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Panniers vs Frame Bags

June 10, 2009

Yesterday I was poking fun at the Germans and a few folks either commented or emailed me a few thoughts.    Those comments reminded me that I’ve always wanted to have a discussion about panniers and frame bags.   I kept putting it off because I felt like I did not have a enough real world experience with the frame bags to really provide feedback.   Well, that has changed and I thought I’d take today to talk about about each of them.

First, I want to start this from the perspective that I come from the pannier camp.   I did my Alaska to Utah journey with Madden panniers.   Also, prior to this year, every camping related trip I have ever done on my bike involved panniers.   I also spent a good portion of last year commuting with panniers.  I was convinced to try frame bags while at last years IB.

Second, I want to also say that this post isn’t about which one is better than the other.  Nope.  In my opinion, which one is better depends on how you “intend” to use them.   More importantly, I think it depends on the “experience” you seek.

So…Rather than talk about panniers vs frame bags, I’ll do a quick outline of my experiences with them.  I’m sure there are things I’ve missed and if you’ve got opinions, please post them.

Axiom panniers keeping my clothes, food and work files dry.
Axiom panniers keeping my clothes, food and work files dry.


– You can get big bulky stuff in there.

– You can easily bring too much.  Both a plus and a minus depending on your personal view.

– Easy to pack

– Easy to fit on a variety of frame designs and frame sizes

– water proof option

– Readily available all over the world in a multitude of options, colors and price ranges

– Not great for off road touring due to trail/rock clearance & weight distribution

– Amazing for traditional touring and trekking

– Pannier and rack combination are heavy compared to frame only bags

– Great for commuting

Fargo with Epic Designs frame bag and gas tank

Fargo with Epic Designs frame bag and gas tank

Frame Bags

– Lighter

– Requires you to pack strategically.  This doesn’t necessarily mean less, but it does mean you may need to buy some specific products that “fit” in the space you need them to fit

– Not waterproof – an issue for some and not for others (not an issue for me)

– Volume of frame bag depends on frame design and frame size.

– Requires a custom option – again, both good and bad.  They are not readily available but when you do invest in bags you have lots and lots of options.

– Way better weight distribution (in my opinion)

– Amazing off road performance due to weight distribution and because the bike is sleek and doesn’t get hung up on rocks and trees.

– Your bike ends up lighter and more performance orientated due to carrying less stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, my tour set up is still heavy, but it’s much lighter than my rack and bag set up of last year.

– Frame bags may interfere or negate your use of water bottles on the inner side of front triangle.

– Cross wind issues?  This has been called out, once by me in a very specific severe condition, but I have not experienced it again.


Well, let’s go back to the experience.  If you are seeking a minimal gear ultra lite or ultra long miles experience or are riding off road at all, I feel your only choice is frame bags.

If you like to carry big stuff, need to ride multiple bikes and want bags on each, or are seeking a “luxury” experience filled with comfort, safety and choices, then panniers are likely for you.

For me, I’m not certain I would ever do a tour with panniers again unless I was touring with my wife or kids and needed to carry additional stuff to make their experience better.    Frame bags are the ticket for me.  Maybe it’s in my head and I’m hyper sensitive to weight and “feel” of the bike and frame bags just feel better to me.  Additionally, with all the new ultra-lite back packing and adventure gear, it is easy to insure you have all the gear you need in a small space.   You just need to look for it and be willing to pay for it.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.   Frame bags may not be right for you, but I’m super pleased with my frame bags.   In fact, I want one for my Dos Niner and my El Mariachi.    Oh…And I’m waiting for someone to ask me why I have that small Nitto rack on my Adventure Fargo?    I’ll save that for another day.  It does have a specific purpose for my “kit”.

Until then….I hope you are planning your next trip and thinking about your gear.  I know I am.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2009 6:31 am

    Just have to say, I loved it when your Fargo was known as “Black Electrical Tape”.


    I haven’t done frame bags, and I can certainly see the advantages and agree with those ideas. I think I need to find a “hybrid” of the two camps. Frame bags/panniers but not full on of either. I guess the driving motivation for me is the carrying of water. I really, really do not want it on my back, but a rucksack with a lighter load would be agreeable with me. So I need those six water bottle mounts, which precludes a inner triangle frame bag. At least a big one like yours.

    Well, it’ll be a work in progress. I certainly can see one of the Epic Designs seat bags in my future, that is for sure.

  2. Gnat permalink*
    June 10, 2009 6:37 am

    Hey GT. I posted that picture of the Fargo for you. I loved riding the black electrical tape bike. EVERYONE asked and speculated about it.

    I see your point. Yes, I do see your point with the water. For me, I do plan to carry my Wingnut pack or if it was a really big and long tour/ride I’d carry my Osprey….That thing has held 5+ liters of water on my Kokopelli tour.

    Can’t wait to see your “Hybrid”.

  3. kelly permalink
    February 8, 2010 4:23 am

    Thanks, great comparison, i am currently debating whether to set my bike up with panniers or a frame bag. I’m new to cycle touring so don’t have the experience to make judgement, but being a smaller female rider, weight is a big issue. The only downside to frame bags is availability in the UK is zero, so the decision has to be correct!

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