This post compares the advantages and disadvantages of using a bike rack and a backpack for cargo transportation on a bicycle.
The Advantages of a Bike Rack
- No Stress On The Body
One of the main incentives to choose a rack over a backpack is the reduced stress on the body.
A loaded backpack has the following negative effects:
a. Restricted movement of the upper body
b. Kidney stress (the backpack jumps with each road irregularity and micro punches you in the kidneys. The punches accumulate and may cause kidney pain.)
c. Back suffocation (Even when the backpack isn’t loaded with anything, it stops air circulation. The result is a sweaty back. The feeling is quite uncomfortable and can lead to catching a cold during the winter.)
By placing the cargo on a rack, all of those problems are eliminated. The result is a more pleasant ride, less stress on the body, and preserved endurance.
A loaded backpack makes pedaling out of the saddle unpleasant and hurts the rider’s balance.
- High Capacity
- Sketchy falls
It’s easier to fall “correctly” when there isn’t weight strapped to your back. Also, if you fall with a backpack on you the cargo can pierce the bag and then go straight into your body. The rest is left to the imagination.
Side note (personal experience): A while back I had no racks on my hardtail and had to transport a bunch of broken tiles in a backpack. I took the risk because this was the quickest solution. However, the entire time I was thinking about how badly the tiles would hurt me if I fell. My riding was very slow and conservative.
- Odd Objects
A rack would allow you to transport objects of large dimensions that may not fit in a backpack (e.g., a large pizza box).
The Disadvantages of a Bike Rack
- Extra weight
Even the lightest rack will add some weight to your bicycle. That said, the utility that your bike would gain could be worth it. And if you go for a light rear rack, you won’t even notice it’s there.
- The handling changes
By putting all the weight on a bike, you change its handling regardless of where the load is positioned. Of course, the effect is greater when the extra weight is at the front because most front racks attach to the handlebars and the fork.
But when the cargo is truly heavy, a loaded rear rack becomes problematic too, and makes the bike feel sluggish because it’s harder for the rear wheel to spin.
To preserve the original agility of their bikes, some cyclists choose to keep the cargo on their bodies. This choice, however, is of questionable value.
Yes, carrying the cargo on you keeps the bike light and snappy, but you can’t effectively take advantage of this effect because your body is restricted and has to work harder to remain balanced.
Some people stay away from racks for aesthetic purposes. The idea is to preserve the sporty look of the bike by eliminating “dorky” accessories. If you plan on transporting a lot of cargo, however, “function” will have to come before aesthetics if maximal efficiency is the goal.
- Not compatible with every bike
In general, a rack can be added to virtually any bike, even full-suspension models. However, the process is much simpler and easier when the rack is designed for commuting in mind.
If the bike is a race machine, it will more than likely lack the needed eyelets for rack installation. A rack can still be installed on such a bike, but the process requires a bit more tinkering.
Conversely, a backpack doesn’t care about your bike type.
A rack, especially when equipped with panniers, adds drag and makes it harder to maintain the highest average speed possible.
In different, a backpack sits behind the rider and adds close to no drag. Extremely large backpacks that protrude outside of the rider’s body are an exception.
The Advantages of Backpacks
Most people have some sort of backpack that can be used for cargo transportation. In other words, the investment is small. Hence why this is one of the most popular ways to transport cargo on a bicycle, especially among beginners.
- Light Bike
By having the cargo on yourself, the bike remains “free” and preserves its agility to an extent.
- Easy On and Off
Since the backpack is always on you, you don’t have to mount and dismount cargo. If you need to make a lot of stops, this makes the process faster and simpler.
If the backpack is intact and fully zipped, you’re unlikely to lose cargo or become a victim to theft.
A rear rack, on the other hand, increases the chances of losing cargo due to failed straps or improper tightening and theft because you can’t see the load that you’re transporting. Of course, front racks greatly reduce this outcome.
The Downsides of Backpacks
You won’t meet experienced touring cyclists with a backpack on their backs unless it’s a life or death situation. This isn’t accidental. Backpacks simply don’t cut it went you have to cover serious distance while transporting cargo.
They quickly become unbearable regardless of how scientific their design is. At the end of the day, a backpack is still a backpack. It jumps around, hits your kidneys, suffocates your back, restricts the movement of your shoulders, and makes it difficult to fully open your chest and get the needed oxygen.
A loaded backpack makes it difficult to pedal out of the saddle due to the increased instability and weight shifts.
As already mentioned, falling with a loaded backpack on your back is not fun.
- Limited Capacity and Volume
Let’s face it. You can’t put 20kg of concrete in a backpack and carry it. Well, you can do that with a strong rack.
The more you load a backpack, the more pronounced its negative sides become.
Also, backpacks cannot transport weird odd objects of large dimensions.
When to choose a rack?
If you have a long commute and/or plan to transport a lot of cargo on your bike, a rack will make your life a lot easier. You will be able to carry more weight over a greater distance without the unnecessary sweat that comes with a backpack.
If you don’t want to put a rack on your bike, consider using a handlebar bag and/or a saddle bag. This way you will get the benefits of putting the weight on your bike without the extra weight of a rack. The downside is the limited weight and volume that you will be able to transport.
When to choose a backpack?
If you make short commutes and transport small cargo, the downsides of a backpack are smaller and in some cases acceptable. For example, if you have a racing road bike that you want to use for limited grocery shopping in your neighborhood, a backpack is just fine.
However, if you intend to be a full-time commuter who uses his bike almost all the time, then a backpack would quickly show its downsides.
When I began my cycling journey, I just grabbed my backpack. For the first few rides, it felt fine. But I quickly realized how unpleasant it is to ride with a sweaty back.
My solution was to buy a dedicated backpack with “airflow”. It was better, but not good enough. The experience was still poor. Eventually, I switched to a rear rack, then a saddle bag, and finally a front rack.
If you want to keep your bike maximally “sporty” and still capable of transporting cargo, I recommend a quick-release saddle bag.
If you want the option to move truly heavy weights and odd objects, a solid front rack would be my choice.