Leather saddlebags — used by motorbike riders, cyclists and horseback riders — are exposed to the elements and can end up muddy, dusty or drenched by rain. Over time the leather can become hard instead of pliable, and can develop an odor. Leather is a natural product that comes from animal skins that have been tanned. It cannot be thrown in the washing machine, as that would ruin it, and should be cared for with specialist leather-care products.
There are many products called leather cleaners. Saddle soap has been used for decades to clean leather and make hard leather supple again. You will need some warm water and clean, soft, lint-free cloths. Dip a corner of the cloth into the water, then rub it against the saddle soap. Work on a small section of the saddlebag at a time. Rub the saddle soap on the cloth onto it in circular motions. If the saddlebag is very dirty you will have to wash the cloth out often. You may need to work over an area a couple of times until no more dirt comes off on the cloth. Wipe dry and leave overnight before conditioning.
Once the saddlebag is completely clean you need to condition the leather. There are many brands to choose, but one of the most effective is Coacholine, available from saddlery stores. There are several leather conditioners branded for motorcycle riders. Dip a clean cotton cloth into the conditioner and work it into the leather in small, circular motions. Some of it will penetrate into the leather and make it more supple. When you have finished the entire saddlebag wipe it firmly with a soft, absorbent cloth so that it doesn’t feel greasy.
Saddlebags cleaned with saddle soap and treated with leather conditioner on a regular basis should stay supple. About once a month should be enough (less than that if you don’t use them often). When saddlebags get wet in the rain you should simply dry them off. Never try and dry them in front of a heater as the leather will harden and be prone to tears. If the inside of the bag gets wet put wadded up newspaper or old rags inside to help soak the moisture out. You can also use leather conditioner on the inside of the bag.
If you clean and condition your saddlebags inside and out it will clean out any bacteria or mold that can cause odors. Cleaning inside is harder than outside because the leather is not smooth, but it is easy to rub the conditioner in. If your saddlebag needs deodorizing, you can leave baking soda inside for a couple of days (to absorb odors), or you can buy a leather odor remover. Don’t spray things like Febreze or air-freshener on leather, as it can cause damage. Leaving dry lavender inside a bag when it is in storage gives a fresh, clean smell.