Every year, the list of touring bikes gets shorter.
First we lost bikes that were relatively obscure. One that comes to mind is the Revolution Country Traveller made by the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative. This was a fantastic value entry-level tourer and earned great praise as a result. But it was very limited in its distribution, and I’m guessing it didn’t turn much of a profit because it was just so cheap for what it was.
For those unfamiliar with the brand, Dawes are a British outfit who have been making touring bikes for decades. Indeed, when the first Galaxy was launched in 1971, it could be said that Dawes had created the first mainstream off-the-peg touring bike, at least in the UK. When the originator of today’s archetypical touring bike pulls their entire range without warning after almost 50 years on the market, you know something’s up.
The following year, something similar happened Stateside. Surly, who since 2004 had built the reputation of their Long Haul Trucker into a firm favourite of the North American cycle touring community, announced that the “LHT”, too, would cease to be manufactured. Their webpage for the bike and frameset has since been updated with a cute image of a gravestone reading ‘gone but not forgotten’.
These are two striking examples of a trend I’ve noticed while keeping that blog post updated over the 10 years since I originally wrote it.
But the list of discontinued touring bikes doesn’t end there. We’ve also lost the Ridgeback Tour, the entire Co-op Cycles touring bike range by REI, and the Adventure Flat White, all of which used to be manufactured at scale. At the bespoke end of the spectrum, Roberts’ truly legendary Roughstuff was another British classic whose story came to a slightly quieter conclusion. The picture is even more grim when you look at bikes designed for worldwide expedition touring, where the market is even more of a niche.
And the retailers have followed suit. As I write, the two big online bike retailers in the UK, Chain Reaction and Wiggle (which have now merged in any case), between them list a total of two touring bikes – or, more correctly, two versions of the same bike, the Fuji Touring. In fact, Chain Reaction have deleted the touring bike category from their website altogether. And across the industry the phrase “touring bike” is rapidly being replaced with “adventure bike”. Some of the bikes sold under this banner bear little resemblance to anything I’ve ever listed on that blog post.
This all begs the question ‘why’.
You might think the answer is obvious: the coronavirus pandemic has effectively cancelled the type of free and unrestrained travel exemplified by cycle touring, and manufacturers have simply cut their losses as a result, focusing on bikes for short adventures close to home.
But while there’s little doubt that the pandemic will have hit the cycling industry hard at the crossover with international travel, the downward trend in touring bike sales and availability had already begun before the pandemic.
There’s another easy target here, of course: the rise of bikepacking. I’ve written extensively about my views on this in another post. If you can’t be bothered to read it, the short version is that – in my humble opinion – today’s bikepacking boom is the result of an industry-wide campaign to make what were previously the concerns of a tiny cohort of time-rich mountain-bike travellers appear relevant to people who would otherwise just have bought a touring bike.
I might take some flak for holding this position, but I’ve been watching this industry for a long time, and I’m acutely aware that bikepacking was a thing long before it was a thing, even if its absurdly niche status meant we’d never quite needed the language to describe it. A good example of this is the Rough Stuff Fellowship. Today we would call them a bikepacking club, but they were officially founded in 1955 and they sure as hell didn’t call themselves bikepackers. It would be another two decades before the mountain bike was even invented. All that’s happened is that what they’ve been quietly doing for 70-odd years has suddenly become trendy.
So much for obvious explanations. The truth is that I haven’t conducted an industry-wide survey to gather empirical data on the matter, and I have no intention of doing so. Instead, I’d like to offer the community a few observations on the topic of what this all might mean for us:
1. Let’s first remember that we are experiencing a decline in the manufacture and sale of new touring bikes on an industrial scale. This is not the same as the death of cycle touring itself. It doesn’t mean that every touring bike already in existence suddenly vanishes, nor that smaller manufacturing operations won’t continue. (I just went down to my workshop to check, and my 2012 Kona Sutra is definitely still there.)
2. Let’s also remember that while we’ve lost bikes of real pedigree, none exhibited any major mechanical differences from each other. That’s because the core design principles for a good touring bike are tried and tested; no longer unique to any one brand. In any case, almost all manufacturing is outsourced to the same handful of factories in Taiwan, some of which I’ve visited and watched all the brands roll off the line together. In other words, what we’ve seen is the closing of a few chapters in the story of the bike industry, not the loss of some essential body of engineering knowledge.
3. Because touring bikes tend to be “forever” purchases, they’re intrinsically bad for business, so none of this should be a surprise. Most of us spend a rather large amount of money on the one touring bike we intend to ride for the remainder of our touring careers. These bikes were probably never particularly profitable for their manufacturers anyway, but they’re even less of a compelling product when you consider the unlikelihood of repeat purchases. Given that, it’s hardly surprising that the touring bike would be an easy target for cost-cutting in times of financial duress.
4. Good news – limited choice should make it easier to choose a touring bike. Some personality types (I believe they’re known as “maximisers”) want to see all the options and spend endless hours picking over the most trivial of differences in order to somehow divine the best possible purchase. On the other hand, I recently received an email from a reader complaining that the only bike she could find in her local bike shop that fitted her was an extra-small Salsa Fargo, and that she didn’t want to buy it just because it was the only choice. I suggested that it being the only choice might actually be the best reason to buy it.
5. There’s probably never been a better time to buy a custom-built touring bike. Especially if it’s a “forever” purchase, and even more so if you have diverse physiological requirements, there’s a strong case for shunning the mainstream altogether and getting yourself a one-off touring bike that’s finely tuned to your individual needs. While expert touring bike builders can be found throughout the land, I shall cheekily take this opportunity to recommend to UK readers Richard at Oxford Bike Works, whose workshop is open to anyone within visiting distance, and whose flagship expedition touring bike I helped design.
What do you think? Is the touring bike dying out? Or are we just seeing a spurt in its evolution?
Bogged down in research for your next big bicycle adventure?
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Good news for those of us looking forward to another year of adventures in the saddle: the dates for the 2022 edition of the UK Cycle Touring Festival have just been announced!
In fact, it’s already less than a month until the event kicks off on February 12th 2022.
As with previous years, the schedule includes workshops on all aspects of cycle touring, storytelling sessions to get you inspired, and much more spread over the course of an 8‑day programme.
This will be the third year running in which the festival will take place online, though the organisers Laura & Tim Moss hope to bring the real-life event back when conditions for such gatherings improve.
The upshot is that the online-only format will enable many more attendees from diverse locations and backgrounds to engage with the wealth of knowledge and passion on offer from the presenters – and to re-watch selected sessions after the event on the CTF’s YouTube channel.
As with the 2021 virtual festival, pricing is on a pay-what-you-can, per-session basis. This in effect means event overheads are covered by voluntary donations by those who are able to contribute, further lowering the barriers to attendance by those who can’t.
Full details forthcoming on the Cycle Touring Festival website, as well as via their email newsletter and Facebook page.
This is a detailed introduction to the best camping cookware for cycle touring and bikepacking. From individual pots, pans, and mugs to full cooksets, I’ll cover the options for all budgets and requirements.
But first, some good news: when it comes to cycle touring cookware, ‘best’ does not necessarily mean ‘most expensive’.
Yes, a high quality camping stove is a sensible investment for a long cycle tour or bikepacking trip when reliability is paramount.
But that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on cookware – the collection of pots, pans, mugs, and other cooking equipment you use with that camping stove.
Stoves are often complex and highly engineered pieces of equipment. A metal pot is just a metal pot. Metal pots don’t leak, break, wear out, or explode in a ball of flame. They don’t need maintenance, spare parts, or repairs. They just need to be metal and pot-shaped.
What this means is that you can – if it will help you save money for your ride – take whatever cookware you already have in your kitchen, pair it with your very expensive, ultra-reliable camping stove, and start pedalling.
You don’t need the 5‑star-rated ultralight all-in-one folding titanium non-stick lifetime-guaranteed and massively overpriced camping cookset your stove manufacturer would very much like you to buy. It won’t elevate your cookery skills, lower the boiling point of water, make instant noodles taste better, or improve your life in any measurable way.
So! Now we’ve put the role of cycle touring cookware firmly in perspective, let’s take a look at what you might consider taking on your next overnight trip.
What Makes Camping Cookware Different To Regular Cookware?
I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge of this subject. So, unlike blog posts written to stuff money-earning affiliate links in your face as quickly as possible, I’d like to cover some of the basic principles first, starting with the simple question of what actually defines cookware made specifically for camping.
The first thing to know about camping-specific cookware is that it is generally designed with the needs of hikers and backpackers in mind, as this is by far the biggest market for such products. As a result, it is designed to be light, packable, and compatible with a range of hiking/backpacking stoves.
We cycle tourers and backpackers don’t have the luxury of an industry making cookware specifically for us. But we do also have a limited amount of luggage space, and we do also expect to camp and cook in a self-sufficient manner. So it’s the hiking and backpacking department of your favourite outdoor retailer – as opposed to, say, the car-camping or caravanning department – in which you should be looking.
In terms of design, the most obvious difference when you pick up a piece of camping cookware and compare it to domestic or professional cookware is the weight.
Heavy-based pots distribute and retain heat better and so, under normal circumstances, are usually favoured by chefs. Our priorities differ; we’re trying to minimise pack weight to have a better time cycle touring or bikepacking, so we’re willing to compromise.
For this reason, most lightweight backcountry camping cookware is made of aluminium (or, in North America, aluminum), which is less dense and therefore lighter for the same pot size and thickness than steel or copper. Thin grades of metal are typically used, sacrificing heat distribution to save weight.
Uncoated (ie: bare) aluminium is commonly used in the simplest of camping cooksets, including no-fuss military mess kits, and can take plenty of abuse being used over open fires and being scoured with sand and gravel from nearby streams. Bare aluminium is relatively soft, however, and the vibrations of a moving bicycle can – over time – cause surfaces to rub against each other, creating a greyish metallic paste that gets everywhere and is of little nutritional value.
Higher-grade camping cookware often has a protective hard-anodised coating – basically a dissolved, oxidised and hardened layer of aluminium on top of the base metal – which is more durable, has better nonstick properties, is less reactive to acidic foods, and is easier to clean. It isn’t indestructible; too many sand-scouring sessions will eventually tarnish even the best coatings, and it isn’t recommended for use over open fires.
Cookware with a non-stick coating may appeal to your inner chef, but avoid all but that which has been well and truly road-tested (see the listings below for some good examples); otherwise expect to find bits of black stuff floating around in your food after a couple of weeks of use.
Ultralight titanium cookware is growing in popularity, especially among bikepackers. It’s lighter, tougher, and significantly more expensive than aluminium. Usually uncoated, it stands up to a lot of the abuse that would wear out a more delicate cookset.
Camping pots, pans and mugs have either folding or detachable handles (aka: lifters or grippers) for portability. For the same reason, an all-in-one cookset consisting of several items will often be designed to pack into itself like a Russian doll. Any remaining space can then be stuffed with cleaning supplies, instant coffee sachets, crushed packets of instant noodles… you get the idea.
Experienced riders sometimes break down these kits and carry only the subset of the items that they actually use, using the remaining space for storage. How will you know for yourself? By going for a test-ride and finding out!
But Will You Really Be Cooking?
If you’re riding alone and your meals are going to be simple, there’s little point taking more gear than you need. Eating directly out of a cooking pot or mug is perfectly acceptable when you’re wild-camping and nobody’s looking. A separate, insulated mug is useful for hot drinks and leftover boiled water, especially on cold mornings. The simplest solo cooksets typically consist of little more than these two items.
Remember that your appetite will reach hitherto unimaginable proportions, and that the capacity of a ‘2‑person’ cookset may be appropriate for one hungry cyclist. Some ultralight solo riders get away with a single titanium mug and use it for everything, but may find themselves cooking two (or more) servings at the end of a long day.
On longer trips with two or more people, the evening meal can be quite a social occasion, and the carrying capacity of a group allows for a more extensive kitchen. Some such groups take one massive pot and share it around until all involved are stuffed. Others discover the joys of ‘proper’ on-the-road cookery further down the road and thereafter ride with a full blown catering operation in their bags.
This is the time to figure out your priorities and plan your equipment needs accordingly. Perhaps one simple pot and a high-powered gas burner makes the most sense. Perhaps two ‘simmer stoves’, a five-piece nonstick cookset and a portable titanium pizza oven are going to better satisfy your culinary ambitions. Maybe, like most of us, you sit somewhere in the middle.
And the best way to know what you’ll actually need is to go for a shorter bike trip, experience a few days in the life of your future self, and make a note of what you used, what you didn’t, and what you wished you’d brought, then adjust your kit list accordingly.
This simple exercise will answer more of your questions about planning and preparing for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip than any amount of blog-reading ever will.
The Best Camping Cooksets For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Basic principles covered – check! Let’s now go through some of the most popular and reliable cooksets, pots, pans, and other cookware for cycle touring and bikepacking, from low-budget options to the very top of the line, and from ultra-minimal to pro-chef gourmet.
As well as globally-available brands, I’ll list a variety of popular regional options for readers in the UK, USA and Canada. Affiliate links are marked with an asterisk (*); read my full policy here.
Again, this is not a list of stuff I found when I Googled “best cycle touring cookware” for my new AI-generated spam blog. I’ve been riding the world and writing this blog for 14 years. I know hundreds of riders around the globe and have met thousands more on the road. This article represents what cycle tourists and bikepackers are using in real life, not which company has the most effective influencer marketing campaign or paid for the most fake 5‑star reviews on Amazon.
Cheap & Basic Pots & Mugs For Boiling Water On A Bike Trip
If you’re trying to save every last penny or cent, simply grab the smallest metal pot or mug you can find at the nearest charity shop/thrift store/yard sale, or whatever people are giving away on Freecycle in your local area, or whatever your parents hoarded somewhere in case it one day becomes useful, or whatever you can swipe from your own kitchen without the landlord noticing. Pair it with a homemade beer can stove and you’re ready to go. You can stop reading and start riding now. Have fun!
For cheap but durable cooking pots, a good place to start is with military mess tins, aka: mess kits.
In the UK, the British Army issue kit since 1937 has been a pair of rectangular aluminium mess tins with folding handles which fit inside each other and pack down as a storage box (which, with a depth of 6cm, will fit nicely into a full-size frame bag). Usually used to heat ration packs and boil water for a brew, the kit is designed for a type of solid-fuel stove commonly known as the hexi or Esbit, but will work fine on any camping burner. You’ll find them on eBay for less than £10.
Elsewhere in the world you’ll find similar military-issue mess kits (for my first big ride I used a set of Czech army cooking pots off eBay), as well as plenty of imitation military gear. Stick to original equipment if you can.
Elsewhere in the category of cheap camping cookware, it’s easy to find entry-level backpacking and hiking kits at big outdoor retailers and from mainstream global brands. Expect such cooksets to be lighter, flimsier, and possibly more colourful than the military kits. Avoid clever-sounding gimmicks and features, and look for simple offerings with as little to go wrong as possible.
In the UK and Europe (and increasingly beyond), Decathlon make and sell a basic stainless steel cookset for £10, which at just over 1 litre is about the right capacity for a hungry solo cyclist. It’s made of very thin metal and will doubtless burn anything but water, but it’ll get you through your first bike tour.
Slightly higher up the budget scale, Alpkit make the AliPots hard-anodised 2‑person cookset for £30, which won’t break the bank and will suit a couple or pair (or can be split up for a solo rider). The folding handles are slightly flimsy and you’ll eventually melt their rubberised coatings by accident, but that’s a criticism common to similar cooksets from other brands.
Individual pots and pans from the Trangia cookset range can be purchased very affordably, with either bare aluminium or hard-anodised finishes. It’s worth mentioning that if you’re planning on using the Trangia stove system anyway, the all-in-one kits will probably work out better value, and you’ll be sure that all the bits will fit together when packed – see the following section for recommendations.
Trangia products can be ordered worldwidedirect from Trangia, and in the UK are available on the high street from Go Outdoors or Millets, as well as online from Amazon. Having been so popular for so long, second-hand Trangia cooksets can readily be found on eBay. The brand isn’t officially distributed in the USA but you can still find their products on Amazon.
For bikepackers looking to minimise weight and pack size but on a low budget, a single-wall metal mug can fit nicely in a frame bag or cockpit pouch and allow you to boil water on a stove or campfire for instant meals and hot drinks (don’t burn your lips!). Look for something with at least 500ml (18oz) capacity; a lid will speed up your boils and keep the contents hot for longer.
Durable & Versatile Camping Cookware For Long-Haul Bike Trips
Thin, bare metal cooking pots – especially when used with tiny gas burners – diffuse heat poorly and therefore tend to suffer from ‘hot spots’. This can restrict your cookery ambitions to things that can be boiled, with a lot of stirring to avoid food sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning.
But with hard-anodised aluminium or titanium cookware, and perhaps a really good non-stick pan – plus a carefully-chosencamping stove with an adjustable flame – your culinary options open up considerably.
If you’re a keen cook, you may have already decided that you’re happy to invest in premium cookware. But if you are unaccustomed to the feeling of having cycled for eight hours while hauling half your bodyweight in luggage over mountains on bumpy roads, it is very easy to romanticise the end-of-day camping experience.
In reality, dinner on a bike tour tends to involve shovelling an alarming amount of calories down your throat with no concern for what it tastes like, let alone what equipment you used to prepare it.
This is yet another reason why it’s worth heading off on an overnight test ride in advance of departing on a big trip.
All of the premium camping stove manufacturers sell high quality cooksets to match the stoves themselves, but you’ll pay a premium for your brand loyalty. Affordable options from other makers can also achieve the same thing. In any case, let’s have a look at the most highly-rated options in this broad category.
Premium Camping Cookware For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Titanium single-wall cooking mugs are becoming more popular and affordable thanks to the bikepacking boom, being lighter and more resistant to denting and oxidisation, and fitting nicely in a cockpit bag – but the prices can still be double or more that of the basic steel or aluminium equivalent. As with so many types of outdoor gear, you pay more to carry less.
Good options in the UK include Alpkit’s MyTiMug range (I use the 98g/650ml version pictured above) and Snow Peak’s Trek range of lidded titanium cooking mugs, which come in 136g/700ml (direct / Amazon) and 175g/900ml (direct / Amazon) capacities and are designed to house a stove and gas canister. Snow Peak products are also well distributed in the USA, including the aforementioned Trek 700 (REI / Amazon) and Trek 900 (REI / Amazon) titanium mugs.
You’ll find tons of similar-looking no-brand or fake-brand products at big online retailers such as Amazon and eBay. Always remember: a metal pot is just a metal pot. Look for at least 600ml (21oz) capacity to ensure you can cook a decent portion of food – this is also roughly what a typical dehydrated meal requires – and a lid for more efficient boils.
Moving on to ‘real’ pots and pans, MSR’s Quick Solo cookset was a favourite among solo riders (including me) until it was replaced by the Trail Lite Solo, which appears almost identical but is yet to be road-tested in the long term.
Thankfully, the upsized Quick 2 cookset (Alpine Trek / REI / MEC / Amazon) lives on and remains highly recommended for couples and pairs. The set includes two insulated mugs, two sensibly-sized (1.5- and 2.5‑litre) hard-anodised pots with strainer lids and detachable handles, and two deep plates, all colour-coded for separation. The Quick 2 cookset has been in production for decades and continues to win awards for its tried-and-tested design and proven durability.
From Swedish manufacturer Primus, look for the LiTech range of hard-anodised aluminium pot sets, which come in 1.3- and 2.3‑litre sizes for soloists and pairs/groups respectively, again with a useful strainer lid and a detachable pot gripper. The non-stick frying pan from this range, bought separately, is one of the few whose durability and long-lasting non-stickiness have been proven on long haul rides.
Finally, and also hailing from Sweden, long-running stove makers Trangia also make hard-anodised pots and pans, both with and without a non-stick coating. Their products are broadly split into two counterintiutively-named ranges based on capacity: the 27 series is designed for soloists, and the 25 series for pair/group use.
A common criticism levelled at Trangia cooksets is their weight and bulk, but with a decades-long track record their durability is a big selling point for riders looking at months or years on the road.
A bewildering array of combination sets is available, or you can choose individual items. The classic example is the DofE-recommended 27–1 UL set for 1–2 people (pictured above), which consists of two pots, a frying pan/lid, a pot gripper, and the stove and windshield assembly itself, all made of ultralight bare aluminium.
Solo minimalist bikepackers should consider the ultralight Mini Trangia cookset (Amazon / Millets / REI / MEC), originally designed for adventure racers, which consists of a single 800ml pot with detachable handle, a non-stick frying pan which doubles as a lid, the spirit burner itself, and a windshield. It all packs down into a 67mm-deep unit weighing just 350g, and you can fry an omelette on it. Pretty neat.
Non-Stick Camping Cookware For Gourmet On-The-Road Cookery
No non-stick coating will last forever, no matter how durable or expensive. Years down the line it’ll be those bruised and beaten aluminium mess tins that are still serving up noodles as happily as they were on day one. You can prolong the lives of coated pots with a simple routine of protecting the inner surfaces when packed by stuffing them with cleaning cloths and making sure nothing rattles.
Bonus: A Short Rant About Camping Utensils & Accessories
You do not need a titanium spork.
You don’t need folding cutlery. You don’t need a miniature silicone chopping board, a branded 1‑shot moka pot, or any of the other bolt-on gimmicks that get sold alongside stoves and cookware to double the value of your shopping cart.
For most, a spoon and fork from your cutlery drawer will be all you need. If you’re concerned about non-stick cookware, grab a wooden spoon as well.
Get a simple, good-quality knife to prepare food, to eat with, and for other camp-craft activities, and learn how to sharpen it properly. A so-called Swiss army knife or a multi-tool such as a Leatherman or Gerber may seem like the perfect solution but the folding mechanism will end up full of cheese. A classic choice here is the much-copied and ubiquitous Opinel range, hailing from the French Alps and in production since 1890. The No.8 (Amazon / Backcountry.com / MEC), with an 8cm-long blade, is the original and most popular size – I’ve personally been using this knife for over a decade.
Do you need plates? Bowls? Plastic champagne flutes? Maybe – if your cooking style (and whim) demands it. I’ve travelled with riders whose mobile kitchens dominated their luggage, and for whom dinner was a two- or three-hour celebration of bush cookery and subsequent feasting.
My advice? Don’t spend any serious money on this stuff unless you absolutely know this is the way you do things. Especially if you’re alone, it’s far more likely that after a few weeks on the road you’ll be slurping noodles out of an upcycled food can with a tyre lever, having long since stopped caring about anything other than calories.
A few more hot tips from experience:
Find a small, airtight container such as a film canister and top it up with salt whenever you have the opportunity, as you’ll need more salt in your diet to replace what you sweat out during the day,
A larger, lidded, airtight ‘Tupperware’ container will serve you well as a leftover food container, spare plate/bowl, draining board, chopping board, and a whole host of other uses, ticking that all-important ‘versatile’ box which your titanium spork does not,
Rinse out one of those free hotel shampoo/shower gel bottles, fill it with washing-up liquid, cut a standard abrasive dish sponge in half, and put both in a Ziploc bag to create a handy washing-up kit,
One tough (ie: non-ultralight) drybag can be very useful for packing away damp, greasy, soot-covered cookware in the rain and keeping it isolated from the rest of your gear, and
A touring cyclist can never have too many plastic carrier bags – in fact, you may find you become quite the connoisseur.
In general, the cooking/eating/cleaning scenario is either one for which you already know exactly how you like to do things (from experience), or for which you very quickly discover what does and doesn’t work for you (through experience). It’s difficult to design a routine in advance if you are not familiar with the circumstances in which you’ll be operating.
Luckily it’s also unnecessary – basic cooking and cleaning supplies will be found wherever you’ll find settlements, which on a road trip will be a daily occurrence.
By the time you reach anywhere remote enough that there aren’t any settlements (if that ever happens), you’ll have had plenty of time to whittle your routine down to a fine art.
It’s time to deep-dive into another thorny topic (sorry) regarding equipment for cycle touring and bikepacking – how to choose a camping mattress, or, as my American friends would call it, a sleeping pad.
I’ll be looking specifically at which camping mattresses or sleeping pads are ‘best’ for cycle touring and bikepacking trips – and how the definition of ‘best’ might differ depending on personal preferences and the details of your planned ride.
I’ll guide you through this topic by combining advice from my 14 years of personal experience with a list of camping mattresses for cycle touring and bikepacking recommended by the community. Know that this is not another spam-blog stuffed with affiliate links – this website is a long-term labour of love, and it’s here to help you, not to make me rich.
Are you sitting (or lying) comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Camping Mattresses for Cycle Touring & Bikepacking – The Basics
Far from being an unnecessary luxury, a camping mattress is at least as important as a sleeping bag when camping on a bike trip.
This is because – as you’ll know if you’ve tried sleeping on bare ground – it’s where your warm body touches the cold ground that heat is most quickly lost.
Why doesn’t a sleeping bag stop this happening? Well, it’s the trapped air in the lining of a sleeping bag that keeps your body heat in. But a sleeping bag has the air squashed out when you lie down in it. A camping mattress solves this by providing a structure for the trapped air needed to insulate your body from the ground.
In other words, the main purpose of a camping mattress is to keep you warm.
Although comfort is often the first thing people think about when choosing a camping mattress, this is a secondary concern. No matter how soft and comfortable your sleeping surface feels, cold spots will wake you up if you’re not properly insulated – and then you won’t be able to sleep at all.
The 3 Types Of Camping Mattress You Need To Know About
Camping mattresses suitable for cycle touring and bikepacking are split into three categories:
closed-cell foam (ie: a ‘roll-mat’),
Within each category you’ll find a range of options and styles of interest to the cyclist, from a simple slice of foam costing £5 all the way up to to luxurious padded air mattresses costing hundreds of pounds.
Most of the camping mattresses we’ll be looking at come from the hiking, trekking and backpacking departments of outdoor stores, which is where the needs of bicycle travellers overlap with those of more lucrative markets.
How much luggage space you have will also affect what type of mattress you choose.
For bikepackers trying to reduce gear volume, ultralight inflatable mats or minimalist self-inflating mattresses will stow in a seat pack or handlebar roll.
If you’re off on a fully-loaded tour, however, a bulky closed-cell foam mat or thick self-inflating mattress will sit happily on top of your rear rack.
The other deciding factor is your own sleeping preferences.
Some people can unroll a thin piece of foam on rocky ground and sleep the whole night through. Others, especially side-sleepers, need a thick layer of air cushioning beneath them to get the same good night’s sleep. And yet others sleep better on a thinner ‘self-inflating’ mat with a foam structure (I’m in this latter category).
If you want to get a good night’s sleep, night after night, you need to know which of the three categories of camping mattress will best give it to you.
So head on down to your nearest camping store and actually lie down on some of the options before you spend any money.
Once you’ve understood which type of camping mattress feels right for you, then you can start thinking about things like your budget, luggage space, the climate you’re riding in, and all the other factors, before scouring the web for the best deal on your preferred option.
Let’s get stuck in to the specific products that come highly recommended for cycle touring and bikepacking by people who are actually out there riding, as opposed to what cheap piece of crap has the most paid-for 5‑star reviews on Amazon this week.
I’ll cover each of the three main types – closed-cell foam, inflatable, and self-inflating – in separate sections.
For each model, if there are multiple versions available (eg: different sizes, with or without extra insulation, ‘ultralight’ or ‘luxe’ versions, etc), I will describe the standard, medium-sized, regular thickness, non-ultralight model. You may then adjust your final buying decision based on whether you need any of the additional options.
As will all my gear round-up articles, I’ve included manufacturer and retailer links for the UK, USA and Canada where I can find them.
Some of these are affiliate links and are marked with an asterisk (*) for transparency. I’ll earn a small commission if you buy through them, which won’t make me rich but will help me keep articles like this one free-to-read and ad-free.
The Best Closed-Cell Foam Camping Mats & Sleeping Pads
Simple, cheap, and usually preferred by riders on a tight budget, generic closed-cell foam mattresses, aka: roll-mats, satisfy the one essential criteria – insulation from the ground – and nothing else.
With nothing to puncture or break, they’re actually a durable choice – as long as you keep them away from over-tightened bungee straps, corrosive substances, and the teeth of wild dogs.
Do not expect much luxury from most of these mats, but do expect to avoid being woken up by cold spots in all but winter conditions (in which case you can use two).
As well as at mainstream outdoor and camping stores such as Decathlon*; you can find these at supermarkets, gas stations, hardware stores, and so on, where they’re cheap and abundant.
If you’re on a tight budget, what’s ‘best’ is of course the same as what’s cheapest. Before buying anything new, look at charity shops, household recycling centres, skips, campsites’ lost-and-found departments, or find a fellow biker at the end of their trip using Warmshowers and swap their unwanted mattress for a night or two of hosting.
Check out this article for more advice on getting free or cheap equipment for a bike trip.
Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest (RRP $20/£20) & Z Lite (RRP $40)
If you’ve got a little more money and are looking for a specific model of closed-cell foam mat with a good reputation, the camping mattresses from Seattle-based Therm-a-Rest (part of Cascade Designs) are the ubiquitous choice.
The 400g RidgeRest (rolling) and 410g Z Lite (folding) closed-cell foam mattresses having proven their durability over decades – and they’re a lot more comfortable than they look. Many experienced riders still swear by them over anything inflatable.
There’s little to choose between the RidgeRest and Z Lite in terms of weight and insulation; the Z Lite is more compact when packed as there’s no “hole” through the middle (though it still won’t fit in a pannier), costs a little more, and is far more popular.
Both models have SOL or SOLite versions with a reflective coating on one side, which increases the amount of body heat reflected back up from the surface. Therm-a-Rest claim this increases its overall insulating power by 15%; extra warmth for no extra money makes it a popular upgrade. Riders do, however, report that this coating eventually starts to wear off over time (albeit a lot of time).
You’ll sometimes see bikepackers rolling up other camping items inside a RidgeRest and then harnessing the whole roll to their handlebars – a neat way to get around the limited space available with frame luggage.
Buy the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol in Canada from MEC.
The Best Inflatable Camping Mats & Sleeping Pads
While there’s only so much you can do with a slice of foam, there’s a variety of styles, thicknesses and insulation types available among inflatable mattresses to accommodate differing sleeping preferences, body sizes, temperature ranges, and other needs.
Manufacturers have exploited these marginal differences to produce a bewildering array of options. At the time of writing, for example, popular Swiss brand Exped had no fewer than 116 different models in their range.
Why bother with anything inflatable other than your bike tyres? It’s one more thing to puncture. All inflatable and self-inflating camping mattresses are vulnerable to being pierced by thorns on that one night you’re not concentrating when pitching your tent. That’s why they’re all supplied with patch kits and glue (yes, you absolutely must bring it with you on your bike trip).
They’re also less durable than closed-cell foam mats due to the internal structure needed to turn pressurised air into a flat mattress shape, rather than a balloon. Use it every day and even the best inflatable mattress will eventually fail internally, resulting in that dreaded muffled ripping noise – always just as you’re getting ready to go to bed – and your mattress suddenly growing a giant balloon-like tumour.
A good reason many people do choose them is because they feel more comfortable to sleep on than closed-cell foam mats – indeed, for some, this might be the difference between a good night’s sleep and not being able to sleep at all.
Let’s look at the most popular inflatable camping mattresses and sleeping pads for cycle touring and bikepacking. All come recommended by riders with many years of real-world experience.
Alpkit Cloud Base (RRP £42)
The 415g Cloud Base from Alpkit is a lightweight, non-insulated mat designed to minimise pack space for a low price. Although the tapered foot end won’t please everyone, riders are positive about the comfort provided by its 5cm of air cushioning.
Despite the 3‑year guarantee, durability can never be a priority for an ultralight mat at this price point, so consider it for casual and undemanding purposes such as short bikepacking trips rather than long-term expeditions.
Alpkit don’t provide an R‑value, but given the mat’s specifications you should consider it appropriate for 2–3‑season use, depending on how cold you sleep.
At 531g packed and with an R‑value of 1.3, Utah-based Klymit’s basic Static V model is heavier than other mattresses in this section, but it has a generous 6.4cm of loft, and a full-width foot end, making it a good choice for side-sleepers. Riders are particularly complimentary about the comfort provided by the V‑shaped air cells.
Durability is another strong point of this mat, as attested to by user reviews and also by the lifetime warranty, which few other mats in this category can boast.
It isn’t the lightest or most packable mattress in this section, but if you’re looking for a durable and comfortable summer inflatable sleeping pad, the Klymit Static V is a good choice.
The 680g Insulated Static V doubles the price and triples the insulating power, increasing the R‑value to 4.4 for all-season use.
Options include large, short, “lite”, “luxe”, double, hammock-specific; even “armoured” versions. Craziness.
Originally launched as the Exped HyperLite, the 365g SynMat HL from Exped was even lighter than the early versions of the XLite (see below) on its release, with none of the noise issues associated with the NeoAir range. Exped currently claim that this is ‘the world’s lightest mat at its warmth and comfort levels’.
With a generous 8cm of thickness and an insulated inner lining, riders rate this mat highly for comfort. Like other ultralight mats in this section, the heavily tapered design sacrifices versatility in favour of minimising weight and bulk: this mat is amazingly small and light when packed up.
The R‑value of 3.3 is a little lower than the XLite, its closest competitor, but still generous for 3‑season use. A few frosty nights would be perfectly tolerable on this for most.
Exped supply a carry sack and patch kit, and are following the trend for inflation sacks, which help combat the problems associated with moisture build-up inside inflatable camping mattresses.
The 430g Winter version increases the R‑value to 5.2, which Exped claim makes it ‘the lightest 4‑season sleeping mat on the planet’.
Size options include wide and long-wide versions. If you’re camping as a couple, there’s a Duo version of both the regular and winter models, which is double the width and a little heaver than two individual mats.
Ever the pioneers, Therm-a-Rest launched the NeoAir XLite as the lightest and most packable sleeping pad ever in its class. I used one on my 2012 ride down the U.S. Pacific Coast and wrote a detailed review (read it here).
This 340g ultralight mattress is still lighter, more packable and better insulated than most of the competition in this category, with 6.4cm of thickness and an R‑value of 4.2 – and the high price reflects this level of performance.
The tapered foot end saves weight but limits sleeping space; this isn’t a great choice for side-sleepers or those who toss and turn.
One criticism levelled at the XLite is its long-term durability. Several veteran riders have reported delamination after a few years. Though Therm-a-Rest are known for honouring their lifetime warranty, it’s possible that unrealistic expectations are in play here, as inflatable mats will always eventually delaminate under prolonged and intensive use.
Also of concern is the now-infamous noise the XLite makes when you lie on it! Some have described it as like lying on a packet of crisps (that’s British for ‘potato chips’, dear Americans). Whether or not this will bother you or your neighbours in the night is something only you can know. Pack earplugs anyway.
As well as the regular pad, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite comes in short, large, wide, and women’s specific (ie: warmer and shorter) versions. The current version includes an inflation sack as well as a carry sack and patch kit.
Buy the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite in Canada from MEC.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm (RRP £205/$215)
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm has the same form as the XLite (see above) but with upgraded insulation for camping on snow while climbing mountains, a slight weight increase, and a rather eye-watering price tag.
Weighing 430g and with an R‑value of 6.9, the XTherm has become popular with riders expecting all-season conditions who want to keep things as fast and light as possible – and who have loads of money to spend.
The same crunchy-sounding criticism applies as the XLite above. There are fewer sizing options for the XTherm than the XLite; regular and large versions only.
Side-sleepers and others who prefer space to spread out will appreciate the popular, rectangular MAX version, which also comes in large and wide sizes.
For the ultimate in all-season camping luxury, the 895g Exped DownMat 9 is a 9cm thick, down-filled, inflatable mattress with an astronomical R‑value of 7.8. Exped say this translates into comfort at ‑38ºC for an average user.
(I used a thinner DownMat 7 at ‑33ºC on a winter ride through Norway and Sweden – watch the short film here – and can personally attest that they’re bloody warm.)
It’s far heavier than the rest of the mats in this category, but still relatively light for its amazing insulating power.
The updated version includes an inflation sack, which is particularly welcome in winter when drawing deep lungfuls of frozen air before bedtime is the last thing you should be doing.
If you’re looking for uncompromising comfort on a journey involving deep winter conditions, there’s little better in this niche than the DownMat.
With a 5‑year warranty, you can expect to get many years of use out of this (and for Exped to honour their guarantee).
Options include thinner 5cm and 7cm versions with lower R‑values, long and wide sizes, and UL (ultralight) editions.
The Best Self-Inflating Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Self-inflating camping mattresses combine an inflatable shell with an open-cell foam filling to give you a mattress with a firm internal structure plus pressurised air for added comfort and insulation.
You squash the air out when you roll it up for storage, and when you unroll it and open the valve the foam will expand to its original shape – hence, ‘self-inflating’, usually to around 60–80% of its capacity, after which you top it up manually.
Many riders find these mats more closely resemble the feel of a ‘real’ mattress, which is probably the most common reason to choose one. They also take a little less effort to set up, and retain some insulating properties if punctured.
Because the filling adds a little weight and a lot of extra volume when packed, they generally aren’t for the ultra-minimalists.
Let’s take a look at the most highly-recommended self-inflating camping mattresses for bike trips. For riders neither on a super-tight budget nor needing to absolutely minimise pack space, this is probably the most popular type of camping mattress for cycle touring.
Forclaz Trek 500 (RRP £25)
Europe-based riders on a tight budget could do a lot worse than Decathlon’s take on the classic self-inflating hikers’ camping mattress, the Forclaz Trek 500.
At less than half the price of the big-brand competition below, it’s unrealistic to expect too much. At 820g it’s relatively heavy, and the 2.5cm of thickness may be on the thin side for some people, but the R‑value of 2.3 will give a good measure of 3‑season insulation.
There’s an XL version available for £5 extra. Decathlon provide a 2‑year guarantee and are very good at refunding or replacing faulty items in-store with no questions asked.
Riders starting out from Canada and looking for a no-nonsense self inflating mat at an accessible price could do far worse than MEC’s in-house offering.
At 690g, and with 3.8mm of padding and an R‑value of 3.4, it’s the most packable mat in the Reactor range, similar on paper to the ProLite Plus (see below) – a great all-rounder for all kinds of adventures, from summer through mild winter conditions.
It’s lightweight and small enough to pack away in the pannier, and if you do get a puncture, MEC throw in a patch kit too. Women’s-specific and ‘junior’ versions are also available.
Buy the MEC Reactor 3.8 from the MEC website or from any of their stores across Canada.
Therm-A-Rest ProLite (RRP $95/£105) & ProLite Plus (RRP $105/£100)
Another long-time classic from Therm-a-Rest, the ProLite has been on the market for literally decades. In fact, Therm-a-Rest claim to have singlehandedly invented the self-inflating camping mattress with this product.
The ProLite has an earned a cult following of veteran users who claim to still be using the same mattress they bought in the ‘90s. Durability and reliability is one of the key selling points here. If you want a lightweight 3‑season self-inflating mat that you just know will work, get the ProLite (and the lifetime guarantee that comes with it).
Over the years, Therm-a-Rest have refined the design to make it ever more lightweight and packable, and now claim the current 510g version to be the lightest and most compact camping mattress in its class.
With an R‑value of 2.4, 2.5cm of thickness and a gently tapered design, this is a streamlined yet high-performance self-inflating pad which will occupy minimal pack space for a mattress in this category.
The 650g ProLite Plus increases insulation and comfort for 140g of extra weight, with 3.8cm of thickness and an R‑value of 3.2. If you’re planning a long-term ride in varying temperatures and you’ve got the pack space for a little more comfort, the tiny extra amount spent on the Plus will very likely pay off.
As with other Therm-a-Rest mats, short, regular, large sizes and women’s specific versions of the ProLite and ProLite Plus are available.
Buy the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus in Canada from MEC.
Exped SIM Lite 3.8 M (RRP £97/$109)
Out of Exped’s bewildering range of camping mattresses, the 740g SIM Lite 3.8 M represents the classic, durable, lightweight, tour-friendly, self-inflating sleeping pad.
With 3.8cm of thickness and a generous 3‑season R‑value of 3.2, it’s comparable in performance and comfort to the ProLite Plus. The 90g of extra weight gets you a rectangular (as opposed to tapered) shape; better for side sleepers and those who have luggage space for a little more luxury.
If you’re looking for a high-quality, comfortably-sized, medium-thickness, self-inflating mattress suitable for everything but deep winter conditions, this is well worth considering.
The UL (ultralight) version costs more, weighs less (580g), and is otherwise the same. Both come in LW (long-wide) and regular sizes.
Exped’s reputation for build quality and reliability is up there with Therm-a-Rest; their mats all come with a 5‑year guarantee.
Finally, I’ve included the 970g Comfort Plus S.I. from Australian gear manufacturer Sea To Summit as an example of a camping mattress on the luxurious end of the scale which is still light and packable enough to consider for a bike trip.
The whopping 8cm of thickness will fool you into thinking you’re in a real bed. The R‑value of 4.1 means you’ll stay warm even on frosty nights. Get the large rectangular version to spread out even more. Or get the 128cm-wide double version and bathe in luxury. Even if you’re alone.
The Comfort Plus S.I. (and comparable mattresses from other manufacturers) is for riders who seriously value a comfortable night’s sleep, and don’t mind carrying a little extra weight to get it.
Buy the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. in the UK from Alpine Trek.
Buy the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. in Canada from MEC.
Still struggling to choose?
How To Hit The Road is here to take the pain out of researching and buying equipment for a long bicycle adventure, with contributions from over 50 veteran riders. Available now as a low-price ebook or print-on-demand paperback.
Camping mattress and sleeping pad manufacturers will almost always quote something called the “R‑value”. This is a measure of insulating power taken from the construction industry, and has mostly replaced the temperature rating as the standard measure of insulation for a camping mattress. A higher number means more insulating power. You’ll find recommended temperatures for “comfort” are often quoted too.
There are three important things you need to know about these numbers.
The first thing is that they are calculated in highly controlled laboratories in which brand new high-quality tents have been perfectly pitched in perfect conditions.
This campsite does not exist in the real world.
The second thing is that temperature ratings will be based on a user of average size, weight and metabolism, wearing a full set of thermal underwear, who is sleeping in the above-mentioned laboratory.
This user also does not exist in the real world.
The third thing to know is that because, physiologically speaking, males tend to sleep warmer than females, manufacturers often base temperature figures on a male user to make them sound more generous (you’ll usually find this stated explicitly if you dig deep enough into the small print).
We all know that both males and females go camping.
How, then, to interpret R‑values and temperature ratings when choosing a camping mattress for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip?
Firstly, you need to know what R‑values mean in the context of a bike trip. For much of the temperate zone, the R‑value rating of a given product roughly matches the number of seasons you could use it in. In other words, a mattress with an R‑value of 1 would be appropriate most 1‑season uses, ie: summer, whereas a mattress with an R‑value of 4 would see you through most 4‑season uses, ie: temperate-zone winters.
This is your starting point.
Next, think about your own sleeping habits. Do you sleep hot or cold? Are you the one who wakes up sweating and throws off the blankets in the middle of the night, or the one who’s still shivering even when snuggled up with woolly hat and a hot water bottle?
Thinking about this will help you decide whether to interpret a recommended temperature rating generously or conservatively, and whether to go for a higher or lower R‑value than the average for your intended use.
If you happen to be female in the unfortunately male-dominated world of outdoor pursuits, consider that manufacturers such as Therm-a-Rest who make “women’s specific” models tend to increase R‑values by roughly 30% over the “regular” models.
Unless you know you sleep hot, I’d therefore advise female riders to add 1 to your target R‑value, ie: 2 for summer, 4 for 3‑season, and 5 for all-season use.
Finally, consider the worst-case scenario for your upcoming trip, given where you’re planning to go and when. If, on the coldest possible night at the highest possible altitude on your route, you followed every tip in this article about staying warmer when camping in winter, would you probably survive on a camping mattress with the R‑value you’re considering?
Thinking about this will do two things. It will help you avoid “overkill” – in other words, buying a mattress far more highly insulated (and expensive) than you actually need. It will also help you identify possible situations in which a mattress with a higher rating might actually be a good idea.
Bonus #2: 14 Pro Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Your Camping Mattress
Once you’ve chosen your mat, there are a few clever ways to get the most out of it while cycle touring or bikepacking.
These are tips that take most people time and experience to discover, but I’ve listed a few here so you can leapfrog the learning process:
If strapping a closed-cell foam mat to your bike, protect it from damage by using flat straps rather than regular bungee cords.
Before setting up camp, lie down on top of your inner tent in the space you’re planning to put your mattress. If there are any rocks or other uncomfortable lumps underneath, now’s the time to find them.
Always inspect your pitch closely for thorns to protect your inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress from punctures – particularly small ones, which are more difficult to find and repair.
Particularly on long rides, you can protect an inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress by buying or making an additional protective groundsheet (aka: footprint) to go under your tent. Most tent manufacturers offer these as optional extras.
If you’re using a self-inflating mat, unpack it and open the air intake valve upon arriving at camp. By the time you’ve finished pitching your tent, it will already be at 60–80% capacity.
To get optimal comfort out of an inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress, inflate it fully, lie down on it in your usual sleeping position, then very slowly deflate it to your preferred softness.
If you’re planning a very long trip with an inflatable or self-inflating mat, consider an inflation sack, which will prevent moisture from your breath building up inside the mattress, causing mould and mildew in the short term, and possible structural failure in the long term.
Never fully inflate a mattress and then leave it in direct sunlight, as the heated air will expand and possibly damage the internal structure of your mat.
If you find an inflatable mattress slowly deflating over the course of the night, you may have a slow puncture. Find it by inflating the mat, immersing it in a bathtub of water and looking for bubbles of escaping air.
If no bathtub is available, drench it with a bucket of water mixed with washing-up liquid and look (and listen) for foaming bubbles.
If you can’t find any punctures, check if a faulty valve is the cause of the air leak, using the same methods.
If you’re stuck with a punctured inflatable mattress, gather dry grass, leaves, ferns and any other soft foliage into a big pile and pitch your tent on top of your “natural mattress”. You’ll need more than you think!
As an additional measure, dig out that foil emergency blanket you packed and spread it out underneath your punctured mattress where your torso is going to be.
Closed-cell foam mats make good protective under-layers for inflatables if you’re worried about punctures (and if you have the space), as well as adding extra insulation in cold weather.
Wow – that was a seriously long post! I think I need to go and lie down…
Last updated on July 9, 2022. As with so much outdoor and cycling gear, retailers are currently struggling to keep up with demand, so some of the products linked to in this article may temporarily be listed as out of stock.
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, of course, pack much more gear than that. That’s because we want to enjoy seeing the world, rather than bribing and bullying our way around as Stevens did.
This article is all about how to choose a set of panniers that’ll fit your budget, your style of touring, and the equipment and supplies you’re carrying with you.
It’s based not just on my own 15 years of cycle touring experience but that of countless veteran riders who I’ve cycled alongside and interrogated about their own gear setups, with the goal of creating the most balanced pannier buying guide possible (no pun intended).
Alongside the detailed listings of the best panniers on the market right now, I’ll include direct links to manufacturers’ webpages and buying links for retailers in Europe and North America (affiliate links are identified with an asterisk; click here to read my full affiliate policy).
But I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge, so let’s start by laying out the basics about panniers for cycle touring before we dive into the details.
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.
Do I Need Two Or Four Panniers (Or Something Else)?
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.
Two panniers (either front or rear) can be plenty for lightweight trips, such as short summer rides close to home with lots of bike shops, resupply stops and other facilities on your route.
You might also use two panniers in the longer term 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 bikepacking luggage such as frame bags, seat packs and cockpit pouches. Panniers can then be removed and stored temporarily for shorter side trips, 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, which is a topic I’ve covered elsewhere.
How 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 andmaterials, and are generally labelled as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They usually (though not always) are sold in pairs, sometimes with 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 feed directly into the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter is therefore better, particularly on rough roads.
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.
As mentioned above, a single pair of rear panniers might suffice for even the longest trips if packed thoughtfully with lightweight gear.
What Kind Of Pannier Rack Attachment Systems Are There?
A variety of attachment systems exist today, but they almost all make use of a pair of hooked clips attached the back of each pannier, allowing them to be hung from the rack tubing, plus some kind of adjustable retaining tab on the back of each pannier to hook around 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.
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*.
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 endless 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 real fabric, then waterproof everything inside the panniers with carrier 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 B’Twin (Decathlon’s in-house cycling brand).
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.
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.
Relatively new on the UK scene 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 as-yet untested on multi-year expeditions.
Available in three sizes (12/20/30 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.
Buy Alpkit Toliari panniers direct from Alpkit in the UK, with worldwide shipping also available.
MEC World Tour (CAD $180/200 front/rear)
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.
Buy the MEC World Tour20L or 30L panniers online from the MEC website or at any of their stores in Canada.
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 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 at the rear of the bike, all in matching his-and-hers 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.
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.)
Buy Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic panniers online in the USA direct from Ortlieb.com or from REI
Buy Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic panniers online in Canada from MEC
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, £95/£120 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 my own touring bike 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.
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.
Buy Vaude Aqua Front/Back panniers online in Europe from Vaude.com
Buy Vaude Aqua Front/Back panniers online in Canada from Vaude.ca
Arkel GT-54 (Canada, CAD$499 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.
Buy Arkel panniers online globally direct from Arkel (with worldwide delivery)
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There are lots of noisy opinions on the internet about pannier waterproofing. Discovering this ‘debate’ can be worrying for people who are spending two or three 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.
The extra ‘pannier admin’ involves putting your gear into drybagsinside the pannier (good ones are made by Seal Line, Exped, 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 discussing the minutiae of bags with hooks on them. Time to grab whatever’s lying around and hit the road!