How to Haul Groceries in a Bike Trailer

Bicycle trailers designed to carry kids works for hauling groceries home, too. Want to know how? Tamia has a few suggestions for you.

by Tamia Nelson | May 4, 2018

Bicycle Hauling Article on

For many cyclists, panniers are the preferred method of hauling the load, but for accommodating awkward or heavy loads, it’s hard to beat a bike trailer. Even well designed shopping panniers have their limits before they burst their seams, sag dangerously into the spokes, or overwhelm fasteners or racks and cause a structural failure. They’re also not well adapted to containing awkwardly shaped items like French bread or cases of wine. And there’s no doubt but that loaded panniers alter a bike’s handling. That’s when a bike trailer comes into its own.

The good news is that with a variety of bike trailers to choose from the chances are good of finding a design that fits your budget. Even Big Box retailers sell economical models that are entirely serviceable, even if they don’t sport trophy logos. You might even find a preowned bike trailer in one of the ubiquitous garage sales that pop up at this time of year.

The most common bike trailer in these parts is the child trailer, with a domed fabric-and-metal frame superstructure and a seat inside for two youngsters to sit side-by-side. Our first trailer was a Bike Nashbar Kiddie Karriage and has served very well for shopping, as you’ll see in the articles further along. Some of the most appreciated features of this design are these:

  • No wider than mountain bike handlebars
  • Plenty of cargo space
  • Accommodates heavy loads
  • Distributes weight well
  • Lashing straps inside secures cargo
  • Can be ventilated, or sealed against rain, snow, and splash
  • Pneumatic tires and wire spokes
  • Hitch clamp works with most bikes
  • Can be moved between bikes without a fuss
  • Bright attention-getting color scheme
  • Reflective strips all round
  • Flag, rear reflector, and a tab for tail-light
  • Tracks well
  • High ground clearance
  • Breaks down flat for storage

Hauling a trailer, even when it’s empty, demands a bit more attention than riding unencumbered. So does riding with a load in panniers, come to that. The Nashbar trailer tracks well, and because the right wheel is in line with the right end of the flat mountain bars I have on my utility bike, it’s easy to know where the wheel is in relation to the road’s edge.

Nashbar Kiddie Karriage as Shopping Trailer - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop -

Get to Know Your Trailer

When you get your trailer, hitch it to the bike, then squat down behind your trailer and sight along its wheels. Imagine being on the bike, and think where the trailer wheels will be in relation to your handlebars and body. You won’t get away with dropping a trailer wheel off the road’s edge more than once before realizing how important it is to know where your trailer is tracking.

Practice hauling your trailer without a load, and pick a quiet spot to do it. Make left and right turns, climb and descend grades, stop, and generally get a feel for what it’s like. Then put a sack of dog food or birdseed, a bag of topsoil, or other heavy weight—not your kids!—into the trailer and ride again. Note how the bike feels when hauling the load, and how the trailer tracks (ride through a puddle and examine the tracks, if nothing else). Ready?

Let’s Shop!

There’s no one best way to haul groceries in a trailer. I’ve used regular shopping bags (paper and plastic), large canvas tote bags, boxes, and soft coolers. Trial-and-error will tell you which way suits you best. My method will serve as a stepping stone for you to evolve your own favorite techniques.

The Kiddie Karriage trailer is constructed with a stiffened fabric seat and seatback for carrying two kids. The webbing harnesses for strapping passangers in place serve also to lash cargo. On each side of the seat there’s a mesh pocket large enough to hold a folded tire tube or a cable lock. Behind the seatback is a “trunk” deep enough to hold narrow supplies and goods. And under the seat there’s space for 2-liter bottles of tonic and a big plastic bottle of gin so you can cool off with a tall G&T when you get back home with your 80 pounds of groceries. (Of course, you don’t HAVE to haul that much, and iced tea works, too!)

A rigid box helps corral loose items, so I removed one end of a 5-liter wine box—it slides perfectly into the “trunk.” Later, when shopping’s done, this box carries bottles of juice, laundry detergent, and small loose items. Other things fit in beside the box to fill the rest of the trunk.

Kiddie Trailer Trunk - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop -

We’ve two different alternatives that we pack groceries for home—a box and cooler alternative, and canvas sacks with a soft cooler. The latter alternative is simple: Two large heavy-duty sacks hold groceries that don’t require immediate refrigeration, and the soft cooler hauls the cold goods.

Kiddie Trailer Main Compartment - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop -

For the box-and-cooler alternative, we have a box measuring about 11 inches wide and 16 inches long fits nicely on the seat. For added security the harness can be clipped over the top and front of the box—this is expecially important if the load is heavy or likely to shift in a hard stop. A soft cooler large enough to accommodate a gallon of milk, a couple containers of frozen orange juice concentrate, and several large bags of frozen vegetables rides on the remaining seat space next to the box. The harness holds the cooler in place, too.

Once at the store, the shopping is done much like when shopping with panniers, but instead of placing panniers inside the grocery cart, I set the open soft cooler and box inside the cart. Alternatively, if using canvas sacks, I place those in the grocery cart. The bag, box, or sacks are filled with my selections as I shop, and at the checkout I just unload the items for the cashier to scan, then return the items to my carriers. The bagger usually wants to help, but I politely explain that I’m hauling the stuff on a bike and need to pack to suit that use. They get a break from work, and I pack as I please, so everyone’s happy.

Kiddie Trailer Loaded for Home - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop -

Back out at the trailer, the groceries are loaded to keep weight as low as possible, and the load is wedged together snugly or lashed in to prevent shifting when underway. If wet weather is anticipated, it’s a good idea to pack your food in plastic bags before loading them, just in case.

Kiddie Trailer Loaded With Canvas Sacks - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop -

Hauling the Load Home

The mesh door is pulled down over the front to permit airflow, but if the road is very dusty, wet, or rain threatens, the outer door with its clear plastic window is folded down over the mesh door. This provides a weather-tight seal which protects the goods inside. All that remains to do now is to pack up the bike and roll off. Be especially careful in traffic, and be prepared to work harder to climb the hills, but after you’ve gotten your shopping home, you’ll have the satisfaction of having passed every gas station along the way without having forked over any money to fill up. Congratulations!

One last thing needs doing after the groceries are carried inside and the cold stuff put away. Clean your bike and the trailer if it was splashed. Check all tires to be sure you didn’t pick up any slow punctures. Store bike and trailer. The Nashbar trailer can be left assembled and stored under cover in a shed or garage, on a porch, or in a mud room. It can even be tipped to rest on its back with the hitch straight in the air. But to save space, remove the fabric cover, pull the wheels, and then fold the trailer frame into a tidy flat package. Disassembly and assembly takes only minutes after you’ve done it once or twice.

Now, it’s time for that cold one. You’ve earned it.

Read more: A Different Kind of Bike Trailer | Another Kind of Bike Trailer | Hauling the Load

Ready to Bring Home the Tofu - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop -

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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.