Shopping by Bike

My number 1 reason for shopping by bike is: ease of parking. Whenever I drive to the mall, or Costco, I go nuts navigating the massive parking lots with my 3000 pounds of car, trying to find a spot close to the door, inevitably stuck behind someone driving an SUV who clearly has no idea about the dimensions of their vehicle trying to fit into a parking spot.
Biking in, I can cruise past all the stupid and the car clownishness right up to the door and park my bike. It’s such a better experience, and saves so much sanity, that I want to go punch the face of every driver in the lot and yell WHY DO YOU HATE YOURSELF SO BADLY???

It doesn’t make sense. People spend thousands of dollars to get a super-comfortable living room on wheels. THE WINDOWS ROLL THEMSELVES UP AND DOWN for heaven’s sake. Nobody would spend the hundreds of dollars for power windows at home yet power windows are standard on nearly all cars nowadays. All these people must be thinking “I’m glad to spend just a bit more time hanging out in this awesome comfortable seat, listening to the radio in my heated car. Maybe I’ll do another lap of this parking lot and roll my windows up and down again.”

But no. Studies have found that just being in a parking lot causes stress, elevated blood pressure, anxiety, and resentment, as a driver, passenger, or pedestrian. At a physiological level, parking makes people crazy.

There’s a lot of other reasons to shop by bike. It makes shopping for fun. You get exercise and fresh air, increasing your level of calm serenity. Whether you’re in a shopping neighbourhood like the Glebe or Wellington West, or in a bike mall like South Keys, you can dart from one store to another. It’s a lot easier to spontaneously stop for a coffee and pastry. You’re more aware of your surroundings, so you can spot sales in the window easier, and notice more stores.

Getting started: beginner level

It’s easy to get started. Put on a backpack, hop on your bike, and go. That’s it. The only other thing you need is maybe a lock. Sure, you can hang the bags on your handlebars, but that gets really annoying, very quickly.

Shopping by bike isn’t about equipment, it’s about changing habits. You go more often to places that are local and on your way. It’s about going to the butcher and the farmer’s market and the specialty bakery, in addition to the big-box supermarket. “I’m not some fancypants rich person who wastes money at boutique shops”, I hear you objecting. Don’t worry – that tank of gas you save will make up the difference, let alone the gym membership that you no longer need and medical expenses that you will avoid.

And if you’re thinking that gas is just $1/litre then you are a moron because that doesn’t nearly include all the environmental, societal and municipal costs that go with driving, let alone the maintenance costs on your car.

Not convinced? Just try it. Go once a week. When it’s nice out.

Level 1

Ok so you are shopping by bike now and then, but sweaty backs are getting you down. It’s time to kit out your bike a bit to make life easier for yourself. Sure, it’s going to cost some money, but when you compare all of these expenses to even a brake repair on a car, it’s a stellar deal.

Your bike

Are you happy with your bike? Comfortable? If not, get that fixed. You need something that will be able to haul cargo. Your old CCM mountain bike in the basement will probably do if it fits you well and you can mount a rack to it. Your fancy 10-speed that you bought thinking that you’d love hauling ass in Gatineau Park but never really got into it: not so much.

Rear rack

Having a rack on the back of your bike will make your life a lot easier. Suddenly, you can pick up a pizza on your way home! Carry stuff! You just need a basic rack that can hold a lot of weight.


They always seem like they are way more expensive than they should be. It’s one of those things that you just have to suck up, and fork over the cash. Even if it’s way more than it should be, they still pay for themselves ridiculously quickly.

You can roll up to the store, pull off the panniers, and head on in. You don’t need any bags, because everything goes in the panniers.  I don’t even use the thin plastic bags for produce anymore, the loose fruits and veggies can all go right into the panniers. Lettuce goes on top. I wash my panniers in the shower if they get grotty, but that hardly happens. tip: you can clip your panniers to the sides of shopping carts when you’re in the store to keep them out of the way and to make it easier to load up at checkout.

I’ve got ones from MEC but because they change their design every year, I can’t link to them. To be honest, I don’t love them, they do the job, but unless you’re going to be camping with panniers and living with them on the road, it doesn’t matter too much.

People that have Arkel panniers seem to really love them, and they are a Canadian company so that’s great, but I don’t have any experience with them.

If I go to park my bike at a place where I don’t need to bring in my panniers, I just leave them outside attached to my bike. I just take my wallet and keys out of them when I go in as a precaution, but I’ve never had a single thing stolen from my panniers. I’m more worried that someone will steal my bike with the panniers attached then steal the panniers or from the panniers.

Biking clothes, fancy pedals, shock absorbers, disk brakes

You don’t need them.

A level 1 pedaling patron just goes out when the weather is nice and still takes the car a fair amount, but once you start using your panniers and seeing how much stuff you can carry and how easy it is, some day you’ll be sitting in the car and spontaneously bash your head against the steering wheel because you hate it so much and then you’ll know that you’ve reached

Level 2

A level 2 cycling shopper goes in good and bad weather. A little rain doesn’t bother you anymore, because you’ve learned that it’s easily dealt with, and it’s not a big deal at all.

You’ll know you’re a level 2 shopper when you get to a store and the only bike in the rack is yours, and you realize that you are the most bad-ass customer there is right now. That said, there are a few things that can help.


It’s amazing how great clothes are! They keep you warm! They keep you dry! They keep you cool!

In summer if it’s raining I’ll wear my birkenstocks, a synthetic shirt, and regular shorts. If it’s really coming down, I’ll take an umbrella, or put on a raincoat. I hate the feeling of sweating under my raincoat though so it’s rare that I do. Better just to carry extra clothes in your pannier to change into, if you really need it, but in summer as soon as you go into most stores the A/C will dry you off quickly. Also, a rag to wipe off your seat and handlebars is really useful. If you’re willing to go without a helmet, a baseball cap is great for keeping the rain out of your eyes.

In colder weather, a good Gore-tex shell and waterproof pants are worth the money, as are good windproof / waterproof gloves, and waterproof boots. In cold weather I use Sorel boots and in warmer weather I use construction boots that I treat often with waterproofing stuff.


Fenders are such a good investment. Cheap but keep the water off of you. No more stripes up your back! I’m sure that there are lots of different kinds of fenders, I’ve only ever gotten the cheapest, most basic kind and they have done the trick.


Basically, you need lights, go out and get some if you don’t have them. MEC has some good value lights to get you started. How much you end up spending is a up to you, and how much you value being out there after dark, as opposed to sitting on your sofa eating popcorn.

I’ve always been a fan of good lights. Again, bike lights can seem expensive, but compare it to just replacing a burnt out bulb on your car at the dealer and they suddenly seem like a good deal.

I’ve gone all-in with a dynamo hub, which generates electricity for my front and rear lights. It’s totally worth it for never having to worry about keeping batteries charged.

Other bad weather gear

My panniers are not waterproof so when I’m out in heavy rain, my stuff gets soaked which is ok if it’s oranges and packages of ground beef but a real downer if it’s books from the library or fresh bagels. I just put plastic backs into my panniers, and that’s been good enough for me.

My favourite thing for keeping dry is my senz umbrella. I shouldn’t be out biking one-handed but for me, it’s the best thing for keeping dry.


kanata centrum


You’re probably starting to see the world differently now. As you ride around you shake your head at just how much space is given over to the car. Shopping malls, and streets where there are stores, seem dedicated to car storage, with bikes and pedestrians given hardly any thought at all. All of this car storage costs a lot of money to build and maintain, and costs time to get in and out of. You see someone pushing their cart out across the snow to some far place where their Audi is parked and you want to yell HOW IS THIS BETTER??? And then you see the staff chasing across the parking lot to gather up all the carts that lazy-ass drivers leave lying around everywhere – yet another cost.

And you look at the tidy rack of compact bike storage close to the door and wonder why there’s not double, triple, even four times as many people biking in.

The picture above is of Kanata Centrum, an awful place to bike. Acres and acres of parking, yet not a single bike rack or bike lane. People can’t even walk from one store to another, but go to one store, shop, then drive to the next store.

At Lansdowne Park the area around the Whole Foods is always jammed with bikes, while the parking garage sits empty. Stores complain that the (car) parking is too expensive, too inconvenient, but I say that they are too blind to see that there is not enough bike parking.

Kudos to those enlightened stores that see the benefits of providing bike parking. At the new Farm Boy on McRae Avenue, they opened with a bike rack right next to the door and space in their parking garage, and when those were consistently full, they converted another car parking spot to bike parking. Stores like this see that they could provide space for 1 customer in a car, or 8 customers on a bike, and make the rational decision.

Level 3

Now you’re shopping by bike any time and in any weather, but you’re thirsting to carry more stuff. Toilet paper is on sale and paper towels. What do you do?

Front baskets are very useful. It’s super convenient to toss whatever things you want to carry into the basket and go. I’ve done the milk-crate-on-the-back-rack too and that also works well, but it gets in the way of the panniers.

At this point you should always carry straps in your pannier, for those unexpected sales. Bungee cords also work but the straps are better because they are flat, so they don’t roll around as much, and the hook is better suited for stuffing in a pocket.  A cargo net is also a very worthwhile investment  for carrying odd-shaped items, like a turkey.

Level 4


Now you’re ready for the ultimate level. You’re committed to shopping by bike, and it’s become so much of a habit, that your wallet is fat from all the money you’ve saved and the fat has burned off your belly from all the great exercise you’ve been getting. BUT: There are still those times that you go shopping, but going by bike is impractical. Maybe it’s a Costco run, or getting lumber from the hardware store, or picking up appliances. What do you do?

It’s time to invest in serious hardware. You need a cargo bike, a cargo trailer, or both.

Photo courtesy of Erinn Cunningham (twitter @spotmaticfan, instagram 613bike)

Buying a rain barrel? With a Yuba Mondo, just strap it to the back. This bike can carry two kids easily, a week’s groceries, or (naturally) a rain barrel.

Photo courtesy of Lana Stewart (twitter @modalmom, instagram coffeex100)

Here’s a Kona that can haul a new BBQ on the back, accessories on the front, and the groceries in the massive panniers.

These are two examples of what are called longtails. Another type of cargo bike is called a box bike (or bakfiets in Dutch), which features (you guessed it) a box on the bike:

Photo courtesy of Lana Stewart

One of these can carry 250 pounds quite comfortably. There’s a rack on the back to carry even more.

Cargo bikes are the minivans of the biking world, for good and bad. They have a lot of capacity, but you end up still with a large, heavy bike even when you are not hauling cargo. Also, they are expensive. That’s why I prefer a trailer, which lets you have extra hauling space when you need it, and can leave it behind when you don’t – for cheaper than a cargo bike.


I can pull about 250 pounds easily, and the combined space in those 6 Rubbermaid containers is the same as the trunk of a Honda Civic. If I’m not using the containers, I can strap on lumber, furniture or whatever else I can attach with ratcheting tie-downs. The downside with a trailer is that it has more rolling resistance, so it’s harder on the muscles to pull a load.

That’s all there is to it! Go out and enjoy. Got any comments or tips? Let me know.