me. I don't know how much protection the padding would actually provide, but it is some added peace of mind. Like a backpack, I think extra pockets on a messenger bag are a good thing. You can keep your keys, wallet and phone separate and more easily reach them without having to dig into and through a full main compartment. 

One more point in favor of messenger bags - they are adjustable. Unlike backpacks, the adjustable strap on a messenger bag allows you to carry the load way up high between your shoulders, or down low, as well as anywhere in between. While I normally prefer to carry loads higher, where they are less likely to swing around, I have carried them way down on my lower back or rear, and found that I would arrive a little less sweaty (smaller contact area).

Finally, there are all kind of smaller bags which, while not so good for longer trips or larger loads, are especially appropriate for certain situations. Cycling feed bags, or musettes, and those small bags you often get as a freebie with higher priced helmets are especially apropos. Best of all they fold up small and easily stuff into a jersey pocket when not needed. Hauling a donation for the Christmas toy drive ride, returning dvd's to the local video store, or bringing home a load of sub sandwiches are all perfect uses for these smaller bags when pockets are not enough, and anything larger would just be overkill.

my own messenger bag - basic REI

main strap over the right shoulder, extra strap under

classy, but an extra strap will keep your bag from swinging around to your front


  1. Bags make me feel like yoked oxen. Trya small trailer - you can hardly tell it's there under 30 lbs.

  2. Some day, Eric. I would love to have a Bob, or something similar. I would do those full-on grocery runs, self-supported tours, all sorts of trips.


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