QUESTION: What kind of bike bag is best for carrying my stuff on a ride? I see seatbags of all different sizes when I’m out riding, but I also have started to see people riding with bags on their front handlebars, which seems more convenient. Some people even have bags on their top tube. What’s the right choice? —John R.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: What bag to use to carry your “stuff” leads to the question of how much stuff you want to have with you on the bike. And the answer to that depends on what your riding goal is. Cyclists whose primary goal is high performance and speed are probably riding a higher-end carbon fiber steed. They are going to want very little stuff with them so as not to add much weight to their bike. For them, a small under-the-seat containing a multi-tool and the minimum needed items to deal with a flat tire is sufficient.
At the other extreme, cycle tourists who wish to travel self-supported are usually mounted on study steel or aluminum rides and are likely to want several large bags — and the racks to attach them to — to carry everything they need. Their “stuff” may include a tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, food, clothing changes, a larger selection of tools, possibly some spare parts and more.
But assuming you are talking about day rides and carrying enough items to be prepared for minor mechanical problems and enough clothing to deal with weather changes, you may get away with one medium bag or a couple of smaller ones.
When considering what bag or bags to purchase, a preliminary consideration is whether your bike already has a rear rack installed, and if not, do you intend to add one? While a rear rack increases the variety of bags you can use, a rack also adds weight to your ride and for that reason you may not want it.
But if you have a rear rack, you can use panniers — two large bags that hang, one on each side of the rack, usually connected by spring-loaded hooks or clips. Although sometimes referred to as “saddlebags,” unlike true saddlebags, some pairs of panniers are not connected to each other, so you can mount one or both, as needed for the volume of what you are carrying on the bike.
There are also racks that permit you to use panniers on each side of your front wheel. Many bike tourists use them, along with the rear panniers. One benefit is that they mount lower than the rear bags and thus are a good location for heavier items as they help keep the center of gravity low.
A rear rack will also allow you to use a trunk bag, which mounts on the top of the rack. Trunk bags are smaller than panniers but larger than under-the-seat bags and will provide sufficient room for a few tools, your jacket and your lunch. Trunks are essentially covered boxes, and most have some kind of plastic or fiber sheeting inside to help them hold their shape.
If you don’t have or want a rear rack, but still want a large bag, look at the seat bags made for bikepacking. Although they attach under the seat, they protrude at an angle upward and are supported by internal sheeting material.
The small under-the-seat wedge-shaped bags typically offer space for what you need for many on-road mechanical issues. In addition to a multi-tool and tire levers, you’ll have room for a CO2 inflator and cartridge and a spare tube and perhaps a couple of smaller items.
A larger option is the back-of-the-seat bag (sometimes called a “transverse” bag). Here’s one I use, which holds nearly double what my previous wedge bag did. This is the “small” back-of-the-seat bag, but the same seller also offers medium and large bags in this configuration as well.
Handlebar bags, as you have noted, offer convenience, and will usually accommodate your lunch, jacket, sunglasses, maps and a bit more. For many riders, the use of handlebar bag and an under-the-seat wedge bag gives enough space for everything they wish to carry on daily rides. There are also handlebar bags made for bikepacking that run larger.
Top-tube bags are good for small items you want quick access to, such as sunglasses or snacks, but be advised that many riders find the larger ones to be in the way when mounting and especially when dismounting the bike. If your personal dimensions mean you have a longer-than-usual top tube, you may get away with using the larger top-tube bags, but I’ve found that any one longer than 4.75 inches ends up in my crotch when dismounting. I now use that small one mounted on the back end of the top tube directly beneath the saddle, but even there, I had to trim its Velcro straps so that they do not snag the nylon of my bike shorts.
There are some under-the-top-tube bags that may avoid the interference problem.
There are also frame bags — good for bikepackers but they are probably overkill for day riders.
As to what’s the right choice, it comes down to how much stuff you want with you on the bike and which bag or combination of bags you like best, because every bag has some disadvantages. With small bags, you can’t get everything you want in them, and with big bags, you usually have to pull most of your stuff out of the bags to find the item you want. There is no bag perfect for everyone.
In truth, many experienced riders have in their garage or basement an assortment of bags they’ve tried and eventually decided against. So you might ask your fellow riders if they have any bags you can try out.
What’s more, bags take a beating while on the bike, so whatever you choose will eventually wear out, and by then you’ll know whether you want to replace it with a similar bag or try something different.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.