Types of bicycle bags
There are few basic categories that bicycle bags fall into. I’m partial to Axiom products so I will use images and links to Axiom’s product website to illustrate. I hope it’s OK with them. I like Axiom products because they offer a great value. They’re just as good as some bags that cost twice as much.
As a general theme of my articles I will focus on more affordable solutions. Ortlieb, Arkel and Carradice target more of the hardcore touring cyclists that require the ultimate reliability, although they have some nice commuter offerings. If you don’t mind the price you can’t go wrong with them. But for an average commuter Axiom, Topeak, Nashbar and MEC are a great value and their quality is by no means low.
These bags can, of course, be combined in any way you’d like. You may have one large bag or several smaller ones. It depends entirely on your needs.
Let’s start with smaller bags that do not require any racks, bags that can be attached directly to your bike.
A Seat bag, also referred to as saddle bag, although I prefer not to call it that way, is probably the most common type of bicycle bag, also known as a wedge bag or wedgie. It attaches under the saddle, to its rails, with a supplied clamp or strap and secures to the seatpost, usually with a Velcro strap. These are normally meant to carry small things: tubes, tools, snack bars, keys, etc.
Small seat bags mounted on mountain bikes:
Things to look for in seat bags: waterproof bottom and back to protect the stuff inside from tire spray, quick release (if you need one, although that’s pretty much standard these days), rear light mount, reflective elements (again, pretty much all seat bags have the last two features). Most of these bags are not waterproof unless advertised as such. They only have waterproof bottom and back as I said above, but they won’t protect your stuff from a downpour. So I’d still advise putting your stuff in plastic bags if you expect to be riding in rain.
Here are two examples of small saddle bags that use two Velcro straps to attach to the saddle, Axiom Road Rider, and Axiom Mountain Rider, one is designed for a road bike geometry and the other for a mountain bike geometry. These particular bags are actually rubber-coated and have waterproof zippers so they should provide adequate protection from the elements.
And here is an example of a large seat bag that uses a bracket to attach to the seatpost and a Velcro strap to secure it to the seatpost: Axiom Thompson. This particular bag is not waterproof. This kind of mounting mechanism provides a quick snap/unsnap release feature. You need to attach one part to the seat rails with bolts and leave it there, and then the part on the top of the bag slides in and locks into place like a buckle, then you wrap the Velcro strap around the seatpost. This bag can also be expanded by unzipping the bottom part as you can see on the picture on the right. A bag like this can fit a t-shirt or small towel but still not a full change of clothes. But if you don’t need to carry clothes or anything larger cargo this bag can be enough for a short commute.
There are larger seat bags but from my experience they’re not worth it. Some even employ an internal frame and are large enough to carry some clothes. But in my opinion if you require a bag that large you might as well opt for another type of bag altogether. A really large seat bag may bounce around and/or come in contact with your moving legs which I found distracting. They may also be hard to pack and unpack. Finally, really good, large seat bags are expensive, they’re kind of specialty products, you can get a set of decent panniers for that price.
There are two basic types of frame bags: triangle bags, that attach inside the main triangle of a frame and tube bags that attach to the top tube, the bottom tube (rare) or the seat tube of a frame (also rare). The triangle bags are usually larger than the the tube bags. The tube bags are usually the smallest type of bicycle bags that are only meant to carry a couple of snack bars, keys, cash and ID. Nashbar makes a large triangle bag that can fit quite a lot. However, these bags are not meant to be quickly and frequently removed from the bike. They may also interfere with your water bottle mounts, and most of them are not waterproof, so keep that in mind as well.
Here is an example of a triangle bag from Axiom, Axiom Cascade:
Here is an example of a small top tube bag, Axiom Power Bag:
This kind of bag mounts on the top of the top tube and secures to the steering tube with a couple of straps. It’s small but very handy for keeping a snack bar, lip balm, etc within reach. Like triangle bags, these are not meant to be quickly and frequently removed from the bike as undoing four Velcro straps is not really a quick-release procedure
Here is my Axiom Power Bag together with my Axiom Jolliet handlebar bag:
A handlebar bag is one more type of bicycle bag that doesn’t require a rack. Handlebar bags can be quite large, most come with a quick release mechanism and a shoulder strap. They combine some of the advantages of bags discussed above: quick removal and easy access to the contents, while offering a larger size. However, they may be difficult to mount on some handlebars and may affect the steering of your bike. Although, it’s easy to get used to. The cheapest type of handlebar bag simply hangs on your handlebar with two Velcro straps. I do not recommend those at all. Get one that uses a rigid mounting mechanism as shown below.
These bags usually have one large compartment that is accessed by unzipping the top lid, often they have some internal or external side pockets, lid pocket and a translucent, waterproof, removable map holder on the top. Here is an example of a waterproof handlebar bag from Axiom, Axiom Cyclone:
The picture on the right is the mounting bracket. It clamps on to your handlebar, the clamps are bolted down. The bracket has a buckle mounting mechanism and the stiff back of the bag has a tab that slides into the locking mechanism and locks into place. To release the bag you press the yellow button to unlatch the mechanism and pull the bag straight up. It’s very easy and convenient once installed. The mounting can be sometimes tricky or outright impossible if your handlebar is of an unusual shape or if you have some other accessories already mounted that are in the way. Also, in some cases the shifters, brake levers and/or cables can be in the way. You don’t want the bag to lean heavily on the shifter and brake cable as it may hinder their functioning.
Handlebar bags come in large variety and sizes and are either waterproof or come with a detachable rain cover.
Here is my Axiom Jolliet handlebar bag that I use on my touring bike:
Rack mounted bags
If you need to be able to carry larger cargo, such as a meal, change of clothes, a laptop, some books, then a rack mounted bag would offer the most capacity. I will cover racks in a separate article, let’s only talk about bags here. There are three basic types of rack mounted bags: trunk bags, saddle-type (over-the-rack) panniers and pannier bags. Out of these three types the trunk bags are the smallest but arguably most convenient, as they are compact, provide hassle free quick release mechanism and have shoulder straps to carry them off-bike.
The smallest, but probably the most convenient bag in the category of rack mounted bags, is a trunk bag. A trunk bag sits atop the rear rack. There are trunk bags and rear racks that use integrated mounting system, such as the ones made by Topeak. The bag has a stiff, plastic base with tabs that slide into grooves or over rails that run along the top of the rack and locks with a latch. This mounting is very secure and stable. To un-mount the bag you press a latch release tab and pull the bag backwards to slide it off of the rack. The disadvantage of this solution is that there are several mounting systems that are mutually incompatible. Even within Topeak’s products there are at least two, incompatible trunk bag mounting systems. So, you will need a rack and a bag that are designed for one another. Some trunk bags simply use Velcro straps along their bottom edges to attach to virtually any rear rack, but this is a weak and wobbly solution. These bags will slide around, slack sideways, particularly if you load them up to the max. It’s much better to get a compatible rack and a bag that have a rigid mounting system.
Here is an example of a modern Topeak trunk bag:
These bags usually come with some useful features. As you can see above, the Topeak bag is quite expandable: the top can be expanded and the side pockets hide fold-out side bags. Bags like this also have handle on the top, a shoulder strap and some mesh or bungee cords to tuck things under. They also come standard with reflective elements and rear light mounts. The yellow part is the latch that hooks to the rack to prevent the bag from sliding backwards. These bags are normally not waterproof, but they either come with a rain cover, or a rain cover is available as an extra accessory. These covers are usually entirely made of reflective material for added safety.
Here are Topeak and Axiom rain covers:
And here is Axiom Cortez trunk bag, it has all the features of the Topeak bag, but adds some extra external pockets:
It’s useful if the interior of the bag is made of light colored material, it makes a lot easier to find small items.
Here is my old Topeak trunk bag and Topeak seatpost mounted rack that can be used with a full suspension mountain bike:
Saddle-type, over-the-rack bags and panniers
I like to call these saddle-type as they remind me of the kind of bags used on horses: two large bags connected together at the top, that can be simply placed over any rear rack as one unit. There is usually some kind of locking or securing mechanism that attaches the bags to the sides of the rack and prevents them from sliding and bouncing. There is usually a handle in the middle too, so they can be carried by hand as a single unit. You can also throw them over your shoulder the way horse riders do. Axiom calls these shopper bags as they are indeed cavernous. Most of these are meant for short errands and are usually not waterproof. Think of these as shopping bags rather than luggage. Here are examples of stylish Urban Shopper and Dutch Shopper bags from axiom:
The last category, that is most popular among hard core commuters and touring cyclists are regular bicycle panniers. These kinds of bags come normally in pairs to be hung on the sides of the rear or front rack. Some are side-specific and have to be mounted appropriately on the left or right side of the rack and some are not. Some smaller panniers can be used either with a rear or front rack, some large ones are designed specifically to be carried on the rear rack.
The mounting mechanisms vary between vendors and tend to get more sophisticated as the price goes up. The really high-end panniers are designed for touring cyclists and bike expeditions and unless you can afford their price tags they’re overkill for an average commuter.
The mounting mechanism usually consists of a pair of hooks along the top to hang the panniers on the rack, a clip or a bungee cord with a hook to attach the bottom of the pannier to the side of the rack, and some kind of latch or strap on the top, near the hooks, to prevent the hooks from slipping off and the panniers from hopping off of the rack if you hit a bump.
A lot of panniers are completely waterproof, made of welded Tarpaulin, they will withstand pouring rain, and many are water repellent, that will withstand minor splashes and light drizzle, but if it starts pouring you need to break out their rain covers and pull them over the bags. In most cases the rain covers are included with the exception of the least expensive panniers. The disadvantage of rain covers is that once they’re pulled over your bags they block access to all pannier pockets.
I always recommend the waterproof panniers for commuters. This ways you have simply less to worry about and no covers to mess with or to forget at home. You will never get caught in rain by surprise. These panniers will keep your stuff dry, period. The disadvantage of such panniers is that they usually are made as one huge compartment without any internal pockets or dividers. This is because Tarpaulin, and similar materials, are thick and difficult to work with, and to minimize the number of stitches to limit the possible ways for water to get in.
The Monsoon is the smaller one on the left and the Typhoon is the larger one on the right. I will have a full review of these panniers in a separate article. These panniers are symmetrical, there is no difference between left and right pannier and can be suspended on either side of a rack. They come in pairs, but can be used individually as well. These are the bags I’ve been using since last winter on my commuter bike:
Here is an example of asymmetric, side-specific set of panniers, where each pannier needs to go on a specific side of the rack, Axiom Champlain:
There are two basic reasons for a pannier to be side-specific. First, as you see on the picture on the right, the bottom, front corner of the pannier is slanted to provide extra room for your pedaling feet, to avoid heel-strike. This is usually a feature found in larger panniers. Second, the pannier may have large pockets that are meant to be located at the back of the bike.
These panniers are designed for long distance touring: they have a system of compression straps the same way hiking backpacks do, to prevent the contents from shifting, but there is no reason why they can’t be used for commuting.
While we’re looking at these panniers, have a closer look at their mounting mechanism:
You can see two vinyl covered hooks that are used to hang the bag on the side rail of the rack. The bungee cord with a hook is used to secure the bag to the frame so it doesn’t bounce around too much. The black tab between the hooks turns around and in its vertical position it gets wedged into the side of the rack effectively preventing the hooks from jumping off of the rail. Most panniers in this price range use similar mounting mechanism. It’s simple, but surprisingly effective. Some inexpensive panniers will have short Velcro straps to wrap them around the rack’s rails to secure the hooks. The plastic loops on the sides can be used to attach a shoulder strap to carry these off-bike.
Inertia Designs makes some clever commuter bags and panniers designed for an urban commuter such as the Business Pannier that features a protected laptop pocket and it’s designed to look like a regular shoulder bag when removed from the bike. It has a unique separate mounting mechanism: the bag is attached to the mounting base with zippers, so after detaching the bag all the mounting gear remains on the bike, there are no hooks or screws on the bag itself! This is a single bag, not a pair and it features multiple pockets and compartments:
Arkel has a similar product called the Briefcase. Another interesting product from Arkel is the Switchback, a pannier that converts into a backpack. Although, as I mentioned in the beginning Arkel is one of the more expensive brands.
The least expensive panniers that I have experience with are Nashbar ATB Panniers. They only costs $25 for a pair, are large, have adequate mounting mechanism and are quite durable considering the price. The only drawback is that they come without rain covers.
This completes my introduction to bicycle commuter bags.