For those that are getting into adventure motorcycling one of the biggest questions I’ve seen lately is the discussion on what type of luggage is better, hard luggage such as panniers or soft luggage such as saddle bags. This has been a hotly contested topic for a while and hopefully I can shed some light on what I use and why. To start off we have to ask ourselves what type of riding are we doing? Are we doing an extended trip that has mostly pavement and dirt road riding or are we trekking into the back country on dirt and gravel roads with some technical terrain along the way. Another question we have to ask ourselves is how long and where are we going? These questions can help dictate a bit since both types of luggage have their own pro’s and con’s.
For trips that are mostly on pavement with the occasional dirt or gravel road riding hard luggage is great. Companies such as Happy Trail along with Givi and Touratech make aluminum and hard plastic panniers and mounting systems along with top boxes that can store a large amount of gear. Also most pannier options can be taken off fairly quick with quick release systems that allow you to keep your gear at camp if you decide to do some local technical riding. Another great thing with hard luggage is security, several manufacturers have lock systems that help secure your gear and personnel effects when making stops for the night or if you go in a restaurant to grab a bite to eat. However, with every pro their are some con’s. Hard luggage is heavy and on some bikes with lower power this can be an issue especially if your overloaded. Another issue is price, hard luggage is expensive and for some budget conscious riders it maybe out of their price range however, many riders especially those on Kawasaki KLR’s and Suzuki DR650’s have designed home made panniers using military surplus ammo cans or Pelican cases. One of the big issues with hard luggage is safety. Now this is an issue that has a lot of personnel opinions on it in many different forums. The way hard luggage is mounted to the bike it can create some issues if a rider goes down. Several riders have broken legs and ankles when they have dumped their bikes that were equipped with hard luggage. One of the biggest reasons for these injuries is how the hard plastic or aluminum doesn’t have any give or flexibility and when you throw some weight behind it well a crush injury is very likely.
The other side of the equation is soft luggage. For soft luggage the options are almost endless on what to choose from. Companies such as Wolfman Luggage, Giant Loop, and Nelson Rigg offer soft luggage of all shapes and sizes. Soft luggage is perfect for those that want to ride more technical terrain or will spend a considerable amount of time off road. Saddle bags and tail bags are often made out of high quality water proof materials such as cordura nylon or polyurethane. These materials are fairly durable and can take quite the beating from branches and rocks along with the occasional drop. Speaking of drops, soft luggage does have quite a bit of give compared to hard luggage. Because of this give and flexibility it’s helped many riders who have gone down and it’s limited the amount injuries that have taken place. Another benefit of soft luggage is the price. While some options are quite expensive their are companies that offer cheaper bags that can be picked up for less then $200 dollars. Now for the con’s, soft luggage is vulnerable and can’t really be secured that well. It’s fairly easy to snatch a set of bags or slice them open to get to the contents inside when the bike is sitting unsupervised. Yes, you could take your bags off and bring them with you but sometimes that isn’t a practical option. One of the other con’s of soft luggage is long term durability. While an aluminum pannier can take a slide across asphalt or gravel very well some soft luggage can take it but it does break down the materials and stitching and eventually cause holes to develop. Another issue with long term durability is being waterproof. Overtime some bags will lose their ability to repel water and may need to be treated with Scotch Guard or a waterproofing agent once or twice a year to help protect them. The last con is size. While some riders will only pack the basic essentials sometimes soft luggage might not give the rider the cargo space they need for an extended trip. However, many companies have made some fairly large tail bags or duffle bag’s that can fit on the rear of the bike to provide additional space.
So what is the ideal form of luggage for an adventure motorcycle, well to me it’s both. My KLR for example was equipped with Givi soft bags for trips that were mostly off road on the Colorado BDR or the Minnesota River Gravel Route. The bags held what I needed them to and being soft helped my ankle’s and legs on more then one drop. On the other hand my Happy Trails aluminum panniers secured my gear and allowed me to pack quite a bit on a cross country trip as well as a trip up the St. Croix River Valley in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In the end you have to use what works for you and theirs really no perfect answer. On forums many people think theirs a one size fits all answer and in reality their isn’t. What worked on my KLR or XT225 might not work on the Triumph and vice versa. It also depends on your riding style and where you plan on riding. Personnaly my days of riding technical terrain and single track trails is pretty much over but I still plan on riding dirt and gravel roads along with some pavement to get to where I need to go. Because of this I’m considering a set of panniers for my Triumph however I still have a pair of Givi saddle bags as well. In the end its what works for you and the bike and style that you ride.