If you use your bike to commute or for transportation, you will probably need to carry more gear than when you are taking a recreational ride on the weekend. You will need a way to carry the items you will use when you arrive at your destination, such as a change of clothes, a laptop, work papers, locks, bike tools in case of a flat tire, and your lunch. If you run errands on your bike you will need a way to comfortably carry your purchases. Hanging plastic bags from your handlebars is unstable and risky! The most popular bike bags if you bike for transportation are a backpack, messenger bag, panniers, trunk bag, or a handlebar bag or basket.
Using a Backpack for Cycling
If you want a general-purpose bag with a lot of carrying capacity, a backpack is a good option. Backpacks come in many sizes, colors, and with varying number of pockets and can be also be used as a day pack or luggage when traveling. Food delivery on a bike often involves the rider carrying large insulated backpack. While a basic backpack can be purchased at a dollar, big box, department, or sporting goods store, there are backpacks optimized for cycling.
Common features of a cycling specific backpack:
Using a Messenger Bag for Cycling
Bags that sling over one shoulder were originally used by bike messengers because it is good for accessing and carrying flat items like documents and it continues to used by cyclists to display a cool, urban vibe. You can adjust the bag so that it rests on your back as you ride and there is usually a waist strap to help stop the bag from moving too much. Messenger bags come in small, medium, large or extra large and are usually made from weather resistant fabric. There are many options for colors and designs to express your style.
Using Panniers for Cycling
A pannier is a bag designed specifically for cycling that attaches to either a front or rear bike rack. The rack is permanently attached to the bike. You can use one pannier or a pair on either side of the rack. They are made from water repellant or resistant fabric in multiple colors and often include reflective accents in the fabric. A roll top is popular since it prevents water from seeping into the bag and enables some adjustability in size but others have flaps or plastic zipper enclosures. Most panniers are stiff on the side that is adjacent to the rack and have clips to attach at the top of the rack and another clip or elastic strap at the bottom to prevent the bag from accidentally flying off. Bags come in a wide range of capacities and styles, including a garment bag, laptop bag that looks like a briefcase, a boxy grocery bag, or a convertible bag that has the fittings for both attaching to a bike rack and wearing as a backpack. Panniers usually have a carrying handle or an attached or detachable shoulder strap for ease of carrying when off the bike.
People who take long distance self supported trips on their bike usually use multiple panniers to carry all their gear which may include a sleeping bag, cooking equipment, spare clothing, maps, bike tools, toiletries, and food and water. Traveling by bike is somethings call "bike packing".
Using a Trunk Bag for Cycling
A trunk bag is a rectangular shaped bag that attaches to the rear rack either with Velcro straps or a bracket that slides into a specially made rack. Access to the contents is usually with a waterproof zipper or Velcro flap. To be able to stand upright on the rack, it has to have a frame or reinforcement on the inside. It often comes with a wrist or shoulder strap for carrying off the bike.
Using a Handlebar Bag or Basket for Cycling
If you do not have a lot of things to carry or only smaller items, a handlebar bag or basket might be a good option. Baskets can be either metal, plastic or wicker. If you choose a wicker basket, they come in a variety of tan shades and wicker materials and add a certain retro style. A wide range of colors are available with painted wicker. Bags are usually made from cloth treated to be waterproof or water repellant, sometime with an internal frame to hold the shape.
A bag or basket attaches to the handlebar, either with leather or plastic straps or a bracket. Some have brackets that are permanently attached at the intersection of the handlebar and stem and have a mechanism to allow easy removal either to lighten the load on the bike or take it with you . Some baskets have reinforcing struts to attached to the sides of the front fork permanently bolted to the bike that allows the support for a heavy load. You can find handlebar bags and baskets in a variety of sizes but in general they are best for smaller size loads such as a wallet, keys, cell phone, and sun glasses. If you tour new areas on your bike, many handlebar bags have a pocket to insert a map that you can follow as you ride. If your basket is open at the top you need to be careful if you bike on rough surfaces that items do not fall out of the top when hitting a bump. This is case a bungee strap or clip on cargo net is useful.
Unless you are only an occasional commuter or traveler, you will be wise to invest in a bag that is sturdy and well made. It should have sturdy zippers and fasteners, reflectors, and be made with material that will stand up to the elements to keep your gear dry. Sometimes plastic mounting clips and straps break with normal use, so if you are a hard user, select an established, well known brand that makes small replacement parts available and has a warranty to cover rips and tears. In the end, the ideal bag is one that works for you.
Originally published 12/3/2020, updated 8/22/2022.
Earth Rider Blog about Cycling
Sharon Kaminecki and others comment on adventures in bicycling and other stories