Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Panniers are Backpack Killers

If my experience is at all representative*, backpack makers must despise rack and pannier makers. I have commuted with panniers for the last couple of years. Recently I had the pleasure of taking my Trek 520 (build update coming soon) to work and back a few times as I tested it out and tweaked some things. The bike has no racks yet and thus can't carry panniers, or as some call them, saddlebags. So, I went back to how I used to do it and strapped on my trusty old backpack.

I didn't like it at all. Here's why:

1) Sweaty Back - Going by all the crap I read, this is perhaps the most popular reason for disliking backpacks and is quite self-explanatory.

2) Shifting Load - I suppose if I had the straps better adjusted, this wouldn't have been a problem, but the backpack also would have bound my jacket even more tightly to my body, exacerbating problem number 1. My backpack shifted around when I was making turns and stuff and I had to compensate by changing my body position a little. I didn't like that.

3) Higher Centre of Gravity - Riding with panniers, I have become accustomed to a very stable bicycle (particularly in the rear) with a nice low centre of gravity. Carrying more weight up high felt pretty weird and less safe, although I suspect I could adjust to this pretty easily if I had to. After all, Mutant Winter's load rides pretty high too (although not as high as a backpack).

4) The Principle of the Thing - Before I used panniers, I wouldn't have had the following thought, but here it is. Given a choice, why would one strap a load to oneself rather than letting the machine carry it? It is kind of like inventing the first wagon and continuing to carry the basket of wheat on your head, or going to the grocery store in your car and carrying the food home on your lap. Machines are supposed to help us out with this kind of thing.

I suspect that people who get a rack and some panniers may never go back to the backpack unless, like me, they have no choice. This is also the reason that if I were a backpack maker, I would hate rack and pannier makers. Thankfully for them there are still lots of people who don't ride bikes often enough to invest in racks and panniers and who will stick to the backpack they use while on foot. Keep the up-tick in utility cyclists going, though, and there could be a rack/pannier vs. backpack showdown, or even shootout! That would be so cool! Oh Crap. I have just been struck by WTF syndrome again:

Ah well. It is what it is.

* In the course of writing posts for this blog, I have come to realize that my experience and reactions and opinions may not be representative of normal people in any way, shape or form. Let me know if I am preaching to the choir or way off base in the comments!

Hey, Take A Load Off.

PS - Please note that I did not mention messenger bags. I have never owned one, so I can't reasonably comment on them. Perhaps you could, though.


Oldfool said...

I've only worn a backpack once on a bike and I didn't like it at all. Since then I have put racks, baskets and chain guards on all my bikes. I still take the backpack but I hang it on the rack.
As for panniers (saddlebags to me) I've never bought any. I just hang whatever on the rack(s).

RANTWICK said...

Works for me, or more accurately, you. The use of a saddlebag isn't the thing for me, it is the taking the load off your back. Your way might be even better for those who ride then hike or walk, since even panniers made to do it don't have straps quite as good as a backpack for carrying that load on foot.

Steve A said...

What the world needs is a good backpack that also uses Arkel pannier mounts. This is doubly true if you need to take things up a flight of stairs. Fortunately, the Arkel mounts are separately available. Backpack on a bike is great if you only need to ride a block or less.

cafiend said...

When I rode short distances in a small city I used a day pack with a waist strap so the load stayed snug to my body and moved with me. I wasn't carrying much: just lunch and a few light items.

With my round-trip commute nearly 30 miles, I have move more of the load to the bike. I still travel light. Most items go in a rack pack (those rectangular jobbies that go on top of the rear carrier). A few items go in a bum bag for quick access. These include camera and mobile phone, both of which might come in handy in a hostile encounter. The Glock would go in a holster back there if I trusted myself with such a thing. Short index fingers, remember? So I do my hunting with a camera.

On rare occasions I will add panniers for bulky items or perhaps a grocery stop on the way home. Stores are at least ten miles apart on my route, though. If I do a grocery run by bike it's probably from home to the near store rather than have panniers flapping in the breeze for 26 miles just so I can load them for the last 3.5.

GreenComotion said...

I used a backpack to haul all my stuff when I was a student. While I knew there may be better choices, my mind was in the gutter back then --- meaning I was longing for a car.

Buying the panniers and the rack (and a bike that can handle them) costs a bit of money, but sure as hell beats paying for gas.

Nice job, Patrick!

Peace :)

RANTWICK said...

Steve A - Agreed.

Cafiend - I had one of those rectangular jobs for a quite a while... the one I had just wasn't big enough and a pain to take on and off the bike. It did, however, feature hidden shoulder straps.

Flappy panniers bug me a little too... the roll-top ortliebs I've got are nice and tight and compact.

Chandra - You are right, there's an investment there; sounds like it has been worth it for you and me both.

Kokorozashi said...

Though I ride my bike everywhere (and usually back), I have yet to invest in panniers and racks. I have no logical explanation for this oversight, besides the fact that my Inner Roadie cringes at the thought of my road bike (but not my hybrid) carrying a rack. However, I do think not having to deal with SBS -- Sweaty Back Syndrome, to the unitiated -- might be kind of nice.

I can offer some comment on messenger bags. For people who actually work as messengers, who might frequently need to stop, put stuff in their bags, get other stuff out of their bags, and so forth, the design makes sense. This being said, I now work for a bike shop that runs a courier service, and our busiest courier uses a gigantic backpack (picture a vertically-oriented messenger bag with back straps, then make it about three or four times the size you initially pictured it) rather than a messenger bag.

My experience has been that, for everyday use, messenger bags don't actually make sense. Even the best ones tend to lack much of the utility and ergonomic sensitivity of good backpacks, and if you adjust the strap to a point where the bag no longer shifts around, it becomes a pain in the neck (sometimes literally) to put on and take off. If you don't adjust the strap like so -- well, the bag shifts around, whomps you in the back, and generally makes a nuisance out of itself.

It's much easier to just use a backpack -- or a rack and some panniers, or for that matter a pink plastic basket with a yellow plastic flower and some duct tape (my Inner Roadie just died of convulsions).

At least, that's my opinion :)

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