We all have baggage. For what your psychoanalyst can't help you with you will need luggage.
To tell a real adventure rider look at the panniers. If there are no scratches they are either a poser or just got them for their birthday. Maybe poser is too strong a word. Maybe they like the look and comfort of an adventure bike and are happy to stick to paved roads on weekend rides. I'm not here to judge.
OK, maybe I can be a little judgmental. When I see a GS in full battle gear with extra lights and gear but no dirt, I'm suspicious. When the skid plate is pristine without a single gouge or dent, I'm pretty sure. And when I see the Hero Cam mount, I'm convinced. DORK!! Adventure riding is inversely proportional to bling and directly proportional to dirt. A clean bike is the emblem of an unimaginative mind.
There are many suppliers of adventure gear. Twisted Throttle, Touratech, Wolfman, and Happy Trails are among my favorites. Whitehorse Gear is not as big but gets a special mention for being a local New England company that is very supportive of riders.
When most riders get a new bike the first thing they think about is bags. It's the most obvious symbol of being a serious rider. Serious riders need stuff, and need a place to put it. The old cowboy saddle bags have evolved into a variety of metal panniers, textile bags, and rubberized, waterproof vaults.
Before I comment on each type allow me to rant for a moment on top boxes. Top boxes are great if you own a Vespa, deliver pizzas for a living, or live in a third world country. Other than that - What were you thinking? As high as possible and behind the rear axle?! Could there be any place worse to add weight to a bike?
“Oh, but it's so convenient. I can put my helmet in there when I stop” I hear them say. If carrying a helmet is that much of a burden maybe they should buy a Buick! Not only is it horrible for weight distribution, it's as aerodynamic as a brick. The wind wraps around the body and then hits this billboard for laziness. You'd better get that big bore kit so you can keep up with the mopeds.
Side winds are especially fun as they try to push the back end while the lightened front end is less grippy. Gusty side winds make it feel like a sail boat on the bay, and on rocky trails it feels like an inverted pendulum is attached to the bike. Don't do it !!!
And now back to our regular programming.
Metal boxes are generally secure, durable, and waterproof. They look serious and enhance the go anywhere appearance of the bike. The downside is that they are heavy, expensive, and it's tempting to get one with too much room. By that I mean that there is an addictive tendency to fill them up. Horror Vacui – Nature abhors a vacuum. First it's the rain suit in case it rains. Then it's a couple of tools, and a flashlight, and a tire patch kit, and a tire pump, and a sweater, and so on. There is no end.
On an extended trip they can offer superior protection in case of rough terrain and an unexpected trip off the trail. They also come with locks that keep prying fingers at bay. Plus they are great places to put all the cool stickers you pick up along the way.
Just as you can buy a “fashion leather” bike jacket that will shred the first time you hit pavement, you can buy adventure-ish metal panniers that will fold up the first time they hit the ground. Luckily, it was a friend's bags that exposed this fact to me. Before you buy, take the lid off and try to flex the box diagonally. If it moves you should consider just how tough you intend to get before putting down your money.
An alternative is to make your own boxes. This picture is of my Transalp with panniers I made from Army surplus Mermite boxes bought on eBay. The cost was about $100 plus another $150 for the rack. This thread on ADVRider shows how to do it. I have also seen them made with Pelican cases and ammo boxes. If you are handy with a welder you can make them yourself from scratch.
This picture points out another great benefit of hard bags. The bike can't fall as far - which makes it much easier to pick up when it goes over. After a long day on the road that is priceless!
Dry bags are a relatively new alternative to hard bags. People have been adapting kayaking and white water bags to motorcycles for a long time, but it seems that only recently products made specifically for motorcycling have become available. Their big advantages are light weight and lower cost - and they're waterproof.
When I say waterproof, I mean that they can stay 3 feet underwater for at least 30 minutes without a drop entering the bag. It can take that long to pick up a bike that has fallen over in a river.
The Wolfman Rocky Mountain bags and Happy Trails rack together are $740, versus the Happy Trails Owyhee system (bags + rack) at $1019. As they say on TV, “A significant savings!” Both are 64 liter capacity but the metal boxes with liner may be more convenient for access and organization. Only you can judge how the value of convenience relates to your budget.
For bikes with only a subframe in the rear, two systems come to mind. Dirt Bagz with lightweight brackets to protect them from the exhaust and rear wheel are great for small loads and short trips. My friend Marty used them for a 10 day trip to Baja with his XR650R and was very happy.
For longer trips and more complete protection there are the Giant Loop bags. I used the Giant Loop Coyote bag on my recent trip into Mexico. By itself it is water resistant but with the waterproof inner bags it meets my requirements for motorcycle swimming. The capacity of the Coyote bag might seem small at 30 liters but it is well organized into 3 fitted pods that held most of my gear. Tools and parts in the left pod, cook gear and food in the right pod, and clothes in the center pod. For longer trips a 2nd dry bag can be added to the system for a total of 100 liters. I used this one for my sleeping bag and other stuff.
Perhaps the best part of the GL Coyote is that it is solidly strapped to the bike. The weight is kept low and there is absolutely no motion when the bike starts dancing in the rocks. Between trips the entire system comes off the bike and there are no racks left behind.
The bag, pods, and extra dry bag come to only $590. They are less convenient than the other options but the versatility and the solid mounting make it a very attractive option for any adventure bike. Especially true if you own more than one bike as it can be transferred without any additional racks or adapters.
Whatever you choose remember,
Adventure travel is all about less. Less weight, less stuff, less self.
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