Touring Panniers vs Bicycle Touring Trailer – Which is best?

Whether having touring panniers or a bicycle trailer for bicycle touring is best, is an ongoing source of debate among touring cyclists. Which one is best for you?

Panniers vs Trailers for bike touring: Which one is the best for you?

Bike trailers Vs Panniers

Each option has its benefits and drawbacks, their lovers and haters.

As I have used both set-ups on my long distance cycling expeditions, I thought I would write about my own thoughts and experiences on the subject. You can take it from there!

Dave Briggs, bicycle touring in Greece as he cycles from Greece to England

Touring Panniers vs Bicycle Touring Trailers

Firstly, as with all my bicycle touring tips I should begin by saying that there is no right or wrong answer to this question.

Whether you use one or the other comes down to you and the situation you think you might use them in.

Some people even combine the use of both, and tow a full trailer as well as having a further four panniers attached to their bicycles.

Personally, this would be a little heavy for me, but each to their own!

By the way, you might want to check out this video on panniers or trailers for bicycle touring: 

Let's kick off by looking at front and rear panniers.

Bicycle Touring Panniers

The vast majority of people use touring panniers when bicycle touring. They are a tried and tested method of carrying everything a cyclist will need on short trips or long expeditions.

I've personally used panniers on two of my long distance bike tours, which involved cycling from England to South Africa, and Greece to England. I've also used a four panniers setup on perhaps a dozen shorter bike tours of a month or less.

The traditional set-up will see two large panniers on the rear rack, and two smaller ones on the front rack as well as a handlebar bag. Camping gear items such as a tent are then often strapped across the touring bike rear rack. There are even top rack packs available which sit neatly on the rear panniers and buckle into them.

Below, you can see a photo of my fully loaded touring bike with rear and front panniers, a handlebar bag, and rack pack.

Fully loaded touring bike with panniers

Benefits of using bicycle touring panniers

Using panniers for bicycle touring has several benefits, and the foremost of these, is versatility.

A weekend tour might only require that the rear panniers are used, whereas a longer cycling trip might require all four and a rack pack. This means that the number of pannier bags you use on tour will depend on how much gear you want to take.

Trailer owners would need to tow the trailer behind them regardless of if the trip was for a weekend or longer tour, meaning that weight was being added to the bicycle unnecessarily. Most cyclists prefer a light as load as possible!

Best panniers for bicycle touring

My Dawes Galaxy complete with panniers before cycling to South Africa

Panniers also make keeping things organised and accessible a breeze. One bag might be for food, another for clothes, one for cycling kit and cooking gear, and another for camping stuff etc.

Once a daily routine develops, it becomes second nature knowing which pannier to open when certain gear is needed. This is certainly better than opening the large bag that is towed in the trailer, where everything gets mixed up together, and it can become a real pain finding things.

Check out my guide to choosing the best panniers for bicycle touring here.

Bicycle Touring Panniers

Another great thing that I have noticed about using panniers, is that they are a lot easier to carry when it comes to either finding somewhere to camp at night, or booking into a hotel.

When wild camping, it is quite possible to lift the entire bike complete with panniers over a small fence to get into a field to camp. This is a lot quicker than unhooking the trailer from the bike, and lifting both trailer and bike over a fence separately.

The same can be said when checking into a hostel or guesthouse, and having to take the bike up a set of stairs to the room.

It is (just about!) possible to lift a fully loaded bike up a couple of flights of stairs if you are feeling strong. It is always two trips if not three with a trailer, which may seem inconsequential now, but gets irritating really quickly when out on the road!

Drawbacks of Rear Panniers

One of the drawback to using panniers, is that there is a tendency to overload the bags at the bag which puts more strain on the bike's rear wheel.

While you're not likely to end up with bent rims, a fully loaded bike which is overweight at the back will be more susceptible to broken spokes especially when riding off road.

Bicycle Touring With A Bicycle Trailer

Bicycle trailers come in various guises and designs, although the general theory is the same in that the bulk of a load is towed behind the bicycle.

The trailer itself will be designed to contain a large bag, or in the case of one design, panniers on either side of an “extra-wheel”.

The most common, and perhaps the best bicycle trailer for touring is the Bob Yak single wheeled trailer. This is the trailer I used when cycling the length of the Americas from Alaska to Argentina.

Note: There is probably also a debate between whether two wheeled trailers are better than a single wheel trailer, but as I only have experience with single wheel trailers, we'll stick with those!

Cycle Trailers for Touring

One of the much vaunted benefits of using a trailer over panniers, is that it puts a lot less stress on the bicycles rear wheel, reducing the amount of broken spokes and even damage to the rear hub.

This is due to the way that the weight is distributed, and is certainly worthy of consideration when deciding which sort of touring set-up to go for.

The downside to this, is that as there are one or more extra wheels on the trailer, the chances of punctures increase, spare tubes specific to the trailer may need to be carried, and there are extra hubs to keep in mind.

Thankfully, broken spokes are a real rarity on quality bicycles trailers such as a Bob Yak Trailer, so spare spokes normally don't need to be taken for them.

Bike Touring with Trailer

Another good thing about using a bicycle trailer over panniers, is that the entire “train” is more aerodynamic than when using panniers.

I haven't got any figures to hand, but I'm sure that in web-world there is a detailed study into this! Being more aerodynamic should in theory mean that less calories are needed per average day.

My experience of touring with a Bob trailer, is that this gain is offset by the overall set-up being heavier. Towing a trailer up steep hills also feels like dragging an anchor behind the bike, but maybe that is all in the mind!

Bicycle Touring with a trailer

Perhaps the main plus on the side of using a trailer, is that it enables you to carry more stuff when needed.

Examples of this are if you need to cross a desert region, and have to carry more days food and water than normal. This becomes a real balancing act to get it right on the bike when using panniers, but with a trailer, it is simply a case of piling it on and strapping it.

I have to say, that it certainly made my crossing of the Salt Pans of Bolivia a lot easier, and I was even carrying a spare wheel at the same time!

Dave's Verdict On Touring Panniers and Bicycle Trailers On A Bike Tour

Having used both, I can honestly say that I would never go back to using bicycle trailers for touring again!

I found the whole set-up inconvenient from day one, when I had to pack it up to fly it out to Alaska, through to the last day, when it acted as an anchor as I pushed my bike through a mud bog.

Using the trailer always made everything seem heavier and slower, and on a number of occasions at junctions, motorists came close to hitting me when they pulled out after I cycled by, not expecting the trailer to be there.

Certainly on my next bicycle tour, I will be using solely panniers, and I am looking forwards to feeling unrestricted, which is something I never did when using the trailer.

Do yourself a favour – Learn from my mistakes, and use bicycle panniers rather than a trailer on your next bicycle tour!

Cycle Touring Trailer FAQ

Here are some commonly asked questions about choosing and using a bike touring trailer:

Which bike trailer is best?

The Bob Yak bicycle touring trailer is often considered to be the highest quality trailer for bike touring. Many cheaper trailers are based on this design.

Can you put a bike trailer on a road bike?

You can use a bike trailer with a road bike and in many situations this is a much better idea that trying to attach a bike racks and panniers to a road bike.

Which weighs more, panniers or a bicycle touring trailer?

The combined weight of the trailer and luggage bag weighs more than the combined weight of bike racks and panniers.

Related Bicycle Touring Articles

Touring Panniers vs Bicycle Touring Trailer - Which is best?

Adventure cyclist Dave Briggs bike touring the PanAmerican HighwayDave Briggs
Dave has cycled around much of the world on different bicycle tours using both panniers and cycle trailers.  In addition to this guide about cycling with a trailer compared to panniers, he's written many other guides to bike touring and bikepacking.

Follow Dave on social media for travel, adventure and bike touring inspiration:


9 thoughts on “Touring Panniers vs Bicycle Touring Trailer – Which is best?”

  1. Very interesting! I just ordered a Coho XC from Burley and should be getting it in about a week. I intend to use it to retrieve old leftover bread from a bakery to feed animals. We have an animal rescue shelter and rehabilitate injured wildlife. The bakery is about 22 kilometers away and sticks the old bread into a container for me to pick up. The quantities vary from only a few breads to over 70 pounds of bread on any pickup. The problem is that during the hot summer months, I have to make two runs a week to the bakery so that the bread doesn’t spoil (mildew). The road is mostly flat but the asphalt is not always great here in Canada with cracks and potholes all along the way. Using a single wheel bike trailer will hopefully enable me to bring back all the bread in one trip on those days when there is plenty to bring back. I also hope that having only one wheel trailer following my bike will give me a better chance to avoid potholes. Bread takes up a lot of volume per unit of weight so it is unlikely that I would ever be able to fit all of this bulky load into my four panniers. Also, I am not sure that my 1987 German road bike (kotter) would be too happy carrying such a load on the rear wheel. This is the reason I am going to try a single wheel bike trailer hooked up to my road bike. I will have a couple of panniers at the back of the trailer on a rack over the wheel. The capacity of the trailer is 70 pounds. I will try and stay under that limit by putting the extra bread into the two front bicycle panniers on my bike to try and spread the weight as much as possible off of the back tire of the bike.
    Only when there is an overabundance of bread will I put any into my two rear bike panniers. I do this because the price of corn, sunflower seeds and gasoline is becoming prohibitive so instead of using the car to get the free bread, I will use the bike which represents a savings of about $15 in gasoline each outing. I do this to help reduce pollution, save more wildlife, prevent the bread from simply be thrown away into a dumpster and wasted. This might take more time than using a but will give me a chance to finally get back on a bicycle. I used to bike about 100 km on average each day up mountain passes in Bavaria and Switzerland for 15 years and have not been able to go back on a bike since coming back home to Canada. My boss is happy that I don’t have to use his car and pay for gas and in exchange, he allows me a little extra time to get the bread using my bike. So I kill two birds (not literally) with one stone. I get the opportunity to go on a bike again and help fight pollution, inflation and wildlife. I hope it all turns out for the best. I wish you all the best. Sincerely

  2. I don’t have a dedicated touring bike. My one and only bicycle is a 2007 Specialized Allez Sport, which is a low-end road racing/recreational bike. There are basically no bolt-on points for pannier racks. A steel touring bike costs upwards of $1500 (US). My only option is getting a bike trailer. The B.O.B. trailer combos run just under $400 (US). So for me, I don’t have the option of trying out panniers on my bike. I’m not wealthy so I can’t just shell out thousands of dollars for a new bike touring set-up. Also, I’m not going to be doing tours longer than one week in length.

    Thanks, y’all.

  3. I am going on my first trip next year! I am going to use a trailer.. I have used trailers for transporting my kids for years… I see the pros and cons for both products..

  4. Interesting article as I have recently bought a trailer mainly to carry picnics etc for the family on our rides out for the day which I have to say I much prefer over panniers. I recently rode a weekend tour in my home county of Lancashire where we have both flat and hilly bits, I totally agree about the hills, it was hard work going up, on the flat it was great and I did realise it was there, had to keep checking!
    I getting to old now for grande tours plus getting permission off the wife is near impossible so for weekend away trips and as we are about to do with my youngest (10) a overnight stop over the trailer will be used, I kind of got to like the trailer even on the hills and as we are on the coast the wind resistance plays an important part. Many thanks for your articles.

    • Glad you enjoyed the posts Aidy! I think you are spot on using one with a family, as it enables you to carry some of their gear in the trailer, freeing them up of it, and slowing you down just that little bit so you all keep the same pace. Hope you get to make the most of the weather. Every tour seems grand to me, whether an overnighter or longer! Enjoy yourselves, and may the wind be at your back 😉

      • Agreed on Aidy’s point – I recently did the Great Allegheny Passage with my three kids (10, 12, and 14). I was able to put a lot of the heavier gear into my BOB Ibex and then spread the remaining (lighter) gear among the kids’ rear panniers. That way they felt like they were carrying their own gear without having it unduly impact their first bicycle touring experience. I also came across a couple where the husband had a BOB and 4 fully-loaded panniers, while his wife (who said she was an inexperienced cyclist and this was her first trip) was carrying next to nothing. I agree that panniers are better for solo trips, but if you need to carry more than your “share” of gear, having a trailer gives you a lot of extra flexibility!


Leave a Comment