adventure motorcycles

Hard vs. Soft Luggage Bags for Adventure Motorcycles

Hard vs. Soft Luggage Bags for Adventure Motorcycles

There is no denying that adventure motorcycles have been becoming more popular over the years. Functional, powerful, and comfortable, adventure motorcycles allow you to travel on highways and off-road trails. Initially, BMW dominated the market with its GS Adventure series, but now many leading motorcycle manufacturing companies are launching their own adventure bikes. Some of the most popular adventure bikes include the BMW R1250 GSA, Harley Davidson Pan America 1250, Suzuki V-Strom 650, Honda Africa Twin, Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+, etc.

Though designed for touring, not all adventure motorcycles come with factory-installed luggage bags. While OEM and aftermarket adventure luggage are readily available on the market, choosing luggage can be a bit complicated due to the large variety of options now available. The most common adventure motorcycle luggage setups include hard saddlebags, rackless soft adv touring bags, and rack-mounted soft luggage bags.

For many adventure riders, choosing the best luggage for their adventure bikes can be a difficult decision. This is because the motorcycle community actively debates the pros and cons of hard and soft luggage. This article will discuss all the benefits and downsides of owning hard and soft luggage to help you build an adventure bike luggage setup that works best for you.

Related: Top 10 Adventure Motorcycles for Freedom Motocamping - Viking Bags

1. Hard Luggage for Adventure Motorcycles

Hard luggage bags are made of metal, preferably aluminum, fiberglass, or plastic. These rigid boxes typically feature a locking mechanism. Hard saddlebags can be mounted along the motorcycle’s sides or on top of the luggage rack. Based on their material, design, and functionality, hard luggage bags have the following pros and cons:

1.1 Pros of Hard Luggage

Hard motorcycle luggage bags, including trunks, side panniers, and top cases, offer several benefits that make them a preferred choice for many adventure riders. Here are some of the advantages of hard motorcycle luggage bags or panniers:

Quick Access to Luggage

Hard saddlebags or panniers feature a lockable lid. To access your contents, you only need to unlock the bags, lift the lids, and take out whatever you need. If you organize your things properly, it will be easier to locate what you need even at night.

High Security

The hard luggage has built-in lock systems that will prevent thieves from stealing your important documents or valuables so long as you don’t leave your bike alone in a dark, deserted place for long.

Strapless

Hard luggage bags do not come with straps to cinch them to the bike. With no straps flapping around, you do not need to worry about anything getting caught in the wheels.

Easy to Mount & Remove

Hard luggage can be easily mounted and removed from an adventure motorcycle. This allows you to carry the hard panniers inside the tent or hotel room to keep your valuables safe. When ready to set off, you can reinstall the hard luggage bags in a few minutes.

Versatile

Because hard luggage can be easily removed and installed, they can be used for different purposes. While camping, many riders remove the hard panniers from the bike to suspend them with a tree, especially if the bags contain food. This helps keep bears away from your campsite. Others use hard bags as chairs or tables on a camping trip. They can also be converted into mobile coolers to keep any perishables fresh.

Easy to Clean

You only need a clean cloth dipped in citrus cleaner or an alcohol wipe to clean hard panniers.

Waterproof

Hard motorcycle luggage has a waterproof exterior and is tightly sealed when closed to keep your stuff from getting wet during rainy days.

Rust-Resistant

Hard luggage is mostly made of aluminum, ABS plastic, or fiberglass, which are all corrosion-resistant materials. When it is raining, you will need a waterproof liner to protect the luggage from rain and prevent rusting.

Backrest Support

Some hard luggage bags come with built-in backrest pads, while others can be customized with a backrest. Hence, hard luggage bags provide back support to riders and passengers on long routes.

Customizable

Some hard motorcycle luggage bags come with optional customized accessories, such as organizers, backrest pad, and auxiliary lighting. This helps riders to pack and access the luggage easily. Plus, it allows riders to customize their panniers based on their individual preferences.

1.2 Cons of Hard Luggage

Despite their multiple advantages, a hard motorcycle luggage system also has its drawbacks that riders should consider before investing in one.

Affordability

A pair of high-quality hard luggage may cost over $800-900 depending on their size and features. Many riders are not willing to spend that much on motorcycle luggage. Because they are so expensive, many riders are constantly worried about their hard luggage bags becoming damaged.

Many aftermarket hard panniers require a certain type of luggage rack to be mounted on your bike. Also, not every brand provides mounting hardware with their products, which can add to the overall cost.

Can Be Easily Damaged By Impacts

Hard luggage bags can become severely damaged if struck by a heavy impact. If they fall off your bike, the cases will usually land on the lower front corner and become dented out of shape. Moreover, large-scale damage may require extensive repair work. Damaged cases will have lids that won’t lock, the luggage cannot be mounted properly, and no longer are tightly sealed to prevent water from entering. When traveling to remote off-road areas, it would be near impossible to find an aluminum welder or plastic fabricator who could repair the cases if they became damaged.

Wider Surface Area

Side-mounted hard saddlebags tend to stick out more than the handlebars. This can increase air drag, reduce fuel efficiency, make it difficult to turn corners, and maneuver on narrow off-road trails.

Not Safe for Transporting Delicate Items

Hard luggage is not ideal for carrying camera lenses, filming equipment, tech gadgets, and laptops on off-road trails. When traveling over rough terrain, the contents inside hard luggage bags tend to bounce around, hitting the walls, and becoming damaged.

Harsh Noise & Vibrations

Hard motorcycle luggage system generates more noise and vibrations, especially when riding on bumpy off-road trails or at higher speeds. The shape of hard side-mounted bags may also create turbulence reducing stability and control and increasing wind noise.  

2. Soft Luggage of Adventure Motorcycles

Soft motorcycle luggage can be mounted to a rack or without one depending on their design. Soft adv luggage may include, adventure touring tank bags, tail bags, roll bags, etc. Based on how they are mounted, soft luggage may have the following pros and cons:

2.1 Pros of Soft Luggage

Soft motorcycle luggage, such as saddlebags, backpacks, sissy bar bags, and tank bags are popular among adventure riders due to the following advantages they offer:

Quick Installation & Removal

Most modern soft luggage comes with a quick-release system for easy installation and removal. You can carry soft luggage bags with you to your campsite if your motorcycle is restricted to the parking lot. Even if the motorcycle is allowed at the campsite, you can bring these bags into your tent to keep them safe.

More Cost-Effective

Soft luggage is cheaper than hard luggage due to simple design and materials used. Soft saddlebags are made from Kevlar, polyester, or Cordura, while hard saddlebags are usually made from aluminum. The cost of raw material directly affects the price. Moreover, hard luggage requires additional work such as molding and the assembly process, which contributes to higher manufacturing costs. Moreover, soft saddlebags are lighter in weight than hard saddlebags. Hence, their shipping costs are also less. If you invest in a side–mounted luggage system, you might not save that much. A pair of large high-quality soft saddlebags can cost around $600-$700.

If you choose rackless soft luggage, you won’t have to pay extra to install mounting racks on your bike.

Universal

Many soft luggage options can be bolted on and do not require a mounting rack. This allows them to be mounted on almost any motorcycle.

Narrow Luggage Setup

Rack-less or bolt-on soft luggage have narrower width than handlebars. Rackless soft luggage ensures you do not get caught on anything when traveling on narrow trails with trees. This also helps improve handling by keeping weight closer to the motorcycle’s center of mass. When riding on uneven roads, your bike will not tip to the side, ensure better control, and prevent swerving.

Ensures Rider Safety

On bumpy roads, soft luggage will not bruise your legs or trap your ankles between them and the foot pegs like with hard luggage.

Suffers Less Damage When Dropped

Unlike hard luggage, soft luggage may not suffer damage on impact if accidentally dropped or during a crash. Soft luggage may become slightly scuffed, but the bags will not lose their waterproof exterior, overall shape, or mounting capability.

Can Be Repaired

Soft luggage can become worn down with large tears and scratches over time. Luckily, they can be easily repaired at home, if you know how to mend, small holes on the bags can be fixed using patch kits and waterproofing sprays. If the straps break en route, you can replace them if you carry extra straps.

Backrest Support

Motorcycle backpacks and sissy bars make for the perfect backrest support for riders and passengers, making long rides comfortable and enjoyable.

Less Wind Resistance

Based on anecdotal evidence, it is claimed that the soft luggage system is compact and has a low profile compared to hard luggage. Plus they are less bulky. Resultantly, they create less wind resistance and noise. The improved aerodynamics makes the ride peaceful and comfortable.

2.2 Cons of Soft Luggage

Though the soft luggage system makes adventure  riding easy, it also has its disadvantages that can compel you to choose the other luggage system.

Weight

Many riders choose soft luggage because they are lighter. But if your bag comes with a mounting system, soft luggage will weigh almost the same as hard luggage. Moreover, soft luggage tends to be more flexible, stretching to wrap around your stuff. Often riders end up packing a lot inside soft luggage, which can increase weight and put more strain on the bike.

Loose Straps

Soft luggage uses multiple straps to secure them to the bike. Every time you pack your luggage, you also have to watch out for loose straps. Keeping the straps from getting caught in the wheels or chain can be time consuming. It can also be inconvenient having to undo the buckles and unclip the straps to get to your stuff.

Less Security

Soft luggage bags do not come with any locks and can be more easily accessed by thieves if you leave your bike alone, even in a crowded place. 

Increases Bike’s Width

If soft luggage is mounted on a  rack, this will increase the width of the bike, reducing clearance when cornering and making lane splitting dangerous.

Comes in Contact with the Exhaust & Bodywork

Rackless soft luggage is not spaced out and often comes in contact with the exhaust. The heat from the exhaust can cause the bags to wear out faster or catch fire. Using a heat shield can help reduce the risk of these problems. Also, soft luggages that constantly knocks into your bike’s bodywork can cause the parts to become scratched. 

Installation

Rack-mounted soft luggage comes with detachable systems, while rack-less or bolt-on soft luggage is harder to install and remove. Riders have to use straps to secure the latter types of luggage onto the frame. Other soft luggage might require you to install mounting brackets and points.

3. Takeaway

Whether you choose hard or soft luggage, each type has its pros and cons. When shopping for adventure bike luggage, it is important that you make your decision based on the features, quality, and utility on the road. Hard and soft luggage come in different sizes to carry your belongings without exceeding your bike’s weight limit. Both can be waterproof, multi-purpose, durable, and compatible with your motorcycle. Hard luggage bags come with a lock and key the system that provides security that soft luggage lacks. However, these bags are not entirely secure as someone can open them with a screwdriver or a crowbar. On the flip side, soft luggage bags are flexible, lightweight, and comparatively less expensive.

One of the best alternatives is to combine hard and soft luggage. One such example is a hard case mounted atop the rear fender along with two side-mounted soft luggage bags. The hard luggage will work best on paved highways, while the soft luggage will help with off-road trails. In the end, whether you choose hard or soft luggage is based on personal preference and might require a little trial and error.

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