How to carry ~40 pounds of ‘stuff’ (my target weight for gear, not including fuel, food, & water) that I will need while bicycling across the good ol’ US of A was quite the question. A little internet research revealed there are typically three ways to get your gear cross country: SAG (support and gear) car following along, a bicycle trailer, and panniers (bags carrying your ‘stuff’ attached to th bicycles).
The SAG car idea went out the window immediately; our wives have their own agenda while we are gone and our friends quickly disappeared into the woodwork when asked. I didn’t particularly want to use a trailer for several reasons: pulling the added weight, extra maintenance from one or two additional wheels, and the extended length. That left me with the third option: panniers.
Next, I made a few assumptions: the panniers needed to be somewhat substantial for a 3 month trip, 4500 – 5000 cubic inches was probably adequate for this type of trip, I would not be able to use a handle bar bag because of visiblity, and I would not be able to use a set of front wheel panniers due to the type of bicycle I have.
These assumptions left me with three options: underseat bags (designed specifically for recumbents), side panniers for a rear rack, and bags to go on top of the rear rack. I decided to skip the bag on top of the rear rack if at all possible so I could use that spot for lightweight and odd shaped things. This configuration of panniers keeps the gear weight as low to the ground as possible and spreads the weight out over 2/3 the length of the bicycle which will (hopefully) ease the stress on the individual tires and rims/spokes.
The internet is a great resouce for information; I found opinions, both good and bad, about almost every bag out there. Everyone’s opinion is valid for their needs and particular situation. After looking over many (many, many, many) comments I finally narrowed my selection down to Arkel brand bags designed for recumbents: RT-40 panniers for under the seat and RT-60 panniers for the sides of the rear rack. This brand seems to receive lots of good reviews and has been used by people for long distance trips.
- the bags are a bit on the heavy side: both sets with rain covers weigh in at 13.9 pounds (weighed on my digital scales)
- priced on the high end of available panniers unles you can find them on something like Craigslist, eBay, or something similar (I was fortunate), but you generally get what you pay for
- the underseat bags require a special rack made by TerraCycle (all underseat bags require some type of special underseat rack
- 6,100 cubic inch storage (3,650 rear, 2,450 underseat)
- made from a heavy grade of water repellent canvas material
- heavy duty quality zippers
- larger zippers have ‘rain flaps’ covering them up, smaller zippers have a water repellent coating
- utilize an adjustable locking system to attach to the carry racks
- made with multiple pockets to separate ‘stuff’
- inside straps to secure gear to minimize ‘fall out’ when opening bags
- inside support rods to keep the bags supported whether closed or open
- multiple mesh outside pockets to carry wet ‘items’
- rear tubes on the RT60s for carrying additional items
- optional rain covers
- the bags ‘breathe’, so if the gear does get wet the moisture can evaporate which should prevent/minimize mold and mildew
The bags seem to be made very well. There doesn’t seem to be any raw material edges to fray, the various zipper sizes seem more than appropriate for the compartment sizes, and the larger compartment have double zipper pulls. The material is not quite the bright yellow seen on Arkel’s website. Rather it is more yellow/orange; I didn’t find it objectionable, it just isn’t a bright safety yellow. The combination of ‘yellow’ and reflective material should provide an additional warning flag to motorists. All in all, I am looking forward to loading the bags up and trying them out.
The panniers are about 1000 cubic inches larger than needed, but this should allow me the opportunity to pack without cramming. I also hope to remove the rear tubes, thus saving ~11 ounces. It would have been nice if the rear tube attchments were on the tubes instead of the bags so as to save some additional weight when removed. The multiple storage pockets should allow me easy access so I don’t have to dig to the bottom of a large, one compartment, pannier. Also, by having some extra space I plan on putting heavier items lower to the ground, thus improving overall bicycling stability.
Time will tell whether or not I made the right decision, yes, time will tell.
Note Added 10/22/2013: This summer I did a 3,600 mile bicycle ride using these panniers. I elected to leave the rear tubes home. I also left the rain covers at home and packed each group of items in lightweight Sea-to-Summit dry sacks. The bags were ‘water resistant’, even in some steady rains even though the bags themselves did get wet. Arkel has a very good product in these bags, and they held up very well; other than some general dirt and wear marks they bags are as solid today as they were before the trip. Would I by them again: yes I would.