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Starter’s Guide to Adventure Motorcycle Luggage

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Adventure Motorcycle Luggage Guide for New Riders

Adventure riders need to carry stuff. It’s as simple as that. Camping and cooking gear, tools, camera equipment, clothing, supplies… if you’re out for more than a day ride, you need to bring it along.

But it’s easy to go wrong buying adventure motorcycle luggage for the first time. The temptation is often to get the biggest bags that will fit and stuff them to bursting capacity, without realizing the negative effect too much weight, or too much weight in the wrong places, has on off-road handling.


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To help avoid that mistake, we’ll walk you through a basic adventure motorcycle luggage setup, then discuss some finer details such as hard vs. soft luggage, securing loads and packing tips. As you think about luggage, always keep the mantra in mind: light is right.

The Basics

A common adventure motorcycle luggage set up includes a set of panniers, a top bag (or top case) and a tank bag. The panniers are mounted on the sides around the passenger seat area or further toward the tail of the bike. Some soft panniers don’t require racks, but many do for added support and to keep them away from the rear wheel and exhaust. Hard panniers must have racks for mounting. Top-loading hard panniers allow you quick access to your gear, but you may have to dig for what you want. Side-loading hard panniers can allow stuff to fall out when you open them, but you do have more access to your contents.

Adventure Motorcycle soft luggage

Top bags go on the tail section of the bike and are typically strapped to the top rack or passenger seat area. Some soft pannier systems have an integrated top bag. Soft panniers are essentially a duffle bag with points for securing it with straps, or a hard top case can be mounted to the tail rack with a lockable release latch.

Tank bags are usually small, often expandable and useful for carrying things you need to access quickly such as glasses, a small camera, gloves, snacks, etc. Some tank bags mount with magnets to metal tanks or snap to the fuel filler cap. Others use straps that attach to the frame rails under the seat and around the bike’s steering head for stability. For off-road use, the strap-type tank bags are usually the most secure.

Hard vs. Soft Luggage

You’ll hear a lot of strong opinions for each type of adventure motorcycle luggage, but it really boils down to what kind of riding you intend to do. If you primarily stay on paved roads and easy gravel, hard luggage is generally a good choice. But if your plans include backcountry trips on rough, narrow dirt roads and trails, places where you’re more likely to have to squeeze between obstacles and the chances of taking a spill are higher, soft luggage gets the nod. Here are the pros and cons for each.

HARD BAGS: You’ll find these made of aluminum, polycarbonate and plastic. Aluminum has the advantage of being malleable; if you bend it you can hammer it back into shape. Polycarbonate boxes, such as those made by Pelican, are tough as nails, slightly flexible and have rounded corners so you are less likely to catch a foot or leg on them. Light plastic cases that often come as factory equipment are less likely to survive a hard fall, and luggage failure on a long trip can pose serious problems.

adventure motorcycle hard luggage

Pros
• Lockable
• Large carrying capacity
• Can double as a stool, table, work bench, etc.
• Handy for carrying heavy supplies to camp like firewood, beer, water, etc.

Cons
• Generally more expensive
• Heavier than soft bags
• Require sturdy racks which add weight
• Can be a safety issue if you fall and pin your leg or foot underneath them.

SOFT BAGS: Usually made of heavy rubber-coated vinyl, PVC or even canvas. They come in all shapes and sizes, and range from basic to deluxe with prices to match. Some higher-end brands are lockable and have slice-resistant netting or reinforcement for added security. Look for electronically welded, or stitched and welded, seams for added strength and water resistance. Roll-top closures are preferable to zippers because they don’t get clogged with dirt and are more waterproof. They can also be rolled down to decrease capacity when carrying small loads.

adventure motorcycle luggage

Pros
• Less expensive
• Lighter than hard bags
• Some off-road-focused brands don’t require racks
• Less likely to catch a foot or leg

Cons
• Generally not lockable
• Susceptible to being sliced open by thieves
• Can tear in a slide-type crash

Straps

adventure motorcycle luggage accessories

Even with plenty of luggage space, you may find there are items you want to keep out in the wind; a stinky gas container, firewood, sandals, etc. Including a few extra straps for securing items to the outside of your luggage is always a good idea. Ratchet or cam-lock tie downs are good for this purpose, but most are too long and you’ll need to trim them to size (sear the cut edge with a lighter to avoid fraying) or source shorter ones. Rok Straps, which are semi stretchy and can be cinched tight, are tailor made for this application. Never use bungee cords. They stretch excessively, allow items to come loose, and have a nasty tendency to end up in your back wheel or chain.

Accessory/Specialty Luggage

Dry Spec Motorcycle Tool Tube
Courtesy Twisted Throttle

There are packing options that allow you to use every available inch of space on your bike. Fender packs, for example, strap to the front fender and are good for carrying an extra tube, tire irons, a patch kit, etc. Number-plate bags attach above the headlight on enduro-style bikes. Tool tubes, typically plastic pipes with a screw-on end, attach under the tail section or down low between the skid plate and front wheel. Just remember that having more space translates into bringing more stuff, which means more weight. Light is right!

Packing Tips

Motorcycle Packing Tips

Speaking of weight, keep it low when packing. Weight carried high raises your center of gravity, which adversely affects your bike’s handling. Put heavy items such as tools, spares, cooking gear, etc. down low in your panniers instead of in a top bag on the tail rack. Light stuff such as clothes or rain gear can go up high.

You should be able to get everything you need in 60 to 100 liters of space, total. That’s a medium-sized set of panniers and a top bag. With a small tank bag for sundries, you should have all the space and accessibility you need. If not, go over your tools and supplies and see where you can save weight and bulk. And always think about how everything you pack, from clothes to tools, can serve double duty.

Photos by Stephen Gregory, Billy Lieras & Spencer Hill

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Author: Bob Whitby

Bob has been riding motorcycles since age 19 and working as a journalist since he was 24, which was a long time ago, let’s put it that way. He quit for the better part of a decade to raise a family, then rediscovered adventure, dual sport and enduro riding in the early 2000s. He lives in Arkansas, America’s best-kept secret when it comes to riding destinations, and travels far and wide in search of dirt roads and trails.

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