Since releasing the now ubiquitous Back Roller panniers, Ortlieb’s reputation for absolute waterproofness, longevity and customer care have made them the essential piece of any touring cyclist’s gear. But with many riders now looking to cover long distances unburdened by heavy touring bikes and un-aerodynamic pannier setups; ‘bikepacking’ bags are becoming an ever more popular gear hauling solution.
Current market offerings all have their drawbacks. Whether it be questionable longevity, ‘water-resistance’ as a pose to ‘waterproof’ or poor mounting systems, the perfect setup still evades many riders. As Ortlieb enters the bikepacking market they have brought a host of nuanced features combined with stalwart design and an unprecedented 5 year warranty.
For me, this was the big selling point of Ortlieb’s bags. Having had their Back Roller Classic panniers on commuting duties for the last 2 years I know when they claim something is waterproof, it’s waterproof. Other manufacturers claim ‘waterproof fabric’, ‘weather resistance’, or ‘rain proofing’. In reality this leads to damp, or downright wet gear in sustained thunderstorms or river crossings.
Whilst cycling 1000km across southern Europe isn’t the sternest of tests for waterproof gear I had encountered 8 hour thunderstorms, submersing both wheels as streams formed across roads and railways. Not once did any gear show any signs of dampness.
That’s great for piece of mind when travelling with lightweight down which loses all insulation when wet, but the main advantage is that it meant I could dispose of dry bags. Putting gear in individual dry bags means there are lots of air gaps when packing them together, no matter how hard you try and squeeze them in. This leads to wasted space and usually sees the rear seatpack drooping over a days riding – which is far more annoying than it sounds as it causes increased swaying of the rear pack and in some cases rubbing on the rear tyre. Knowing your gear is totally cocooned allows you to ram everything in together making for a tighter, neater packing setup giving a more natural feel to the bike when loaded up.
Another area where some other bikepacking setups fail is the build quality. At home if your bikepacking bags develop a hole or a strap comes loose it’s annoying at the very least. When miles away from anywhere, alone and with no chance of repair, poor build quality can be the difference between finishing your trip or returning with a wet sleeping bag and hypothermia.
Whilst it may be too soon to truly tell, the fact that the bags show no signs of use other than faded, dusty straps speaks volumes. Other bags often come back from a trip having lost their structure, with threads hanging out and covered in abrasion marks.
The bags have been repeatedly thrown against abrasive rock walls, blasted with sand and gravel as well as being (accidentally) dropped into a lake.
What’s more, based on previous dealings with Ortlieb; their 5 year warranty and excellent customer care mean these bags will almost certainly outlast my desire to sleep in ditches by the side of the road!
So that’s my main two priorities satisfied. Peace of mind in both durability and waterproofing are undoubtedly top of most peoples list for bikepacking bags. The Ortlieb bags are class leaders at this, but it’s inevitable other brands will catch up here. What really cements these bags as a favourite, is the meticulous detail with which they’ve been designed. Good bags should be unnoticeable in daily use; what is a small annoyance at home becomes a matter of complete resentment out on the road.
Sweating the Small Stuff
Purge Valve: this is a little rubber valve on the seatpack that opens when cinching the bag down. It allows you to squeeze all the air out getting that neat, tightly packed seatbag that’s necessary for a pack that doesn’t sway. When closed back up it completes the waterproof seal again. Other bags on the market will feel tightened down, but as the air inevitably seeps out of the seams you’ll find your bag floppy and swaying mid-ride. That might sound like only a slight inconvenience, but when you’re repacking the bag at midday; trying to hold the bike upright between your legs and stopping that spare sock falling out, the purge valve is a lifesaver.
Size Adjustment: it packs down as small as 8L and expands up to 16.5L. That gives it the versatility to do multi-day long hauls and quick overnight sleep by a fire kind of rides. That was really important to me, because as much as I’m sure we all like to think of ourselves as hardcore adventurers, the reality is that the confines of real life keep most bike trips short and sweet. Having a pack that can do both is an obvious feature for real life usability.
Light Loop: this might be a small point, but the webbing ladder underneath the pack allowed me to attach a small light. This was the one thing that stopped me having a major run-in with the cars. I was expecting a few tunnels up the Croatian coastline but this lighting loop was a lifesaver when I accidentally found myself in a half-mile motorway tunnel in Italy and riding in pitch black through Hackney.
Structured Front Box: many other bags do away with this – I’m sure it adds weight. But the Cordura and stiff plastic/metal box at the front of the saddle bag is integral to the low-sway this bag has on the bike. It keeps all your underpants, socks and t-shirts from bulging out when crammed in tight meaning no matter how narrow your thighs they won’t be rubbing on the saddle bag. Rubbing thighs isn’t a small annoyance anywhere – that’s a deal breaker.
Elastic Webbing Loop: water bottle, shoes, pack of digestive biscuits. Sometimes you need somewhere to quickly stow your gear without risking the aforementioned spare sock falling out when diving into the main pack compartment.
Mounting System: second to none. I’ve not seen anything quite so well thought out before. First of all there’s no separate harness and dry bag, simplicity is crucial for me, especially when trying to get out of that roadside ditch at 5.30am before anyone notices you. Everything’s integrated into the single dry bag with a stiff rod through the back of it to provide structure. It then attaches with a stiff, hardy Velcro strap that is fully secured by strong buckles to take the majority of the weight. After attaching strap with Velcro at the bottom of the pack to stop it bouncing up and down the whole thing is tidy and secure meaning handling is kept as stable as possible.
The included foam blocks also allow the dry bag to hang securely an inch or so away from bars. This is great for keeping the bag out of the way of the cables on flat bar bikes, but especially important for me was the ability to hold onto the tops of a drop bar bike. A lot of mounting systems designed for mountain bikes mean there is no way of holding onto the tops of drop bars – being able to do this was vital for me when I developed serious carpal nerve compression 2 days into my ride through Croatia. The change of hand position allowed me to carry on without any lasting side effects.
Elastic Webbing: up front my waterproof lives here permanently. When it’s throwing it down with rain the last thing you want to do is open up those waterproof bags and let all the water in. Likewise when you’re done being drenched, stowing the jacket on the outside allows it to dry and stops you wetting the gear on the inside of the bag. It sounds so simple and obvious – yet is a feature lacking from so many of the bar bags on the market.
Most brands make one of these, I’m yet to see one that’s fully waterproof though. They either use zips or standard seams allowing water in over prolonged water exposure (Ortlieb’s uses welded seams and a roll top closure for complete waterproofing). Being totally waterproof and really roomy meant I could keep everything that mattered there, camera, money and passport.
Whilst I could store these things inside the other bags to keep them dry, the accessory pack is easily removed meaning I can leave the whole bike packed up whilst I nip into a shop for 5 minutes, taking everything valuable with me. Had I left them hidden in a dry bag somewhere I’d either be leaving them at risk to theft or having the inconvenience of unpacking a bag for every small stop.
The uniqueness of a completely waterproof accessory pack that was quickly removable was completely liberating for my trip.
It goes without saying that it mounts really securely to the main handlebar dry bag with some nifty, secure clips. A photo will do a much better job of explaining the system than I can – it’s something I’ve seen nothing like before but works very well in practice.
The other stand out feature of the accessory pack is the extra strap included. This allows you to carry it as an over-the-shoulder bag or as a bum bag. This makes taking your valuables with you quick and convenient.
It’s also possible to mount this bag to the handlebars on its own without the big handlebar bag. This was great when I just wanted to take my valuables on shorter rest day rides around Paris and London.
This might sound like a glowing review so far, and it is, I’m genuinely yet to come across anything close in terms of durability, usability and waterproofness. I paid for the bags myself and have only offered my opinions after the trip.
That isn’t to say it’s without its faults though.
The reflective patches on the gear bags attracted some unwanted attention when sleeping by the road at night. I can hardly level this as a criticism, but if you plan on wild camping – make sure you cover those up.
The only real issue I can see at the moment is a lack of completeness in the bike packing range from Ortlieb. Lots of riders like to have fully matching kit and if you want Ortlieb frame bags, top tube bags or stem mounted bottle bags then you’re out of luck for the moment. Whilst a frame bag is on the way there is currently no way to run a full Ortlieb setup. Whilst that may be a deciding factor for some, there are too many vital features that I simply couldn’t give up on accessory pack, handlebar bag and seatpack from Ortlieb.
They are also relatively heavy, the Ortlieb bags weigh in at 417g up front and 430g out back. A similar setup from competitors weighs in at around 280g up front and 350g out back. It is worth nothing these weights are for noticeably smaller capacity bags and lack the warranty, durability or usability of the Ortlieb bags. But if absolute lightweight trumps durability, ease of use and quality of mount then there are alternatives out there.
For me personally, having a bag that’s dependable and reliable is of top priority and even at 847g for both bags, that’s lighter than many pannier racks on their own (before you’ve even added the bags).
Writing this piece was harder than I’d expected. When I sat down and tried articulate my thoughts on the bags it was hard and it was only after thinking a bit longer I realised why. I hadn’t once thought about the bag setup whilst out on the road. That in itself, I think is the biggest compliment you can give any piece of gear. When you spend every waking hour with your gear, if there’s anything that doesn’t work properly, you’ll know about it. You’ll also fixate on 243 different ways in which you could make it better, questioning if the designer has ever even ridden a bike (or is that just me?).
In summary, these bags are the most usable, durable and well thought out bikepacking bags on the market. They’re not the cheapest or the lightest, but they’re far from the most expensive and heaviest and they’re available through most local bike shops as Ortlieb has a huge distribution network from its traditional bike touring accessories. That alone gives them a huge step up on the bags you can only see through a screen or after parting with your cash.
The best made bikepacking bags, the ability to try before you buy and get some proper advice about how to fit them to your specific bike makes these the standout option for anyone in the market for bikepacking bags at the moment.