I've been a big fan of Arkel panniers since I got my XM-45 rear panniers about 12 years ago. These were hand made in Quebec and have lasted though years of rugged use. If I take a damp rag to them today and wipe off the dirt they look as good as new. So I was excited when Arkel came out with a new roll-top waterproof pannier similar in design to the omnipresent Ortlieb panniers. They hold a bit more than the Ortlieb and if the quality was anything like the XM-45 I would expect these to be an excellent pannier. The Orca panniers come in two sizes. The 35 can be used front or back, and the 45 is for the back. I got a set of the Orca 45s just before heading out on a two week tour this past summer.
Right away I liked how they looked on my bike. The slate gray color looks sharp against my forest green Soma Saga touring bike. I was however disappointed to see they are made in China. Well a lot of good stuff is made in China, but one of the reasons I really liked Arkel, is because they made their own stuff in Canada. Regardless of where they are made the quality looks good and the design is such that they should last a really long time.
I like that the Orca panniers use the classic compression bungee/hook to keep them tight to the rack. I am not a big fan of the Ortlieb design that uses a plastic hook that must be adjusted exactly right for your racks. I've never been able to get Ortlieb's to not wiggle around. The top hooks on the Orca's use the same design as the Ortlieb's with a handle/strap that engages and disengages the hooks to lock the pannier to the rail of your rack. The Orca hooks look to be much more heavy duty than the ones on Ortlieb panniers. They are adjustable fore and aft to allow the proper placement on the racks. I did have an issue where the front hook would hit against one of the rack braces and not engage fully. There was not ample room to adjust it forward or back to prevent this from happening on my Old Man Mountain rack. I had to pay close attention to make sure the hook was fully engaged each time I mounted the bag. It was no big deal, but I did have to pay attention.
I also found the bottom hook a little hard to disengage from my rack. Whenever I took the bags off I had to bend down and pull it out of the slot with my hand. The Ortlieb bags are easier to get off, which may or may not be a good thing. I wish both of these pannier makers would consider adding some sort of locking mechanism. My bike might be securely locked, but there is nothing to prevent someone from just grabbing the handles of my panniers, disengaging them, and walking away with my stuff. So the fact that it was a little harder to do this with the Orca panniers did not bother me that much.
The Orca panniers are a one big bag design. There is a skinny outside pocket which I found mostly useless if my bags were loaded. Other than that it is just one compartment, with a skinny pocket on the inside with a smaller plastic zipper sleeve that you can use for wet stuff, or to protect stuff. Once again, and this is the same as with the Ortlieb, I find this of very limited value unless you are packing very loosely. If your bags are full, you won't be able to utilize this pocket much. Some people prefer the one bag design, while others prefer more compartments to better organize their gear. I can go either way. By foregoing pockets and zippered compartments the Orca's give you a lot of room in the main compartment.
The Orca panniers come with they call an internal "cradle" which gives the bottom on the bag a rigid shape, and can be removed to save weight. I left them in, and I like they way they hold the bags open, making it easier to fit things into the bottom.
These panniers did great for my two week tour and I was happy with them. I'm looking forward to many more tours with them. Should you buy them? They are quite a bit more money than the Ortlieb's, and while they hold a bit more, there really is not that big of an advantage to warrant the extra cost. They do seem a bit sturdier to me, but then I don't know of anyone who has worn out an Ortlieb either. So if you're looking for a nice roll-top, waterproof pannier, take a look at the Arkel Orca and decide for yourself if the premium price is worth it for you.
Here is a link to the Arkel website.