Do I Really Need A Handlebar Bag?

Do You Really Need A Handlebar Bag?

The other night I received an email from Bicycle Touring Pro reader, Linda Imle. Her message read:

Darren, could you address handlebar bags. I am still not sure if I really need one that is clipped or if something smaller will do.  Just wondering what you think and why. Thanks – Linda

bicycle handlebar bag

From what I can tell, Linda is really asking two questions. Her first question is 1) “Do I really need a handlebar bag?”… and 2) “If so, what size handlebar bag should I get?”

To give you my thoughts of the matter, I’ve produced the following video where I talk about the two major reasons I believe using a handlebar bag is beneficial.

What’s important to note here is that using a handlebar bag, like many things with bicycle touring, is a personal choice. There is no rule that says you must or must not use a handlebar bag. In the end it comes down to 1) what kind of tour you are going on and 2) your own personal preferences.

First of all, the length of your tour plays a small part in deciding whether or not you need a handlebar bag simply because those taking a trip just a couple days in length can get away without one. For these people, reaching back into their panniers (or down into their trailer) each time they need to access their things won’t be that big of a deal.

But for someone who is planning to spend weeks, months, or years on the road, having a handlebar bag can really come in handy.

The difference here is that those on shorter tours can usually put up with stopping each time they need to access their things. This small aggravation won’t be that big of a deal when conducted for just a couple days. But for those planning to be on the road for an extended period of time, stopping and bending over (or getting off the bike) each and every time they wish to take a picture or check the map can become extremely draining as time goes on.

The second big part of deciding whether or not to use a handlebar bag is determining exactly what items you wish to carry in the bag so you can access them easily while out on the road. In the video above, I talk largely about the benefits of using your handlebar bag to access two important items – your camera and your map.

However, not every bicycle traveler will deem their camera and map as important as I do. But for those of you who feel your camera and map are just as important to you as they are to me, then I strongly recommend the use of a handlebar bag.

So Linda, and anyone else who might be asking themselves, “Do I really need a handlebar bag?”, here is my advice to you:

The truth is, you do not need a handlebar bag for bicycle touring. The use of a handlebar bag is a personal choice. But if you are like me and you value your camera and the photos you take with it… and you hate to stop every single time you need to look at your map, then using a handlebar bag makes life on the road a whole lot easier.

In regards to the size of handlebar bag you should use, that again is up to you. For me at least, any good handlebar bag that is to be used for long distance touring should be big enough to carry your camera (and any other items you wish to easily access while you are on the road) and it should have a map case of some kind built into the top of the bag so you can view your maps without having to stop your bike every time you need to look up directions.

For those who have traveled with a handlebar bag in the past, what do you think about my advice here? Do you have any other tips for Linda or those who might also be asking themselves if they really need a handlebar bag? Why do you like your handlebar bag? Or why do you hate it? Weigh in by leaving a comment below.

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10 thoughts on “Do You Really Need A Handlebar Bag?

  1. Nick Andrew says:

    I tried a handlebar bag for a few trial runs and quite simply hated the effect it had on the handling of the bike. This can also be a personal preference (and directly related to the design of the bike you’re riding, of course), but for me, I found the steering slower and more difficult to use. I use a camelbak rucksack to hold all of the personal items that I don’t want to lose, as well as allowing me to take a drink without having to yank the bottles out of the holders (and I can use the bottle holders for fuel, spares canisters, or whatever).

  2. Jim McCracken says:

    I always tour with a handlebar bag. Trek makes the one I use. It’s medium size and works with STI shifters. It attaches with velcro around the handlebars and has shock cords that run down to the fork braze-ons. A map case is integrated in the top flap, it has a small zipper pocket in the front that’s great for keys or change and the main pocket is big enough for ID & money, snacks, camera, sunscreen, vest, etc. It doesn’t effect the handling of my bike. It’s pretty water resistent, but not bombproof like the Ortlieb, although I think Ortlieb’s handlebar bag is too big.

  3. JimboTrek says:

    I’ve done over 4,000 miles of touring and consider a handlebar bag an essential piece of gear for all your valuables/important stuff! (i.e. Documents, Personal Items, Gadgets + Travel Items. See my gear checklist here): http://bicycletouringpro.com/jim-dirlams-complete-bicycle-touring-gear-checklist/.

    As Darren says, a bar bag is all about convenience, and convenience saves time & energy. It’s even more helpful if you’re doing a long tour and/or using a trailer. I found a bar bag does NOT significantly effect handling (as Nick claims), assuming you’re not overloading it with too much weight. I also occasionally use the “camelback” method. With bar bags, the only problem you might have is if you’re off-road touring with a fully loaded bag bag with cheap mounting bracket. In my experience, I found it also extremely useful having all your important stuff all in one place, especially when you need to be away from your bike (getting food, using indoor bathroom, etc.) You simply grab the bag and go! The convenience of this cannot be understated!

    I first used a loaned [Lone Peak H-100], which was adequate but didn’t have a map holder (which is really handy). My new bag [Nashbar Elite] is a $20 sale special and that’s what it is. It does have a map holder, but this bag is 3 stars (at best). It holds most of my crap, but not that securely. The quality just isn’t there, and it’s not waterproof. 420 cu in is still too small for my needs. I found that a handlebar bag is really only as good as the mounting system, and cheap plastic parts will eventually break—and does anything ever break down when it’s convenient? Almost never!

    If you can afford it, I highly recommend you spend the money and get a quality bag like an Arkel, Ortlieb, or Vaude. These range from $59–$159 (and rarely discounted; accessories sold separately) I know, pricey! But if you look at the specs, (especially the Arkel “Big Bar Bag”), for that kind of scratch, you’re apparently getting a product that will last for many years and countess miles of touring, and will have nearly zero chance of failing on the road (which always sucks!) My next bag will definitely be one of the two below..

    Arkel Big Bar Bag (includes map case, but not rain cover)
    https://www.arkel-od.com/panniers/hb_bag/overview.asp?fl=1&site=#tech

    Ortlieb Bags (map case sold separately)
    https://www.ortliebusa.com/CartGenie/prodList.asp?scat=5

    Online e-tailer of bags (sister site to biketrailershop.com)
    https://www.bikebagshop.com/

    Lone Peak H-100 “Alta” Bag: (Decent, but I don’t use anymore)
    https://www.thetouringstore.com/LONE%20PEAK/LP%20H-bar%20Packs/H100%20H-BAR%20PACK%20PAGE.htm

    Nashbar Elite Bag: (My current bag, but really can’t recommend)
    https://www.amazon.com/Nashbar-Elite-Handlebar-Bag/dp/B000EJ3AU4

  4. Nick Andrew says:

    Jim,

    you’re probably right about the ortlieb… it was the one I was trying and affected the handling…. I also use a bar-mounted GPS to navigate, so don’t need to keep reviewing a map that might otherwise be kept in/on the bar bag.

    Nick.

  5. Paul says:

    I believe handlebar bags are beneficial for the reasons you stated. I also carry all my valuables (wallet, etc.) and everytime I get off the bike, the bag comes with me (like a sorta man-purse:-). For that reason the bags that clip on work best for me.

  6. Douglas says:

    I love clip-ons (“profile bars”) on my touring bikes. They greatly reduce resistance when my nose is in the wind and give my hands and arms a break on long quiet stretches. So handlebar bags are problematical. Instead, I use the clip-ons as a rack for light stuff that needs to be accessible– like a helmet and a fanny back. I can’t buy simple, lightweight, high-volume fanny packs anymore, so I have them custom-made on the pattern of a 1980’s Caribou classic that I wore out long ago. My valuables are always in the fanny pack, so when I leave the bike, the fanny pack leaves with me.

    I also designed a clear vinyl map case the velcros around the clip-ons. But in most touring, I really don’t find it necessary to be consulting a map that much.

  7. Paul Lindsay says:

    Having used a handlebar bag for years when touring, I find they are useful for quick access to documents, maps, wind jacket, munchies, etc., and having a map case on the top of the bag is essential for route instructions.
    Alas, having purchased a Bike Friday where the handlebars split apart for bike disassembly, my faithful Serratus could not be used as it requires a proper bike stem for the clamping/mounting mechanism.
    A new bag with handlebar clamp does the trick, but will have to come off each time the bike is disassembled. The flaw here is that the clamp assembly uses self thread forming screws for insertion into plastic. These will eventually weaken with repeated assembly/disassembly, so I plan to replace this negative feature with metal thread inserts which will allow proper machine screws to be used.

  8. Jim says:

    On the last few days of my recent tour, my Nashbar bag’s main zippers broke and I can’t seem to fix them myself. Less than a year old, and it’s already busted. It really doesn’t pay to buy cheap gear. I’ve already upgraded to an Arkel Big Bar Bag which I bought 2nd hand, but like new. I haven’t tried it out yet, but visibly, the Arkel bag way more rugged, and should last for a long time.

  9. Canal Du Midi Cyclist says:

    Been looking at front bags all day, and like the Vaude Road I the best so far. Just need to figure out how large the map holder is. So annoying that this is not listed anywhere! Plus I had to find from another reviewing website that the raincover has a window in it to show the map, which is a major selling point for me! Anybody have experience with these handle bar bags?

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