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Motorcycle luggage: what's right for you?

Summer’s here and the time is right for…road trips! So, if you’re planning on a bit of a tour and wondering how to pack in all your stuff, here are a few tips.

A lot of the time many bikes run around completely unadorned by any kind of luggage. And, let’s face it, your average sports bike is not exactly easy to bring up to panel-van-rivalling haulage capacity. But there are all sorts of options available to bring your gear along with you, some better than others.

Hard Luggage

Let’s start with the Rolls-Royce option. The fact is, nothing beats frame-mounted hard luggage for safety, security and (arguably) weather-tightness. Usually consisting of a top-box and panniers, there are a myriad choices. Many touring and adventure bikes come with factory-fit options, some styled and painted to complement the bike.

Some of the biggest advantages of hard luggage arise from being locked onto frames fitted on the bike. This means the average scumbag will find it harder to break into or steal your luggage. It also ensures the luggage stays in place and attached to the bike when riding, avoiding the risk of it moving and possibly getting trapped in a wheel or the chain–with potentially disastrous consequences.

Hard luggage locked onto fitted frame on a motorcycle

You can't beat a drop of the hard stuff. And you can even mix-and-match with other luggage

Hard luggage sets can be commodious and are sometimes expandable. The good ones are also well sealed and potentially weathertight, though if you might encounter a torrential downpour the smart advice is to put everything inside into a waterproof plastic bag. Some luxury luggage sets come with their own custom waterproof liner.

Downsides? One is weight: the frames and cases could add 30kg to the bike, but at least those kilos are locked on tight. Soft luggage is lighter. The second is some lack of flexibility because the cases won’t pack-down. Also, if you’re doing a bit of adventure riding, you might get a bit nervous about the prospect of your expensive luggage set taking a bashing when/if the bike gets dropped. Although some of the hard-out adventure gear can shrug off the odd knock.

Framed soft luggage

A bit of a half-way house between the hard stuff and looser items, framed soft luggage can be an excellent choice. NZ’s very own Ventura is known around the world for its framed luggage and there are plenty of other options too, ranging from large rear packs to soft panniers.

There’s a bit more flexibility to pack things down than with hard cases, and many items will come with a slip-on rain cover to improve water resistance. Luggage clips and straps on the bags, combined with a few bungy straps and Kiwi ingenuity, can add extra capacity too.

Framed soft luggage on the back of motorcycle

Framed soft luggage is a good half-way house

The downsides fall between those of hard luggage and attaching loose luggage. Although the packs will fold down, you’ll still have frames attached to the bike. If you can get over the aesthetics and aren’t planning on tearing through jungle that might not be a problem. And while rain covers might help they also might not keep out the most torrential downpours, plus they have been known to come off.

Dry-sealed luggage

If you’re heading for the Indian monsoon–or riding through Fiordland–this is the sort of stuff you want. Until recently your options consisted mostly of loose roll-top dry bags that you had to secure to the bike somehow. But now various frame-mounted sets are available, using the same material and roll-top closure but securely attached to their own frames.

dry-sealed motorcycle luggage bags

The best prospect of dry daks

Kit like this is the most waterproof you can get. Even so, the potential for ingress is still there, so keeping the contents in a plastic bag offers extra reassurance. You can still do it the old way, of course, by using dry bags and securing them to the pillion seat or rear luggage frame. But there are a few drawbacks, as we shall see…

Loose Luggage

At some stage we’ve probably all had to attach something to the bike using nothing more than bungy cords. And it’s still an option, if not the best. Other ‘loose’ luggage includes things that are more securely mounted, such as tank bags and tail packs, and throwover panniers which usually secure to or under the pillion seat.

Versatile, flexible and often cheaper than frame-mounted options, this type of luggage may be all you need. But there are drawbacks. A pillion-mounted tail pack obviously nixes the pillion seat, and they can be fiddly to fit and remove. Tank bags are great for having things like change or your wallet to hand, and often have a clear map pocket on top. Downsides include having to remove the bag for fill-ups, they’re not always stable at speed, security is pretty much zero, plus they can intrude on upper body movement if you’re enjoying yourself in the twisties. With throwover panniers you have to be extremely careful that nothing, especially the exhaust, is going to wear or burn through it. The comedy offload of your undies on the motorway aside, it’s not a good–or safe–look. Straps coming undone is another danger.

loose luggage strapped down on a bike

Fat straps are a better option than conventional bungy cords

Attaching loose bags to the bike, say on the pillion seat or tailpiece, is possible but comes with a big warning; loose straps and materials are potentially deadly if they jam in the chain or wheel/swingarm area.

If you are going to strap things down with bungy cords, two tips: one, make sure the bungy hooks cannot slide along somewhere. There will be a natural tendency for them to travel towards the place of least tension, potentially coming undone completely. And two, look for 'Fat Straps'. These bungy cords are flat, not round, so not only do they not cut into anything they are pulled across, they resist rolling round one another - another way that bungy cords can find the point of least tension and come loose.

Suspension

All this talk of luggage can’t go without a word on suspension. Loading up the bike will change your suspension loadings and geometry. So you’ll almost certainly need to increase preload and, with it, rebound damping as well as tyre pressures. You might find advice on settings in the owner’s manual, or find out more about set-up from our good friend Dave Moss.

Finally, have a good think about what you need to take in your luggage if you’re going on a long tour. Nobody who ever had a roadside puncture regretted those days carrying around an unused repair kit and mini compressor. Same goes for tools: what sort of roadside repair might you have to make, and what will you need for it? At the very least you’ll want the tools needed to adjust the chain and remove the tank, wheels, spark plugs and valve covers.

Visit the Dave Moss Tuning site for suspension guidance

More info on luggage and accessories