Bike touring: Do you really need waterproof panniers?

I’ve heard from cycle tourists the world over and many feel that waterproof panniers (saddle bags for a bicycle) are essential. I feel that maybe those cyclists are simply on a bandwagon that may be better left alone.

It seems I’m the lone voice of dissent – I don’t like Ortliebs waterproof panniers. I don’t like the one big bag design. It’s OK for a short tour but for longer periods of time I want to be able to organize my stuff so it’s quick and easily accessible.

I’m  also not a huge fan of the waterproof-ness of them. While being waterproof is great in the rain, how often do you truly ride in the rain? I know most of us choose our routes to avoid major rainy times. Out of our 48 months on the road lately, we only needed our gear to be protected from water about 9 months. The rest of the time, breathable panniers were WAY nicer as we didn’t have to think about where to stash damp stuff.

In the Ortliebs if an item had a tiny bit of water on it, the vapor would permeate everything else in the pannier. I ended up riding with my Ortliebs open sometimes in order to avoid the mildew from building up in them.

Don’t get me wrong – the Ortliebs are great panniers, but I’m not convinced they are the best.

It seems as though every bike tourist I meet raves about their Ortlieb panniers. I’m the lone voice of dissent – I’m not a big fan of the Ortliebs. Most cyclists insist on Ortliebs for the waterproof feature, but that comes at a cost that I consider too high.

Ortlieb pannier

Ortlieb pannier

There was a discussion on Bike Forums not too long ago about panniers. As expected, most people piped up saying Ortlieb was the way to go. “They’re durable.” “They’re waterproof.” “They’re the best on the market.”

I disagreed. Although Ortliebs are great panniers and I have nothing against them, they are not what I would choose if I were to buy new panniers. They aren’t as durable as many other panniers on the market and their waterproofness may not be the advantage people make it out to be. In addition, the design definitely leaves much to be desired.

Protecting your gear from rain is a very high priority for the bike tourist – essential for sure. Wet gear is not where you want to be. From talking with many cycle tourists one would think the only way to protect gear is with waterproof panniers. I say you can protect it just fine using plastic bags.

One of the things I love about bike touring is that we all do things our own way. We’re each very much an individual and like different features in our gear. The one-big-bag nature of Ortliebs works for many, but I prefer pockets to organize my gear.

I could probably learn to deal with having a big bag to store my stuff in and could figure out ditty bags and such, but the waterproofness of the Ortliebs is the thing that gets me. Many cyclists insist that the rubber fabric of the waterproof panniers is an essential. Keeping your gear dry is priority #1 and the waterproof panniers, they tell me, is a non-negotiable item on a bike tour.

I don’t get that. I’ve toured the world with nylon panniers for many years and never had a problem with rain. We try to avoid riding in rain when we can, but manage with plastic bags when we can’t. It’s never been a problem.

But the real advantage of non-waterproof panniers comes in during the other times – in all the non-rainy days. When I posted on the above-mentioned thread that we didn’t need the waterproofness for 39 out of 48 months on the road, another poster commented, “9 out of 48 months is almost 20%, 1 out of 5 days. Well worth investing in waterproofs IMO.”

So is it really worth it to deal with the disadvantages of waterproof panniers for the 20% of the time you need it? Or is it better to purchase your gear with the remaining 80% of the time in mind? Do you buy a hard core mountain bike because you’ll be on trails 20% of the time or a road bike for the other 80%.

For me, the disadvantages of the Ortliebs for the 80% outweigh the advantages for the 20%. I don’t like having no way to organize my gear. I find the closure system on the Ortliebs cumbersome. But mainly, I don’t like having all my gear get musty and mildew when it’s very easy to pack it all in breathable panniers. When you use waterproof panniers you need to be extra careful to make sure no water gets introduced into the pannier. Even a few drops are enough to get the rest of your gear damp and musty.

Is this to say I will never use Ortliebs? Absolutely not. They are great panniers and serve their purpose well. If I planned a tour in the UK where I could reasonably expect a high percentage of rainy days, I might deal with the inconveniences of the Ortliebs. If I planned to ride through the Sahara desert, probably not.

What are the alternatives? As far as I know, the best two alternatives on the market today are Arkel and Carradice.

  • Arkel panniers are built of breathable nylon with an internal dry bag that folds away when not needed, but is easy to pull out for those days when rain is likely.
  • Carradice panniers are constructed using a heavy duty cotton duck fabric. When they get wet, the cotton fibers swell to seal out all water.  They are 100% waterproof when it’s raining, but are breathable when it’s not.

 

 

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

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About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

30 thoughts on “Bike touring: Do you really need waterproof panniers?

  1. I’m afraid I’m still on the Ortlieb bandwagon. We’ve never had a problem with our gear getting musty in Ortlieb panniers. Sure, it might only rain 20% of the time, but if the stuff inside gets yet, you might find yourself replacing a laptop because of that 1 day of rain a week. Also, the Ortlieb panniers from our 3-year world trip are still in usable condition – that’s pretty amazing durability! The Arkel panniers are nice, but twice the price of Ortliebs. I agree that the ‘one big hole’ of Ortliebs isn’t ideal but I can deal with that for the other advantages.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Friedel,
    I told you I was in the minority! The thing is that we’ve never had a problem keeping our gear dry – never. I don’t know if we just do things differently from others, but most cycle tourists seem to think that not having waterproof panniers = wet gear. That simply wasn’t our experience. For the few days that we dealt with rain, we put our gear in plastic bags. When it wasn’t raining we didn’t have to deal with the inconveniences of the Ortliebs. And we never ended up having to replace a laptop because of rain.

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  2. Earlier this year I posted an old black and white photo on to my blog – it was taken in Kenya during a1984 tour and shows my Karrimor pannier bags. I still have them and nowadays they are mostly used when I cycle back from the supermarket. As far as I can recall, these were a mid range choice as I couldn’t afford anything better but they serve the purpose well.
    I have resprayed them with some waterproofing liquid but otherwise they’re fine. A little marked, a bit tatty here and there but that just preserves the memories and adds to the charm!

    [Reply]

  3. You’ll be pleased to hear I’m with you on this Nancy! Plastic bags are cheaper and things that really need to stay dry can always be stuffed in dry bags. Besides waterproof panniers do have disadvantages that no-one seems to mention. They not only keep the water out, they keep it in. And once you’ve got little holes in them (oh boy we have a lot of those) when it rains the great waterproofing makes sure the rain can’t get out so everything inside gets wet! I wish we could afford a new set though. Or perhaps we should give up riding in the rain? Never liked it much anyway.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Stuart,
    I am not alone!!! YAY! We had a couple of times when our Ortliebs didn’t get closed properly and then we ended up having to POUR WATER OUT OF THEM – they work great as a wash bucket for washing clothes though. I really like having panniers that will dry out after they get wet – the Ortliebs don’t do that.

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  4. I’m also not a fan of Ortlieb panniers because of the lack of pockets, the daft closing and the lack of something to attach a back light to. I live and tour in Scotland and use Altura bags and never has the gear in my bag got wet. Yes I’ve spent a lot of days cycling in the rain and putting on soggy cold clothes from them getting wet while we wore them out in the rain from the day before but never has the gear in our bags got wet. We use plastic bags to pack our gear into. I use an Ortlieb for my daily commute though and the bag stinks. I wouldn’t use Ortlieb for touring.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Fiona,
    I”m with ya – the lack of pockets is huge. I don’t mind not having pockets for a short term thing, but if I’m out for a long tour, I want my gear organized – and pockets are essential. I hadn’t even thought about no place to attach a light, but now that you mention it – that’s true.

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  5. I don’t think it’s physically possible to get non-waterproof panniers in Holland even if you tried really hard. But then we’re dealing with a nation that goes biking to work in the rain and no way I want my laptop to get wet on the commute, so I suppose that’s expected. :)

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Yvette,
    It’s imperative to keep your gear dry – that’s not my issue here at all. What I’m saying is THERE ARE OTHER WAYS TO PROTECT GEAR THAN WATERPROOF PANNIERS!! When it’s raining, we use plastic bags to protect our gear. When it’s not raining, we have breathable panniers so our gear doesn’t get musty and stinky. Given the fact that we spend more days cycling in dry weather than in wet weather, it makes sense that we would have panniers that work in the dry, then use plastic bags for those few days when we’re in wet.

    I am NOT saying to let your gear get wet – not at all!!

    [Reply]

  6. I’ve toured many miles in the rain with just bin liners and these:
    http://www.alpkit.com/shop/cart.php?target=product&product_id=16316&category_id=295

    Waterproof panniers are NOT essential.

    Although I admit as soon as I have the cash I am buying some Ortlieb bags.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Gary, We had Ortliebs on the front and breathable panniers on the rear. I think having both is the best way to go. It was nice to be able to put certain things in the Ortliebs and not have to do anything else to protect them. However, I was VERY glad to have breathable panniers to shove dishes that aren’t COMPLETELY dry into. Or a wet swim suit. Or fruit. If there is ANY moisture at all, it will permeate everything in the pannier.

    After a year or so on the road, we started leaving our Ortliebs open unless we were in rain. We kind of buckled it closed so stuff didn’t fall out, but left it open so the air could get in and out. That worked perfectly – but it seems silly that we couldn’t close our panniers.

    When I buy new panniers, I will not buy Ortliebs. I will get some breathable panniers that are waterproof when I need that feature, but breathe when I don’t. I also want pockets.

    [Reply]

  7. Finally some different opinion! I’ve been looking for this for such a long time! It seemed so unnatural to me that almost every touring cyclist had the same opinion on the Ortliebs when the pannier’s market is so vast.
    I traveled for just a few months with some cheap panniers covered in plastic bags (it rained most of the time…) but it’s not practical when you need to take them out and put them in every single stop. And they get easily damaged. Moreover it once happened that a tiny part of the pannier was exposed to the water (I still don’t know how…) and the top clothes (supposedly the ones we’re gonna use next) were all wet.
    I don’t like the Ortlieb (and others) design of the “dry panniers” for not having the so useful outside pockets and I wasn’t convinced about the material they use for its un-breathable-ness condition.
    I’m glad to know there are other options to have waterproof panniers with breathable materials! Now, let’s just deal with the price of that luxury…
    Thank you!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Rita Miranda, For sure! I get so tired of all the talk out there making it sound like the Ortliebs are the only option. They aren’t – by a long shot. Yes, I’ve used them. Yes, they are OK. But just OK – not wonderful.

    To keep our gear dry, we just carried a bunch of those plastic grocery bags we all have so many of. Whenever we stopped for food (every day??) we put the bags in our panniers. When it was raining/looked like it might rain, we put all our gear in those bags and then packed them. We might have 5 or 6 bags per pannier. They didn’t last all that long, but we had a steady supply of bags.

    I do not like trying to use one large garbage bag per pannier – that is a pain in the patootie.

    [Reply]

  8. My advice is this. Use a GI issue military waterproof bag. I always use one for my sleeping bag and stuff one change of clothes in there as well. You can use them on days you know you may encounter some rain and they fold up rather small when not in use. Oh and they only run twenty bucks a piece.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Mike Ives, Great suggestion! I prefer having my gear in a breathable pannier, but having the capability of protecting it from rain if I need to. Most of the time I’m not in rain anyway, so it makes no sense to have stuff in waterproof bags then. These sound perfect – small and cheap!

    [Reply]

  9. Last trip round Australia had a lot of desert and when it rains it floods. Carradice C on front were worse than useless, almost permanently wet, and musty when they did dry. Ortlieb on back were better but no compartments, get very hot in the day time and due to fly problems could not be left open. Stuff sacks, net bags and dry bags in a variety of sizes were the salvation, cheap and effective.. There are no good panniers.. Next ride is the top to bottom and whilst I have readied the bike and tailored the gear I have no idea which panniers to use, maybe just the cheapest, nothing lasts forever on a bike (despite what the makers tell us) and some stuff lasts too long. It can’t be that difficult to design an adaptable pannier that is light and doesn’t attract the attention of every local or swarm of flies.

    [Reply]

  10. Which model of Arkel or Carradice are you recommending, or which ones are you describing in your ticket? Thank you!! :)

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Jeremy, I’m not recommending any one model in particular. From what I’ve seen, they are all well-made and will last a long time.

    [Reply]

  11. Hi,

    I’m moving to Bergen which has a climate that will be similar to Seattle-rainy. Once I move I’ll be biking quite frequently but up until now I’ve never been much of a biker.

    I’m going to be using my bike for commuting/grocery shopping and I was wondering if you could give any suggestions on panniers to use. Bike theft is common so I’d love to stay under 100 but I’m not sure if that will be possible. I know you can take the pannier with you and not leave it on the bike, but some of the ones I’ve looked at would be awkward/uncomfortable taking into every place I stop.

    The Arkels definitely seem as if they will be out of my range. I’ve looked at the Ortlieb and I’m not a huge fan because of the cost and things similar to what you mentioned-pockets, etc.

    I am getting a front basket but possibly rear metal baskets and a simple pannier would work best.

    I’m wondering if I should do as Peter considered in an earlier comment: buy the cheapest ones out there, nothing lasts forever, and then just put waterproof covers over them.

    Thank you so much for your help!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Freddy, Have fun Freddy!! My personal opinion on panniers for commuting is to get cheapies. If they fail, it’s no problem.

    For long tours, a major failure on a pannier is no fun. I spent six months biking around Nepal and Bangladesh with a pannier that I had to close with safety pins after the zipper broke. That was no fun.

    But if you’re at home, then if the pannier wears out or breaks, you can easily replace it.

    [Reply]

  12. Hello, I am writing from a different view.
    In 2008, I spent 4 months on the road; Alaska to Florida. My bicycle was an old Motobecane Grand Touring that I bought for $100. I had decent nylon panniers and used plastic bags in the rain. The “inconvenience” of doing this saved me more $$ than I paid for my bike and allowed me to stay out there with a little more food money. I must say, the plastic bags did just fine.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Steve Laskey, I so agree. If you are going on a multi-year expedition around the world, you will need to invest in high quality panniers that cost a pretty penny, but for a short trip of a few months, cheap panniers work just fine.

    What we found was that we used the plastic bags in our Ortliebs anyway because of the high likelihood of the panniers leaking. It would have been the same with nylon panniers.

    [Reply]

  13. Ortieb are ok. There is nothing perfect out there, we are all different. It all depends on what you are willing to put up with and what not. I am looking for waterproof pannnier myself. I like the Vaude too. Right now I have NORCO bags and like their klickfix attachement system, and hate to leave that behind. I am scared of little tiny moving parts on both the ortlieb and vaude bags. Moving parts can break and thus need to be kept to a minimum.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Canal Du Midi Bike Tours, I was concerned about the attachment system on the Ortliebs for that same reason. However, that ended up not being an issue. We used the Ortliebs for 3 years and had no problem with the attachment at all. What I don’t like about them is that they are not breathable, which leads to a musty smell in everything, and that there are no pockets for organizing gear.

    [Reply]

  14. Oh yes, I did come accross carradice a few times today as well. Now again here. I like that they use klickfix for the frontbags. I was worried that they might not be truely waterproof, but now that I read your review, I think that they are indeed. I just do not like the way they look though.

    [Reply]

  15. Look into Swift Industries panniers as a great option. Sturdy, well designed, made from Cordura with a waterproof liner and topped with non waterproof & very handy large pockets for the things you want to reach most easily while riding or at the end of the ride. The top pockets are detachable if you don’t need the carrying capacity they provide. You can choose your own colors and in purchasing them you’re supporting a small business. They’re comparable in price to Arkels. I used the short stack size for a summer inn to inn tour in which I had to carry my own clothes and other needed stuff. I had room left over in them which tells me I could use them on a self-supported tour, or one where I had to carry warmer/bulkier clothes. Probably would need a set of front panniers as well in that case. Have never used Ortliebs so can’t comment on them, but tried waxed canvas. Mine (not Carradice) did not prove to be waterproof. Not at all. If you go that route you will get beautiful panniers but use dry bags or plastic bags for everything in side them if rain is in the forecast!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Nancy Seibel, That’s good to know. I am not familiar with them, but new products are coming on the market all the time. It’s all about each one of us finding what will work for us – and knowing options.

    [Reply]

  16. I appreciate your comments on Ortliebs. I didn’t go that route because I though I wouldn’t like the lack of organization. I hadn’t considered the inability of moisture of trapped moisture to evaporate. For a day or 2 that might not be a big problem but for longer tours it sure would be! I will say that totally waterproofness in a bag is helpful when doing a supported camping tour. As in, a truck hauls your tent and clothing and you ride relatively unencumbered. Such luxury. However if your stuff is not in totally waterproof bags, look out. The bags get offloaded rain or shine, dry or wet ground. Yes, I learned this the hard way, touring during a very rainy week. Having learned, in that situation I now use a waterproof duffel – light and spacious. Makes for happier touring in the event of rain.

    [Reply]

  17. Here’s a link to an article at the Carryology site, one of his quotes from Waterproof vs. Water Resistant
    “I used to think that I needed a waterproof bag…
    Why?
    Because I did.
    Because I had to have one.
    My “amazing” adventures and my life demanded it.
    The important and expensive things I carried must never ever get wet, never.
    I wanted that assurance, that if there were a sudden tropical rainstorm, my tech gear would be perfect, no questions asked, no matter how hard the rain came. Now, with personal experience and via my professional experience…
    I’ve realized, this is ridiculous”.

    It’s a fun read that had me laughing. Here’s a link to his article
    http://www.carryology.com/liking/industry/waterproof-vs-water-resistant/

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Rideon, That sounds like an awesome article! Off to read…

    [Reply]

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