No Stupid Questions: How Best To Pack My Panniers For Cycling Round The World?

A reader writes:

I’m keen to streamline my set-up and I’m curious to know what round-the-world pannier set-up you’d recommend…

I’m thinking 2 × 12.5l front panniers, 2 × 12.5l rear panniers with an Ortlieb 31l Rack Pack and a 12l frame bag giving me around 93l storage. In addition, my front rack will enable me to carry a small duffel bag if needed. I’m considering possibly getting 20l rear panniers but I feel they’re too bulky and unnecessary. However, for long stretches where water and food might be scarce, they could work out well.

I’ll be beginning in March/April ‘24 and hope to cross into China by Sept/Oct ‘24 so I’ll be carrying some winter gear. Would be interested to read your thoughts!

Thanks for the question! It’s nice to hear that round-the-world bike tours are still a thing, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t awaken a little rose-tinted nostalgia. 

Having been on the planning end of a round-the-world cycling expedition myself, I can relate to the desire to get your packing figured out in advance for such a long journey, among many other things you must have on your mind.

At the same time, if the biggest question you have with three months to go is about the capacity of your panniers, I’d guess you’re either well prepared and starting to second-guess yourself, or panicking about a still-huge to-do list!

Luckily, while a lot of my advice tends to meander around between the variables and stop short of a categorical answer, with panniers it’s actually quite simple – and that’s because the round-the-world-by-bike packing puzzle has been solved so many times before…

The classic luggage setup for a multi-year, transcontinental bicycle odyssey is the four-pannier approach: two large panniers at the rear, and two small panniers at the front. 

This is usually complemented by a diverse range of frame luggage, handlebar bags, rack-top storage, and more besides – but the core pannier configuration tends to remain the same.

Given that, a question arises: do you know something I don’t? Is all your gear ultralight and ridiculously compact? Does your kit list diverge substantially from the norm?

In other words, is there a special reason not to take the tried-and-tested approach?

If there is, then fine. You’ve thought this through, and you can probably stop reading here.

But if there isn’t, I’d suggest you reconsider the larger rear panniers.

To start with, bigger rear panniers will better allow you to optimise the handling of your touring bike. You’ll be able to lower the centre of gravity by mounting them a little lower, and put denser, heavier items at the bottom and less-dense items at the top of each pannier in a way that frame bags and rack-top luggage don’t allow. This won’t just help with stability: it’ll be a better match for the way most modern touring bikes are designed and built to carry luggage.

All else equal, larger-capacity rear panniers will also make it easier to distribute more weight towards the rear, lightening the load on your steering and helping your fully-loaded touring bike feel a little less cumbersome on trickier terrain. A weight ratio of somewhere around 30–40% front and 60–70% rear is what most riders seem to settle on. Left and right should be as equal as possible in overall weight and distribution. Exactly how you organise things is often a process of trial and error in the first days and weeks of a ride, rather than something you nail first time on your living room floor.

More overall pannier capacity will give you options later on. 

You’re envisaging occasionally having to carry more food and water, and maybe some extra winter gear, and you’ve already identified that that’s partly what your rack-top space is for. But in the long term, it’s less than ideal to be stacking bags on top of more bags as your carrying needs increase, for reasons of handling and stability mentioned above.

You can avoid this by ensuring your panniers aren’t entirely filled with core kit and that there’s still space for food (and perhaps fuel and water). Again, larger rear panniers will help with this. You can then keep the rack-top space for bulkier, less-dense items such as extra camping gear and winter layers. And when, every few weeks or months, you really do need to carry a week or two’s worth of food and fuel, that big pile of extra stuff will only be a temporary one.

You may already have chosen a brand and model of pannier. But if you haven’t, I’ve published a detailed, up-to-date listing of touring-specific panniers here, under the title “Do I Really Need Ortliebs?”.

It also sounds like you’re shying away from larger rear panniers because they might be “unnecessarily bulky”. 

I’d just like to clarify – too bulky for what scenario, exactly? Are you concerned there’ll be too much empty space and your gear will be rattling around? Or that when you’re unloading the bike and carting everything indoors, it’ll make the process even more inconvenient than it already is? Or that it’ll make the difference between being able to fly your bike and gear across oceans in a variety of hastily cobbled-together cardboard boxes and Chinese laundry bags? 

Once again: just asking!

Pannier manufacturers quote exact capacities mainly to help potential buyers understand products on paper. In reality, any pannier with a roll-top closure design (and some with other types of closure too) will have a range of working capacities, depending on how many times you fold over the opening and how vigorously you compress the contents. In other words, what’s sold as a 20-litre rear pannier might actually cinch down to 15 or bloat upwards towards 30 as necessity dictates.

Of course, there’s only one way to figure all of this out for sure: collect all the gear you’ll be taking on your trip; add an average load of food, fuel and water; then pack your bags to see what happens. 

If you haven’t bought your panniers yet, use equivalently sized carrier bags or cardboard boxes to simulate them. You’ll quickly realise how well your carrying capacity matches what you’ll actually be hauling, and where you might want to make adjustments.

It’s worth remembering that you’ll probably be able to buy new panniers from a retailer with a fair return policy, conduct the above experiment, and then return or exchange them unused (as long as you’ve left yourself enough time to do so). 

In other words, the worst case scenario is that you buy one set of panniers, realise they’re the wrong size, and send them back for a different pair.

Anecdotally, I set out on my own round-the-world attempt with a large pair of rear panniers (Carradice Super Cs), an Ortlieb RackPack rack-top bag, and a cargo trailer in place of front panniers, envisaging (like you) that I’d eventually need to carry extra food, water and winter gear while heading east.

Then, as they tend to do, my plans collided with reality. My trailer broke repeatedly until I threw it in a dumpster. The RackPack was both too inflexibly-sized to be useful and too waterproof to house damp camping gear that actually needed airing, so I posted it home and my mum sold it on eBay. Then I changed my route plans and went to Africa instead of Tibet. You get the idea.

A couple of years later, after all of this had happened and a bit of experience had allowed me to whittle my gear right down, all I was left with from my original setup was the two large rear panniers. 

I’d added a very basic roll-top drybag for the rack-top, which could either hold about a hundred litres of assorted crap or pack down to the size of a rolled-up newspaper. But the large rear panniers remained the core of my cycle touring packing strategy, and have continued to do so ever since. 

That’s my story, of course, but I’m hardly alone.

I’m also detecting in your question – and please correct me if I’m wrong – a perhaps unexamined assumption that you need to start by packing everything for the whole trip.

That’s a reasonable way to achieve peace of mind, but I’d suggest it isn’t the only way to think about provisioning for a journey of years in length.

If you’ll entertain another annoying rhetorical question: why spend the spring and summer carrying winter gear across Europe (for example) if you can buy it all on your way through Istanbul or have it brought out later by a friend?

Decent outdoor gear used to be hard to find outside the majority of cycle tourists’ countries of origin, but that isn’t true any more. The worldwide emergence of middle-income society has brought with it new communities of outdoor and cycling enthusiasts, leading to outdoor gear and bike shops – mostly in capital cities – to sell them this stuff. 

Coming at this from another angle, region- and season-appropriate clothing tends to be available in the region and season in question, because, after all, the locals need it too, even if it isn’t quite what you’d find at your local retailer.

The reason I mention all this is because, all else equal, a lighter bike tends to be more pleasant to ride, particularly on long, steep climbs, when every unnecessary gram or ounce makes itself felt! 

Whether that’s more important than pure self-sufficiency is a matter of personal choice – which, at the end of the day, is what this question is all about. Of course there are endless ways to arrange your luggage for a round the world ride, and you’ll find seasoned riders out there taking all sorts of eclectic approaches to packing. But if it’s your first big ride, my basic advice is to stick with the tried-and-tested.

Hope this helps!

Comments (skip to respond)

3 responses to “No Stupid Questions: How Best To Pack My Panniers For Cycling Round The World?”

  1. Peter West avatar
    Peter West

    A few things I have found that work for me. Pack everything systematically in the same place every day. Then it is easy to find something in a hurry and not so easy to leave stuff behind. I have a ‘dry’ rear pannier with sleeping bag and dry clothing, and a ‘wet’ rear pannier with tent and damp clothing. I compartmentalise the small stuff in 2 litre ice cream tubs stacked in the front panniers. 1. Tech stuff: cables, lights, battery bank. 2. Stove, windshield. Toiletries, toothpaste etc. 3. Hardware: like a spare guy rope as a washing line, bike spares. 4. Eating stuff: a collapsible bowl, plastic cutlery (but a proper sharp knife), salt and pepper. Most importantly always have a stash of chocolate to get you through the last few miles!
    Try everything out before you go. I just read a journal of a guy riding from the UK to South Africa who put up his tent for the first time on the first night in France. Definitely not recommended. Be self-reliant. I met a couple in France who didn’t even have a puncture repair kit, and, yes, they had a flat miles from anywhere.
    To follow the comment above, look at everything you bring home and ask yourself if you ever used it (for next time). Make a list for your next tour.

    1. Thanks for sharing these tips and tricks – lots of good ideas here!

  2. I’ve not done a round-the-world trip, but I’ve done a few two-monthers. My advice is: lay out everything you think you’ll need on a table or floor. Throw half to 2/3 of it away. What you’re left with is roughly what you’ll need.

Something to add?