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A beginner’s guide to carting cargo around by bicycle: what your options are, pros and cons, and a few DIY setups.
Using your bike as your primary (or only) means of transportation requires making a few adjustments to maximize convenience, and minimize the amount of time you spend carting around a too-heavy backpack or pedalling home with grocery bags swinging off the handlebars. While cargo bikes do an amazing job of replacing a family vehicle or a work vehicle, the reality is that most single individuals or childless couples simply don’t need to haul 200lbs of cargo with any regularity. Fortunately, there are a number of different ways to make your regular, everyday bicycle into a load-hauling workhorse that won’t break the bank or your back.
We’ve outlined the many options available, from more expensive trailers to DIY options. There are a million backpacks, messenger bags, and shoulder bags which are designed with cycling in mind, and while those have many of their own benefits, we want to specifically focus on systems which enable the bike to do 100% of the carrying, so all you’re wearing is your shirt. Or no shirt, as you choose. While one setup may be perfect for one person, another may prefer an entirely different method. The best is to think about how much you’re likely to be carrying around on the daily, what you can afford, and what your style preferences are, then pick the setup that works for you.
If you want to carry stuff on your bike, the first thing you’re going to need is a rack. Racks are fixed onto the frame over the wheels, allowing you to attach crates, boxes, or panniers, or to strap items down to the rack itself. They range in price from $20 USD to around $100 USD, and are available at most bike shops.
You can either get a rear rack or a front rack (or both), and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Rear racks are better for attaching panniers or attaching crates to the top of them, which makes their carrying capacity much larger than the front rack. If you’re regularly going to be carrying around a laptop, gym clothes, some groceries and maybe another item or two, the rear rack/ pannier combo is probably the way to go. One thing to make note of with back racks is lighting. If you stack up your back rack with items, they’ll block the light on your seatpost. If this is the method you decide to go with, get a light that sits on the end of your rear rack rather than the seatpost to ensure you stay visible when fully loaded.
Front racks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from a simple support for baskets and handlebar bags, to a rack designed to hold panniers, to a wide platform designed to have items strapped to it directly. Front racks are great if you think you’ll just be nipping out to grab a few things because you can keep an eye on your strapped-down items, but if you’re carrying a lot of weight up front on a bike that wasn’t designed to do so, the weight can affect your handling. If you’re going touring and have a fork that’s designed to handle the weight, front racks with panniers and handlebar bags are great, but for simple commuting, a rear rack is a better option. If you never plan to throw more than your purse and a few small items on the bike, then a front rack with a basket will do just fine.
Panniers are bags that mount to the side of your bike rack, typically through either a pair of clips, straps, or hooks. They are often sold in pairs, and while in the past they tended to be very bike-specific and “gear” looking, there are an increasing number of panniers available which are easy to carry off the bike as well as on, and can blend in to your everyday style.
Panniers can have a carrying capacity of anywhere from 10 to 70 litres, and cost anywhere from $50 USD to $300 USD + depending on the style, brand, functional details, and materials. There are waterproof panniers that tend to look a little more like gear, non-waterproof panniers that are very style-forward, and a whole bunch of options in between.
Baskets, boxes, and crates are one of the oldest methods of carting goods around by bicycle, and are enjoying a resurgence in popularity as vintage aesthetics infiltrate the mainstream. There are wooden boxes and crates that can be affixed to back racks or front racks, creating a little cargo space to easily toss items in the go. Similarly, baskets that hang off your handlebars or sit on your rack like a pannier provide an easy method of carrying a few things around.
The downside of boxes and crates is that, since they’re usually screwed on to the rack, you can no longer use the rack for panniers and they’re not quickly removable if you decide to change up your system. Baskets can be removed in seconds, usually just by picking them up, so they’re great for days at the beach or picnics in the park when you want to carry the whole package off the bike once you arrive at your destination.
The downside of all of them is that they’re obviously not waterproof, but so long as you ride on dry days or have a waterproof bag to toss in them, your belongings will be fine.
Baskets, boxes, and crates can cost anywhere fro $20 USD to $200 USD + depending on the style, function, and size.
There are bike trailers available for just about everything these days. Trailers attach to your bicycle in one of two ways, either by clipping on to your seatpost, or hitching onto the rear dropout on the opposite side to your derailleur. Trailers are great because they have a much larger carrying capacity than what you can easily cram onto your bicycle, often able to hold up to 100 lbs / 45 kg. Depending on the type of trailer, you can also carry more irregularly shaped items than you would be able to strap down to a bicycle. Trailers are typically waterproof or weatherproof, and there are models available to carry everything from cargo to kids to pets to kayaks. One big benefit of trailers for people who like to keep their bikes quite light and sleek looking, is you’re able to cart around a lot of goods by bike when you need to, but avoid having to install any racks on your bike for the rest of the time.
The downside is they require a little more planning. If a trailer is the only method you have to carry goods around by bike, it will always be necessary to know ahead of time when you’re planning to shop so you can bring the trailer with you. So if you’re the type to run spontaneous errands on your way home, trailers probably aren’t the best method for you. The other downside is you need to have somewhere to store them, which for city dwellers can often be an issue.
Trailers can cost anywhere from $200 USD to over $1,000 USD.
Beyond panniers, there are other bags which are great for commuting with smaller items. Small seat bags which attach under your saddle are great for leaving on your bike permanently to hold items such as a patch kit and saddle cover, provided you feel comfortable they won’t be stolen. You can also get larger seat bags instead of panniers, which attach to the seatpost and saddle, and rest on your rear rack. Handlebar bags are also wonderful for carrying accessories, especially items such as your phone or camera, as they’re easy to access while riding. Saddlebags and handlebar bags are available in a variety of styles, sizes, and materials, and can cost anywhere from $15 USD to $250 USD +. Then there are a few other bag options, such as frame bags and top tube bags, but they tend to be geared more toward bike touring or road racing, and aren’t commonly used for bike commuting.
There are also a few small accessories that can be added pretty cheaply which will make your life easier. You can get cargo nets, basically a stretchy net with hooks on the corners, for around $5 USD. They fit over rear or front racks to easily hold your items in place. Also for around $5 USD, you can get rack straps, which are basically a bungee cord with two straps instead of one. There are water bottle cages which attach to your rack, they’re also more for recreation or commuting, but it never hurts to have a water bottle even when you’re just toodling around town. Then there are a broad range of craft accessories for urban commuters to carry particular items, mostly booze and bike locks. Leather straps that hold your U-lock beneath your seat, leather clips and buckles that attach to your frame to hold wine bottles, growlers, and 6-packs, cup-holders that attach to your handlebars, and the list goes on.
Because all of this can get expensive, many people prefer to costs where they can. The result is that your setup probably won’t be quite as aesthetically pleasing, but it will do the trick. Starting off with a basic rear rack for around $15 or $20, you can then get a plastic milk crate and attach it to the rack using zip ties. Voila! A bike crate.
You could also make a rudimentary pair of panniers by sewing straps with buckles onto any old canvas rucksack. It won’t be waterproof, but it will carry your things and probably look pretty cool as well. If you know your way around a sewing machine, that same method could be applied to make basically any different bike bag. You’d just need to have a look at somebody else’s bike bag, figure out where to position the straps, then pick up an appropriate bag from the thrift shop and transform it into a bicycle bag.
For webbing, regular old bungee cords are an obvious substitute, and it’s always handy to have one or two around just in case you spontaneously deicide to purchase a mop on the way home from work.