Adventure Riding Luggage - Hard Luggage Versus Soft Luggage

There are many posts on adventure riding forums and Facebook groups voicing strong opinions favouring either hard luggage or soft luggage. In some cases, discussions can get quite heated. This reoccurring debate of hard luggage versus soft luggage really has no right or wrong answer, it is more a case of personal preference which is influenced by the style of adventure riding you prefer, the duration of your rides and how much gear you carry.

This hard luggage versus soft luggage article includes valid points raised by adventure riders around the globe plus my personal experience of over 10 years of riding with both hard luggage and soft luggage.

Luggage Weight

Hard luggage weight: generally, hard luggage requires pannier frames and mounting hardware. Combined with the weight of the hard luggage itself, this normally means hard luggage is heavier than soft luggage.

Hard luggage pannier frames on a DRZ400
Hard luggage pannier mounting hardware on a DRZ400

Soft luggage weight: generally, soft luggage is far lighter than hard luggage. While some soft luggage does require metal pannier frames, there are many lightweight options that mount directly to the bike with straps and are extremely light by comparison. Among many, two good examples of the lightweight end of soft luggage are the Giant Loop Coyote and the AltRider Hemisphere.

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Lightweight AltRider Hemisphere soft panniers fitted to a DRZ400
View AltRider Hemisphere

Luggage Packing

Hard luggage packing: personally I find packing hard luggage quicker and easier than packing soft luggage. For a number of years I have used a DRZ400 fitted with hard luggage for riding and fly fishing trips. Everything I take on these trips has its own place within the hard panniers and slots into place beautifully. 

Soft luggage packing: it would be a fair comment that some soft luggage can be cumbersome to pack. I certainly find myself spending more time packing my soft luggage than my hard luggage. However, seasoned riders who use soft luggage will say it all comes down to a process and packing soft luggage with a good system is equally as quick as packing hard luggage.

Luggage Security

Hard luggage security: generally hard luggage wins over soft luggage regarding leaving your bike unattended such as going into a supermarket to restock food etc. Many hard luggage panniers have the ability to be locked and provide an adequate deterrent to most opportunistic thieves.

Soft luggage security: soft luggage does have vulnerability here. While some soft luggage can have locking systems or large zip eye and loops to allow the use of cable locks, generally the security of soft luggage can be breached with a $2 pocket knife it so doesn't provide as much security as hard luggage.

Durability and Crashability

Hard luggage durability and crashability: the durability and crashability of hard luggage relates to the panniers as well as the pannier frames. Most aluminium or modern polymer panniers can withstand a decent amount of abuse if good mounting hardware is used. Generally, it takes a serious high speed hit to tear the mounting points out of a pannier.

Normally the weakest link in a hard pannier setup are the pannier frames, especially if they have a small number of mounting points. Being regularly bent back into shape fatigues the metal making failure more likely down the line. In addition to that is the ongoing fatiguing from vibrations, shocks and knocks from riding.

A good example of this is a one month trip I did through the outback of Australia. I built up a DRZ400 specifically for this trip and build a hard luggage setup exactly the same as the DRZ400 bikes I have ridden over 180,000 km without issue in New Zealand. Due to the thousands of corrugations on the dirt tracks, over the 30 day ride, fatigue cracked the frames on three occasions forcing me to get welding done mid-trip. My riding buddies that used soft luggage had zero issues.

The pannier frames built up for an Australian trip. While this 8 point mounting design has been used on my other DRZ400 bikes and endured over 180,00km of New Zealand riding without issue, the thousands of harsh Australian corrugations fatigued and cracked the pannier frames requiring small welding repairs mid-trip
This is the lineup of bikes that we shipped over to Australia with the two bikes fitted with hard luggage on the left. As mentioned above the white RemoteMoto DRZ400 required a couple of small welding jobs along the way, however the XR650R had an even rougher time. In preparation for the Australian trip, the XR650R was fitted with a full subframe and rack system from Globetrottin. This wasn't a cheap item but the owner wanted to have the XR650R in the best shape possible for the 8,000km trip. Unfortunately the subframe suffered a number of breaks as a result of the unrelenting corrugations and required some crafty trail side repairs along the way. The three bikes with soft luggage had no issues. It’s not that hard luggage isn't suitable for Australia or other countries with punishing corrugations, hundreds of riders use hard luggage with great success, it does however mean that standard strength pannier racks will likely require gusseting and strengthening to stand up to demanding terrain.

Soft luggage durability and crashability: generally well-constructed soft luggage is very durable and can handle crashes quite well. Of course there is a limit and I have seen soft luggage rip fabric and tear straps. One of the positives with soft luggage is that it is generally easy to repair on the side of a trail. Cable ties are brilliant for repairing soft luggage and can normally provide an adequate fix to get you all the way back home.

Luggage Waterproofness

Hard luggage waterproofness: hard luggage with good seals can be 100% waterproof, some models can even withstand a complete dunking underwater. The hard panniers I use have a wet-edge system and can stand up to any weather conditions or water crossing you throw at them.

Here you can see the wet-edge that won't allow water inside the pannier. While a typical wet-edge is not 100% waterproof when fully submerged, wet-edge panniers remain waterproof when exposed to the most torrential rain or when water comes over the top of the panniers when crossing rivers.
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Through this section, muddy water came up and over the panniers but the wet-edge kept the contents dry as a bone

The main issue with hard luggage is if you damage a pannier and distort the seal. Aluminium and steel panniers are especially vulnerable to this. It can be quite a challenge to knock panniers back into shape or perform trail side repairs to restore 100% waterproofness.

Soft luggage waterproofness: this generally comes down to the quality of the soft luggage and also how it is mounted to your bike. I have used soft luggage saddlebag panniers which have had insufficient mounting so they moved around when riding and rubbed. This ended up wearing holes into the saddlebag panniers allowing water to come in when it rained or when I crossed a river.

Soft luggage with good mounting will reduce or eliminate rubbing and allow the soft luggage to remain waterproof. The AltRider Hemisphere soft luggage I use has proven to be waterproof after serious use and abuse. There are a number of other soft luggage options with secure mounting systems, worthy of a mention is the Mosko Moto Reckless series which mounts up firmly to the bike.

Luggage Mounting and Dismounting

Hard luggage mounting and dismounting: if you are taking all your gear into a hotel or stripping your bike down for a day ride, the ease of mounting and dismounting hard luggage depends entirely on the mounting hardware. Some hard luggage mounting has a quick release system which can be as simple as the turn of a knob or the pull of a lever. However some hard luggage mounting can be quite labour intensive and require multiple tools.

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This is a quick release system by Tusk allowing you to release the pannier with just the pull of this cable
View Tusk Panniers

It is worth noting that some of the quick release mounting systems on hard panniers can be very user-friendly however they are more vulnerable in a drop or crash. Quick release mounting systems can be difficult to repair on the side of a trail.

Soft luggage mounting and dismounting: generally soft luggage wins hands-down in this area. Many soft luggage options offer a very quick method to mount and dismount.

Accessing your Gear

Hard luggage access: probably one of the things I like about hard luggage is the fact you can flip a latch and access contents quickly and easily.

Soft luggage access: some soft luggage systems that are compartmentalised can be fairly convenient to access your gear however some of the more basic single compartment loop style bags can mean accessing gear throughout the day is a real pain.

This really comes down to the design of the soft luggage. On one of my first soft luggage setups I used multiple WolfMan duffle bags and saddle bags. Collectively, the number of straps, buckles and clips meant that accessing gear was really time-consuming. This was the primary reason I moved away from WolfMan gear.

It is worth noting that the WolfMan line is really good quality gear. While I no longer use the duffle bags or pannier bags, I use a lot of the other gear including the WolfMan tank bag and the WolfMan rollie bags for my tools.

Luggage Protection

Hard luggage protection: it would be a fair comment that hard luggage provides more protection for your gear than soft luggage in a drop or crash. When using hard panniers, I've dropped the bike numerous times and arrived at camp with all my contents safe and sound.

Soft luggage protection: while some soft luggage will do a better job than others, generally soft luggage doesn't do a great job of protecting your gear in a drop or crash. This can prove costly if you are carrying around expensive kit. This is unavoidable and simply the price you pay for the weight savings of soft luggage.

One story that pops into mind is a trip into the High Country of New Zealand using soft luggage. Not long into the ride I got a flat tyre. With nothing around to prop the bike up on and lift the wheel, I simply laid the bike over to remove the wheel; as I have done many many times before. As gentle as I was laying the bike over, when I reached camp and unpacked, I found that my brand-new aluminium frying pan was bent and mangled plus I had inadvertently murdered some perfectly innocent bananas!

The bike being laid over gently, but gear inside the soft bags was damaged

Hard panniers on the other hand not only provide excellent protection for your gear, when lying the bike over, the rear wheel is propped up making it easy to remove and refit.

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Hard panniers kicking the swing arm up making it a nice and easy job to remove and refit the rear wheel to fix a puncture

Luggage Cost

Hard luggage cost: typically hard luggage panniers plus the pannier frames required for mounting makes hard luggage reasonably expensive. However, companies such as Tusk now produce very affordable hard pannier and rack systems. Essentially the costs can vary greatly from the top end options such as Touratech through to the economy options such as Tusk Panniers.

Tusk Panniers
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View Tusk Panniers

Soft luggage cost: just like hard luggage, soft luggage can vary in price also. The variance in price normally relates to quality, durability and extra features. At one end there are companies that offer very basic soft luggage panniers for under $200 and at the other end there are companies that offer well thought-out and durable soft luggage systems for up to $700.

In the soft luggage market, Giant Loop has always been a big player for mid-priced, good quality gear. Their new roll top options are proving very popular:

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View the 39 litre Coyote
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View the 68 litre Great Basin

Off-Road Riding Practicality

Hard luggage practicality: generally hard luggage isn't used as much in the technical off-road terrain, especially tight single trails. Hard panniers often stick out much wider than soft luggage meaning they can catch on obstacles such as banks or tree branches and kick you off the bike. Additionally deep ruts can have you wedging and hanging your rear wheel.

This doesn't mean hard panniers aren't capable of technical off-road riding, I've taken hard luggage bikes through tight goat trails and a variety of other technical terrain. It simply means you need to be more spatially aware of your panniers when riding off-road.

Soft luggage practicality: because soft luggage is normally much narrower than hard luggage it is generally more user-friendly in the technical off-road terrain. This is why you will see most of the hardcore off-road riders running soft luggage. While soft luggage does mean your gear is more vulnerable if you strike a bank, tree branch etc, it will generally slide around obstacles far easier than hard luggage.

Luggage Appearance

Hard luggage appearance: some of the top end hard panniers do look quite sharp while some of the basic aluminium boxes can look very agricultural. Certain bikes lend themselves to suiting hard luggage more than others.

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The size and style of this set of panniers fitted to this DRZ400 were selected to suit the bike

Soft luggage appearance: while some soft luggage can look bland or out of place on certain bikes, there is some really nice looking soft luggage options on the market now.

The AltRider Hemisphere soft panniers suit enduro style bikes like this KTM500
View AltRider Hemisphere

Luggage Capacity

Hard luggage capacity: for round the world travellers, hard luggage is often selected due to its ability to carry large loads. Not only can hard panniers have large capacity, they commonly have items straped to the top and mounted to the sides or bottom. This allows the capacity to be significantly increased.

Dry bags, Rotopax fuel containers and Soto fuel bottles mounted to the hard panniers of my DRZ400 when riding through Australia

Soft luggage capacity: while the majority of soft luggage is normally around the 40 litre mark and ideally suited for shorter trips, there are a growing number of options that are 80 litres or more offering a wider range of options for longer trips where more gear is required. Additionally, extra soft bags or dry bags can be strapped to a main soft luggage pannier system.

Mounting a 17 litre Giant Loop Rogue Dry Bag to increase capacity
View Rogue Dry Bag

Rider Safety

Hard luggage safety: one of the most common complaints about hard luggage is that it is dangerous in a crash or can catch your foot or leg and cause injury. This opens a can of worms debate that is generally influenced by three topics:

Panniers with sharp or pointy edges - Many of the top end hard panniers have rounded corners or plastic covers to avoid having sharp or pointy edges. Some of the cheaper hard panniers or home-made panniers folded from sheet metal can have very pointy edges that can increase the chances of injuring a rider.

Improper mounting - Hard panniers that are mounted too low on the bike can have the benefit of lowering your centre of gravity, however it increases the chance of you catching your foot or leg. Mounting hard panniers higher up on the bike will give your foot adequate clearance and is the best way to avoid injury.

Rider technique – In most instances where riders injure themselves using hard luggage, it is caused by dabbing a foot in the middle of a sketchy moment. The foot or leg is then struck by the pannier and can cause injury. Experienced riders that use hard luggage avoid dabbing the foot when possible, instead they stay on the pegs and use rider skills to correct a sketchy moment. If dabbing the foot is unavoidable, an experienced rider will normally do this without catching their foot on the pannier. Generally, an experienced rider will avoid injury when using hard panniers.

When it comes to a crash and the bike lands on top of you, it could be a fair comment that rigid hard luggage can cause injury easier than soft luggage. Again, a huge contributor to avoiding injury is rider experience. Experienced riders that know how to handle a crash will normally avoid injury by keeping their body out of harm's way.

Soft luggage safety: soft luggage is generally mounted higher on the bike than hard luggage and often doesn't stick out as far which reduces the chance of a rider catching their foot or leg. It would be a fair comment that soft luggage generally poses less risk of injury than hard luggage when it comes to a crash.

While I agree that soft luggage is the safer of the two, the only time I've ever had an injury is with soft luggage. The injury happened when I was riding a New Zealand High Country trail at a reasonable pace, came over a crest and dropped into an obscured deep rut. My left foot caught the side of the rut and with lightning speed it was torn off the footpeg and slammed against my soft luggage. The resulting injury was a torn ligament in my knee that required a number of weeks to fully recover. This injury would have occurred with hard luggage or soft luggage, however I find it interesting that over 180,000 km has been ridden on a bike with hard luggage and not once have I injured myself.

Hard luggage versus soft luggage summary

As I write this article, I have adventure bikes with both hard luggage and soft luggage. The way I choose which luggage option I use is quite simple. For lengthy and more relaxed pace riding and fly fishing trips where I am carrying a great deal of gear, I'll normally use hard luggage. For the more fast paced adventure rides in technical terrain where keeping the bike as lightweight and as nimble as possible is the primary goal, I'll normally use soft luggage.

While there are no strict rules to choosing between hard luggage and soft luggage, running through a process of elimination based on your riding style and luggage capacity will soon reveal the ideal setup.

Author of this article: RMOTO