Panniers & frame bags

This page was initially written before I bought my Surly ECR bikepacking bike. Below the following pic, I discuss my use of traditional racks & panniers (2 front & 2 back panniers, with accompanying dry bag atop my rear rack). Below that, further down the page, you'll find a write up on the bikepacking frame & bag set up I went with for my ECR, as well as some update thoughts on packing gear after a year or so.

I've blurred boundaries between using either panniers vs the newer bikepacking set up. For longer trips carrying days of food, I've used smaller rear panniers. In winter, for longer rides with bigger loads, I've gone with a pure rack and pannier setup on my ECR. 

Over the years I've gone through a few sets of Ortlieb panniers, and one can see a little mixing here. I use a long (22 or 35 litre, also from Ortlieb) tough sack on the rear rack, between the panniers. 

Ortlieb panniers, Thorn Nomad touring bike, backroads bike touring, bikepacking, Vancouver Island

I started long ago with MEC panniers, then Jannd panniers, next Arkel panniers & finally Ortlieb, which I've stuck with (see pic above).

Coming from BC, waterproof makes a whole lot of sense, and if you try a lot of outdoor gear, you learn that there's waterproof, and then there's really waterproof - Ortlieb is really waterproof (sure beats having to manage rain covers over panniers). They're also light weight, really durable & have more capacity than they are rated for. For flights, I can tie all 4 panniers together into one 'bag' for airline check-in. I put outside rear pockets on my Ortlieb panniers so I can have easy access to a few key things like my camera and coffee mug.  

I also mostly use Ortlieb dry bags strapped on my rear rack (along with the panniers). One set-up is a traditional dry bag (22 litres), and the other (X-plorer) has backpack straps on the dry sack: I use this as a stand-alone pack as needed when travelling internationally, and on remote trips into new, iffy routes when it is likely I may need to haul my gear for stretches around obstacles: the pack format makes it easier hauling stuff.


I've used a few handlebar bags over the years, but stopped using them some years back.  Just a personal preference thing - I don't like weight higher up on the steering end. That said, I still have a good ortlieb handlebar bag that I have been thinking of getting out again, largely to have easier camera access.

Arkel panniers on Karakorum Highway | Jeff Bock bike on Karakorum Highway

Night time (with camera flash!) just off the Karakorum Hwy, south of Tashkurgan. ~4,000m elevation.  This was a long trip, at times a pretty cold trip, using Arkel panniers

The pic above is from an earlier trip to west China, up the Karakorum Highway and into North Pakistan. I was still using Arkel panniers then. Arkel is a Quebec-based Canadian company, and I liked their panniers, riding with them for a number of years. I found their pockets to keep things organized worked well for me.

But, ultimately, my BC home is a temperate rain forest, and I grew tired of rain covers, so switched to waterproof Ortliebs. Since then, Arkel has come out with some waterproof panniers that riders give high marks to - so people may want to check them out. I won't switch back, though, as the Ortliebs have proven themselves so reliable for me over many years.

Also, Arkel has recently been coming out with a bike packing line of bags. They have a new seat bag with a frame mount that lets users quickly remove the bag from the bike - a positive design option.

I think (not positive) this pic was at a river crossing along Memekay Main, south of Sayward. For this longer north Island ride, you can see I've set up my front Ortlieb panniers on the back to manage gear.

Surly ECR loaded for bikepacking | bikepacking frame bag & handlebar bag

Check out the pic of my new (2017) Surly 29+ ECR bikepacker, above. I've got a Surly Revelate mountain frame bag and a Revelate harness under my handlebars holding a stuff sack and Revelate pocket. Just behind the front stem is my Revelate gas tank, and just in front of the gas tank are 2 mountain feed bags (yellow tops) that hold a drink or snacks. You can see the Revelate jerry can (which I've used for my toolkit) mounted against the front of the seat post along the top bar. On the front forks you can see the Salsa Anything dry bags, which mount on special Salsa cages. I was able to rig mounts for front water bottles off the forks & cages as well - using a tough (and durable, it appears) mix of twist ties & lots of electric tape.. 

I also have an Ortlieb seat bag (17 litre) that mounts under the seat, extending out backwards. But, as most of my rides of late have been 3 or more days, where I need to carry a good amount of food, I've been using a rear rack, with Ortlieb front panniers.

A few things about the new frame bag set up have given me teething pains:

  1. the bag set up is really expensive relative to what you get; perhaps because there are still limited companies making the bags, prices are not yet that competitive.

  2. even the high quality Revelate bags are not fully waterproof, which is vexing. The exception (not surprising) is my Ortlieb seat bag.

  3. the key bags - frame, handlebar, seat and fork - are all quite intricately fastened and/or velcroed in place. This means that if one is camping and wants to put the bags in the tent to go on a hike (or whatever), it's a real bother to remove and then reattach all the bags - as opposed to panniers which just lift off by the handles.

  4. finally, on longer or winter trips, I'll end up with quite a bit loaded off the front handle bar bag (though lighter stuff, like sleeping bag, etc). This can't help but raise the question as to whether it's better for riding to have such gear loaded down lower, perhaps on a low ride front rack? And, for the front setup, there's lots of straps and things - real busy.

In other words, I believe the design of bike packing bags is still a work in progress. Things are definitely getting better, with more companies jumping in to join the market. It's also clear, that for trips when I want to travel light on my ECR, I need to cut back on the gear I pack: I'm working on this, though I suspect I'll never be a true ultralight camper.

Surly ECR bikepacking bags | bikepacking frame bags

This pic was at a decommissioned bridge over a creek, heading up to Mt Washington via the backroads from upper Oyster River to the north. This was summer riding, and a shorter trip (3 days), so I have less gear.

UPDATE AUGUST 2018: a few update thoughts on my bikepacking frame bag set-up. The above pic can help with context for the points below:

  • although the Salsa Anything dry bags are rated at 4.5 litre capacity (they really seem less), I found them smaller than I wanted (though I like the design & ruggedness).  I tried some larger 5 litre bags I have, using straps to cinch them to the Anything cages. But they did not sit well on the Anything cages. I found a British company that makes 5.5 litre (though they seem way bigger than the Anything bags) bags that have a flat bottom and 2 daisy chains up the sides for really secure fastening onto the Anything cages. I really like these new (larger & approx same price) Cycle Miles Gorilla Cage Dry Bags - will find out over time how durable they are.

  • As initially noted above, I like to be able to put my phone and sometimes my camera in my gas tank (aka top tube bar bag). I got frustrated with the fact that my Revelate gas tank was not waterproof. I picked up a new 1 litre Apidura Expedition Top tube bag, which is (they say) waterproof. I've had it out a few times and first impressions are good, so I see it as a definite upgrade I expect to stick with.

  • I'm using my 2 front feeder bags (off my front stem & handlebars) to hold my bear spray & canned air boat horn (left side) and my coffee mug with bear banger (pen launcher style) on the right side. This works well for me, and the ready access to my bear deterrent stuff is occasionally good for my peace of mind.

  • As noted above, I use a Revelate harness under my handlebars, with a stuff sack and Revelate pocket. This works well, and I'm glad I got the harness, but I have 2 issues:

    • There are 3 straps to clip the stuff sack into place, and then 4 (2 upper & 2 lower) snap-in straps for the Revelate pocket. They are relatively straight forward, but it seems too busy for me - I prefer simpler loading without so many straps. ​I often leave the pocket behind.

    • Like the gas tank discussed above, the Revelate pocket is NOT waterproof. It's water resistant, but does not stay dry in prolonged rain. This limits its usefulness, and as a long time Ortlieb user, it seems an unnecessary irritant.

This set-up has my new gorilla front bags. I am not using my Revelate pocket with my front harness, and am not using rear panniers.

Surly ECR gear bags | bikepacking upper Oyster River