Alternatives to the backpack for commuters

Riding to work is a pleasure in the summer – but as the sun starts to show its face more often, making its presence known a little more forcefully, commutes can get a little sweaty.

The backpack is a popular approach to carrying kit on a commute, but for those who ride to work in the clothes they plan to spend the day in can struggle with the deadly T-shaped sweat mark caused by wearing a heavy pack against clothing.

Here’s a look at some of the alternatives…


The touring cyclists’ best friend, panniers sit either side of the rear wheel, and are mounted on a pannier rack. You can usually fit quite a lot of kit into panniers, and the weight isn’t on your shoulders as with a backpack. Of course, it doesn’t disappear, and your bike will feel heavier.

You can fit your life into panniers if need be..

You can fit your life into panniers if need be..

The extra weight on the back of the bike can feel strange at first, especially as you get out of the saddle, but it doesn’t take long to get used to.

If you want to give panniers a go, you’ll need to check your bike has pannier rack mounts. These are on the seatstay – there should be one set of bolts above the rear cassette, and above the rear brake.

Personally, I’ve got an Altura Arran Pannier pair, they’re about £50 and do the job just fine.

Handlebar bag

If you’re just taking a few essential items and want them close to hand, a handlebar bag does just that. Again, favoured by touring cyclists for carrying cameras, maps and snacks, the bar bag could also prove useful for the shopper who wants their wallet, phone and keys close to hand, or perhaps just needs a bit of space to store fragile eggs and bananas.

Bar bags come in all shapes and sizes – from the practical Altura Dryline Bar Bag, to the pretty and functional Goodordering Handlebar Bag which can look just like a normal bag.

Good ordering front view of the bag

Courier Bag

Another way of avoiding the backpack is going for the more relaxed over-the-shoulder style courier bag.

This option is best if you’re not carrying anything too heavy – though I’m sure the hardcore courier cyclists of London might disagree with me.

For a super stylish version, check out the Rapha shoulder bag selection- such as this small shoulder bag. Admitedly, it will set you back a cool £100,  but with that you get a bag that is fit to take a small lap top or iPad, has a padded and removable padded sleeve, organiser pockets, and has a zipped away reflective rain cover included in the package.


If you really aren’t taking a lot with you, such as just money, phone, keys and perhaps a pen – the Rapha Musette at £45 is another option.


Another admittedly pricy option is the Wingman shoulder bag. At £119.99, it is quite an investment. However, the Wingman is an investment for the suit wearer with an active lifestyle. Designed to keep shirts,  blouses, suit jackets and trousers crease free, the Wingman keeps them separate from the rest of your kit, so you can even take sweaty gym gear and a wet towel alongside work clothes without the two coming into contact.

As well as room for gym gear/shoes, and a suit, the Wingman also has a padded pocket for an iPad or other fragile items – and the suit carrier even has a foldable suit hanger included.

All of this is carried over the shoulder using an adjustable shoulder strap. Here’s a look at how it all works:


Not everyone’s cup of tea, a basket is admittedly quite a convenient option provided you are riding at a leisurely pace, and there is no risk of a sudden bump scattering the contents across the road.


If  the traditional ‘California Beach Riding’ basket look doesn’t appeal to you, you can still enjoy the practical benefits of a wire basket.

Not all baskets will fit every bike – for example a road bike is unlikely to cater for a deep, wicker basket because there won’t be enough clearance from handlebar to the front wheel – so it’s best to check before buying.

How do you usually carry your kit to work?

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36 Responses to Alternatives to the backpack for commuters

  1. Ed 11/06/2014 at 9:41 am #

    I use a biologic commuter rack bag which is really handy as just clips onto top of my rear rack and for when I need a little extra space (for when I’m 24hiurs on call away from home) I have a luggage truss from klickfix and use a altura dryline bar bag with it.

    • MJ Ray 11/06/2014 at 12:36 pm #

      Yes, I’m surprised the rackpack didn’t make the list. Rackpacks are suitable for smaller loads than panniers, but they’re big enough for most trips, don’t add much weight and don’t change the aerodynamics much. I’m currently using an Alpkit Airlok as a makeshift rackpack, which also gives me the option of strapping it to the frame or handlebars on rackless bikes and it clips nicely into the London Cycle Hire front carriers.

      Another tip: fit carabiner clips to the shoulder strap attachment points on a messenger bag and you can easily clip them to the side top rail on a pannier rack if you have one. Just make sure the shoulder strap is secure and won’t flap into the wheel!

  2. Jason 11/06/2014 at 10:23 am #

    Amazed you’ve not mentioned the best option for many people – a Carradice saddle bag!!!

    I use mine on my road and cx bikes and they’re fantastic. Dont need pannier mounts, just get the quick release mount on your seatpost and you’re good to go. They come in various styles and sizes, are made in Britain by a British company (for the best part of a century), are waterproof and will carry most things you’ll need easily. I found they dont catch the wind as much as panniers too…although panniers will have more capacity if you carry a lot of stuff…

    I have the 11 litre Pendle and can carry a complete change of clothes and trainers in my main compartment, keep all the puncture repair and tool stuff in a side pocket…wallet and other bits and bobs in the other. There’s a light loop for putting a rear light on too.

    If you want to ride without it you wont have a big pannier rack stuck to your bike as well.

    • MJ Ray 11/06/2014 at 12:43 pm #

      Are saddlebags that great? All the weight is added to the saddle rails and seat post. I suggest they’re a good option only for the lighter rider and most people would be better with a bag that attaches to the frame more directly in any way.

      • Jason 13/06/2014 at 10:23 am #

        Yep they are. I found handling to be better with the saddlebag than with the panniers/rack I had.

        Who mentioned saddlerails? 🙂 It uses a quick release mount attached to the seatpost. 2 seconds to put bag on, 2 seconds to take off.

        Lighter rider??? I dont understand your point at all. I’m certainly not light and neither is my saddlebag sometimes, and there’s no problem whatsoever.

        These bags have been used for the best part of a hundred years with no problems, they are not for everyone (if you have loads to carry in 2 big panniers for example, or those who have a carbon seatpost?) but for a lot of people they are a great option.

        A lot of bikes that dont have proper rack mounts could use these too.

        • MJ Ray 13/06/2014 at 11:27 am #

          Apologies. I’m pretty sure the Carradice saddlebag users I know attach them to bag loops on the back of the saddle. While rare, there are occasional reports of things breaking. I missed that you have a seatpost attachment, but I still feel frame-attached bags place less strain on the bike and affect handling less.

    • tom 11/06/2014 at 12:55 pm #

      Yep, couldn’t agree more, Carradice saddlebags combined with their quick release system are fantastic. Also they double as a mudguard.

      This is the one I’ve got:

  3. Alan Moore 11/06/2014 at 10:57 am #

    The problem with most baskets is they weigh down the handlebars. I’ve got a front rack which is attached to the FRAME – not the handlebars or wheel – to which I’ve attached a plastic box. You can carry as much as you like (e.g. six bottles of wine + the food for a barbecue) without it significantly affecting the handling.

    The box also folds flat for bungeeing large or odd-shaped things on there. And for the weekly shop I add a pannier as well.

    • Vincent 12/06/2014 at 11:39 am #

      I’m interested. Would you mind uploading a picture of the rack you have attached to the frame? Thank you.

  4. Henri 11/06/2014 at 11:35 am #

    The prices here are ridiculous. £100 for a shoulder bag? I paid £7 for mine from a well-known supermarket years ago. It’s very sturdy and still in good condition today and I use it everyday for work.

    I’d rather buy a new £10 bag every year than a £100 one.

  5. Sean 11/06/2014 at 12:19 pm #

    I used to use a shopping basket fixed to the pannier rack at the back of my bike (bought not stolen, had to go to about a dozen shops before one agreed to sell me one of theirs). When that rusted through I switched to a square flower basket around the same size, but made of rust resistant metal. Both were affixed with a mixture of cable ties and small padlocks. Really useful for carrying shopping in, and could even fit my leather satchel bag carrying my 17″ laptop (I used a bike lock to ensure this didn’t fall out).

    However that bike broke and I opted to replace it with a light weight single speed option with no obvious way of attaching any storage. While I’m doing more leisure cycling with the new bike my utility-supermarket-shop cycling has gone down, replaced with online ordering.

  6. Jesper 11/06/2014 at 12:43 pm #

    If your commute is not longish, the rear/front racks on an upright bike will make it not only a great commuter, but also a very good utility bike. Especially in cities, this can often replace car journeys.

  7. Jack 11/06/2014 at 12:44 pm #

    Agree, lots of options left out which is a shame. Very impressed with my Topeak Trunk Bag, which can fold out into panniers too if needed.

  8. Andrew 11/06/2014 at 1:13 pm #

    I’m also surprised at the lack of saddlebags. I have one of these which at 16 litres is the size of a small rucksack. I can easily fit a change of clothes, shoes, small laptop, lunch, etc in it.

    I’ve loaded it up with a fair bit of stuff over the years and you very quickly don’t notice it as the weight is very close to your own centre of gravity. Most (not counting lightweight, carbon-fibre, etc) seat-posts are rated at 18 stone plus so unless you’re fairly heavy then another stone or two in a saddle bag isn’t going to make much of a difference.

  9. Pam 11/06/2014 at 1:49 pm #

    I use the VeloPac Musette – for essentials to and from work – phone, keys, lunch, spare t-shirt.. at just £20.00

  10. PB 11/06/2014 at 6:31 pm #

    I’m looking for a new option. My new bike won’t take the pannier rack I have and to be honest, I’ve never really liked the way the bike handles with one side loaded up. I was looking at this instead: It seems to offer most of the same benefits as the Carradice bags, but with QR.

    Also, I couldn’t see if the Carradice bags offer shoulder straps? I’d need the bag on and off the bike as I lock the bike up at the train station.

    • tom 13/06/2014 at 11:44 am #

      PB – I have the U34 Rucksack and Seatpost QR and love it – good quality and seems very sturdy. I needed something that worked on my full size folder that would not interfere with the folding – and it works a treat. You get a rucksack cover as well with the bag. I got mine new from Ebay for about 40 quid for both the seat post and the bag.

      • PB 13/06/2014 at 6:38 pm #

        Thanks, Tom. The U34 seems very heavy, though!

        • Tim Russ 10/08/2014 at 10:37 am #

          I also have a Union 34 rucksack with seatpost fixing. It is great and means no sweaty back. I highly recommend it. But is seems not many people thought the same way and it looks like Union 34 havge ceased trading as their website is no longer available and all the retailers selling their kit are discounting all products heavily – the seatpost fixing and rucksack are a real bargin at the moment

  11. Elizabeth 11/06/2014 at 8:14 pm #

    Personally, I don’t like to choose between a backpack or a pannier. I think they are both great for different reasons!

    I like the Woodward Convertible by North St. Bags.

    Such a cool little company in Portland, Oregon!

  12. Phil 12/06/2014 at 10:51 am #

    I finally have my Carradice Shopper panniers, and can carry pretty much anything I want- shopping, a machine-full of laundry, clothes and laptop for work, plants to the allotment. They’re bombproof and waterproof, and the wood handles make carrying loads comfortable.

  13. Phil 12/06/2014 at 10:53 am #

    I should have mentioned they also have shoulder straps- I have to lock up at the train station as well.

  14. Robert 12/06/2014 at 4:44 pm #

    I’ve used the M-Wave top box for more than a year now and am still very happy with it. It is not huge but that is probably better anyway. I use a small backpack which fits exactly in the box. If at some point I want to bring back more than fits, some shopping for example, only then do I actually wear the backpack while the heaviest shopping sits perfectly in the box. For less than £30 I do not understand why I seem to be the only one using it.
    OK it may not look cool but then neither do my mudguards, rack and side stand. I do not care.

    • Alan Moore 13/06/2014 at 10:52 am #

      Like it, Rob. I did consider one of these but in the end went for an open/fold down box as being more flexible.. if I fold it flat I can bungee something HUGE on there.

      Next time I might go for one with a lid as well, like these:

  15. Anke 13/06/2014 at 11:30 am #

    • Andy 13/06/2014 at 11:36 am #

      Very cool

  16. Andy 13/06/2014 at 11:34 am #

    I have a full set of Carradice Super C panniers for touring, so just use the rear pair to commute into work on my Thorn. I need to carry a small rucksack to cart my gear around between offices in the day so I roll it up (Hill People Gear Tarahumara) and divvy up the contents between the panniers, then shove in the waterproofs, gloves, hat, food, Puncture repair kit, spare stuff etc., into the gaps. It’s a 17 mile commute, but this is in the windy wilds of Shetland and not the comfortable city of London where there is a bike shop and cafe every 100 yards!

  17. David 13/06/2014 at 12:16 pm #

    Don’t forget a backpack is still a good option if you have a well designed one.I have used a Berghaus free flow 3 backpack for years.It has a very breathable back panel made of mesh.And the actual backpack is held away from the back.Great for walking,running and cycling!

  18. robbithebossi 17/06/2014 at 12:24 am #

    I’ve been a devotee of Timbuk2 messenger bags for many years. I’ve accumulated 3 different sizes – a massive one from 15 years for my weekly trip to Lidl/Sainsburys, and medium one for a night or two away, and a small one for every day bits and pieces. Well designed, loads of pockets and built to last.

    The shoulder strap has a kind of cam buckle do loading/unloading the bag is easy.

    They do a customise option where you can choose all the colours but shipping/duty to the UK is expensive – best to order if you’re planning a trip to the US or can get it brought back for you.

  19. Jon Fray 17/06/2014 at 3:30 pm #

    The New Looxs Postino Office bag works for me because I cycle to the station and then travel by train up to town. It hangs on to the pannier rack by built-in hooks and looks much like a regular briefcase.

    • Alan Moore 18/06/2014 at 9:24 am #

      Wishlisted! I like that a lot. And I like the name of the company..

  20. Rob 04/07/2014 at 11:42 am #

    Having read this article I popped to my local Cycle Surgery who suggested looking at the Orlieb Saddle Bag.

    I plumped for the 2.7l one which is absolutely perfect for carrying a shirt and tie, fresh socks and my headphones. I keep shoes and suits at work so I don’t need much on a daily basis. As such this is perfect. Highly recommended

  21. Dave 15/07/2014 at 8:42 pm #

    My Ortlieb bike packers are like military spec, rainproof and indestructible

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