Greetings @debdeb 

You have asked some great questions! The debate between panniers or bags has been growing as bikepacking bags have evolved greatly over the years. If you already have a rack and are not planning on riding an overly technical or rocky trail, you could easily go the pannier route. Hearing that you have a full-suspension bike however leads me to believe that you may have a pannier rack that secures to your seatpost. If this is the case, once loaded down, these racks have a tendency to sway considerably and would be less than ideal for off-road touring. 

If your rack bolts directly to your bike frame, you will have better success and could start shopping for panniers here

Using bags on the frame and handlebars provides an advantage in a few ways. 

  1. The bags mount directly to the bike, keeping the weight close to the frame. This enables the bike to ride more naturally and prevents the additional weight from really changing how the bike handles. 
  2. Are able to be stuffed with gear without the restriction of a metal pannier rack. 
  3. Are lighter weight. 
  4. Won't rattle lose as is the case with bolts holding on rear racks on rocky off-road tours. 

If you are interested in exploring your options, here is where to start. I would suggest a frame bag, handlebar roll, and feed bag as the essentials to hold your gear. Follow this link to see what we have to offer. 

Finally, to answer your question about where to go. While I am not from the east coast, I can recommend an awesome resource for you. Bikepacking.com has a great interactive route guide that will be sure to get you scheming on your next adventure and equipped with route suggestions. 

Have fun out there!

At REI, we believe a life outdoors is a life well-lived.