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ADV PreppingThe Great Debate: Hard or Soft Luggage for Adventure Bikes?

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

Adventure Motorcycle Soft luggage

wolfman luggage soft panniers KTM 1190 Adventure R

Adventure Motorcycle soft bags are typically made of PVC (vinyl), nylon or canvas material. Some brands of soft panniers attach directly to a rack, just like hard panniers. Racks are helpful in keeping soft bags off the side panels and hot exhaust. More commonly, soft bag are mounted directly onto the bike. A combination of adjustable mounting straps, well-positioned bags and heat shields ensure rackless soft panniers stay away from spinning wheels and exhaust pipes.

Many soft bags use roll tops, similar to the closures found on kayaking dry bags, which allows them to be both waterproof and expandable. Waterproof zippers and internal dry bags are other methods used to keep gear dry and dust free.


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Soft bag brands include Wolfman Luggage, Mosko Moto, Giant Loop, Ortlieb, SW-Motech and others.

Soft Luggage Pros

Cost: You’d be hard pressed to spend more than $700 for a set of soft bags. A good 60-80L soft bag system can be purchased in the $400 range.

Compatibility: Rackless soft luggage systems can easily be moved from bike-to-bike. Even bags designed to work with racks usually accommodate many different types and brands of racks.

Weight: For serious off-road use, lighter is always better. Rackless soft bags or panniers weigh 5-10 pounds per set.

U-Shaped Softbags
U-Shaped tail bags that wrap around the bike provide good stability off-road and don’t require a heavy rack system.

Weatherproof: Soft bags make use of high-tech materials including cordura, PVC and ballistic nylon. Soft bags that are not made of watertight material often come with waterproof inner liners, which make it easy to carry your gear into a hotel or tent without unstrapping bags from the bike.

Easy Removal: Rackless soft bags typically use straps over the passenger seat to secure the weight and additional straps attached to the luggage rack and passenger peg mounts. Removing the entire system is as simple as unhooking the straps and no tools are required.

Safety: If you get your foot caught between a rock or root and your saddle bag, it’s going to hurt a lot less if that bag is made of cordura instead of aluminum. Also, if you catch your soft bag on an obstacle, it’s more likely to compress and squeeze through instead of catching like a hard case.

Compressable: Most soft bags allow you to compress them down with straps, to make them less bulky, when not completely filled with gear.

Soft Luggage Cons

Stability: Depending on the design and how it’s mounted, soft bags can move around in rough terrain.

Security: Though a determined thief can get into any luggage, soft bags aren’t usually lockable and their contents are vulnerable to casual theft. For those soft bags that are lockable, they can still be easily slashed open for quick access to what’s inside.

Durability: Seams can weaken and rip, zippers can break and get clogged with dirt, mounting straps can come into contact with hot exhaust parts and melt, and abrasion resistance is an issue with some materials.

KTM 640 Adventure Soft bags
The left-side of these soft saddle bags had to be secured with a tie-down strap after a light fall tore one of its mounting straps. Opting for more rugged off-road-oriented soft bags helps prevent problems like these.

Appearance: Rackless soft bags can put scratches and brush marks on your bikes side panels. Using clear plastic protective film helps avoid this. Also, some riders may not like the look of soft bags with their dangling straps and bulky, uneven appearance (depending on how they are packed).

Convenient Access: Dealing with compression straps, roll tops and zippers can make getting into soft bags much less convenient than hard cases.

Final Thoughts

Clearly there is no winner in this debate over hard or soft luggage. Each rider will weigh the pros and cons differently depending on their own individual needs and tastes. But from a general perspective, the lighter weight and greater safety of soft bags gives them an advantage for serious off-road travel. For long-distance travel, where security and day-to-day convenience is a primary consideration, a good set of hard panniers gets the edge. Either system is more than capable of carrying your gear around the globe and beyond, and what you choose will depend on what matters most to you.

So which do you ride with? Hard or soft luggage, and why?

Author: Bob Whitby

Bob has been riding motorcycles since age 19 and working as a journalist since he was 24, which was a long time ago, let’s put it that way. He quit for the better part of a decade to raise a family, then rediscovered adventure, dual sport and enduro riding in the early 2000s. He lives in Arkansas, America’s best-kept secret when it comes to riding destinations, and travels far and wide in search of dirt roads and trails.

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Author: Bob Whitby
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20 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 store my food in my watertight panniers and hang them from a tree. Sufficient to keep those pesky bears and raccoons away.

    • 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