I was shopping for new panniers and thought it might be worth it to also check out messenger bags as an alternative. What are the basic pros and cons of each?

I started out using just a regular back pack to carry my stuff, this was quite hot on my back. I purchased panniers a few years back, and I've been pretty happy with them.

The major problems I have are that the rack is always on the bike, even when I don't need to carry anything. They are difficult to carry when I'm not on the bike. Also, most panniers are sold in sets of 2, and I only ever use 1.

As far as messenger bags go, I've never used one before. Is it that much better than a regular back pack? I realize it isn't so high on the back, so it should stay cooler, but I'm not sure about having all the weight on me, and how that affects getting out of the saddle.

Let me know what your experiences are with each of them, and which you recommend.


8 Answers 8


Messenger bags still get your back sweaty, sometimes even moreso than a backpack since messenger bags are often wider than a backpack. I find a messenger bag more convenient than a backpack for shorter trips, but a pannier better for rides of greater than a mile or two. A messenger bag is quite handy if you have to make a lot of stops and don't have a lot to carry.

I often get back pain if I carry my messenger bag for any length of time.

When carrying a messenger bag with netbook and a book or two, I'm hesitant to rise up out of the saddle. Panniers can actually make a bike a bit more stable, if the weight is carried low to the ground. (The only time I can stand out of the pedals while climbing is on a loaded touring bike, but that's an extreme situation.)

My MO is to use what's appropriate to the trip. If I'm riding downtown to get some work done in a cafe with a laptop, I'll most likely take the messenger bag, but if I need to carry stiff for a longer ride, I'll use a couple of panniers.

I've sometimes used one pannier, if the load isn't too heavy. You can also distribute a light load between two panniers. (That's a good use of front panniers, which, depending on the bike, can be more stable that rear panniers.)

There are options for panniers that need to be carried around a lot. This question and its answers address that well: Recommendation for panniers used off the bike a lot

In conclusion, the choice of pannier-vs-messenger bag/backpack is a false choice. Both are tools, and you can use what's appropriate to the job at hand.

  • +1, just to add to the issue with weight - using a messenger bag with lots of weight might be tolerable while riding, but I found that the uneven stress on my shoulders developed painful and range limiting pain in my neck and upper back. Now I use panniers except for light loads. Commented Dec 31, 2010 at 16:43

A messenger bag is great when you:

  • Are not transporting a heavy load
  • Have to put items into the bag, or remove items from the bag very often.
  • Are doing short trips, or having to leave your bike a lot as part of a longer trip

A rucksack is great when you:

  • Wish to be able to easily carry the load while off the bike
  • You have to walk a long way after your bike ride, or use public transport
  • You wish to have both hands free when not the bike, e.g you need to carry the bike up stairs at the start/end of your trip

Panniers are great when:

  • You care more about the “on bike” part of the trip than the “off bike” part
  • A pannier can have a solder strap, but it still takes time to fit and remove the strap or tie it up so it does not catch in your wheels.
  • (You will need some sort of rack to fix the Panniers to)

A basket is great when:

  • You wish to transport a normal bag (or rucksack) on your bike
  • You like the fact your the bag can be removed quickly by you (and don’t mind that it can be removed quickly by others.
  • You think being “practical” is more important the being “cool”.

A luggage carrier / rack is great:

  • When you wish to fix a bag or box onto the back of your bike
  • Unlike a basket you need to use straps (sometimes build into the rack) to fix the item to the rack.
  • You are less likely to get laughed at with a rack then a basket.
  • So it takes longer to fix something onto a rack then put it into a basket, but also it is harder for someone else to remove the item.
  • (Panniers are fixed to a rack; this is covered under the pannier section)
  • +1 Nice list. Could you explain what a "bracket" is? Is it some kind of bag holder? I could not find any explanation by googling.
    – sleske
    Commented Feb 16, 2011 at 15:14
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luggage_carrier
    – mgb
    Commented Feb 16, 2011 at 16:23
  • 1
    I put my backpack in my panniers.
    – gerrit
    Commented Sep 5, 2013 at 10:04

I have all 3.

Messenger bag - All the weight is on one side and supported by one shoulder and the opposite hip to some degree. I found them to be fine with light loads.

Backpack - Like you said can be overly hot. I'm using a Camelback model that includes hydration and a somewhat vented back panel. Overall it's good in that it means a balanced load and has multiple support points.

Panniers - Yes, can be a pain to carry. There are some models that can be bought singly. A friend has one that he got from REI.

Overall I like panniers if I have heavy loads, like grocery trips, and I use one or both as needed. The backpack for moderate loads when I want to be more mobile at my destination. The messenger bag I rarely use any more except for light loads and short trips. Of the 3, I use the Camelback most often as it has a large mesh compartment on the back for my helmet and mesh side pockets that hold shoes well, plus an ample interior.


Another cargo solution is a messenger bag or backpack strapped to a porteur rack or in a front basket. You have all the flexibility of a human-designed bag plus the ability to easily carry large/bulky loads when needed. Many bicycles handle quite well with even a moderate front load, but the lower the load can sit the better.


Another option is a handlebar bag. Most models have a quick-release and shoulder strap so they're easier to take with you than a pannier. Mine is large enough to carry an iPad/netbook plus lunch, sunglasses and other small items. As long as your load isn't too heavy the effect on your steering is minimal.

Otherwise I'd go with panniers or a rack-top bag. Keeps the weight off your back so your bike can do the carrying rather than your muscles. Standing climbs are also easier without having to balance a swaying load on your shoulder(s).


I also hate leaving my rack on my bike carrying a back pack. One solution that I have been thinking about is to get a trailer. Most trailers can be attached in about 2 seconds so it is fast, keeps the weight off your back, etc.

Update: Bought a trailer. Love it. Highly recommended. Have a Bob trailer. Was as much as my bike but easily worth it. Only advice: if you are getting one and planning on ridding on rolling terrain or dirt roads drop the extra $70 for suspension. I didn't but wish I had.


As an alternative, I use bungee cords to attach my bag on the bike.

  • I often do the same thing, when I have a messenger bag instead of a pannier but don't feel like carrying the bag on my back
    – freiheit
    Commented Sep 11, 2010 at 18:18

I bought an Arkel Pannier (Signature H Urban Pannier series) and it doesnt need specific racks but you can put it on with hooks on your existing rack. I was faced with the same issues as you but the Urban Commuter H has been so convenient in putting on and off the bike with minimal effort. Only thing I would want is a better strap to carry it but it as worked well for me so far. ...it is in the same price range as the Ortliebs.

Good Luck.

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