Handlebar Bags: Roll vs. Harness vs. Top Loader

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Bikepacking bags have come a long way over the last two decades, and the options now seem nearly endless, especially for handlebar bag systems. In this guide, we talk through the three main types of handlebar bags and offer pros and cons for each, our picks, and what you should consider when contemplating which type of bag will work best for you. Read more about handlebar rolls vs. harnesses vs. top loaders here…

Handlebars are one of the most straightforward and natural spots to carry gear on a bicycle. Folks have been strapping luggage and necessities there ever since the bicycle was invented. In fact, some of the earliest recorded evidence of bags used on handlebars were from military expeditions in the late 1800s, barely a decade after the “safety bicycle” was invented. The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps—the Buffalo Soldiers—carried much of their gear on the handlebars in a tactical arrangement during their mission from Missoula, MT to St. Louis, MO. Later, the Rough-Stuff Fellowship capitalized on this style of off-road-friendly packing during its dirt excursions through the Alps, Iceland, and beyond.

  • Rough Stuff Fellowship
  • Bicycle Corps, Buffalo Soldiers
  • Rough Stuff Iceland, Ron Bartle

Nowadays, there is an abundance of options and variations. Purpose-made handlebar packs come in several styles and feature more rugged handlebar connections, additional accessory pockets, and various means to make them more stable and secure. The downside is that all these options and features leave a lot of folks scratching their head about which one is ideal for their style of bikepacking or touring. In this guide, we dive in to help answer those questions. Read more about each style of bag below, coupled with pros and cons for each, a few of our recommended picks, and a video on the subject.

Handlebar Roll

A handlebar roll is an integrated system with the dry bag and handlebar attachments constructed as a single unit. Aside from using a couple of straps to lash a dry bag to the handlebars—which is a perfectly reasonable solution—rolls are the most simple and universal off-the-shelf option for storing gear on the handlebars.

Ortlieb Handlebar-pack

The handlebar roll is typically made up of a dry bag with a roll-closure on either side and a pair of integrated straps/mounts that attach it to the bars. There are ready-made versions available from quite a few brands, including Revelate Designs, Ortlieb, Blackburn, Apidura, and a half dozen others, many of which come in several width and diameter variations.

Pros

  • Many of the options on the market are waterproof
  • Often slim (skinny) which is a good solution when there isn’t much vertical space between the bars and front tire; they also play well with suspension forks for that reason
  • Easy to use and work on most bikes and bars
  • Comparably inexpensive
  • There are several options with differing diameters so you can dial in a fit for your bike or gear
  • Most brands offer easy-access accessory pockets for extra storage

Cons

  • Requires on-the-bike packing and unpacking
  • Can’t fit as much when constrained by the allowed width between drop-bars
  • Ortlieb Handlebar-pack
  • Bedrock Entrada Handlebar Roll
  • Bikepacking gear: Revelate Handlebar bag - Sweet Roll

Options We Like

Top Loader (aka Saddlebag)

Long before the advent of modern bikepacking bags, there were saddlebags. Known for their classic waxed-canvas aesthetic, these bags usually have a top-opening flap that’s completely different from the technical roll-closures found on handlebar rolls. They also have two strap junctions made to attach to saddle clips that folks later realized work even better to connect to the handlebars. This style of luggage continues to hold favor among many dirt road and gravel tourers, largely because of its top-loading practicality.

List of Saddlebags and Top-opening handlebar bags

The British brand Carradice can be attributed to the popularity of this style of bag. Their Camper Longflap, Nelson, and similar designs were the “originals,” designed for minimal touring and more off-the-beaten-path bike trips. Later, these bags could be found in the timeless photography from the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, a cycling club that essentially led the charge in what we now think of as off-road bike travel. This style of bag saw something of a resurgence when folks like Nicholas Carman (Gypsy By Trade) started using them for dirt-road touring back in the 2010s. We made a DIY version back in 2013 using modern touches like plastic buckles, and Swift and Ultraromance started making saddlebags with similar features shortly thereafter.

Pros

  • Easy to load and unload while on the bike
  • Deeper design often works well with drop bars, providing more space than a roll with the same width
  • Vertically expandable, which works well for carrying extra food along the way
  • An old-school aesthetic that resonates with a lot of people

Cons

  • Generally not waterproof, although they can be made highly water resistant
  • Can be challenging for folks with less vertical space between the bars and the front tire, and may require a support rack
  • They are often heavier as more material and thicker fabrics are used in their construction
  • BXB Goldback Saddlebag Review, waxed canvas
  • Tribulus Endover Front Bag
  • Swift Zeitgeist Review, saddlebag

Options We Like

  • Bags By Bird (BXB) Goldback ($230)
  • Ron’s Bikes Fabio’s Chest ($280)
  • Swift Industries Zeitgeist ($200)
  • Tribulus Endover ($195)

Handlebar Harness

The handlebar harness—or holster—is the newest kid on the block. The general idea is very similar to a handlebar roll, but with the user-friendly option of being able to pack and unpack the bag off of the bike, then easily strap it into a stable harness system that remains mounted to the bars. Think of it as a quick-release handlebar roll where you can leave the attachment in place and just remove the bag to use away from your bike and in the tent.

Revelate Pronghorn Harness

Handlebar harness systems come in all forms, with some having minimal hardware to add stability, and others with plastic shells that form the actual cradle. One of the biggest benefits to a harness is that other items can be strapped into it, aside from just a single dry bag.

Pros

  • Very easy to load and unload while the harness remains attached to the bike
  • You can pack and unpack a dry bag off the bike, which is a game-changer
  • Dry bags are generally inexpensive and 100% waterproof
  • If you have the vertical space, harnesses are perfect for stacking two large cylindrical items such as a tent and sleeping bag
  • Can include other long items like tent poles or a fishing pole
  • Most brands offer accessory pockets that offer extra storage that’s easy to access

Cons

  • Some harness systems require more vigilant packing with longer more sturdy items to keep stable
  • Revelate Designs Egress Pocket
  • Revelate Pronghorn Harness
  • Rockgeist Barjam Review

Options We Like

Variations on a Theme

Don’t forget that there are plenty of other options, which is one thing we love about bikepacking. Some folks prefer a smaller handlebar bag, choosing to load fork bags or Anything-style cages, or a small rack. Also, #basketpacking is a thing. There are even some interesting mini-rack solutions, such as the Hunter Cycles Cow Catcher, the Salsa Anything Cradle, or custom racks, such as this one from Clandestine.

  • Outer Shell 137 Basket Bag
  • Hunter Cycles Cow Catcher Stem Rack, Paul Boxcar Rack

Wrap Up/Our Favorites

There’s a diverse selection of great handlebar bags on the market nowadays. And there’s really no wrong decision. It comes down to aesthetic preference, weather and riding conditions where you’ll be riding, and your preferred style of cycling. If you’re on a mountain bike with a suspension fork, a roll or harness is the better option nine times out of 10. And if you’re on a drop-bar bike with limited space between the hoods—and you have enough room in between the bars and the front tire—a top-loader is an excellent and highly useable choice. To further help—or further confuse the situation, depending—here are some thoughts from our editors identifying our personal favorites:

Logan Watts

My go-to handlebar system is the Revelate Pronghorn. It’s very simple, lightweight, and has proven incredibly durable on many big trips. I also love the fact that I can pack it off the bike and use the bag as a seat around camp and a bear bag at night. It ticks a lot of boxes. The bag is also 100% waterproof, and it’s long, so it can easily fit my tent and entire sleeping system without issues. Using a harness also provides the ability to strap additional items to the outside. That said, if I’m riding a drop-bar bike, I usually reach for a top-loader, specifically the Bags By Bird Goldback or Teardrop.

Cass Gilbert

All my favourite handlebar bags are top loaders, including Roadrunner’s Jumbo Jammer, Tribulus’ Endover, BXB’s Goldback, and the Fabio’s Chest by Ron’s Bikes. This is largely because I find this style of front bag very practical, being easy to pack and easy to access, no matter the shape or density of your cargo. Similarly, top loaders also double up well for day-to-day riding and commuting duties (they’re great for grocery runs), which isn’t always the case with specialist bikepacking gear. Right now, my go-to bag is the Goldback M – I love its classic lines, modern detailing and fabrics, great colour ways, and general durability. My other bike is running a Tribulus’ Endover – it’s super lightweight (on par with the lighter roll bags on the market) yet highly expandable and very stable. A downside to these bags is that they’re not 100% waterproof, so I pack an extra dry bag if rain is in the forecast.

Miles Arbour

My favourite is a toss-up between the redesigned Outer Shell Handlebar Harness and Pronghorn. I love the simplicity of the Pronghorn, but the Outer Shell system has proven to be stable and easy to use. Plus you can add on their Drawcord Handlebar Bag, which is the perfect size for my new Fuji XT3. When more packing space is needed, BXB Piccolo all the way.

Virginia Krabill

On short adventures, a harness system is a great option, but for longer, multi-day tours a top loading “saddlebag” is a must. They offer unparalleled ease-of-access to gear and they are generally much easier to pack. With a roll or harness system, I invariably have to pull out everything I’ve packed before I can locate what it is I’m looking for, and, if it’s raining, that often means getting my quilt wet. With a saddlebag, I can usually find what I need quickly. I also feel that the top loader gives me more freedom to re-arrange all of my gear as needed. That’s particularly valuable on extended trips when what I’m carrying, namely food, tends to vary quite a bit from day-to-day. My favorite bag at present is the BXB Goldback. It’s so forgiving. When I’m really conscientious about my packlist, everything fits inside perfectly and cinches down to a tidy, little package, and when I haven’t taken the time to really nail down my gear selection, or I’ve got a surplus of consumables, the Goldback still accommodates and secures everything with the extendable flap and drawstring inner liner.

Joe Cruz

I’ve been using the Revelate Harness system since 2010. It’s durable and versatile, and it is just the right size for the space I have between bar and wheel. It’s the workhorse of my carry format. On big trips, a lot of my gear is in the fully extended Saltyroll, with food in the frame bag and the tent/inclement weather shells in the saddle bag. I arrange things so I can take the roll with me into the tent and have everything I need. It’s perfect. The other cool thing is that the harness can be used to carry all manner of things, like a packraft or an armload of wood.

Lucas Winzenburg

After many years of using handlebar rolls and harnesses, I’ve been loving the freedom and ease of packing that comes with top-opening handlebar bags. Among the handful in my collection, my current favorite is the Montreal-made Atwater Marauder, which is offered in four sizes to fit various setups and makes organizing and accessing gear a breeze. It has a cavernous interior pocket and two expandable side pockets for storing quick-access items like snacks and accessories. I also like that most of these bags can be run behind the saddle, making them more versatile than front rolls for those of us who mostly ride drop-bar rigs on less technical terrain.

Handlebar Roll vs Harness vs Top Loader (video)

In this video, Neil explains why he thinks your handlebars are a great place to haul gear, walks through the main types of bags, and offers some insight to help you choose one…

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