A Guide to Backpack-Panniers

Should you use a pannier or a backpack? It’s one of the great, dumb, debates between cyclists. There advantages to each mode, so why can’t the answer just be yes?

I own panniers as well as several backpacks. Some mornings I’m like a socialite trying to decide what shoes to wear.

Is today a pannier day or a backpack day? Should I wear the green one or the black one with the laptop sleeve?

Why can’t you get a pannier that is also a backpack, or a backpack that is also a pannier? It’s a great idea, in principle.

So has anyone yet nailed the backpack-pannier concept?

Besides this guy.

Until recently I was hauling everything on my back around Tucson, which not only limited my carrying capacity, but I was starting to believe all of the people who say backpacks make them too hot and sweaty in the summer.

I needed a rear rack that would not interfere with the foldability of the Montague Boston 8 folding bike.

Thule Tour Rack

So I got my hands on a Thule Tour Rack ($98.99), which doesn’t require any mounting eyelets. Instead, it mounts to the seat stays with these weird little things that remind me ratcheting tie-down straps.

I also liked the idea that it could be removed quickly with a little quick-release tool.

I was happily surprised to find out that the bike still folds completely without removing the rack.

Montague Boston 8 with Pack 'n Pedal Tour Rack
Ready for loading

I’m really appreciating the difference in comfort, coolness, and the reduction in sweat when I complete my bike commute.

But as a habitual backpack user, I want to be able to remove switch from backpack mode to pannier mode quickly — if possible.

I took a look around the shop, and this is what we have:

Ortlieb Vario Commuter Backpack Pannier

What I’ve had now for a couple of years is an Ortlieb Vario ($122.39).   The transition from backpack to pannier is not quick. You have to remove the backpack strap system from four snap-on points, fold it in half, and then stuff it into a zippered neoprene pouch on the back. Oh yeah, and to use it as a pannier, you need a Vario Fixation Strap ($8.99) in order to hook it to the bottom of your rack. And hopefully your rack has a feature to receive the hook at the end of the strap.

One of those four snap-on points dangled into my spokes once or twice and brought me to inconvenient stops. And by “inconvenient” I mean “terrifying.”

Ortlieb Vario Spoke Hazard
Snap, Crackle, Stop.

I still like the Vario. I really do. But I only use it as a pannier when I’m using a rack with good stays that would hold that corner of the bag well away from the spoke zone.

Ortlieb Pannier Carry System

What if you already have invested in Ortlieb panniers? Clearly, your a pannier person at heart.

The Ortlieb Pannier System can transform one Ortlieb pannier into a backpack. It works in the opposite way of the Vario, in that it turns a really good pannier into a half-assed backpack. Still, if panniers are your primary mode and you don’t want to transfer your stuff into a separate backpack — or carry a backpack with you, it’s not that bad.

The padded panel protects you from the pokey pannier mounting parts.

Ortlieb Pannier Carry System Inside
Pannier mounting parts between you and your back.

However, if you have your mounting hooks off-center for the best position on your bike rack, well, as a backpack, your bag is going to slump to one side.

This attractive model almost makes the pannier look like a well-fitting backpack.

On me, it hung off my back and a weird angle, like it was trying to escape.

I’m not sure if this is a commuter thing. Maybe it’s best for bike tourists who want to take day hikes with some of their stuff.

Vaude Cycle 22 / Cycle 28 Backpack and Rear Pannier

Disclosure: I haven’t laid my hands on these. People who know the quality of Vaude Bags snatched them up about as soon as they were in stock. I blinked and they were gone.

Vaude Cycle 22 Backpack Pannier Attachment System
Adjustable top hooks, cursed strap and lower hook.

The Cycle 22 has a 22 liter capacity and the Cycle 28 has a 28 liter capacity. (Do you need to write that down?)

Regarding construction quality, I give these the benefit of the doubt because of the Vaude brand.

The pannier attachments are on a big flap that flips over the backpack straps, and then you zip the flap up. It seems like these bags will have a pretty fast transition from backpack to pannier and back again.

My only prissy complaint is that I don’t like messing with lower hooks on panniers — I’ve become spoiled by easy-on/easy-off attachment systems like Ortlieb, Timbuk2, and other Vaude panniers have.

Still: Vaude.

Timbuk2 Especial Viaje Backpack Pannier

Now we’re talking. Timbuk2 put the backpack bits on one side, and the pannier bits on the other side, making the transition between modes pretty fast.

We’re also talking sticker shock ($228.99), but this bag is pretty huge — 26 liters by my math. The construction seems great.

The pannier attachment system is both flexible and stealthy. Everything folds down when not in use. I was able to adjust the pannier mounting hardware to both the Thule rack and a more traditional rear rack.

Timbuk2 Especial Viaje - Two Racks
L: A Topeak Rack. R: The Thule Tour Rack

If you’re anal retentive, you can stuff the backpack shoulder straps into a pocket inside of the main flap. But if you are lazy you can also just tie a little bow knot on the adjustment straps to keep them from dangling on the ground. The shoulder straps are covered by the main flap when the bag is in pannier mode.

Timbuk2 Viaje Backpack Pannier -- Hiding the Backpack Straps
Hiding the backpack straps — The lazy method

Yes, this is my personal favorite.

Timbuk2 Shift Commuter Pannier

Timbuk2 Shift Pannier Messenger - On Rack

Finally: The Shift Commuter Pannier ($128.99). When it’s not a pannier it’s messenger bag instead of a backpack. This is the same bag that Karen Voyer-Caravona raves about, but with an updated attachment system — the same as the Especial Viaje (above).

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