Are aluminium top boxes essential kit for the adventure rider, and if so, which is the one for you? Alun Davies rounds up the best bins out there for your buck
Top boxes have come a long way since I started touring on two wheels. Back in the 1970s strapping an Adidas kit bag on the back of the bike was considered the technological high point of the decade for storing kit. And if the kit bag wasn’t big enough to take all your gizmos – a couple of pairs of socks, grundies and a spare Levi jacket were the only touring essentials for crossing Africa back then – a plastic carrier bag was able backup.
A couple of years ago I decided to adopt this retro touring style on a blast around the French Alps in the company of a couple of mates who’d luggaged up their bikes with the latest high-spec aluminium boxes. Apart from looking like a refugee on two wheels, both the kit bag and plastic bags (waterproof roll bag and bin liners actually) did the job very well and as unbelievable as it may sound, I suffered no incurable diseases, had nothing nicked by thieving Johnny foreigners and I lived to tell the tale – something lug- gage companies simply could not comprehend.
That said, there are reasons why a £300 top box is preferable to a couple of 10p bin liners so we’ve decided to check out what’s on the market and let you know what’s best.
Why a top box?
Pillion comfort and security Eight out of 10 cats feel more secure knowing there’s a top box to keep them from flying off the back of the bike and, more to the point, I’ve yet to talk to a pillion who doesn’t feel the same.
Additional safe and secure storage Although soft luggage can be made more secure it’s still more at risk to the criminal element than a hard top box. Pick a good one and short of the casual thief who routinely carries an angle grinder and a crowbar your gear is still going to be there when you return to the bike.
Commuting and the weekend filter to Tesco Panniers are great for long tours but for the sort of shorter trips you’re more likely to take during the rest of your life, a top box is more convenient and user friendly for carrying groceries.
What makes a perfect top box?
All the top boxes on test have been reviewed with the following criteria in mind. As with our pannier review in ABR issue 3 we’ve not crash tested them as to a great extent every accident is differ- ent in its trajectory and outcome, and while a top box may survive a 30m slide down smooth tarmac it could end up as a sorry pile of alloy after a slow, heavy fall on sharp rocks. Plus, we’d all like to keep our bikes a little longer.
Can you still open your panniers? A top box needs to allow free access to panniers. If your top box is too wide you might not be able to open your panniers. Not good. You’d need to check the pannier configuration on your bike, which will probably be different to ours.
Size At the very least we like a top box that is big enough to accommodate a single helmet, gloves, hi-vis vest, disc lock, a copy of ABR and, er… a pasty.
Waterproof If it’s not waterproof then it ain’t a top box, it’s decoration for your motorcycle. The first law of motorcycle luggage is it has to keep out the elements.
Looks and style If you don’t like the looks and the style doesn’t suit your bike you’re probably going to regret buying it and end up flogging it off cheap on eBay to buy the one you should have bought in the first place.
Rugged The best top boxes use quality components and are manufactured to a high standard. And the rule ‘you get what you pay for’ applies just as much to motorcycle luggage as it does to almost everything else in life.
Easy of attaching and detaching You’ll not regret buying a box which you can attach and detach with the minimum of fuss. Don’t overlook this feature; having to fiddle around with badly thought-out attachment points is a pain at the end of a long day in the saddle, or first thing on a cold frosty morning.
User friendly We like a box that has easy access, a straight forward user-friendly integral lock and enough space to store the essentials.
Stability Even the best of motorcycle adventures can be dampened by having a top box that regularly flies off the bike. If it doesn’t look and feel secure, then it probably isn’t.
Attachment loops Having bungy loops or handles on the top of the box to help lash down any gear you can’t fit in is always handy.
Price Unless you’re an MP on expenses (yes, it still goes on) cost usually comes into the decision-making equation.
Model: Alu Premium Size: 48l Price: £139
First off, the G&G is big enough to take a full-face helmet with ease, plus everything else on our essentials list. It’s also heavy at 5.5kg and bulky enough to offset the look of a bike, but you’d not worry about that if you want maximum secured packing space at a budget price.
The designer (Klaus) at G&G knows his stuff alright which is evident in the cut-aways at the bottom, allowing side pannier lids (Metal Mules) to be opened without taking off the top box – something the guys down at Givi need to do a bit more work on when designing a 45l top box aimed at the adventure market.
At £139 this is the cheapest box on test and in the looks and style depart- ment it has that bargain basement bread-tin chic. It attaches to the bike via a Touratech-style puck mechanism which doesn’t come close in the convenience and ease of attach/detach league when measured against a Hepco & Becker or Metal Mule but it’s very secure and does the job, at the price. This is not a top box for those who are drill shy.
The lid is fully detachable and secured by a single integral lock and clasp on the front which, it has to be said, is not the strongest. The back of the lid hinges on a single metal hoop/clasp and you can forget about opening the box for a quick mooch without the lid coming away in your hand – it’s all a bit Heath Robinson but it works. The lid also comes with enough attachment points to strap on a North Sea Ferry, should you wish.
The box is held together by rivets and a silicon seam sealer and the finish, while acceptable, is a little on the rough side. Waterproofing is by way of a full rubber rand which sits well protected under the lid and performed spot-on in our power-washer test.
In a line: Budget buy for those who need the all extra space they can get
ABR Rating 6/10
Model: Aluminium Top Box Size: 25.5l Price: £175
The name might suggest that these boxes are made by a bespectacled ex panzer mechanic deep in the Bavarian Alps but they are, in fact, a product out of the old epicentre of UK manufacturing, the Black Country.
In ABR issue 3 we gained huge respect for Stahlkoffer panniers, a great product at a highly competitive price. If we had a gripe then it’s the slightly agricultural system the company uses for mounting its products to the bike.
If Stahlkoffer could slick up the process and maintain its price advantage then it’d be a serious force in the aluminium luggage market.
The same applies to the company’s top boxes. The product itself is good value and very well made but comes up short on the ease of mounting and dismounting. It’s stable and secure but it’s just not as good as others on test.
The Stahlkoffer is big enough for a helmet and essentials and has the look of a hard-as-nails welded ammo box. The lid is fully detachable which some will like and others will not, and it’s firmly secured with two built-in lock and clasp gizmos. You also get four attachment loops on top for strapping extra gear.
The box also comes with a detachable false bottom which is deep enough to store cash, spare keys, passports and other essentials out of sight of the casual thief or neatly away from the other clutter in the box. It’s a nice touch but not an essential feature and in our view only adds to the price and weight of the product.
When all is said and done, the fact is that Stahlkoffer has produced a quality top box at a price that makes other top brands appear very expensive. That said, you’ll have to compromise on the ease of use and want a detachable lid, as opposed to a hinged lid, which we prefer.
In a line: A quality box at a competitive price
ABR Rating 7/10
Model: Alu Basic Size: 35l Price: £184
In issue 3 of ABR we pointed out that Krauser and Hepco & Becker panniers are essentially the same boxes with a couple of differences – they have different mounting systems, handle positions and lid loops. More importantly the Krauser panniers were more expensive than the H&B so they dropped a point, the opposite is true with top boxes with the Krauser costing £29 less than the H&B.
The Krauser top box mounting system is stable, lockable and user friendly. A quick turn of the key and this box is off/on the bike in seconds, and whereas we’ve experienced a sideways movement with the H&B when locked on the bike, this box is solid. However, with the locking mechanism fixed on the underside of the box, it is very open to damage if dropped and is useless as a ‘seat’ at campsites.
From the top down you get a hinged lid, which we like, and it’s secured by a single lock on the front which shares the same key as the mounting lock – and we like that too. There are four tie-down points for stashing additional gear and the waterproof lid seal is tucked away under the lip.
The box is nicely finished and has the sort of looks that would sit well on any bike. The welding is neat and you get a couple of side carry handles which are handy when carrying the box from bike to hotel or tent. The capacity of the Krauser is spot on for packing away your lid and other essentials and we were still able to open our panniers with the box fitted – in our opinion the 35l Krauser has the perfect physical size/useful space ratio.
With a couple of tweaks here and there and an a flush under-box mounting system the Krauser would be close on a 10 out of 10, as it stands it’s still a serious contender and one for the shortlist.
In a line: Looks good, perfect size, competitive price
ABR Rating 8/10
HEPCO & BECKER
Model: Alu Standard Size: 35l Price: £213
We like Hepco & Becker luggage down in the ABR office. The company’s panniers, which complement this top box, were highly rated in issue 3 and have proved faultless in use. The quick release system, easy-on-the-eye design and value for money when compared to the other big brands should be enough to place the H&B on the shortlist of most adventure bikers.
That said, it’s getting difficult to justify the £29 price difference between the H&B and the Krauser which are essentially the same box – they differ in a few minor fitments and how they attach to the bike.
First off, the 35l Hepco & Becker passes the helmet and essentials size test, which means they all fit in and it’s possible to access the panniers without having to remove the top box. Fixing the mounting rack to the Tiger was a two-minute job and the box attaches in seconds by way of a single-locking (same key opens the lid) clasp. We’ve nothing to doubt that the system is anything other than secure but we were able to move the box sideways with very little effort, though it has to be said it was never in danger of detaching. As with the Krauser the under box locking mechanism is exposed to damage when the box is off the bike and extra care is needed when handling them.
This box has the same clean lines and professional finish as the Krauser, so once again it’ll look the part on any motorcycle. The major differences are that there are no side carrying handles on the H&B but there are two huge attachment hoops on the lid which are big enough to double up as carry handles should you need. Other than that it’s only the company logos which differentiate the boxes.
In summary, this is a fine product but is it worth the extra £29 over the Krauser?
In a line: Would look good on any adventure bike
ABR Rating 7/10
Model: Trekker Size: 45l Price: £240
Okay, this is not an aluminium top box, but it is Givi’s attempt at adventure-styled luggage and there is a token smattering of alloy, even if it’s purely for cosmetic purposes.
The first thing to note about this box is its size, followed closely by, ‘Will it fit on the bike and still allow unencumbered access to the panniers?’ In my case it does not (Triumph Tiger 955i fitted with Metal Mule panniers). I need to dismount the Trekker to open my panniers. Fortunately the Givi quick mount/ dismount system makes this reasonably painless but is it something I’d be happy to do on a regular basis? Probably not.
The second feature to note is that if you turn the Trekker on its side it becomes a pannier and comes in two sizes (46l and 33l) to accommodate bikes with single side exhausts.
Thirdly, this box comes with a nifty feature that allows for part opening – not so much use when it’s a top box but handy for accessing essentials when in pannier mode.
The 46l is cavernous and takes a lid and all the travel essentials with bags of room to spare. The quality of components and construction is as you’d expect from Givi and we’ve no problems in that department plus the monokey system means the box can be opened and detached from the bike with a single turn of the key.
Internally there are a couple of straps to keep your luggage secure, which again is more useful when in pannier mode.
So who’s the Givi going to appeal to? Most adventure bike riders buy aluminium luggage for the robust features and, it has to be said, the image and look. The Givi casts a nod to styling by including a part aluminium finish but this is essentially a quality, versatile plastic top box-cum-pannier and there’s really nothing to fault if that’s what you want. But will you be able to open your panniers?
In a line: Quality plastic box that thinks it’s aluminium.
ABR Rating 7/10
Model: Zega Size: 29l Price: £227 plus mounting kit at £130
What we’re looking at here is the basic Touratech Zega 29l top box with the company’s quick mount/dismount system. First off, it has to be said that Touratech offers better and more desirable boxes than the standard Zega but we can only comment on the product we have before us, which in this case is looking a touch expensive when mea- sured against some of the less well-known manufacturers.
The capacity of the Zega is spot on for a single helmet and all our easy access touring essentials and it does not infringe on pannier access. The construction is slick and professional for a basic alu box and, in some ways, could be said to be unnecessarily over engineered when compared to others on test.
The lid is hinged, which we like, and comes with four top-mounted loops for stashing any additional gear – always a good feature. The lid is secured by two integral lock and clasp mechanisms which are not the most user friendly for quick access but do offer good security – we prefer a single lock for everyday ease of access. The lid also sits very flush with the main box with little to no lip and on first inspection we’d question the ability of the box to remain waterproof with extended use. That said, we’ve yet to find any long-term user with a problem.
The main box is a complex combination of welds and rivets with a tray-style base and it’s all secured to the bike via a single-lock Touratech quick-release system. Again, this system appears to be over engineered and complex when viewed against others on test but it works well and the box can be attached/ detached with little fuss.
Touratech equipment will always have an appeal to certain buyers, if only for the brand name and while it is at the top end of the price scale the gear is hard to fault. However, we’d probably spend a little more and check out the Zega Pro.
In a line: Good gear, but if you can afford it check out the Zega Pro.
ABR Rating 6/10
Model: Safari Size: 35l Price: £385
Buying a Jesse top box is not for those who get a rash when they spy a drill or spanner. If you want a Safari and you’re not a keen DIY’er speak nicely to Cliff at Two Wheeled Trekkers (the Jesse importers) and ask him to sort the fitting or you’ll be pulling your hair out. Conversely, those who enjoy their elbow grease will be delighted when they open the box and find three plastic packets full of nuts, bolts, washers and screws.
Once again, the complexity of set up makes it clear that the Jesse heritage lies firmly in the hands of the serious overlander. The top box package consists of three mounting plates, a security box which sits below the top box, a lock that needs to be screwed on and then there’s the top box which needs to be drilled and fitted to a plate. Phew.
The unique feature here is a ‘security box’ on which the main top box sits. It’s lockable and designed as a secure place to store gear you don’t need to access often, like tool kits. It has its advantages, for sure, but is it really necessary?
The top box itself comes with the Jesse ‘eggshell’ finish – which some will like and others not – and is big enough to take a helmet and our travel essentials. The lid is hinged, which we like, has attachment loops on the top and all parts are welded with not a rivet in sight.
The main box body is of an all-weld construction, tapered at the base to reduce sharp angle impact areas and comes with a single integral lock to secure the lid. A substantial but exposed rand provides a water tight seal.
If there was a medal for a product that displays a passion for overland motorcycling the Jesse would win. But is it a practical day-to-dayer?
In a line: For the practical hardcore user
ABR Rating 7/10
Model: Max Top Box Size: 22l Price: £459
If we suspend the reality that price actually does matter then there is no box on test that competes with the all round looks, style, quality of finish and user friendly functionality of the Metal Mule. It’s as simple as that. If spending this kind of money isn’t going to hurt, stop reading now and go and kit yourself out with a Metal Mule, and then fill it with Dom Perignon to confirm it’s watertight.
However, in the real world, price does matter and in times of austerity the cost of a product takes on far more importance than in times of plenty. With that in mind, it pays to remember that essentially all we’re talking about here is a waterproof metal box and if that’s all you want, you can get a fully functional cheaper metal box elsewhere.
The 22l box on test was not big enough to take a full-face helmet but we’ll overlook that as the company claims that the 32l is built exactly the same and will take a full-face lid.
For your money, you get: a lockable hinged lid with four attachment loops, a carry handle and it’s sealed against the main box with a watertight silicon rand. The main box is constructed with 2mm aluminium, held together with rivets and seam sealer and the finish is second to none. In other words, all you want and need in the way of functionality from a metal top box.
In a line: If you’ve the money, treat yourself to a Metal Mule