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The Great Debate: Hard or Soft Luggage for Adventure Bikes?

 Weighing the pros and cons of each will help you decide which is right for you.

Published on 10.26.2015
Hard or Soft Luggage for your Adventure Motorcycle
Both hard and soft luggage systems have advantages and disadvantages. Important things to consider when making a decision are your riding style, the typical terrain you ride and your budget.

As Adventure Motorcycle debates go, the hard vs. soft luggage square off is as divisive as Adventure Bike vs. Dual Sport, tube vs. tubeless, or KTM vs. BMW. It seems every Adventure Rider has an opinion on the subject and will argue it with gusto.

But if you are shopping for motorcycle luggage and trying to make an informed decision, you need to look at both sides of the story. Both hard and soft luggage systems have advantages and disadvantages, and what’s right for your buddy may not be right for you.

Below we describe each system in general terms and list the pros and cons of each. Hard or soft luggage both come in a variety of sizes that accommodate everyone from the weekend rider to the around-the-world adventurer, so capacity isn’t an issue, but there are a number of other factors to consider. Ultimately, weighing the pros and cons will help you decide which luggage system is your best option.

Adventure Motorcycle Hard Luggage

hard or soft luggage

Motorcycle hard luggage is usually constructed of aluminum, plastic or a combination of the two. It can be purpose built for motorcycles or adapted for motorcycle use. Pelican cases are a common example of the latter, but we’ve seen surplus ammo cans, photo-equipment cases, old suitcases and even milk crates bolted to the side of bikes.

Motorcycle panniers typically open from the top or side with a water-tight, dust-proof seal. A bike-specific rack supports the panniers and a bracket system is used to attach and detach the cases from the rack.

Hard luggage manufacturers include Touratech, Givi, Hepco & Becker, Jesse Luggage, SW-Motech and others.

Hard Luggage Pros

Stability: Hard luggage solidly attaches to the bike’s rack and won’t shift while riding.

Security: Valuables can be locked securely inside hard luggage. Your cases can also be locked to the bike, so they can’t easily be removed by thieves.

hard luggage more secure at night
Hard panniers with locks allow you to more confidently store gear on your bike during a hotel stay or a quick stop at a restaurant.

Water and Dustproof: With a good set of hard panniers, your gear stays dry and clean no matter the weather or riding conditions.

Convenience: With hard luggage, there are no straps or roll tops to deal with, making it much faster to find and access gear when making a quick stop.

Attachments: Easily attach accessories such as gas or water carriers, tool holders, extra bags or other camp necessities to the outside with tie-down straps.

Hard panniers are convenient for quickly strapping on supplies you need for camp.

Multi Use:. Once at camp, you can remove a pannier and use it as a stool, table or food safe (e.g. hung from a tree) in bear country.

Repairable: Aluminum is fairly easy to repair. You can hammer out dents, weld over tears and patch holes. However, some plastic cases may not be repairable in the event of cracks or holes.

Appearance: This one’s in the eye of the beholder, but many riders prefer the “clean” look of hard cases over soft bags.

Personalization: While this may not be an important factor for everyone, some adventure riders love to decorate their panniers with stickers that show off where they’ve been, events they’ve attended or the brands and causes they support.

pannier stickers
Hard luggage offers additional real estate for personalizing your bike with stickers.

Safety: Some riders feel the width and sturdiness of hard panniers helps protect their legs in slow-speed falls. This is more likely to be true on boxer-engined BMWs with protruding cylinders that act as a second pivot point, further protecting the leg from being crushed.

Damage Protection: The solid structure of hard panniers helps protect expensive items inside from being crushed in a fall. When cases are removed, the pannier racks also act as an additional set of crash bars protecting the bike from damage.

Hard Luggage Cons

Weight: This varies by manufacturer, but a good rule of thumb is 10-14 pounds per side, plus another 8-10 pounds for the rack. And that’s before you’ve packed anything in them.

Width: Many hard panniers are wider than a bike’s handlebars. That will make lane splitting an interesting proposition, and it will also make it harder to squeeze your bike into the small spaces you may encounter on an adventure ride. Think between trees or down a narrow trail. Really wide cases also reduce your cornering clearance on the street.

wide cases cornering clearance
Wide cases can limit your ground clearance during aggressive cornering maneuvers on the street.

Cost: This varies by manufacturer, but as a rule hard bags are generally much more expensive than soft bags. For example, Jesse hard cases for a Yamaha Super Tenere start at $980, without mounts. Touratech Zega Mundo cases for the same bike start at $1,099, including the rack and mounting hardware.

Safety: Many riders believe hard cases have a tendency to trap feet and legs in a fall, especially off-road. However, there are some that ride with hard panniers off-road and don’t find them to be a safety liability. Learning to keep your legs out of the way of your hard panniers comes with experience.

Catching on Obstacles: The flat front face of hard panniers can catch on rocks, poles or other vehicles. When a pannier catches on an obstruction, it’s potentially explosive. This may result in throwing the bike off course or a pannier can break away from the rack destroying its mounting brackets.

Hard panniers after a fall
Getting a hard pannier banged out and back on the bike after catching it on a rock can sometimes be a challenge.

Compatibility: The cases themselves can be moved from bike-to-bike, but you’ll need to install a different rack on every bike you intend to use them on. Some cases, especially those with cutouts for muffler clearance, are bike specific.

Vibration Damage: Many who carry expensive electronics in their panniers (e.g. high-end camera gear) will choose plastic hard cases or soft bags because they are better at deadening vibration than aluminum boxes.
 
 
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Author: Bob Whitby

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18 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Hard or Soft Luggage for Adventure Bikes?

  1. Stating that an aluminum side case can be used as a food safe in bear country is very wrong. A brown bear can tear through the outside of most cases like a person opening a bag of potato chips. If you are going to do this then you should suspend it from a tree and still take it far from your campsite.

    • I think that the article mentioning that a pro of hard luggage is that it is easily repairable is a bit of wishful thinking. When they have large dents, sure it can be banged out with a rock, but when large cracks form or mounts tear off, they require special tools.

      Finding an aluminum or plastic welder in many parts of the world, who also have the correct materials and equipment on hand to repair hard luggage, is often impossible. Straightening out the metal so there is a clean working edge is difficult and time consuming, and if you have double walled luggage, may not be feasible.

      Soft luggage on the other hand can have large structural tears easily sewn back together at any shoe shop, (or by hand for the immensely patient). Permanent waterproof repairs of small holes can often be done in the field with a patch kit. The straps and webbing that most often tears off can be found nearly everywhere (I carry spare webbing straps for this and other purposes), and don’t require proprietary shaped bits of plastic or metal.

      I want to clarify that I’m not against hard luggage. For riders who spend most of their time on the pavement and in urban areas: I think hard luggage is the way to go. But, I personal chose soft luggage for the weight and ability to field repair it anywhere in the world as needed.

  2. I’ve travelled long adventures with both. I prefer soft for safer riding & peace of mind. You do lose convenience though. But that minor compared with safety & enjoyment.

  3. I have the Mosko Moto on my GS800 and live it, it is secure enough with a cable lock and durable, flexible and weather proof I wouldn’t buy anything else.

  4. I have a combo system. I use the Givi 58L Outback top case. I have a wired system for auxiliary lighting and charging system using aircraft wiring connectors. This allows a safe and secured area to charge gopro, phones and other devices. Then I’m using the Mosko Moto 35L Backcountry Panniers. I especially like the front molle strips. This is where a mount my shotgun when riding in the back country. It looks funny, but it works for me. Like the article says different strokes for different folks

  5. I would like to add my 10c worth. I have had both hard and soft luggage and I am of the opinion that hard is the way to go. I was in the top end of Mozambique and I had lost my cooking utensils and I used the lid of my Touratech Zega lid to fry some eggs and bacon.

  6. You’re right. Even if the bear didn’t get into the box, it would knock the bike around and damage the box trying. Hanging it in a tree is the way to go. A hard case would be good for that purpose.

  7. I find your comment regarding Hard bag “Safety” – “Learning to keep your legs out of the way of your hard panniers comes with experience.”, completely asinine. It makes the ridiculous assumption that an accident involving a hard-case happens slow enough that one can react. Also terrain comes into play as you should well know. Try riding a dried out deep rutted road/trail where you are trying to stay above the tire ruts…

    Anyways, I have both hard and soft cases. I rarely use the hard cases as I find them useful only for traveling to locals where I’m concerned about “security” and I’m not doing a lot of off-road. The weight of the cases are a big “minus” for me. I find that with the larger hard panniers, I tend to pack more than I need cause I have the room/space. Soft panniers forces me to be more efficient in my packing.

    I’ve dumped my bike in a few times on rocky terrain and the soft panniers held up very well, nor rips…

    • To be more specific, it’s common to quickly dab a foot off-road when the bike gets off balance or begins to fall. If you dab a foot too far back or for too long in an attempt to balance the bike or prevent a fall, this can cause your leg to get caught on a pannier. Many who ride off-road with panniers have learned (sometimes after making this mistake) where they should and should not put their leg out and it becomes a conditioned response. This is no guarantee you won’t get your leg caught but it minimizes the risk enough for some to feel it’s not a problem for them. True, there are some accidents that give you no time to react. But in these situations your feet are usually still on the pegs out of harm’s way.

  8. I use hard bags because I like to be able to pop in someplace without having to worry about my stuff. I also commute to work most days. I just really like the convenience. That said, I can certainly see the advantage of lighter weight!

    I have two hard bags (Caribou/Pelican cases) as panniers on my Honda CB500X and a Hepco and Becker roll top soft bag I put on top for longer trips. Best of both worlds?

  9. Soft luggage fan all the way for me. I’ve tried hard and it’s just not my thing. For starters the weight, girth and fixed size are a hassle. The convenience of removal, expandability and repositioning as the load type changes is a win for soft. Sure there are downsides to soft as well, but each has its pros and cons. An expandable tank bag is my #1 go to for all riding (currently a GIVI), then on goes the PacSafe TailSafe when I need deep waterproof storage and security, plus a drybag in front of tailbag as a backrest longer trips where serious water and muck are expected, and finally expandable saddlebags for distributing weight — not waterproof, but I carry trash bags if I need to encase the contents.

  10. If I had it to do again I would buy Mosko soft luggage all around. I love my Hepco Becker boxes, but I bought big and tend to carry too much stuff. Hard boxes seem impractical in some tight places. Soft luggage for back country camping seem a better option, and the modular design of Mosko seem ideal.

    The obvious solution is two sets of panniers depending on application…

    I agree 100% with reader below; bears will manage through the panniers. You need to provide a proper food hang.

    Also, hard bags being “locked” is little safety. Most clasps and locks are cheese.

  11. When living and riding in the Northern Territory I discovered that hard panniers also make useful mobile coolers – 2 dozen cans of beer and a bag of ice will easily fit on each side.

  12. When I got around locked gates, er trees, when getting on trails I always wish I had soft bags. It’s kind of a pain to constantly be the one stopping to take them off when getting around said obstacles. Hard bags are handy for any highway traveling where you need things locked down. Soft bags are the way to go if offroading.
    You rip open a soft bag you can fix it with tape or zip ties. You rip open a hard bag and your probably searching for a bag or something to carry all your stuff back home.

  13. Pingback: Hard Vs Soft Panniers - The Final Battle | FactoryTwoFour

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