High-Performance Ultralight Panniers

Stuff-sack panniers and an ultra-lightweight gear-carrying system can be made very simply.  I usually make the stuff-sack panniers out of 2.4-oz. Ripstop nylon, and the seams are sealed with Seam Grip or Aqua Seal.  The stuff sacks can be made in many ways, but I generally follow a rule of thumb that I don't make them in a size larger than 8" in diameter or less than 4.5".  An important aspect of their design is a mechanism that will keep the horizontal compression/mounting straps from moving up or down. I always sew a vertical location strap in place on the outward-facing side of the stuff sack.  This locates the compression straps in equally spaced positions around the stuff sacks and keeps the straps from sliding up and down.  Even though I use two or three mounting/compression straps in the design, when the stuff sacks are quite long for carrying a high volume of gear I often sew an additional vertical location point (three or four total) on the stuff sacks, so that the compression straps may be moved up or down on the sacks relative to how filled the stuff sacks are.  In the most elaborate designs of the stuff-sack panniers I've built, I make a separate cradle to make mounting of the stuff sack easier.  The cradle is simple.  It's just the bottom few inches of a stuff sack to which the lowest compression strap is attached.  I make the cradle an inch in diameter larger than the stuff-sack pannier that it is used with.  The cradle isn't absolutely necessary, but it does aid in mounting the sacks.  In rainy weather, the stuff sacks are simply mounted upside down, so that rain doesn't get into the sack on the end in which its drawstring enclosure is located.

The yellow stuff-sack pannier is typical of front panniers of this type. It is narrow, has three compression/mounting straps, is ultra-lightweight and extraordinarily stable.
If I were to use such a system on a round-the-world trip I'd double the stuff sacks, putting one inside the other.  The outside sack would protect the inner from dying in the sun on a trip that might last years and it would double the weather protection of the system.  The outside sack would be slightly larger in diameter.  If I were making such a system for myself, I'd start by minimizing my gear as much as possible (see my Advanced Touring Method) to eliminate the need for front panniers most or all of the time.  And then, once I'd figured out how much gear that I would need to carry, I'd make the rear stuff-sack panniers accordingly in terms of their carrying capacity.  My rule of thumb is to make the stuff sacks longer, not fatter (not larger in diameter than about 8), to accommodate more gear.  And, trust me, they can be made quite long.  If they are so long that they hang down over the rear derailleur, the rear rack can be flared outward by putting a spacer in the mounting screw that attaches the rack to the bicycle frames' dropout eyelet.  This process will keep the pannier from fouling the movement of the derailleur.  If it's necessary, you can also extend the length of the platform you've made.

I should probably note that these types of gear-carrying systems are very, very lightweight and extremely stable when executed well.  I got out my scale which weighs in grams, and found that the complete system with the platform of the trapezoidal shape, including a stuff-sack pannier, all mounting hardware and three mounting/compression straps, added up to 158 grams.  So a complete pair, when converted to ounces, weighs just 11 ounces.  The stuff-sack pannier systems that I have built, which include wood platforms, have ranged from 8 to 13 ounces per pair, and all of the systems, in terms of carrying gear well, are in a completely different dimension of stability compared with any commercially made panniers.

The blue stuff-sack pannier is about 8" in diameter and about as large around as I normally make them. If more carrying capacity is required, I make the panniers longer. This pannier, in terms of its size, is typical of rear panniers, especially when front stuff-sack panniers are not used.

For any bicycle tourists who have chosen their touring gear wisely, only a rear stuff-sack system will be necessary, but when greater carrying capacity is required, such as in some types of expedition touring, a front rack and stuff-sack pannier system may be used in addition.  A  bicycle like the old Trek 720 can be used for travel just about anywhere in the world.  It has a frame that won't carry a great amount of weight, but a high potential to carry weight is totally  unnecessary when touring gear is selected carefully.  Touring with a thoughtfully selected minimum amount of gear is an important objective.

For my friend I've set the bike up with some racks and panniers from my ATS Hummingbird IFT systems, but a stuff-sack system such as the ones that I've photographed, with rear sacks only (the sacks would be made sufficiently long to carry all of her gear), will perform superbly.  The next step up from stuff-sack panniers, cost -wise, in an extremely high-performance system, would be a system utilizing my ATS Hummingbird RP panniers and an inexpensive rear rack such as the one that I have used in my photos of the wooden platforms.  For a small investment, a pair of 27-ounce Hummingbird RP panniers (made in many sizes and models) provide the most advanced performance of any panniers available.  They aren't as inexpensive as home-made stuff sacks, but they are an easily acquired, and to many, very-affordable alternative.

One parting thought:  I've written about ways to bicycle tour on a short budget mainly because I feel that bicycle touring is a truly wonderful, highly valuable experience and that high-performance touring should be affordable to everyone.  But I also sense that a change is gonna come, and that the future just isn't what it used to be.  There may come a time when all of the gear essential to high-performance touring may become much more difficult for some cyclists to obtain.  And it may not be far off as we've been running against powerful economic winds heeled over so far and for so long, and have dipped our sails into the water enough times that we feel confident to the point of arrogant belief.  We have failed to learn, as millions have already been washed overboard, that we no longer have an economy that contains the ballast, or is of a design that it may right itself in more turbulent winds.  When the next powerful gusts knock us down and set our sails so deeply that we cannot recover, more people will be in the water than ever before.  In tough times, just as family is fortune and music is medicine, riding is relief, and loading up and pointing to the nearest horizon may just be what brings relief.