Backcountry 35 Pannier: Worth the Weight?
Sometimes we get complaints about the Backcountry 35 panniers being too heavy. At a little over 9 pounds apiece, they definitely weigh more than many other soft bags. They weigh almost as much as the smaller, lighter hard-sided panniers. It’s not really fair to compare a top of the line soft pannier to an entry level hard pannier, but anyway, it’s noteworthy.
When we created the Backcountry, weight was not our main concern. Durability and functionality were. I had been traveling for 3 months with a typical waterproof over-the-seat saddlebag system – which was plenty light, but was a total hassle to get on/off the bike. Plus it leaked, because it had been crashed on repeatedly. At the time, I owned an BMW 1150GSA and a KTM 950SE, both of which are big heavy bikes, and my business partner Andrew was riding a KLR 650. We wanted soft luggage that clicked on & off like a hard box – no nylon straps to worry about - but that wouldn’t flop around while riding, and that would stay waterproof and connected to the bike through many years and tens of thousands of miles of abuse.
Crossing from Nicaragua to Costa Rica with the first BC35 prototype in 2014
I don’t think there’s any activity more abusive to luggage than moto. It’s not only the sun, water, vibration, and weight of riding. It’s also that we will inevitably to drop our 600+ pound bike on the bags, with a ton of forward momentum behind it, then pick up the bike and expect to continue riding as if nothing happened. It takes a long time to get spare parts shipped somewhere like Uganda, Cambodia, or Peru, so any kind of serious long-distance ADV pannier has to be totally bomber.
Phil Downer, crash testing an early Backcountry 35 prototype in 2015
That’s the context in which we created the Backcountry 35. Sure you could make them lighter, but only at a price. There’s no wasted weight to remove. For example, there are eight layers of material on the front of the Backcountry 35. If you compare it to the weight of a bag with only one or two layers of fabric: yeah, it’s heavier. No surprise there. We all use similar materials, the Backcountry 35 just has more of them.
Here is how those eight layers break down. The first three make up the beavertail. This is your sliding surface; it’s the first spot to hit the ground when the bike goes down. It’s designed to fold away from the main bag so it can be fed through a sewing machine, patched, and repaired while you’re on the road. The beavertail is also an awesome stash spot, for storing dirty/wet things you don’t want to put inside the pannier itself.
- 1680D Ballistic Nylon
- Foam Interfacing
- 22oz PVC Vinyl
The next five layers make up the main bag, which consists of a tough outer bag – which takes all the abrasion and abuse – and an inner welded-seam waterproof bag to keep your stuff dry. The outer bag protects the inner bag from damage. There’s a polyethylene armor sheet sewn into the front of the bag, which also provides structure and shape, and helps compress the load against the bike. Even in high speed pavement crashes, I have never seen abrasion or heat penetrate that armor panel. We fuse it with a layer of foam so it won’t wear holes in the surrounding fabric.
- 22oz PVC Vinyl
- Polyethylene Armor
- Fused Foam
- Inner bag lining material
- 22oz welded seam waterproof PVC liner
Yes, it’s a lot of layers, but that is why the Backcountry 35 is so tough.
Same story with the mounting frame on the back. Could we make it thinner? Yes. Could we remove more material to make it lighter? Yes. Could we use a different material? Yes. Hell, we could make it out of carboard, which would be light and cheap, it just wouldn’t last.
There’s a reason we made it thick, and there’s a reason we chose glass-filled nylon. If you own a set of Backcountry panniers then you already know: the mounting system is solid. We looked at aluminum, we looked at a bunch of different clip- and clamp-on mounting ideas, we looked at cam buckles, we considered nylon straps. We looked at all these things and rejected them. Because when the pannier slides onto the wedge and bolts up against a steel pannier rack, man… it’s so solid.
Take a look at the pannier below: it went down in a 65+ mph slide on the freeway. This was a crash that would've trashed any pannier: metal, plastic, soft. Here's the thing though: after the crash, this pannier was still waterproof and still connected to the bike. The trip goes on.
You can make inexpensive, waterproof luggage with bungy cords, a backpack, and a garbage bag. It’s light, cheap, and waterproof. A long time ago, I would put my clothes in a garbage bag, put the garbage bag inside a backpack, and strap the pack on my bike. A lot of us have done this at some point. It totally works, plus when you take the pack off the bike, you have a fully functional backpack. The downsides are that weight is stored high and back (instead of low and forward), you’re limited to how much you can carry, it’s a pain to get stuff in & out, and the whole thing disintegrates if you crash. It’s not perfect, but it works.
It confuses me when a big guy, on a big Adventure bike, with pannier racks and hard bags and a ton of gear, says he won’t get the Backcountry 35 panniers because they’re too heavy. Then he goes and buys some floppy saddlebag, shaving 5-6 pounds off a total package weight of rider + gear + bike + accessories + fluids of over a thousand pounds. ADV bikes were designed to carry hard luggage, gear for long-duration trips, and sometimes a pillion too. Nobody wants to carry wasted weight, but you won’t even notice a few extra pounds on that setup. On my R1200GS Adventure, I worry more about how everything is going to hold up when I drop the bike on it. A GS is not a dirt bike.
It’s a totally different story on a smaller bike. Many smaller bikes weren’t designed to carry luggage at all, so every pound counts. On those bikes, if weight is a primary concern, most riders opt to skip pannier racks altogether and use a rackless system like the Reckless 80 instead. The Reckless 80 weighs only 12 pounds, so you save 10-15 pounds off the back of the bike compared to a rack system and frame-mounted panniers. 10-15 pounds is a meaningful difference on a bike like the KTM 690 Enduro or Husky 501. I have a 690 for desert trips in here in Oregon, and I hardly ever put racks on it.
My suggestion: if you’re a minimalist, weight conscious rider, and you want to shave weight on a smaller bike, forget about racks and old-school, strap-on saddlebags. Go rackless.
Andrew with the Reckless 80 on his Africa Twin
For weight-conscious riders who want to keep their pannier racks, we have another good option called the Scout 25 pannier. We designed the Scout 25 with middleweight dualsports in mind, like the 690/701 and 650s. There are some good reasons to stick with racks. Racks protect the bike and bag from abrasion, they are engineered to support more weight, and they provide excellent load stability. Also, some riders want to quickly switch between hard boxes and soft bags, and they don’t want to remove the racks each time. If those benefits are more important to you than eliminating the weight of fracks, check out the Scout 25s. Last year I spent a month in Sri Lanka on a Honda Baja 250 with racks and the Scout 25s. They're great.
Scout 25s in Sri Lanka
I started this blurb to talk about the weight of the Backcountry 35 panniers. They were never meant to be the lightest panniers on the market, nor the least expensive. They’re meant to be the toughest fully-featured panniers out there. There are lighter and less expensive systems, but in my opinion (and yes, I am biased) they fall short on durability and function. If you compare them to the Backcountry 35 side-by-side, you’ll see what I mean.
Thanks for listening and thanks for the support!