Trailers vs Panniers

This is an older page that I’ve transitioned from my old website to this blog – although written quite a few years ago, there’s still some relevant information that may be of value if you are new to bike touring and contemplating methods of carrying your “stuff.”
Nowadays with the proliferation of bags and racks, the latest mode of “Bikepacking” offers another option for fast, light and, dare I say, “young” travellers – but that’s a whole other world that I have no experience with, but many are finding it a good option to rival the burden of panniers or a trailer.

Trailers

One wheel or two?

Some quality trailer examples below,
but there are a myriad more available.

 Of course, it depends on your application. If you’re looking into taking one of your kids, or a pet, on a short jaunt around your local area, or even doing some grocery shopping, then a two wheeler is a good choice. But for versatility and compactness, on or off-road, then the one wheeled trailer should be a the logical choice.

 My main reasoning behind that statement is that the single wheel trailer tracks directly behind the rear wheel of the bike, and very well too. When riding at the edge of road pavement, one does not have to worry about the position of the trailer wheel. With a two wheeled trailer there is a distinct possibility that the inside wheel will be off the pavement and into some “rough stuff.” Or one has to travel further into the roadway to avoid such a scenario. When riding off-road, the two wheeler would also be difficult to manoeuvre, especially where there are deep ruts, narrow single track etc.
In addition, the single wheel trailer also has a lower (depending on load) and narrower profile than the two wheeler and hence tends to be more aerodynamic.

 Notwithstanding, many people do tour with two wheeled trailers and still have great success. Two wheeled trailers tend to have a very light tongue weight, as most of the weight of the contents of the trailer, is distributed over the axle of the trailer itself, thereby applying very little stress to the rear wheel/spokes of the bike. The single wheel trailer, if properly loaded, will probably have half the weight of the load on the rear axle of the bike. That’s still better than having all the weight of the load on the rear wheel, as is the case when using just rear panniers on a light framed or light wheeled bike.

 Most bicycles can pull a trailer, but if towing a loaded trailer is to be a regular occurrence, or for extended touring, then a bicycle with a stiff rear triangle and/or frame would be better suited to the task. Lighter framed bikes will tend to flex more when greater loads are being pulled, resulting in a shimmying of the bike, especially at speed. The same principle holds true for travel with panniers, a stiffer framed bike is much more capable of dealing with the stresses that heavier loads deliver during the various manoeuvres required when riding.

 Furthermore, the rear wheel of the bike also needs to be of strong construction – heavier gauge spokes and a strong rim – as any pedalling pressure transmits torque to the hub and spokes of a rear wheel. Pulling or hauling extra weight increases this torque and can result in broken spokes on inadequately built wheels.

 Burley are a well known manufacturer of trailers – amongst other products – and have a few different models. The Nomad with its 100lb capacity seems to be their competition to the immensely popular BOB YAK, and is a very innovative trailer. The ability to be able fold up and pack the trailer into a nice package makes this a very viable unit for the touring cyclist who may have to travel partly via air or rail.

 Bob Trailers have the YAK and a suspension version of the YAK, named IBEX. Both are single wheeled trailers and have a 70lb carrying capacity. The trailers can have the tongue inverted, the fender and wheel removed for compact packaging; not a big hardship for travel by air, rail etc.

 Croozer Designs is yet another example of the many fine trailers available. The reason that I included this particular brand is that it also folds flat for transport. However it is relatively expensive as they are manufactured in Germany. As with the two wheeled Burley, the Croozer is a good design not just for touring, but also many other errands that require some cargo space when cycling.

 I purchased a two wheeled Burley Nomad many years ago, and am very pleased with the good features of stability, low tongue weight and 100lb carrying capacity. Notwithstanding, I do find the width of the trailer to be a bit bothersome in some instances, e.g. narrow passageways or doorways. And without some care, I do see the possibility of the inside wheel either bumping into a high curb, or running off onto a rough shoulder. One more shortcoming of the Burley is that it does not come with fenders, and neither are they an option! As I live and ride mostly in the Pacific Northwest, rain spray is a big issue, so I fashioned some up on my own which have lasted through many years of use, and abuse!

The photos above show the homemade fenders that I cobbled together from an oil drain pan that I purchased from an auto supply store. 

I did own a BOB YAK and I really liked the way that it tracked behind my rear wheel around pot holes and other hazards. Also, I could track closer to the curb than I could with a two wheeler. And I like the way that my gear bag – from the trailer – lifted out as one piece and fitted nicely into my tent’s vestibule. The trailer was a little bit finicky for parking, but on the whole it was a decent rig for touring.

 As I don’t tour with a trailer any more (to any great extent), I do find the two-wheeled stability of the Burley Nomad much more convenient than the BOB for local errands and grocery shopping etc. Both trailers accept a large Rubbermaid container, which is very convenient for keeping items dry in inclement weather. I eventually sold the BOB but still have the Burley Nomad.

 Ultimately, each person must evaluate their own needs and decide on which options of a “towing vehicle” and equipment suits them best.

Panniers

 There are a myriad of choices when it comes to panniers and also racks. Usually, you tend to get what you pay for, and for the most part, this holds true. Better designs, materials and features cost more money.

Reading other cyclists’ opinions on Internet newsgroups and lists, such as “Bicycletouring on Google Groups,” can give one insight on the many features of different products. Moreover, most companies now have a presence on the Web, so viewing suitable products and acquiring specifications can be done from the comfort of home. But it’s still nice to be able to touch, feel and inspect at a store! Unfortunately, depending on your location, a decent bike shop might not be in the offing. So the Internet may be your only option. Notwithstanding, I try to support a bike shop that is fairly local as much as possible and am fortunate in that it has a good selection of parts and accessories, together with competent and knowledgeable staff. Often as not, a decent LBS can order anything that you may require that they don’t stock.

 The panniers that I used for many years were of the defunct Serratus brand that were made by Mountain Equipment Co-Op (MEC). Presently, MEC have some very good cycling equipment and accessories for very reasonable prices.
Way back in 2004, MEC dropped the Serratus brand of products – in fact, MEC were the owners of Serratus manufacturing and sole distributors; regardless, Serratus products are no longer available – too bad, as the product line was excellent!!!
But MEC do have panniers under the brand name of “MEC.” In fact, their panniers are very good quality and there is a decent variety including the waterproof Aqua-Not panniers.

 In late 2005 I decided to upgrade my pannier setup somewhat by researching waterproof panniers. My panniers were made with “Cordura” material and worked admirably, but during extended tours I found that I spent a lot of time removing and replacing pannier rain covers – I guess that I travelled in a lot of rainy locales, or did the rain just follow me around? MEC were not in the pannier business for a time, so of course without straining myself too much, I could easily determine that Ortlieb were hugely popular as waterproof, durable, virtually bomb-proof panniers and their attachment systems are excellently engineered – there again, what German equipment isn’t! I opted for the “Bike Packer Plus” for the rear pair and “Front Roller Plus” for the front pair. Yes, they were a little pricey, but they have proved themselves over many years of touring and are still my touring panniers to this day (2021).

Surly Disc Trucker - Loaded
Surly Disc Trucker with Touring Load

During the last few years, I lightened my equipment and was able to manage with just the rear panniers, but since adding the e-drive to the bike, I will be using my front panniers again to distribute the load more evenly for future touring.

Some pannier favourites of touring cyclists are…

  • Ortlieb Panniers – made in Germany – an excellent brand, and one of the most touted. They are hard wearing and waterproof, serious panniers. I upgraded to these!
  • Arkel – OD – made in Canada – OD stands for over-designed and the panniers certainly are well thought out designs with lots of features not found in other brands. I believe that the company will customise bags to your specific needs too.
  • MEC – made in Vietnam and Philippines – MEC brand – quality is excellent and the prices are very reasonable. They also sell panniers from other manufacturers.
  • Vaude Panniers – made in Germany – are also very popular and have a full range of panniers for all situations.

…To mention just a few.

 Here are some of my findings together with some pros and cons of touring with trailers and/or panniers…

 I used a BOB (loaded with approx. 35 pounds.) for the first time during the year 2000, for short and long trips. I also used two small panniers (load for both approx. 10 pounds.), one for food and the other for raingear, tools, spares and other items that I wanted to access quickly rather than rummaging in the large BOB bag. Having the front panniers greatly stabilised the steering and made the bike feel much more stable. I tried a short tour with just rear panniers and the BOB, but found no advantage to having the panniers on the rear – the steering also felt very light and twitchy.

Prior to trying the BOB trailer, I always toured with two small front panniers, two larger rear panniers and a dry bag on top of the rear rack.

  • The BOB trailer seemed to make the bike more aerodynamic in general than with bulky panniers.
  • Climbing hills? It seemed to me that more effort was required when towing a trailer. After all, the BOB trailer does weigh 12 lbs and delivers the rolling resistance of one more wheel. But also consider the overall reduced weight of four less panniers?
  • Motorists appear to give more space when passing a bike with a trailer.
  • The manual for the trailer states to only connect and disconnect the BOB trailer when empty, but I found it OK to connect/disconnect even loaded, although I do have a good kickstand on the bike, without which would make it a little tricky.
  • Speeding down hills with panniers is more stable than with a trailer; although keeping the weight on the trailer low and evenly distributed will tend to eliminate any fish-tailing at high speed.
  • Loading a trailer appropriately lets the trailer wheel share the load with the bike’s rear wheel, thereby lessening the load on the bike’s rear wheel and possibly reducing the risk of potential spoke breakage.
    Note: Year after year discussions crop up online regarding spoke breakage when using a one wheeled trailer, such as a BOB trailer. However there are many factors to consider when a cyclist reports a broken spoke. e.g. Was the bike’s wheel suitable? Was the wheel built correctly? How old was the wheel? How far has the wheel travelled? Was the trailer overloaded? Was the trailer loaded appropriately? Does the bike have a stiff rear triangle? etc. At present, there seems to be little evidence that spoke breakage is more widespread for bike wheels that tow single wheel (BOB) trailers than spoke breakage to other wheels that are utilised for cargo carrying or pulling other forms of trailers.
  • Improperly distributed loaded panniers do put more weight/strain directly onto the wheels.
  • The bike is not as compact with a trailer as just with panniers.
  • The trailer would be one more obstacle (extra baggage) when travelling by airline or other common carriers.
  • The bike is easier to take on a short side trip by parking the trailer somewhere safe.
  • You can carry more stuff with a trailer; a bad temptation, keep it light!
  • Packing gear each morning is much quicker and easier when using a trailer.
  • The trailer’s bag is not as easily accessible, or as organised, as panniers.
  • You can flip some trailers upside down for use a table!
  • If going to remote locations, using a trailer would require you to carry another spare tube and perhaps tire? – Unless your bike wheels happen to be the same size!
  • Your touring partners will not be happy with you, when they they discover that there is not much benefit in trying to draft you and your trailer, especially if you have been drafting their unencumbered bikes!
  • When touring with others, it is also difficult to converse with a rider in front if they have a trailer – the length of the trailer often puts them out of reach for reasonable conversation.
  • Riding alongside a touring partner with a trailer is often not possible on roads with narrow shoulders due to the extra width required by the trailer.
  • Some bikes with shorter chainstays will not allow enough heel clearance for the use of rear panniers, which makes a trailer a very viable option.

I was very undecided about trailers before I actually bought one – and although I was comfortable with towing a trailer, they do require a learning curve. I only touring-towed with the BOB trailer for two or three years, after which all of my touring has been with either two or four panniers. What really clinched the decision for me, was my ride across Canada throughout many weeks on the road – I was very glad then that I only used panniers as a trailer would have been a hinderance in many situations that arose.
In conclusion, it will be your personal preference decision between the two modes discussed above. Nonetheless, I do use a Burley Nomad trailer extensively for shopping expeditions around town where packing panniers with many groceries or other supplies is impractical. I bungee a large Rubbermaid container/tote with lid into the bed of the trailer for this purpose.

Either way, both methods make for a reliable way to carry your stuff in order to get to those fabulous touring destinations!

3 thoughts on “Trailers vs Panniers

  1. majchers

    Another in depth article Adam. But… as everything in life: IT ALL DEPENDS. There are people touring with 4352462463 pounds of gear and there are those who travel with a credit card. I met both. Nothing wrong with either. The secret is to find YOUR OWN BALANCE, your own sweet point, your own mantra. Touring is not about just merely moving from point A to point B. It is a philosophy of life. And as such it is… relative.

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    Reply

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