Road Read – Atacama Bags, Akalaka Mounts and Excel Gear Review 2/15/18

This writeup is going to be a combination of a gear review and a build of my soft bag set up for my R1200GSA.  

BMW Motorrad Atacama Soft Bags

As I mentioned in a previous article, I wanted an alternative to travelling with my BMW aluminum hard cases off-road. This was primarily due to wanting something that would not need repair in the event of a tip over. The aluminum hard cases are great for a large majority of the travelling that I do. They are lockable, very water-resistant and attach solidly to the factory racks that come on the GS Adventure. But if they get bent in an unintentional dismount (crash), they are difficult or impossible to repair and very expensive to replace. The side cases came in a pair and run about 1000 bucks. The top case can be half that much but this one rarely gets damaged in a fall because it is higher and centered on the bike. Soft bags tend to take an impact better, are cheaper to replace, supposedly more water-resistant (We’ll get into this later.) and just generally more durable.  

I say that expense of repair and replacement are the primary reason. There are certainly other motivations for finding an alternative to the hard cases. Another penultimate concern is having a hard case twisting or breaking an ankle during a fall. Case in point. When I was riding through Big Bend on a particularly difficult stretch of road, I had a slow speed tip over. Basically, I was on a high spot and lost momentum. As the bike started to tip, I put out my right foot to stabilize myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any purchase with the boot and down I went. Since the bike was still moving forward, my boot became trapped between the ground and the case. It didn’t break my ankle but it hurt me bad enough that I had to sleep in my boot to keep the swelling down and even after arriving back in Houston, I had a helluva knot on my ankle and had some pain when walking for more than a week. Long story short, it could have been worse. A broken ankle in Big Bend, could have easily turned into a really scary scenario. Soft bags may not keep you from an ugly mishap but it does help to reduce the potential for this kind of event.   

Soft bags may be more durable and a bit safer but there are some drawbacks as well. One of the main issues is the poorly thought out or sloppy ways of securing the bags to the bike. The bags are usually secured with straps which have to be kept tidy in order to keep them from loosening in the wind and winding up in some moving part on the bike. The bags are easier to steal since they usually are only secured with straps. Even if you can lock them down in some way to the bike, there is often not much to keep a thief from going through the bags and taking what they want while you are out of sight. Heat can also be a big issue. If the exhaust vents too close to the bags or the exhaust just gets hot near the bag, they can warp, melt and even worse, melt your camping gear that you have packed inside.  

There are just a lot of things to consider when you get ready to select the soft bag option that is right for you. Sometimes, a vendor comes out with an option that is pretty close to what you need. I understand that soft bag manufacturers have to design their bags to fit the widest variety of motorcycles possible. It makes good sense to offer options that can be fitted to the most bikes. But at the same time, compromises must be made to reach that goal. While a bag may fit one bike great, it may be a bigger challenge on another bike for a variety of reasons. The exhaust may be different a length or on a different side. Racks may or may not exist to facilitate tying the soft bags down. Seat width could be different. Any number of reasons can affect the way a bag looks and performs when attaching it to a motorcycle. Hopefully, you can find one that is specifically designed for the one you ride.  

And this is why I was so pleased when I found the Atacama Soft bags that were being sold through BMW and had been designed specifically for the adventure bikes that BMW offered. The racks on the GS are not symmetrical. While the one on the left-hand side is flat and vertical, the other side is farther away from the motorcycle and angled at the top to accommodate the exhaust on that side. The hard cases are designed with this angle and work together extremely well but it poses problems for other manufacturers when designing products that fit the GS as well as other bikes. So, I was optimistic when I saw that the Atacama bags were designed  for the BMW. I figured that issues caused by this angle would be in the design of the bag. I was wrong. The solution provided by BMW was an adapter plate that would provide an additional higher mounting point to allow the mounting bracket on the bags to be attached where necessary. I get it. I understand that the other adventure bikes that could use the Atacama bags have different mounting configurations and an adapter plate was a necessary evil in order to get the bags to work with the GSA. 

Many of you will recognize the mounting plate that comes attached to the bags. It is a familiar industry design by a company called Mosko Moto. This quick release design would suggest that the bags are made by Mosko and a quick look inside the bags confirm this. The glass filled nylon frames allow the bags to be quickly removed from the motorcycle but there is a huge drawback to this design. This mount is two-part. There is a frame that is attached to the bag and a wedge that the frame slides on to. In order to use this, you must mount the wedge to the GSA racks by using clamps that bolt on. On the right-hand rack with the angle, you must use the additional adapter plate to compensate.  

This is the wedge that must be clamped to the rack to use the factory mounting frame.

Doesn’t sound too horrible but here’s the rub. In order to put your hard cases back on, you must remove the wedges from the GSA racks by unbolting them. This is a huge hassle when you would like to switch between the hard cases and the soft bags often. This was a deal breaker for me. The wedges look awful when no bags are attached to them and the poorly executed mounting system dulled the shine on what looked like a pretty decent product.  

But there were other mounting options.

I did some research on how others were mounting their soft bags on the GSA and I found a few people out there that were had the same disappointed opinion that I held regarding mounts. Turns out one of those people was pretty dang industrious and came up with a replacement mount for the Mosko style frame latch and wedge. I got in touch with Paul Riat at Gateway BMW in St. Louis. They had same alternate mounts fabricated that utilized a similar configuration that the hard cases use. Paul was super cool and explained that they had made a few prototypes and then done a small production run. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one of the last sets of the production run. At 650 bucks, they were not cheap but as far as allowing me to run the Atacama soft bags without the adapter plat, they were pretty much

The Akalaka Mounting System for the Atacama bags.

the only game in town. But you get a lot for the money. The adapters come with BMW clamps and locks that allow you to lock the bags to the bike! Another issue put to bed! Paul referred to these adapters as the Akalaka Mounting System. The adapter plates appeared to be laser cut. I say this because the edges did not hold on to the paint that was used. This can sometimes be caused by the oxidation that is created by the cutting process. Before I began the installation, I took them to my local powder coating service and had them refinished. Progress was being made.

Simply unbolt the original mounts from the bag and mount these Akalaka mounts and put them on the bike.

Easy, right? Not quite as easy as I had hoped.  

Another pain was finding the bags. I don’t know all the details but from what I understand, the Atacama side bags were not being sold, even if the dealers had them in stock, due to the bags interfering with the motorcycle reflectors. Yea, bureaucracy! After finding someone willing to part with the side bags and getting the Akalaka Mounting System ordered, it was time to start getting it all pulled together.  

With bags in hand, the first course of action was removing the Mosko fame.  

The mounting hardware for the Akalaka bags.

The bags were attached to the frame with Allen bolts and t-nuts. Each of the bolts had a small coating of thread locking compound that made some of them a bit difficult to remove. I had to hold the t-nuts with a pair of vice grips and spin out the bolts. Some were easy, some dicey and some were absolutely brutal.  My suspicion is that these were put in with a drill and not hand started resulting in some crossed threads.  

 

 

This was the least wrinkled of all the 5 sets of bags that were available.

Here is where you start to see some issues with the construction. With the frame removed and the back of the bag exposed, you can see that the material was not pulled flat before the plate was attached. This wasn’t isolated to my bag. I returned it to get a better one and every 35 liter (left-side) bag had the same issue while all the 25 liter (right-side) bags looked pretty good. I ended up getting the best one I could find a continued onward. Not a huge deal but remember, these are designed to be used in the worst of conditions. Mud and grit is going to get into those gaps and be very difficult to get out.  

Holes in the bag for the mounting hardware.

Even more concerning was how the holes were burned through the bags to allow the mounting bolts to pass through. This must have been done with a hot knife that was far too hot and by someone in a big hurry. On the inside of the bag is a semi-rigid plastic plate that is supposed to keep the t-nuts from pulling through and distribute the load across the bolts. Attached to this plate was a piece thin piece of foam that provides the teeth on the t-nuts a place to get a bite. Unfortunately, the heat knife was hot enough melt the foam far enough back that the t-nuts would no longer even come in contact with it. In many of the spots, it appears that there were multiple attempts to get the holes lined up. Not sure what was going on in the assembly line but there are certainly some opportunities for improvement.

Pick one. Most of the mounting points looked like this. Great idea. Poor execution.

I found some largish washers that would allow the t-nut to pass through. This would give it more reinforcement. I still wanted the t-nuts to be able to bite into the foam so I used 2-sided tape to stick them to the plastic backboard. The toughest part of this was figuring out which of the holes in the plastic was the correct one to use. Once I had that figured out, I reattached the foam backing and reassembled the bags.  

One of my concerns that began to grow as I was pulling the project together was heat. The exhaust on the GSA ends at about the middle of the bag. I know how hot the exhaust can get. Even if the exhaust is not in direct contact with the bags, over time the heat from the exhaust gases can cause warping, degradation of the plastic and, given the right circumstances, melting of the bag and interior contents. Maybe this would be an issue and maybe not but I decided to err on the side of caution and fabricate a heat shield that could be placed between the bags and the adapter plate. It might not solve the heat issue but it would certainly help. I found some aluminized Mylar on Amazon and with some similar aluminized tape and some adhesive spray, I got to work.  

Mylar heat shield

After measuring the back of the bags, I cut the Mylar and double layered it by putting adhesive on the back and folding it. Once I had the edges sealed up with the tape, I used the original Mosko Nylon plates as a template to punch holes for the bolts. I have some leather working tools and the doubled Mylar was similar to leather and was pretty easy to work with. It took a bit of prototyping but I think I got a finished product that will last for a while and help to deflect some of the heat.  

Once finished, I sandwiched the Mylar heat shield between the bags and the Akalaka Mounts. I reused the t-nuts and bolts to get it all back together.  

Once mounted on the bike, I still had reservation about the ability of the bags to take the continuous heat. Why wasn’t this addressed when the bags were being designed? I ended up calling Paul in St. Louis again and asked him his opinion and if any other Atacama Soft Bag owners had an issue. He wasn’t sure about any issues but suggested I get in touch with Tom Dowell at Excel Cycle Werkes who fabricated exhaust extensions for just such an issue. After a visit to his website and a call to explain my concern, Tom assured me that he had a solution. A few days later, Excel Exhaust Extension showed up. It is a fine piece of hardware and installed easily with a little time and two springs to keep it attached.  It moves the hot exhaust a bit farther towards the back of the motorcycle before it is vented.

Excel Cycle Werkes Exhaust Extension http://www.excelcyclewerkes.com/

The fact that Tom Dowell at Excel Cycle Werkes is making such an item should tell you that there have been bags that have been destroyed by the exhaust.

There is a lot of hype about how waterproof the bags are.  I don’t know of anything that is 100% waterproof. There are lots of things that are water-resistant but very few things that are waterproof. Given enough time or pressure (depth), things will leak. The main compartments have an interior sleeve that rolls and buckles to seal at the top. This really isn’t any better than a hard case. I can put the items I want to keep dry in a zip lock bag and it will be just as “waterproof” as these Atacama Bags.  So there is no real advantage to the soft bags as far as water resistance. 

In summary, I spent a lot of time and money on a heat solution that should have been addressed by Mosko and at the very least by BMW.  Maybe it wouldn’t have been an issue but is Mosko or BMW going to replace the bags if the bags do warp or melt due to heat? I strongly doubt it. And I really can’t afford to burn though a bag to find out. 

 

The Mosko mounting system is cumbersome. It is fantastic as a solution to fit the same bag to a large number of motorcycles but when you tout the Atacama bags as being designed for the BMW Adventure bikes, a cleaner, more bike specific resolution should have been created. The Akalaka Mounting System makes the bags much more functional but it is unfortunate for the end-user that this system didn’t come with the bags.

 

 

Keep the course,

Johnny