How To Use A GPS Unit On A Cycle Tour

As with many of the technology and equipment articles I write, this one opens with a question:

Do you really need to use GPS on your tour?

Will a GPS unit help you significantly to achieve your goals? Or will it serve as a distraction from the experience? Could you navigate by road-sign, map & compass, common-sense and by asking for directions, and would that be more fun? Would a cycle-computer suffice to keep track of distance – and why are statistics so important anyway?

Still considering using GPS for your next bike tour? Let’s continue.

GPS Basics For Cycle Tourists

GPS receivers plot your location on the surface of the globe to within a few metres by calculating the distance to 3 or more of a few dozen satellites in orbit around the Earth. Being in range of 4 signals will give you your altitude as well. GPS units generally perform two basic functions:

  1. Working out precisely where you are, and
  2. Recording precisely where you’ve been.

Showing you where to go -the third function you might be expecting to see – is actually a relatively recent development, and is usually known as satellite navigation, or ‘sat-nav’. Traditional GPS use involves the device as an aid to navigation, not a replacement.

Seasoned bicycle adventurers are now probably thinking what I’m thinking: the longer and more open-ended the tour, the less important it is to know precisely where you are or precisely where you’ve been. Out of necessity and out of choice, you’re less likely to have a set itinerary or route, and less likely to be packing anything you don’t really rely on. You’re more likely to be living according to what next rolls over the horizon. For 9 out of 10 such tours, GPS is an unnecessary luxury.

A day on the long desert road in Syria

As an example, I travelled south through the Middle East and Africa for months with nothing but common-sense and a compass, not even map – let alone a GPS. While I could of course have made use of a receiver, my experience was all the more pure for the lack of abstractions.

When To Use A GPS

I’ve found GPS receivers to be genuinely useful on:

  1. Short trips in a localized area with a specific route, and
  2. Very remote trips in the back-country.

Why?

Water stop

On short trips – especially day-trips – with specific routes, you don’t really want to be wasting time fumbling with maps, attempting to procure directions or interpreting roadsigns. Mounting a GPS unit on your handlebars, pre-loaded with a basemap and a route, you need not worry about getting lost. This also makes it possible to plan exploratory, back-road routes which you might not have found out on the trail or on your available maps.

On the other hand, with off-road wilderness trips such as my ride in Mongolia last year, a GPS can save you time navigating between settlements or other landmarks you might have picked out and stored on the unit. It proved useful in Mongolia for taking bearings and distance estimates for the next provincial town. As the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook wisely says, however:

…[a GPS] should be seen as a useful aid to navigation rather than a magic wand. It would be extremely unwise to set out into a remote area without the best map you can get, a compass, and the knowledge to use them – apart from anything else, you never know when the electronics might fail or the batteries unexpectedly go flat!

How To Use A GPS On A Bike Tour

Pinpointing your location is fairly useless without some frame of reference. A GPS can output co-ordinates to match a variety of grids you might find in use on maps and charts, making plotting your location and route a cinch between the paper map, the unit and your innate orienteering skills.

A more integrated use of GPS would be to have a basemap installed on the unit itself (with other navigational aids as backup, of course). Most units come with only a rudimentary world map, which is utterly useless for bicycle navigation. This is where people begin to be put off the GPS idea, because buying map packs from GPS manufacturers tends to be rather costly.

There are clever (and legal) ways round this, however. My favourite is to tap into the ever-growing amount of data available through OpenStreetMap (OSM). This crowd-sourced map of the world – by which I mean that it has been entirely user-generated – provides an astonishing level of detail. In places, it’s better than anything else – zoom in to central London, for example.

Coverage tends to be more patchy in remote areas, but if you’ve never come across OSM before, you’ll probably still be impressed.

Here’s the best bit about OpenStreetMap. It’s possible to download routable (i.e. with automatic route-calculation enabled) maps for Garmin and Magellan GPS units for anywhere in the world. Free.

For Garmin – who probably offer the biggest range of standalone receivers of interest to cyclists – you can get cycling-specific maps of the world, too. Or mountain-biking/hiking maps if you’d rather go off-road. (Again, free.)

OpenStreeMap on Garmin

There are a few compromises, of course. Map features might be inconsistent or incomplete in places, and for some stuff you might have to get a bit technical with extra software on your PC. But overall, and especially in the developed world, these maps are excellent and I can’t understand why I haven’t heard this kind of setup mentioned more often. (Maybe it’s the geek factor.)

And if you find yourself on an unmapped road, you can head over to OpenStreetMap when you get home, upload the tracklog and simply trace the route you took onto the map! I’ve been doing a lot of this in Armenia – not only adding minor rural roads, but water sources, shelters and other useful amenities too. This is curiously satisfying.

Now you have a map, you can use your GPS unit’s software to plan routes and upload them, along with maps and waypoints, to your device, which will display the map overlaid with your location. Or you can draw a route in Google Earth and import it to your device, or do the same with a Google Maps route. Or you could use one of many web-based GPS route planners, like the Bike Route Toaster (thanks Emma & Justin!). Anything you want to do, you probably can do.

Once you get the hang of these tools, researching detailed and adventurous routes becomes easy, and following them on the ground even more so.

GPS Units For Cyclists

I haven’t tried many GPS units in the field. But the research I did before buying a Garmin eTrex Venture Cx marked it out as a winner and I’ve been very satisfied with it. Here’s why I love this little unit:

  • It takes 2 ‘AA’ batteries, making charging a doddle (solar, too)
  • It lasts a few days’ worth of cycling on a single charge or set of batteries
  • It’s cheap second-hand, now it’s a few years old
  • It has a ‘USB Mass Storage’ mode (like a pen drive) and a standard mini-USB connector, so I can download my tracklogs to any machine without special software
  • It has an optional handlebar-mounting bracket
  • It takes a memory card up to 2GB in capacity (that’s a lot of detailed maps and tracklogs!)
  • It’s weatherproof and very easy to use
  • It looks like an old mobile phone, so generally gets ignored
  • It’s a Garmin, which enables me to use the OpenStreetMap maps and customise them to suit my needs.

This unit has been superceded by the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx*, which is more sensitive when signals are obstructed by trees and the like, and has an analogue compass built-in. The Vista HCx is the handheld GPS I’d currently recommend. It’s currently just over a hundred quid on Amazon*.

Garmin’s ‘Edge’ cycling-specific units have thousands of bells and whistles, but at the end of the day you probably don’t need a heart-rate monitor, nor to be constantly searching for somewhere to plug in the unit’s specialist lithium-polymer battery. Simplicity is best.

But Do You Really Need One?

Under some circumstances, a GPS unit can undoubtedly make your life easier and your ride more enjoyable.

But there are very few situations I can think of on a cycling tour when a GPS receiver would be a critical item on your kit list. If you’re preparing for a long, open-ended road trip – and especially if it’s your first – I would implore you to cut another comforting-yet-unnecessary item out of your plans. You’ll learn so much more about navigating the world without it.

And once you’ve done that, you’ll be much better placed to make use of GPS on a future adventure when it really is worth having.

How do you use a GPS to enhance your cycling trips?

19 Responses to “How To Use A GPS Unit On A Cycle Tour”

  1. vorsprung

    One alternative you don’t seem to have covered is using a smart phone as a GPS based map
    I have a cheap Android phone which needs a mobile signal for the maps, but which can pin point itself with a proper built in GPS. Article about it here: http://audaxing.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/erstaz-gps/

    Apparently, iphones have software to allow them to work as a GPS unit with offline maps so they will work without a mobile phone signal. The software to do this on cheap(er) Android phones is a few months off

    Reply
    • Tom

      You’re absolutely right. I forgot to mention the smartphone idea. Thanks.

      Yet another way in which an all-in-one device can save on packing… takes photos, videos, writes blogs, replaces books AND helps with navigation…

      Reply
      • kobi

        lovely website tom. i did india and japan on motorcycle using maps and next monh i am going to mongolia renting out russian old motobike. i’d rather skip gobi dessert as it is too touristic and head north east and norh west. any suggestions? so any conclousion regarding best gps? would you recomend using iphone4 instead? which map/app should i download? i am going to exploreyour website and clips further. cheers kobi (london)

        Reply
        • Tom

          Nowhere in Mongolia is ‘too touristic’ 🙂

          I’d recommend the eTrex Vista HCx, as linked in the article.

          Safe travels!

          Reply
    • Neil

      Smartphones have great GPS functionality, but the one fault the have (so far) is terrible battery life.

      Reply
      • Tom

        True. And they’re not really designed to be robust enough for full-time service as outdoor navigators.

        Reply
  2. Jiratt P.

    Get Nokia lumia 520 and 4000mAh Solar Power Battery for a Mobile Phone. Amazon have everythings for about $100. Download map from Nokia map.

    Reply
  3. piet

    You may also take a look at Osmand, an incredible app for the android smartphones out there, offers good routing for bicycles and cars and includes ALL the openstreetmap data, especially POI (points of interest) and offers more than the “compressed” OSM options. That POI information often also includes helpful things like the website url of a camp side or the opening hours of shops. You can download the map files once and then use them offline everywhere. The files are bigger, but SD Card are really cheap, so that should not be the point.

    Another great advantage of a smartphone is offline wikipedia (text only), which offers a ton of information about everything, that might be interesting anytime/anywhere. You can use Aard (Android only ?!?) for this. The handling of an smartphone gps app is much easier in my opinion and you can use it for so many other purposes.

    Reply
  4. David Rayson

    Last year we did a cycle trip in Languedoc and down the La Loire, in France. I purchased a Garmin 810 together with maps of Western Europe, with the objective of using it to help navigate. The objective was to plan our ride the night before using Garmin Connect and transfer the route to the device. This part worked fine after considerable work and experimentation. However on the ride the device was useless.
    Firstly the ride was often along rivers that appear in blue on the maps, the course was marked in blue so it was easy to get totally confused and lost.
    If you left or lost the course you often had to zoom out to see your location and the plotted path. Zooming out means the detail of the map is lost. The screen is far too small to see a realistic amount of detail.
    If you loose your way there is no automatic re-routing.
    The screen is only visible when the sun is in a certain direction and not visible in the shade.
    Plotting the routes using Garmin Connect you are using Google maps, you save the plot and then that is superimposed onto Garmin maps on the device which often do not correspond. It was not unusual for the plot to go off through blank space on the device base maps.
    We had a fantastic ride and are planning to go back to France this year, but hopefully with a better navigation system.
    Your advice would be greatly appreciated. David

    Reply
    • Evan

      Hi David, I also use a Garmin 810 but not the way you have described. Paper maps are my preference to plot out the main part of my travel and then when I am trying to get out of larger cites that is when I use the 810. Very easy to do in France, just drop a pin on the D road number on the other side of town. I do agree that the screen is difficult at times and again why I use paper. Happy travels. Evan

      Reply
      • oldcarnutjag

        Thank-you, Batteries die, mountains get in the way, When cell phones came out rangers and emts were getting phone calls “HELP”, “where are you?” “I DON”T KNOW” “do you have a map?” ” NO”.
        If you watch american sniper, the first thing in your training is map making, LRPing. If you want to drive like a pilot Kneeboard. GPSs I have one with a heart rate monitor, a bike, an original Garmin. and the car one saved our marriage, but I still carry my MIL protractor and a pen. I still carry a compass.
        Speaking of smart phones, The Medics wiped the blood of my old Nokia and called my wife.

        Reply
  5. oldcarnutjag

    Learn MGRS, call it a Plugger, and when you need a welder show up at a military base flash your DOD id and get a guy that fixed holes in A10s will help you. Tell that to S&S couplers. I tour with a toothbrush and a CREDIT CARD! If you are not in the military GET A TECH JOB$$$, I live downhill from the largest telescopes in the world. If you work there you are a perfectionist, get them to weld, locate, etc.
    When GPS first came out we called the Colonel, he sent up an Lt. He brought one of the first Personnel locating geo-satellite receivers, (plugger) I had to convert from MGRS to lattitude, and longitude. USGS maps are now free downloads. Learn MGRS and buy a mil protractor.
    We had that trouble in afghanistan, the army would call in MGRS and we would have to convert before we armed the weapons. Calculator watch!
    Finally learn the Nato alphabet, you won’t get anything free, but you will get real good service at the airport.

    Reply
  6. ken

    Based on your article above, I got myself a Garmin etrex venture cx…I’m concerned that too much time has passed, this device is no longer supported by Garmin software, no updates, and trying to get maps from velo maps through both basecamp and mapsource have failed….can’t upload by usb as the pc won’t recognise the device, and putting the maps on a micro SD card they don’t show up on the device…..it is a 8GB card and I notice you say upto 2gb so that’s one more thing to try but I’m getting worried I’ve blown £100 for an antique. Help!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Sorry to hear you’re having issues with the Venture Cx. This article is from 2011, and so specific recommendations will of course be out of date. Having just checked their website, Garmin list the unit as discontinued. If you bought it online, you could always return it under the Distance Selling Regulations rules and try a more recent one?

      Reply
    • Wissmar

      Usgs maps can now be downloaded,,buy a program to turn them into tiles,buy,a military protractor, borrow a book on how to navigate using MGRS. You don’t have a GPS,call it a PLGR. Learn the NATO alphabet. If you have to call in use the ZULU letters to communicate your MGRS #s. The helicopter will come quick! The current dilemma in the field is ammunition or batteries. The old ones don’t work when you are trying to find your hotel, but if you are going to do some subtle trespassing to find the secret waterfall I use the old etrex and a map.

      Reply
  7. Ge

    Hello Tom, we bought a Garmine Edge Touring in Belgium after it has been highly recommended to us by a few fellow cyclists. You can’t even imagine how many times we just wanted to smash it or wished it has a bugger off button!!! Even when we selected stick on road and normal cycling mode (not touring) it would take us around and around and it has the fine ability to get you on every possible hill there is around even when there is no need to. The other day I was cycling here in Barcelona, on a straight 2 way bike path and it told me to turn left, go around about on a hill, and then go back on the same cycle path a few km down the road.
    While touring we had to factory reset it every 150 km, because it took ages to calculate anything, or stopped calculating at 90% and then you would have to switch on and off to start again. It wasted so much time! We tried to contact Garmin customer service just a few weeks after purchase and after no response tried departments in different countries but also never got a response!
    Here in Barcelona we went to a cycle store and they said we can send it to Garmin but it will cost us something even under warranty and they could not tell us how much to expect. They offered to do some kind of reset in the store for free but I’m skeptical as to whether it will fix all the issues we’ve experienced.
    Have you heard of any similar experiences?

    Reply
    • David Wissmar

      Read the Map first.
      The first users of the GPS was the military, artillery, air strikes, wounded.
      Wrap the unit up in a local map, and get a mil protractor.
      Keep a compass in the First aid kit.

      Reply
  8. Anders

    The reason for going with a dedicated GPS (I never leave without) is two-fold. An alternative device would be the smart phone. This sucks too much power in my opinion if you do not have the option to recharge it. You could go with printed maps but you would soon run out of map because it would have to be something like 1:50000 to be useful for touring. So why would need maps in the first place? There’s a tendency to stick to principal or primary roads if you do not have a map because this is safer because there are more people. But there’s also more heavy traffic and it is more difficult to find a place to stealth camp. I have noticed this when meeting people on the road who had no map or GPS. With openstreetmap and gps you will be able to go to some awesome places with few people and traffic. Also you will be able to spot potential sources for water, fishing campfires etc. You are also less likely to backtrack. Especially helpful in winter and snow.

    Reply
    • David Wissmar

      Aloha, we have a local company that takes people horseback riding to a waterfall and swimming hole. I downloaded a usgs map of the area and noticed where the blue line dropped down the close lines in a vee and where there was a blue oval. Marked where I parked the truck, and started hiking to the blue, after a mile I laid out the map, got some #s from the Gps and put a mil,protracter on the map. I knew where to look and found a hitching post. WE found the pond .
      My garmin, a mil protracter and some paper cost less then the Horse back ride. When I was in Germany I would find little towns on little squiggly lines next to the autobahn, set those up as my next stop and we took the scenic route.

      Reply

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