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.
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.