Bring your stuff in a backpack! I’m not talking about some special niche backpack, just a standard medium to large, school backpack. I know this may seem a little counterintuitive, or maybe something that screams of being excessively cheap, but a backpack has several advantages over panniers and trailers. I am not suggesting that you plan to wear your backpack while touring, but rather that you secure it to the top of a rear rack with bungee cords. Here are the reasons I think a backpack is the best way to carry your gear:
Built in redundancy
It’s always a good idea of think of all the things which could go wrong on the trip and then try to plan accordingly. One thing that needs to be on your list of worst case scenarios is a broken or compromised rack. If your rack is having problems, how are you going to carry your panniers? Well, I don’t know about you, but I really don’t have a good answer to that question. With a backpack on the other hand, you can always carry your gear on your back should an emergency arise. In my experience touring, I have only had a rack break one time, but when it did, I was sure glad I packed my gear in a backpack.
Hauling a trailer means dealing with a new pair of tubes, tires, and wheels which are all going to need to be fixed and maintained. Also, in the rare event that your pack is breaking, it is much easier (and MUCH cheaper) to just buy a new backpack then to find new panniers.
Lower wind resistance
What? Wind resistance? Really? This may seem somewhat trivial, but when you are fighting a strong headwind, it can make a noticeable difference. In general, a strong wind against your favor can make it feel twice as hard to bike. Adding a 2-foot sail of bulky panniers will only make it that much worse.
Easy way to eliminate excess gear
You may be thinking that you need to take panniers or a trailer because you will have way too much stuff for a backpack. While it is true that you can probably get more on your bike with panniers (and certainly with a trailer), a backpack can actually fit quite a lot. Regardless, the most important thing to remember is that you really should aim to take the least amount of stuff possible. Oftentimes, panniers encourage you to take extra items because you try to fill in any extra, empty space you have after you already pack all of your important gear. A backpack may be a little smaller, but it will really force you to only bring useful, worthwhile items. With less gear, you will have to deal with less weight. In this way bringing a backpack can be a great tool for making sure you travel with a minimum amount of weight. The less weight you have, the easier it will be to bike, the less mechanical problems you will encounter, and the more fun you will have on your trip.
Less chance of getting your gear stolen
You may be able to do a pretty good job locking up your bike, but securing your gear is a different story. People do tend to be pretty honorable, but getting your stuff stolen is certainly not unheard of. Unlike panniers and trailers, a backpack makes it really easy to just pick up your gear and carry it around on your back if you find yourself in a position where you are uncomfortable leaving your fully loaded bike unattended.
You can look at spending upwards of a couple hundred bucks for many touring panniers. Trailers can also be expensive. Chances are pretty good that you already have a suitable backpack sitting around your house. If not, they are easy and cheap to find at any retail store. I have even done several tours with free backpacks that I got from random promotional events. You don’t need to spend lots of money, just use a backpack.