Finding a pair of panniers can be like finding a life partner. At least, I hope that you'll keep your panniers for life if you find the right match! For long distance cycle tours, it can be as important as finding the right rucksack for a multi-day expedition. Sure, you might not have to carry panniers on your back, but they'll be keeping all your worldly belongings safe on the trip. For a few days you can put up with things. After weeks, you become acutely aware of what's working and what isn't.
This review is based on 3 weeks of cycling the Rhine from Source to Sea, then across the UK from Harwich to London. The trip took place in late summer, but the weather ranged from torrential downpour to heat wave. I have also used the panniers for day trips and commuting.
As background, I have cycled with other types of Ortlieb panniers and with a couple of other brands. I've been cycle touring since I was a teenager (that's what our family holidays looked like!). My friend Alex, who cycled the Rhine alongside me, used a different brand of pannier which made an interesting like-for-like comparison.
What you get
Ortlieb Back-Roller Pro Plus panniers are usually sold as pairs, the idea being that you use one on each side of your back rack. This is what you get (per pannier) in the box:
Assortment of inserts for adjusting the size of rack attachment points "fits on all tubes with a diameter of up 16 mm"
A pannier is a pannier is a pannier, right? Well here are a few features you should be aware about in the Ortlieb Back-Roller Pro Plus:
Outside mesh pocket (4 litre volume)
Inside zip pocket (against the back board)
35 litres of capacity, each
Reflective panels on both sides (ie front and back view of bike)
The bag is also made from a mat Cordura fabric, so no synthetic-looking shine, and is PVC free. If you want the detailed data specs, you can find them on the official Ortlieb Back-Roller Pro Plus page.
How Ortlieb Back-Roller Pro Plus Panniers work
The Ortlieb Back-Roller Pro Plus panniers are very easy to set up and use. The panniers attach to your rack in a standard Ortlieb fashion. There are a pair of locking, moveable clips at the top of of the back board and another hook on a moving rail at the bottom.
To adjust the panniers to fit your bike, pull on the loop handle to release the lock on the top two clips. Then lower the clips onto your pannier rack and release the handle, locking the clips in place. If the fit is loose, add one of the provided inserts until the clips fit snugly onto the pannier rack, with no lateral movement. It is also possible to move the position of the clips on the pannier's top rail to better fit your rack's shape. For example, to avoid a crossbar that the clips can't close over.
You can also adjust the clip on the lower rail. It should tuck behind a vertical rail on your rack, to stop the panniers from swinging outwards as you cycle. To adjust, loosen by unscrewing the round attachment point of the hook to the bag and slide it up or down the lower rail. You can also change the angle of the hook. Then tighten up the round attachment point to secure everything in place. The adjustment is probably easiest done whilst the pannier is attached to your rack with the top clips.
To use the panniers, simply fill it with your stuff and roll down the top like a drybag. You can either clip the ends together (a la drybag) or use the satchel straps provided. If you choose the straps, there is a hook at the front-bottom of the pannier to pass the strap through. You'll need to adjust the length of the strap to make sure the roll is held securely. If you're using a rack-pack of any sort, it's best to use the straps to create a flat platform to place the top bag onto.
What Went Well
The panniers performed really well. It was extremely interesting comparing them side by side with my friend's panniers. I had no issues at all with space or staying attached to the rack or waterproofing. That's not something I would have noticed, if I hadn't seen another pair of panniers misbehaving.
The Side Pockets!
Oh my goodness, the side pockets. I could expound for hours on just how brilliant and useful these are. You can tuck your map and phone in them, so neither get sweaty in a back pocket. You can put your spare layers in them. You can put your wet washing in them. You can fill them with emergency biscuits.
Only in cycling with these panniers did I realise just how annoying it is to have to stop and undo a pannier every time you want something. Or, as seems more often for me, want to put something away. The faff involved in packing away an extra layer seems enormous by comparison. And these pockets are deep. I was often cycling along with a fleece, waterproof jacket, phone, map and assorted shopping in just one side. This is a game changer. Having used them, I don't want to go back!
I wasn't planning to test the waterproofness of these panniers through several days of torrential downpour. But, unfortunately for me and happily for you, the Swiss weather was most obliging. So it is that I can confirm, with a high level of confidence, that the Ortlieb Back-Roller Pro Plus panniers will keep your stuff dry. Oh yes.
As I cycled up a long alpine pass in a thunder storm, I had all my finders crossed that these bag were waterproof. After all, I hadn't put anything in a drybag. Nothing was individually wrapped inside the panniers (including a videocamera, notebook, the works!) but there was no way I was stopping to find out. If anything that could make things wetter. I had to wait until 7pm when we arrived at a campsite and staked a claim to the women's toilets by covering it with wet kit... My apologies to our fellow campers - except the ones who had a sombrero party all night in the pitch next to us.
Anyway, in the moment of truth, I poured a big puddle of water off the top of the bag that had built up next to the roll. Unclipping and unrolling the top revealed - to my relief - that everything inside was completely dry. After that, I would leave the out in the rain overnight to save space in the tent porch. No worries.
Of course, the panniers were fairly new at this point. I imagine with use and abrasion they could become less waterproof over time. However, the waterproof layer is inside the fabric (unlike its shinier peers) which will help protect it.
Ease of Use
There is a special place in my heart for gear that does exactly what it says it will - and does it well. You can ignore the gear and get on with the adventure. This might not be something you consider with panniers, but Alex's panniers (my cycling companion for the Rhine) certainly made themselves known. They had a tendency to fall off or unclip if she rode over a bump. Not an endearing feature.
There are a couple of small things here. Overall they are great panniers, but it's worth considering when you might be using them - and what for. At the time of writing, it's only possible to get outside pockets on this model.
These panniers are BIG. You have to be a compulsive over-packer to fill them, even on a long cycle tour. Having the extra space and flexibility is great, if you have the strength of will not to top them up with extra bits and bobs. However, I would still recommend you buy a smaller pannier if you don't have big trips planned. As a single pannier for day rides or commuting, a Ortlieb Back-Roller Pro Plus pannier is just a bit big.
You can see in the picture above how the left pannier isn't rolling properly because it's simply too empty. The waterproofing still held, but it wasn't ideal.
This is a really minor point, but I often found myself clipping the buckle for the top of the outer pocket into the buckle for securing the roll top down. They are identical buckles, very close together, but one keeps your pannier secure and the other really doesn't! If one was a different colour (or even, size) it would eliminate this slight nuisance.
Overall, these are a great pair of panniers for use on long cycle touring trips, when you expect to be carrying a lot of kit. For smaller trips they are a bit of an overkill. The side pockets are a game changer and it would be wonderful to see them featuring in more Ortlieb panniers.