Everything but the Kitchen Sink: Carrying Cargo

A little carrying capacity increases a city bike's utility tenfold. Like the trunk of a car, a bike's basket or rack or even a messenger bag will multiply your bike's versatility. Cargo capacity means you can run errands, go to work, carry a picnic or extra clothes or gym supplies or a camera or the accoutrements of whatever hobbies you love... all by bike. As urban cycling gains momentum, more and more bike manufacturers are marketing devoted "city bikes" with utility features such as baskets and racks. Even if your bike isn't already equipped, there's lots of cargo solutions that might work for you. Whether you're retrofitting your bike or thinking about buying a new one, read on.

We covered the basics of dedicated cargo bikes in our City Bike Menagerie article, so this article will focus on how to carry stuff with the bike you already have.

You can carry more than you think on your bike!


The simplest cargo-carrying solution involves no modifications to your bike at all--carry a bag! Bike messengers do it because it's comfortable and convenient. Your stuff is securely attached to you even when your bike is locked up outside. Capacity ranges from just the essentials to groceries for a household. The disadvantages, of course, are that you have to carry the weight yourself instead of letting your bike do it for you, and your back can get sweaty. Here's the lowdown on loading up.

A messenger bag by Banjo Brothers.

Messenger bags have one strap, traditionally worn over the left shoulder (though many bags are available with a right shoulder strap, and some are ambidextrous or reversible). They look sort of like bookbags and briefcases, which are slung over one shoulder and left to thump against one thigh or the other, but messenger bags should be cinched up tight enough to actually rest against your back. That way, when you're riding a bike with a traditional leaned-over posture, the weight of your baggage is distributed more or less evenly across your back. Many messenger bags also have convenient stabilizer straps that wrap around your torso keep the bag from shifting while you navigate traffic.

Because messenger bags have only one strap, it's really easy to swing them around to get out whatever you need to get out (your keys, your lock, a snack, a camera, etc) without taking off the whole bag or even getting off of your bike. They also resemble Mary Poppins' magic carpet bag in that no matter how much stuff you squeeze into it, you'll always be able to squeeze something else in. Messenger bags come in a wide range of sizes, from just-big-enough to everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink, but they share that quality of holding more than they appear to. Great for picking up groceries without having to think too far ahead about how you're going to get them home.

Most bike-specific messenger bags are made from or lined with waterproof fabric, and their flap closures are designed to keep water out while still being easy to open quickly--plus, no zippers that will eventually break. They're designed for day-in, day-out use and are tough enough to stand up to it and keep on kicking. Non-bike-specific "messenger bags" or bookbags will serve you okay, too, if you tighten the strap enough to hold it high enough on your bag that it won't sway and knock you off balance.

Bagmakers like Chrome, BaileyWorks, and RELoad are just the tip of the iceberg. Chances are, there's a bagmaker near you who can set you up with an awesome, customized bag, or you can track down something cheaper if you're not totally sure that a messenger bag is right for you.

Backpacks have two straps, which makes them better than messenger bags for more upright bikes or for those who walk a lot in addition to riding. If you're concerned about a heavy, fully-loaded messenger bag affecting your posture, but don't want to deal with racks and baskets and the like, a backpack might be a good solution. You can use whatever rucksack you've already got hiding in the back of your closet, or you can buy one made by a messenger bag maker of the same durable, waterproof materials as messenger bags, and with the same simple flap closure.

Ortleib, maker of world-renowned waterproof panniers and drybags, also makes roll-top backpacks designed for bike messengers. They'd keep your gear dry in a hurricane.

Hip packs (or hip pouches) are fanny packs made, well, hip. Not a bad choice is you just need to carry the essentials. Some of them will slide onto your own belt, and they're low on your body so they won't mess with your center of gravity. Comfy and colorful--what's not to like? Lots of messenger bag manufacturers make these, too, from the same sturdy fabrics as their bigger bags.


Your bike can be your packhorse and carry the load for you. There's panniers, of course, but bike bag possibilities are practically endless. Some of them attach to your racks, and others attach to your frame, handlebars, seatpost, or stem.

A waterproof pannier by Axiom.

Panniers attach to either your front or rear rack. They're roomy and versatile, and come in all kinds of shapes and sizes everything from grocery-getting to around-the-world backcountry touring. Usually they have a couple hooks at the top that attach to the rack railing, and another hook near the bottom, attached to elastic, that hooks onto the bottom of the rack to keep the whole thing stable and in place. Some have upper hooks that "lock" into place, while others lack the lower hook for easy on-and-off so you can use your pannier to collect goods at the farmer's market or carry whatever you need while you're running errands off the bike.

Rear panniers tend to be bigger than front panniers, which are usually carried lower on the wheel. Most "urban" panniers are made to fit rear racks, which are generally more common than front racks. Lots of panniers are more or less interchangeable, however.

There's panniers with zipper closures; waterproof panniers with roll-top closures (like a drybag); open panniers with handles, designed to fit a standard grocery bag; panniers that are more like wire baskets (some even fold!); and "bike buckets" made of sturdy hard plastic--or you can make them yourself!

Handlebar bags attach to your handlebars, often via quick-release mounts of various types. Randonneur bags are similar, but often bigger, and they usually sit a little lower and rest on a small front rack of some sort. Many handlebar bags have map cases on top--basically clear waterproof pockets that you can slip maps or cue sheets into.

Detours' Guppy seat bag on a commuter bike.

Saddlebags are usually small wedge-shaped bags that attach to your saddle rails and seatpost, and are big enough for your flat repair kit, your keys, and maybe a granola bar. However, there are saddlebags out there, such as those made by Carradice, that are big enough for light touring! Some of the big ones may require a small support that generally attaches to your seatpost. Other bags bolt to the seatpost rather than attaching to the saddle itself.

Stem bags, top tube bags, and "bento box" bags are generally small boxy bags just big enough to hold your cell phone and a snack. They attach to your stem or top tube--or both--for easy access while you're riding.

Frame bags are triangle-shaped, to actually fit within the triangle of your frame. They can be surprisingly roomy, and they lower and center the weight of your baggage. There are some stock frame bags out there that hang out in one of the upper corners of your frame, or, to best make use of all that space between your tubes, you can commission a custom frame bag from Epic Designs. Some crafty folks also sell much smaller and simpler frame bags--check out Hambone Designs, for example.

Topeak MTX trunk bag and rack system.

Trunk bags attach to the top of your rear rack. Some are even designed to fit onto specially-made racks with some sort of quick-release attachment, while others elegantly attach to any old rack with velcro or buckled straps. The Topeak MTX bag and rack system, pictured here, is an example of the former.


Racks can be platforms and supports for bags of various shapes and sizes. You can use straps, bungie cords, or bungie nets to secure stuff directly to them as needed. You can attach a milk crate or (classier) a wine crate with bungies or zip ties for an easy instant basket that can be removed quickly if it needs to be. Some sturdy racks on sturdy bikes can even be used to carry people in a pinch, though we don't recommend this. (Carrying people and kids on your bike is a whole 'nother article. Keep an eye out!)

A handsome bamboo deck rack from Portland Design Works.

Rear racks all share more or less the same structure. You're probably familiar with it--a narrow platorm over the wheel, usually with rails on the side for hanging panniers. Most racks are attached to the frame in several places, though some rear racks, designed for bikes without braze-ons or for people who want to be able to easily remove their rack, just bolt onto the seatpost.

On touring racks, the pannier rail may be slightly lower than the platform, or slightly further back, to distribute the weight of the panniers well and to avoid heel strike.

I occasionally use my rear rack to carry panniers, and I always carry my bulky u-lock slipped between the rails. I also have a couple bungie cords strapped across the rack in case I need to carry something I don't expect or I buy more groceries than fit in my messenger bag.

Front racks come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Some consist only of low-riding pannier rails on either side of the wheel and not much else; these are called, appropriately, lowriders. Others are large, wide, strong porteur racks that can carry anything from a six pack of beer to, I don't know, a small potted tree. Still others are small racks designed to support a randonneur or handlebar bag; others look similar to rear racks.


Rear baskets or front baskets, made of wire, wicker, plastic, or wood. Some have built-in quick-release mechanisms, while others are on your bike for the long-term. Baskets come in lots of sizes, from "keys, wallet, and a bottle of wine" to "enough firewood for a whole night around the campfire."

The simplest basket, as mentioned above, is an old crate or box of some sort simply ziptied to a front or rear rack. There are plenty of purpose-made front baskets out there, though, that don't require a rack to rest on. Rear baskets usually either attach to the top of a rear rack, or hang off of the rack like panniers. Wald makes popular wire baskets for both ends of your bike.


If you've really got a lot of stuff to carry and stability is paramount, a bike trailer might be the answer. They're detachable, which is great if you sometimes just want to fly down the street without being weighed down by heavy baskets and racks, but the flipside to that is that if you pass by an awesome yard sale or realize on the way home that you really need to stop for groceries, and you don't have your trailer with you, you're out of luck.

Trailers, like baskets and front racks, come in many sizes. They tend to be either one- or two-wheeled. Two-wheeled trailers are more stable and can carry more weight, while one-wheeled trailers are lighter and narrower. Trailers usually attach to your bike at your rear hub.

There's no reason to leave anything--or anyone--behind when you've got cargo space.

Whatever you choose, adding cargo-carrying capabilities to your ride will make your bike a hundred times more useful and convenient. You can worry less about planning ahead or missing out on something, and just enjoy the ride.

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