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The more you ride your bike, the less you want to carry everything you need in a messenger bag or backpack. You have less mobility, it’s uncomfortable, and in hotter weather it can get very sweaty. Personally, when I’m weighed down by things it takes away a little bit of that sense of freedom I get from soaring downhill.
So what are the best options for storing your things, transporting gear or simply carrying groceries?
Your bike shop is likely to stock a number of stylish and high-quality transporting options. You also have many places on your bike to attach them, including under-the-seat bags for essentials or a tool kit, and triangular packs that fit neatly within your bike’s frame.
But in this article we want to keep it simple and look at bike baskets vs. panniers. We’ll weigh the pros and cons to help you choose between a bike basket or a set of increasingly popular bike panniers.
If you want to replicate a traditional style, the front bike basket is the most classic look. With so many designs and colors, you won’t be limited in making it your own.
Advantages of a bike basket
Front bike baskets are very fitting for smooth, laid-back rides on cruiser bikes. You could attach a rack over your front wheel but most baskets can be mounted directly onto handlebars.
One of the biggest benefits to choosing a front basket option is ease of accessibility. You can see everything you are carrying, make sure that it stays in place and can grab anything you might need while sitting at a traffic light.
The rear basket is also a popular choice, but does require a mounting rack over your back wheel.
Personally, I’ve enjoyed the ease of this option in the past because I could throw my backpack in (or attach it with velcro) and quickly detach it when I dismounted. I like that I can carry my belongings around or use it as my shopping bag and reattach it when I’m ready to ride away. This method allows me to carry heavy items without worry.
You can make it an inexpensive option as well. I made it a milk crate instead of a proper basket.
Disadvantages of a bike basket
A bike basket has its downsides. You will definitely feel your center of gravity rise with the additional weight up high on your bike. It takes some time to adjust. At first, your bike more susceptible to tipping over while trying to make sharp turns.
A bike basket that’s wider than your handlebars will increase the width of your bike, which can be problematic in high traffic areas.
The items you carry tend to rattle inside the basket, since it is a solid shape.
For shorter riders with a rear basket like myself, slinging a leg over the saddle takes more concentration because of the additional height of the basket.
I experienced a few of these issues firsthand on a craft beer run. I couldn’t quite dismount smoothly with all that beer in the basket and I ended up flat on the pavement. Not one of my most graceful moments.
Other drawbacks are that bike baskets tend to be heavier than panniers. Theft from baskets is easier because there is no cover. And of course, they are not at all rainproof. Anything you try to carry in the rain will need additional protection, which can be frustrating and time-consuming.
Advice for bike baskets
For casual neighborhood rides, trips to the market and small grocery runs, bike baskets are great because you don’t have to worry about removing and reattaching them to your bike when you lock it up. However, I would like to emphasize making sure they are securely attached to your bike frame or bike rack.
This is where proper bike baskets are superior to DIY options. When attaching milk crates or other makeshift options, you can use zip ties or bungee cords but make sure they don’t slip and slide on your bike rack. This is dangerous and could cause you to lose balance or interfere with the traffic you share the road with.
Panniers are certainly the more fashion-forward option. They come in a variety of brands, quality and styles. Panniers range from easy grab-and-go models that click on and off, to more securely mounted versions. They range in purpose from grocery panniers to camping panniers, which also determines the kind of fabric the panniers are made from.
But are they better than baskets? (We compared panniers with backpacks in another post.)
Advantages of bike panniers
Bike panniers are almost always attached to rear bike racks, but some riders chose to keep them over their front wheel rack, or opt for both. You can always buy a single pannier, but dual panniers slung over or one attached to both sides is ideal to balance weight distribution.
In reality, commuters tend to favor one side over the other anyway. This is usually due to one heavy item you need on a daily basis. For most commuters, that’s the laptop. A laptop tends to weigh more than any other item you might be transporting. Since everything else is unlikely to balance out the weight, there is no real reason to split up the items you need on a daily basis.
Most cyclists prefer panniers to baskets on a commuting bike. They know which items they need, where they will store them and how much they will weigh without worrying about having them slide around. Some panniers are even designed with pockets for specific items. If you add new cargo during the course of the day, panniers will adapt their shape to accommodate it instead of letting it rattle around.
The biggest benefit of all is that most panniers are watertight, so your belongings stay dry. This is the main advantage for touring cyclists who take frequent bike camping trips.
The position of panniers, hanging down beside your bike rack, help to lower the center of gravity and keep your bike steadier.
Disadvantages of bike panniers
Panniers have precise measurements and to be effective they need to close, so they tend to have less available space than baskets. If you have bungee cords, you can even overload a basket and use the unsealed open air space above its rim.
Packing panniers disproportionately will throw off your bike’s balance. Unfortunately, there is also an increased risk of theft of panniers when they’re left unattended, because they are easily detachable and a good set tends to be expensive. Cheap panniers are less of a target—but there’s a reason nobody wants them.
Heavy panniers can make it difficult to maneuver the bike close enough to a pole or rack to lock it up, and you may need a kickstand on the bike to keep it upright while you unload.
Best of both worlds
When you are looking to utilize every possible square inch of packing space on your bike, you don’t actually have to choose between a bike basket and panniers. You could always sling a pannier set over your back rack and attach a bike basket overtop. This will, of course, add a lot of weight to your back tire. So make sure your bike frame and tire are in proper condition to accommodate this extra weight. To maximize your comfort with panniers, read our post on how to choose between front vs. rear panniers.
Another option is foldable bike baskets that attach to either side of your bike rack. These baskets keep your center of gravity low and have the potential to keep weight balanced, but tend to be flimsy and still not waterproof.
Bike basket or panniers?
Whether you get a bike basket or panniers truly depends on how often you plan to use them, your budget, your tolerance for theft risk, and how much rain you get where you live.
My ideal scenario is not having to choose, but utilizing both options depending on the trip. I would choose a sturdy metal wire basket attached to my front handlebars, like a Schwinn Wire Basket with quick release, since the crossbars have smaller gaps and can support more weight. On my rear rack, I’d have a nice pair of watertight panniers like Ortlieb Back-Roller City Panniers.