No, this post is not an insult to your intelligence, and I won’t follow it up with “How to pack your suitcase” or “How to pack your groceries into a carrier bag”.
As you’ll soon learn, packing panniers is different, for a number of reasons, starting with weight distribution. If riding with just two panniers, and you placed all the heavy items into one pannier, it will affect your bike’s handling, and you’ll end up having to lean slightly to the side, to counterbalance the bike. That might be fine for a short ride, but over several days, it will be uncomfortable, and tiring.
There are other reasons, too, all equally valid. For starters, you need to consider the order that you pack things into your panniers, as at times you may need to get such items out in a hurry. An example is your rain coat, so ensure that’s something you pack last. Other examples include tools – if you’re unfortunate enough to suffer a puncture, or a mechanical, by the roadside, in the rain, you really don’t want to have to unpack everything to get at your tools and spare inner tube.
And speaking of rain (or water, in general) I don’t care what brand panniers you have, do your self the solid favour of placing – at very least – your sleeping bag and dry clothes inside either a drybag, or (as I do) inside a plastic rubble bag. Rubble bags are tough and strong, and also cheap.
Should your panniers ever leak – yes, even Ortliebs can start leaking – then at very least you will still have a warm and dry sleeping bag to crawl into when you settle down for the night. Ideally, use a drybag or rubble bag in each pannier, and pack anything you’d rather keep dry inside of those.
It helps if you have a system, when packing, so you always know where to find things. For example, in which pannier do you keep clean clothes, and in which do you keep tools and spare parts, such as gear or brake cables (and please do carry spare cables, and spare disk pads, if your bike uses disk brakes).
Many panniers are interchangeable, and can go on either the left, or right side of the bike, and if yours are like that, you may want to mark the panniers, so you can always have the same one on the left, and the same one on the right.
There’s a logical order to packing up in the morning, if you were camping, and it helps if you imagine you’ll always be packing up in the rain. This means your sleeping bag and mat will probably go into the panniers first, then food and cooking gear, followed by clothes, and finally, those items you’ll need quick access to.
When you’ve packed it all up, you can move the panniers out of your tent, then start packing up your tent, before finally loading everything back onto your bike.
There is no system, or packing order that works absolutely perfectly for everyone, and in time, you’ll adapt the process to suit you best, but the basic principles outlines here hold true, and I hope they will help you a bit.