Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Bicycle Luggage Debate

The one thing that I have noticed folks get really wrapped up in when bike touring is how to carry their stuff. Specifically, people love to argue the merits and drawbacks between panniers and trailers.  Everyone is convinced that whichever they've picked is correct and the other is inferior.  Well the other thing that I have noticed is that typically these same people have only ridden with one system thus making their claims biased and unfounded.  To satisfy my own curiosity and to inform you, fair reader, I decided to ride with both setups.
Well why don't you cry about it, Saddlebags!?!  (Obscure Ace Ventura reference... sorry)  Panniers work great.
When I say "ride with both setups" I don't mean write some crappy magazine review in which I borrowed something for an afternoon and took it along when I got coffee.  (Although I drank lots of coffee whilst using both panniers and trailer.)  No.  I mean I tested the heck out of this.  I rode across the country (approx. 5,000 miles) this summer using Ortlieb Back-Roller Plus and Front-Roller Plus panniers.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I went on a 750 mile tour using the same front panniers and a BOB Yak trailer.  In both cases, I was also using an Ortlieb Ultimate5 Plus handlebar bag.  During both trips, I got opportunities to ride pavement, gravel, dirt, long climbs, steep climbs, fast descents, windy straightaways, car-choked urban environments, and just about every other condition imaginable.  I'd say it was a pretty darn fair test.

Since I had toured so much with panniers, I had my biases against trailers somewhat going into the second tour.  I thought it would be slower.  I thought it would "pull me back" on steep ascents.  I thought on extended gravel and dirt it would just add drag.  I thought it would suck weaving around cars in the city.  I thought I would instantly be disgusted.  And what happened?  I didn't really notice any difference.  Nope.  I was just as happy pulling a trailer as I was with panniers.  In fact, on the last day I forgot that I was using a trailer.  As Porky the Pig says, "That's all, folks!"  Get over it.
Trailers work great too.  Don't worry.  They don't make you spontaneously yardsale in plazas.
But seriously, the debate is just silly.  There's a simple series of questions that can make this an easy decision for you.  I should have drawn some sort of Venn diagram or flow chart, but I never took graphic design.  Microsoft Paint sucks to use with a laptop touchpad mouse too.  So I guess I'll just write this out longhand.

-If you already own a bike that won't accommodate racks, buy a trailer and go touring.  Ignore all of the pannier geeks.
-If you're on a strict budget, you may want to choose the trailer.  A BOB Yak Plus which includes a waterproof duffle will hold 94 liters and goes for $359.  My panniers hold 25 liters (front) and 40 liters (back) and I'll say that I strap 30 liters of stuff to the top of the rear rack to make the volume capacity the same.  Those bags plus my front and rear racks amount to about $460.  Yes you can certainly get cheaper panniers, but Ortlieb bags are the de facto choice for most cross country riders by my observations.
-If you want to haul random stuff like packrafts, beer kegs, mule deer, etc. the trailer is more versatile for that.
-If you're also using buses/trains/planes in your travels, panniers are a lot easier to get around with.
-If you're wheedling your bike around in urban spots, taking it on elevators, carrying it up stairs, etc. it's a lot easier without the added length of the trailer.
Then again, why choose at all?  Just overload your bike beyond all reason and go have at it.  Okay... don't do that.
Of course, these are just some of the bigger questions to be mindful of.  I'm sure you can think of minute differences or situations where only X will do!  But the point of this post is to say that it really doesn't matter in terms of handling.  I tested that.  If you can ride a bike and make panniers weigh equally side to side you can figure that system out.  My brother who had never even seen a bike trailer slapped a loaded one on his road bike and was racing the taxis of Pittsburgh within minutes. Either one is fine.  The important thing is that you choose a system, throw some stuff in there and get outside.

A special warning:  Do not choose a double wheeled trailer.  They won't track as well behind you and when you're riding suspect roads, the right side wheel will invariably be hitting all of the nastiness by the curb/shoulder/road edge despite your best intentions.  Riding through Baltimore last week, if I hadn't been using a single wheeled trailer that followed my bike's tires exactly through the miasma of broken concrete, grates and trash, I may very well have died.  I'm not exaggerating that.  The only exceptions are if you are hauling a child in a two wheeled trailer or if it's just crucial because you cannot balance a single wheeled variety correctly.

I leapfrogged across the country this summer with two families that were biking on tandems with double wheeled trailers. They chose these because when you're asking an 8 year old and a 15 year old to bike together on a tandem, they cannot deal with the added frustration of balancing a single wheeled trailer.  But each and every one of the group of 12 still took turns cursing the two wheeled versions for the aforementioned drawbacks.