A quick description
Front loading, also called side loading or panel loading, bags are panniers that are accessed with zippers, opening them a bit like a suitcase. Usually these are squarer in shape and have multiple pockets.
Conversely, top loading bags are panniers that aren’t using zippers but a system of skirt and hood closed with straps and buckles. Usually these are taller in shape and have fewer pockets.
Advantages and disadvantages
This is the number one advantage of front loaders. Nothing beats the big aperture that a full front access can give. With Arkel panniers we went one step further with our unique TFL zippers (Total Front Loading) that go all the way down to give a suitcase-like opening to the content. This sort of access allows to cleanly organize the content for any circumstance. Because of that, touring panniers traditionally have been of the front loading type.
Akin to many expedition backpacks, top loaders trade easy access in favor of an expendable main compartment. Effectively, front loaders are limited to the size they are designed with while top loaders can usually expand upward thanks to the skirt and adjustable straps. Yet, livability greatly suffers. In the Arkel panniers we added a no-stress side zipper to slice the bag in two in the search for a better access in a top loading pannier.
Winner in the opening category: Front loading panniers.
Top loading bags have few parts that can go wrong, mostly becasue they forgo the main cause of concern: zippers. All things being equal, a top loader will prove more durable because of the lack of a failure-prone mechanical opening.
We can’t dismiss modern zippers that easily though. We’ve seen panniers nearly 15 years old with their original zippers, just as we’ve seen 6 months old ones with R.I.P. zippers. We use the best, state-of-the-art zippers so we know they won’t fail anytime soon. We have enough confidence in them that we are making our best, toughest panniers with zippers.
Yet whatever we say, one thing is for sure: if there is no zipper, it cannot break! Because of that, the top loading panniers win the durability category.
Winner of the durability category:Top loading panniers.
Usable volume in a pannier has nothing to do with the type of pannier. The volume is dictated by the space (height, width, thickness) available on the bike. A word of care here: front loading panniers usually have flat tops that lay equal with the top of the rack, actually making a large shelf for staking a tent or a sleeping bag. Top loading panniers on the other hand may extend upward quite a bit, giving the misleading impression that they have bigger volume. In these cases it is hard to compare the true volume of two panniers of different type.
Winner of the volume category: Draw
Word of wisdom
Which type is best? Good question. A better question should be, “Which type is best for you?” For most people the conviviality of front loading panniers is arguably more desireable. City commuting, trivial errands, weekend rides or even long term touring will all benefit from a little easiness in manipulations. Yet there’s no denying the versatility of a top loading pannier the like of our XM-45.
Here at Arkel we use both, depending on the whimsy and preference of each of us. Sometimes in innovative ways too. In the end both systems have their merit. Your choice will ultimately be the best one for you.
Front loading panniers
GT-54 and GT-18 , T-42 and T-28, B-26 and B-40, and Bug
Top loading panniers
Orcas 25, 35 and 45, Dolphins 32 and 48, Dry-Lites, XM-45 and XM-28, Signature Series, Commuter, Briefcase, Shopper