Gear Review: Bike Cargo on the Cheap

I ❤ Miller’s Surplus

Jonathan McCurdy
8 min readApr 21, 2017

If you’ve seen me around town on my bike, you might notice I make use of various canvas bags attached to my handlebars.

I’ve been wanting to make a post dedicated to these budget-friendly bike cargo solutions to share with the world.

Now, I can’t take full credit for this discovery. The original use of military surplus bags on the bike (in my circles, at least) comes from Tempe’s favorite Mangleur, Ben Mangleur. One day I noticed he had a little tan camo snap pouch strapped to his saddle for flat-kit storage. It had never occurred to me to use surplus gear in that way; I’ve always thought of it as very overbuilt, heavy and bulky. But here was an example of a compact canvas pouch, perfect for the small essentials. At this size, weight doesn’t really matter.

Some time later I had the chance to scope out Tucson’s Miller’s Surplus for some useful bike bags. When shopping for these in person, especially without the bike present, it takes some creativity and an eye for design to pick out the usable bags. We are indeed re-appropriating something designed for a somewhat different use-case. But bags is bags.

Now I want to showcase a few of the bags and pouches I’ve found useful, with some Amazon links to the equivalent item from Rothco.

Disclaimer: I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying hand-made well-designed specialty bike-packing bags. I’ve got a few myself. Nothing can replace a good framebag! These are good supplementary options for someone who can’t afford spend on a $60 handlebar bag to get them started.

Large Handlebar Bag/Molle Pouch

This was the first bag I picked up, it’s of rather large size for use as a handlebar bag, about 10" x 6" x 3.5" when totally filled out.

The back has four straps with snap attachment and molle webbing. You can fish the straps through the webbing to create a tighter fit on whatever it is you want to attach it to.

The front has a full molle webbing coverage as well, for attachment of other pouches. I’ve tried this with the smaller bag which I detail down below; it’s somewhat time-intensive and laborious to do so, but the end result is a very secure fit.

The inside is decently large as you can see. It could easily fit a packable jacket, flat kit, bananas and other snacks. In fact, I fit most of a #coffeeoutside ensemble the first time I used it. I strapped it to the handlebars of my Focus Izalco, and the bag came dangerously close to rubbing the tire, so I had to lash the handle-strap to my stem.

I’ve used it again successfully on a dirt road adventure up and over Mt. Lemmon, when it held snacks and a jacket.

Nowadays, it’s been relegated to bike toolbag status, wherein it does a great job. However I just ordered a dedicated toolbag from Rothco to perform that function, so I may start using it again with my Salsa, in conjunction with my mini-rack.

Summary: It’s on the bigger side, recommended for use with taller stack height and a porteur rack if necessary. As with all of these bags, the snap closure is not the most secure in the world, use with caution on bumpy rides.

Price: $30 — Amazon

Small Handlebar Bag/Molle Pouch

Of all my surplus bags, this one has gotten the most use.

It’s a similar style to the previous one, but with less depth and width. This bag uses four shorter snap-closure straps and has a similar webbing system as the larger bag.

It’s very comparable to what is commonly called a Burrito Bag from other bike-specific bag companies such as Roadrunner. Indeed, it fits a Chipotle burrito quite perfectly.

I regularly carry a coiled-up steel cable and master lock for quick lockups outside of coffee shops, as well as a tube, tire lever and small handpump.

It’s also suitable for carrying paperback novels, 12oz of Cartel coffee beans or compressible down jackets (but not much room to spare).

As I’ve already mentioned, the snaps are not overly secure. On multiple occasions, riding down bumpy asphalt or dirt roads, one of the straps have undone causing the bag to hang askew in the other direction, and rubbing on the tire. It always sounds like a flat tube at first, which after a big bump, can cause a fright. But I’m always pleased to find out it’s not a flat.

Summary: Great for carrying the essentials and then some. Understated looks, and relative ease of use, be careful on bumpy descents.

Price: $14 — Amazon

Multiuse Ammo Pouch

This thing is for serious cockpit storage. Similar to Feedbag-style pouches from all your favorite bikepacking companies, except nearly twice as big at 8" x 6" x 3".

Comparison to typical stem-feedbag (this one is from nuclear sunrise)

Attachment comes in the way of two snap straps. Now these have a decent amount of slack in them, but hold surprisingly well with weight. If you rotate the bag 45 degrees to your handlebars, you can wrap one strap around the bar and the other around the stem. Further investigation needs to be done about securing it at the bottom. However, I managed to use it on a bike camping overnighter up and over Gates Pass in Tucson without any incidence.

Banana for scale
Nylon Strap Attachment

Unlike other feedbags, this pouch does not snugly hold a water bottle, though the top closure cinches shut, and should do the trick. It’s more of a cavernous drop-it-in, junk-drawer type cup-holder, like in your dad’s suburban.

In the aforementioned camping trip, I fit a 500mL snowpeak cook kit and fuel canister quite cozily inside. I’ve also used used it as a place to store a battery pack for my bike light or my cable lock.

Exterior pockets, one mesh-elastic and one velcro-flap

Additionally, there are pouches located around the outside of the pouch. Good for odd allen keys, glasses, or other thin objects.

One drawback about this type of bag… on typical stem bags, you can brush against them with your knee when standing up on the bike. This bag magnifies that issue. If you like to sprint over your bike, Cav-style, you may not like this bag. Fortunately, much of touring and around town riding doesn’t require excessive sprinting.

The resemblance to a sphincter is… unfortunate

I recently discovered it connects rather easily to the rails of my brook saddle for a large seatbag. I stashed my tobacco and pipe parephernalia for a special afternoon dirt ramble session on the Vaya. All that, and no mid-ride detachment!

Summary: Over-the-top but extremely convenient spacious cockpit storage for your commuting and bike-touring needs. Would definitely look out of place on a race bike of any sort, or on any kind of group ride. Prepare to get made fun of. Knee/bag interference could be a problem for some.

Price: $10 — Amazon

Tune in next week for reviews of my tailor-made full price bikepacking gear from the likes of Rogue Panda, Nuclear Sunrise, Blackburn and Apidura.



Jonathan McCurdy

Seeing and tasting the world via bicycle. Designing fun and usable products and currently open to new work opportunities!