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Bike trailer vs rack and panniers: which is best?

Terry Coumbe's picture
Bike trailer vs rack and panniers. Which is best?

This article was first published on the Munda Biddi Trail Foundation website.

In October 2014, my mate Murray and I set off to ride the Munda Biddi Trail from Mundaring to Albany on an adventure that had been four-plus years in the planning. As Murray is a historian and my grandfather fought in Gallipoli, the trip was planned so we would arrive in Albany in time for the 100 Year Celebration of the ANZACs departing Albany for the battlefields of World War I.

Leaving from Mundaring on 4 October, we cycled the entire 1,000km mountain bike route that runs through Western Australia, arriving in Albany on 30 October 2014.

Murray rode a hard tail mountain bike and used panniers, while I rode a dual suspension mountain bike and towed a single-wheel BOB trailer.

BOB trailer on the Munda Biddi trail. Cycle Traveller

We have been frequently asked the question: “Which is the best?” So we worked out some criteria to compare the two. This is in no way a scientific approach – just two mates trying to help others make a decision when planning the ride of your life and travelling on the Munda Biddi Trail.

Tracking

Both the panniers and the BOB track well and are stable on flat, even ground. Going down very steep hills, the BOB has a tendency to try and push the bike faster and therefore more braking is required.

Stability

The panniers lower the centre of gravity of the rider and load on the bike. This increases the stability of the ride, even on loose surfaces where there was no noticeable back wheel wobble. The BOB trailer is lower to the ground and also lowers the centre of gravity and increases the stability of the bike.

Having a wider tyre on the front wheel of both bikes kept front-wheel wobble to a minimum.

Manoeuvrability

During normal riding both are similar, but when you come to steep downhill switchbacks – like those just south of Pemberton – the BOB requires the rider to choose the correct line or you will have to stop and walk the bike around the corner. The panniers, being only the same length as the bike, don't pose this problem.

Packing

Pannier setup on the Munda Biddi Trail. Cycle Traveller

The large single bag that fits into the BOB trailer makes for very easy packing. It can be taken into the hut and packed quickly then put back into the BOB and secured with the elastic straps. The pannier bags require equipment to be very carefully packed into two smaller spaces. We found the BOB bag was usually packed 15 minutes quicker than the panniers.

Waterproofing

Both methods proved to be waterproof and we survived one day of heavy rain. However, if you finish in a puddle upside down, neither are waterproof (that's another story).

Over objects

We had to negotiate a number of logs during the trip, but with two riders we could stop and help each other over the large fallen trees. This avoided the need to take the panniers off. If you are on your own, the BOB trailer is easier to disconnect from the bike to lift over the bike, then the trailer. The panniers are more difficult and take longer to take off and put back onto the bike.

Hills

Going down hills, the BOB pushes the bike. It's great on good surfaces, but on very steep or loose surfaces it can be tricky. The panniers put all the weight over the back wheel and so increase the grip going down hills.
Up hills, the BOB puts more drag on the bike and slows the rider down more so than the panniers. When you are required to alight and push, both methods are about the same. On loose uphill surfaces, the rider with the panniers can stand up and peddle with the weight of the panniers adding traction to the rear wheel, whereas the back wheel of the bike with the trailer tends to loose traction and spin.

Munda Biddi Trail map. Cycle Traveller

Single track

When the single track is wide, the panniers and the Bob perform about the same. However, when the single track is very narrow the extra width of the panniers can cause them to rub on the bush on either side of the track.

Carrying capacity

The rear rack and panniers have a recommended load capacity of 25kg while the BOB trailer has a recommended capacity of up to 70kg. We both carried between 20-25kg.

Water

The BOB trailer has a place to attach two extra water bottles on the back allowing easy access to extra water. On rough surfaces it is advisable to secure the bottles with a piece of light cord so they can’t bounce out. In the panniers, water is packed inside in a bladder, requiring the pannier to be opened to allow access to the extra water. It must be remembered that you will only need to access extra water two or three times a day.

Reliability

The only issue we had with the BOB was that the reflector on the mud guard came loose. The pannier rack strut broke a weld two days before Collie and was held together with two cable ties until we could get to Collie. While we thought it would require a new rack Eric at Crank’n Cycles fixed it with special glue and it was still going strong when we arrived in Albany. The bolts and screws on the pannier rack needed to be tightened often. The only other issue was minor friction wearing on pannier rack. At the end of the journey it was also noted that the rear tyre of the bike with the panniers wore more than the front tyre.

The BOB doesn’t have any screws or bolts only welds and none of these suffered any stress problems. There was no noticeable difference between the wear on the front and rear bike tyres.

Stress

The hard tail with the panniers required minimal repairs with a minor adjustment to the gears in Collie. The dual suspension bike with the BOB required more maintenance. The hanger had to be straightened in Collie plus twice more before we reached Albany. The BOB puts more pressure onto the hanger and every time you fall off it bends (not a problem if you don’t fall off!).

Cycling the Munda Biddi Trail, Western Australia. Cycle Traveller

Ease of access

In this area they proved about the same. Anything you are going to need during the day has to be placed in an accessible area in both the pannier bag or the BOB bag.

Aesthetics

The BOB makes the outfit longer but is more streamlined, while the panniers make the outfit wider, but only the same length as the bike.

Cost

The BOB trailer and bag cost $490, while the pannier pair and rack cost $300.

The bottom line

It comes down to personal choice. If you want the smoother ride of a dual suspension, then the BOB is for you. If not, the panniers and a hard tail (front suspension only) is the way to go. Whichever way you go, we highly recommend the journey from end to end on the Munda Biddi Trail.

Comments

I have used both, loved the pannier for when I was in Europe, only when it got cold did I wish I had more kit, and when not riding, train changes were easy with one pannier on my back, one still on the bike and I could run to the right platform, even up stairs, then run to the carriage and get me and my bike onto a train easily, the trailer was harder for getting to and from places when not riding and I watched a guy try and get one onto a train and thought thank god it's not me

I found that on an extended tour, the trailer just has more things that can go wrong. The connection between the trailer/bike, the various joints and particularly another tire to deal with just made me stick to panniers. Panniers are also much easier to travel with than a trailer so if I were using an airplane, there would be no doubt in using panniers.

Same as above post, trailer great for Outback trips while in Mts and use of Buses and trains Panniers are worthwhile. Bob trailer found very sturdy while off road. Panniers with good connection to sturdy steel Racks are great system which researched properly will last a life time.

Alia Parker's picture

For those interested, I have a review of the Tubus Tara and Tubus Logo racks, which I highly recommend. You can read that review here. I've also got a review of Ortlieb panniers here.

Panniers are the better choice for a trip where you aren't clear about all the expecting conditions!

Hello there, I read this blog with great interest. At the moment I am on the Munda Biddi myself (in Walpole, going for Denmark/Albany as soon as weather gets a bit better) and ride with four panniers - two small ones in front, two big ones on the back.
Though the front panniers definitely add to the overall weight of the bike, this weight also helps balancing the bike out - when I take only the back ones, say for a weekend trip, I notice that my front wheel tends to slip in corners, simply because the weight is all at the back. Same thing seems to happen when the trailer pushes from behind - you lose control up front.
I also like the way those four panniers help me organise my stuff - front left is tools and general hardware, front right is food, rear left is sleeping gear, rear right is clothing - though I do see the positives with a trailer and chucking it all in one bag :-).
As for water proofing: I use the Ortlieb Plus line, which is lightweight and very waterproof at the same time - tested in Iceland as well as in Australia, and on various trips in Germany :-)

what rack did you use the Ortlieb Plus panniers on ? do you will they fit on a Thule pack & pedal tour rack

Alia Parker's picture

Ortlieb panniers are super adjustable and can fit almost any rack. Having said that, the Thule pack n pedal rack is a little different. If you would like to use the large Ortlieb backroller plus with the Thule pack n pedal, you're best to purchase the Thule pack n pedal side frame to attach to your rack. It will give added support behind the pannier and allow you to better secure the base of the pannier. Technically, the Ortlieb's top clips will mount on the Thule rack without this, but it may not secure well at the bottom and the pannier may start to curve in toward the wheel without the support, so I'd recommend the side frame. Thule make a pretty good range of panniers that will work with the pack n pedal racks too. 

Trailer for me. I like the lower centre of gravity and spreading weight over an extra wheel. I tie a small separate pack on top as my day bag. My brother and I are cycling Lake Eyre to Mt Kosciosko, leaving 14th September 2015. He has a BOB, I've got something made in the shed at home. Both have proven to be very reliable. (Pictures of the home made one are on my blog: www.lemtk.blogspot.com.au)

Can I add another option to the mix: frame bags. I recently spent a month touring Hungary and left my panniers at home. I rode a Vivente World Randonneur almost exclusively on roads and bike paths using a frame bag, seat post bag, bar roll, gas tank bag and chaff bags. It was perfect. When I tour with panniers my bike is bulky and maneuvering it around cities and ferries is so much easier. The bike's weight and bulk are contained within the parameters of the frame. One benefit (other than weight distribution and bulk) is that when you approach a ferry or other public transport (like a public train or even a taxi) you don't look like you have this huge unwieldy heavy bike. They really just see the seat post bag and bar roll, which only take up the same space (to their eye) as a rear wheel and handle bar.

I carried everything I needed in this set up for a month camping in Hungary. The only difference I would make is to use the rear rack to carry something slightly larger like a 30L day pack instead of the 15L seat post bag. That would allow me to carry a bit more food or inevitable extra purchase.

Just my two cents.

Panniers are indispensible when touring (Europe in particular) where less storage is avaialable. When the bike is not being ridden the panniers can be detached (all or some) and easily fitted into narrow lifts, stairwells or even tents.

However trailers are great for normal life around town, groceries, deliveries, pet transport or wood for the fire.

Trailers fit the bill at home but panniers really carry the cake off the plane.

Thanks for the comments above. Always interested in how people move stuff on bikes.

I like how it performs while it is in mud. It really determines on how it is firm.

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