Soft luggage vs. hard luggage

So you want to go touring, and you’re setting up your bike. You’re looking at adding saddlebags, and you ask the age-old question: Should I buy soft luggage, or hard luggage?

Here at CMG, we always seem to do things the hard way, but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the advantages of soft luggage sometimes. What’s best for you? Well, maybe we can help.

Ah, the classic masculine look of fringed saddlebags. Sing with me, now: “I’m a cooooowboyyyy, on a steel horse I riiiiide … “

STYLE

Both hard luggage and soft luggage come in a variety of styles from vintage cruiser lines to sport-touring aesthetics to rugged adventure-bike pretensions. There’s room for differing opinions over what looks best — some may prefer the rugged, manly look of tasseled leather saddlebags over the Atomic Age lines of the hard luggage on many cruisers. Others might prefer the “traveling the world on my credit card” look of hard aluminum panniers over the “traveling the world on savings scraped together at the bottle exchange” look of cheap soft luggage on an adventure bike.

Most riders will agree, though, that hard luggage usually looks relatively tidy because it’s fixed solidly to the bike. Many soft luggage owners are riding around with their aftermarket saddlebags flopping in the breeze, due to the difficulty of attaching them properly without pannier racks. Depending how strong your OCD tendencies are, you might not care, or this could drive you nuts.

To a certain extent, you’re also bound by your bike’s styling. Most people wouldn’t put hard luggage on a Harley-Davidson Sportster, for instance.

Advantage: Hard luggage

While the cheapest soft luggage may not be a bargain over the long haul, it’s usually robust enough for the occasional weekend warrior. If you go up in pricing just a bit, you can find something reasonably tough, spacious and functional, like these Ortliebs, and still at a lower price than hard panniers.

COST

The cheapest luggage of all is the duffel bag you grabbed out of your closet and strapped to your bike, or the milk crate you pinched from the back door of a shop (shame on you, KLR owners! What will the employees sit on during smoke breaks?).

When you’re ready to take it to the next step and buy aftermarket luggage, soft luggage is far less expensive at the bottom of the price spectrum. You can find it second-hand on the cheap, and as most aftermarket soft saddlebags are universal, the same Cortech bags that fit your buddy’s Honda 599 should also fit your Kawasaki Versys. You should be able to find a new set of saddlebags for around $150 or less at an online retailer or bike show.

High-quality soft luggage gets more expensive, and you can actually buy the cheapest hard panniers (maybe a set of jury-rigged Pelican or Caribou cases, or a set of Tusk panniers) for less than the price of top-line soft luggage from a place like Wolfman or Giant Loop. Remember, though, you’ve also got to factor in the cost of a luggage rack when you’re dealing with hard bags, and that may even the cost out.

Advantage: Soft luggage

Metal panniers are usually the choice of hardened, live-off-the-bike, round-the-world types, for security reasons. But you can still open them with the right tool or skillset.

SECURITY

Many riders, particularly adventure riders who travel in developing countries, like hard luggage because they think it’s more secure. Lock up the hard bag, and nobody can steal your stuff. Most soft bags can be sliced open with a knife, or removed from the bike by cutting the attachment straps.

In reality, a motivated crim can break into most hard luggage quite easily with a crowbar, and while it may be harder to steal a whole pannier off a motorcycle if it’s locked on correctly, it’s quite easy to lose a whole bag on the side of the road if it isn’t locked on correctly. And, if soft luggage is so vulnerable, how come you rarely hear of its users being ripped off?

You can also buy a Pacsafe net to protect your belongings, if you’re using soft bags. But remember, in some areas, if the thieves think it’s too much work to steal your luggage, they might just steal your whole motorcycle instead. So, if you’re that concerned, maybe it’s best to just stay home altogether, as long as your mom doesn’t mind.

Advantage: Neither

Quick-detach hard luggage, like the bags on this Ducati Multistrada, is far more convenient on a street tour.

CONVENIENCE

Hard bags are easier to use. If they’re quick-detach, you can just pop them off and carry them into your hotel, or drop them on the ground beside your tent. If they aren’t quick-detachable, then you can at least get inner liners that make them quick to empty out. And when it’s time to go, as long as you aren’t overpacked, they’re quick to re-fill with your belongings, and usually very foolproof to attach to the bike and take off.

Contrast that with soft luggage. Although some systems do work better than others, removing the saddlebags usually entails undoing a bunch of straps, which are then hanging off the bags and getting in the way when you’re walking to your hotel room or campsite.

Then, when you put the bags back on the bike, you’ve got to make sure everything’s tight and tidy, or the wind can work the bags loose, or maybe just work a strap loose and send it into your rear wheel or brake.

There are some exceptions: Kriega’s saddlebag systems are quite convenient, but alas, not cheap. Same goes for Giant Loop’s new saddlebag mounts, which are designed to quick-detach your soft bags from a hard luggage rack system. Once you get used to them, the wraparound one-piece tailbags made by Giant Loop, Wolfman, SW-Motech, Gears Canada and others are usually fairly easy to deal with as well.

But when it comes to old-school throwover saddlebags, hard bags definitely have the edge, especially when you want to remove something mid-ride without having to loosen, then re-tighten the bags.

Advantage: Hard luggage

Ed March’s actual quote for this photo: “I would like to thank Honda and soft luggage for making this crash possible with no injuries.”

SAFETY

On the street, it’s not a big deal, but riders who take their machines off-road have concerns about what happens in a crash if their bike has hard luggage. The worry is that the bike’s panniers will mangle them if they land under the bags in a crash, and for this reason, many motorcyclists who emphasize the “adventure” side of adventure riding will only use soft bags.

Advantage: Soft luggage

This Adventure Spec luggage has been kicking around the shed for a while, because I haven’t had a chance to put enough distance on it to write a full-length review. However, it seems just as robust as most hard luggage systems.

DURABILITY

Well-made hard luggage will take a beating and still survive, but I’ve seen high-end aluminum panniers bent out of shape fairly quickly thanks to a summer of riding off-road (Editor ‘Arris claimed they were fine, mate, fine, but they looked pretty dented to me, and they definitely leaked).

But it’s easy to put a hole in your soft luggage by melting it on your bike’s exhaust, or by having it swing into the rear wheel by having it come loose on a rough road, or by crashing. Cheap soft bags are especially vulnerable.

Another weak point on soft luggage is the zipper closure found on many low-end saddlebags. Do you really want that zipper to fail mid-ride, spilling your leopard-print thongs all over the road for the world to see? We didn’t think so.

High-quality soft luggage is designed to be more durable, though, and it doesn’t give up much to hard bags.

If you’re only taking a couple of weekend trips a year, then it probably doesn’t matter if you’re using cheap throwover bags, but if you’re planning to tackle the open road for longer periods of time, it’s likely best to get high-quality luggage, even if you’ve got to pay more. Buy once, cry once! (or cry twice, if you crash and ruin your expensive luggage…).

Advantage: Hard luggage

Those aluminum panniers sure look waterproof, but if you bang them up a bit, they can be leaky.

WATERPROOFING

Hard luggage certainly seems more waterproof, but it’s easy to spring a leak if you don’t shut the lid correctly, or if your sealing gaskets are compromised. Or if you crash, and put a hole in the side. Once you do spring a leak, it’s often tricky to repair. Clamshell-shaped bags are probably the worst for this.

Cheap soft luggage usually comes with a rain cover you pull over the bag, held in place by an elastic. This isn’t a great arrangement, as it’s easily lost.

More recent soft luggage designs often come with some sort of rolltop closure, like a dry bag you’d find on a kayak. Sometimes the whole bag is waterproof; sometimes there’s a tougher exterior layer of fabric designed to resist abrasion, with an interior drybag that provides waterproofing. This two-part system is superior. It has more protection from leaks, and is more easily repaired if you do crash. And the waterproof liners make it easier to simply remove your gear from the bike and haul it into your accommodations at end of day.

Of course, some old-school leather saddlebags come with no waterproofing at all. For that reason, there’s no real benefit to either style of luggage here, as there’s so much variation between brands.

Advantage: Neither

Hard luggage is heavier than soft luggage, but does a few pounds matter when you’re fully-loaded with gear and have a passenger?

WEIGHT

No question, soft luggage weighs less, but does that really matter? For street touring, probably not. And if you’re adding a metal rack, the weight savings may be negligible anyway. It’s what you’re putting inside the bags that counts.

However, if you’re offroading, the weight advantage of a rackless soft luggage system combined with spartan packing is very beneficial. It saves stress on your subframe, makes the bike easier to handle, and if you get stuck in a beaver pond in the middle of the woods, you’ve got less weight to haul out on your back. Not that this has almost happened to any CMG staffer …

Advantage: Soft luggage

Think about what features you *need* most before you buy luggage.

WELL?

So what’s best? There’s no perfect answer, but hard luggage does perform best for certain scenarios, soft luggage works best in others.

If you’re street riding, hard luggage is potentially more durable, generally looks better, and is easier to deal with. If you’re off-road riding, soft luggage is less likely to injure you in a crash and saves weight. Consider where you’re riding, how often you need the luggage, and how high your budget is. The right luggage is out there waiting for you.

7 thoughts on “Soft luggage vs. hard luggage”

  1. Depends on the bike and the ride I say. My RT has 3 BMW hard bags which I use when 2 up touring. For just me I use the top box and a waterproof bag strapped behind me for my cloths as a backrest. For other bikes/trips I use soft bags and or a bag strapped behind me. The waterproof MEC bag is perfect and cheap. I put it inside a small duffel and strap it on. Oh and a tank bag. Cam

  2. Soft luggage voter here. After years of hard bag riding with my old Concours, I installed hard bags on my new Rocket 3, but never really liked them. I think hard bags encourage bikers to carry more junk than they’ll need. I basically only need bags for camping trips, so I now use a set of Nelson-Rigg soft bags for my trips, with a big Ortlieb waterproof bag strapped across the luggage rack. Soft bags stretch and can be taken off easily to restore the look of the bike. I simply like the look of the bike without bags.

  3. Over the years I switched from no name to Wolfman soft saddlebags to Pelican hard cases and eventually settled on a SealLine duffle bag. Soft saddlebags are often fiddly with straps and a pain to swap between bikes and get everything soaked in the rain. Hard cases make it difficult to squeeze through narrow spaces between cars or trees and change the handling of the bike. After going to a 100% waterproof duffle bag with waterproof zipper, I’ll never go back. On my WR, I run the bag lengthwise hanging out the back. On my R3, it sits across the seat hanging over the sides. For both bikes I attach it with an X pattern from two Rok Straps. It takes about 10 seconds to put the bag on or take it off if I leave the straps there. The 75L bag holds everything I need for a long weekend bike camping trip (or an indefinite trip when making stops for food and laundry). I even use the same duffle bag on canoe trips. One bag to rule them all.

    1. you know, I have switched between a lot of different luggage styles, but the one constant on most of my trips has been the same, a dry bag strapped down to carry the excess bits. I think this is why all the manufacturers now offer an upgraded version of a dry bag, that can be opened at either end and with tie-down points. They just plain work.

      1. I will admit that proper motorcycle luggage has straps to compress in different ways for variable sized loads. I carry basically the same stuff everywhere minus some food along the way so I don’t need to worry about making the bag smaller / tighter / less flappy-in-the-wind. I think this is why I get away with one bag for all trips on different motorcycles, car and canoe. This allows me to keep things simple and not have those extra straps all over the place.

  4. “The milk crate you pinched from the back door of a shop (shame on you, KLR owners!)”

    Hey, I resemble that remark ! 🙂

    But seriously folks, soft luggage is likely the answer, if for no other reason (as mentioned) that its easily transferrable from one ride to the next.

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