The Trailer Versus Panniers Debate Continued

The trailer-versus-panniers debate has been running for almost as long as people have been riding bicycles. There’s a good reason for this: As with so many aspects of equipment choice for a cycle tour, there’s no single best tool for the job. Whether or not a trailer is for you will depend on a wide variety of considerations, not least the variety of shapes and sizes of trailer on offer. This article is intended to shed a little light on what might influence you to use a trailer on your next bicycle trip, and how to decide which one is right for you.

My bike's rear end in the Sudanese desert

The most common advocate of the bicycle trailer is the road tourer who needs greater-than usual luggage capacity. This is the most obvious benefit of the trailer — the ability to bring more than two sets of clothes, a slightly more spacious tent, and maybe a few home comforts for life on the road and at the campsite. Groups, families, tandem couples and long-term travellers often fall into this category.

The second main group of trailer enthusiasts is likely to be found in the off-road touring community. In this case, the manoeuvrability afforded by a single-wheel trailer in particular, together with the promise of shifting much of the luggage weight off the bike’s frame, are attractive selling points.

Crossing the River near Orhan

Some choose a trailer because of the ‘wow’-factor and the attention it generates, and this can be a blessing or a burden depending on your disposition! But in general, if your tour is relatively short and confined to paved roads, and you don’t mind relinquishing a few creature comforts in favour of speed and low weight, a trailer is probably not for you. The two– or four-pannier setup is tried and tested, and perfectly adequate for the majority of people’s needs. Given how many cycle-tourists fall into this category, it’s unsurprising that the trailer debate is such a vocal affair! But if you still think a trailer might be for you, read on.

Trailers can be broadly split across a small handful of categories. The distinction between single-wheeled trailers such as those from Extrawheel, BOB and Weber, and twin-wheeled models such as those from Burley or Carry Freedom, is largely a matter of handling and capacity. In general, single-wheeled trailers are more ‘natural’-feeling due to their ability to follow the bicycle along all three axes of rotation, and this is why off-road riders love them so much — they’re narrow and agile and don’t restrict the rider’s manoeuvrability when negotiating tricky terrain.

The Polish-made Extrawheel with its twin-pannier setup is quite the ‘phantom’ trailer when riding on-road; it’s barely noticeable (except for the extra drag when climbing hills). Off-road, there’s little better than the Voyager (EUR299). BOB’s popular Yak (USD319) and Ibex (USD399) trailers have a greater effect on handling due to their length, higher centre of gravity and wheel positioning, but can carry slightly more bulk — and all in a single dry-bag.

Extrawheel by the ger

Two-wheeled trailers, usually with a flat-bed style cargo platform, are a better choice if you’re sticking to the asphalt and want to carry more than about 15kg of luggage, or excessively bulky items. In this case, Burley (GBP200), Weber (GBP469) and Carry Freedom (GBP180-340) all offer a variety of solutions. I once met a couple in the Middle East with a Burley trailer who were carrying (amongst other things) a full-size acoustic guitar!

Two nomads on a cycling adventure (Explored)

The next major differentiation between trailers is the kind of cargo you want to carry. Most applications will make the best use of high-capacity dry-bags or panniers; all of the aforementioned manufacturers offer good solutions for this kind of use. But some users have other needs — two-wheeled trailers such as the D’Lite to carry children are common sights on the roads and cycle paths of Europe, and trailers to haul canoes or pets are not unheard of!

Which trailer is for you will also depend on your bicycle. Lightweight road tourers and hybrids are built for speed and efficiency, at the sacrifice of a certain amount of strength, which will manifest itself in an abnormal amount of frame flex if you attach a trailer. This will lead quickly to metal fatigue and breakage, probably in the rear drop-outs. Few bicycle frames are specifically designed for the stresses of a rear-axle trailer attachment, but you can up the odds by riding a converted mountain-bike or a touring-specific bike with reinforced rear-triangle tubing that has been built for the extra weight of a cycle-tourist’s luggage. Wheel size is rarely an issue when mounting a trailer, as most manufacturers offer variants for different wheel sizes or build one-size-fits-all solutions.

All trailers suffer from impracticality to some extent when it comes to transportation, and this is especially the case in Europe where restrictions on luggage size and weight are more strictly adhered to. Some models can be disassembled to a certain extent, and when planning your trip you’d be well advised to look into the practicalities of transporting your trailer to the starting point of your tour and getting it home at the end. When flights are involved — especially budget short-haul flights — this can become complicated and expensive.

Some manufacturers are working round this problem by introducing cargo trailers that double up as suitcases, and child’s trailers that convert into pushchairs. But if your trip includes a lot of overland travel, and you really must have a trailer — such as my recent trip to Mongolia which involved over 15,000km of train travel to get there and back — the best solution is slimline, lightweight, single-wheel options such as the Extrawheel, which, given an little ingenuity, can fit inside a bike box along with the bike.

A final point regards the longevity of the trailer. Most road tours of a few weeks or months won’t need to consider this, but in the long term, trailers with their relatively unusual components and constructions will experience wear and tear, just as your relatively commonplace bicycle parts will. When something fails, due to their non-standard nature, repair or replacement tends to be more complicated.

The answer is to play off the need for a trailer against the length of your trip. In general, if you’re considering a trailer for a long-term tour of more than a few months, I would look at only the most tried-and-tested of trailers, find out what’s likely to go wrong first and prepare appropriately, and reconsider the traditional pannier set-up just one more time.

Col de Taillude

All of these considerations aside, the most important thing is to go and enjoy your trip! Carrying luggage is a fact of life, but you can make it less of a burden by paying due attention to your needs well in advance, and choosing the most simple solution available — trailer or otherwise — so that you can concentrate on the wonderful experience that is a cycle tour.

This article was originally written for freewheelingfrance.com, a website set up to promote and advise about cycle touring in France.

23 Responses to “The Trailer Versus Panniers Debate Continued”

  1. ian

    Amazing that you posted this now…
    It just dropped into my google reader as I finished packing my bob yak, ready to depart for Poland tomorrow morning.
    As for carrying less than 15kgs, how does that happen? My kit is pretty minimal, but I’m up to around 20kg. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/placid_casual/5620233726/in/photostream)

    Reply
    • Tom

      I guess I’m late replying! But for two weeks in Poland? I would dump:

      The towel (use clothes/don’t wash), lock (hide/watch your bike/tie to tent), emergency rations (forage), sandals (luxury), wooden spatula (use spoon), mug/bowl (eat/drink from the pan), iodine (the water’s fine), scourer (use Boy Scout sand/water method), half the tools/spares (Gaffa/zip-tie it), most of the wash-kit (you’ll stink anyway), chamois cream (HTFU), midge net (HTFU), most of the painkillers (HTFU/chemist), handwash (water’s fine), waterproof socks (use plastic bags), and three-quarters of that sleeping bag!

      Should save a few grams. OK, I tend to be ruthless, but you’ve got to be…

      Reply
  2. Kevin Shannon

    Enjoyed the post! Personally i favour the trailer (extrawheel) although i find it quite annoying that i can’t use a kickstand and must find somewhere to lean the bike everytime i want to take a photo/go into a shop/take a break, etc. I’ve heard about the drag when your pedalling uphill but once you get used to it, it’s the norm.

    Reply
  3. Andy Stretton

    Hi Tom,
    Really enjoyed your article and look forward to hearing more about your adventures. We’ve just finished a 900 Km Tour from home in Central Victoria Australia, to the New South Wales border and back. Completed with the ‘Watt-Bot’ Solar Electric Assist Trailer that I build, and a couple of highly modified Yuba Mundo’s. You can check out some pics here:
    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.225103607501679.66473.120339177978123
    And yes, that is a Cello on the back of one of the bikes!
    Cheers
    Andy

    Reply
    • Tom

      The Watt-Bot looks great — although I’d rather have it charging my cameras than pushing me along!

      Reply
  4. Andy Stretton

    Yeah, I guess if all you’ve ridden is a standard lightweight Mountain / touring bike, with the odd 15 0r 25 Kg’s on it, instead of a 32 Kg Cargo Bike with 40 Kg’s of cargo weight, they would be your perceptions.….….….…… I can appreciate both, but alas, some people can’t.….…

    Reply
  5. Andy Stretton

    I guess that’s why the media and comms projects don’t fall to those who arrogantly disregard other peoples journey’s.….….

    Reply
    • Tom

      Not sure what you’re getting at here, Andy — could you shed some light?

      Reply
  6. Carro o alforges? | Bicicleta i manta | Webs i viatges sobre rodes

    […] Per si voleu indagar una mica més sobre el tema, uns enllaços interessants: fòrum de Rodadas, article (en anglès) de l’Adventure Cycling Association, entrada (en anglès) de Tom’s Bike Trip. […]

    Reply
  7. Dominic

    One huge advantage that a trailer has over panniers is aerodynamics. I use panniers and when I was in Cuba I rode with a couple of guys who had trailers. I had to pedal to keep up with them as they coasting down hills. When the headwinds came up? It was so hard to keep up without drafting.

    Reply
  8. Ian

    Hi just joined the site great reading been dreaming of a bike adventure nows the time work finished kids left the nest is empty load up the panniers an off we pedal my good wife an myself fly to Geneva out of Milan via Czek an Turkey in July about 18weeks so the research begins have the bikes an panniers tent mats etc but what tyres where to get maps will l need these so will have a busy few weeks sort it out l always say the simple things in life are the best l should stick to it like your news letter thanks Ian from Brisbane Aus

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Easy! Buy Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres and get maps from tourist information centres or petrol stations. Safe trip :)

      Reply
  9. Craig Roberts

    I was thinking of getting a small 1 wheel trailer to allow me to have a pop up tent to make camping easier as I’m going from dunkirk in belgium to helsinki in finland in july.
    1st what are your thoughts on pop up tents? also do you think it would be practical to have my pop up tent on my trailer. thanks

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I think having a trailer will introduce more complications than you’ll avoid by taking a pop-up tent. A sub-2kg 1-man tent on the rear rack should be fine for a road trip such as yours. With a bit of practice you’ll be able to pitch it in a couple of minutes — it’ll just become part of your routine.

      Reply
  10. Nat

    Hi Tom,
    Spot on touring blog. I have toured 80–100,000kms 60,000 of that with a bob ibex trailer.
    I found the yak bounced around and had a tail waging the dog effect so after 5,000 with that i switched to the ibex.

    Pros, weight off the front wheel, easy in airport (just tape the bag on and cover the ends of the fork).
    Also there are plastic bushings in it, so no bearings to wear out.

    I have only broken one spoke in my rear wheel since switching to the bob.
    For organization i use smaller bags inside the bob.
    No weight on the fork makes steering much better.
    Jackknife the trailer and i have a kickstand and chair.
    Narrower so off-road or trails i hit fewer things.
    Gear is protected by a roll cage.
    Less affected by side winds and passing trucks (large safety thing there).
    Trailer pops off in seconds to to up stairs.
    Everything inside is clean.
    Cons:
    Heavier, but not that much if you subtract bags and panniers.
    The trailer flats once every 2 months.
    Turning around on a sidewalk is a hassle.
    With 90L capacity it is easy to pack too much. I often carry my friends gear as well and have a 100lb trailer, after 40,000km it broke (at the bottom of the yoke) and a cowboy in new mexico re welded it. I re-enforced the replacement.

    TIPS
    Put heavier things at the front, it’ll handle better.
    Cheers.
    N

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Thanks Nat! Safe roads :)

      Reply
    • Nat

      Tom,

      I think that your idea that light weight cyclocross, hybrid or road racing frames will fatigue or break due to pulling a trailer is off. Racing bikes are designed to be clamped by the rear axel into stationary trainers after which point people, generally much fatter and heavier than anything that you could possibly pull in your trailer jump aboard and sway all ofer the place.

      Despite this treatment it is unheard of to break a frame from trainer use (while clamped at the dropouts.

      Carbon bikes break from crashing or getting smashed in transit. Sometimes they break months later.

      I’ve ridden Seattle to san diego no a 17lb dura ace carbon race bike pulling all my gear for two without issue.

      Reply
      • Tom Allen

        I have personally seen not one but two cold forged steel drive-side dropouts snapped clean in half through long-term trailer use. It’s pretty well known that fatigue over extremely long distances (years of touring) doesn’t play well with a lot of frames.

        Reply
  11. Rob

    Seems frames these days snap all the time, I have snapped 2 myself in the last 5 years carrying nothing more than myself at 14.5 stone and 3ltr water hydration pack, they were not cheap bikes either sadly, currently awaiting a warranty replacement on one of them as i type, if either of these mountain bikes had been attached to a trailer the bikes would have disintegrated and i’d have been ran over by the loaded trailer. Here is hoping the hardtail mountainbike i have chosen is up to the task of dragging my singlewheel trailer i just ordered

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Mountain bikes are generally rugged enough to cope with trailers. Splitting the weight across racks & trailers is also a good tip!

      Reply
      • Rob

        I am aiming on limiting myself to 30 kilo of kit all in, almost wish it could just be me, water on my back and the wheels but I know i will appreciate a few comforts on the road no doubt there, i’ve started a few lists and it could literally go on and on with what i might need and the list ends up like a ten years old christmas list so every time i strip the list back to things I think i will definitely need and this works out at around 20kilo without food or water. Still lots to learn but i am not seeing that as a obstacle in any way, the more i learn the keener i feel to just burn the last few bridges and go. Thanks for sharing Tom your site is like petrol on the fire

        Reply

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