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 full touring set-ups to minimal arrangements, I’ve tried them all.

But if you’re new to touring, the sheer abundance of motorcycle touring packing choices available to you 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!

Personally, I prefer soft luggage in the city and when off-roading. And I prefer hard luggage whilst on a long road tour. (To be honest, I despise motorcycle panniers altogether, but that’s a different argument for a different day!)

Yet I have friends who use hard luggage on their commute to work and off-roading.

It’s horses for courses.

Related: Motorcycle Touring Miles: What Are The Limits?

Motorcycle Touring Packing Problems

If you’re in the market for motorcycle touring packing options, chances are you’re currently scouring the web for the best soft luggage for motorcycles, or the best adventure motorcycle hard panniers.

And if that’s the case, maybe we should look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of both motorcycle touring packing options.

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; leaving 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; which is no doubt 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.

adventure bikes off-road - motorcycle touring packing options
Hard panniers and off-road riding don’t always go hand-in-hand

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.

Hop over to a few of the many motorcycle-related forums, and you’ll read the same story over and over again.

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 motorcycle touring packing systems, 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.

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 whilst others have the ability to 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.

Price

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

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

At the time of writing, modern-day adventure motorcycle panniers will cost more than £2,000 for the full system.

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

If you wreck your motorcycle touring packing system on an off-road trip, the cost to replace it will be excruciating. In fact, it would be cheaper to buy an old off-road bike and just replace the entire bike!

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.

To put the cost of both systems into perspective, I once mangled up a pannier on my Africa Twin.

Having gasped at the price to replace this single pannier, I started to look on the web for soft luggage.

I found I could buy an entire soft luggage system for less than the cost of a single hard pannier. And that’s not including the cost of getting the lock changed to fit my ignition key.

bmw with hard panniers
Replacing hard panniers can cost a small fortune

Weight

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.

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 thieve 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.

Related: Touring Motorbikes: Which Styles Are Right For You?

Motorcycle Touring Packing List

If you haven’t yet purchased a luggage system, I recommend you sit down and make a list of all the things you need to take on your adventure.

If you need a little help, we published a motorcycle touring packing list in our last post which you can download here for free.

But writing a list of everything you need will give you an idea of the kind of space you need.

Are you taking your entire wardrobe, or will you be traveling 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.

motorcycle touring packing checklist - download
The Motorcycle Touring Checklist – free download here

Motorcycle Touring Packing Tips

A Top Box

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

Don’t forget, a top box is probably more useful day-to-day 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.

Many pannier systems are large enough to store a helmet. But are you supposed to carry around one empty pannier all the time just so you have somewhere to store your helmet?? Because if you remove the stuff in your pannier to store your helmet, where the hell are you supposed to put the stuff that was in your pannier?

The whole thing is silly.

Most top boxes have the capacity 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.

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 extremely hard-wearing, lightweight, secure, versatile and waterproof.

As mentioned, I usually use my top box. But 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 riding sports bikes, I find a tank bag to be an indispensable motorcycle touring packing option in the same way I find a top box to be indispensable on a touring bike.

Due to my current preference for a top box, I have less of a requirement for a tank bag these days. In fact, I usually put all my stuff in my tank bag and then put the entire thing in my top box to stop everything rolling around!

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.

Rollbags: The Ultimate In Motorcycle Touring Packing Options!

In my experience, more important than panniers and a top box is a decent sized roll bag. As is a testament in this post: 11 Reasons NOT To Buy Panniers.

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 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!

In terms of motorcycle touring packing tips, rollbags provide the most amount of wins.

oxford aqua roll bag
I found mine on sale for £50. The best £50 I ever spent! Image via (https://www.oxfordproducts.com/)

Prioritise Your Motorcycle Touring Packing List

As mentioned above, make yourself a list (or download our free motorcycle touring packing list) and see what you think you will need.

Now, prioritise exactly what you will need and throw the rest away!

If you’re new to touring, you will almost certainly be taking twice as much as you think you will need.

When it comes to motorcycle touring packing, being as lightweight and streamlined as possible is key.

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!

Related: 10 Essential Touring Apps For Bikers

Motorcycle Touring Packing Options: To Conclude

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!!

Top image via pxhere

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