Motorcycle Touring Packing Tips: Hard vs Soft Luggage

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I think I’ve exhausted all of the motorcycle touring packing options over the years. From soft luggage to hard luggage and from touring set-ups to minimal arrangements, I’ve tried them all.

But if you’re new to touring, the sheer abundance of choices can be overwhelming!

Like everything else in the bike world, there is no right or wrong to this debate.

And despite the ferocity in which some people defend their decision to use hard or soft luggage, the truth is that hard luggage is best for some situations while soft luggage is best for others!

Let’s have a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of hard and soft packing options.

biker with loaded bike - motorcycle touring packing
Image via Konark Ashara / Stockvault

Wrecking Your Panniers

One of the main reasons people switch from hard luggage to soft luggage is because they’re tired of wrecking it.

If you’re off-roading a big adventure bike that weighs over 300kg fully ladened, it won’t take many spills to trash your hard-earned panniers.

And seeing as though a few spills are almost inevitable, it makes sense to swap your hard motorcycle touring packing set-up for a soft one.

Hard luggage has a tendency to break off its rack or dent. And this could leave you with panniers that you either can’t close or can’t get into.

And whilst you can try your best to beat out the dents, panniers will never recover from those impacts. If you’re mid-tour and you end up with a pannier that won’t close, it can cause quite a lot of inconvenience.

Not only will it not function correctly, but it’s probably no longer waterproof or secure. And these are likely the main two reasons why you bought hard luggage in the first place!

In contrast, the resilience of soft luggage means you can smash it up all day long. It will never dent or break, nor will it become permeable by water after a spill.

bike off-road in forest
Image via Peter Rupp / Pexels

Motorcycle Touring & Packing: Rider Safety

If I had a pound for every time a hard pannier broke the leg of a rider, I’d be a millionaire.

Soft luggage is categorically and undeniably safer when off-roading.

And you don’t have to take my word for it. If you have any riding buddies that have damaged themselves off-roading, you can bet it was the pannier that broke their leg.

Much of the time, people come off their bikes when off-roading and it’s the pannier that has done the damage.

Conversely, soft panniers are usually smaller and have no sharp edges. And the fact they’re soft means they allow just enough wriggle room for a rider to get their leg from underneath it.

In defence of metal panniers, you can still break your leg whilst riding with soft luggage; it’s just a lot less likely that a soft pannier will do you any harm.

bike with panniers through trees - motorcycle touring packing
Image via Ralph Katieb / Unsplash

Motorcycle Touring & Packing: Integrated Features

The beauty of hard luggage is that it does exactly what it says on the tin. It transports your stuff, and it does it very well.

On the other hand, soft motorcycle touring packing options also carries your stuff. But the nature of the material allows it to be much more versatile.

For example, soft panniers usually come equipped with internal and external pockets. Many have hydration solutions, allowing you to store water or bladder kits.

Some come with customisable expansion capabilities. Others can be removed and used as day packs.

So whilst usually smaller and lacking the ability to carry as much as their metal-made counterparts, soft luggage makes up for these deficits in adaptability.

front shot motorbike with panniers
Image via Ralph Katieb / Unsplash

Price Wars

The cost of hard luggage is a constant source of irritation for me!

A few years ago, it tipped the £1,000 mark.

Today, adventure motorcycle panniers can cost more than £2,000 for the full system.

And whichever way you look at it, that’s ridiculous!

Soft luggage can also be expensive. But pound for pound, you get a lot more for your money with soft panniers.

In terms of durability, flexibility, weight savings and features, soft luggage wins this battle every day of the week.

cruiser with panniers - motorcycle touring packing
Image via Michael Wade / Unsplash

Weight Matters

When you look at the weight differences between hard and soft motorcycle touring packing setups, you can expect to find a weight saving of around 20-25%

Now, you might argue that a few kilograms here and there isn’t going to make much of a difference. But when your fully-ladened adventure bike is weighing in at nearly 300kg, any weight-saving benefits are welcomed!

And you’ll certainly welcome it if you find your ankle stuck underneath a hard pannier; especially if you’re unable to get it off.

If you’ve done any sort of off-roading, you’ll know that weight (or the lack of it) is absolutely pivotal in terms of versatility, manoeuvrability and overall enjoyment.

dirt bike off-road

Security

You no doubt have a friend that is a staunch believer in hard luggage. And one of the reasons they will cite for their decision is that of security. And they have a point.

A thief would more likely choose to tackle a soft motorcycle touring packing system over a hard system.

That being said, manufacturers such as Lone Rider are using all sorts of reinforced materials for soft luggage systems. And many of them come with ingenious locking systems.

But let’s be honest here; it doesn’t really matter.

If someone is intent on getting in your panniers (whether soft or hard), they will. Hell, they’ll probably just steal the luggage and the bike.

In my experience, all you can do is your best. Lock it up as best you can, then forget about it and enjoy your trip.

touring motorbike by road - motorcycle touring packing
Image via Ralph Katieb / Unsplash

Motorcycle Touring and Packing Needs

Writing a list of everything you need for a trip will give you an idea of the kind of space you need.

Are you taking your entire wardrobe, or will you be travelling light? Will you be taking it off-road or on tarmac?

Are the places you’ll be visiting densely populated (big towns and cities?) Or are you going to remote sections of the desert where you won’t see anyone for days?

What about when you return from your trip? Will you continue to use the panniers for commuting or for off-road trips? Or will they be consigned to the shed until the next trip?

If you’re likely to spend most of your time in an environment where the risk of an accident is low but the risk of theft is high, then go for a hard system.

But if you’re spending a lot of time off-road seeking out more remote places to enjoy, then maybe a soft system would suit you better.

two triumph motorbikes
Image via Triumph Press

Motorcycle Touring and Packing: Alternatives To Panniers

A Top Box

It’s easy when looking at luggage systems to become focused solely on panniers.

Don’t forget, a top box has greater day-to-day use than any set of panniers – whether hard or soft.

I only ever use my panniers for touring – and even then, I do so begrudgingly! However, I use my top box almost every time I leave the house.

Most top boxes have room to store your helmet as well as most of your essentials. So for me, they are a no brainer.

Not only this, but they don’t disrupt the balance of your bike. Nor do they get in the way when filtering.

yamaha motorbike off-road
Image via Andrei Garm / Pixabay

Tail Packs

If you prefer to travel light, there are some awesome tail packs available these days.

Granted, some of them are not cheap. But tail packs from the likes of Kriega are hard-wearing, lightweight, secure, versatile and waterproof.

If I decide to leave the top box at home, I tend to use my Oxford tank bag as a tail pack by strapping it to my top box plate or pillion seat.

Tank Bags

When I used to ride sports bikes, I found a tank bag to be indispensable in the same way I find a top box to be indispensable on a touring bike now.

Due to my current preference for a top box, I have less of a requirement for a tank bag these days. 

That being said, I would never not have a tank bag. Their versatility gives me options. I can use it instead of a top box, I can use it as a tank bag, or, I can use it as a daysack.

Plus, there’s nothing better for storing your passport, wallet, phone and maps in a place that is easily accessible exactly when you need it.

ktm's off-road - motorcycle touring packing
Image via Kat Sazonova / Unsplash

Rollbags

In my experience, more important than panniers and a top box is a decent sized roll bag.

Not everyone agrees with me, but I find that I can fit way more stuff into a single 50L rollbag than I can in 2x 30L panniers. Go figure!

As well as capacity, the soft material means you can stuff small items into crevices that you couldn’t with hard panniers. And the central position of a rollbag prevents one side of your bike from being accidentally heavier than the other.

For the price of them, I find rollbags essential. They cost next to nothing, they’re fully waterproof, they’re easy to pack, and they fit loads of stuff in. You can use them off the bike, and, you don’t have to worry about getting them dented!

motorbike on winding mountain road
Image via Gaetan Thurin / Pexels

Motorcycle Touring and Packing: The Test Ride

When you’ve decided on your motorcycle touring packing system and you have it all fitted, ensure you do a test run a few weeks before your trip.

Fill up your panniers, top box and tank bag, and take your bike for a spin around the block.

If the bike feels lopsided, bring it back and rearrange your luggage so it’s more evenly distributed.

Then, when you’re happy, go do a day’s ride out with all your kit. See how the straps are holding up and how the bike fairs.

Do you need to alter the suspension or shift weight around?

When it comes to your trip, be sure to pack the day before and complete another test ride. This way, you can hop on your bike in the morning and get going, fully confident in your set-up.

A final tip for packing: If your bike looks overloaded, there’s a good chance that it is!

motorcycle touring and packing - two bikes on road by mountains
Image via Ian Taylor / Unsplash

Motorcycle Touring Packing Options: Conclusion

So to recap, my suggestion would be to make a list before you purchase anything to see where your priorities lie.

Find out exactly what you expect of your motorcycle touring packing system and where you intend to use it.

Whether you go for soft or hard luggage, both will live up to their reputations. So strap on your helmet and enjoy your adventure!!


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Top image via Ian Taylor / Unsplash

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