Before we can begin discussing what a long-distance motorcycle rider should bring with them on a tour, we first need to talk about how a rider can carry those items on their motorcycle. Motorcycle luggage is available in many forms and constructions, each with its own pros and cons.
Construction: This is the cheapest and most common form of motorcycle luggage. It is usually made from canvas or polyester and is available in a range of shapes and sizes. For new touring riders, this is almost always the best place to start your luggage shopping.
Interchangeable (for the most part): The vast majority of soft luggage is designed to fit a very wide range of motorcycles. Unlike hard luggage that almost always requires a set of expensive steel brackets, soft luggage uses magnets, straps, or bungee cords to secure it to a nearly any motorcycle. For new riders or experienced riders who buy and sell motorcycles frequently, soft luggage can easily be transferred from bike to bike. The soft saddlebags I am using now on my 2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500 were originally purchased for my old 1998 Suzuki Bandit 1200S. I adjusted the length of the Velcro straps that lay across the passenger seat and the hook/loop straps that the bags use to attach to the passenger foot peg brackets. Within a couple minutes the saddlebags fit the Ninja perfectly.
Cost: Soft luggage is substantially less expensive than hard luggage. The smallest set of Givi hard saddlebags is in the low $200s (http://www.twistedthrottle.com/givi-e22n-cruiser-cases-matte-black-pair), while a simple set of soft saddlebags can be found for less than $100 with no mounting brackets to buy (https://www.jakewilson.com/p/4822/27257/Dowco-Rally-Pack-Value-Saddlebags?s=223757&utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Shopping%20Campaign&utm_term=1102300484396&utm_content=J). This is even more true for soft tail bags versus hard top cases. Even the least expensive Kappa Monokey top case retails in the middle $100s (http://www.twistedthrottle.com/kappa-47k48n-topcase-or-sidecase-48l-matte-black), whereas a Dowco Rally Pack tailbag can be found for around $50-$60 (https://www.bikebandit.com/dowco-rally-pack-sport-bike-value-series-tail-bag/p/6054?b=4188244&utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Shopping%20-%20RGAC_%20-%20Old&utm_term=1100203183203&utm_content=Boots). Moreover, the soft luggage does not require its owner to invest in brackets for their particular motorcycle. There are also some types of luggage, like tank bags and fork bags, that are generally only available as soft luggage.
Range of sizes/features: While hard bags are available in a range of sizes, the cheaper production costs and universal mounting of soft luggage allows manufacturers to produce a much wider range of products. A rider can find everything from a small tank bag to hold a few personal items to the biggest set of soft saddlebags money can buy that hold a week’s worth of cloths.
Weather resistance: For long distance riding, which can take a rider through a wide range of weather conditions, soft luggage’s most glaring weakness is evident. While a few, expensive models of soft luggage may actually be waterproof, most soft luggage is not designed to keep out the rain without help. Most every piece of soft luggage comes with a rain cover. However, many of the rain covers are not tethered to the bag and can be ripped off by wind or rain. Even for luggage that is equipped with tethered rain covers, having to put on and remove the rain covers as weather conditions change can be time-consuming. Moreover, riders cannot always pull over to put rain covers on when rain begins, leaving electronics and cloths subject to mother nature until a suitable shoulder or exit ramp can be found.
Durability: The soft part of soft luggage can also apply to how long the luggage will last. An occasional touring rider will likely not tax soft luggage enough to significantly shorten its life. However, more than occasional use can quickly wear down soft luggage’s fit and finish. Long sunny days on the open road will start to fade the color of the luggage. Continual use of rain covers can cause them to develop holes or tear at the tethers. Continued mounting and removal of soft luggage can also wear down mounting straps and bungee cords. While hard luggage does not have many of the problems listed above, one can usually buy 3 pieces or more of soft luggage for the cost of one piece of hard luggage. A more serious touring rider simply needs to budget for replacing luggage more often than their hard luggage counterparts.
Security: The advantage of how easily soft luggage can be installed and removed can quickly become a disadvantage on the open road. Even the toughest touring riders have to stop several times per day for food, fuel, and restroom breaks. Many of these stops require leaving the bike unattended, which gives potential thieves an opportunity to quickly remove the luggage or rummage through it and steal valuables. Unfortunately, very little can be done to remedy this weakness. While locking carabiners or running the straps of saddlebags underneath the seat can keep a thief from removing luggage as one piece, mounting straps or the nylon, canvas, or leather body of luggage can easily be cut. When I have toured with soft luggage, I do what I can to keep the motorcycle in my sight. If I stop at a restaurant, especially a fast food or fast casual restaurant, I will try to find a parking spot near a window. I then walk inside and leave my jacket or helmet at the table closest to that window. That way I can watch the bike while I am eating/blogging/etc.
Capacity/weight: Soft luggage’s weaker construction can make it less than ideal for carrying heavy items. Light duty touring riders who simply keep their bike’s tool kit under their seat and do not tour too far from home may not find this to be a problem. All of the soft luggage I have owned will carry common touring items like cloths, spare gloves, snacks, and electronics just fine. It is when a more serious touring rider tries packing tools, batteries, or heavy souvenirs that soft bags can begin to find their limit. Overloading soft bags can cause them to lose their shape and droop. This is especially true of soft saddlebags, as there is nothing below the bags to help them bear weight. Most soft luggage is also smaller than most of its hard luggage counterparts. For the light packer or short tours, there is no real disadvantage in using soft luggage. For longer trips, or needing to pack for rider and passenger, soft luggage’s capacity may present a problem.
Will not work with some exhaust systems: Some motorcycles have under seat exhaust systems may not jive so well with soft luggage. Some examples of motorcycles with high-set exhaust systems are the Suzuki V-Stroms, Yamaha FZ6 and Triumph Tiger 1050. The heat radiating off of those motorcycles’ exhaust pipes and mufflers can easily melt or burn some soft luggage or mounting straps. Cruiser riders usually do not have this problem. They can usually find saddlebag supports that keep saddlebags from getting into the rear wheel, as well as help them from sliding down onto the exhaust system. Similar systems may be available for sport, sport-touring, or adventure motorcycles to keep soft luggage a safe distance from exhaust heat. Those systems may not be inexpensive though, making hard luggage a more viable option in those cases.
Common types of soft luggage
Saddlebags: These sets of two bags hang off the sides of the passenger seat. Usually they are secured to the motorcycle through a combination of the straps that connect the two bags and mounting straps that usually attach to the passenger foot peg brackets and below the tail of the bike. Saddlebags come in various sizes and shapes to fit nearly every motorcycle. Some saddlebags also have additional pockets on the outside of the bag, which are great for storing small or thin items. When I tour with soft saddle bags, I try to pack them with heavier items (more on that in the next article) and items I usually do not need while on the road. Typically this includes cloths, toiletries bag, air pump, tool bags, zip ties, and sandals.
Tail bag: These bags sit atop a bike’s passenger seat or an a luggage rack/sissy bar set-up. They are usually the best bag for carrying larger items like laptops and cameras due to their size and more squared-off shape. They are usually secured to a motorcycle by either mounting straps or bungee cords. Some tail bags are also able to mount directly to soft saddlebags, making for easier and more secure mounting. When I tour with soft luggage, I usually pack my tail bag with larger items and items that I will need while parked. This usually includes my 11-inch Chromebook and charger/mouse, CB radio, weather radio, charging cables, jeans or larger-sized clothing, event tickets, camera bag, snacks, and hats.
Tank bag: These bags mount on top of a motorcycles gas tank. They come in a wide range of sizes, and mount via either magnets, straps, or a ring locking system. Some riders do not like tank bags that use magnets because they can scratch the tank, slide under high wind conditions, or can demagnetize credit cards. Some riders do not like strap-mounting because of the how difficult it can be to mount the straps on some modern motorcycles. Additionally, some riders simply do not like tank bags because to the need to move them out of the way at fuel stops. However, tank bags can be a valuable part of a luggage solution. They are usually the only bag a rider can access while sitting on their motorcycle. This can be important at toll booths or when having to pull over briefly. I usually pack my tank bag with extra visors, a large carabiner for locking my helmet to the bike, a couple Five Hour Energy shots, charging attachments for the Battery Tender lead, small USB power banks, and spare change for tolls.
Construction: Hard luggage is usually constructed of plastic or metal and attaches to a motorcycle via a set of mounting brackets. Some touring, sport touring, and adventure motorcycles offer hard luggage as standard or optional equipment with integrated mounting solutions.
Security: Hard luggage is almost always mounted to a set of mounting brackets or is integrated into a bike’s design. The luggage also almost always has lockable lids. The locking action that secures the luggage shut and to a bike makes it much more difficult for a thief to gain access to the luggage or remove it from a bike. Often the designers of hard luggage systems will place the mounting screws for the hard luggage brackets such that a potential thief would have a difficult time accessing them when the luggage is attached. With enough time, anyone can get anything off of a bike. However, if a person is trying to remove luggage from a motorcycle by taking a hack saw to mounting brackets, someone is much more likely to call the police than a person who casually walks by and undoes a couple soft luggage mounting straps.
Weatherproof: One of the real beauties of hard luggage is that when the rain starts, there is no reason to stop riding. Most hard luggage systems are 99% waterproof or better, which allows electronics to be more securely stowed away. For serious touring riders, not needing to stop when the wet weather starts can be a godsend when on the road for 9+ hours per day.
Mounting stability and ease: Soft luggage can have a tendency to slide or swing on a bike. While properly adjusting the mounting straps can eliminate most of this, saddlebags can still sway a little and tank bags and tail bags can slide side to side during aggressive cornering or on interchange ramps. Moreover, it can be a pain on a multi-day tour having to install and remove the mounting straps for multiple pieces of soft luggage day after day. Hard luggage is attached via a built-in mounting system or a set of metal mounting brackets that hold the luggage firmly in place. Most hard luggage also slides into its mounting bracket in seconds, making mounting and dismounting a breeze.
Capacity: Most hard luggage is larger than its soft luggage counterparts. While there are exceptions, the sturdier construction of hard luggage also inherently adds a little extra capacity. If a rider attempts to cram a couple extra items into a soft tail bag or saddlebags, it can stretch the bag’s material and shorten its service life. With hard luggage, as long as the case will close and lock, there is little additional wear and tear. Additionally, hard luggage’s more sturdy mounting allows it to come in a range of shapes and sizes. Unlike a tail bag, a top case is not limited by the size of a passenger seat and can be wider and/or taller than a tail bag. This can be especially important on a trip where a rider will be picking up souvenirs or gifts along the way. It is always great having the flexibility to be able to carry more back than you left with.
Stickers: This is a small personal note, but I have always enjoyed putting stickers on my hard luggage from all of the places I have visited with the bike. For touring riders, they become like badges of honor. Soft luggage can have patches sown on, but it can negatively impact its service life.
Cost: The biggest drawback to hard luggage is its sheer cost. While many aftermarket top cases and side cases can be used on many different motorcycles (more on that next), the upfront cost of purchasing hard luggage can run several hundred dollars. A basic Givi or Kappa top case usually starts at around $170 (http://www.twistedthrottle.com/shop-by-product/luggage-racks/givi_kappa_monokey-_top-cases) and the smallest Givi side cases start at around $225 and escalate quickly from there (http://www.twistedthrottle.com/shop-by-product/luggage-racks/givi_kappa_side-cases).
Bracket fitment: Even if a rider can afford a hard luggage solution, there is no guarantee they will be able to use it on their future motorcycles. SW-MOTECH and Givi make top case and side case brackets for a wide range of newer motorcycles. However, as time marches on, both companies begin discontinuing the more difficult to manufacture brackets for older models. For example, when I bought my 2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500 in 2017, Givi had already discontinued making the top case rack for it. For serious touring riders, it can be a pain when bike shopping. There may be a bike that would work great, except there is no mounting brackets for it. Now a rider has to choose between the bike they want and the luggage they have already invested in.
Appearance: One of the other downsides of hard luggage brackets is how they look when the luggage is off. Top case racks, especially those that simply mount to a stock luggage rack, do not tend to detract from a bike’s look too much. However, some side case racks can look hideous. For riders who tour a lot or keep hard saddlebags on, this may not be a concern. However, for riders who care about how their bike looks and do not keep the saddlebags on, it may be a deal breaker. Some motorcycles can look a bit awkward even with the bags on. One good example is a Suzuki V-Strom. Due to the exhaust location, the Givi mounting racks keep the bags a few inches from the exhaust. The result is something that can look even wider on the back end of the bike than the front end.
Common types of hard luggage
Top case: These cases are usually mounted to a bike’s tail section behind the passenger seat. With the exception of Harley-Davidson cases that open to the left, most top cases open from front to back. Top cases come in a wide range of sizes, with many top cases being 40 liters or larger in capacity. I tend to use a top case for storing items I may need while on the road. I usually keep my laptop, charging cables, event tickets, extra layers for cold weather riding, CB radio, weather radio, camera, batteries, and the like in my top case. On long trips where a rider is spending 8+ hours on the road, a top case can have a wide range of other uses as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have used top cases on the old Suzuki Bandit 1200 and FJR1300 as a lunch/dinner table, laptop table, and more.
Side cases: These cases are sold as sets of two. They can either open from the top (most cruiser hard bags and Givi E22), or from the side (similar to a top case mounted sideways). They are usually smaller than top cases, though I have seen some riders use some pretty big cases on Givi side case racks. I usually try to pack side cases with items that I would not normally need when on the road. These include tools (hopefully they are not needed on the road), cloths, sandals, toiletries bag, and the like.