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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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