The Adventure Spec Magadan Mk 2 panniers are expensive soft luggage (£375 MSRP, from the UK manufacturer, which translates to about $650 Cdn.) aimed at a particular niche: the self-sufficient, hardcore round-the-world traveller.
As a result, it’s taken a while for me to get this review out, because tough off-road journeys aren’t something I just rattle off every weekend. As a dad with kids, it’s hard to get away. I used the bags for closer-to-home work, but nothing I’d consider a real expedition.
But the great thing about CMG is, if we can’t take a trip across the country via dirt roads, we can just call up somebody else who’s doing that, and lend them out some gear. That’s what I did with these Magadans; when I wasn’t able to drag them across the continent on a dual sport, Tammy Perry stepped in and did just that.
Why did I want to try out the Magadan panniers? Three reasons: First, they’re advertised as being slash-proof; hoodlums with knives will have a hard time quickly cutting the bags open to steal their contents, which is a commonly-perceived problem with soft bags. Adventure Spec weaves Kevlar / Twaron into the Cordura material, same as you’d see in a police officer’s stab-proof vest.
Second, they’re designed by Walter Colebatch, a Brit adventure rider whose opinions are very well-respected in the UK ADV scene due to his extensive experience pushing limits and exploring uncharted territory on his bike. Chris Scott, another ADV legend from the UK, helped update the design on the Mk 2 panniers.
What are they?
The Magadans could be best described as no-nonsense soft bags that have been designed with practicality, utility and durability first in mind.
They’re extremely simple in their design, with one main compartment and a smaller pocket on the front and rear of the bag. The main compartment has roll-top closure. The bag itself is constructed from an extremely sturdy synthetic fabric that’s supposed to be very hard to cut open (I didn’t take a knife to the bag to test this). There are two straps that secure the roll-top down, and two more straps that run between the bags, allowing you to sling them over a motorcycle’s tail section.
Adventure Spec includes a second inner bag that’s basically a super-sturdy rolltop liner to keep your gear waterproof. You don’t need this inner bag, but your clothes and kit will get wet without it, eventually.
And that’s it. Adventure Spec will sell you some other accessories for the bags if you want — a locking security cable and that sort of thing. But Adventure Spec is perfectly happy to let you figure out the rest of your needs yourself.
How do they install?
Installation of the Magadans starts just like every other throw-over bag: sling them over your bike’s tail section, then adjust the middle straps for optimal spacing.
The Magadans are designed to use with side racks for support, although you might be able to get away without using side racks on some bikes. I wouldn’t go that route, though, and I don’t see photos of anyone else trying it either.
With the bags thrown over the rear of the bike, there’s only the top straps securing them. Now you’ve got to add your own stabilization straps to secure them to the racks, stopping them from flopping around mid-flight.
Other manufacturers usually offer built-in straps that reach forward to the passenger peg mounts, but all you get with the Magadans is a set of loops on the side of the bag. You can pass straps or bungees through these loops to hold the bags tightly to the rack; you can fasten it horizontally, or vertically, or both. I used bungees on the horizontal plane, and cambuckle straps on the vertical.
How well do they work?
Once everything’s in place, you can start filling up the bags. At this point, you can tell the Magadans were designed by people who’ve put a lot of miles down, because the interior of the bags is big enough to swallow not only clothes, but also the larger items that typically have a hard time fitting in other adventure-bike saddlebags (laptops, etc.). Capacity is officially rated at 35 litres, but feels like more. The stuff that you need en route fits easily into the exterior pockets — chain lube, oil jug, coffee thermos, water bottle, tool roll, camp stove, whatever. This way, you don’t have to open your bags’ main compartment every time you need something during a day’s ride.
The bags should easily hold all your clothes needed for any reasonable-length trip, plus tools, electronics and other gadgetry, leaving your bike’s tail section free to strap down your tent, sleeping bag and mattress.
But anyone who’s travelled a while on a motorcycle knows that good luggage isn’t just spacious and tough, it has to be convenient to access throughout the day. The Magadans are okay at this, but not great.
They suffer from the same drawback of all soft luggage: in order to be mounted securely to the frame, you need to strap everything down tightly. If you want to access something inside the bags’ main compartment, you end up having to loosen those straps, and then re-do them every time.
But due to their design that allows you to store frequently-used tools and other equipment in the exterior fore-and-aft pockets, the Magadans aren’t too bad. If you know you’ll need something later in the day, store it in those pockets, and you can get it easily. At the end of the day, you can remove the entire contents of the saddlebag via the inner liner, making them extremely quick to unpack. Re-packing them is pretty quick as well, although the liner never seems to go back into the saddlebag as easily as it came out.
The Magadans are not as lightweight as other rack-free systems like the Wolfman Rolie bags or Giant Loop Coyote, but are certainly rugged enough to handle an offroad beating. However, I’d reckon them best-used on a mid-sized dual sport or ADV bike that wasn’t going to see much single-track (KLR650 or bigger).
(Tammy has used these bags on a couple of different bikes, including a Kawasaki Super Sherpa and her 650 GS. Last summer, she used them to ride across the US, and the year before she had a set for her ride down the Continental Divide – Ed.).
The Adventure Spec saddle bags are easy to install, but their fit was less than optimal on my BMW F650 GS frame because the straps had to go through the “Handles” on the back. It was then super-easy to use hook and eye closure to attach the bottom part of the bags to my frame. It would be quicker to keep the hook and eye straps set at the optimum length and lay it across the luggage rack on the bike, but the BMW “handles” required them to be disconnected each time, as they had to be unfastened, fed through the handles, and re-fastened each time. This happened fairly often, because the seat release was accessible only after removing the bags.
They didn’t shift or slide, but they did look a bit sloppy due to the straps being fed through the handles.
The bags are super-tough and 100 per cent waterproof, so I trusted my laptop to be inside, in its own waterproof bag.
They survived a couple of rain storms — at night I covered the bike with a non-waterproof cover.
Unbuckling, unrolling, opening Velcro, then opening the inner Velcro makes it inconvenient to get to often-used items like warmer gloves, or my rain jacket, so I put those items on top of the waterproof layer, allowing for only one layer of unfastening.
The Velcro is noisy, so it’s difficult to be stealthy at night or early in the morning. It is possible to remove the waterproof inner bag on its own, but removal required two sets of hands: one to pull the bag out against the suction, and another to hold the outer bag down. So I used packing cubes with handles to make packing and removal more efficient. Since I was hammock camping, I put the packing cubes that I needed under the hammock, inside the waterproof top bag I was using. Then I put my riding gear inside the saddlebags for overnight protection under my bike cover.
After 16,000 kms or so, I didn’t take any drops or slides but they did suffer many bumps and rubs without any scuffs or marks.
Overall, they’re good bags – easy to install, rugged and waterproof.
Cons: they looked sloppy on my bike when they weren’t full and the layers of Velcro were noisy and inconvenient.
Want your own set?
If you want a set of Magadans, the only place we know of that sells them is Adventure Spec itself, in the UK. Find out more about Magadans and the company’s other products at its website.