Which is better for bike touring: a trailer or panniers?

While bike touring, we needed to carry everything on our bikes. Everything. If we had it with us, it had to be somehow strapped, lashed, and buckled onto our bicycles. One of the most common questions potential cycle tourists ask is:  which is better – a bike trailer or panniers?  My response is – it depends on your personal preference. There are pros and cons of each.

Trailers

cycling the Dalton HighwayThere are many trailers out there - BOB  or Extrawheel seem to be the best choices at this point, but new ones are coming on the market at a fairly steady rate.

Pros:

  • can carry more gear
  • gets weight off the bike so less chance of problems with the bike

Cons:

  • can carry more gear (notice how that’s both a plus and a minus?)
  • one more piece of equipment to transport and maintain
  • depending on the trailer, you might end up with an additional sized tire, which means extra tires/tubes
  • maneuverability suffers and you have to make very wide turns

Panniers

bike touring in argentinaPros:  (lots of good companies – Jandd, Arkel, and Ortlieb are some I’m familiar with, but there are plenty of others)

  • everything is right on the bike so it’s a compact unit
  • can make tight turns and get through most places an unloaded bike can
  • can get panniers with lots of pockets for organization

Cons:

  • more weight on the bike so more chance of wheel problems

There are many options and a lot of it comes down to personal preference.  I prefer only panniers, but hauled a trailer on our PanAm journey so we had more carrying capacity.  Either way is fine – there is no “best” option here.

 For those of you who have toured, please add your thoughts in the comments! What do you think the pros and cons of each are?

Bike Trailer Shop: The Bike Trailer Experts

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

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.

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13 Responses to Which is better for bike touring: a trailer or panniers?

  1. Jonah October 20, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    I think panniers are better for finding stuff more easily. I have used both and prefer panniers for organization. I use my trailer on s24o to carry heavy stuff like cast iron Dutch ovens and charcoal for luxury cooking! On our longer trips though panniers for organization and lighter loads!

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Jonah, Panniers are definitely easier for finding things. If I could choose, I would go with panniers only. I like the feel of a nice, tight, little bike.

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  2. Doug October 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    Cargo bike.
    http://findmespot.com/spotadventures/index.php/view_adventure/?tripid=272595

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Doug, Cargo bikes are awesome. Still have to carry the gear though.

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  3. Ken Bettencourt October 20, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    Well panniers r great but I like to tour with my bob and 2sm front panniers trailers r good easy load and unload. Panniers r good but to much weight on your bike is not best .for the long hauler trailer is the way to go safe peddling kennyb

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Ken Bettencourt, There is definitely something to be said for getting the weight off the bike, that’s for sure. I spent 2 years traveling on bike with no trailer – just had everything in panniers and on my rack. My bike held up OK, but all that weight does take a toll.

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  4. Nancy Seibel October 21, 2012 at 7:03 am #

    I don’t have lots of experience with this. I’ve done just one self supported tour. I used panniers and very much liked them. As a caveat this was my first tour ever and so as not to hit me with everything at once, it was a credit card tour, so we weren’t hauling camping gear. That experience still awaits.

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Nancy Seibel, If you aren’t carrying a lot of weight, just panniers is definitely the way to go. when it gets tricky is when you’re carrying a lot – if you put it on your bike you risk more bike troubles. If you take the trailer, you can carry that gear, but also have to deal with the trailer. Hmmmmm…..

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  5. Alice Strong October 21, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    I prefer to go as light as possible so that’s panniers for me. Makes it easier to go multimodal and use a bus, also if there is a front rack on it and you find yourself in that situation or a boat/train with limited capacity. I don’t weigh that much myself so weight on the bike isn’t as much of a problem.

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Alice Strong, Not having a trailer DEFINITELY makes it easier to go multi-modal!! Having to get both a bike and trailer on a bus or train is a definite deterrent to using those.

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  6. SRD October 21, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    We’ve only done weekend trips with the kids, but the trailer sure makes things easier to pack. And an articulated trailer fits through most places that a bike will. I actually find full panniers worse for turning in tight places, and then there is the issue of the bike toppling over because of the weight especially if you have a kid on it too. If I have the choice and am touring, and not also on train, would definitely take a trailer.

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @SRD, The trailer is easier to pack, but I find the panniers are easier to find things. A trade-off for sure.

    I am really surprised you found panniers easier for turning! I could turn on a dime with my ExtraWheel trailer, but when I had my BOB I had to turn extra-side like a semi-truck! When I needed to turn around to go back, I couldn’t turn in just the shoulder – had to wait for a break in traffic big enough that I could go out and take the lane.

    What I find interesting about this one is that MOST of it comes down to personal preference. There is no one clear best choice at all.

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    SRD Reply:

    @Nancy Sathre-Vogel, I guess if you cycle on highways etc then panniers fine. We cycle a lot on cycle paths, some with chicanes, gates etc, and then a fully loaded bike can be a challenge to get around corners. ditto into train carriages. Especially if you also have weight of a child on the bike, then the bike is very unwieldy to wheel through a train station etc.

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