There are as many ways to carry gear on a motorcycle as there are riders with a good imagination and some tie-down straps, but the saddlebag—or, motorcycle side case, in the parlance of our times—has been the one to endure.
And it’s easy to see why. A well-designed and properly mounted set of side cases affords maximum capacity while placing the luggage away from the rider and passenger, and, just as crucially, carrying that weight low on the motorcycle. Adventure-touring motorcycles, especially, can be top heavy, so the lower you can carry your cargo, the less of an impact on balance and handling it’ll have. That’s not to say a top box isn’t also extremely useful, but if the goal is to retain as much of the motorcycle’s unladen manners, side cases are the way to go.
So now which ones do you choose? Modern side cases fall into general categories: metal “adventure-style” cases, plastic cases, mounted soft luggage, and more familiar “throw over” saddlebags. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. Understanding what kind of riding you’re likely to do, and taking into account what kind of motorcycle you have, will help make the choices clearer. Here are the basic types:
All-Weather Adventure Motorcycle Side Cases
The adventure-style aluminum side cases are the equipment of choice for round-the-world travelers and inveterate commuters alike, and it’s easy to understand why. Bag systems like the new SW-MOTECH Trax Adventure or the tried-and-true SW-MOTECH Trax EVO embody years of on-the-trail R&D. They’re built to take the falls and scrapes of backwoods riding, which means they’re more than durable enough for a street-biased tour or your everyday commute.
Flexibility is another reason they’re popular. You can fit them with inner bag liners that make packing simpler and promote on-the-road organization. Their top-loading design means that you can quickly gain access to your gear without worrying about the contents falling on the ground. And it’s also true that these kinds of bags are thoroughly waterproof, which is just as important when keeping your camping gear dry – or your computer.. Nobody likes a soggy PowerPoint presentation.
Want an economical option in a rugged, adventure-ready side case? There’s the DrySpec H-36. This plastic-shell case has a 36-liter capacity and a no-nonsense rectangular shape says you’re a function-first rider. Note that the DrySpec cases require an additional quick-release mounting system.
An alternative to the SW-MOTECH and DrySpec lines comes from Givi, and their Trekker Outback setup. The aluminum Trekker series, available in 37-liter and 48-liter sizes, are top-opening with sturdy external handles and tie-down points so you can strap additional cargo to the lids.
Givi’s Trekker Monokey luggage cases fall into the Adventure class by dint of their styling, but these are plastic-shelled cases with a hybrid lid system. The upper part of the outer shell opens to give you partial access to the bag, while the entire outer lid opens for complete access. Givi’s offerings come in black or silver, and in 33-liter and 46-liter capacities.
Remember that all of these side cases require bike-specific mounting brackets, available from SW-MOTECH. (Visit the Shop By Bike page to find your make and model to see what’s available.) In many cases, the side mounts are available in quick-release form, which allows you to detach the ring mounts for the times you don’t need to carry the full set of side cases.
Touring-Style Motorcycle Side Cases
Let’s say you own a sleeker bike, not a blocky BMW GS or Triumph Tiger. Then you’d want more streamlined hard cases, like these from Givi. The Italian firm’s V35 PLX side cases fit SW-MOTECH mounts and provide a generous 35 liters of storage. Like most plastic touring cases, these are side opening, so bag liners are helpful to maintain organization. A larger option is Givi’s E41 Monokey, which, as the name implies, gives you 41 liters inside a waterproof and dustproof vessel.
With slight changes in hardware, the same mounts that can carry a SW-MOTECH Trax aluminum pannier set can also mount any of Givi’s touring cases.
Mounted Soft Motorcycle Saddlebags
It used to be that all soft saddlebags were simply thrown over the saddle and secured as best they could be. Oh, but that’s so 1978. The SW-MOTECH Blaze system remains an innovative hybrid of lightweight, textile cases with bike-specific mounting that ensure stability on the bike and a sleekness that throwover bags can’t hope to match.
The basic Blaze bag expands from 14 to 21 liters (for a total capacity of 28 to 42 liters) via a circumferential zipper and expansion gusset. Despite the appearances, the Blaze is a top loader, thanks to a U-shaped opening that runs full length along the top of the bag. The 1680-denier fabric is supported by internal stiffeners. Even better, the mounting system uses simple stainless rods mounted to the bike that help carry some of the load but, most importantly, keep the bags well clear of the rear wheel. Ask any motorcyclist who’s had a bag get caught in the rear tire if this is a good thing. Finally, to ensure all-weather utility, the Blaze bags come with internal dry liners.
Looking for a more ruggedly styled soft side bag? There’s the SW-MOTECH Dakar series. As with the Blaze bags, they use a bike-specific mount to keep the bag steady and help distribute cargo load, but these are a more adventure-styled, roll-top dry bag, with a capacity of 32 liters each side. If you need more, there are loops and D-rings on the outside so you can strap more of your essentials to the outside.
New to the mounted-soft bag category is the SW-MOTECH Legend Gear side case, which is available in a 9.8-liter capacity as well as 13.5-liter sizes. And they’re gorgeous. Made up of coated canvas and Napalon synthetic leather, the Legend design has a certain retro look but totally modern functionality. The roll-style top closing helps with water resistance, as does the internal polyurethane-coated weather barrier.
More innovation: The Legend series can be mixed and matched on any bike depending on exhaust location and other factors, so you can have a 9.8-liter bag on the right and a 13.5 on the left, if that’s how it best fits your bike. A Saddle Strap kit allows not only this asymmetric mounting but also makes it so you can run just one bag at a time if that suits your mission. Additionally, there are specific Sidecarrier Mounts for certain bike models that make installation even easier.
When you step back and look at the choices available today, it’s clear we’ve come a long way from basic leather satchels thrown over a motorcycle saddle. Once you use truly modern side bags, you won’t long for the “good old days” ever again.