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Got Baggage? Thinking About Motorcycle Saddlebags

Tail bags vs. top boxes. Hardshell vs. softbag: with so many choices, an adventure motorcyclist tries to make sense of all the motorcycle saddlebags and luggage choices.

As a motorcyclist, I’m a practical guy.  My KLR650 didn’t break the bank when I bought it third hand via Craigslist, and I’ve travelled all over British Columbia on it. Equally, when it came time to find the right luggage system for my first multi-week trip into northern BC in 2012, I went for practicality, splurging a little bit on 33-litre aluminum panniers and a DIY kit through Happy Trails. On the tail rack, I strapped a waterproof duffle (containing my tent, sleeping bag, clothing and Therm-a-Rest) using four hardware store bungee cords.  This system was economical. And even though it managed to attach my duffle to my dual sport for 6,000 kilometres over asphalt and gravel, over two years, in sun and in rain, somewhere between High River and Calgary I lost one of the cords.  This put the whole system in doubt. It was no longer practical.

Since then I’ve read the wise words of Chris Scott in my well-thumbed copy of the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook: “… don’t rely solely on elasticated bungees—they will hold something down but not in place so are only good for very light items.” It’s a wonder I didn’t leave my duffle behind in Iskut!

Being in the market for new kit can be exciting, but also a little intimidating.  There is no shortage of gear one can consider strapping on the back of an adventure moto. There are Kreiga, Wolfman, Givi, and Happy Trails.  There are rear bags, tail bags, enduro duffles. Alternatively there are top boxes, hard cases, soft bags. My head’s spinning already. I need to figure out what I need the new item for.

I head out on multi-week trips into the backroads of British Columbia, Washington State and Alberta. Do I need an aluminum top box with a lock that will be securely fastened to the bike? Would a soft luggage option like a removable duffle do? What works for other riders?

Jose Manzano is a rider I know who goes on multi-week journeys into the US and has owned a BMW R1200GS and currently tours on an S1000R. On the GS, he had a BMW Vario top case, and then moved to a Touratech system. He seems to have liked the Vario best. Easily detachable, not too wide or bulky, it was ideal for motel room stays.

“On the other hand it was very easy to overpack,” he tells me.

For the S1000R, Jose tried the Wolfman Expedition Dry bag, essentially a waterproof vinyl duffle that holds 33 litres, then moved on to the British-made Kreiga US-20 Drybag, a pricier waterproof “universal tailpack system for any motorcycle.” With more than 30 years of riding experience on many different makes of bikes, I’m glad to have talked to Jose, but I’m not quite at my decision yet. Plus, his S1000R is a very different bike than my KLR.

Jim Eldridge, Product Specialist at Happy Trails Products, let me know more about what’s popular with tail luggage for the KLR-set planning an adventure.

“From our experience, the most popular tail trunks for the KLR typically fall into the Givi and HTP Aluminum box camps depending on the intended use of the trunk,” he informed me from the Happy Trails headquarters in Boise, Idaho.

What about the adventure rider who intends to be out of town for two weeks? What do riders who take their bikes on long backcountry rides favour on the back?

“Where strength and waterproofing are key (riders) tend to go with our aluminum top box in either 43-litre or even the large 58-litre size,” Eldridge says. “Those who tend to haul a fair amount of stuff, but ride more weekend single track and tough track backcountry routes will either stay with the duffle bag and bungee route, or step up a notch to our small and/or large Mojave Soft Tail bag mounted to our T2 plate so they do not have to worry about losing bungee cords.”

Are there advantages to soft luggage or a duffle bag over a hard top box? It would seem so.

“When you have technical up and down sections the aluminum or Givi hard boxes can hit you in the back—sometimes with painful results,” says Eldridge.

So for a guy who does on- or off-road journeys lasting between a weekend and two weeks, I’m getting a sense of what I should get.  But I think I’ll ask a few more questions.

Trevor Pavelich is the Sales and Accessory Advisor at Burnaby Kawasaki in British Columbia’s lower mainland. He may be able to narrow things down for my make and model.

“There are two buyers out there,” he tells me. “Those that put the hard cases on and those that like the duffle style.”

From the show room, the light glinting off shiny new KLRs, Ninjas and Versys, Pavelich tells me about the many options out there for tail luggage for the KLR650.

“The drag coefficient is something to consider.  A bike will handle differently with hard bags,” he says.  “At 100 to 120 kmh, the weight balance is more to the back, a bike can develop handling issues.”

Another factor is keeping the environment you’re riding through out of your luggage.  Dust and water can seep in with nylon bags, so the environment you’re preparing for has to be considered.

“For guys travelling the Dempster Highway in [Yukon Territory], it can get dusty,” says Pavelich. “On longer trips nylon bags can let dust in. The kind of dry bag that you can roll the top two or three times keeps it watertight and dust free.”

Ultimately it is about style and what the individual rider needs. Hard bags are heavier and pricier than a duffle, but they will keep the outside environment outside. But in the case of a drop, there will be more weight to deal with to right the bike.

“Soft luggage can deal with a tipover better than hard luggage, especially if the hard luggage breaks a fastener.”

The other factor is whether you have more than one bike.  I don’t have that to consider, but hard bags with specific fasteners wouldn’t be transferable to another bike.

“A soft bag can be transferred from one larger dualsport, like a KLR, to a smaller dualsport for example,” says Pavelich. From his view it would seem that Wolfman Expedition Dry duffles and Giant Loop saddlebags are popular choices with a track record.

If the idea of packing a bulky bag, even if it be soft luggage, doesn’t appeal, I found a kind of motorcycle saddlebag that molds to the back of a dualsport bike like an extra passenger (albeit much smaller, and with fewer appendages). Besides making all kinds of stuff sacks, dry bags and dry pods, Giant Loop makes a waterproof 60-litre bag that clings to the back of the bike and is meant for multi-day adventure rides. It’s also low and is built to reduce bike-handling issues.

Harold Olaf Cecil is the owner and founder of Giant Loop in Bend, Oregon. “The saddlebags require no special luggage racks,” he says about his kit, adding that no loops or braces are needed. “They simply strap on and off a huge array of makes and models.”

The one he points out to me is the Great Basin, which is a popular choice for an “in-between bike” such as the KLR650—“a thumper with a windscreen and body panels” and with passenger pegs. Cecil says that, in his experience, hard luggage on the back can be on the weighty side.

“The typical hard luggage system,” he says, “weighs 40-plus pounds before you’ve even packed a pair of clean socks.”

He mentions a key worry during a remote adventure. What if your hard luggage bends with a crash? The lids can become misaligned with the boxes. Or what if the solid, but rigid, structure of the boxes transfer so much of a crash’s energy into the subframe of the motorcycle that it causes the bike to fail? Not a good set of circumstances in the backcountry.

“We call our system adventure-proof,” says Cecil, “because they’re designed to take a beating and not fail in the field … and they keep the bike handling and performing closer to the unpacked bike’s capabilities.”

So, to reiterate, I could go with a hard luggage system for the tail rack of my KLR650, but for my purposes of the multi-day or multi-week adventure, some on- and some off-road, softer options seem to be more practical.

The pros of hard luggage are plenty of room for stuff and solid construction, but the cons are a risk of over-packing, failure in a tipover and possible pain in the backside. It’s also the priciest and most labour-intensive option (if I were to order a DIY kit).

I could go with a soft luggage option like a duffle bag. The pros are it’s more affordable at a little over $100 for a basic waterproof duffle and straps.  Cons …well there aren’t many. Perhaps the bike would be a little bulkier with a possibility of some top-heavy bike handling performance if packed too ambitiously.

Lastly, there’s the adventure-proof motorcycle saddlebag. Pros are that it is designed to minimize bike-handling issues, reduce the possibility of over-packing greatly, and keep the luggage from working against me in a tipover resulting in damage. The con is the price, with saddlebags from Giant Loop for the KLR650 going for $400 and up.

Hmmm. There’s much to mull over. But is my practical, more economical side winning?

I call up Jose to tell him how my research is going.  He is enjoying his Kriega setup for his BMW S1000R.  Seeing as how he has sold his other beemer, the R1200GS, he is having an accessories sale to part with the kit he no longer needs from that bike.

He’s parting with his black Wolfman Expedition Dry duffle. He barely used it and he’s asking $100. So I’ve come full circle. I think I’ve decided.

by Trevor Marc Hughes Canadian Biker Issue #310


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