Carriers / Containers

Panniers are by far the most common bicycle carrier. But, I don't use them, and if you are serious about weight saving, they are the first thing to abandon. By doing so you'll probably get rid of a heavy rack too. Here are some alternatives that I'd recommend.

Backpacks. Based on the previous axiom (content to container weight), I'd chosen a backpack instead of panniers as my primary container (picture below). A backpack (stripped of unnecessary straps and belts), together with a bungee cord or two, is lighter than any pannier(s) of the same capacity. For example, my 40 l backpack was 1120 g, and is now 820 g after I cut off the waist belt and removed few other appendices. For comparison, if you take 2 Ortlieb 'Back Roller' panniers, the capacity is the same, 40 l, the weight is almost twice as much, 1630 g (data taken from Ortlieb website).

2004, Kyrgyzstan.
Besides the weight argument, backpack is excellent for hiking and site-seeing and very appropriate when carrying your bike and stuff for larger distances (across river, mud, sand, stairs and other obstacles). The excellent thing about it is that it has no mounting system that can (and eventually will) break. It fits on any type of rack, never gets into the spokes, doesn't bounce while riding and has no issue of 'heel clearance'. It never gets wet in river fording, and even if the rack fails it isn't the end of cycling - you can still pedal to the next repair shop with your luggage on your back. One additional advantage, which, to be honest, I haven't fully proven, is the possibility to reduce the aerodynamic drag if you position your backpack lengthwise on the rack. Backpacks have so many advantages that one wonders why so few people use this setup. My answer is: they are effective only if they are reasonably small - which brings us back to weight and volume reduction. I use a 40 liter backpack with internal aluminum frame - it is important that a backpack is rigid and doesn't hang over the rack. Don't ever carry the backpack on your back while cycling.
P.s. Nowdays I don't use backpacks - I found much lighter alternatives. See stuff-sack setup below.

Waterproof bag. An even lighter alternative to the backpack is a waterproof stuff-sack/bag. My waterproof bag is almost one half of the weight of the backpack of the came capacity (40 l). The bag has additional advantage of waterproofness, but, alas, is not appropriate for hiking and, also, items inside are not as quickly accessible. Nevertheless, for a pure cycling trip, it's ideal in my opinion.


2006 Chile
Stuff sack. Just when I thought I can't go any lighter, I discovered another option. On the South American tour I used a very light stuff sack (160 g) tied to rear rack together with a tent (2 photos at the right). Instead of foam sleeping mat I had a strip of bubble-wrap; this reduced volume significantly and beside that I could wrap all my things in bubble-wrap and put the bundle in the stuff sack, making it practically waterproof. It worked wonderfully and it's going to be the standard from now on. When I decide to replace the big SLR camera with a tiny digital one, I think I'll be able to get rid of the handlebar-bag too.

2006, Argentina.

Front and rear. I use both front and rear containers. The original reason for this was the possibility to transfer weight between rear and front in case of damaged wheel. It is a kind of anachronism nowadays, when I don't have enough weight to cause the damage, but I still carry a handlebar bag mostly to store frequently used objects such as camera. It goes without saying that this bag fulfills the ratio condition mentioned above.

Underseat bag on handlebar. I adopted the above mentioned camera strategy on my trip to Indian Himalaya. The digital camera was small enough to fit in a middle-sized underseat bag, which I modified to be used as a handlebar bag. The combined effect of lighter camera, lighter bag and no spare film rolls resulted in the lightest set-up so far, which you can see on the picture below. I may have scarified the quality of photograps a bit by using digital - be a judge yourself:
pictures from India
.
2006, India.

Alps.


Dolomites.
Credit card touring. You can go far lighter then that if you never intend to camp. "Credit card touring" is not my preference, but if you fancy it, as an illustration, see the pictures from my short 1-week tours in the Alps (first, second). Not having camping equipment reduces the bulk of things so much, that you suddenly enter the miraculous circle of weight reduction - you have so little that you don't need any kind of racks. All the things can be supported by bicycle frame. On those credit-card (i.e. no-camping) tours I carried camera, overshoes, towel and skin ointment in a small handlebar bag (a modified middle-sized underseat bag) and other items like spare clothes, spare glasses, tools, etc in a bag behind the seat.

2012 Slovenia
The brevet style. Riding in a brevet (or "randonneur") style, over the whole 24 hours, opens new possibilities. These kind of rides usually involve a few short sleep stops (“power sleep”) and they do not require camping equipment. This greatly reduces the amount of luggage without any restrictions about riding longer distances or finding a place to sleep. From my experience, two to four instances of 30 to 45 minutes of sleep is all you need in 24 hours. You can crash in anywhere: in a designated rest area, on a bench of a bus stop, on a petrol station, in the forest or just by the side of the road. On a longer tour (about a month or so) you probably wouldn't ride this way on a day-to-day basis. But you could mix 24h or 48h riding with shorter episodes, staying in hotels every second or third day – reducing overall costs.  For further detail look at "Lessons learned from brevets" in the "News" page.

Bivy bag. The set up for a credit car tour can be extended to include emergency camping in a bivy bag. I tested this approach on a 2-week winter tour in Jordan and Israel. The setup is pictured and explained on the following photo - below you will find also a kit list.

2010, Jordan.
I carried bivy bag and silk sleeping liner in the second bottle cage. Spare clothes, tools and few other miscellaneous items perfectly fitted in the compression bag which was secured behind the seat with two straps. Camera and few other minorities, as usual, was in the small under-seat bag on the handlebar. The spare tube was taped to the head tube. Thus, there was no need for a rack. In all it was 4 kg less from my usual "camping" setup. This can be viewed as a middle ground between full tour with camping and credit-card touring. To be honest, the bivy bag didn't work very well in the Middle East's winter, even though I slept outside only twice in rather balmy weather near the Dead sea. The night temperatures (5 to 8 deg C) were too low. But, with the addition of light ground sheet (a bubble wrap for example), I think this approach would work well for summer tours (with night temperatures above 10 C) in regions with good roads and frequent accommodation possibilities or in counties where camping is not easy. There are quite some parts of the world that would fit in: SE Asia, India, parts of China, Europe, North America.
A similar setup (with a smaller handlebar bag) was used in France in 2011, when I rode across 100 cols- take a look at the picture below and on the Equipment reviews page for more detail.
France 2011: 3 kg of luggage and 8.9 kg road bike. 

Sleeping bag. Much better alternative for a bivvy bag is a light (summer) sleeping bag. With the setup like that you can make a camping tour with a light road bike and so little luggage that people will think you're on a day tour. This is the approach from my second visit in France for the "200 cols tour" (the detailed packing list is there).
France 2012: 2.6 kg of luggage and 7.3 kg road bike. Together: 9.9 kg.
The setup for this tour is shown in the picture above. The carrier behind the seat is a compression bag for a 3-season sleeping bag. There is a much smaller summer down sleeping bag in it (472 g), a nylon sheet (34 g), off-bike shorts and some other smaller items. To reduce the contact of the bag with my thighs, I tied a plastic bracket (10 g) to the back of the seatpost as a spacer. Rain jacket and arm warmers are in the grey bag in the second bottle cage. A small camera bag (40 g) is tied to the handlebar, containing camera, tools, ointment, and reflective belts for night riding. Spare tube and lock are tied around the head tube. There is also front and rear light.
"Ultralight camp" on French tour 2012.

Rack or no rack. If you came this far in reducing your weight, you'll probably ask yourself the ultimate question: do I need a bicycle rack at all. There exists an aversion against racks, maybe even derision, among top ultralight cyclists. The alternative is to carry your luggage in underseat bag, handlebar and/or frame bags, which attach directly to the bike. But is this really a big step forward? With regard to weight, the frame bags are probably winners - although just tightly. On the other hand, with a small, light rear rack without unnecessary struts weighing 400 grams including the mounting hardware (the rack in the photo is 414 g - it's listed as front rack, but I use it as rear rack), 30 L stuff sack (130 g) and a bungee cord (70 g) you've got yourself a versatile and simple carrying system of 600 grams, that will flawlessly carry most of your stuff including a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and set of warm clothes. I don't believe any reasonably sized single frame bag is big enough for that, and any two bags will struggle to keep their weight withing the 600 grams. Also, a big frame bag will probably be more unstable (or will need much stronger (=heavier) attachments) then if it's bungeed to the rack. Then there is a question of elegance. You haven't gone this far reducing your luggage and scarifying your comfort (so they say), just to end up with amorphous black blots covering your bike all over. If you don't believe my words, just look at the picture above, showing my bike on the Middle East tour. It doesn't have a rack, but is stained all over with bits of stuff strapped here and there. And, last but not least, it's so simple to bungee anything on the rack - a rain jacket for example when the weather is changeable and you take if of and on all the time.
This is not to say I am against frame bags, or that I will not experiment in that direction, but for now, until the world came up with something more elegant and innovative, I prefer the versatility of a small and light rear rack - at least for full-kit camping tours. (See also "Racks" in Equipment Reviews page).

25 comments:

  1. Hi, Igor.

    Velo Hobo has just pointed me to your blog and you have set me thinking. Till recently, my touring bicycle was my lightest bicycle without its pannier racks and the heaviest with them. Come retirement, I'll have to reduce my stable to one machine and adopting some of the ideas you have pioneered will be the key to picking that one perfect bicycle and to enjoying tours and day rides, on roads and off.

    But no maps! I love maps. The more detail, the better. I might not be following all of your practices.

    Keep on challenging my traditions, John

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  2. I'm not sure if you've seen the new Topeak MTX racks that have side paniers and mount to the seat post. I am going to be touring southeast asia in a couple weeks and will be using one of these racks to carry most of my supplies. I will inform when I get an idea of how well it works. Thanks for the great site and all the info. Quite an inspiration.

    Chris

    Here is a link to the Topeak bag I will be using:
    http://www.topeak.com/products/Racks/MTXBeamRackEX
    http://www.topeak.com/products/Bags/MTXTrunkBagEXP

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  3. Hi Chris,

    sorry, but seatpost-mounted racks are not my cup of tea. They are heavier then many ordinary rear axle-mounted racks. They are also more fragile, due to just one point of attachment and cantilever-type of stresses.

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  4. Ok, I don't want to sound too negative, seatpost-racks have a few positive aspects: easy mounting, no need for special adapters, elagance and they encourage you to go lighter.

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  5. The rack looks a bit like a Blackburn but they're a bit heavier than yours, bigger also I suppose. The lightest thing I can find is a Tortec Tour Ultralite at 440g but it lacks the parcel shelf so I'd have to add a plastic flat bit or go shelfless. I'm interested in what this rack of yours is that is 414g. Any pointers appreciated.

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  6. The rack is BY-206 from this site:

    http://www.boryueh.com/en/carries

    it's listed as front rack but fits on the back. Before that I had BY-309 which is similar, but a bit bigger (~460 g). Both are versions for 26" wheels, although I use them with 700c - and can't fit tires over 30 mm.

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  7. Hi Igor,
    Thanks for your comprehensive website; I'm really helped with it. I have a bike weight obsession also. I will use your knowledge to keep my solar bike light.
    http://www.avdweb.nl/
    Albert van Dalen
    Maastricht

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  8. Hello,

    I'm really glad that I've found Your website!
    I'm from Poland and just have finished my three week tour around Lithuania and Latvia. It was my first longer bicycle tour. I tried to pack my bicycle (equipped only with rear panniers) as light as I could, and I ended with 20kg (including food and water). I thought it was light in comparison to average in fully loaded touring. But I felt overloaded.

    My plan after returning, was to reduce weight by 5-6 kg. But few days ago I've found your website and I've ended with 8-10kg reduction!
    And I haven't done that for big money. Only bought solo tent instead of 2-person and lighter sleeping bag. Other things was your ideas, like replace panniers with stuff sack.

    I could lose more, but some ideas are still too hardcore for me. Bubble wrap instead of my new super-comfy 0,5kg air-mattress for example.

    And I have a question. Why do You need a pedal spanner? Is it really useful on tour? Is it because You use cheap pedals?

    I did 3 week tour with only multi-tool, tire spoons and patches. Only once I used them to switch cheap rear CST tire, it started to worn out, with front Schwalbe Marathon. I should did that before the trip.

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  9. Michal,

    a late answer, but anyway: when traveling with an aeroplane, you usually have to remove pedals, that's why I need the spanner.

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  10. Hi Igor,

    do your bikes have rack eylets or do you use adapters? Can you make a suggestion?

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  11. I now use two bikes for touring. The black bike is for "heavy" touring with a rack and has eyelets. The red one is ment for touring without the rack - and doesn't have eyelets. I haven't tried the rack+adapter yet. There is some info on adapters on Tubus racks site. I don't think it would be difficult to make your own adapter to attach the rack to rear QR.

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  12. Hi, iik,

    Great blog(s) you have!

    Just a quick question about the stuff sack under the seat: hol much litres is it? Did you have to add velcro band to attach it to the saddle?

    Thank you and greetings from Bulgaria!

    Aleks

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  13. Aleks,

    My stuff sack (from the French trip in 2011) is about 5 L. I attach it at two points: to the seatpost with velcro band and to the seat rails with nylon strap.

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  14. Hey Igor,

    massive thanks for all the useful information you published in your blog(s). I decided to plagiarize your seatpost-sack-/handelbar-camera-bag-solution. And I already got stuff I need to implement it. The only item I do not know where to look for is the plastic bracket you use as a spacer on seatpost. I tried without it and I my hips do touch the sack, so I assume that could be very annoying when pedaling long distances.

    Would you mind revealing some keywords I should google? Where did you buy your bracket? or what was it part of?

    Thank you so much! I wish I found your blogs earlier. But better later then never, right? :)

    Best wishes from Germany,
    Dimitri

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  15. Hi Dimitri,

    my spacer was a (plastic) part of a holder of an old handlebar bag. I don't have the picture of it, but you may get the idea from the 2.,3. and 4th picture here:

    http://mgagnon.net/velo/potence-double.en.php

    where it's refered to as "two brackets that hold the handlebar bag". You could use any kind of plastic bracket, preferably with the rounded part to fix to the seatpost. Anything that attaches to a seatpost (or any other tube) will do - e.g. holder for a rear light. This part bears practicaly no stress.

    Even if you don't have the spacer it might not be too disturbing (on the 2011 tour I did it without the spacer).

    Igor

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    Replies
    1. thanks for a quick reply. I guess this might be another solution: http://i807.photobucket.com/albums/yy358/mikel468/mikes%20bikes/sksbottleholder.jpg
      ...but using some plastic plane instead of bottle holder to increase contact surface

      Here is the product page: http://www.sks-germany.com/?l=de&a=product&r=Flaschenhalter&i=10505&ADAPTER

      By the way, in case you don't know, you were mentioned in this blog entry: http://joecruz.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/carrying-gear-while-touring-on-a-road-bike/
      ("Kovse shows how these possibilities go.") This is how I came to your blogs :)

      Delete
  16. I'm going on my first longer-distance tour this summer and am planning to carry gear in a very small handlebar bag (4 l SeaLine Dry Pouch) and a 20 litre dry bag on a rear rack. I've done more backpacking than cycle touring and can typically do a three-day hike with a 22 l pack with a trailhead wieght of aobut 7 kg (including food, 1 l of water). I don't expect my bike setup will be much heavier as I'll have no stove/pot, but I will have a tools and repair stuff.

    I was wondering if anyone experiences any wear points between the dry bag and the rack? Would it be worthwhile to put a bit of closed-cell foam on the rack top to reduce the chance of the material wearing through?

    Any advice is greatly appreciated.

    Great info on this site!

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  17. Yes the dry bag wears in contact with rack, but in my experience, not excessively. I have the same "dry" bag now since S.A. tour in 2006 and 22000 km and it has a hole or two, which I pathced. What might have helped is the fact that I always had a strip of bubble wrap (my sleeping pad) wrapped between the dry bag and the content inside - that may have provided a soft cussion and reduced the wear.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks iik,

      I thought I might try a small piece of bubble wrap or closed foam. Do you ever have issues with rigid items inside the bag rubbing through any other fabric? For example I was wondering if a tent pole might wear through the tent fabric if it happened to be cinched near the rigid surface of a rack? I guess, careful bag packing, and making sure tent pegs and poles are near the top would fix this issue.

      The dry sacks I use aren't the heavier coated version. They're more like waterproof stuff sacks, with thin nylon outers.

      Thanks again,
      Greg

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  18. Greg,

    yes I had some issues with the bag for my tent. It has few holes, probably from tent poles and/or pegs rubbing against the rack. Not a very big issue thought, considering the number of kms I've done with it. Both my tent bag and stuff bag are made of thin fabric, not even waterproof. I'm sure careful packing, as you suggest, would fix most of the problem.

    cheers, Igor.

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  19. Regarding the stuff sack vs. panniers. I'm having some concern about the stuff sack shifting as it will have a higher center of gravity than two small panniers. Has anyone had experience with this issue? I'm doing a 7 week road "credit card" tour and will be traveling super light, but even so, I feel I'll need some gear in the rear.

    One option is the Tubus Airy + the Ortlieb Fron Roller Plus panniers in the rear. This gives me 1526 C.I., and weighs 1670 grams (3.7lbs).

    The other option is a compression dry sack (6oz), with the Airy for a total of 14oz. But, the Airy is only 2.5" wide, so putting the stuff sack on it will be a real balancing act.

    Any thoughts or suggestions?

    b/t/w... great blog!

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  20. Robert, my suggestion is to use a wider rack - see the post on racks in "Equipment reviews" page.

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  21. very helpful information, I learned many things that I do not know, I need to learn much more, thanks for the information always updated article

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  22. Thanks for the inspiring ideas on this site. I have just completed the South Downs Way and adopted some of your ideas. I used a Karrimor Stuff / dry sac and a Kimmlite rucsac inside it, and 2 bungee cords to attach it to my Trek rear rack.Its great to be able to use a normal backpack if you have to carry the bike over bridges at rail stations etc, (which I did). The roll down fastener on the dry sac I was able to clip around the seatpost to add some stabilty. I did have excessive overhang due to the raised part of the luggage rack though, I would like to get a flat platform rear rack , if they make them.

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  23. Any pics of that setup? Eddy

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