Pannier Brands – Are Ortlieb the best?

Every cycle tourer needs a decent set of panniers, buy crap ones and you will suffer for the whole of your trip – it’s the one thing you do not want to scrimp on.

The majority of cycle tourers across the globe will opt to buy Ortlieb bags. They are known in the market and on countless cycle forums as the most reliable, durable and, most importantly, waterproof. Pretty much every cycle tourer we have seen on the road has had a set of matching colourful ortlieb panniers. Are they the best though? We’re not convinced…

Because we are on a tandem without a trailer we were forced to make some alternative decisions regarding our panniers. 

We needed as much as space as possible in our bags and Ortlieb are limited in this respect (the largest back panniers we could find are 40L). Consequently we ended up buying a mixture of four brands of bag for our bike – Altura Orkney, Ortlieb, Alpkit and Arkel.

After five months on the road and having experienced a range of climates and weather conditions we’re in a good position to compare them side by side.

10L Arkel Handlebar Bag *****

The Canadian Arkel company have a good reputation online for making a high quality product but they are notorious for being one of the most expensive. 

We opted for Arkel because their large handlebar bag is the biggest volume waterproof product we could find and at over £120 it was pricey.

It hasn’t disappointed though and you certainly can fit a huge amount of stuff in it. It has a lot of nice small features which we really like too.

There is a large front pocket which although isn’t completely waterproof is great for keeping small things you need to access quickly. There are also two mesh pockets on the side which are super useful for stuffing everything from rubbish packets to keeping gaffer tape.

The bag has zips which we think are far superior to the Ortlieb clip fastening – mainly because it allows the bag to be padlocked shut. This is incredibly useful for when you need to leave the bag containing all your valuable stuff in a shared dorm, sleeper train or left baggage department.

The mounting system for the bag is very effective and strong and it’s easy to clip the bag on and off. The bag comes with a waterproof map case which we never really used and the inside bag is removable so you can wash it. 

The bag is roomy! It’s actually crazy how much stuff you can fit in there with plenty of room to spare. See our Fully Loaded page to see what we keep in ours. The top of the bag is domed which means you can stuff it full with your gloves, snood and snacks on top of all your valuables if you need during the day.

It’s 100% waterproof, has kept its shape well and we would buy it again in a second.

Altura Orkney back 56 L panniers ****

We were slightly weary about buying this brand as we hadn’t read much stuff about them online. However, we found these panniers online and their super size (56 L) won us over into buying them. 

They are beasts and we can carry a wonderful amount of gear in them but they have impressed us in every other way since too. We are so glad we bought these rather than another set of backroller Ortliebs. 

First things first – they are completely watertight. The inside waterproof insert also comes away which is great when you want to clean or empty the inside of your food bag. 

They have front pockets (these are not watertight) which have useful mesh and Velcro compartments – something Ortlieb panniers, in our opinion, really lack. 

The mounting system is really strong and far superior to the flimsy Ortlieb clips – more complaining about these to come… The bags can tend to slide up and down a bit on our rack if we’re on a bumpy road but they have never broken or come off.

Unlike the triangular shaped Ortlieb panniers these bags are more square which means they are far more effective for storing bulkier items such as your cooking gear and the flip clipped top is adjustable to allow you to really stuff the bags with extra food or clothes if you need. 

The bags are incredibly durable and have had a fare number of knocks, scrapes and falls. The only time they have failed us over the Ortlieb was when ants got inside and pincered holes in the inside bag to get to our food. Our Ortliebs have always remained insect free due to their roll down, dry-bag fastenings and thick plastic material. 

Overall they have been a great buy for us and if you are in need of a larger set of panniers we would highly recommend them.

Ortlieb 40L Backroller Panniers and 32L rack bag ***

Our Ortlieb panniers are saved to carry our clothes but we use their largest back rollers on our front rack instead of the back.

The Ortlieb panniers are great (completely waterproof, easy to clean and durable) but they fall down on one feature which makes them incredibly frustrating to use. 

The mounting system just isn’t up to the job of coping with a heavily weighted pannier on bumpy roads. This problem is probably over emphasised with us because we carry large panniers on our front rack but we’re not the only tourer who has complained about this problem.

Once under enough force the bolts which are made of plastic simply pop out of the plastic bar mounts at the back of the bag. In doing so they ruin the threads which means you can’t easily screw them back in. 

We have heard of tourers obsessively checking and screwing back up their bolts after every night to ensure they don’t pop out. 

This major cost cutting design flaw has meant two things for us:

  1. We have to reinforce our bags to the rack with rope to minimise them bumping around on the rack. This is time consuming and means we can’t easily clip and un-clip our panniers taking advantage of the ‘user friendly’ Ortlieb mounting system. Even after this both bags have broken. 
  2. We met a tourer in China who had simply replaced all her plastic bolts, nuts and washers with metal ones. We ended up doing the same. Here is Paddy in a local garage searching for the right width bolts and super large washers for the insides of the bags.

I wrote to complain to Ortlieb and I was very impressed with their customer service. They got back to us within 24 hours and without question offered to send spare parts to us in China. The package arrived 7 days later but we haven’t used the parts because they sent us the same crappy plastic ones.

The fact is, Ortlieb panniers are fine for those cyclists who are taking short tours on nice smooth roads or commuting to and from work but in our experience they don’t hold up well on long bumpy tours unless you make some of your own adjustments.

If you have bought Ortlieb panniers just make sure you replace all the bolts and nuts with metal ones and buy extra large washers for the insides. 

I can’t fault the rack bag. It does everything we need it to.



Alpkit Fule Pod Frame Bags ****

Alpkit are known as a good outdoor gear supplier. They make some good stuff and we’re always happy with the gear we get from them. 


Our two frame bags are durable and are great for keeping all those small items that you need to access quickly. 

They are showerproof not waterproof. 

Advertisements

Optimus Multi-fuel Stove (nova)

Having now done 20 weeks on the bike and cooked over 100 meals on our Optimus Sove we feel we can do a quick review. 

We’ve been very happy with the stove. We have mainly been burning kerosene in it as it is very easily available in Asia and is a much cleaner fuel than diesel (all your pans will be black if you use diesel). 

The stove is very compact and we keep the fuel bottle in one of our bottle racks on the bike (check the size of your racks we had to buy a special one to fit the fuel bottle). 

It’s very easy to use and cooks everything we’ve done pretty quickly. 

The best thing about the stove is its simple design – it’s easy to understand how it works and it’s pretty simple to take apart. If you start having problems (keeps going out or flame lickers) remove and replace/clean the small filter in the bottle tube. You’ll need some pliers to get it off. We ran out of filters about 4 months in and have been using a tiny piece of cotton rag instead! This has worked just as well.

With your stove comes a metal tool which opens the nuts and bolts and has a strong magnet incased at the top. Do NOT lose this tool! 

Use this (run it along the bottom of the stove) to ensure the small pin in the main body is moving up and down through the fuel hole. The pin clears the hole so fuel can escape while under pressure. 

After every use, before connecting the stove pipe to the bottle we open the green tap and let any fuel in the metal tube run out. We connect it all up and then run the magnet along the bottom of the stove.

If this small pin section breaks or you lose is as we have done don’t worry. The stove will still work without it. You will need a very thin piece of wire to poke in the hole to clear it though. We use some thin wire from an old it of electrical wire.

When we got to China Kerosene was much harder to find so we switched to using diesal – the stove doesn’t burn petrol. Because diesal is much dirtier than kerosene your pans tend to get blacker. The stove tends to take longer to prime on diesal too but apart from that it burns well. 

We needed to clean the stove a bit more after we started using diesal. Note that after a while all multi-fuel stoves need some tlc…

We also lost the metal plate for the stove and now use a flattened steel bottle top. Works brilliantly!

Don’t panic if the stove stops working – calmly dismantle it and check for blockages by blowing through the connecting tubing and clearing the small outlet hole. Remove the filter if you need to and ensure there’s enough pressure and fuel in the bottle.

Avoid dragging the connecting ends of the stove on the ground and clear out remains of old gritty fuel from bottle once in a while!

Optimus customer service is brilliant – we lost the small brass bolt for the bottom of our stove and within days we had had a new one sent free of charge to our home address in the UK.

P.s It doesn’t burn meth or petrol

Two Man MSR NX Hubba Hubba Tent


Being on the tandem means that we have to be very careful about the weight and size of our gear. We needed a lightweight, compact tent which would be suitable in hot desert conditions as well as freezing temperatures. 

We opted (like many other cycle tourers) for an MSR make and decided that the 2 Man NX Hubba Hubba would be a good choice.

After 11 months on the road and 119 nights sleeping in it the verdict is out. We have been very happy with how the tent has performed. 

It has all the features we need – it’s very light and it’s free standing which is great for when you need to camp on concrete. Only the vestibule sides need to be pegged down but if that’s not possible we tie ropes around the hook and weight these down with heavy boulders. If you need to erect the tent in the rain it’s possible to put up the waterproof fly sheet first and then clip the red inside section in after so it stays dry. In hot weather you can sleep without the fly sheet and the majority of the inside section is mesh which helps to keep you mercifully cool. You get to go to sleep staring at the nights sky too… 


We also sometimes used the tent like this in hotel rooms when we needed to protect ourselves from mozzies. It’s the best net system we have – we threw away our other mosquito net in the end! 

You can comfortably both sit in the tent without stooping. There are two useful side pockets and two places to hang camping lights inside. Once erected the tent feels very stable and solid and it’s performed well in strong winds. 

We’ve only had a few minor problems with condensation. The two windows help to keep it minimal. 

The tent is just big enough for us both to lie down with our handlebar bag sitting in the middle at our feet. Paddy is over 6ft and he just about fits. There is not much room for anything else although it’s roomier than some other two man tents we’ve slept in. Our cycling friends Andy and Clare have the 3 Man mother Hubba version of this tent and they like having the extra room especially as they have 2 bikes so more bags than us. 

Because Paddy is tall and we need the handlebar bag in the tent with us it means that the insert does touch the fly sheet at the corners and at the bottom. This is obviously an issue if it rains and we did have a bit of a problem with some minimal leaking in heavy rain. The bottom of the insert is pretty waterproof. However, we came up with a handy way of solving this problem – simply stick your 1.5L water bottles in each corner between the two layers! This pushes the fly sheet out and ensures the rain drips off onto the ground rather than seeping onto the insert.

It’s great that the tent has two vestibules. We don’t like leaving our bags on the bike overnight and we can just fit our four panniers (2 X 27L and 2 X 20L) inside one of the vestibules leaving the other side free for us to use as an entrance and to store our shoes and empty rack bag. This also means you have a vestibule free to cook in if you wake up to rain.

The zip seams are designed well so the water runs downs easily from them. 

It’s quick and easy for one person to erect. 

In our experience MSR customer service is brilliant. Naturally after 1 year there is some minimal wear and tear to the tent (e.g. A few small tears in the fly sheet and a small crack in a pole). They got back to us within 3 days and offered to send us a replacement pole section, patches to fix the tears and four new pegs to a destination of our choice all free of charge.

The ground sheet (and the poles) make a good awning for siestas! 


Other Downsides: 

  1. you have to buy the groundsheet separately. 
  2. Two of our pegs sheared at the top and you don’t get spares with the tent so make sure you take some with you. MSR did replace these free of charge though.