Bicycle panniers have a lot of features in common with backpacking gear because because of similarities in needs and functions. And for both bicycle touring and backpacking, you will find proponents for either top-opening or side-opening pack designs. The bags you choose are as much a matter of function as your personal packing style. (I discussed difference between water-resistant and water-proof packs in earlier posts.) We are currently stocking both types of packs at Bicycle Garage Indy.
Side opening bags with lots of pockets are good for the organizer. They offer a place for everything with everything its place. Your front pannier, rear pocket will have your sunscreen, and your rear pannier right pocket will have your headlamp and matches. You get the idea. A side opening pack also lends it self well to stuff sacks or zip-lock bags to further sub-divide and organize the gear.
Side opening bags are also good for easy access to gear during the day. You can easily stash jackets and arm warmers as the day warms up, and put away the groceries acquired throughout your day of riding. At the end of the day, side opening allows you to quickly find the one the item or bag of items you are looking for, without having to unload everything else in the pack. Some of our side opening bags include the Arkel models T-42 ($219.99), XM-28 ($219.99) and T-28 ($169.99).
Top opening bags, with either a roll-up water-proof closure, or a drawcord and flap closure, are best when you are closing your bag once in the morning; you pack it and forget it. It is also important to pack these bags with a plan, so that items you might need during the day are not under everything else, especially if this is a bag with few pockets.
Some top opening bags may have external pockets, and you can pack the main compartment with things you will not use during the day. This would typically be the case for your rear panniers, which may have additional gear (tent, sleeping pad, etc.) strapped across the top opening. In this case access is not issue except when the unexpected comes up. Our top opening bags include the Arkel Dolphin-48 ($244.99), KoKi Rover II ($149.99) and Bontrager Basic Panniers ($99.99).
So which is best? Depends on your intended usage. For the touring bicyclist, I recommend the side opening, with pockets, as the most flexible option. The organization it imposes saves you a great deal of time in the long run, and that time savings adds to your enjoyment. The one exception is in extreme touring where a truly water-proof bag is required. For the commuter, a single opening bag may be just right for quick loading on unloading after each leg of the commute.
Find a full selection of bicycle packs from Arkel, Bontrager and KoKi bicycle packs at all three Bicycle Garage Indy locations: Bicycle Garage Indy North (Indianapolis, Dean Rd at 82nd St.), South (just west of I-65 on County Line Rd, Greenwood), and the new BGI Downtown, in the Indy Bike Hub YMCA at City Market.