Buying in bulk, you can get 4 gallon rectangular recycled buckets for about $4 each. They make great durable, waterproof panniers with a little bit of extra hardware. Obviously, if you can find them locally for free… that works too!
In our recent survey of Boulder bicyclists, one of the most common reasons people cited for not biking more was that they have too much stuff to carry. Based on the photo bicycle counts I’ve done around town, I suspect a lot of people find the idea of carrying cargo daunting because they’re trying to do it in a backpack — backpacks and messenger bags are far and away the most common kind of cargo I see, with baskets and panniers a distant second place, and hardly any trailers or dedicated cargo bikes. It’s not the weight so much that makes riding with cargo challenging — even heavily loaded, your bike and cargo will generally weigh much less than you do. Touring in Wyoming recently, heavily loaded, my bike weighed in at about 90 lbs.
One of my fellow travelers (above), weighing in at under 100 lbs herself rode a bike that weighed 75 lbs. We’re not heroic athletes. We didn’t train. You just go slow and make the weight as comfortable and stable as you can, and it’s all good.
A week’s worth of groceries for 2 people doesn’t come close to being that much stuff. If you’re shopping for a larger household then sure, you might have to go more than once a week, but this isn’t really a big hassle. In Europe it’s common for people to go shopping nearly every day, even if they’re driving. It just becomes part of the routine, and it’s fine. Pleasant even. How often do you end up going out for that one little thing you forgot to grab anyway, even when you try and plan ahead?
My around-town bike has a rear rack that I use panniers on, and a front platform rack. Sometimes people see it and comment on what a burly cargo bike I’ve got… but I think this is a very reasonable amount of capacity to have on hand at all times around town. I definitely think of it as a city bike, not a cargo bike. It will happily get me home with 50 lbs of food and sundries, with the weight split between the front and back ends. I ride at a leisurely pace, and arrive home comfortably and generally without breaking a sweat, which certainly wouldn’t be the case if I took my backpacking pack shopping instead.
I was happy to discover a trick recently that makes the shopping experience even easier. It’ll work with most panniers which attach to the rack via hooks at the top. You just pretend that the edge of your shopping cart is a bike rack, and hook the panniers on there for checkout:
This makes it quick and easy to pack the bag inside the store, in a way that will work for riding, instead of doing it all again outside, or having the bagger pack for you (which never seems to go well, unless they bike too), and it makes it clear that you’re using your own bag from the get go, so you don’t have to have the “Oh, I don’t need a bag” back-and-forth, which is nice. Then you can either just lift the pannier off at the door and leave the cart behind if your bike is nearby, or you can wheel all the way out to your ride, and simply lift the pannier off the cart and onto your rack.
Another feature which I can’t recommend highly enough for utilitarian cycling is a no-nonsense kickstand. Something that can hold your bike upright even when it’s fully loaded. No scraping up your bike on walls or railings, no precarious toppling load, just a bike that can take care of itself, like a grownup: