Descriptions of Important Design Elements of ATS and RBD Panniers

“I'd rate [Robert Beckman Designs] the best-built, most intelligently designed panniers.”

(Cyclist Magazine)

A very extensive presentation of important design elements that relate to rack/pannier system performance, and of how the design of racks and panniers greatly influence the overall performance and the handling characteristics and riding quality of loaded touring bikes, may be found in the Racks > Critical Rack/Pannier Details page of this website.  The design elements include a wide range of four-point mounting systems, compression/stabilizing systems, gear distribution designs, perimetric load supports and many other features and custom-design options.

Pannier design, as it relates to the function, performance and quality of panniers themselves, and is independent of an impact on the performance of touring bicycles is presented in the following descriptions of design elements.  These design features are important as well and have had a direct connection with why RBD panniers have been rated, "the finest in the world."                         

Pocket and Loading Designs

“These are the panniers with the most pockets and the best access to gear.”

(Bicycle Sport Magazine)

There are no RBD or ATS panniers that are just one large sack or pack.  Each pannier model is carefully designed to load gear from the rack outward and in a fore/aft orientation in separate pockets or compartments.  SLC (single lateral compartment) panniers have a narrow compartment next to the stiffening plate of the panniers, or the bicycle rack, that is separated into two fore/aft compartments by a zip-out, vertical divider.  DLC (dual lateral compartments) pannier models have a second compartment, from the rack outward, that is also partitioned, fore and aft, by a vertical divider.  TLC (triple lateral compartments) pannier models have a third lateral compartment, always quite narrow in depth from the rack outward, on the outer face of the panniers.

The Discovery Hybrid Modular Northern Lights panniers in a full-on tandem version. This pannier has a TLC design. The SLC mode of the panniers with the outer two compartments removed.
The TLC (triple lateral compartment) mode with all three lateral compartments in place. Panniers are loaded from the rack outward, and from front to back, by weight of gear, to maximize performance.

The lateral and fore/aft compartments provides the segregation of gear for the sake of packing convenience and also to allow the division of gear, by weight, to optimize the packing of panniers relative to pannier stability and the best bicycle handling characteristics.  All pockets and compartments are designed to be loaded from the very bottom of the panniers upward.  And, importantly, every pocket or compartment is within, and is controlled by, the compression system, as well as by the rear stiffening plate and perimetric stiffeners of the panniers in models that have perimetric stiffeners.  Together, these design features ensure the highest levels of packing convenience, pannier stability and the best means of fine tuning the loading of gear within panniers to compliment the handling characteristics of a touring bicycle.

“Bombproof zippers run almost the entire perimeter of the bags........access to gear is unsurpassed.”

(Outside Magazine)

There are no top-loading RBD or ATS panniers.  Top-loading panniers are dramatically cheaper, simpler and less time-consuming to build utilizing far fewer materials (zippers), but they provide very poor access to gear.  Top-loading panniers not only reflect an alternative pannier design, they are also reflect an inferior design.  ATS and RBD panniers are designed much differently, utilizing an extreme front-loading design (sometimes referred to as a side-loading design) with very long entry zippers into each pocket and compartment of the panniers.  Long zippers have a dual purpose.  They make it much easier to get gear in and out of panniers and consequently reduce the stress on zippers for much longer zipper life.  Long entry zippers also simply make it much easier to access gear, especially into the large, primary compartments of the panniers, from the top of the panniers all the way to nearly the bottom.  They provide a large measure of convenience not afforded in top-loading designs.  In ATS and RBD panniers the zipper length into primary compartments ranges from 30” to 41” depending upon the pannier model and the size in which it is made.  In the outside-facing pockets, such as in Discovery Series and EL models, vertical entry zippers into the pockets are as long as possible, ranging from 12” to 16”.

Entry zippers are very long, but not too long. Zippers always terminate above the bottom of the panniers to create a space where gear may be properly cradled. This design helps gear to be supported so that it will not fall out of panniers when the access zippers are fully opened. The vertical compartmental dividers also are helpful in this respect.

Zipper Designs

In ATS and RBD panniers and packs, three different types of zipper flap designs are used.  The most protective design, which has been used extensively in EL and Discovery pannier models built with 500-denier Cordura fabrics, is a dual-flap design in which both flaps cover the zipper coils, with the top flap being very wide to help keep dust and dirt from getting on the 9mm zippers to help ensure lifetime durability.  In panniers that are built with 5mm and 7mm YKK coil zippers, such as in Hummingbird models, a zipper design inverting the coils (the coils face the inside of panniers) as they are sewn in place in the panniers, is used as the most trouble-free design for ultra-lightweight panniers.  This design contributes to the smoothest operation of zippers when lightweight zippers are used.  In building EL and Discovery models in lightweight, hybridized forms to reduce the weight of the panniers as much as possible, two designs are used.  An inverted design is commonly used as well as another type of dual-flap design, in which two flaps meet above the center of zipper coils.  This latter design is also a protective design, and one that ensures greater zipper durability when 5mm and 7mm zippers are used in the construction of panniers utilizing lightweight fabrics.

In ultra-lightweight panniers, which include in their design very lightweight zippers, there are no flaps over the zippers. Also, zipper coils are inverted. This design provides the most trouble-free use of very lightweight zippers.
An intermediate design which is sometimes used with mid-weight pannier fabrics. It is a dual-flap design that also contributes to the very free movement of zipper pulls with very little twist on the pulls as they are moved over the coils. This is a very low-impact design. A third design is used in panniers constructed of heavyweight fabrics and 9mm zippers. In this design, the outer zipper flap completely covers the zippers.

The way I look at it, zippers should never break.  They simply must remain trouble-free for the lifetime of use in a pannier or pack.  In non-separating zippers (opposed to separating zippers used to open jackets and other garments) that are used in panniers this is quite possible.  To ensure a lifetime of trouble-free use, I have built panniers incorporating the use of 9mm and 10mm zippers, which are extraordinarily durable.  So far, in building gear for about 40 years, I've never been asked to replace an entry zipper that has worn out.  The type of zippers that I use is important, but how they are designed and sewn in place is also critical.  First off, the corners of all my panniers are highly rounded.  Their relaxed form ensures the most free and easy operation of zippers.  Also, the zippers are always very long.  That's quite important, and they are sewn in place using two lines of stitching in which the raw fabric edge along the zipper tape is sewn between the lines of stitching.  This design, which keeps raw fabric edges from unraveling and then jamming zippers, is an essential part of designing packs well.  It is especially critical in designing panniers and packs utilizing smaller, more lightweight zippers and very lightweight fabrics, such as in my Hummingbird panniers.  Using this process, if panniers and packs are properly used and not abused, even ultra-lightweight products will have zippers that will long outlive their owners.  I've never seen any other manufacturers using these construction and design methods in their products.     

When I build panniers for extreme use, I sometimes build the panniers in heavyweight fabrics, with very durable 9mm zippers and with a dual-flap zipper design that reflects the ultimate in zipper protection to keep it relatively free from damage from dirt and the effects of sunlight.

My rule of thumb is that the shorter a zipper is, the stronger and heavier it must be.  Pocket zippers, that are short and straight, often die quickly because gear is forced into a small opening which tends to deform the zipper coils at the end of the zippers.  I avoid this in my products by making straight zippers as long as possible and by using heavier zippers when I feel that zippers may be compromised by their length. 

In panniers that have dual zipper flaps that tend to cover up the metal zipper pulls, I sew an extra webbing pull to the metal zipper pull to make using the zippers more convenient.  The webbing pulls never are obscured by the flaps and they give extra purchase in operating a zipper smoothly.

Fabrics and Finish

It's been about 40 years now that I've built some panniers and backpacks utilizing 500-denier Cordura fabric as the primary exterior fabric.  It's very, very durable stuff.  And as far as I'm concerned, its far too durable for most applications and products.  It has been about 25 years since I've built any touring equipment for myself using Cordura as the primary fabric and I would encourage all of my potential customers to at least consider taking a similar approach in selecting panniers and packs for their travel.  I think that using the stuff is just plain overkill for many types of bicycle touring.  It simply weighs dramatically more than it needs to, and when we use products constructed of heavy fabrics w end up carrying around unnecessary pounds of gear that does nothing.

Heavy fabrics simply don't have to be used in the design of panniers. By using small pieces of tough fabrics as reinforcement, such as under carrying handles where there are two layers on top of the lightweight (blue) primary exterior fabric, durability is served at the same time pannier weight is minimized.
Another look at the use of lightweight fabrics that are used in conjunction with reinforcement to increase the strength of the anchoring of compression straps.

I've always used, whenever possible, a very light-colored lining fabric inside of panniers to brighten up their interiors a bit.  Its just one of those little things that helps in finding gear inside panniers, especially in low-light conditions.  These days I use a very bright yellow fabric as a lining.  The interior of RBD Discovery and EL Hybrid models is almost completely yellow.  Hummingbird panniers, in designs that are implemented to minimize pannier weight, less yellow lining fabric is used.

These Hummingbird IFT panniers have a lining of yellow 2.4 oz. Ripstop nylon in the interior area of the primary compartments where a majority of gear is mounted.

“Construction is equally superb: all fabric edges are taped or turned under.”

(Outside Magazine)

Long before the backpacking and bicycle touring booms, and before packs and panniers were first being built on a fairly large scale, garments had been mass-produced for more than a century.  During this period high standards of quality in the basic construction techniques and in the finish quality of garments were established and recognized.  Standards in the finer points of the hand- and top-stitching of products also became well established.  Many different techniques have been used in the construction of garments to ensure that raw fabric edges are completely covered in well-made products.  One such technique is seam binding, in which raw fabric edges of garments are covered with seam-binding tape of a range of types, often using a ½ in. tape that is folded in forming a ¼ in. cap over raw fabric edges.  Seam binding is an expensive, time-consuming process and it can be a difficult one that requires a high level of accuracy when ½ in. tape is used (so it is generally avoided at all costs).  ATS Hummingbird panniers utilize this technique.

The seams of this pannier are bound with 1/2" tape, and the tape is also used as a fabric reinforcement in sewing the vertical compartmental divider in place. Even though these panniers weigh only 20-some ounces per pair, seam binding and elaborate design details are part of its design. The panniers have an extraordinarily high performance-to-weight ratio.

Common Options and Accessories

There are two very distinct pannier designs which relate to weather protection.  The design with a single layer of weather protection is found in “dry-bag” panniers, which have factory-sealed seams.  And the other pannier design, which affords two layers of weather protection, is a conventional pannier design in which a protective rain cover is used in conjunction with the pannier.  This method of weather protection requires about 15 minutes of time to properly seal some short pannier and cover seams by hand.  Even though I've built some very sophisticated designs of dry-bag panniers that are extremely lightweight, I never have and never will build this type of pannier, commercially.  A pannier design that incorporates a rain cover for weather protection simply has far more potential, design-wise, especially given how dry-bag panniers have been commercially developed so far.  To understand this it is necessary to consider the full breadth of pannier design, and then it becomes more obvious.
Panniers that are used in conjunction with well-designed rain covers are provided complete weather protection, when all necessary seams are properly sealed (which is easy), while at the same time the covers allow panniers to function fully as touring packs by having a complete range of designs and detailing.  Rain covers provide the opportunity for panniers to be designed with extreme frontal-loading designs, which allow complete access, both visually and physically, to touring gear from the top and all the way to the bottom of panniers.  Top-loading dry-bag panniers provide the poorest access to gear as gear at the bottom of panniers must be accessed through the top and not the side (front).  Rain covers allow panniers to have sophisticated gear loading and distribution designs through extensive pannier compartmentalization.  Dry-bag panniers are almost always just one big sack, and never much more.  Sophisticated designs incorporating many types of fabrics (some for weight reduction, and heavier ones for reinforcement) help allow panniers that are used with rain covers to be quite effectively durable while at the same time extremely lightweight.  Dry-bag panniers are made of simple designs to minimize seams and, at least thus far, are made with heavy fabrics and are extremely heavy overall.  Much in the same way that a rain fly offers a second important layer of protection to a tent, rain covers provide panniers with a second layer of weather protection (about 75-plus percent of the panniers) while dry-bag panniers have only a single layer of protection.  Rain covers allow very elaborate pannier detailing in the design of compression systems, compression panels, mesh pockets and other designs that have never been part of the design of panniers of a dry-bag designs as all of these designs create extra seams and the penetration of a single layer of weather protection that must be avoided.  As dry-bag panniers have been very simply designed and sold so far there are other deficiencies in their designs, but not that are caused directly by their single-layer design.  Consequently, as dry-bag pannier designs greatly limit design and the function of panniers, I've always designed rain covers to ensure that panniers can do the all of the things they need to do while at the same providing 100% protection from the elements.

Rain covers are not all the same, far from it.  Some are built to a much higher standard than others and some covers are simply designed much better (many covers are not designed to drain properly), and regardless of how well a rain cover is designed, it will not perform adequately if seams in the rear and bottom side of panniers are not properly seam sealed and if the fabric used in the construction of panniers is not waterproof.  Basically, a rain cover works as a protective cap over panniers, covering much of the panniers but exposing part of their rear side.  Rain hitting the exposed side of the panniers dribbles downward and will penetrate fabrics that are not completely waterproof and seams that are not properly sealed.  Also, rain can build up in the bottom of covers unless there is some form of drain in the bottom to allow rain that dribbles to the bottom, rear side of the covers, to exit properly (easily before it can build up in any way).  As with any type of gear, rain covers must be used properly for them to be entirely effective.

Of all types and brands of rain covers, ATS and RBD pannier covers as they are currently being designed and built, provide the greatest protection at, by far, the lowest possible weight.  Each type of cover is very easy to fit onto, and to remove from panniers, and has a special design to ensure that water cannot collect in the bottom of covers.  All ATS and RBD rain and all-terrain covers are designed and built to the highest standard utilizing a new design introduced in fall of 2012.  Their latest design, drawn from Hummingbird cover designs, ensures that they can be made as lightweight as possible (as lightweight as 1.5 oz. per pair).  Both ATS and RBD covers afford full protection because the rear sides of ATS and RBD panniers are completely waterproof when sealed properly (you'll need to spend about 15 minutes of your life to properly seam-seal, with Seam Grip, any vulnerable seams in your panniers and covers).  In many ATS panniers, a specially laminated fabric that is not only waterproof, but impervious to air penetration under high pressures, is used in the rear side of panniers.  In some pannier models, a similar fabric with a waterproof solution coating is used.

I actually make many types of covers utilizing a wide variety of fabrics ranging in weight from an ounce per square yard up to about six ounces.  In the early 1980s I started making protective covers for cyclists that were spending some of their touring miles riding on hiking trails, to protect their panniers from being damaged by rocks, branches and other gnarly stuff lining trails.  I still make these protective RBD All-Terrain Covers and other specialized covers for panniers.  All covers come in custom-fit sizes (three vertical sizes, many lateral dimensions and two different overall shapes) for each pannier and are designed to fit panniers in the manner of a shower cap utilizing a very small, lightweight, yet durable bungee cord.

I've designed many types of three-dimensional mesh pockets for my Discovery Series panniers, some of which are quite elaborately designed and detailed.  I originally designed mesh pockets in the 1970s to be a more versatile type of pocket that would allow visual access to gear on the outside of panniers.  I really like mesh pockets, especially when they are large and are designed with a mesh that has a fairly loose weave that aides in seeing gear.  The mesh, that I like by far the most, must be hot cut to keep it from unraveling.  Hot cutting nylon is very toxic, so I no longer make mesh pockets for all Discovery Series panniers like I used to.  I now offer mesh pockets as custom option.  Custom cost $35

If you like the color royal blue, then you're in luck because that is the standard color of my panniers.  But if you don't care for blue, or you would like some specialized fabric used in the construction of the panniers, I may be able to obtain it.  It's kind of discouraging, but as manufacturing in the United States has gone into a free-fall and has declined severely, materials such as fabrics have become much more difficult to obtain. When I'm searching for fabrics these days I often have to purchase specialized fabrics from retailers or in short lengths from my normal wholesalers at high prices.  So, if you'd like a custom color or a specialized fabric I must add a charge to cover the costs of customization, which is usually $50 or $75.

As a custom builder I have built many different custom options into my panniers over the years.  Some of the options are relatively simple, like adding extra pockets or partitions to the panniers, or altering them to fit a certain type of rack that my adapters don't normally fit.  But some of the custom design work is more complex, such as when I've converted numerous models of panniers into hard-shell cases for carrying photographic gear or other types of equipment that requires a unique design.  If you need something special, don't be afraid to ask.  

Additional Options

I always try to keep all of my gear contained within my panniers and strapped very tightly to the top of my touring rack.  But on laundry day, or at times when I've got wet or dirty rain gear, or other types of wet clothing that I want to keep out of my panniers, I hang the stuff on the outside of the panniers.  I use the compression straps of my panniers to hang stuff, but I also use a device that I call a compression panel, to help when strapping gear to the panniers.  I use compression panels in the design of the panniers of the EL and Discovery lines.  They are a convenient mechanism that is used to hold gear securely in place. Also, if I want to have quick access to gear secured on the outside of the panniers it is placed behind the compression panels.  These days I make the panels, like everything else on the panniers, very lightweight so they are a feature that both functions well and at the same time doesn't negatively impact the performance of the panniers, weight-wise.   Compression panels (when added as a custom feature) $45 per pair

There are times, albeit rare, that  in  expedition touring, especially on long trips in brutal conditions, that reinforcing the aluminum stiffening plates in the rear side of panniers, in the position of the mounting system hardware, isn't a bad idea.  I have a couple of different means of reinforcing the plates.  If it sounds like something that might be beneficial, it doesn't hurt to ask.

An expedition-oriented design that I've used extensively through the years in Discovery Series panniers are foam inserts.  These inserts are used to protect gear in extremely rough conditions from being damaged by the mounting system hardware in the aluminum plates of the panniers.  It's kind of amazing what can happen in rough conditions.  I've encountered bicycle tourists that have seen holes being worn through cooking pots and other tough gear inside their panniers by mounting hardware.  So, to avoid this, I designed special foam inserts that protect gear within panniers by covering the aluminum plates and hardware inside panniers.  These inserts used to be a standard design in Discovery models, but as many cyclists don't need them I now offer the inserts as a custom option, and I'll now make them for EL Hybrid Panniers as well.  $35