Do I Really Need Ortliebs? A Buyer’s Guide To Panniers For Cycle Touring

One day in 1884, Thomas Stevens left California on a bicycle, carrying a bag of gold and a pistol rolled up in a blanket, and became the first person in recorded history to cycle round the world.

Today’s bicycle travellers pack a little more gear than that! That’s because we want to enjoy seeing the world, rather than bribing and bullying our way through our bike tours as Stevens did.

To carry all the cycle touring equipment commonly used today – ultralight tents, camping stoves & cookware, clothes, toolkits, and other core kit-list items – most bike tourers attach panniers to their touring bikes. 

In fact, the pannier has been the traditional luggage of cycle tourists for more than a century.

This article is all about how to choose a set of panniers that’ll match your budget, your style of cycle touring (or bikepacking, if you prefer), and the equipment and supplies you’ll be carrying with you, based on what’s actually available to you.

This advice comes not just from my own 18 years of bike touring experience but that of countless veteran riders who I’ve cycled alongside and questioned about their gear setups, with the goal of creating the most well-balanced cycle touring pannier buying guide possible (no pun intended).

I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge, so we’ll start by laying out the basics of panniers for cycle touring before we dive into the details.

Then we’ll move on to listings of the best touring panniers on the market right now. I’ll include direct links to manufacturers’ webpages and buying links for retailers in UK/Europe and North America (affiliate links are identified with an asterisk; click here to read my full affiliate policy).

In this post:
  1. What Exactly Are Bicycle Panniers?
  2. Two Or Four Panniers For Cycle Touring?
  3. Do Cycle Touring Pannier Designs Vary?
  4. How Do Panniers Attach To A Touring Bike?
  5. List Of The Best Cycle Touring Panniers (Ordered By Price) 
  6. And Finally: The Great Pannier Waterproofing Debate

What Exactly Are Bicycle Panniers?

Panniers are purpose-made bags designed to be hung off the sides of a bicycle or motorbike (or, originally, slung over a pack animal). 

They are almost always designed to be used in pairs, for what I hope are obvious reasons of balance and stability.

I am reliably informed by several readers in the comments section that the name ‘pannier’ originates from a French word meaning ‘bread basket’. So now you know.

Two Or Four Panniers For Cycle Touring?

The traditional setup for long-distance cycle touring is four panniers – a small pair at the front and a larger pair at the rear – plus a handlebar bag and a few other bits.

This is simply because, when you make a list of everything you’d need for a transcontinental or round-the-world ride, buy it all, and try to fit it onto a bike – it usually fills four panniers.

For lighter-weight bike tours, two panniers (either front or rear) can offer sufficient capacity. Many short summer rides close to home, with lots of bike shops, resupply stops and other facilities on your route, would fit this category.

You might also use two panniers on longer rides with a minimal approach to packing, especially as camping equipment grows ever lighter. You’ll often see more experienced riders taking this approach, because they’ve spent a long time learning what they don’t need to pack.

Increasingly you’ll also see a hybrid approach, with a pair of small front or rear panniers supplemented by frame bags, seat packs and cockpit pouches. Panniers can then be removed for side trips off the beaten track, allowing more flexibility over the traditional setup.

In any case, you’ll rarely see panniers used exclusively as a means of storing belongings and supplies. They’re almost always used alongside rack-top drybags, baskets, handlebar bags, backpacks, or other more easily accessible bags which don’t require you to stop and unpack everything just to find one commonly-used item.

Sometimes, in very special cases such as deep winter, desert crossings, or just because you want to bring your guitar and jewellery-making kit, you might consider a trailer instead of (or as well as) panniers. This is a topic I’ve covered in detail elsewhere.

Do Cycle Touring Panniers Vary In Design?

Bicycle panniers for cycle touring (as opposed to panniers for, say, grocery shopping) come in a variety of sizes, colours and materials, and are generally marketed separately as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They are usually (though not always) sold in pairs, sometimes with physical differences between left and right, and sometimes without.

Front panniers tend to be smaller, and for good reason: whatever weight you’re carrying on the front wheel will directly affect the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter loads at the front mean more manoeuvrability.

A typical front pannier might have a 10–15 litre capacity (ie: 20–30 litres per pair). Larger panniers at the front would also be at risk of hitting the down-tube of the bike (or even the ground) when turning sharply, or interfering with disc brakes.

Rear panniers tend to have about twice the capacity; around 20–30 litres each (ie: 40–60 litres per pair). Tandem panniers can be even bigger.

Most pannier manufacturers make complementary front and rear pairs of the same model. As mentioned above, however, a pair of rear panniers might suffice for even the longest trips if packed thoughtfully with lightweight gear.

How Do Panniers Attach To A Touring Bike?

A variety of pannier rack attachment systems exist. They almost all make use of a pair of hooked clips attached the top of the back face of each pannier, allowing them to be hung from the upper horizontal rack tubing, plus some kind of adjustable retaining tab on the back of each pannier to hook around the lower, vertical or diagonal sections of the rack tubing and stop them swinging about.

Although pairs of panniers can be identical out of the box, setting up the attachments to fit your racks will usually result in them being configured as ‘left’ and ‘right’ panniers from that point forward.

You’ll occasionally see a pair of panniers attached together with a strip of fabric between them, the whole of which is then slung over the rack. As a general rule, don’t buy these unless it’s the only thing you can get, as this style is far less durable and versatile than individual panniers and rack mounts.

What Materials Are Panniers Made From?

In terms of design and construction material, there are two main categories of pannier: fully waterproof and semi- or non-waterproof (often aka: “water resistant”).

Fully waterproof panniers are usually made of laminated fabric with sealed seams, often using the same ‘roll-top’ closure system found in drybags for paddlesports. As with any waterproof gear, you should always pack a simple repair kit – a length of Gaffa Tape at the very least, or perhaps a roll of Tenacious Tape.

Non-waterproof (or sometimes “water-resistant”) panniers are usually made of heavy canvas, with backpack-style lids with zips or buckles, and have some degree of water resistance and/or a waterproof backing plate on the rear to protect against road spray. The repair kit you should pack for this type of pannier is a heavy-duty needle and thread.

(As for which type is better, we’ll come to that later on.)

Some people get hung up on the colour of the material. There’s an argument that using black waterproof panniers in sunny climates will result in your belongings being well and truly cooked. Conversely, some people think high-visibility panniers are better for safety, although panniers of all colours are adorned with the same reflective patches.

Personally, I don’t believe there’s much practical difference. If it’s really that hot, lighter colours will be of limited benefit, and you – the rider – should always be more visible than your panniers. My advice is to choose whatever colour panniers you like… and make a hi-viz vest the first thing you put in them.

In short, there’s a lot of variety out there. There are, however, a few specific makes and models of bicycle pannier that have proven themselves over many decades on very long and demanding tours.

We’ll start, however, by looking at basic, budget-friendly panniers, and work our way up to durable and hard-wearing panniers capable of withstanding years of constant daily use.

No-Budget Panniers For Cycle Touring

For the most ultra-low-budget of trips, you are very welcome to stop reading this article; take whatever cheap or free second-hand panniers you can find on eBay*, Freecycle, Gumtree, or get donated or lent to you; add a basic sewing kit, a roll of Gaffa Tape, some cable ties and a few plastic carrier bags, and leave.

I did this in 2013, wrote a detailed article about it, then cycled the length of England with no money to prove the theory.

If you’re good at DIY, consider making your own panniers (or getting good at DIY).

Rectangular buckets with lids are available from hardware stores and pet shops and can be converted into panniers with a few commonly available fixings. Cool-boxes have travelled across continents in the same way (see photo above). The REI blog has a lengthy and useful post on making your own DIY bucket panniers*.

One reader even emailed me a video he’d made about how to make a pair of panniers out of a discarded pair of jeans. Get creative!

Cheap Panniers For Cycle Touring

When it comes to cheap panniers at the bottom end of the market, a trip to any mainstream bike shop or outdoor retailer (eg: Go Outdoors or Decathlon in the UK, REI in the USA, or MEC in Canada) will demonstrate the options in this category.

None can really be said to be better or worse than any other, due to the lack of substantial documentary evidence besides customer reviews (which should always be taken with a pinch of salt, because who exactly are these customers anyway?).

To help you choose reasonably durable cheap panniers, and keep them on the road as long as possible, here are a few tips:

  • Cheap panniers are often aimed at commuters and shoppers, rather than cycle tourists, so see if you can find something that at least claims to be designed for touring use.
  • Avoid anything that relies on zips for closure of the main compartment, as cheap zips are liable to break. Go for something with straps and buckles/clips instead.
  • Avoid cheap and flimsy ‘waterproof’ material in favour of thicker canvas, then waterproof everything inside the panniers with plastic bags or drybags as necessary.
  • Consider buying or making waterproof pannier covers, which are essentially giant elasticated shower caps; they’ll get you to the next shelter (especially when paired with an effective mudguard to stop road-spray soaking the bags from behind).
  • Finally, pack a sewing kit, Gaffa Tape, and cable ties. I know I’m repeating myself, the point being that you can save a lot of money and solve a lot of problems with a pragmatic attitude.

Recognisable budget brands in the UK and Europe include Altura, Topeak, and Elops (Decathlon’s in-house bike luggage brand, which includes the Ortlieb-esque roll-top waterproof panniers pictured below).

What you’re looking for at this end of the spectrum is a capacity that matches your packing needs, compatibility with your racks, and as few things to go wrong as possible.

Of course, if it’s a simple question of what you can beg, borrow or steal, anything is better than nothing!

Mid-Range Panniers For Cycle Touring

There are a few mid-range models of pannier that don’t quite meet the criteria for high-end expedition panniers but have nevertheless been shown to cope well with some very long and arduous bicycle journeys. 

Here I’ll list a few of the best known examples, as well as introducing a couple of lesser-known brands that show promise in this category.

Crosso Dry (Poland, £55/£60 front/rear)

Crosso is a Polish company which has been manufacturing panniers commercially since 2006. If you’re based in Europe and can find a retailer, they make for a good option in the mid range, being considerably cheaper than the big-brand panniers. They’re quite basic in terms of design and materials, but in many ways this is a good thing, and they will serve you well if you look after them.

The waterproof Dry panniers come in front/universal and rear pairs with a capacity of 30 and 60 litres per pair respectively, with roll-top closures and welded seams, and a choice of 10 colours. (I’ve had a pair of the rear ones for 12 years, which I’m still happily using after a few repairs.)

The standard attachment system features two fixed steel hooks at the top, with an inverted hook on an elasticated strap at the bottom to secure the pannier in place. Once you get used to the system it is very easy to mount and dismount the panniers, and it’s surprisingly stable.

Not all racks have a lower horizontal rail to attach the bottom hook, so there is also the more expensive Click option, using traditional-style fixtures from German company Rixen+Kaul (who make the popular and widespread KlickFix system). These might be a better choice for extremely long journeys as the fixtures are replaceable.

Carradice CarraDry (UK, £55/£85 front/rear)

UK-based Carradice’s CarraDry panniers are waterproof, feature a generous capacity (58 litres per pair at the rear) and are very good value for money. They share a very durable mounting system with the heavy duty Super C expedition panniers (below).

Though they can’t be described as 100% watertight, with a lidded drawstring closure system rather than a roll-top drybag-style closure, they’re made of a similar laminated synthetic waterproof fabric as the other panniers in this section, with welded seams and waterproof zips, which will still keep out the heaviest rain. Like other Carradice products, they feature outer pockets as well as the main compartment.

The CarraDry might be a good choice if you’re looking for a high quality pair of waterproof panniers (and you don’t plan on floating them across deep rivers), but your budget can’t quite stretch to the top-end Ortliebs, and/or you want to support this long-running British maker.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller City (Global, €85/€95 front/rear)

The City series of Ortlieb panniers is a cheaper, simplified version of the Classic/Plus series usually chosen for touring (see below). 

The Ortlieb City range is marketed to commuters, but in reality they are the same as the higher end Ortliebs in terms of shape, capacity, waterproofing and construction materials, made slightly lighter and quite a bit cheaper by a couple of missing features.

So what do you lose by saving some cash? Aside from the limited choice of colours, the most significant thing you lose is full roll-top closure. Instead, the top buckles attach to clips on the sides of the pannier, and there’s no extra cinch strap over the top (although you can add one afterwards). This is a less flexible setup with a variable sized load, and less waterproof in the case of a pannier being completely submerged.

There is also no shoulder strap or inner pocket, though neither of those are hugely important for touring. The rack attachment system is the slightly older QuickLock1 mechanism, previously used on Classic/Plus panniers which are still going strong after decades – again, not a huge issue.

On the plus side, all of this reduces the overall weight; 760g per pannier for a rear Ortlieb City as opposed to 950g for a rear Ortlieb Classic. And, as mentioned, it reduces the price too.

In my opinion, the extra versatility and feature set of the Classic/Plus panniers is probably worth the extra money if you’re already looking at panniers of this kind of quality. If you’re commuting with a pair of City panniers already and thinking about a tour, however, you’ll get on absolutely fine with them.

Alpkit Toliari (UK, £100/£120 24/40l pairs)

Relatively new on the British pannier scene (whoop!) is the waterproof Toliari pannier range from the certified B‑corporation and direct retailer Alpkit.

If the quality of the rest of their products is anything to go by, they’ll prove durable and well-made, which is why I’ve included them here, but it’s important to say that they are relatively untested on really massive multi-year expeditions.

Available in two sizes (12/20 litres per pannier) in a single graphite colour and sold individually, they’ll probably be of most interest to brand loyalists, being about the same price as the Ortlieb City panniers whose reputation will likely win more buyers, especially outside the UK.

Having said all that, Alpkit’s social and environmental credentials are pretty hard to beat.

  • Buy Alpkit Toliari panniers direct from Alpkit in the UK, with worldwide shipping also available.

MEC World Tour (CA$240/260 20/30l pairs)

Canadian outdoor equipment retail cooperative MEC has been outfitting adventurers since 1971. Their World Tour bicycle panniers, available in 20- and 30-litre capacities for front and rear use, are a solid and reasonably-priced mid-range option.

Simply designed with one main compartment plus a small front pocket, the panniers are water-resistant, although not fully waterproof – MEC does offer optional rain covers if you want more protection from the elements, as well as a wide selection of dry bags for the contents.

The widely-used Rixen and Kaul hook mounting system is easy to work with and compatible with almost all racks and carriers, and the designers have also incorporated extra gear loops on top of the pannier – useful for strapping on extra bits that you might pick up on the road.

If you’re based in or starting a tour from Canada, the MEC World Tour pannier is a decent option if you want something simple, durable and very functional without putting a huge dent in your bank balance.

The All-Time Best Expedition Panniers For Cycle Touring

Here we’re going to look in detail at panniers that have at least a decade (often two or more) of proven and documented reputation as being suitable for long-haul rides. I’m talking multi-year, round-the-world odysseys with a single set of bags. That kind of ‘long-haul’.

As you might expect, the biggest concern at this end of the market is durability. Panniers take a lot of abuse, and not just the bag material – it’s also where fabric and rack mounts meet that forces will be concentrated over thousands of miles of bumpy roads.

Holes in canvas can be repaired with a sewing kit, and waterproof material can be patched with Aquaseal, Tenacious Tape, Gaffa Tape, even puncture patches, all of which are part of a more general gear first-aid kit. Broken attachment systems are harder problems to solve. Buying top-quality panniers from a tried-and-tested brand will largely – though never entirely – negate this risk.

The same pannier-buying considerations apply to expedition panniers as they do to budget ones. Are they compatible with the racks on your bike? And are they appropriately sized for the gear you’ll be carrying, plus food space?

As mentioned at the start of this article, many of today’s bicycle travellers could get away with two large rear panniers, a varying rack-top bundle and a bar-bag. Packing for a round-the-world ride traditionally calls for four panniers – a smaller pair of panniers at the front and a larger pair at the rear – because any trip of many years in length will inevitably require flexibility.

You’re unlikely to know exactly what your capacity requirements are until you’ve got your gear laid out in front of you, but as a rule it’s better to distribute weight evenly and have a little extra space than to be overloading your bags and having an unbalanced bike.

Remember that – regardless of ‘official’ capacity rating – most roll-top or buckle-lidded panniers will cinch down or expand a certain amount to accommodate what’s inside.

OK! Let’s look at the all-time best expedition panniers available today that have accumulated the most miles around the world on tours of every length, location and level of challenge. (All the RRPs I’ve listed below are per pair.)

Ortlieb Cycle Touring Panniers

Let’s get this out of the way: the single most interesting thing about Ortlieb’s range of roll-top waterproof panniers is that they’re the most popular of all the panniers being used on world-ranging tours.

Indeed, in a highly unscientific Twitter/X survey I conducted while first researching this article, about ⅔ of respondents used Ortliebs.

Seeing everyone using them attracts more people to buy them, and then claim that they’re the “only choice” despite never having used anything else. And so the inertia continues.

Of course, about ⅓ of respondents didn’t use Ortliebs, yet somehow were still perfectly happy.

So: do you really need Ortliebs?

Well, there’s no doubt that they make very good panniers. They’re about the right size for most users. They’re available in a choice of colours. They’re compatible with most touring racks. They’re durable (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring a repair kit), and come with a 5‑year warranty. And they’re in the same price range as most of the other expedition panniers in this list.

In short: the price is competitive and they’re proven to work. You certainly don’t need them, but they’re highly unlikely to disappoint you.

(By the way, second-hand Ortlieb panniers are prime for being snapped up for cheap in early spring, because they’re the kind of thing people buy in January when resolving to start cycling to work and a few weeks later sell barely-used on eBay. Take advantage.)

Ortlieb panniers come in several varieties. Let’s look at those of most interest to bicycle travellers.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Plus (Global, €125/€145)

If there was a Standard Issue Cycle-Round-The-World Kit (now there’s an idea), it would probably include a pair of Ortlieb Sport-Roller Plus (formerly known as Front-Roller Plus) panniers at the front and a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller Plus panniers at the rear of the bike, all in matching his-and-hers / his-and-his / hers-and-hers / theirs-and-theirs colours.

At 25 litres per pair for the Sport-Rollers and 40 litres per pair for the Back-Rollers, they’re slightly smaller in rated capacity than other panniers in this list. As with all roll-top panniers, however, you can make fewer rolls when closing them to create more space.

The buckles at the top can either be clipped together, as with a regular drybag, or clipped into a carry strap which then secures to the front of the pannier via a retaining tab near the bottom edge. For additional peace of mind when overloaded, another short strap can be fastened over the top of the closed pannier.

Other useful features include a small handle attached to the rack mounting points for easy attachment and removal of the pannier to the rack, and a removable pouch attached to the backing plate on the inside of the pannier for flat items such as travel documents and diaries.

The current version of the Plus panniers makes use of the QuickLock2.1 attachment system, which is an updated version of Ortlieb’s original system with broader compatibility with the range of racks on the market today (this includes the popular Tubus racks, if you’re wondering). With this system, the hooks are locked in place by sprung retainers, which are released when you pull up on the grab handle for easy removal. Inserts are supplied for different rack tubing diameters to ensure a secure, rattle-free fit.

What distinguishes the Plus series from the Classic series (see below) is the fabric used in their construction: a high-grade Cordura-branded nylon weave which is laminated on the inside. This makes the outer surface almost as abrasion-resistant as a canvas pannier, while remaining waterproof due to the laminated inner. As weave is less dense than laminate, the Plus is therefore slightly lighter than the Classic; 840g per rear pannier as compared to 950g.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Classic (Global, €110/€130)

Slightly heavier, cheaper and less abrasion-resistant, going for the wipe-clean Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic and Back-Roller Classic will save you a few days’ food budget whilst still giving you the sleep-easy feeling of ‘having Ortliebs’. As noted above, the fabric used in construction is a lighter and slightly more basic double-laminated polyester. Besides this, every other aspect is the same.

(It’s worth noting that I have never heard of anyone buying the Classics and then later wishing they’d bought the Pluses. Apart from that guy in the comments. There’s always one.)

Ortlieb ‘Pro’ Variants

The Ortlieb Sport-Roller and Back-Roller Plus/Classic panniers above are available in a further variation: Pro.

What makes them “pro”? They’re bigger. Instead of 40 litres per pair, you get a whopping 70 litres of capacity.

Can your rack handle that amount of weight? Does your bike have enough heel clearance? Do you need an extra 30 litres of pannier space? 

Truth is, the people who’d benefit most from these panniers would be tandem riders (which is who they’re made for), and perhaps people biking in deep winter. The rest of us can just strap a big drybag to the rear rack and only fill it when necessary.

Carradice Super C (UK, £99/£130 front/rear)

Carradice’s Super C range is a classic line of British hand-made bags and panniers, the designs changing little in decades. (I’ve had a pair of the rear panniers hanging off various touring bikes for 15 years and counting.)

Stitched from heavy-duty waxed ‘cotton duck’ canvas of the type used for military kit and old-school tents, they’re far more resistant to abrasion than waterproof panniers with laminated fabrics or even synthetic canvas. You’ll hear stories of pairs of Super Cs being used for upwards of 30 years, by which time Ortliebs will be straining your tea, so if it’s pure longevity you’re after, they’re some of the best panniers going.

The front (or ‘universal’) panniers have a capacity of 28 litres per pair and, aside from the removable fixtures, are symmetrical in design, with one large main compartment and a small outside pocket in which I might be tempted to store a few snacks. The rear panniers have a capacity of 54 litres per pair, with an outside pocket at the rear. Both sizes have buckled lids with adjustable straps, in addition to a drawstring for the main compartment.

Carradice’s attachment system, based on two self-locking hooks along the top inside edge of the bag and with a retaining tab on the rear, has proven its durability on many a round-the-world tour. The fixtures are very adjustable, making them compatible with a wide variety of racks (adapters are available for rack tubing thicker than 13mm), and enabling them to be shifted back a long way for heel clearance. These fixtures are removable – always a good idea when transporting the panniers on planes, trains and buses.

What they are not is 100% watertight. Although the waxed canvas will keep any amount of rain out, it will eventually absorb water if fully immersed, and the lidded closure system will never be as watertight as a roll-top pannier, as discussed above.

Despite this, they are supremely durable receptacles for the (drybagged) gear you’ll keep inside, and I’ve never come across anyone who regretted buying them.

As an example of an ultra-durable canvas pannier, the Carradice Super Cs are certainly the best in the UK, with one of the longest heritages of any pannier on the market.

Vaude Aqua (EU/UK/Canada, €147/€158 front/rear)

Part of a bigger line of commuter and messenger bags, German manufacturer Vaude make the very nice 100% waterproof Aqua touring panniers in front and rear variants.

These are strikingly similar to the Ortlieb Classics (see above), and not just superficially: they are also made in Germany, also come with a 5‑year guarantee, also have a versatile one-handed attachment system, also have inside pockets and shoulder straps, and also have a (smaller) following of satisfied users who’ve taken them round the world by bicycle.

The biggest difference is that they’re slightly larger (despite being about the same weight), with a rated capacity of 28/48 litres front/rear compared to 25/40 for the Ortliebs.

If you’re concerned about your environmental impact (and obviously you should be), you might be interested in the fact that the Aqua panniers are ‘climate neutrally manufactured’, ie: all manufacturing and shipping emissions have been carbon offset, and are fully PVC and PFC free. Indeed, Vaude have put a great deal of emphasis on their green credentials in recent years.

Why don’t more people don’t buy them, then? Simple: they’re not Ortliebs.

Arkel GT-54 (Canada, CA$525 rear)

Arkel are a small Canadian outfit established in 1988 whose panniers’ reputation (and price) exceeds even that of Ortliebs. Their top-end GT-54 classic touring panniers come from an entirely different line of thinking, full of pockets and sections and zips and straps and other finery – consider them the Rolls Royce to Ortlieb’s Land Rover.

There are plenty of riders out there who would claim that these panniers are, in fact, the very best in the world.

Slightly more affordable – and perhaps easier to get hold of if you’re based in Canada or the USA – is their ORCA range of waterproof panniers, which are of the simpler roll-top design and come in three different sizes. More like Ortliebs, basically.

And Finally: The Great Cycle Touring Pannier Waterproofing Debate

There are lots of noisy opinions on the internet about pannier waterproofing. Discovering this ‘debate’ can be worrying for people who are spending several hundred pounds/euros/dollars on a full set of panniers, and planning to put a lot of stuff inside them that they really don’t want getting wet.

The debate boils down to whether you should buy fully waterproof, roll-top, seam-sealed, drybag-style panniers and never worry about rain or river crossings ever again, or whether there’s any other type of pannier worth considering.

Here’s my take.

Although the 100%-waterproof option looks appealing, I haven’t met a long-term rider (ie: who’s spent years on the road) whose 100% waterproof panniers have stayed 100% waterproof.

This is nothing to do with quality. It’s because no piece of fabric can survive an unlimited amount being bashed into things, falling off the bike, being trodden on, tripped over, tied to sharp metal roof racks on buses and taxes, thrown into aircraft holds and pickup trucks, or ripped apart by hungry bears hunting for the smell of toothpaste (true story).

Some riders anticipate this and prepare for it by bringing a repair kit. Some don’t, and then criticise their expensive panniers for not being 100% waterproof. A lucky few somehow manage to avoid getting a single hole in their panniers, and claim this as evidence that they’ll be ‘bomb-proof’ for everyone else. They won’t.

If very heavy rain and wading through rivers is likely to be a regular feature of your trip, then drybag-style panniers and a patch kit is probably the better option. 

If you don’t mind a little extra ‘pannier admin’, however, there is another legitimate approach: waterproof what’s inside the pannier as and when you need to.

For a little extra effort, this approach will allow you to exploit the many advantages of breathable, canvas panniers:

  • Wet gear (and smelly gear) can be isolated from the remaining contents and allowed to dry during a day’s riding,
  • Fuel bottles and other potentially messy items can be prevented from contaminating other contents,
  • In hot weather, perishable food can be kept longer in a breathable pannier than inside a sealed drybag,
  • Canvas panniers are easier to repair with a needle and thread or by giving them to a local tailor or cobbler,
  • Top quality cotton canvas is, all else being equal, more abrasion-resistant than laminated synthetic fabric, and on a long tour this will bear the brunt of the punishment while the drybags inside remain protected.
  • Canvas looks cooler. The odd hole here and there will simply add to a pannier’s character, thus getting you more likes on Instagram.

The extra ‘pannier admin’ involves putting your gear into drybags inside the pannier (good ones are made by SealLine, Sea to Summit, Alpkit and many other brands); either one large drybag used as a pannier liner, or lots of smaller ones for organisation and selective waterproofing (or a combination of the two).

Either approach will carry your gear and keep it dry if you know the strengths and weaknesses of each and have a packing routine to match.

I’ve used both types myself on long-term rides in all conditions, from a free pair of shopping panniers for a rainy spring ride through England to heavy-duty canvas bags across the Middle East and Africa to roll-top waterproof panniers and canvas bags together in Mongolia. Analysing which of these systems is ‘best’ is not something I feel the need to spend any more time discussing, because all of them can be made to work.

The truth is that most long-term riders use roll-top waterproof panniers – in particular, the Ortlieb ones mentioned above – because everyone else does. It’s a conformity thing. Non-conformists might prefer the tramp-like image engendered by dusty canvas. If you can’t decide, flip a coin.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty burned out from thinking really hard about bags with hooks on them. Time to grab a bike and tent and hit the road!

Bogged down in research for your next big bicycle adventure?

I wrote a whole book to help with that. How To Hit The Road is designed to be read at your leisure, making planning a bike tour simple and achievable, no matter the length, duration or budget. Available globally as an ebook or paperback.

Comments (skip to respond)

50 responses to “Do I Really Need Ortliebs? A Buyer’s Guide To Panniers For Cycle Touring”

  1. I am only halfway through your article but felt called to comment, “What a great article!” I just came back from cycling to China and setting a Malaysia record. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge.

  2. Hi Tom
    Great information! But what about touring panniers for recumbents? It seems that just as I get into touring on my ‘bent vs. triangle bike there are almost none available. Suggestions?

    1. Hey Sam. Great question! It partly depends on the type of recumbent. Some of the styles with more ground clearance and larger wheels can be fitted with rear racks that accept regular panniers. My own recumbent is a Challenge Hurricane and it requires special panniers that are slung over the seat, as you’ll see in the photos. I don’t have it to hand to check the brand, unfortunately – but know that it is possible to find panniers for recumbents!

  3. SCOTT MCMAHON avatar

    Found Ortliebs in 1980’s and and have been using them ever since. They were the first ones I encountered that were waterproof.
    RAIN COVERS: Before that, I tried using rain covers, which never worked for me. My gear always got soaked if I had to ride in the rain. They don’t seal in back, and the rain gets in. Unless rain covers have changed greatly in the intervening years, I would recommend against them.
    REPAIRS: My Ortliebs have holes, mainly from crashes and mishaps, but the holes I’ve acquired are low on the bags, or on the sides and don’t seem to cause much leakage in rain. I was actually browsing the web for a new set, when I came across this website and now I’ll just get some repair tape and fix them up. Thanks, Thomas!
    STIFF BACKS: Someone mentioned in one of the replies that she/he wanted soft bags that roll up compact for packing away in a suitcase or backpack, and I didn’t see anyone address the issue, so here’s my 2 cents. The problem with soft bags is that they will end up flopping around and eventually will poke into your spokes (DISASTER!, if you’re moving.) I suppose you could create some kind of separate plate attached to your rack to keep the panniers out of your spokes, but I’ve never seen one for sale. I have seen some woven guards to keep ladies skirts out of the rear spokes, but don’t know how sturdy they are. Generally, stiffener plates are included in the construction of the panniers, which keeps them from rolling up into a nice compact shape for packing. I understand the problem, because I’ve often wished for a better way to carry the panniers when off of the bike, myself.

    1. Hi, Scott, and thanks so much for the detailed and thoughtful contribution here! 

      Regarding panniers doubling as soft bags, you’re right that almost all panniers have back (and sometimes base) stiffeners for the critical reason of preventing interference with the spokes. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from backpack designers here. I’ve owned several backpacks with either a removable stiffener inserted into a sleeve sewn into the fabric of the bag, or a lightweight internal frame or ribs (aluminium or fibreglass) which are also removable. Because it’s a very niche use case, though, I doubt many larger-scale manufacturers would bother. Perhaps there are cottage industries making bespoke bags who might be keen to sew a prototype. That still leaves the question of where to stow the stiffener or whatever other hardware has been removed, of course. Some ideas in any case!


    Would look at a hydration pack. The help keep the body temperature stable. Plus they can carry some essentials.

    1. These definitely deserve consideration if bigger water carries are needed, and/or if all your bike’s bottle mounts are blocked by frame luggage. I used an old 3‑litre Deuter one when bikepacking across Armenia in 2019, which I barely noticed while riding. I’ve also used them in winter conditions underneath my outer layers in order to keep my drinking water from freezing!

  5. Interesting and useful article. 

    I *was* touring with 2 front panniers + Ursack on a rear rack. Quite often I felt like a backpack would have been nice, either for overnight side trips or as a day pack on short hikes. So next summer I’ll be transitioning away from panniers: 4 x 5L (2 fork packs + 2 anything cages w. dry bags) + a frameless backpack (probably MLD CORE 25L, mostly empty, strapped on top of the rear rack). 

    While I never cared for enormous burritos, seat & triangle bags, more recent bikepacking innovations are certainly worth considering.

    1. Thanks, Stephane. I also carried a rolled-up Osprey Talon 18 on a road tour a couple of years ago, for the similar reason of wanting to go hiking on my days off. But I’d still use panniers for most trips except for the most technical off-road bikepacking rides.

  6. My Carradice Super Cs rear panniers are great IMHO. That said anyone got any suggestions for a rack bag that sits transversally across them; similar to the Ortlieb set-up? I’d prefer not to use bungee cords to secure the rack bag.

    1. I have in the past used an Ortlieb Rack-Pack, which was extremely durable and well-made, though I found I didn’t get quite as much capacity as I was expecting once the top was fully rolled down. You’ll be lucky to find one that doesn’t need strapping down, though. If you’re worried about damaging the fabric, try flat bungees – I doubt you’ll have any issues.

  7. Thank you for this article, it was incredibly helpful. I did my first bike tour with option 1. I found a “conjoined” pannier set for free on Craigslist for my tour of Maine. They were a royal pain in the A**, all in one design that had to be strapped to the rack. Not waterproof, but huge capacity. In the end, free was what I needed at the time and worked well enough for a 2 week bike tour (and I still have them somewhere).
    Anyway, I just found a steal on craigslist for a new, in the box, pair of Ortlieb back roller plus pro panniers for half the cost of a new pair in the store…score! Thanks again for your site…I’m just getting back into bike touring at my ripe old age and can use all the advice I can get.

  8. Almsot 30 years ago I bought Karrimor Iberian panniers (front and rear) and they are still in use — wheatered and beaten, repaired and less waterproof than in the beginning. Indeed lighter and more compact gear diminished the need for front panniers and I happily use the rear panniers only for many years now.

    I was considering buying new Vaude Aqua panniers (my wife has them, and they are really good!), but after your article I decided to stick with my Karrimors!

  9. My wife and tour on a tandem and use 40L panniers front and rear (Ortlieb and Altura). I have found that I can put a heavier load in the front panniers without it upsetting the handling. In fact it feels more stable! Another tip: Rubble sacks available from DIY stores make great waterproof bags. We put our tent and stools rolled up in them on top of the rear rack. They then double as ground sheets in the porch area of the tent.

  10. Roswheel is my first set of panniers after not having ridden for years. I am very happy with the construction quality and look of these bags.

  11. Ken Thompson avatar
    Ken Thompson

    Hi Tom
    This is not exactly a touring question but I am looking for a strong pair of rear panniers that I can roll up and carry in a rucsack. Ortliebs and others have stiffening that makes this impossible. Any ideas?

  12. Derek Stuart avatar
    Derek Stuart

    My 26-year-old Karrimor Iberian panniers have finally reached the end of their life, having been on tours in three continents and used for daily commuting. Thank you very much for your excellent and detailed article.

  13. DANIEL LANGERAK avatar

    There is a small company in California called Jandd. They build gear for firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMTS. But also build a wide range of bicycle gear and other adventures gear. Have had set of their panniers for 20 plus years. Use a high end, heavy Cordura fabric. With Basic old school, metal hook system, no plastic clamps to break. Find them to be a great durable product, are they perfect, no but are rugged.

    1. Thanks Daniel – I’ve also heard good things about Jandd panniers. Here’s the link for any other readers interested to follow up.

  14. Espen J avatar

    I think you should have a new look at the “Pro” variants of Ortliebs, as they have features that makes them superior to the 2x20 ones: They have a outside mesh pocket that are great for storing smaller items that doesn’t require beeing waterproofed, and they have tightening straps on the sides, so that you can adjust the depth of the pannier so that it doesn’t go floppy if you don’t use all the available space. Furthermore, the way the shoulder strap goes down under the pannier during use, you also get tightening in the vertical direction. the Pro-versions are basically a more adaptable/flexible version of the 2x20 ones.

    1. Thank you, Espen. Next time I’m somewhere that sells Ortlieb panniers I’ll be sure to check them out.

  15. Ludovic avatar

    Hi, Tom! Nice writing!
    I’ve a question: how heavier may canvas or cotton duck panniers become when wet? Is it negligible or can it be annoyingly noticeable?

    1. I have never noticed. It takes a long time for this kind of canvas to become fully saturated, in which case I would guess that the weight of your panniers is probably the least of your troubles!

  16. As I patiently wait for the international travel ban to be lifted so I can begin my world bike tour, I am using the downtime to prepare my bike. Just bought ortlieb sport city rollers for the front and back roller classics for the rear. At first I wished I got the pro version panniers for the back with the 30 extra liters of storage space since I am a big guy. But i think it’s fine. I also got the 31L ortlieb rack pack to attach to the rear panniers plus a handlebar bag and a frame bag, so I think I am good.

  17. Elfron avatar

    Good feedback, useful to many that needed it.

  18. Great article. I am surprised not to see Axiom Monsoon Oceanweave bags mentioned in your review. I have a set of them and went through about 2 hours of downpouring rain with pretty strong wind gusts while riding on a tour and nothing even got slightly damp, not even the inside layer of the bags. That was my first time out with those bags, but they are a roll down system, and I had everything in zip lock bags since I wasn’t sure how waterproof they were. Since that trip I got a bit paranoid and probably unnecessarily beefed up the water protection, I bought a set of the Axiom rain covers, which for some reason don’t come with the bags but they don’t really need it, I got it more for external abrasion protection and visibility due to them being a neon yellow color; but then I also lined the bags with a tie trash bag, this not only will assure no water gets in but also prevents something from spilling inside and staining or stinking up the lining of the bag. I’ve used these bags now for 2 seasons and getting ready for the third and they look as good now as they did new. The one I got was the second largest size they make in that series which is a 45 liter per bag, their largest is 55 L.

    Anyway I think the Axiom Monsoon Oceanweave is a great bag and one you should review.

  19. Clint Moore avatar
    Clint Moore

    Hi Tom (and others),
    Have been researching for a long time and had decided to buy a full set of bags from mainstream-msx. However, found that they do not ship to the USA. Emailed the president of the company who replied that shipping cost for delivery to the USA was prohibitive. Used to be able to access their website and now cannot. Any assistance would be appreciated!

  20. ognyan avatar

    actually, any bag with some quite easy diy procedures would make good panniers. My problem is that I still have no clue how to seam/ glue, etc the fabric used by ortlieb so that it is has the same long-lasting effect. In fact, ortlieb uses the same process (I think) as the covers of the trucks are made.

    So, to go back to the diy stuff, Arkel use quite an easy and, at the same time, trustworthy method for attaching panniers (used only on a rear rack).
    regards from Bulgaria and would be very glad to share own and get some new ideas on diy.

  21. I fell for the orblieb buzz and haven’t regretted it for my rear pair. I have the extra large ones as I am allergic to down so for a warm enough sleeping bag in synthetic it is massive for my tour to Japan.
    All the other bags on my bike I made from duck cotton canvas for approximately the price of a single carradice saddle bag (saddle bag, frame bag, handle bar bag, and two front panniers). If you have time I would suggest giving DIY bags a go as it helps massively knowing how to repair them and how they work!

    1. Thanks Ruth! Do you happen to have a good source of stitching patterns or how-to guides for making your own panniers that you could share?

  22. Great article! Do you have any recommendations for robust non-waterproof canvas panniers? I’m considering using drybags inside them but don’t want to have to deal with ripped bags. Thanks!

    1. Absolutely – check my review of the Carradice Super C rear panniers. I’m still using them after 13 years…

  23. No love for JANDD Mountaineering here…? I have used their gear for decades and found it priced well, extremely well made, and thoughtfully manufactured (among other things). In particular, their Running Rabbit line of gear which is made from remnants and recycled material. They often have generous sales on items, and all their stuff really is designed to last. They sell replacement parts for the most vulnerable wear and tear points on panniers (etc.), and although not the sexiest stuff on the market I would argue is one big bang for the buck.

  24. Hi there, pannier does not come from the French for ‘handbag’, it comes from the Latin word for ‘bread basket’, via French.

    1. Interesting. The source I consulted had a different story, but I can no longer find it!

  25. I really recommend the Potters Pannier made by Upso (run by some of the Carradice people I believe) – they’re roll-top panniers made from recycled truck tarps. Much more affordable than Ortliebs (half the price actually), water resistant, and so far have held up to regular use in a wet climate (both bike camping and in-town commuting/grocery hauling). They use Carradice’s quick release system to clip onto the rack; very easy to remove yet have never come off when I didn’t want them to. The fact that they’re recycled also means that each pannier’s design is unique (I found matching white ones but they come in different colours).

    The tarpaulin material is a bit tougher than other pannier materials which means you’ll have to break them in a bit and they’ll never be quite as easy to roll down as other bags. And the seams aren’t sealed, but I’ve never had an issue with leakage. I’m taking them out on a weekend bike camping trip next week when it’s supposed to rain every day, and I’m confident they’ll keep my stuff dry. I was honestly a little bummed that I couldn’t afford Ortliebs when I bought my Upsos, but I’m really glad I got them.

    1. I’ve just checked the price of the Upsos – they are now more expensive than Ortlieb when buying a pair.

      1. They’re £60 each right now, compared to £110 for a new pair of Sport Roller Pluses. But there may be other motivations to buy upcycled products than price alone.

        1. Have used carradice overlander pannier since 2005 they are no longer made just use dry bags for clothing .These bags I can put wet clothing in and they can breath were my Ortliebs made my wet gear smell badly

  26. Tim Anderson avatar
    Tim Anderson

    I’ve just spent the last 2 months going past heavily laden 100liter plus “tourers” (beasts of burden is more appropriate). I was once one of them. I now tour 7 months a year on all continents, with 8kg total, which is the EMPTY weight of a typical set of Ortliebs w/racks. Saint Exupéry quote: everything that is not absolutely necessary, is useless. LibreTour

    1. Hi Tim. I think you have a point there, but I also think it’s not that simple. Empty four pannier set and Tubus racks does make some 4,5 kilos of dead weight (manufacturers info). 

      For me the more important thing is WHERE the weight is on the bike. I’ve made this very simple test several times and I’m more and more convinced that the center of gravity should be low and the bike should be designed for touring, not sports: 

      First placed my stuff somewhere high, like on top of the rear rack and tried how the bike rides. Then put the same stuff in the front panniers and try them both front and rear. Then put the same stuff in rear panniers. 

      In my opinion, the bike rides so much more comfortably when most of the weight is in the bottom of the rear panniers. And the front panniers, on a low rider front rack, carry a light, well-balanced load I don’t need during the day (tent and sleeping bag for example). Despite the 4,5 kilos of dead weight this would be my choise.

      I’ve tried touring with a framebag and a hammock strapped to the handlebar, but I just dislike the topheavy setup. I also think that there should always be empty space in the panniers for times when I suddenly need to carry more food than normally. For the pros I’d say the framebag makes an exellent pillow.

      The reason I prefer an actual touring bike over sport bikes is that all the health issues dissappeared in an instant when I ditched my old cyclo-cross bike. I know my current ride is heavier and slower but I no longer have problems with lower back, neck, shoulders and palm nerves. I’m also not nearly as tired after a days ride. Propably BECAUSE I’m moving slower.

  27. Hi Tom, thanks for the comprehensive guide. I’d like to point out that there are some very good cheap options available. I have used Chris Boardman waterproof panniers from Halfords for three years. I am not sure that they are still in production but may be available from old stock or on eBay?? As with any kit the most important part is looking after it. The zip on the front of the pannier is not fully waterproof but the bags are. I think I paid just £10 for each pannier and they have served me well.

  28. First off, in french it’s panier with just one N and they are generally made of tiny wood branches woven together.
    From wikipedia it comes from bread baskets “pain” in french “pan” in many other latin languages.
    As for front low riders, namely Ortlieb, take care of curbs ! In ruined my right one in and out of town at cross stops.

    1. does it really matter if it’s one N or two?

  29. “(It’s worth noting that I have never heard of anyone buying the Classics and then later wishing they’d bought the Pluses.)”
    That would be me. I’ve had several pairs of ortliebs and find the pluses much, much more durable. Eventually, over a decade or so, something sharp will poke a hole through the classics. The pluses are not impervious, but are much more so. I also think the seam sealing is better.
    I originally had classics in the back and pluses in the front due to low availability in the us in the early 00s.
    My classics all developed leaks shortly after the warranty expired, during a transam. My pluses survived the classics that replaced the old classics. I now have pluses front and rear. (The fronts are the OGs from 2000 something, the rears are the new super reflective models)
    The same fabric on the bar bags is less durable though because the corners encourage wear.

  30. Derek avatar

    Hi Tom, I chose Ortlieb for primarily on water proof capability. Until recently I lived in Australia’s tropical north and needed a way to keep my work clothes etc. dry during my commute. I purchase my first set of (rear) panniers over 12 years ago and haven’t looked back. I now also have a set for the front and am equally satisfied. My brother swears by Crosso’s and wouldn’t change as he thinks they are more durable than anything else on the market. There you go!

  31. David avatar

    I would recommend the Carrdice Carradry rear pair for £85/pair.

    Ortlieb’s similar offering comes in at over £100 per bag, making it £200+/pair.

    I’ve used these panniers for years and the hook bad rail system distributed the shocks much better than my old Ortliebs, that are famous for having the hooks drill mounted to the bag directly. They then fail over time. £85/pair for Carradry is a bargain — not had any items wet, yet.

  32. I looked at Vaude and seemed nice. In the end though I returned them and replaced with Mainstream-MSX SL 55 ZX (

    They are great and match my handlebar bag too 🙂

    1. Thanks Tomasz! Why did you return them, so future readers can know?

      1. Tomasz avatar

        In the end it was just a matter of taste. Both have similar layout and volume. MSX seem to hav a slightly kore convenient handle and rack hooks

Something to add?