Commuting Loads: Bike or Back?

Civia Loring

I really like messenger bags for quick trips to the grocery store, library, or coffee shop when I’m just carrying a few small items. They’re convenient and quick, and I almost always have one hanging near the door to grab on the way out when needed.

On the other hand, for commuting, weekly shopping excursions, or any trip that involves transporting a larger quantity of heavier items, I prefer to carry the load on the bike. For smaller commuting loads I carry everything in a single rear convertible pannier such as an Arkel Bug or Ortlieb Downtown. For even larger loads, I prefer to balance the weight between a pair of rear panniers and a front porteur rack.

How about you? Do you carry your commute load in a messenger bag or backpack, or do you prefer to carry the load on the bike?

Where do you carry your commute load?

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52 Responses to “Commuting Loads: Bike or Back?”

  • Tucson Velo says:

    Nothing made me happier that when I got my first rack and got my stuff off my back.

    A lot of times here in Tucson it is just too hot to carry stuff on your back.

  • rdhd says:

    Depends on how hot it is and how much stuff I have with me. Hot and humid DC summers are even less fun with a bag strapped to you. And if I have a large load, it’s gotta go in my panniers. But a lovely spring or fall casual Friday is great for just a messenger bag.


  • Tom says:

    I’ve been using w=Wald folding rear baskets on my Cargo-T to carry my bag when commuting to work. I recently got a folding bike and I’m struggling on how to carry my load (it lacks a rack and/or bag mount). I really don’t like to have a bag against my back and I currently don’t have a messenger bag to try out. The local folding bike expert told me that panniers, rack bags and the like are a pain on a folder because you have to remove them before you fold. I’m wondering if I can fit everything in a 10 liter saddle bag. Any ideas there?

  • Alan says:


    You might want to look into KLICKfix carriers. They make nice products, a number of which are readily adaptable to folding bikes.


  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    I’m assuming “Both” means sometimes back, sometimes bike, not always bike AND back :-)

  • Pete says:

    I just can’t keep a messenger bag from sliding forward when I ride (there must be some trick i don’t know, as it seems to work fine for messengers!), so I got a Rixen Kaul “Office” bag that clips to my rear rack and it’s great.

  • Jay says:

    I almost always carry a backpack with me, for keys, phones, water bottle, chapstick, computer if I’m going to work, etc. But I don’t want to wear it while I ride. I tried grocery panniers for a while, but then I had to carry the backpack and the panniers.

    I got a strong rear rack, and put a wire mesh basket on the back – the kind with the small holes that small items (keys, etc.) can’t fall through. It’s a great catch-all. I just toss my backpack in it, stretch a bungee cord across the top to keep the backpack from bouncing out, and I’m done!

    I just take the backpack with me when I’m done, and don’t have to worry about carrying around awkward panniers. I couldn’t be happier with this setup, and I’m not sure why more people don’t use it. Panniers can be a real pain off the bike, and the ones that are backpack+panniers seem to be either extremely pricey, or not as good a backpack as a normal backpack.

  • Bob B says:

    You’ve forgotten to include bike trailers. The single best cargo hauler that I’ve tried is a Burley Nomad Trailer.

  • rkt88edmo says:

    Carrying anything on the body just tends to trap sweat, yuck.

  • Andrew says:

    For hauling a lot of stuff or for any extended period of time, I’d prefer to haul it on my bike. That’s a comfort thing, but it definitely affects a bike’s handling, so a good backpack is hard to beat for quick jaunts or faster riding (I find messenger bags to be terribly uncomfortable, especially if you’re carrying enough to justify the extra volume over a backpack).

  • RDW says:

    I’ve never liked riding with a pack on my back, it just doesn’t feel comfortable to me. Panniers or a large saddle bag are more multi-purpose and make more sense to me. The ‘front backet w/sack’ idea looks good to me and I’d like to give that a try someday. I’ve never tried a messenger style bag, not sure how I’d feel about that.

    @Tom – I sometimes us a Carradice Pendle saddlebag which is 11 liters and am able to carry a change of clothes (rolled up) and my lunch, plus a few other necessities without any trouble. Taking the bag off and putting it back on can be a bit of a hassle though.

  • jonathan says:

    I do all of my errands, from grocery shopping to just general around town stuff on my bike. I used to use panniers for shopping, but I often have to make multiple stops when I’m out around town. And getting everything on/off the rack when I would go into another store was a pain. I ended up picking up a Mission Workshop Vandal pack, which is small enough (well, flat enough) when empty and is huge when filled. It’s also MUCH more comfortable than the big Bailey Works messenger bag I used to use.

    Not saying this is the right way to go for everybody, but it’s working well for me. As a note: I’m not going very far, typically 3-5 miles. That said, I have done a few 50 mile rides with a light load in this pack, and had a fine time.

  • Brian G says:

    Once I got panniers for my bike I hate having anything on my back and use them 95% of the time. When I have to use my back a messenger bag was the most annoying thing Ive ever put on it so I would like to put in a good word for a good old fashioned backpack. Even though it doesnt look as cool it distributes the weight properly.
    Im very happy with my trailer too.

  • Adam says:

    I think its worth considering that when you haul weight on your back that some of that weight is going to be held up by soft tissues on the saddle…

    I sure notice it when I haul canned goods in a messenger bag. I think I’m going to try that wire basket trick Jay mentioned.

  • Alan says:

    @Bob B

    Thanks for mentioning trailers; they’re certainly good for hauling large, heavy loads. I guess I don’t think of trailers for commuting because of the storage issues at work. Perhaps a cart-type trailer like the Burley Travoy would be workable. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who is using a trailer for commuting.


  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    I can never understand it when I see people with a rack on their bike and a full backpack on.

    The bike is great at carrying things. Your back….not so much.

    Maybe I missed it but nobody mentioned the fact that your back tends to curve a bit when riding and putting weight on your spine in that position is less than optimal.

  • Amoeba says:

    I’ve done the bag over the shoulder thing. OK for quick trips and light loads. But as for heavier loads, panniers are better. Also much more comfortable (less sweaty) when it gets warmer.

  • Zyzzyx says:

    If I’m carrying things on the bike, it won’t be on my back.

    My primary errand-running bike is currently an XtraCycle setup. With all the cargo space of the Freeloader bags, why would I ever carry something on my back? And its nice to be able to pick something up on a whim that’s bigger than would fit with a ‘standard’ pannier or rack setup.

    The other bike I’d be riding if carrying something is my Quest velomobile. Its a recumbent, so kinda nixes the possibility of carrying on my back. ;) And besides, it really has lots of space inside to carry stuff. (can easily fit a full camping/touring load inside)

  • Bob says:

    My problem with panniers has always been a lack of selection of bags that are as good on the bike as off. I know there are a few, but they tend to be pretty expensive and frankly I prefer the “normal” bags I already have. Baskets are a pretty good “have your cake and eat it” solution– pretty much anything you can carry on foot, bagged or not, will fit in one without much fuss. But baskets are heavy and bulky, and the folding ones rattle.

    My big revelation was a cheap grocery pannier. I leave it on my bike full-time; it’s not flashy enough to be at risk for theft and at $10-20 a pop I wouldn’t be devastated anyway. The weight is negligible, it folds flat without rattling, and it carries just about anything I’m likely to take to work or pick up on the way home. Perhaps not as high-performance as purpose-built panniers, but cheaper and more convenient.

  • David Bolles says:

    I did my commute with a backpack for some time. I switched to panniers, a Christmas gift from my wife, and couldn’t be happier. I’m using front roller panniers on my rack in the back. May trade them in for backrollers…we’ll see.

  • 300 Pound Gorilla says:

    I don’t like the backpack. It traps sweat, and it hurts my back. My favorite is a rack with some nice panniers. I have used a trailer for commuting. It’s a Burley 2 kid trailer. The kids grew out of it, so I started using it for commuting. I took it to school, Costco, everywhere. Sometimes I locked it separately, but mostly I figured it was such a pain in the butt to detach from the bike that locking it didn’t matter. I just locked my bike to a rack, sign, whatever. At Costco, I locked to a cart corral. I stopped using the trailer all the time because it adds some effort to the up hills. At the same time, it didn’t add anything to my overall commute time. Slower up hill, faster downhill. Overall, I broke even for commute time.

  • Jay says:


    I think you’ll be glad you did. My setup is so convenient – it makes carrying cargo a breeze. I picked up one of these baskets, and I ziptied it onto my back rack: I bought it for $5 from a store that was going out of business – these are commonly used as store’s shopping baskets. Very sturdy, tiny holes, nothing falls out of it, and when you remove the handles, you are left with those nice big loops at the top, perfect for hooking a bungee cord to.

    I’ll often toss small things in the basket (gloves, hat, water bottle, etc.), and then cover it with my backpack, and draw the bungee cord over that, so the backpack seals in the things below.

    It’s the perfect size for a 12-pack, and you can put a full case in there, too, if you angle it up in the back!

    I have a very large, upright Trek hybrid, and it handles the cargo in the basket beautifully – I can barely tell it’s there.

  • Fergie348 says:

    I’ve tried all of it, and am now carrying my regular commute load (clothes, food, tools, morning coffee, magazine(s), sometimes my laptop) in an Arkel Commuter bag. I racked my commuter this year with a Tubus vega and have been reasonably happy with that combo. There are a couple of issues with this setup, however:

    1. When my Arkel commuter bag is fully packed, it weights about 18 lbs. With an 18 lb bag on one side of my rear rack I can feel the bike pulling a little to the left (bag side), so it’s not as balanced as if I had two bags with about the same weight or a backpack.

    2. With all the weight directly over the rear wheel, the rear tire (and presumably the wheel as well) is wearing quickly and the tire picks up bits of glass easily, causing me to have more tire damage and more flats than I was when I carried loads on my back.

    3. With the bag and rack, I’m probably carrying more weight on a regular basis than I did with a backpack. Lesson – get the smallest bag you think you can use to prevent yourself from overloading your ride..

    4. I notice that the rack attachment rail on the Arkel bag can rub against the rear stay of the rack, causing rack damage if I’m not careful about how I mount the bag.

    That said, I do prefer having the rack and bag to any other solution I’ve tried. Messenger bags are awful (hurts the shoulder, sweaty back, can swing around if you have to brake hard, etc.), and even a good ventilated backpack means that your spine gets compressed and your position options are compromised.

  • Jay says:

    @Adam – FYI, the basket I use from that page is the “mesh metal basket.”

  • Jed says:

    I want my back highly visible when I ride, because I wear a yellow jacket or an orange reflective road-work shirt when it’s warm. I carry a standard kit with chico/canvas bags, keys etc in my handlebar bag and I have either the Xtracycle, or on the short bike: panniers or trailer.

  • Daniel M says:

    I carried everything in my backpack for years. Occasionally, if the load got too excessive, I would strap the backpack to my rear rack, but I have found that concentrating all the load exclusively over the rear wheel makes the bike twitchy. Sometimes I would split the load: some on my back, some on the rear rack.

    This summer, in preparation for a tour, I put a Nitto front rack (R14, I believe), on my bike and zip-tied a large Wald basket to it. I had a small messenger bag in the basket, a backpack strapped to my rear rack, and panniers. When I got home, I started to notice just how useful a basket is. A lot of the time the small bag I want to carry can go in the basket without any net or straps, making it a breeze to drop in and retrieve when I lock the bike up. For ease of access, I kept my U-lock strapped to the rear rack, which balances things out a bit.

    Suffice to say, I don’t miss carrying loads on my back at all. I can’t believe that I used to tour while wearing a hydration pack! I have also begun to see the reason people like front-loading; having the load solely in front seems to slow down the handling, but doesn’t preclude the bike from being ridden in a lively fashion. It sort of feels to my like I’m tossing the load into the upcoming turn. For the record, I’m not riding a low-trail bike that was intended for this sole purpose.

    What eventually got to me was the way the front fork flopped around when I was at a stop and let go of the bar to park the bike, etc. My solution has been to move the basket to the rear, and strap my U-lock (and occasionally my tool kit, if I’m really trying to balance the load) to the front rack. I think this is the best all-around solution. The bike has regained some of its liveliness, the fork no longer flops around when I’m trying to lock the bike up, and I rarely need to strap the bag onto anything; it just sits in the rear basket and never comes out. For shopping trips, I carry a cargo net and I can strap my bag to the front rack and fit two grocery bags upright in back, held in place with the elasticized net.

    Balancing the load has been the key for me. Your results may vary.

  • Alan says:


    “I got a strong rear rack, and put a wire mesh basket on the back – the kind with the small holes that small items (keys, etc.) can’t fall through. It’s a great catch-all. I just toss my backpack in it, stretch a bungee cord across the top to keep the backpack from bouncing out, and I’m done!”

    That’s a great solution, Jay!


  • Alan says:


    “My big revelation was a cheap grocery pannier.”

    Agreed! We almost always keep at least one grocery pannier on each of our utility bikes.


  • Micheal Blue says:

    FIrst I started commuting and joy-riding with a backpack, but the sweating and sore back were not pleasant. What a difference it was to equip my two bikes with racks! On the folder I have a front and rear rack. To the front rack I attach a wire basket with bungee cords. That way it’s easy to remove/re-mount. Wire baskets are one of the best inventions for bikes. When empty they have almost no air resistance; you can just throw stuff into them and access it easily. While willow baskets are much nicer, they offer a significant surface for wind to push, which is not very productive in a windy city such as Toronto. The rear rack houses a trunk bag that stays attached even when the bike is folded (perhaps the only advantage of the Dahon’s fold). My big Trek bike has a rear rack with Axiom waterproof yellow panniers. They can swallow lots of groceries/clothes.

  • Logan says:

    Not wearing a backpack or messenger bag is the best way to improve saddle comfort in my opinion. ;)

  • CedarWood says:

    RE: Burley Travoy

    We’ve had one since last summer, and it’s stable, light, really great. You hardly know it’s there, and it can carry a lot of groceries/pumpkins/general stuff. Even dry cleaning, if you stop there last, hook the hangar over the hitch, drape the clothing over the full trailer bags, and strap over the top. Yes, the dry cleaning lady laughed.

    In-store shopping into the bags may get you in trouble, so unless your bags are empty, you’ll have to push a cart around anyway. So what about multiple stops?

    I usually put the bags (full or not) into a cart, locking the empty trailer to the bike. Purchases get rearranged in the bags prior to loading the trailer. Not the easiest option, but keeps the stores happy.

    Other half parks the loaded trailer just inside the store, shops into a cart, and hopes nobody steals anything.

    Now, if you ride in the rain, you’ll want a very long mudflap on the rear fender (mine ends 3″ above ground; yes it looks dorky), otherwise mud and water bounces off the backside of the trailer, completely plastering the rear half of the bike and your legs.

    If you have a rear rack, there may be interference between the rear edge of the rack and the hitch arm, especially if you go over a big bump. Our solution was to use a threadless stem as a hitch extender, with a homemade bracket on the hitch end.

    Visibility could be a problem. Reflective tape might help, except the frame tubes are mostly obscured by the trailer material and bags. There are two reflectors mounted on the axle, but we wanted something higher, so we used a couple different light brackets to mount our PDW Radbot 1000 on the upper left side. Now if I can figure how to mount the Dinotte Amber, it’ll be just perfect.

  • Alan says:


    Thanks for the Travoy review! I’ve been trying to get one to test for a few months to no avail. It’s good to get a first-hand report.


  • JulieM says:

    I had the same idea for my VO Porteur rack. I was in a green living store that carried various bicycle accessories and the clerk let me bring in the bike to try different baskets on the rack. I realized the store’s shopper basket was the best solution but he couldn’t sell it to me. I looked on line but only saw them in lots of 12 so ended up going with a Basil that i attach and detach with velcro cable ties.
    FWIW, I like having some sort of catch-all bag or basket on the front. It’s far easier to shed or add layers rather than having to stop and dig into a rear bag or pannier.

  • John says:

    I absolutely hate anything on my back,it just feels so uncomfortable with the Straps biting into my shoulder. Although on occasion I have carried stuff hanging off my Shoulder usually big stuff that cant be carried in Panniers,like trees or one time a big Studio Art Easel.

    If I was carrying a Briefcase I would like those that clip onto your Pannier off the Rail. I like the freedom of my Body being unencumbered and being able to move my arms freely.

  • Kyle says:

    Front Basket. Enough Said.

  • Don says:

    All this may depend on the length and frequency of one’s commute as well as climate. In the winter, the convenience of a light backpack, since I haven’t been carrying much, has been great, although I’d prefer a proper messenger bag. I have done panniers in the past, including those saddlebag types that slide right off, but found that my current bike does not take a rear load very well, and lately they’ve been overkill anyway. I recently put a racktime up front, which is pretty good and can hold a chicken dinner for four, although I haven’t invested in a click-on bag to seal the deal. I have a click-on adapter and may make a custom bag in all my “free time,” or I may end up sticking a Wald basket on it and calling it a day. Or maybe put the adapter on the Wald basket…

    Basically all this experimentation is what counts for fun these days.

  • Tom says:

    I run a small landscaping business and use a mixture of van, bike and bike plus trailer depending on the amount of kit I need to transport and the distance to the job. I always prefer to mount loads on the bike, it makes negotiating hills that much easier and less sweaty and in my opinion burns fewer calories – I work manually all day so am not looking for too much extra exercise! I use a carryfreedom y-frame trailer which is wonderful, flows nicely behind my bike (a partially modernised early 80’s Raleigh road bike) without affecting balance. For groceries and small loads I have a rack with panniers made from modified army surplus satchels, too cheap to be worth stealing. I keep some cloth bags in them and use those at the market then pop them in the panniers.

  • Beth L. says:

    I bike commute everyday and my favorite set-up is a med Wald zip-tied to a small front rack (Nitto) with Rivendell’s Med ShopSack. I love this set-up! The zippered tote has brass clips that can attach to the basket. It’s a great combo of an invention IMNHSO!

  • cole says:

    i have been in love with this as of late. its the best of both worlds. i also really dig baskets but you knew that already

  • Mike says:

    Forgive me for the awful pun, but I have to answer “bak” (as in bakfiets). A lot of my riding is transporting the kids, so I’m so used to it now that if I have to transport more than a couple of very small items, I’ll always use the bakfiets, and just toss it all in the box. It doesn’t like to be empty, anyway.

  • Jay in Tel Aviv says:

    Finally managed to get my hands on a Carridice Super C (23 liter) saddle bag and quick release \bagman\ support. I carry a bunch of stuff back and forth to work and needed something that I could grab quickly – so no panniers. Before that I carried a backpack in a Nashbar grocery pannier, which was akward.

    Took me literaly 6 months to get the Carradice setup. Their logistics are ridiculous but for me it’s the best solution yet.

  • Amoeba says:

    When I’m carrying something particularly bulky or heavy, it goes on my CarryFreedom Y-Frame Large trailer.

    This is a flat-bed trailer and I’ve carried bikes, crates of concrete too heavy to lift, timber up to 3.6 metres / 11.8 feet long (it’s rated up to 2.5 m / 8 feet with the medium extension arm), scrap metal for recycling, tools etc. A wide range of accessories are available, for long and very long loads.

    See the flickr link on their Gallery page for user pictures.

  • michael says:

    On my back… which is one reason I don’t commute by bike as much as I would like: I loathe biking with a backpack on. Sadly, my bike doesn’t have any mounts to install racks/baskets.

  • Alan says:


    “Sadly, my bike doesn’t have any mounts to install racks/baskets.”

    Check these out:

    I’m receiving a sample soon to try out. Might be an option for you…


  • EcoVelo » Blog Archive » Carrying Stuff: A Roundup says:

    […] a follow-up to yesterday’s excellent conversation about how to carry stuff on bikes, I thought I’d gather together a few previous articles that touch on the […]

  • Mike says:


    Also here:

  • Kathleen McDade says:

    I commute on an Xtracycle Radish; I take a laptop and a tote bag plus my lock, rain gear, etc. (I’m in Portland, OR). Plenty of room for my stuff PLUS groceries or whatever if I need to stop at the store on my way home.

  • kanishka says:


    i have been obsessed with this question for almost a year now. you can see the answers i’ve come up with over time in my past posts to this website. i have photos of my last two setups in various posts on bikeforums folding bikes / swift folders thread. feel free to email me for more info, nish2575 at gmail

    my current setup is kind of like jay in tel aviv.
    seatpost: SQR mount, super c saddlebag, 23 liters, plenty of weight
    riser: klickfix mount (rear one, but i’m going to switch to the carrier front one soon) with a klickfix meta* backpack. 24 liters, not that much weight supported.

    the only improvement on my setup would be if i had a dahon or brompton with built in head tube mounts.

    i love this setup! and perfect for one hand friend when bike is folded and back for other bag. great pedestrian/bike transition

    my only catch is it would be nice to have a rack for when i decide to go grocery shopping on a whim. but the rack will make the weight of the carrying bike and the folded shape a little more awkward. the solution to that will be a very packable backpack that i use on my back on those random occasions

    your folding bike expert is not doing enough homework/research. consult with either thorusa or bfold or trophy bikes.


  • Alan says:


    Great advice. I’d add Bert at NYCeWheels to your list.


  • Tom says:

    Thanks @Alan and @kanishka. I’m looking into klickfix mount for the stem. I might just buy a bag/basket adapter plate and make my own bag. There’s a UK dealer that ships to the USA that sells the adapter plate set as small parts.

  • michael says:

    @Alan and Mike

    Those both look like brilliant products. However, a short chat with one of my LBS later and I’ve got a rear rack with basket (a front rack really would have been a pain, I think… but on my next bike)! And since I was buying the rack, they helped me sort out mounting alternatives (ended up coming away with some free hardware to make it work). Now, to take her out!

  • peteathome says:

    A late input to this conversation – as long as I have a pannier already on the bike, why bother pulling our my messanger bag even if all I’m doing is mailing a letter? I throw it in the pannier and off I go. A pannier is always on my bike except on rare occasions mentioned below.

    If I know I’m going to make lots of stops and don’t want to leave anything valuable in the pannier, I put my messanger bag or a large, reusable grocery bag in the pannier and then simply pull it out and take it with me.

    The messanger bag solution is nice in case I buy too much to fit in the pannier as I can always wear the overlow in the bag. Although I almost always have a few plastic grocery bags in my pannier that I can put the overflow of light stuff into and tie to my handlebars for that true geek look.

    The only time I use a messanger bag/backpack-only approach si when I’m parking somewhere that I don’t want to leave anything on the bike. Then the bag approach is much easier – hop off the bike, lock it, and off I go. But I really hate to do this in hot weather. I hate it so much I tend to avoid going anyplace where I’d have to strip my bike when parked. That’s a good segue into public bike lockers …

    On that note, one nice thing about cars is you can park somewhere and put stuff into your trunk and reasonably expect it to still be there when you get back. I’ve seriously considered making or buying a lockable trunk for my bike that is attached firmly enough to discourage causal theivery for 30 minutes or so. Something like

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