In 2016 a 3000km dirt brevet called Tour Aotearoa will be held over the length of our country, New Zealand, and like many others I will be looking at what gear I will take, and how I will carry it.
Luckily NZ has been the testing ground for a fair bit of outdoor equipment, and we even make a few items of our own. Two of these items will be the subject of my review. The Thule Pack n Pedal rack (previously known as the Freeload), and the StealthBikeBags seat bag. These two items come from completely opposite ends of the spectrum and as I have found offer very differing advantages and disadvantages. While this review focuses on the pros and cons of these particular items, you will find that a large percentage of the outcomes can be applied to many other brands of seat bags and racks.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designsThe Thule was designed and initially built by the Freeload guys in Dunedin New Zealand and surfaced in time for the first 1100 kilometre Kiwi Brevet in 2010. I was one of the many riders using them in what was essentially their first production test in the wild. The advantage of this rack is that it can attach to the seat stays of a full suspension bike, or a front fork: suspended or rigid. There are very few scenarios it is not compatible with. It is generally used with a dry bag strapped onto it, if you are using the sport model, but there is also a more touring oriented deck that can be used with add-ons for pannier bags. This review just looks at the sport model.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designsThe Stealth seat-bag is the product of Michael Trudgen from Eastbourne Wellington and is a typical seat-bag in the style of the Revelate Viscacha, Apidura saddle-pack or Porcelain Rocket Booster Rocket Seat-Pack. It attaches via two Velcro straps around the seat-post and via webbing belts with clasps through the saddle rails. It is constructed from 600D Cordura plus with a plastic stiffener inside.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Water tightness
While made of waterproofed materials the seams on the Stealth bag are not sealed which is the case for most seat-bags. Some bags have a higher inherent level of waterproofing than others, but generally you are advised to use a dry-bag inside them for 100% water tightness. Obviously you need to use a dry-bag as well on the Thule.
Leg/butt clearance
With the Thule, you are slightly more likely to find your legs kissing the front edge of your dry-bag than you are using the Stealth which has a very narrow profile. Funny enough, despite the height of the Stealth, I did not come into contact with it when hanging off the back of my saddle in technical riding, whereas with the Thule I could feel the dry-bag brushing against the inside of my thighs in this scenario. Despite this, I would not say that this is an issue in any way. One is good, the other is better.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Ease of attachment
Comparatively speaking, attaching the Stealth is pretty much a doddle, although I found a technique which makes it even easier. If the bike is hanging vertically from a hook (ok, this is only relevant for commuting and you have a hook at your house) you can attach the seat-post velcros first, and then loop the belts through the seat rails and crank up the clasps. If the bike is horizontal you have to wrangle the weight of the seat-pack as you try to thread through the clasps and attach them. This is not an issue if the seat bag is not packed at this time. It’s the packed weight that makes it difficult. You can pack it while it is attached, or pack it while is off the bike.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
The Thule Pack n Pedal, well, I would have to say this is it’s Achilles heel and possibly puts a lot of people off. The first time you assemble one of these things, it might take you 30 to 50 mins, screwing all the bits together. Actually there are only 6 screws but there is some threading of webbing too. This is a one-off operation though. Mounting it to the actual bike might take you 15 to 30 mins the first time. The ratcheting system is very very good, and anyone that breaks one has to be incredibly ham-fisted (and very strong) or turning it in the wrong direction with a hell of a lot of force and a distinct lack of mechanical empathy.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Ease of removal
Removing the Stealth is as simple as undoing two Velcros and two clasps. Removing the Thule is another story. Understand that you would only want to remove your Thule at the end of a tour or to lend to a buddy, or to put it on another bike. Most of the time I actually leave the black plastic ratchet mounts on, and just remove from the stainless steel struts up. The pack n pedal comes with a dinky little tool for deactivating the ratchet for taking it off the bike. I don’t bother with the tool but instead use a small flat headed screw driver. If you do a lot of riding in pumicy, gritty or sandy conditions the grit can get in the webbing and can make un-winding it a tedious process. The screw-driver also comes in handy here for picking out the webbing. This sounds like a fuss, and compared to a “normal” rack, it is. But this is not a normal rack. You cannot mount most normal racks to a full suspension bike or to a front fork. If you only ever intend to buy one rack, for all of your bikes, this is it.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Ease of packing
The Stealth is a pretty normal seat bag in most respects and packs that way. It is useful to pack the lower wedge of the bag with something quite compressible which helps give the bag rigidity. The opening to the Stealth bag is a lot narrower than other similar bags on the market but it makes up for it by being longer and skinnier with much better wheel clearance. You have to make the decision on your packing approach. To try to jam a pre-packed dry-bag into the seat-bag, or to put the dry-bag into the seat-bag and pack from there. Probably best that way. An another approach might be to forget about the dry-bag and have an external rain cover. That is not a feature of the Stealth bag at this point. Packing the Thule is as simple as strapping your dry-bag onto the rack, but even there you need to take care. If you have pointy or hard items in your dry-bag you best have them well wrapped so that pressure from your straps does not wear a hole in your dry-bag. I have an old piece of camping mat zip-tied to the rack so that a full day of off road hammering does not rub a hole into the bag.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Ease of access
The Stealth bag, like most seat bags has good quick “un-click and roll-back” access in comparison to a dry-bag which is strapped to a rack. It will always be a bit more hassle to un-cinch a dry bag on a rack and then re-set it. The speed at which you can access your goods determines the nature of the goods within.
Compression
The narrowness of the Stealth bag makes it easy to compress the contents quite a bit before even calling on the compression straps. Compression in the Thule scenario comes down fully to what kind of a dry-bag you use and if it is one of the compressible kind. While weight is an issue in bikepacking so is bulk. You don’t really want a big fluffy mess hanging off the back of your bike.
 
Quality of construction
The workmanship in the Stealth bag is impressive and the material appears very robust. The proof of the pudding in the design of the Thule rack is that it has remained unchanged since its launch in 2009. The chunky look to this rack may put a few people off, and I often say “simple is always better” but I have to say, the Thule/Freeload racks are bulletproof. I have actually sat on mine in order to be more aero on a long downhill stretch and it felt rock solid.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Tail-wag
When you first try a seat-bag there is a that little tail-wag thing that you notice, and then don’t notice again too much, until A. You drop into a sharp corner at speed, or B, you take the bag off and on your first ride you notice you don’t have to compensate for it. It’s just something that you adapt to very quickly and the Stealth bag feels pretty much the same as the Revelate Viscacha. The Thule is different again. The feeling is there, but it’s a more solid feel. No wag as such, but a definite rear weight bias that takes a bit of compensation until you don’t notice it anymore. It’s the same with the Stealth although the Stealth’s weight is higher, but not by as much as you might think. Check out the image with the rack and the bag on the bike at the same time. I think most people would agree that having the weight down lower is more desirable.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Need for tweakage
Something that you will likely experience is the “settling” of your “kit”. Whether its a seat-bag or a dry-bag on a rack. Sometimes, depending on the terrain you may need to stop and give the straps a tweak. In a seat bag it will likely be the straps that go through the seat rails; in a rack set-up it will just be the straps holding the dry-bag on the rack. In the case of the Thule, I recommend installing your rack well in advance of your trip and give it some good testing, maybe even deliberately wet the webbing of the mounts. Check that there is not another “click” available in the ratchet after some big rides and those mounts will not move again until you go to take the rack off.
Suitability for very rough terrain
This is a tricky one. Both these systems work exceptionally well on rough terrain with pros and cons. When on a full suspension bike you need to check that your seat bag has room when you bottom out on the rear. Too little room and your bag will let out a loud “zub” as the rear wheel starts to rub a hole in the bag’s bottom. In a similar but opposite scenario with the Thule, the dry-bag may come into contact with the underside of your seat. Not a real problem unless you have something brittle in there. On a hard tail, with the Thule, there are no problems, with the Stealth you should have no problems either. For some people the early model Stealth bag was prone to slippage with aggressive riding on rough terrain. The new cammed clasps fix this and are a free upgrade if you send your bag back to Michael. The very narrow design of the Stealth bag gives it more wheel clearance than any other bag I have yet seen.Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Complexity of construction
The Stealth seat-bag looks very simple compared to the ThulePack n Pedal. The Stealth has a plastic stiffener inserted in its base to help with rigidity. You need to be aware of this when packing this bag, as it is possible to push aside the velcro responsible for keeping the stiffener in place. If you know about it, it shouldn’t happen. I believe later models have a tweak to stop this. I’ve mentioned the complicated look of the Thule Pack n Pedal before, but I’ve have never had a bolt unwind on any of mine since 2010, so while it does look complex, the engineering behind it really does seem to stand up to the job. Bear in mind that I am talking about the Sport version of this rack as I have not had extensive experience with the Tour rack running Panniers. See my first unboxing and installing of my rack here in 2010.
Adapability
The Stealth bag will fit on any bike with 100mm of exposed seat post available, due to its narrow style of construction. This is a boon to people with short legs. By comparison the Revelate bag requires 127mm of seatpost. So far I have managed to fit the Thule Pack N Pedal on all of the bikes I have ever tried to fit it on. It has 3 different sized steel struts with sliding ends so it is very adjustable. Sometimes people stress about disc cable/hose routes but I just push them to the side if they are ever in the way.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Feel
The ride feels a bit harsher on the really rough stuff with the Thule rack on, as it feels like the weight of the rack’s load is going directly to the wheels. With the seat-bag option I feel like the load is a bit more suspended and it feels a bit more smooth.
Weight
Stealth bag, 430 grams, not including dry bag. I always assumed that the Thule/Freeload racks must be heavy, and that is why the Bikepacking crowd in the US hadn’t warmed to them so much, but a recent look at the website for the OMM (Old man mountain) racks shows this not to be the case. Thule tells us that the sport rack weighs in at 760 grams. So far I have not been able to weigh any of mine accurately to confirm this.The lightest of the OMM racks is 750grams with the others coming in at 900 or 1000 grams. An important thing that I have just realised is that although the Pack n Pedal is relatively light, it will not let you run panniers in that mode, unlike a normal rack. You would have to install the special side-racks to the touring model version, which would add another 430 grams I believe.Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Accessorising
The fat alloy tubes used in the Thule Pack n Pedal are very useful and well angled for attaching stretchy mount rear lights and also water bottle cages attach easily with a couple of radiator hose-clips, presuming you are not concerned with more rearward weight on you bike. The Stealth bag has provision for maybe a rain jacket or banana under its crossed elasticated straps on the top of the bag.
Commuting
I found both systems great for commuting, the only issues are covered above in ease of attachment, assuming you unclip the Stealth bag, or unstrap your dry bag using the Thule option.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Testing environment
For the Thule Pack n Pedal (Freeload) I have to declare I have used this system three times in New Zealand’s 1100 kilometre Kiwi Brevet. Twice on a 26er fully, and once on a drop-barred rigid 29er. I also subjected it to my new local “accelerated bike-bag test course” which is a route I often take on the way to work. It’s is a 3.1 km winding downhill course with many tight turns, some roots, a drop and some G-outs, depending on how fast you are going. I went as fast as I could, on each run, on a half-loaded bike. The course takes in the Transient and Serendipity Trails in the Polhil Aro Valley area. I did many runs on my rigid drop-barred Karate Monkey with both systems. Apart from 2 weeks of 20kms each way commuting, and a couple of long gravel grinds this was the extent of the testing I did on the Stealth bag which I borrowed off a friend who had just finished this years Kiwi Brevet with it. If Strava can be trusted, and I don’t believe it can, the difference between both systems was about 15 seconds over around 12 minutes. Not a margin large enough to say if it was real in my view. If I was just tootling up and down the River Trails I would not have learned much at all about these systems. Anything will work in that environment.
Seat-bag vs rack, Kiwi designs
Plus+  sizing
There is a big movement into “plus” sized tires. It started with the Surly Knard, a 3 inch wide tire 29er tire for their Krampus and ECR models and has now moved into 27.5 plus and 26 plus formats. These are tires from 3 inches wide upwards. Not forgetting the original plus format; FAT, which I think starts around 4 inches. Obviously these tires will not work with the Thule rack due to their width. Thanks Michael for reminding me of these formats : )
Bottom line Both of these set-ups do the same thing, but are coming from completely different angles. The organised bikepacking I’ve done in NZ always has some fairly rugged stretches in it. You don’t want to find yourself coming up short with broken kit. Both of these Kiwi designed systems will do the job very well, whether you are commuting to work or going all-out into the boonies. They are also systems that have a very high level of compatibility. By this I mean they will fit on 93% of bikes out there. The THULE because of its adjustability and the Stealth bag because of the narrow cross-section which gives superior wheel clearance for shorter riders.

Jeff Lyall ( El Jefe) – Jeff is a cyclist, bikepacking and overall great guy. Read more about his stories thoughts on his website…. http://jeffsbike.blogspot.co.nz/

9 Comments

  1. Very good, detailed review/comparison with analysis borne clearly from experience – so refreshing versus so many other ‘reviews’ where every product is wondrous, at least for 1/2 hour on dry roads. We’ve used a Bolder Bikepacking seat bag for long brevets, incl. the 2011 PBP, and it just clears the rear on my wife’s small frame, assisted by an extra small strap farther out the underside, back to the seat rear. As a compulsive tinkerer who rode homemade panniers 1000 miles in the 1970’s I can’t help microanalyzing all designs, looking for ways to create the ‘ultimate’ seatbag. Many have subtle improvements, but no one has everything in my book. I am interested in the “external dry bag capture” systems, as they’re focusing on the support physics apart from the bag. Most hard core distance racer types prefer seat systems, even though old-fashioned panniers are more stable, accessible, have lower CG and far greater weight capacity. Simplicity trumps gizmos, like clunky clamps or quick releases which usually just project bags out or down, and still provide marginal weight-bearing strength, versus good old nylon straps. Seat rails and posts must be overbuilt, because you don’t hear about failures from heavy seatbag uses, even with carbon posts.

    • Everything is a compromise eh ELA? I am probably going to go for a seat-bag over a rack on my TA tour because of ease of access. but its hard to beat the solid feeling of racks. I was blown away with the one run I did with panniers on my “test course” and they were easily the best handling of all the systems I tested, presumably because the weight was down low. They didn’t flap about either. I haven’t toured with them for years myself but I hear that they can get in the way in hike-a-biking situations, and they are definitely less aero if you are in a hurry. I do like the look of the Porcelain Rocket bag with the external frame, and the holster style looks good too. Revelate apparently are making a bag with a rigid internal skeleton. Maybe its a one-off ? https://instagram.com/p/2oJwL7Ha92/?taken-by=revelatedesigns

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  3. Good review. One other consideration is with a rear rack you can use a dropper seat post easily.

    I’ve run an Old Man Mountain rack on my Krampus as well as a couple different Porcelain Rocket seatbags.

    https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2817/9315835094_2db14c293a_b.jpg

    The OMM rack fits a lot of bikes [including fat bikes] and can put the relatively light dry bag further back than the rack you reviewed. This would help with clearance between the bag and your body – especially if you are using a dropper.

    https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7724/17163280485_e21958c1ee_b.jpg

    The latest PR seatbag is very stable as it uses a metal frame and takes a dry bag so it would be my go to choice unless I really wanted to run a dropper post on a very technical tour.

    Both the PR bag and OMM rack install/remove rapidly so you can optimize your bike for each trip without much hassle.

  4. Fantastic review, really enjoyed reading.
    Have been looking at the Stealth Seat Pack Mk2 and was wondering how much can it be closed down when not filled ?
    I am looking at fitting one one my cross / gravel bike for use on longer rides to carry, tools / spares / food / clothing etc, with the plan to get up to around 300k.
    Chances are on shorter rides it would not be as full, so would look to roll it down as much as possible so the load is not flapping around inside.
    Pictures would be handy for comparison if possible.
    Thanks

    • Hi Mark, it closes down a lot, just rolls up. I used one this morning on my commute. I had two oranges, tools, a rain jacket undies and a t-shirt for work in it. It still works with nothing in it. If you email me via my web-site contact form I can send you some pix.

  5. HI Jeff. Good comments on the packing of the seatbags. I find the sleeping pad is compressible enough to enable reduced wag and the fatness/width of the viscacha also helps keep this down. I was watching a rider in front of me down the hIll to Masterton with a skinny seat bag which waggled around a fair amount. My sleeping mat is not worth putting in a drybag as it wont soak up much and dries quickly/easily. It is an exped and has insulation in it so I carry an inflation bag for it which doublés as a drybag and a shower also. I take no sleepingbag cram bag and put sleeping bag and its liner plus long sleeve thermals all in the inflation “drybag”. Because the inflation bag has an open nozzle at one end and I don’t close the top, all air escapes and it packs in tight. As I only camp with a siltarp I pack a head net for peace of mind when mozzies are buzzing around. The siltarp slides into any cavities down the inside of the seat pack very nicely improving waterproofing and if wet it is easy to flick most water off and roll down inside a plastic bag. If in need of a ground sheet I used my emergency re-usable survival bag (sol orange type).

  6. I’m using a freeload on the rear of my ECR 3″ Knard tyres and tho the clearance is minimal have had no trouble on 2 tours with panniers and on a couple of bike packing outings.

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