How to pack your panniers
Loading gear on a bike is similar to packing a backpack, what you take and where you put it are important considerations that can radically affect handling and balance. A balanced load in a backpack is an issue of comfort. On a bike it can be a matter of life and death when the trail narrows to steep single track or that 18 wheeler rolls up next to you at 65 mph. The first issue of loading a bike is where to focus the load. There are many options. It is best to experiment before any big trip and do what works best for you. The following is an overview of the major options.
Rear only, or front and rear? The school of balanced riding says front and rear is best to distribute the load more evenly and keep your front-end down. With front racks, there is an additional choice of high or low mounting racks. The general rule is high for off road conditions and low for paved surfaces. Low racks will give much better handling, but are dangerous for off road riding, where clearance is the major issue. Front suspension aficionados, and riders who value a full view of the road/trail, must opt for rear panniers only. You will need larger bags if only one set is used, but, if you are not comfortable with bags on the front fork, this is your only real option.
Once you have decided on rear only or rear and front panniers, there are several general rules that apply equally to both systems.
- Keep heavier items low, inboard and toward the rider. (Fig.1). Heavy items should go in the bottom of the pannier, next to the frame sheet, forward in rear bags, back in front bags.
- Pad hard/sharp objects. Put extra clothing in the bottom and sides of bags to act as a cushion to any road hazards or crashes that may occur.
- Keep necessities and emergency items (tools and first aid) accessible in seat wedges, pockets or handle bar bags.
- Sleeping bags and pads generally go on top of the rack between the rear paniers.
As with backpacking, experience is the best teacher. Experiment with different loading methods. If something doesn't feel right, it isn't; so stop and move things around.