Disclosure: Ride Adventures is a participant in the Avantlink affiliate program as well as other affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Avantlink and affiliated sites at no extra cost to you. Please see my Disclosure for more details.
Unlike mankind according to the Declaration of Independence, not all motorcycle bags are created equal. When it comes to motorcycle luggage there are many different options and, while they all serve the same essential function of storing and protecting your precious cargo, they accomplish that function in unique ways. Each with its own pros and cons.
When choosing which bags are right for you, you must first decide on which type: Motorcycle Soft Bags or Hard Cases.
Let’s look at the basic criteria that we consider after more than a decade of riding and guiding tours around the world. We will compare how each type performs in each category and reveal which one is our preferred choice.
Category 1: The Protection You Get From Your Motorcycle Bag
One would assume that motorcycle hard cases offer the best protection due to the nature of the durable, rigid structure of the case. This is accurate… in some cases (pun intended), but not all. If we ask ourselves what are the cases protecting its contents from?
The obvious answer is from collisions with the ground and other external impacts. Or the elements and harsh environments (we will discuss waterproofing later on).
However there is another element that is frequently overlooked like brussel sprouts at family dinner.
"Did someone order scrambled eggs & Redbull?"
Just when you thought your delicate camera equipment, laptop, and the dozen eggs your sweetheart asked you to pick up on your way home is snug as a bug in a rug in those hard cases, you throttle into a speed bump leaving the grocer (because it’s fun), or tag a pothole and washboard on that forest service road you can never pass up.
You arrive home from your early Sunday morning ride beaming ear to ear because you were riding a motorcycle AND remembered to get those eggs for Easter Sunday, can your day get any better?
Then you open the cases to retrieve your precious cargo like a boss bringing home the bacon, when....“*#@?! *%#!!....” you are yelling the Lord's name in vain among other stress relieving expletives while your neighbor Ned Flanders and church choir have a look of shock on their smug faces.
Not because you are excited to hunt for painted eggs to celebrate the Easter miracle, but because the hard cases turned your precious cargo into a $3k technology omelette.
"I bring to you the latest development in adv tech, the bubble wrap mod :)"
Rigid cases are prone to considerable shaking and vibration ... kryptonite for any sensitive electronics and otherwise fragile contents.
This type of damage can be prevented by packing and wrapping delicate items tightly with soft objects like a towel or those cozy fleece pajamas your dear ol’ mother made that you love to wear in secret but are too embarrassed to wear around your buddies.
"Also can be used as a second pillow?"
Motorcycle soft bags on the other hand don’t have nearly the same issue with shaking or vibration since the pliable bag typically folds or rolls down onto itself and straps tight to close the void inside and secure its contents in place, keeping them from shifting around excessively.
While the soft motorcycle bags are not prone to internal shaking and vibration like a hard case, you likewise would not want to pack your delicate electronics or fine china in your soft bags without padding and protecting them. Soft bags offer very little protection from external impacts.
Like that time you were doing dirt donuts and dropped your bike on a rock and hurt your back picking it up quickly hoping for no witnesses.
Motorcycle hard cases are the victor in this category by a slim margin. To protect your belongings from the case itself, always remember the wise advice to always “wrap it up”.
Category 2: The Weight of Your Motorcycle Bag
The question of weight between soft bags and hard cases is as straightforward as an In-N-Out burger menu. Hard cases can be made with surprisingly lightweight rigid materials but combined with the metal pannier mounting frames and hardware, considerable mass is added to the rear of the motorcycle.
"but the mass looks so good am I right"
Some motorcycle soft bags also incorporate pannier frames but there are many options that are frameless. The lightweight nature of the pliable materials make soft cases the clear winner when it comes to keeping your bike as light and agile as possible..
Motorcycle soft bags are the victor here.
Category 3: Waterproofing Ability of Your Motorcycle Bag
Waterproofing claims from luggage manufacturers are like those alleged anti-fog snow goggles that you always find yourself wiping and leave you with zero visibility in a couloir.
"We've had enough misadventures to know nothing is 100% waterproof"
In our experience riding through monsoon like rain storms, neither soft bags or hard cases are necessarily 100% waterproof. And when it comes to that deep river crossing that sends a tidal wave of water over your luggage… fahgettaboudit!
Like watching a boxing match go twelve rounds and end in a draw, there is no clear winner In the category of waterproofing.
PRO TIP: If there is any chance of heavy rain or sizable water crossings, we strongly recommend packing all your moisture sensitive luggage inside a secondary dry bag.
Category 3: The Durability of Your Motorcycle Bag
Motorcycle hard cases protect your valuables from being crushed in the event of impact but occasionally they cannot protect themselves from such demise. If your bike impacts the ground or barely snags a tree in a narrow passage, the rigid cases and/or the pannier frame can dent, or worse get mangled and twisted.
In addition to being an eyesore, an impact could damage a latch or bend a lid hinge such that it does not close and seal properly anymore like that Tupperware lid that you melted in the dishwasher heat cycle that now fits like a fat guy in a little coat.
"We all fall down eventually"
The heavy-duty yet pliable nature of the soft luggage material in effect makes the motorcycle soft bags extremely durable and resistant to structural damage.
Sure, the material could possibly tear in the event of a get-off at speed or if you forget to sheath the samurai sword that you never leave home without. Another reason to always travel with duct tape in your toolkit.
Any tear can easily be mended in a few seconds (good as new, almost) no matter how remote your adventure. Yes we have done that, but in general we have seen far less durability issues.
Therefore we declare motorcycle soft bags the leader in terms of durability.
Category 5: Ease of Access Into Your Motorcycle Bag
Motorcycle soft bags can be like Mary Poppins’s handbag, having to pull out everything including the kitchen sink to locate that desperately needed toilet paper… better hurry up!
"There's my remote, now where's did I pack the tv?"
After a few rides you’ll learn it’s not so bad if you pack the soft bags with more commonly needed items placed at the top where you can quickly and easily access them throughout the day and infrequently used items stuffed at the bottom.
"Top access does have it's benefits"
With many motorcycle hard case brands, a couple of quick release latches pop the lid wide open, giving you a birds eye view to all the stuff believed to be so necessary that you’re hauling it around on the back of your bike. Again, if you pack these wisely it’s possible to locate everything with minimal effort.
There’s no debate motorcycle hard cases win in terms of easy access.
Category 6: Ease of Installation of Your Motorcycle Bag System
When they named them “hard” cases they may have been referring to the difficulty of the installation in comparison to soft bags, rather than the rigid structure.
Jury is still out. What we do know is that time is money, and you’ll be much richer (in time) after installing soft bags.
"It looks so easy once it's on"
Unless you’re using your bike manufacturer’s proprietary mounting points, Hard Cases typically require a metal framework to be mounted with a handful of bolts and instructions that you might actually have to read.
Good excuse to grab a six-pack to keep hydrated, although you won’t even make it through your first beer before being done tightening a few straps to secure the motorcycle soft bags.
"Soft motorcycle bags attach with a few straps"
Once installed the first time however, hard cases buckle on and off of the framework quickly and effortlessly. Soft bags require nearly the same few minutes every time you install and uninstall.
Considering the initial and subsequent installations and removals, Ease of Installation is another 12 round draw.
Category 7: The Versatility of Your Motorcycle Bag
On motorcycle tours there is limited storage space to pack only the bare essentials. So if an item has a dual purpose, all the better.
While camping or stopping trailside for a snack it’s nice to have somewhere to sit, and for that, soft bags can be removed and serve as a bulky pillow or seat cushion.
Hard cases can double as a little makeshift chair and table as well. What’s more, if you pop the lid off your hard case and turn it upside down you have a nice little tray, plate, or cutting board to pass around an elaborate charcuterie board full of imported fine cheese, meat and dried fruit to all your soft bag buddies sitting in the dirt.
They’ll probably take turns making fun of you between mouthfuls of the best trailside snack they’ve ever had and will talk about the experience the rest of their lives.
Hard cases, especially those with removal lids, may come with multiple uses and greater versatility. Some folks have even used the lids as cooking surfaces.
Need we say more?
Category 8: Injury Due to Your Motorcycle Bag Type
You’ve heard it before: There’s two types of riders in the world, those who have fallen and those who will. And if you’re anything like me, falling will become as second nature as ducking into the woods to answer the call of nature.
The rigid structure of the motorcycle hard cases with its unforgiving edges and corners can pose an exceptionally unforgiving risk. The bulky hard cases are often the widest section of your bike and if you’re not careful can easily catch an obstacle such as a tree or rock in a narrow passage, or your buddy’s hard cases when trying to pass.
"Clipping does not make friends"
Furthermore they can make it extra challenging to bail and separate from the motorcycle, especially if you have a hard top case that tends to hold you in the cockpit.
When you fall (because you will as previously mentioned) keep your fingers crossed that none of your limbs are caught between a rock and a hard “case”. The weight of a 500+ lbs monster falling onto your arm or leg trapped under a hard case could easily crush it like a twig.
"Things got a little hairy in Bolivia"
The more forgiving slender constitution of the motorcycle soft bags will offer less impediment to separating your body from the massive machine that transformed instantly from your trusty steed to a massive angry beast destroying anything in its path faster than you can say, “oh $#!%”.
As you are careening toward the earth your first thought might be, “thank God I bought soft bags!”
Wouldn't you much rather get crushed by pillows? Seems like an obvious choice to me. Soft motorcycle bags for the win.
Category 9: Compatibility of Your Motorcycle Bag
If you are lucky enough to have multiple bikes and love wasting your day tediously swapping pannier frames from one bike to the next and back again, motorcycle hard cases are your ticket.
More excuses to drink more six packs in the garage. It’s not always that simple though, since pannier frames are unlikely to be compatible for different bikes.
If you have a money tree in your yard you can purchase a second pannier frame for your other bike(s) so the hard cases can swap like Vin Diesel, “Too Fast, Too Furious.”
"Less time tinkering with motorcycle bags means more time pinning it"
If you value simplicity and compatibility, think soft cases. They are magnificently versatile in the sense that many models will fit on just about any bike with minimal adjustment and effort, and can easily be swapped from one bike to the next, and the next.
We have a clear winner here, as a good set of Soft Bags may be the only luggage you’ll ever need to buy.
Motorcycle soft bags and hard cases both have their benefits and pitfalls. Realistically there is no right or wrong answer and your choice should depend on your specific priority of needs.
If you’re most interested in protecting your investment in expensive camera equipment, ease of access, or showing off your fancy charcuterie board skills to your buddy’s.... then the hard case option is a no-brainer.
If weight savings, durability, compatibility, and not crushing bones (safety) is your thing… then you think a lot like us.
Motorcycle soft bags are the clear winner in our book and we prefer to use them in our rental and tour guiding operations as well as for personal use. This is our suggestion on a solid soft motorcycle bags.
Giant Loops Great Basin
Giant Loop Round the World Panniers
"This is what the result will look like at the sum of all your awesome decisions"
If you are nonpartisan and remain on the fence about which option is best, you might be onto something. Possibly the best choice for you is a combination of soft bags and hard cases for maximum storage space and versatility.
Some riders opt for hard side cases with a soft bag strapped over the top. Others might choose soft side bags and a hard case mounted on top. Here is a suggestion if you go the hard case route.
GIVI Trekker Alaska 37 Liter
THE FINAL WORD
The worst decision here is indecision. Consider your needs and follow your first instinct, then get out and ride. Find out what works best for you and please let us know in the Comments section below!