Hard or soft? Luggage that is…

Hard or soft? Luggage that is…

What do you get when you put a weekend warrior, a round the world adventure rider and the king of cruiser bikes in a room together and ask them about luggage? Well unless you have a large muscled mediator to keep things calm, you’ll likely get a heated debate that goes, well, nowhere. Ladies of the night, ice cream connoisseur and bikers all have their opinions on what is better, hard or soft. I’m not going to argue with the first group, the second I could put up a pretty good argument for a hard-packed triple scoop of mint chip on a hot summers day and well for the bikers, let’s weigh out a few pros and cons to see if we can’t settle the debate.

(Image by Kix Marshall)

Safety first

The argument has been made by many a seasoned rider that in fact, a soft bag will prevent injuries. Like any scary story, everyone seems to know someone who broke an ankle or snapped a leg when it was caught under the bottom side of a hard pannier while negotiating a muddy rut. The counter to this is usually that the rider wasn’t wearing the proper boot and that a nice pair of Alpinestars Tech 10 boots would have saved this fragile ankle from 650lbs of thumping ADV bike loaded down with a year supply of cargo En route to Magadan. With the soft luggage, the hope is that when your boot gets lodged between a rut and the soft bag, that the bag is likely to compress before your ankle does. Supposing that your soft bags are not wrapped up in a fancy case like nice big metal present then, it’s likely that this might hold true. 

 A hard pack might just as likely save your leg as break it too. Suppose you are zipping down a beautifully paved mountainside road with s-like precision, weaving side to side hoping to make it back to camp before the light rain that has set in turns into an unplanned bath for your riding gear. On the last curve you catch a bit of slick wet tar that some guy used to patch the road and now you and the bike go skidding down the highway on your side at 60MPH. With the crash bars catching the front of the bike and the panniers catching the back, so long as you hold position you should be kept completely safe from the asphalt that’s begging to break your bones, ask me how I know. Better hope you bought the sturdy set-up and not those crafty quick release ones for this experiment. 

Theft, it’s easier than you think

 Chances are that if you are taking a two-week trip from Breckenridge to Birmingham, you have packed your camera, lens, tablet, charger, wallet, and AeroPress espresso maker all to the tune of $2-3000 worth of quality goods you can’t live without. Then, if you are on a ride from say the Arctic to Angola, well then you probably have versions of the above gear along with some must have items like your passport, bike documents and a stash of USD for borders and emergencies.

Without these varying forms of paper you are basically stranded where you sit and you will definitely want it all locked up and bolted down. Better yet, to have it all in an in-penetrable top box with laser-cut key so that even the most hi-tech of thief can not get in. Unfortunately, the most low-tech of smash and dash criminal armed with a hammer and screwdriver can smash his way past your security system in the time it takes you to step away and buy a soda.

Kriega USA 

Kevlar enhanced soft bags with Hypalon by Kriega might be the answer when wrapped in wire or bolted down with steel cable. Nicely wrapped up at the top to keep water out and cinched down to keep the criminals out, kevlar too might sound like the perfect solution. The kevlar should keep out the razor blade slashing opportunists, yet with a set of bolt cutters for the steel cable they can take your little package back to their shop and open it there.

Like a good alarm system on your car or a locked gate to your house it’s more about the idea of deterring theft than about actually preventing it. The look of a hard box is likelier to seem like it can’t be accessed than a soft bag, like anything though, if someone wants it bad enough they are likely to get it.

What’s a few pounds when you’re two up for a year?

 The weight of your gear was probably not the number one consideration that you made when mapping out the route of your two-week vacation or round the world adventure. Once you’ve loaded in the spare tools, spare parts, put on crash bars, skid plates, and put your favorite loved on the back seat, a few extra pounds might not seem like such a big deal. It might not be if you are strictly riding paved roads from point A to point B while checking into your favorite Ramada for the night.

If you are lugging around this motorized metal and half your house worth of goods across a hundred-miles of washboard and dirt tracks on a regular basis, then after you’ve picked your bike up off the ground enough times you’ll have wished you’d thought a bit more about the weight.

 With hard panniers like a set of the Givi Trekker Outbacks strapped to the back of your trusty steed, compared to something like the SW-Motech Blaze Sport soft saddle bags. You can probably decide if you’ll need to start doing squats at your local gym before your trip departure. If you can’t lift your bike up out of the muck, chances are enlisting someone else to help you is going to be pretty slim. Next time you are at your local dealer, stack a set of panniers on top of each other and do ten squats. Then swap those out for a set of soft luggage and do the same, even empty I feel the crotch-splitting decision should be pretty clear in short time.

If nothing else you’ll give the staff at your local shop something to talk about over their coffee break. Armed with this new-found knowledge and a small bite of humble pie you might be re-thinking either your gear or those nice fire roads that looks so inviting on the map.


  Does your girlfriend always comment on how your laundry seems to make more of a trail in and out of the closet and around the laundry basket opposed to folded, hung up, put away or, gasp, maybe even ironed? Do your buddies stop by for beers and look at the labels on your drawers and the jiffy-marker outlines on the wall depicting the location of each wrench and hand tool. Then asking if your OCD has been diagnosed or if you are always this anal? Depending on your style of organization or lack there of it, you might be drawn to the easy top or side opening style of a pannier.

Here you can usually organize your things to stay somewhat in the order you placed them for the duration of your trip. Hell you can even take Tupperware, depending on the cut of your box, and stack everything you need into perfectly organized compartments for ease of use. Now if the location of socks vs spoons isn’t something that you’ve been fretting over, then the toss it in and tie it down system of a soft bag is just as likely to make you happy as a 4”x6” blue lidded Tupperware with “cutlery” labeled on the side might to the more detailed packer.

(Image by Kix Marshall)

Alternate uses

It might be fun to first explain to your loved one that you paid $349.99 for a set of yellow 50L plastic clothes washing bags that are water tight, rip-proof and can be taken anywhere. Just make sure to have the bike close by to point out they also make a great set of luggage before the divorce papers hit the table. In actuality though, there is more than one use for both hard and soft options. With the convenience of easily mountable and dismountable hard options, these can be taken off to double as chairs for nights around the campfire swapping stories from the road.

A top box makes a nice low table when off the bike and a good place to mix drinks or do some dinner prep when still attached to the back. With your center stand down you can easily place a tripod on the back to get some good photos or rest a gun when messing with targets or rodent hunting with your friends.

With the soft bags, naturally they take care of all things waterproof, a good place for goods when river crossing. Now if you want to have them hold water, this becomes a great place to wash dishes and the aforementioned laundry, don’t forget to give them a good rinse after. You might even make time to give your riding gear a nice soak before it gets up and walks away on you.


(Image by Joseph Savant)


There is no secret that the cheapest part of owning a motorbike is buying the bike itself, once you start to add on every aftermarket windscreen, seat you can actually enjoy sitting on, louder or quieter exhaust, right down to foot pegs and phone mounts, slowly the price but not the value of your bike doubles. Luggage systems certainly are not the exception to the rule, if anything they are likely one of the biggest aftermarket investments.

Some of the more popular setups on the market certainly vary in price: the Moose Racing Expedition 48L panniers without mounting kit will run you around $725 a set, a pair of Givi Dolomiti 36L panniers without mounting kit for around $1200. Whereas a soft set of Dakars from SW-Motech including the mounting hardware go for just over $500 , or if you are looking to get an all-in-one set up, the people at Mosko can hook you up with a horseshoe looking 80L side and top pack for around $525. If you are new to the world of luggage systems it might be in your best interests to pick up a used set of hard, soft or both systems and try them out. It’ll be easier on your pocket to resell used ones again then take the instant 40% loss on the new ones you just bought. 

Looking side by side at a rider on a 2018 BWM R 1200 GS Adventure bike fully kitted out, put him next to the Gen1 KLR guy with his pelican cases looking for his next deal, sat next to the fully restored 1979 Yamaha XS 650 with leather bags full of organic apples from the farmers market and our slightly dusty overlanding adventurer on the classic 80’s red, white and blue Evel Knievel looking Africa Twin with round the world soft luggage set up. You might notice that sometimes its more about the look than the practicality and other times the hard costs beast out the strong desires desire. Whomever you are, it’s best to find something you like that fits with your look and functionality rather than the guy who’s filling his boots with tears when he sees his $1200 cases working better as a kickstand then a beer holder as he walks back out into the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Soft bags might catch fire, a hard pannier might shatter or worse shatter your ankle, yellow roll downs might not go with your blue bike scheme or perhaps you value the brand overall else. Whatever you go with, it might first be important to consider, who you are, where you are going, if you like pavement or track, whether you can actually lift this steel pony when it’s laying on its side or how much of your hard-earned dollars you are willing to part with. Each person will need to decide what’s right for them, and then maybe have their opinion beat down by friends and groups on the internet before they make a final decision. Each to their own, though I wise man once said: “On a real adventure, it’s important to consider where you’re going to put all the stickers”.