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As with any decision, an informed one is best. The hard part is knowing the right questions to ask. When deciding which panniers to buy you not only need to know which questions to ask but how to weigh the importance and relevance of each. Consider the following when making this important decision.

  1.  Application – What are you planning to carry in them? Are they for a tour or for commuting? Consider what you are going to carry and make sure that it will fit inside.
  2. Ruggedness – How hard are you going to use them? Off road, extended tour or back and forth from the grocery store? Choose a set that is up to the task. Study the attachment method carefully as that is the most common point of failure.
  3. Budget – How much do you want to spend? Rear panniers are priced between $50 and $250/pair. Spending more increases most of the attributes listed here. The sweet price point is approx. $150. For this amount of money you get a very well designed waterproof pannier that will likely outlast you.
  4. Capacity – How much room do you need? This is solely dependent on how you plan to use them. For self contained touring plan on at least 2,400 cubic inches. This can be had with a large rear pair. If you want to carry more, carry everything inside, and/or distribute the weigh more evenly, add a pair of front panniers. If they are for around town or commuting, consider all that you want to carry and size the bags appropriately – plus a little more just in case.
  5. Ease of on/off – How easy are they to attach and remove? If these bags are going to stay on the bike day in and day out, this is not important. If, though, you will be removing them frequently, this is important. The Ortlieb QL1 and QL2 systems cannot be beat for ease. It is truly a one hand, 10 second operation.
  6. Security – How well do they stay on once attached? The key here are the top hooks that attach to the top rack rail. The hooks must completely encircle the rail if it is to stay on in all terrain. Also, avoid bottom attachments systems that use a bungee or strap system. The bottom will pull away and rattle all day as you ride. Even if you are using the bags for light commuting I recommend that you do not skimp on the attachment system.
  7. Heel clearance – Are they designed to maximize heel clearance? Heel clearance is the distance between the back of your heel and the front of the rear pannier when your foot is closest to the bag. Big feet or frames with tight rear triangles challenge heel clearance. All panniers can be positioned all the way back on the rack to increase clearance. Good bags are tapered at the bottom front to increase it.
  8. Adjustability – Are they adjustable fore/aft and can they be leveled? Ortlieb has the QL1 and QL2 system that allows the bags to move forward and back relative to the attachment hooks. The QL2 system also allows the panniers to rotate so that you level them.
  9. Closure – What method is used to open and close the compartments? Clamshell tops with buckles are the most common method but water can get inside unless the clamshell seals well. Ortlieb has a unique roll top closure on their classic line that not only seals out all the elements but allows the volume of the bag to be adjusted.
  10. Attachment points – Are there hooks/rings to attach bungees/rope/lights? Not so important you say? Wrong! There will be times when you want to attach extra items to the top of the bags. Be sure there are a few of these attachment points on each bag.
  11. Water resistance – How water repellant is the fabric and the closures? It’s very nice to have waterproof bags, but not essential. Most bags that are not waterproof have rain covers that work to keep most of the water and dirt off. RackTime bags come with these covers. Even with covers you will have to pack all of your things in plastic bags to ensure they stay dry. If you plan to ride where rain is possible any time of the year, I’d spend the money on waterproof bags. If you can avoid the rain there’s no need to spend the extra just to get waterproof.
  12. Room dividers – Are there multiple compartments/pannier to organize your gear? This is a personal thing. I like one big cavernous compartment/bag. Some prefer multiple compartments and pockets to divide up their stuff. Keep in mind, though, that more compartments mean more seams to leak and zippers to break. If you pack thoughtfully you don’t need multiple pockets.
  13. Daytime visibility – Does the color increase your daytime visibility to motorists? Dark bags are great looking and don’t show the dirt. Bright bags dramatically increase your visibility to cars. If you want bags that are bright and easily wipe completely clean, look at Ortlieb’s classic line that have the waterproof coating on the outside.
  14. Nighttime visibility – Are there large reflectors to the sides and rear of the panniers? Even during dawn and dusk reflectors help. At a minimum get rear bags with large ones on the rear.

Conclusion: Buy panniers that exceed your needs. Cheap bags may look OK but they will not last, leak like a sieve and most do not attach securely or easily to the rack. If your budget is challenged, look at RackTime bags. They are designed by Ortlieb and use the same attachment hardware as most of the higher priced Ortlieb panniers. They are not waterproof, but definitely are a great deal. If, on the other hand, you can spend a little more, spring for Ortlieb. You will not be disappointed.