The luggage you choose for your motorcycle directly affects your comfort, convenience, and even safety, for everything from your daily commute to your next epic journey. So how do you decide? What factors should you take into consideration? There are no wrong answers, but you should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each kind of luggage as you make your decision.
Hard cases, like aluminum or composite panniers, are a great choice for riders who spend miles and miles on the road. They offer some significant advantages for daily use on long trips, including security, water resistance, fast access, and high capacity. Some pannier systems, like the SW-Motech TRAX Adventure cases, come with a whole host of accessories that add even more functionality and convenience.
Let’s say you’re going on a 20,000-mile trip, or living on your bike for a couple months. Hard cases make it easy to get in and out of your stuff every day, while keeping it securely locked up. Some pannier systems use quick-lock mounting racks, so you can quickly remove the cases to bring them into a motel with you. (If you use SW-Motech’s Quick-Lock sidecarrier system, you can remove the racks, too, for cruising around town with a cleaner look). Hard cases also offer better durability over time. While some textile bags will wear out over those 20,000 miles, hard luggage will show some scratches but not much other wear – assuming you’re not dropping the bike much. Plus, hard cases will do a better job of protecting any delicate items, like camera or computer equipment, if the bike goes down.
Because of its weight and shape, hard luggage is best suited for trips on pavement or packed-dirt roads, not technical off-road riding or single-track trails. For starters, three empty hard cases can add 45-60 pounds to your bike, plus another 15 pounds or so for mounting racks. (By comparison, empty soft luggage with an equivalent storage capacity usually adds less than 10 pounds.) In addition, the gear inside your hard cases might shift around during technical riding — if it happens at a delicate moment, it can throw your weight off-balance. By contrast, soft bags let you cinch down your gear so it won’t move.
Hard cases can also get in your way when you’re doing technical dirt riding, especially if you’re in sections where you have to paddle with your feet, as your legs can get caught under the cases. Or let’s say you’re going down a steep hill, standing on the pegs and shoving your rear end back to maintain your balance — a rigid top case can easily get in your way as you shift your weight rearwards, not to mention whacking you in the butt.
Many dual-sport riders tend to drop their hard luggage at base camp, then hit the trails for the technical stuff. Some riders will even remove their hard cases at the start of a difficult off-road section, and walk them across instead. On an upside, if you do want to remove your luggage for technical sections, it’s easier to do with quick-release hard cases versus tie-down soft bags.
Lastly, when you’re riding off-road, there’s a decent chance you’re going to drop your bike, and drop it often. When you’ve spent upwards of $1,200 on hard cases and racks, it can be hard to watch them take a beating, especially if you’re on rocky terrain.
So, if you’re an adventure tourer doing light off-road riding, we recommend aluminum panniers like the TraX EVO or TRAX Adventure lines from SW-Motech. If you’re primarily a pavement rider, and you want to save a little dough, try a set of rugged composite cases from GIVI, like the Trekker Monokey cases, V35 PLX side cases, or V56 Maxia 4 top case.
Here we’re referring to sewn textile bags, not soft dry bags – we’ll get to the dry bags in a bit. Textile bags are lighter and more compact than hard cases, so they don’t add much weight or bulk to your bike. This not only helps you maneuver off-road, it’s also a benefit if you’re doing spirited sport touring or lane-splitting between cars on California freeways. In addition, textile bags are usually faster to get into and out of than dry bags, since they have a zipper entry instead of a roll-top. They can also have more complicated shapes than dry bags, which allows for more convenient features, such as organizer pockets.
Soft bags are generally best for riding in non-dusty, drier conditions. They don’t tend to work well in heavy, constant downpours. The fact is, nothing sewn is truly waterproof; every time a needle passes through fabric, it creates a hole where water can enter. Many textile bags come with exterior rain covers or internal waterproof liners, but that’s an additional step that takes away riding time. If you’re doing river crossings or you get stuck in rain all day, you’re going to have to attend to these accessories, or else face moisture creeping in. Heavy dust (like you might find in the Southwest) is also a problem – it tends to kill zippers, as dirt particles work their way into the zipper mechanism and teeth.
Soft saddlebags and tail bags can take a little longer to attach and detach from your bike, and many don’t offer the same fast, easy access as hard luggage. That’s why they’re great for people who do occasional trips, where speed of access isn’t a top priority. But there is one other advantage of soft bags: You can transfer them from bike to bike, since they don’t require bike-specific mounting hardware.
You can even get some benefits of both hard and soft luggage with two styles from SW-Motech: the rigid, lockable Aero ABS sidecases, and the sporty Blaze saddlebag system. Both come with quick-release mounting systems, instead of the traditional throw-over style of many other textile saddlebags.
Wet conditions usually mean muddy conditions, and that’s where dry bags shine. You get some of the advantages of soft luggage – light weight, compact size – in a truly waterproof and mud-proof bag. If you’re planning a trip that will involve water crossings or possibly long days of inclement weather, dry bags are the best way to ensure that your belongings will stay clean and dry.
In order to be water- and dirt-proof, that means no zippers. Dry bags are designed instead with a roll-top and buckles, for a secure closure and hardware that won’t get clogged with dust or mud. They’re usually made of a heavy duty, welded waterproof material like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). These kinds of materials are more durable than most textile fabrics, and as a bonus, they’re also easier to clean. The main disadvantage of dry bags is that it’s usually hard get to the stuff inside them quickly — that’s the tradeoff for having a closure system that successfully keeps water and mud out.
One question we get asked often is how to choose among the three brands of dry bags we carry: DrySpec, GIVI, and SW-Motech (formerly known as Bags Connection). Two models of DrySpec bags (D38 and D20) have a rigid structure, so you don’t need a rack to mount them; they function more like a standalone system. You also don’t need to cinch them down with buckle straps or Velcro to make them solid. As a result of this design, they also have a smaller opening. So, while the rigid structure makes these bags easy to get in and out of when they’re mounted on a bike, they’re a little less convenient to use off the bike. In addition, DrySpec has an innovative, interchangeable strap-mount system with daisy chains that lets you combine the tail bags and saddlebags in a variety of combinations, for a configuration that best suits your particular motorcycle.
If you’re going to be using your dry bags for multiple travel purposes, not just on your bike, then we recommend the SW-Motech series. These bags are collapsible and have a wider opening than the DrySpec bags, which makes them easier to get in and out of when they’re off a bike. Some Twisted staffers use SW-Motech dry duffel bags, like the Drybag 350 or Drybag 600 for general travel – they’re great for when you’re jumping on an airplane to ride a borrowed or rented bike at your destination. The disadvantage is that it takes longer to set them up on your motorcycle, since you do have to cinch them down with straps while also attaching them to the mounting points on the bike.
The GIVI bags are the lightest weight and most stylish — and, frankly, it’s kind of hard to make dry bags look good. They are also the most environmentally friendly, since they’re made with TPU instead of PVC. TPU can usually be recycled, and uses less harsh chemicals. It also tends to maintain suppleness better over time, while PVC may get stiff and can even crack. The GIVI bags have the simplest, but also the least versatile, mounting system; unlike the DrySpec and SW-Motech bags, they can’t be stacked and attached to each other.
One interesting hybrid option is the SW-Motech Dakar waterproof saddlebags.These rigid textilepanniers use a two-layer system, with a tough exterior shell and waterproof inner layer. They close with a waterproof Velcro roll-top. The trick is that they have to be mounted with side carriers, which adds some complexity and expense to the installation. But for the convenience and secure fit, it may be worth it.
This brings us to one last decision factor: price. Ultimately, you have to balance your level of comfort with what you want to spend. If you want to move your belongings from point A to point B in the least expensive way possible, then basic textile luggage may be all you need. If you’re planning longer, more complex trips that involve off-road riding or wet conditions, it’s probably worth the investment to get a luggage system that gives you optimal convenience, weather protection, and durability. One other thing to consider is whether there are crossover uses for some of that luggage, like carrying your camping equipment, going to the gym, or doing other kinds of traveling off a bike. Multiple uses might help justify the cost of premium luggage.
We hope this guide helps you choose the right luggage, based on which aspects best suit your needs. Wondering about tank bags? That’s a whole ‘nother big topic – and one we’ll cover soon in an upcoming article.