Bike luggage: trailer or pannier bags, what's better?

During the organization of a bike trip, I often ask myself if it worth to buy a bike trailer and fix it behind my bicycle to carry my luggage or if I had to keep using my bike bags, with which I have done my previous trips. In this short article I'll try to explore these two alternatives, itemizing pros and cons, trying to help you bike travelers choosing one of the two solutions.
Before comparing these two alternatives I have to premise that in Europe we usually prefer to travel with bike bags, instead of Anglo-Saxon countries – especially U.S., Australia and tour Zealand –, where bike trailers are much more common. In my opinion, this different bike setting and weight distribution on the vehicle is not only due to a cultural factor but mostly to issues about dynamism and ease of use. To understand the reasons why bike bags are so common in Europe we need to think about geographical and topographical features of the two continents: a multitude of countries, cities, towns and roads in the Old Continent reduces distances between different points of interest that one could find along a journey; whereas enormous sweep of desert and fields, long and infinite roads and huge distances between localities are typical of countries like U.S. and Canada, as well as Argentina, Brazil, Australia, India... Therefore in Europe there is the need to front tighter and more crowded roads, take breaks more frequently and maybe leave the bicycle for some sightseeing, taking only part of all our luggage. In America and Oceania, there is instead the need to go through longer distances on less crowded and less knotty roads, without the need to sometimes leave your luggage unattended in high populated areas.
Let's go into details then. The main discriminant factor that often make us choose bike bags rather than a trailer is the length of journey, and consequently kind and weight of luggage to carry. A short journey of a couple of week can be easily faced by having some clothes, a very few tools for bicycle maintenance and accurately planning the breaks, to avoid the carriage of food and other unnecessary stuffs. In this case, a pair of rear bags of about 40lt (in all) will be enough.
Another important factor to consider in the choice is the kind of journey you are intentioned to front: if you intend to camp, you should add to the luggage a tent, some dishes, a camp stove, flashlights... in this case could be useful to switch to the trailer; whereas if you are intentioned to sleep in hostels or inns and dine in restaurants, you can quietly lean towards bike bags. If the course you are going to front includes stretches of road very uneven and precarious, this could damage the trailer or causing its capsizing if it is not adequately designed, although today one can easily get high quality and high resistant trailers.
If you are planning a journey of a couple of months or more, you should consider the possibility to buy a trailer because of its undeniable comfort and maneuverability in long distances. A trailer is capacious, and it allow you to carry more weight without influence on the barycenter of your bicycle and reducing your efforts. You should keep under control the speed, particularly downhill, but your legs will probably thank you uphill. Among trailers, you should prefer the single-wheel ones, more solid in case of uneven ground. If your choice is bags (mine too, up to now), try also to distribute the weight on the front wheel, to maintain a good balancing of your vehicle. In both choices, you should be careful about the impermeability of the fabric with which your boxes are made... unfortunately rain is always lurking and when in the evening you arrive tired at your destination, wear dry clothes will be a priceless pleasure!
Basically, we can sum up as follows:

  Panniers Trailer
  • Cheap
  • Separate disposition of different stuffs (more pockets)
  • Can use bags as shoulder bags
  • Higher safety off-road
  • Bike is more balanced, then more stable on asphalted roads
  • Lower barycenter, then less efforts during the carriage
  • Easier access to the stuffs
  • Lower capacity
  • Imbalance of the bicycle (if you put them on the roar wheel only)
  • Difficult access to the stuffs
  • Can't arrange stuffs on different compartments
  • High-quality trailers are expensive
  • Risk of capsizing on uneven roads
  • Can't use it without the bicycle

If you are going to front a journey by MTB of a few days, you might consider to use, instead of bags or trailers, a backpack for the bare minimum, with which you can also face single tracks and uneven soils. Here some tips about what to put in the backpack for a MTB journey of a few days.

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Slow bicycle traveller with a passion for writing and photography. If he's not traveling he loves to get lost along the thousand paths that run through the beautiful mountains of Trentino and Lake Iseo surroundings where he lives, both on foot and by mountain bike.
Eternal Peter Pan who loves to realize their dreams without leaving them too long in the drawer, has devoted much of his life to cycling, traveling in New Zealand, the Balkans, Norway Argentina and many other countries. Lately he spent ten months by bike in South East Asia and crossed the Andes by bike.

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