Field Tested: Caribou Luggage Commando Soft Panniers

Soft luggage or hard cases? That is the question. Looking at it as objectively as possible, it is safe to say both systems have their obvious advantages and undeniable foibles. We could go into those pros and cons until we’re blue in the face, but ultimately it all depends on a rider’s needs and how they fit into a particular style of travel. Straddling this fence as a clever alternative is the Caribou Commando Soft Bag system. Blending many of the finer benefits of both types of luggage, it is likely the perfect solution for many adventure riders.

At the heart of the Commando system is a pair of 35-liter soft panniers constructed of heavy-duty 32-ounce PVC fabric with welded seems and roll-top closures for 100% waterproofness. An internal plastic stiffener adds just the right amount of rigidity to help the bags maintain their shape and further protects the PVC fabric from internal abrasion. At the back of each pannier is a stout aluminum plate which again helps give the bags added structure, but more importantly, that backing panel allows the Commando panniers to be quickly removed with the simple twist of a locking knob on each pannier. This is a particularly nice touch as most soft systems involve a frustrating array of straps and buckles to overcome. In as little as 30 seconds, both Commando panniers can be unlocked and removed from the motorcycle, and re-attaching them is just as quickly achieved.

 

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To thoroughly evaluate the Commando system we decided to use our much-loved KLR as the test bed. It seemed a smart pairing since the KLR is not an expensive machine and at $605, the complete Commando system with Hepco Becker luggage racks is an equally attractive value. Positioned between the higher end rack-less soft bag systems and the lower end hard case options, the Commando system is in our estimation, appropriately priced for what it is.

During our cursory overview of the system we were immediately pleased by the Commando’s clean aesthetic, slim profile, and nice overall quality of construction. The less is more ethos is not terribly congruent with our modern era, but Caribou clearly understands that rare design style. There are no zippers to jam, nor are there an endless assortment of pockets, bells or whistles. There are two buckles on either end of each pannier to secure the roll top closure and a lone nylon webbing handle atop each bag to facilitate an easy carry––but that’s it. They are elegantly uncomplicated.

 

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The release on each pannier is easy to use, holds fast, and locks to the bike for added security. The quick-release rack mounts are a nice touch, but didn’t quite work with the KLRs improperly aligned attachment points.

 

 

We did notice one particular aspect of the design we thought could perhaps use a slight rethink, and that is the placement of the panniers fore/aft on the racks. They appear to be a slight bit too far forward, even if by just a few inches. A pillion would likely have some leg interference with the aluminum back plates on the panniers, but we admit that is getting finicky, and it likely only pertains to the KLR.

In use the bags have performed admirably although we still have more miles to put on them before giving our full report. Given their simplicity, I don’t expect any earthshaking revelations to intersect with our initial evaluation, which to this point is overwhelmingly positive. Even with the aluminum back plates, the bags are very light. I’m not going to say I split lanes, but the slim width of the two panniers won’t give me pause as I squeeze between obstacles on and off the dirt. So far, I’m quite pleased with the Commando system, and I dare say more than I initially expected.

As we’re prone to do, we’ll put them to heavy use for a few weeks or months before we give the final word, but for now, consider us impressed.

 

www.cariboucases.com

 

Pros:

  • Easy on/off
  • Slim profile
  • Elegantly simple design
  • Easy to load and unload
  • Adequate volume for longer trips
  • Lightweight
  • Value

 

Cons:

  • Lengthy assembly process out of the box
  • They mount slightly too far forward on the KLR

 

 

Okay, so there are a couple minor grouses to share. On the upshot, the Hepco Becker rack is nicely designed and made with high quality materials and components. I particularly like how the rack is designed to be quickly detached with a quarter turn of four compression fasteners. Unfortunately, those fasteners don’t particularly line up perfectly with their corresponding attachment points on the KLR’s frame, so the on/off process requires several bolts to be loosened to reduce the stress on the system. I attribute this to inconsistencies in the fabrication of the KLR’s frame features more than a failing on the part of Hepco Becker. Again, this is most likely the fault of the motorcycle, not the rack, and it may or may not effect all KLRs.

My second quip is with the time and effort required to assemble the panniers. I don’t mind some assembly as I understand shipping products in pieces often saves money, but not in the case of the Caribou Commando panniers. I felt like I was assembling pieces that should have been assembled prior to shipping the units out. The bag of fasteners and washers that must have included over 100 individual pieces made my heart sink. It’s why I don’t by flat-packed furniture from Swedish warehouse stores. However, assembly of the panniers was worth the protracted effort and I’m sure they’ll provide years of loyal service.

 

Christophe Noel is Expedition Portal's Editor and the Senior Editor for Overland Journal. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.