Monday Q&A: Luggage for the F650GS Ain’t No Pillion

30 May 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on Monday Q&A: Luggage for the F650GS Ain’t No Pillion
BMW F650GS

Monday Q-A: Luggage for the F650GS

January 30, 2012 0 Comments

This week’s Monday QA is about luggage for the BMW F650GS. I get a lot of questions about whether I would recommend the SW-Motech TraX cases. what I like/dislike about them, what kind of luggage I’d recommend for the F650, etc. I’ve been meaning to do a more detailed writeup of TraX versus Happy Trails panniers, so this seems like the perfect opportunity to address those questions as a FAQ and share my findings.

The short answer is: it depends on what type of riding you’re doing.

Finding ANY type of luggage for any type of bike is all about tradeoffs. You have to think about your riding style, what features are important to you in luggage, etc. There is no such thing as one ultimate set of luggage that does it all and is the BEST EVAR.

Instead, it’s about what you want to do with it and how you intend to use your bike.

The Soft Bags vs. Hard Luggage Debate

The first big question is soft vs. hard luggage. Some people are concerned about hard luggage falling on their legs and breaking bones; I’m here to tell you that is a very real concern. Before we had even left the United States on our Boston to Ushuaia trip, Kay dropped his bike in some sand and his hard pannier trapped his ankle between the bike and the ground.

I believe he fractured something in this drop; his ankle swelled up, and he had intermittent trouble when walking on it for something like six months afterwards. If he hadn’t been wearing good boots with malleolus protectors, I believe it would have been worse – as it was, those boots still bear the scar.

This isn’t the only instance of hard panniers causing trouble, either. We’ve read ride reports from other motorcycle adventurers who have had similar issues, so it’s not an isolated case. This is a real and valid concern.

However – hard luggage also offers some very significant benefits: most noteworthy of which is the fact that you can lock them when you walk away from the bike. Soft luggage leaves the contents of your luggage exposed to would-be thieves; a quick rifle through can result in losing some valuable stuff, and a lot of soft luggage is just attached by straps that would be easy to cut away so a thief could walk away with your entire pannier. Hard, lockable luggage prevents all of this.

We went on a test trip with soft luggage on both bikes, and when we went into a restaurant to have lunch, Kay couldn’t stop looking at the bike. He had to keep checking to make sure the luggage was ok. Hard luggage gave him the piece of mind to lock it and walk away, and he decided that tradeoff was worth the potential risk of hurting himself with hard luggage. (And he still feels that way even after dropping the pannier on his ankle.)

The other disadvantage of soft luggage versus hard luggage is that soft luggage potentially exposes the stuff inside your bags to damage when you drop the bike. I dropped the bike with soft luggage when I was still learning to ride, and was maneuvering at 0MPH on an incline with gravel/dirt that made my footing loose. It landed on the side that contained our cooking pot, and the weight of the bike deformed the cooking pot.

We had to bend it back just to get the lid back on it, and it’s still not perfectly round. Had that been at more speed, I would have been looking at a lot more damage than a bent cooking pot.

That being said, there are plenty of people who use soft luggage happily – particularly folks who use rolls and duffles across the back of the seat instead of saddle bags that hang down, which help negate the dropping issue. People who want to travel light, or who don’t want to increase their profile because they’re doing dirt/enduro riding, typically find soft luggage to be the perfect solution.

It all depends on how you want to use the bike, and what functionality is important to you.

(That being said, if you’re looking for big, soft saddle bags for the BMW F650GS – I highly recommend the RevPack Super Deluxe (AKA Expedition) Saddle Packs. They’re ridiculously large, which is great if you’re going on a long trip, you don’t pack light, or you want to carry liquid refreshment in them. RevPack is a small business, which I love to support, and they make really high-quality products with thoughtful design details. Plus they’ll customize them for you if you call and ask!)

Would you recommend the SW-MOTECH TraX Cases?

My short answer is: it all depends on what type of riding you’re doing and what you want in a hard case. If you’re going to be doing primarily street riding, there’s zero chance you’ll ever drop the bike, and you’re willing to put the important stuff in dry sacks inside your panniers, then yes – I’d recommend the SW-Motech TraX Cases. They look good on the bike, they’re SUPER EASY to take on and off the bike (which does make a difference if you’re doing it every day to take into a hotel, take into the house, etc.) – check out the video I made for details on that .

But they’re not perfect.

One major downside is that they’re pretty flimsy. If you’re going to do any off-road riding and there’s any chance you’ll drop the bike, these panniers might not be the right ones for you. The corners of these panniers are plastic caps – there’s no metal under that. I dropped the bike a couple of times at zero speed and managed to rip one of the plastic caps off – had to hold it on with stickers until I found an aluminum worker who could make some repairs. (Just took a quick look and apparently this is now such a big problem that Twisted Throttle is selling “Replacement corner ” pieces for these panniers…)

Also, the SW-Motech Keyed Locking Quick-Lock Fasteners designed to lock the luggage rack to the bike are flimsy and will break if you look at them wrong. The little pin on the end of the fastener is what holds it in place…

And when that pin breaks off, the fastener will vibrate right out of the pannier frame and you’ll be lucky if you catch it like this:

If I hadn’t had my dry sack carabiner’d to the homemade pannier handles I added, there would have been nothing holding the pannier on at the top. Luckily, I noticed this when I got off the bike and was able to find a bolt roughly the right size to stick through the hole and hold the rack on – same thing happened on the other side but I caught it before the thing vibrated completely out and used zip-ties to hold the thing in place.

These panniers also have a reputation for not being entirely waterproof. Mine were good until toward the end of the trip when they’d eventually been dropped enough times that water was coming into the bags around the plastic caps. But I pack things inside my panniers in stuff sacks to make packing easier, and I packed things like my laptop in dry sacks, so a little moisture inside the panniers wasn’t a deal-breaker for me.

The newer generation of TraX cases seems to have a better rubber seal around the top, which might help somewhat – if you don’t drop your bike, the plastic corner pieces may never stop being watertight and you may keep waterproof panniers.

Bottom line: I *can* recommend the SW-Motech TraX cases if you want something that looks good on the bike, and is convenient to take on and off the bike – as long as there’s no possibility you’ll ever drop the bike. My cases got pretty beat up in a series of no-speed drops. If I had taken an off at any sort of speed, I believe the case would have been totally mangled, as these are very flimsy cases.

But I’d probably still buy them again, because I firmly believe that no matter *what* sort of cases, you buy, you’ll have some kind of trouble with them on a serious trip, like an Americas trip or a RTW, so you should get something you like and be prepared to deal with whatever issues you have along the way.

Would you recommend Happy Trails panniers?

I have the unique benefit of traveling with a significant other on the same bike on the same trip with different luggage. He took the Happy Trail 38L Teton Panniers  on his BMW F650GS. They were several hundred dollars cheaper than my TraX cases, and they’re pretty darn sturdy – they held up well in a series of low-speed and no-speed offs.

But they almost hold up *too* well – after a particularly bad off in the mud, Kay’s left pannier got ripped off in the fall and the luggage rack is now bent so that it’s not level – the left side of the luggage rack is angled up, and the right side of the luggage rack is angled down.

This off actually ripped the left pannier off – but didn’t break any of the bolts. Instead, it bent the pannier itself where the mounting point attached – enough so the puck could rip out of the rack and and the pannier popped free. When we went to put the pannier back on the bike, the pannier was bent – Kay replaced the bent bolt but the pannier wouldn’t stay attached to the rack because it was bent so badly on the rack side.

We pounded on it with a rock for a bit – enough to get the other three mounting points to attach to the rack. It wasn’t until we came home from Buenos Aires and worked on it with a hammer that we got the fourth mounting point to really line up with the rack again, and even today, it doesn’t sit completely flush with the rack.

I’m also concerned, based on the way the rack is bent, it has to have transferred some of that force to the sub-frame… but so far we haven’t seen any signs of damage other than the rack itself.

Aside from this being “too” sturdy issue, I have a bunch of minor quibbles with the Happy Trails panniers. The angle cut on the bottom of the pannier means that whenever you set them down on a flat surface (like when you’re loading them up) they fall over. Also, the lids and built-in lid locks can be a PITA sometimes if the pannier is fully loaded.

But the biggest complaint would be the puck system, and how annoying it is to take these off the bike.

To remove the Happy Trails panniers from the bike, you have to unlock the pannier, open it, take stuff out of the top of the pannier until you can get down to the top pucks, unscrew the pucks, take the pannier off the bike, re-insert the stuff you had to take out to get to the panniers, close the lid and lock it again so you can carry it – and then do all of that again for the other pannier. And then do it in reverse in the morning when you put the pannier back on. At the same time, potentially exposing the stuff inside the pannier to rain if it’s raining when you open it to unscrew the pucks, etc.

While my TraX cases are a quick “unlock” from the rack, lift it off, and go. Takes me about 30 seconds to do both, and takes Kay about 3-5 minutes (or more if the panniers are particularly loaded or if he’s moving slowly) to do his. By the end of the Boston to Ushuaia trip, he was *really* getting annoyed with this system, and how convenient mine was by comparison.

Bottom Line:  I believe that Kay says he’d recommend the Happy Trail Teton panniers for the BMW F650GS from a sheer value standpoint – they’re some of the cheapest hard panniers you can get for these bikes – but he would not take them on another big trip because of the annoyance factor of removing the panniers.


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