HARD BAGS VS SOFT BAGS
BY: TIM BURKE
It’s 2023 and any motorcyclist knows that there are few issues more pressing or important to the human race than: which motor oil is best, what tires are best for riding across Jupiter, or whether you should run soft or hard luggage.
Okay, okay. Maybe those matters aren’t that pressing but these three items are certainly “hot topics” in the ADV community and the social-media debates are everlasting. I’m here to talk about luggage, and to tell you that there’s no need to debate.
For those who are new to riding or simply need a refresher, let’s start with the basics. There are two main avenues that a rider can venture down when it comes to hauling junk around. No matter what we’re doing with our motorcycles, we generally have the option between soft luggage or hard luggage. Keep in mind, most of us aren’t world-travelers who are on the road 7 days a week, 365 days a year. For the majority of riders, we are either weekend warriors that enjoy going out with friends on local forest roads, or we use our bikes for commuting to work on the highway. Due to these simple yet vast differences in activity, our riding habits and routines ultimately play the biggest role in deciding which luggage is most suitable. Similar to choosing between a Honda Goldwing and a KTM300XC-W, different strokes are for different folks, right?
Soft luggage is typically made from vinyl, rubber, and fabric; think duffle-bags strapped to the sides of a motorcycle. Hard luggage on the other hand, is typically made from plastic, aluminum, or a combination of the two; think suitcases attached to the bike.
Some of the major topics that should cross our minds when thinking about luggage suitability are: security, water-resistance, bike protection vs body protection, versatility, and ease of removal.
Security For most of us, the most obvious difference between the two systems is basic security. An aluminum box, inherently, is more secure than a vinyl bag. While I could talk about the fact that in London, they’ll just take the whole damn bike, I won’t go down that road. I’ve found that a determined thief will gain access to any style of luggage. However, the hard boxes do provide, literally, “hardened” protection and deter most opportunistic thieves.
Water Resistance Usually, all brand new luggage, hard or soft, will be waterproof when it’s first purchased. The true test of water resistance comes after a few fall-downs on the trail. Hard cases rely on welded or riveted seams that are usually sealed with rubber or silicone. Further, the lid is usually sealed with a gasket that requires a tight tolerance to work. When the boxes get smashed out of shape, often these seams misalign and the hard-case is no longer waterproof. This is easily resolved with a dry bag on the inside of the hard case — but still, it’s worth noting.
Soft bags, depending on their build quality, will almost always outlast hard cases in the “water-resistance” category. No matter how you bend, smash, crush, or mangle these bags on the trail, the inner liner almost always stays water-proof. While hard cases just need to be tweaked a bit for water to find a hole, it truly takes a forceful puncture for most soft cases to lose their water resistance.
Bike Protection/Body Protection Brace yourself, this is usually the topic where the social-media forums become heated, the passionate arguments ensue, and online-friendships are destroyed.
“Hard-baggers” say that the rigidity of the case will hold the bike’s weight off your legs and act as “frame sliders,” and in turn, protect both the human and the motorcycle. ”Soft-baggers” say that the rigidity of the cases can snap a femur if your leg is dragged backward. Also, there are suggestions that the rigidity of cases can damage the attachment points and lead to frame damage on the bike.
You know what I say? Don’t crash! Crashing sucks. The fact is, it happens though! It’s hard to predict what is going to happen in a crash and how it will pan out. Your riding preferences are going to play a large part in which application is “safest” for your motorcycle-lifestyle. Soft bags are often the conservative choice among predominantly off-road riders who have a higher chance of crashing and tangling with obstacles. Let’s be honest, most people don’t want to risk losing a leg.
Ease of Removal To me, this is a big deal and worth a good amount of consideration. Nowadays, most manufacturers (of soft and hard luggage) have developed a system that allows luggage to be disconnected from the motorcycle for those days when you want to rip luggage-free. Historically, hard luggage has been easier to remove with just a few twists of latches or levers, while soft luggage requires the removal of straps. Many different patents have been secured and each design should be looked at carefully. This is also an important aspect of luggage if you are hoping to use it on multiple bikes.
Other Considerations I’m a big fan of “killing two birds with one stone.” Hard luggage allows one to remove a camping chair from their inventory list. Just pop the side-box off and you have yourself a seat at the campfire! Hard luggage has also proven itself to be a worthy beer cooler (I wouldn’t know… I just heard the rumor.) Don’t have center-stand? Shove a hard-pannier under the bike.
When it comes to versatility, hard cases typically require bike-specific racks and mounting hardware while soft luggage, with a tiny bit of ingenuity, can be thrown on just about anything.
•Stereotypical ”look” of ADV motorcycling
•Protects the bike during slide or impact (arguable)
•Water-resistant (when not bent or dented)
•Use as chair, table/food prep station, or working bench
•Use as ice chest/cooler
•Use as an improvised stand to change wheels or work on a motorcycle
•A detachable lid can be used as a tool tray
•Can be left on the bike: Secure the helmet and jacket and walk away with just the liner
•Require specific mounting racks
•Delicate items require forethought when
•Not easy to repair
•Reduced risk of off-road injury
•Usually more affordable
•Usually, easier fitment on a wide array of bikes.
•Less rattling and vibration
•100% water resistant, 100% of the time.
•Removable waterproof inner dry-bags
•Not as secure (can be cut open)
•Take a bit more forethought in organizing
•Do not protect the bike in case of slide or impact (arguable)
•Doesn’t really offer “multi-function” such as use as a table, chair, bike stand
•Can’t hold a helmet
As more and more companies enter the ADV market, our choices become more diverse. It’s important to look at the functionality of each product as it relates to our specific travel style and needs. Whether it be luggage, tires, or the motorcycle itself, sometimes, the best solution is to create a hybrid-system for yourself. Soft panniers combined with a hard-cased top box for your valuables? Soft bags with a hard case inside? The possibilities are only limited by your imagination!