A lot of touring cyclists swear by Ortliebs, and there’s certainly a lot to recommend them. But we’re not keen on their single-compartment, top-loading design and also think they’re a bit too small for tandem use (OK, OK, I know….we pack too much stuff).
Our panniers-of-choice are the Canadian-made Arkels. We use the capacious TT84s on the rear rack, and the recumbent-specific RT40s on the front. They have loads of pockets and compartments for organising your belongings, so things you need to get to quickly and easily (waterproofs, camera, maps, gloves, compass, hat, glasses, suncream, mozzie repellent, snacks) are there, to hand, when you want them, without having to rummage around the whole bag. And because the zips run all the way round you can even get to things at the bottom of the bag without unpacking everything.
The quality is excellent. We’ve had the TT84s for 4 years now and used them on three 2-3 week tours plus our 6 month tour. The zips and stitching have remained as solid and dependable as the day we bought them.
Our RT40s, which we’ve had for 1 year, haven’t fared quite so well and we somehow managed to tear the bottom of one (God knows how…the fabric is really tough and almost impossible to tear), but I stitched it up and put some seam-sealant on to stop any fraying and it’s as good as new.
The mesh bottle-holder on the front of the RT40s makes them particularly good bags for using on the Pino as the one downside to the Pino is its single bottle-holder. With the RT40s the stoker has two bottles within easy reach whilst pedalling. The stoker can also reach the sweeties in the zipped rear pockets, get gloves or the camera out of the top of the main compartment, and with a bit of effort can reach over to shove the map into the outer mesh pocket.
The attachment system on the Arkels is easy to use and reassuringly secure on the rack. Just hook the bottom of the panniers onto the bottom of the rack, lift up the bag (which releases the cams on the top clips) then lower the top clips onto the top rail of the rack, ensuring the cams have rotated into place as you release the handle. The cams on our TT84s broke on our first tour but Arkel replaced them immediately and we’ve had no problems since.
The under-seat rack on the Pino is designed for Ortlieb-style pannier attachment rather than Arkel-style, so there’s nothing to attach the bottom hook onto, but we’ve just removed the bottom hook and used them with the two top clips only, and had no problem at all provided we double-check the cams are properly engaged.
We did have some concerns about how waterproof the Arkels would be. They’re not designed to be as fully submersible as the Ortlieb-style bags – with the full-access zips it’s just not possible – but we’ve found them to be quite satisfactorily waterproof, particularly the TT84s.
The TT84s have a fully waterproof roll-close compartment for sleeping bags, and a zip-up waterproof liner in the main compartment as well as a separate rain cover to go over the outside of the bags. The cordura fabric itself is pretty water resistant too. These combine to form a reliable barrier between the elements and your gear and (when using the Hubba Hubba tent or our even smaller old Macpac) we’ve regularly left bags outside overnight in the pouring rain. The only time we had a slight leak was when we hadn’t seated the outer cover properly.
The RT40s don’t have the waterproof lining and their external rain covers don’t seem to be as good as the ones on the TT84s, leading to a few instances of dampness on the outermost pockets of the RT40s. We’ve tried re-proofing the outer covers but that hasn’t helped, so we try to double wrap everything in the bags – bit of a pain, but the only option to keep stuff dry when it rains.
The RT40s are small enough to carry around comfortably off the bike and we bring them into cafes and bars with us. Yet despite their compact appearance they have a pleasing tardis-like ability to hold a whole load more then you expect them to. And because the metal frame holds the top and sides out, careful packing means nothing gets crushed – even soft fruit can be stored near the top relatively unscathed by a day’s riding.