We’ve had more questions regarding soft luggage than anything else in recent months, so we thought we’d take a look at how to choose soft luggage for adventure motorcycling. With some relatively new names like Enduristan and Moskomoto coming to the party, and new offerings from the more established manufacturers like Kriega, Wolfman and Giant Loop, it’s no surprise there’s some confusion regarding what to choose.
In this post I hope to give you an idea of what to think about when looking for luggage and take a look at what’s on the market. This is by no means an exhaustive list. If there are any glaring omissions please email us.
We’re not putting any luggage to the test here. The best reviews come from those that have used a given system over tens of thousands of miles and/or multiple trip. If you’d like to add your own experiences of various luggage systems, please do so in the Comments section below. For ease of searching, title your comment with the name of the luggage you are referring to.
We’ll break this subject down into the following subheadings:
- Why soft luggage?
- Plan your trip
- Luggage capacity
- Types of soft luggage
- Things to consider
- Safety & Security?
- What we use
- Who’s writing?
- Links to manufacturers
1. Why soft luggage?
Soft vs hard is a discussion/argument/pub brawl that will run and run. I’ve used both and I they both have their place. When it comes to riding on the dirt though, I’m only interested in soft luggage. The main issues being safety and size & weight but durability has its place to.
Safety – Riding on the dirt involves numerous situations where it’s possible to snag your foot and run over your own leg. Setting off in deep sand, paddling through muddy ruts, having a dab in a rocky water crossing are all instances where it’s all too easy to do just that. Now clearly, running over your own legs is best avoided but should it happen, the consequences will be far less with soft luggage.
Size & Weight – A true Motopacking set-up weighs a lot less and is much more compact than hard luggage. The lighter your bike is, the more fun it is to ride on the dirt and the less stress it puts through the subframe, suspension and wheels. With so many different materials being used and features being offered, there’s a huge difference in volume and weight between systems. A narrow bike allows you to ride more gnarly trails without fear of snagging your boxes on rocks and trees.
Durability – Once an aluminium box has been dropped and the lid no longer fits as perfectly as the day it was delivered, it is no longer watertight. It won’t take many tumbles before your expensive aluminium boxes look battered. Soft luggage tends to crash better. A failure is more likely to arise from poor mounting, or failing to check your luggage regularly. Either will allow it to move around, rub or burn a hole in it. Ensure its secure!
How well any soft luggage survives a crash is in part down to the material it’s made from. With names like ‘Ballistic Nylon’ and ‘Military spec materials and construction’ used by some manufacturers, comparing materials is something of a minefield. Hopefully we’ll get some feedback below to help us understand what materials work best.
There are very few zips on show amongst the luggage here and that’s a good thing. Sand and grit destroy even the best zips very quickly.
2. Plan Your trip
All trips have their own specific requirements. Packing for a weekend city break is different to packing for a fortnights beach holiday, is different to packing for an activity holiday.
Before you can choose your luggage, you need to consider a few things:
- What trip have you got in mind?
- What time of year are you going?
- What’s the weather likely to be like?
- What do you want to carry? (I say want as everyone carry’s more than they need!)
- Will you be camping?
- Do you need 2, 3 or 4 season riding gear? Off-bike clothing? Sleeping bag?
- What about carrying food & water? How much?
Cold weather travel naturally generates a much bulkier pile of kit. Wild camping will add food and water considerations. How many days food do you want to carry? How often will you be able to find water?
You wouldn’t use the same suitcase for a weekend away as you would for your summer holiday would you? Well your motorcycle luggage is no different, especially when it comes to soft luggage.
A weekend on the TET in summer has different requirements to a weekend on the TET in winter, has different requirements to a round-the-world trip.
Choose the capacity that suits the needs of the trip you have planned
Soft luggage on a dirt road tour needs to be securely, and safely mounted. You don’t want anything that’s going to melt on your exhaust, get caught in your rear wheel or stuck in your chain.
Using all the capacity of your soft luggage gives it shape and helps make avoiding these issues much easier.
My X-country panniers sit perfectly on both my DRZ400 and KTM 990 Adventure, when they are packed properly. Throw in a few things for an overnight and securing them becomes more challenging. For our Morocco tours and all our recce trips I carry exactly the same kit every time and this makes securing my luggage a doddle.
“You mean there’s different types of soft luggage?” Oh yeah, you didn’t think you’d get off that easily did you?
As the interest in Adventure Motorcycling continues to grow, so manufacturers are putting more effort into developing soft luggage. This has led to a huge amount of choice that wasn’t available even a few years ago.
Soft luggage breaks down into 5 distinct types. We’ll look at each in a little more detail below.
- Frame mounted
- Frameless (Motopacking)
- Dufflebag/Tail Pack
As per the title, these are designed to mount to the pannier frames on your bike. Some are designed to mount with their own frames, some use adapter plates to mount to OEM manufacturer frames, and others mount directly to the manufacturer’s frames.
If you already have hard luggage then these can be a good option. However, because they mount to regular pannier frames, they are never going to be as light or as narrow as other systems.
Volume: 44-90ltrs (pair)
Frame mounted systems are available from:
- Giant loop
For me personally, this is the goal. With no frames to add either weight or width, a frameless luggage system is the lightest, most compact type of luggage system there is. I call it Motopacking.
It could be argued that the Kriega OS-Combo system does have a frame and should therefore be classified as frame mounted, but given that the ‘Base’ isn’t a frame in the true sense of the word, I’ve included it here.
Every make and model of bike is different and therefore any given system will be an easy fit to one bike and potentially a challenge on another. It’s certainly not as easy as strapping it on and riding away. If you go down this road, give yourself sufficient time to mount them properly.
Volume: 10-36ltrs (pair)
Frameless Motopacking style panniers are available from:
Throwover panniers are the classic soft luggage option and available in larger capacity’s than frameless panniers. They are therefore suitable for longer journeys, 3 & 4-season travel.
Although the name implies that you can ‘throw them over’, that is rarely the case (no Harley rider’s here right?). Most of the time, you’ll need some sort of supporting framework and additional strapping. The easiest solution is to buy a pair of off-the-shelf pannier frames. Like most easy solutions though, they’re a compromise; generally affecting the overall width and the vertical support. Having been designed for hard luggage, these frames generally don’t reach down far enough to support the bottom of the panniers, resulting in them sitting poorly and even fouling on the swingarm/chain guard.
I used off-the-shelf pannier frames when I prepared my DR650. Lacking the vertical support I wanted, I had tubular extensions fabricated to support my Andy Strapz panniers.
The best option is to fabricate a custom support to match your chosen panniers. That’s what I did for my UK – Magadan – UK trip in 2013. A bespoke frame also allow you to choose exactly where you want your panniers to sit. Keep them low to keep your centre of gravity low, but not so low that you create ground clearance issues. Especially in the ruts. This also helps avoid interfering with whatever other luggage you may be carrying above you panniers and aids access to them.
Keep them forward to help keep your mass central, but not so far forward that they impede your leg movement when paddling.
The size of the Magadan panniers means that they need to be properly supported. With nothing commercially available for the Suzuki DRZ400, I fabricated my own. It’s not as hard as it sounds. I borrowed a conduit bender and purchased the correct diameter former. I borrowed a MIG welder to tack it together and then took it to a professional for TIG welding. The biggest outlay was time, patience and swallowing the delivery charge for the tubing
Tools required: Vice, tape measure, hacksaw, flat & round files, battery drill.
Volume: 56-70ltrs (pair)
Throwover panniers are available from:
- Adventure Spec
- Andy Strapz
- Giant Loop
- Steel Pony
- Touratch (Ortlieb)
An evolution of the throwover concept, combining two panniers into one and replacing the straps with more storage space.
I have no personal experience of these but I’ve met and travelled with several who have. Some swear by them; others at them. Complaints include having to unpack so much to get to the bottom of either side and the weight being carried too high.
Although Mosko Moto’s Reckless system is one-piece, it is actually three separate compartments.
One-piece luggage systems are available from:
- Giant loop
Duffle bag/Tail Pack
The simplest form of soft luggage is the waterproof duffle bag. The Ortlieb Rack Pack is an excellent choice that’s available in 24, 31, 49 and 89ltr volumes. Using Arno or ROK Straps you can strap it to a rack or the back seat.
An evolution of the waterproof duffle bag is the tailpack. The Kriega Drypacks are essentially a drybag in a tough Cordura shell that incorporates their versatile mounting system. Available in 5, 10, 20 and 30ltr capacities, they can be combined to total 70ltrs.
The Mosko Moto includes additional features, including rucksack straps and a map case.
Waterproof roll-top duffle bags are available from:
- Oxford Products
Tail Packs are available from:
- Mosko Moto
5. Things to consider
Loading & unloading – How will you get the contents of your panniers to/from your tent/accommodation? Some manufacturers include inner bags/liners that you can lift out. Ferrying kit between bike and tent is no big deal but it can be a long walk between your bike and your room.
Any system requiring direct mounting to your bike means you either un-mount/re-mount your bags every time you stay in accommodation. Either that or you decant all of your luggage from your panniers into another bag (that you don’t want to carry!)
The Kriega OS-Combo employs a base that remains attached to the bike, allowing you to remove the two panniers without unpacking. This feature has great appeal to me.
What other luggage will you use in conjunction with your panniers? Can you access your panniers once you’ve strapped on a tent and a duffle bag?
6. Safety & Security
Safety – Securely mounting your soft luggage is top priority. Don’t buy your luggage the weekend before your trip! You may find you need additional mounting points to hang it from, strap it to etc. You may well try several ideas before you find the right one. eBay is your friend. Persevere
Soft luggage moves. It bounces around. Straps become loose. Straps stretch. Check it regularly. Look for rub marks not just on your luggage but on your bike. Don’t fix it later. Fix it IMMEDIATELY!
ENSURE IT’S SECURE!
Security – Security of your soft luggage always comes up in the ‘hard vs soft’ debate.
The very nature of a trip that requires soft luggage means (for me) that I’ll be mostly wild camping and cooking. That means my only security concerns arise on the occasions I visit towns. I choose accommodation based on its secure parking which leaves shopping for supplies as my potential security risk.
My favourite option is to park outside a pavement café, have a coffee and chat to the waiter. Chances are they’ll be happy to look after your riding gear and keep an eye on your bike whilst you go shopping.
If someone is going to nick something off your bike, they’re going to pick what’s easy. Tent, tankbag, bungy’d on items. Any more and it’s quicker to nick the whole bike.
I tried using Packsafe cable locks with my Magadan panniers but soon stopped. The panniers already required vertical and horizontal strapping and the cables were just another thing to attach, adjust, secure.
In my experience, the best from of security is a bike cover. Out of sight; out of mind goes the old saying and it works. Aerostich make an excellent, packable Ultralight Bike Cover.
7. What we use and why
My switch to soft luggage came in 2010 when I replaced my BMW F650 GS/Dakar Hybrid with a Suzuki DR650, 4 years in to my 6 year around-the-world trip.
I was enjoying the dirt more and more, but I was struggling in the sand and my overloaded BMW had already destroyed two Ohlins shocks. Changing bikes was an opportunity to review my whole set-up and as a result I shed 100kgs. I’ve never looked back.
Suzuki DR650 ‘Rosie’: 2-years in the Americas – Having first seen Andy Strapz Expedition Pannierz in Australia, I chose them as the base for my set-up and was really happy with them. They weren’t quite big enough for a 4-season camping set-up, hence the 32ltr Ortlieb duffle in the photo. I was doing a lot of wild camping in remote areas and so the tank panniers were filled with food and my campstove.
Suzuki DRZ400 – Daisy: 6-months UK to Magadan and back – I wanted to reduce the number of pieces of luggage I was carrying and shed the tank panniers I’d used on Rosie. I wanted to keep the front end light for popping the front wheel over obstacles and for the sand of Mongolia. That meant finding some panniers with a greater capacity than the Andy Strapz. My initial thought was another Aussie company, Steel Pony.
However, Walter Colebatch of Sibirsky Extreme fame was in the process of developing a pannier, based on his experiences in Siberia and Far Eastern Russia. When production of the panniers was taken up by Adventure Spec, I bought an early pair.
Reducing the number of pieces of luggage I was carrying brought its own issues. Fitting the panniers inner (waterproof) bags when they were fully loaded was impossible. The weight and volume of each pannier meant that they required strapping both vertically and horizontally to keep them from moving. If I then used the Pacsafe security cables as well, it took a long time to access anything.
Daisy & The Beast (KTM 990 Adventure): No longer needing to carry 4-seasons worth of clothing & camping gear, I wanted a smaller, lighter luggage system. As a keen Bikepacker I was well aware of the advancements in rackless luggage systems. However, it wasn’t until I saw a photo of The Rolling Hobo’s KTM500exc that I saw what I was looking for – the Polish made X-Country Enduro bags. These were the first time I’d seen what to me were true Motopacking bags.
To date I’ve used these on three trips to Morocco and on 5600km of Portuguese trails including the TET, ACT and others. I’m very happy with them but for a couple of things.
- Probably not as a tough a material as some others – time will tell.
- I’d like the roll-over tops to fasten to the front and rear of each pannier, rather than clipping together. I think this would make a better water seal and they’d certainly look much tidier on the bike.
The X-Country Enduro panniers swap easily between Daisy and The Beast…
Just like choosing a bike, there is no definitive answer here. There’s what is best suited to YOU, for the trip you are planning.
It’s good to see the various approaches taken by the different manufacturers. There are certainly a few systems that look particularly interesting.
If I were to go looking to buy soft luggage tomorrow, top of my list to try would be the Kriega OS-Combo series. What appeals to me the most is the ability to quickly remove and attach each pannier. The ability to pack and unpack all of my luggage inside my tent during inclement weather, or to leave my bike in secure parking away from my accommodation and carry only two pannier bags and my tent inside fills me with joy. I’ve used a various bits of Kriega kit over the years and come to think of it as bombproof.
Cost is likely to be a factor in your choice and there’s a huge range here. With the pound-sterling on the currency market, the American brands are particularly expensive.
I must commend X-Country, Giant Loop and Mosko Moto for producing luggage in colours other than black. Having taken photographs of hundreds of tour group riders I can assure you that BLACK SUCKS! The camera HATES it… The light meter hates it, the autofocus hates it and as a result the majority of photos I post are of those riders not wearing black.
9. Who’s writing?
Adam Lewis spent 6 years riding around the world from 2006-2012 and from England to Magadan and back in 2013. He has since led 52, two-week tours in India & Nepal, specialising in the Himalaya.
He is credited with pioneering the now popular Bartang Valley route in Tajikistan and with the first crossing by motorcycle of Kyrgyzstan’s Tosor Pass (both 2013).
In 2014 he became the first non-Indian to ride solo into India’s restricted region of North Sikkim and in 2016 led the first group of non-Indian motorcyclists to Zero Point, North Sikkim.
In 2018 Adam founded Big Sky Riders, a UK based tour operator providing Adventure tours to Adventure bike riders of all abilities from dirt road novice through to competent trail rider.
Our other ‘How To’ posts
10. Links to manufacturers
– supplied by Nomad-ADV