Bike cargo systems–what’s best for you?

More and more people are hopping on a bike to get around town, commute, and even (occasionally) for exercise. But how do you carry stuff, like a laptop or groceries? A bike is useful for more than doing laps around the city wearing spandex pajamas; here are the options for carrying cargo on a bike.


A basket was good enough for the kid in E.T. Baskets are noisy and sometimes ugly; but for quick errands, they’re the most convenient carrying system. Nothing beats a basket when you’re wheeling your bike through a farmers’ market or to multiple stores.

You can get baskets that install on your front handlebars or on your rear rack. They make baskets out of wire and wicker. (Wicker baskets do look pretty cool, in a nerd-hippie-retro way.)

Walk down any sidewalk in Manhattan, and you’ll see dozens of bikes with wire baskets bolted on with jury-rigged hardware. (They make detachable metal baskets, but they rattle more and they’re great for heavy loads, like beer runs or stolen DVDs.) You can also go the DIY route and get a milk crate or a box, and put it on your rear rack with zipties.

A cargo net is useful, if you want your groceries or alien life forms to stay put when you hit a pothole. If you ride in the rain, you’ll want a plastic bag or dry bag if your stuff can’t get wet. My bandmate commutes to rehearsals on his bike, with his mandolin in a basket:

Mandolin in a Basket


This is the most convenient way to carry small amounts of cargo. The bike has no racks or baskets or panniers to weigh it down. It’s a piece of luggage you probably already own, and it’s more useful off the bike than the other alternatives here.

However, a heavy backpack isn’t a good idea for people with back problems. Your weight is up high (unbalancing you a bit) and in the summer, your back will get amazingly sweaty. Messenger bags, the choice of would-be bike-messenger hipsters everywhere, are convenient if you want to be able to get into the bag while wearing it—the reason bike messengers use them—but messenger bags are worse for your back than even backpacks. (They also aren’t so great for the neck and shoulder muscles.)


The name sounds French, so maybe it is. The uninitiated often refer to panniers as saddlebags, even though that’s the name for the bag you see sticking out from the back of a saddle (which people often call a seat, logical if wrong. I love English!) Side-bag would be a better name, and would soon become sidebag. Semi-illiterates on net forums would soon be referring to them, no doubt, as SideBags.

Whatever they’re called, panniers are bags designed to hook to the sides of a bike’s rear rack. (Or on the front rack, but you generally only see those on big ol’ touring bikes designed to haul stuff.) Panniers keep the weight of your cargo down low, keeping the bike well-balanced, and are most suitable for longer trips.

Good panniers can be expensive, and even the best attachment systems can be little fiddly. You can’t really leave them on the bike when locking it up. Using panniers on a quick trip to the store for bread and twinkies would be like taking an SUV to the store to buy a quart of milk. (People do that, I’m told.)

Here’s a bike with front and rear panniers:


Trunk rack bags

A trunk bag is small, and you barely notice it’s there. These are small bags, about the length and width of a bike’s rear rack, and generally as high as they are wide. (Think of the box flip-flops come in and you’ve about got it.) I only recommend one of these if you already have a rack installed. Having a trunk bag is kind of like having a little backpack that you can strap to your rack easily. Some models take a lot of time to attach or detach, although some bag/rack systems click together quite smoothly.

Locking versions of these are available, but they’re heavy and much less flexible than their counterparts for motorcycles. Part of the problem is that a bicycle is much lighter than a scooter or motorcycle. Also, a rack can be removed from a bike by anyone with a 5mm allen key. Or a thief can just steal the whole damn bike and worry about taking it apart when they get both bike and attached locking trunk rack home to the crack den.

Hers’s a soft trunk rack bag on a folding bike’s rear rack:


Handlebar bags

A handlebar bag is kind of like a pocketbook for your bike. (Most bike-specific clothing, stupidly enough, has no pockets.) Handlebar bags are for long trips, where you want to be able to get at your wallet and keys, maybe your camera and a snack. Some attach to the handlebar, some attach to a small front rack with a platform over the front wheel.


Cargo trailers

These are the big dog of cargo systems for bikes, the eighteen-wheeler of human-powered transport. Trailers are great for big grocery runs, hauling other bikes, tools, and so on. There are trailers built to carry canoes. Some can even be used as shopping carts when you get to the store.

Trailers are overkill for most people, but a bike trailer is amazingly convenient—just toss stuff in the trailer and go. They also make these for carrying kids—or pets. A lot of the former get sold at garage sales when the kids are grown, and get repurposed as cargo trailers.


Different kinds of carriers are good for different kinds of errands. I have many of these kinds of carriers, and use them for different kinds of trips. A trip to the store is not a week-long tour, and sometimes it’s easier to just carry a bag with one hand while riding, or grab a backpack for my laptop for a trip to a downtown cafe. When it’s cool out, I don’t worry about my back getting sweaty. And a trailer is convenient even if I won’t fill it all the way.

This article is partially derived from text I originally wrote here.


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