Choosing Luggage for your bike

Feature article by Dick Henneman


Luggage for motorbikes comes in two basic types - hard and soft. Which you choose will depend as much on personal preferences as on the type of bike you ride. But whatever you go for, don't overload the bike. All luggage you fit will affect a bike's handling, and the heavier and further away from the bike's centre of gravity it is, the greater the effect. You can counteract this to some extent by winding up the pre-load on the rear suspension and perhaps stiffening the rear damping. Check the bike's handbook for any advice from the manufacturer. When the bike's loaded up you'll also find that it's more susceptible to cross winds and air turbulence from other traffic. You may have to adjust you riding style, road speed and positioning to counteract these effects.

Hard Luggage

Definitely the “Rolls Royce” option. Many consider it makes a bike look like a delivery van, but few would argue against its practicality. Modern systems are made out of impact-resistant ABS plastics although one manufacturer uses aluminium, and are completely waterproof (Check the rubber seal between the lid and base before use, to make sure that it hasn't been damaged or has started to rot - a light smear of Vaseline or similar can work wonders here). The cases attach to mounting frames that have to be fitted to the bike, but lock in place for added security when parking up for a break or to go sight-seeing. At the end of a day’s riding they unlock quickly and easily, so that you can be showered, changed, and down in the bar while others are still fighting the bungee cords and buckles on their soft luggage. So if they're that good, why doesn’t everyone use them?

They're only available for certain bikes - the ones that are considered by manufacturers to be “suitable” for touring.
They're expensive - a full set of panniers, top box, and the fitting brackets is going to cost around £500-£600.
The mounting brackets require some basic engineering skills to fit, but you could always pay your dealer to do this work for you.
Purists will say that all the brackets and boxes spoil the bike's lines, although most systems these days are quite well styled.
Top boxes are notorious for causing wind turbulence problems that affect a bike's handling. It's much reduced if you carry a pillion, in which case you'll probably need the extra luggage space anyway - and the pillion gets a backrest for free.
If you change your bike, you'll need to buy and fit a new set of mounting brackets so you can re-use the cases - possibly.
At the end of the day, the decision on whether to use hard luggage is a personal one, assuming that it’s available for your bike. But if you’re planning on doing some serious touring, then it’s an option worth considering.

There's one final benefit of hard luggage that none of the manufacturers mention. If you're unlucky enough to drop the bike, then panniers can prevent an awful lot of damage, both to the bodywork and the bike's mechanical components. Surprisingly, they'll probably only receive a few scuff marks or cracks at the worst, and a replacement will cost a lot less than a new fairing panel and engine covers!

Soft Luggage

This is the universal solution to carting stuff around on your bike. No matter what bike you’ve got, you should be able to find something to fit it. Made from a heavyweight Cordura material, usually with a plastic inner coating, there’s a variety of equipment available from a number of manufacturers over a range of prices. Generally speaking the more expensive the item, the better will be its build quality and the versatility of its fittings. However, it’s always a good idea to take the bike with you when making a purchase, just to make sure that it will fit properly and not mask any of the controls. This is especially so for sportsbikes with high level exhausts. If you’re using throwover panniers they must have plenty of clearance on the silencer(s), otherwise you could end up with a melted and burnt pair of jeans!

Although some soft luggage claims to be waterproof, most isn’t and will only keep the contents dry in a brief, light shower. Therefore unless you want to turn up in the bar at the end of the day looking as though you’ve just taken a shower with your clothes on, err on the side of caution and pack everything in waterproof bags before stowing them in the luggage. Heavy-duty plastic bin liners are ideal for this purpose. It’s also a good idea to use a separate bag for each type of item that you’re taking; T-shirts in one bag, underwear in another etc., and label them accordingly. This way you don’t have to unpack everything just to find a clean pair of socks.

There are three basic types of soft luggage; tank bags, pannier systems and tail packs.

Tank Bags

Considered by most people to be absolutely essential for touring. It should have a clear pocket on top for route instructions, notes, maps, etc., but if you’re riding two-up and have a means of communicating with your pillion, you might want to think about using a back-mounted map pocket, and let them do the navigating. Even if you’ve got hard luggage on the bike, you’ll still find a tank bag useful. Most use magnets to attach the bag to the metal fuel tank, with an auxiliary strap that can be secured around the headstock. On most faired bikes, the magnets alone will hold the bag firmly in place at highly illegal speeds, but on un-faired bikes you’ll need the strap as well to stop the bag hitting you in the chest at 90mph before disappearing down the road behind you! You might also want to consider putting a soft cloth or sheet of thin plastic over the tank to prevent the bag scratching the paintwork. If your bike has a plastic tank, then magnets are no good and you’ll need a tank bag with a strap system to hold it in place. The French company Baglux do custom tank covers with clips to attach a variety of different shapes and sizes of bag. You can even have the whole lot colour-coded to match the bike’s paintwork. Some bike manufacturers who use plastic fuel tanks (BMW, Triumph) produce their own tank bag systems. Talk to your dealer to find out what’s available. You should also check the height of the bag when you’re sitting on the bike. Tourers have a more upright riding position and can accommodate a taller tank bag without obscuring the instruments or the road ahead. Sportsbikes by contrast, position the rider over the tank, and if the bag’s too tall you may end up with the chin bar of your helmet resting on the top of the bag. If you’ve ever seen a rider peering over the top of a fully expanded tank bag on a 996 then you’ll know what I mean.

Throwover Panniers

These fit over, under, or around the pillon seat of the bike, with a bag hanging down either side. They’re held in place with a mixture of Velcro strips, plastic clips, and bungee cords, and offer a wide range of adjustment so that they’ll fit almost any bike. There’s one system that has a harness that you can leave on the bike, and then clip the bags to it when you want to carry luggage.

Make sure that whatever system you choose fits your bike properly before parting with your money, or alternatively have the guarantee of a full refund if there’s a fitting problem.

Check the following:

They mustn’t foul any part of the rear suspension at any point in its travel.
They don’t flap around in the breeze
They can’t be pulled off the bike in any direction, as you don’t want them disappearing down the road behind you. Be particularly brutal when checking this, but get a friend to hold on to the bike while you’re doing it!
They shouldn't obscure the pillion pegs or make it impossible to carry a passenger. You may be going solo on this trip, but next time it may be different!
There should be at least one inch (25mm) of clear air between the panniers and any part of the exhaust system when stuffed full (most bags also have a heat reflective layer built into the lower face).
Different pannier systems have different capacities, but don’t go straight for the biggest just on the grounds that it will give you more space. To make it fit properly and stay in place securely, soft luggage has to be filled. So if you’re using it on a short trip, do you really want to have to fill half of it with newspaper or bits of foam rubber? Some systems offer a variable capacity by using zip-out expansion sections, so are worth considering. And don’t forget to protect any areas of the bike’s bodywork that might be rubbed by the throwovers. A couple of strips of gaffer tape on the body panels can work wonders here.

Tail Packs

These used to be small bags that could be bungeed onto the pillion seat or a rack, and were more suitable for weekend breaks. However, a number of manufacturers are now producing packs with capacities of around 60-100L, which is enough to keep most people supplied with life’s essentials for a two-week trip. They come in a variety of designs from tubular sacks to things that look like expanding holdalls, with one type using a rack system that can carry one or two bags that zip together. Most of them use the pillion seat for the main support, which only makes them suitable for solo riders. However, some can be attached to a rack behind the seat, freeing up the pillion space, but you’ll need to make sure that you don’t overload the rack and its mountings.

Whatever luggage system you end up using, have a great trip.


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