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If you use a bike in your day-to-day life, sooner or later you’ll probably be carrying stuff on it. A commuter backpack is one of the easiest and fuss-free ways to do this.
You might be a commuter who doesn’t want to ruin the look and feel of your bike by sticking extra hardware on it. Again, a backpack is the answer.
But backpacks aren’t for everyone. This article looks at the pros and cons of biking with a backpack and delves into alternative ways to carry your gear.
Why Cycle With A Backpack?
Putting aside its downsides for a moment, a backpack is a convenient way to carry stuff on a bike. Let’s look at some of its plus points.
If you’ve ever seen someone dangling a bag full of shopping from a handlebar, you’ll have noticed how much is destabilizes their riding. Distributing the weight across your back and securing it with straps around your chest and waist is a far better solution.
A good backpack will have broad padded straps that don’t dig into your shoulders. You’ll barely know a backpack is there in many instances.
Consider also that a backpack is in a central position as you ride, whereas a single pannier on a rack usually hangs off one side and causes a slight weight imbalance. Most of the time, this is barely a problem, but it can make hand signals tricky.
Read more: Best handlebar bags
Many cyclists don’t care about aerodynamics or regard it as too serious a subject. But it always affects their riding whether they pay heed to it or not.
Every item on a bike that dangles in the wind makes you move slower or work harder at any given speed.
As a means of carrying luggage, a backpack is more aerodynamic (aka aero) than a side-pannier or a bulky frame bag. Items that are concealed help you to ride faster, or at least not to ride slower.
For the same reason, a trunk bag that fixes atop a rear rack is usually more aero than panniers hanging off the side. It’s worth noting that intuition is often wrong, however, when we think about aerodynamic elements of a bike.
For many people, the look of a bike is part of their enjoyment of cycling. Fixing a cargo rack onto a road bike, for instance, would be anathema to some. A backpack avoids this, thus retaining the clean appearance of bikes with sleek frames.
As well as looks, many people don’t want the hassle of fixing something to their bike. Not when they can just buy a backpack and forget it.
Downsides Of Riding With A Backpack? For all its benefits, not everything about carrying a backpack is good. Below are some of the downsides worth pondering.
By not allowing air to reach your back, a backpack prevents sweat from evaporating. The net result is a wet, sweaty back, which isn’t a particularly good look as you stroll into work. If you intend changing clothes after your commute, this is mitigated.
Manufacturers tend to design backpacks with channels in the rear padding so that air theoretically flows over your back. This might work to a degree, but your skin is still trapped in an enclosed space, so be prepared for marketing claims to fall short.
Some backpack designs hold the bag away from your back with webbing or mesh, and these are likely to be the most successful in keeping your back dry. But these backpacks aren’t cheap.
In extreme heat, sweating is an important function as it helps to fend off heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Your body needs a way of regulating heat. If you reach a point on a hot day where you stop sweating, you’re already in trouble.
Read more: Biking to work with no shower
Video: Backpack & Sweaty Back
As unnoticeable as a moderately loaded backpack can be, it’s still a less efficient way of carrying stuff than letting your bike bear the load.
If you attach a pannier or bag (or even a backpack) to a bike rack, you are working less hard than if you carry it yourself. The extra weight on the bike makes negligible difference to your effort unless you ride uphill.
Carrying a bag is like a minor form of resistance training. You burn extra calories doing it, even if it doesn’t feel like a great effort at any single moment.
Is Cycling With A Backpack Bad For Your Back?
It’s a tricky one, this, because a heavy backpack or improperly carried one (e.g., slung over one shoulder) can indeed give you a bad back.
If the backpack is so heavy that you need to lean forward or arch your back to bear its weight, it’s time to find another way to carry stuff.
Wearing an overly heavy backpack in the long term can cause alignment issues in your spine and accelerate the natural deterioration associated with aging.
As long as you use it properly and don’t try to carry too much, a backpack shouldn’t give you problems. Be sure to use any waist straps or chest straps provided, as this helps distribute weight evenly.
The way you pack a backpack is also important. The heaviest items should be as close to the back as possible.
Cycling backpacks often have a contoured shape that conforms to the arched back. This is especially useful to road-bike riders with a more aggressive riding position. It helps to spread the weight effectively rather than creating pressure points.
Alternatives To Riding With A Backpack?
You always have options if you need to carry stuff regularly on a bike. Ideally, it shouldn’t involve riding one-handed with a bag swinging by your side.
One of the best ways to carry gear on a bike is to load it into a pannier and hook it over the side of a rear rack. This can also be done via a front rack, though you can carry a bigger pannier at the rear and it’s less likely to affect bike handling.
This isn’t an aerodynamic solution, but most people considering panniers aren’t fixated on speed. A pannier has a rigid back, so it holds its shape alongside your wheel. Like a backpack, it will also have a varying number of compartments.
A trunk bag is strapped directly onto the rear cargo rack on a bike rather than clipped onto the side. This has the benefit of not creating an uneven load, so you’ll stay stable on the bike. A trunk bag is usually more aerodynamic than a pannier.
Video: A Topeak Trunk Bag
A frame bag is usually big enough to carry a few essentials. It fits within the main triangle of a diamond-framed bike. This is not something you’ll use to carry work equipment and clothes. Keys, bank cards, phones, tools, and food are more typical.
Read more: The best bike frame bags
If you’re not carrying a ton of stuff and have room at the front of the bike, you can use a handlebar bag. A benefit of handlebar bags is that you can keep an eye on them and make sure they’re secure throughout a ride.
You might think a bag that attaches to the saddle won’t carry much, but you’d be surprised. Manufacturers like Ortlieb make seat packs that have a similar volume to small backpacks. They fix to the saddle rails and seatpost.
The biggest benefit of a backpack is its simplicity. Put it on, get on your bike, and ride. There’s no fiddly attachment routine before departure.
With a backpack, you also don’t have to uglify your bike with extra hardware. Cyclists often revel in the aesthetics of their machine.
There are two downsides to counter the above: backpacks can make your back sweaty and they’re inefficient. You use up more energy by bearing the load on your back.
Which factors are more important to you?
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