If you’re going on a fully loaded camping road tour, you’ll likely be carrying 30 to 40 pounds of gear in rack-mounted front and rear panniers. (Dirt and trail bikepackers have a different philosophy and approach to packing.)
There’s an art to packing panniers so that items are handy, protected from the elements, and distributed in a way that affects your bike’s handling characteristics as minimally as possible.
The four categories of gear you’ll need to think about are cooking and eating utensils, shelter (tent, pad, and sleeping bag), clothing, and tools and spare parts.
To begin, lay your gear out on the floor to take inventory of what you have and to figure out what you still need to get. If any items, like the kitchen sink, seem like they might be superfluous, leave them behind. This is preferable to mailing them home after a few days of nonuse. Group related items together before packing so that you don’t end up, for instance, with your tableware, food, and cooking utensils in three different places.
For optimum bike handling, about 60 percent of the weight should be in front and 40 percent in the rear. Some of that up-front 60 percent can go into a handlebar bag, where you’ll want to stash often-used items like your smartphone, camera, wallet, bike lock and keys, sunscreen, sunglasses, and headlamp. Otherwise, the heaviest items should go in the bottom of the front panniers, such as your first-aid kit, food, stove, utensils, toiletries, and bike tools, spare parts, tubes, and tire pump.
Lighter, bulkier items like your clothing and sleeping bag can go into (or on top of) the rear panniers. Inside and toward the top keep items you might want to retrieve during the day, such as rain gear, comfortable walking shoes, and a clean T-shirt. Before packing clothes, roll them up tightly to conserve space and seal them in waterproof bags. Panniers are typically weather resistant, but they’re infamous for springing leaks.
To maximize carrying capacity, fill things that feature wasted space with other things. For instance, stuff your camp shoes with socks and/or underwear, and your cook pot with packets of dehydrated food.
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