Even if you don’t believe in magic, you have to admit soft luggage is sort of magical. It can help turn the least likely motorcycle into a touring bike, and do it for a fraction of what it cost to buy a purpose-built motorcycle. When you get home, you take it off and presto! You get your old motorcycle back in minutes. That’s way better than pulling a rabbit out of a hat. To keep the trick from going wrong, though, here are some tips to consider when choosing soft luggage.
Some general considerations first. Just as you do when you shop for riding gear, try any piece of soft luggage on your motorcycle before you buy. It doesn’t take long to find out that the term ‘universal’ sometimes means ‘doesn’t really fit anything well.’ Some luggage just isn’t compatible with some motorcycles, like those with high pipes that can melt saddlebags, or plastic tanks that rule out magnetic tank bags.
Especially with tank bags, mount the bag and then sit on the motorcycle to make sure the bag doesn’t crowd you, obscure the instruments or interfere with the handlebar when the front wheel is at full lock. Do the same with saddlebags that might interfere with your feet on the pegs.
Soft luggage can scuff paint over time, so if your motorcycle has a lot of shiny bodywork get some clear plastic sheeting to protect the finish, or cover contact points with several layers of low-tack masking tape for the duration of the ride. When you take any bag off, make sure you don’t set it down in dirt that sticks to it and scratches paint later. Loaded luggage moves around some once you’re underway, so make sure it’s strapped down securely to further protect surfaces.
Soft saddlebags give you the most bang for your luggage money. They’re best suited for solo riding because most bags are joined by straps that loop over the rear of the seat, right where your passenger would sit. Expansion zippers let you open up the bags and put more in them, but the extra weight shouldn’t make the bags droop enough to contact the mufflers or rear wheel. Outside pockets are handy for small stuff like a tire-pressure gauge, maps or rain covers. Pack the bags so the heaviest contents are forward and low and won’t upset the motorcycle’s handling.
Tail bags go on the back of the seat over the saddlebags straps, or on a rear rack or sissy bar. Keep the load light because tail bags are far rearward and high up, where they can affect handling. Mounting systems vary, from bungee cords to straps that loop under the seat to bags made to attach to the saddlebag straps. A tall bag can make it harder for some riders to swing a leg over to get on the motorcycle; do a trail run before you pick one, or practice stretching.
Tank bags are probably the most common soft luggage, useful for daily riding as well as long trips. Strap-on bags take a little more effort to remove and replace, and more initial set-up since you need to route the straps around the fuel tank and fairing so they don’t abrade and break, or melt from engine heat. Magnetic bags are the easiest to mount – all you need is a steel fuel tank – and come off in seconds at fuel stops. The magnets in most magnetic bags are very strong, and if you keep the heavy stuff at the bottom, the bag won’t shift around – but look for a bag with a safety strap anyway. In addition to peace of mind, it makes a quick lift-off theft less likely. Avoid keeping anything in a magnetic tank bag that can be affected by the magnets, like credit and ATM cards and un-shielded digital media.
Backpacks are popular with commuters, but there’s some debate about the advisability of strapping luggage to your body right over your spine, and if heavily loaded, many riders find them fatiguing on long rides anyway.