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. 

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Fully Loaded

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Packing light and buying the right gear for the particular conditions we will be facing has been an important and really exciting part of our planning. We have spent MANY hours researching and buying our gear and we’ve enjoyed doing this together.

It seems not all cycle tourers invest in brand new, lightweight gear. In their blogs, many claim to have invested in a good set of panniers and not much else. You don’t need to spend a huge amount of money but packing light has been important and a huge advantage for us.

Deciding to travel by tandem means you are seriously limited for space especially if you decide that taking a trailer isn’t for you. We are really excited at the prospect of getting rid of all our possessions for a year but I’m sure there would be many ultra-light tourers who would look at our list and scoff! I guess it’s about finding what’s right for you. For example, having a good tent set up and being comfortable while camping is important to us. Some may say our travel Helinox chairs were a ridiculous luxury but we know that we will value relaxing in them after a long day of pedalling (read our review here).

We have planned our trip over a series of months and we couldn’t have done it without the range of blogs, reviews and online articles that have already been written by other cycle tourers online. The list below is another small contribution to this ever growing online resource – we hope it’s helpful to future tourers. We have also tried to talk in person to other cyclists who have done similar trips already – being members of warmshowers.org has been a great way to do this!

You might also want to check out: Travelling Two, Adventures by Tandem,  The Touring Tandem, Tandem Revolutions, Crazy Guy on a Bike, Family on Bikes, Pedalling About, Bicycle Touring Facebook

Front Left Pannier  (Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic 40L)

Annie’s Clothes:

Annie’s Toiletries: moisturiser, tweezers, razor, mascara, toothbrush, mooncup, nail file, monthly contact lenses and bottle of solution, 2 weeks of daily lenses, glasses, earrings

1 x quick dry towel, 1 x money pouch, 1 x roll up backpack (Quechua)

2 x cycle shorts (b-twin), 1 x padded underwear (VeloVixen) – don’t buy these!, shoe covers (Shimano), 2 x cycling gloves (long and fingerless), snood, warm hat, 1 x waterproof jacket (worth investing in a proper Gortex one), 1 x waterproof trousers

1 x leather sandals, 1 x North Face Goretex walking trainers, 1 x belt, 1 x down jacket (Quechua)

1 x convertible trousers (Craghopper Nosilife Stretch), 1 x shorts (Howies), 1 x cotton knee-length dress (Sea Salt), 1 x yellow cycle jersey (I threw this out early on), 3 vest tops (Howies),  1 x cotton shirt, 1 x long sleeve cotton top (Joules), 1 x merino leggings, 1 x merino long sleeve top (Howies), 1 x bra, 2 x mesh sports bra (Patagonia), 1 x bikini (threw after Thailand), 4 x underwear, 4 x merino socks

Would have made a 100% cotton Longhy to use as a towel instead which also would have doubled up as a long skirt for visiting temples. I need more warm base layers for China and the stans – Helly Hanson is the best.


Front Right Pannier (Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic 40L)

Paddy’s Clothes:

Paddy’s Toiletries: shampoo, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, nail clippers, wet wipes, ear plugs

1 x quick dry towel, 1 x money pouch, 1 x roll up backpack

1 x warm hat, 1 x snoodshoe covers, 2 x cycling gloves, 2 x cycling padded short inserts, 1 x Gortex jacket

1 x sandals, 1 x cycling shoes, 1 x down jacket (Quechua)

1 x cycle jersey, 1 x merino t-shirt (Alpkit), 1 x long sleeve merino top (Alpkit), 1 x cotton shirt, 1 cotton t-shirt, 1 x shorts, 1 x convertible trousers (Craghopper Nosilife), long johns and matching top (Helly Hanson), swimming trunks, 3 x pair of socks, 3 x boxers


Handlebar bag (Arkel: Large)

A great bag (solid, completely waterproof) and would recommend over ortlieb especially if you are on a tandem – we got the biggest size and hold a lot of stuff in it. What’s very useful is it has zips instead of clips which means you can padlock any unneeded valuables (e.g kindles) while you go off without the bike to do a two day hike etc.

1 x Canon 650D DSLR Camera + 3 batteries and 2 lenses

1 x ipad in waterproof case (armour-x)

1 x iphone in waterproof case (armour-x) – – normally mounted to handlebar while riding

1 x Samson Galaxy phone – normally mounted to handlebar while riding

2 x wallet, passports, notepad

2 X sunglasses

2 x kindles, 1 x ipod

Front pocket: snacks, pen, bike keys, small padlock (useful for locking bag when handed into ‘left luggage’ at a hotel/hostel.


Back Left Pannier (Altura Orkney 56L)

1 x large mosquito net (never used as our tent was the best net)

1 x rechargeable LED tent/camp light – also charges your phone (great buy!) – (Lampray from Alpkit)

Gravity water purifier (LifeStraw) and UV SteriPEN ultra –read our gear review here

Dice/cards/embroidery, sowing kit, clothes line and 9 pegs

1 x toilet roll and baby wipes in dry bag

2 x emergency dry meals (Expedition Foods 800cal)

Cooking Gear

1 x multi-fuel stove and wind shield (Optimus)

1 scrubber/scraper, 1 lighter, 1 matches, 1 tea towel, 1 pen knife, 1 kettle, 1 pots, 1 frying pan, 2 plates, 2 x cups (Summit), chopping boa, serrated knife, peeler, grater, scissors, tin opener, wooden spoon, spatula, knives, forks and spoons. Salt and pepper, spices, hand sanitizer, washing up liquid, plastic bags, tuppawear box, elastic bands, bag clips.


Back Right Pannier (Altura Orkney 56L)

Box of bike tools

Spare bike parts: spare tyre, spare spokes, chain link, spare brake pads etc

Two man lightweight tent and footprint (MSR NX Hubba Hubba)

Gaffa tape (lots)

Medical Kit in dry bag:

3 x needles and syringes, antibiotics, diazepan, Naproxen pain killers, malaria tablets, thrush tablet, dressings, bandages, burn treatment, antibac wipes, cling film roll, ear plugs, plastic gloves, paracetamol and ibuprofen, rennies, constipation tablets, thermometer, cystitis sachets, dyorolite, eye wash and ointment, e45, savlon, barocca, caneston cream, allergy tablets, bite cream, plasters, cyprofloxin antibiotics

Electronics in dry bag:

camera charge cable, ipod/ipad/iphone charge cable, kindle charge cable, 2 x universal adapter, battery pack (A5 Zendure), SD card reader and SD cards, headphone splitter, sat phone

Papers etc:

Many passport photos (including head covered ones for Annie’s visas in Iran and Central Asia) papers, note book, pens, injection books, maps, insurance, passport copies, visa copies, spare bike/padlock keys


Back Rack Bag (Ortlieb 31L)

2 x bungey cords

3 X carrabena clips

1 x down double sleeping bag (Big Agnus: King Solomon)

2 x single air mattress (Quechua) (slip into Big Agnus sleeping bag to create bed)

1 x double duvet cover

2 x inflatable pillows (Quechua)

tent poles and pegs


Small Frame Bag  (Alpkit)

2 x head torches (Petzel elight)

1x leather man/Swiss army knife, Biker’s Balm – For All Your Moving Parts, Vaseline, Whistle, Pencil, elastic bands, emergency pain killers, rennies


Medium Frame Bag (Alpkit)

Insect repellent and bands, head phones, tissues, Compass, hand sanitiser


Saddle Bag

Sun screen, 1 x Spare inner tube, puncture repair kit, set of Allen keys, bike lights, Annie’s gloves


Bike Frame

2 x foldable lightweight chairs (Helinox)

3 x water cages

0.6L Optimus Fuel Bottle

1 x fog horn

1 x tablet bike mount (Multifunction Armour X mount)

Bike pump 

Mirror

Cable ties

Bike lock

Spare Spokes