While I firmly believe that your first bicycle journey should be entirely free from modern electronic devices, there are plenty of tourers who pack a smartphone or tablet alongside their tent, stove and toolkit, and for good reason: they can come in bloody useful.
Smartphone technology moving as fast as it does, the app marketplace is constantly changing. This, therefore, is a full rewrite for 2018 of an article I first published 6 years ago, detailing what (in my opinion at least) are the most useful free apps for the bicycle traveller right now.
This is not another list of cycling apps aiming to replace a GPS unit or a cycle computer. That list would be hundreds of entries long, and all the major cycling websites have published such articles in the competition for search engine traffic anyway. So where routing and navigation are concerned, I’ve chosen what I consider the top two or three apps right now, and the rest of the list concerns apps that support other aspects of life on two wheels.
The original piece looked at Android apps only; most of the popular apps are available on iOS too these days, so in this update I’ve linked to both where possible.
(Note that all apps listed here are free unless otherwise noted.)
Mapping, Route Planning & Navigation Apps For Cycle Touring
There’s no magic bullet app for cycle touring where mapping and navigation is concerned – and in any case, you may prefer paper maps, road signs, or just following your nose.
But if you do intend to use digital maps and possibly the navigation features that come with these apps, and you don’t already have a favourite that works for you, I would suggest trying a multi-pronged approach, playing to the strengths of each of the following apps and the coverage of the data that supports them, which tends to differ worldwide.
Here’s my current pick of the bunch:
Google Maps (Android/iOS)
Google Maps is getting really good. Most of the world now features excellent mapping coverage, and the new vector maps are fast, detailed and attractive. If you’re hooked up with a data SIM card and you get good service throughout your ride, Google Maps may well do everything you need. In many places, bicycle-friendly routing is offered alongside directions for cars, and where it isn’t, using the walking directions will often offer you a similarly low-traffic route between two places.
Many places allow you to download maps in the default style for offline use. But that’s about the limit of its offline functionality. Crucially in rugged country, it won’t cache (i.e. save offline) the terrain map view, which makes it difficult or impossible to estimate a route’s elevation profile if you don’t have a data connection. Nor can it tell you anything about offline points of interest other than their name and what category they belong to.
Routing also depends on being online – so while the base map may be cached, you’ll have to do your own navigation. Finally, the sat-nav style navigation mode tends to be extremely power-hungry: don’t expect your phone to last a day without charge if being used in this way.
Pair Google Maps up with Street View if you want to explore places in VR before you get there. I only use this if I’m heading for a specific spot in a city, such as a Warmshowers host’s house, and want to visualise the location in advance.
In the last couple of years, Maps.Me seems to have fought off masses of competition to become the go-to Google Maps alternative, and it’s easy to see why. It’s been focused specifically to fill the gaps left by Google in terms of offline mapping and routing, as well as representing the open data movement, and this is marketed as one of the app’s key features.
When you first start the app, you are prompted to download parts of the world region by region, starting with your current location. All of the app’s main functionality will then work offline, including bicycle-optimised routing. On my most recent trip in Thailand, I used this feature daily and cross-referenced it with Google’s walking directions to plan most of my riding and find quiet, backroad routes across the country. You can also search offline for nearby points of interest such as cafes, grocery stores and lodgings.
It isn’t without its flaws. It does depend on the OpenStreetMap database to generate its maps, which makes it susceptible to coverage issues in less-visited regions, although not necessarily any more so than Google. You can also add missing data easily enough in a vastly simplified version of the OSM contribution system, which is a nice touch and a good way for you to pass a bit of extra knowledge forward to future riders.
My biggest gripe is that the maps – and there is only one style available – do not display any topographical data whatsoever (contours, hillshading, elevation colour coding). This is partly compensated by a small elevation profile generated along with the cycling and walking routes, without which I would struggle a lot more to recommend it.
BackCountry Navigator (Android only)
I’d also keep BackCountry Navigator installed if there are going to be any significant hills along the way. BCN features no routing or sat-nav style navigation features, being as it is more oriented towards GPS users in backcountry scenarios on foot, but the ability to download a variety of tilesets (i.e. styles of basemap), including the topographical OpenCycleMap and Thunderforest Outdoor styles, makes it invaluable for the more remote and mountainous rides you might decide to take.
As a kind of GPS unit replacement app, it will also allow you to load in GPS tracks in various formats and overlay them on the basemap, as well as keeping a tracklog of your movements if you so desire. There’s a free version with limited functionality, and a Pro version with more.
- Download BackCountry Navigator for: Android
A previous version of this article recommended Wikitude as a very early example of an augmented reality (AR) app, in which you could point a compatible device’s camera at the landscape around you and the app would draw in data from a load of different sources and put labels on what you were looking at.
Wikitude have since retired the app and appear now to be focusing more on providing the underlying AR technology for other uses. Instead, then, I would suggest ViewRanger as a more up-to-date alternative; specifically its Skyline feature which, as the name suggests, will attempt to label features of the landscape such as mountain peaks and lakes, place names, and other prominent waypoints.
In other ways, it provides similar mapping functionality to Backcountry Navigator but for iOS too, and with the addition of a community feature that allows you to see what routes other users have uploaded in a given area. In popular regions, this might unearth some attractive cycling routes that you may not otherwise have spotted when planning your ride through.
Premium map packs that you can’t get for free (such as digital versions of the UK Ordnance Survey series) are available too at additional cost.
Soviet Military Maps (Android only)
In places where OSM, Google and paper maps coverage is really sketchy, my fallback for many years has been the good old Soviet Military Maps, which, yes, were last updated during the Cold War, but cover the entire world at the 1:100-200K scales and offer a level of detail to rival the best of today’s paper maps.
Originally I used printed scans of the original paper maps, but now some clever clogs has digitised and georeferenced a vast proportion of them and made a free app out of it. The Pro version allows you to download them for offline use too.
In some really off-grid parts of the world, these are still the best maps you can get. (I still wish I’d known about these before I went to Mongolia…)
Ride with GPS (Android/iOS)
Finally, here’s Ride with GPS, the most cycle-computer-esque of all the apps listed in this section. It’s not as well-known as the apps above, but it has found favour in the long distance cycling community, particularly bikepackers – indeed, Bikepacking.com use it as the primary platform for delivering their routes. If you’re keen to track, analyse and share your rides, Ride with GPS is as good a place as any to do so.
Weather Apps For Cycle Touring
It’s usually good practice to check the weather outlook before setting off on a ride. In some circumstances when a change of weather would bring about greater risks, it’s critical for a safe and enjoyable ride. These apps will help with that:
I’ve tuned into the finer details of the weather in recent years as a result of spending too much time in the mountains where weather really matters, and this has spilled over into cycle touring. In terms of sheer quantity and range of data, nothing I’m aware of beats Windy, which visualises almost every weather factor you could ask for on an interactive map.
If you’re into making your own forecasts or want an in-depth perspective on what you’re seeing and experiencing, give Windy a data connection and it will give you pretty much all the information you could wish for.
Alternatively if you just want a local forecast at a useful level of detail for the outdoorsperson, the Norwegian weather agency’s official app seems still to be the most cited option.
Accommodation Apps For Cycle Touring
There’s no wild camping app I’m aware of (thank goodness), nor can I envisage what it would even do, but when you’re ready for a night indoors, here’s a few apps that might make finding a bed that much easier:
You’ve already got this, right? Search for ‘lodgings’ in a specified area of the map and you’ll get not just locations but prices and availability for all the accommodation options listed on the major booking sites. (It’s part of Google’s business model: they’ll take a cut when you click through and book.)
Booking.com* features the widest range of hotels and guesthouses in many parts of the world. Be aware, however, of the tactics this app will use to make you feel like you have to book right now or the universe will implode.
Know also that they charge accommodation providers a lot – if you want to support small businesses over massive corporations, it might be better to do your research here but then walk in and pay cash.
They aren’t always the cheapest: in South East Asia, for example, the Singapore-based Agoda is often a better bet.
Low-budget hostels are underrepresented at Booking.com (perhaps because they can’t afford the fees), but Hostelworld steps in to fill this niche. Especially in the West, you’ll find way more cheap beds here than through the usual booking sites.
(I previously recommended HostelBookers, but with the app not updated for over two years and with ratings sliding down the charts, I can feel a shutdown coming soon.)
Though it’s by no means the quirky and inexpensive alternative it used to be, AirBnb is still worth checking out, particularly if you want your own self-catering apartment for a few days off, or if you like the B&B experience as it used to be (i.e. an actual person hosts you in their home and cooks you breakfast).
Sign up through this referral link* to get £25 in credit towards your first stay (I’ll get a little bonus too), then install the app to search for options and make your bookings.
The original cycle touring hospitality exchange platform might not have taken off quite like Couchsurfing did post-buyout, but it didn’t really need to (and many would argue it was for the best anyway). The much-improved current version of the WarmShowers app makes searching for willing hosts that much easier, with an interface that’s arguably better and more user-friendly than the website itself. The map search function is particularly useful.
While the distribution of hosts is not exactly even in a global sense, it’s always worth looking at the map to see who’s about on any given route. I’ll continue flying the flag for WarmShowers for as long as it exists and I’m still riding my bicycle, just because I love the spirit of it.
Where WarmShowers hosts have not yet reached, Couchsurfing is still there with its however-many-million users, and if you can be bothered to wade through the oceans of inactive profiles and unresponsive hosts you might still find someone cool to stay with. The lack of a map search is a woeful omission, but most other aspects of the app interface are fine.
Personally, I use CS more now to meet travellers and locals for a drink and a wander in a new city than to find a host, for which I either use WarmShowers (see above) or – now I’ve been on the road a few years – ask around my networks and usually end up finding a friend of a friend to stay with.
If you do use it to find a host, make sure they know you’re showing up on a rather expensive bicycle and that you probably won’t want to leave it locked to the fence outside!
Travel & Transport Apps For Cycle Touring
Sometimes – oftentimes – you need to take a plane, train or bus to get yourself and your bike from A to B before or after you ride it. That’s where the following apps may come in handy.
Yet again, Google are there with features nobody else has the leverage to pull off. Google Maps in many parts of the world is now hooked into public transport schedules to the point where it beats the official apps launched by the agencies themselves. (Last year I was stunned to find the Yerevan subway integrated into Maps – whatever next, live mashrutka departures?)
If Google Maps doesn’t do it, you’re probably left with little choice but to download individual apps for each city or country’s transit networks, seeing as the standardised exchange of such information still seems to be a work-in-progress.
When it comes to searching for and booking flights, I tend to default to Kayak, mainly for its extensive filtering capabilities, as well as because it usually turns up the cheapest tickets, especially if your dates are flexible.
Of particular interest to the cycle tourist is the ability to filter by airline, which as we all know can make a huge difference at the check-in desk depending on the baggage policy of the carrier in question (a topic for another article, perhaps).
Kayak is mainly just a search aggregator – you have to click through and book elsewhere, though they have started selling tickets direct now too.
Allow TripIt access to your inbox and it will pull in confirmation emails for flights, hotels and what have you and spit out a simplified, offline-accessible itinerary with all the details you’re likely to need while you’re in transit.
Google, as usual, seems gradually to be incorporating similar features into its own products, so don’t be surprised if TripIt quietly vanishes in a future update to this article.
Communications Apps For Cycle Touring
You’ll be wanting to communicate while you’re on the road, both to the people you meet and to the people back home. Guess what? There’s an app for that…
WhatsApp / Viber / Telegram (Android/iOS)
I’ve listed three phone number-based instant messaging apps here because, at the time of writing, they predominate on a per-country basis. If you’re heading round the world on a bike and you plan to communicate with locals as you go, best install all of them.
Such is the competitive nature of this market that other apps are likely to replace those listed in future years.
- Download WhatsApp for: Android | iOS
- Download Viber for: Android | iOS
- Download Telegram for: Android | iOS
Google Translate (Android/iOS)
Yes, I’m listing Google Translate as a communications app, but for real-life face to face communication with people who don’t speak your language.
It won’t be long before you’re both wearing earpieces and receiving simultaneous translations as you converse freely in your native tongues, but while we’re waiting for that to happen, Translate does allow you to download offline translation dictionaries for a huge number of languages, and the accuracy is only improving.
Rotate your phone to landscape orientation and the word or phrase you’ve translated will be enlarged to fullscreen, allowing you to brandish it at a roadside noodle stand while trying to order a stir-fry with ‘no onions’ in it.
Finance Apps For Cycle Touring
Here are a few selections on the financial end of things, which may ease your pedal-powered wheelings (sorry, couldn’t resist) and dealings:
XE Currency (Android/iOS)
Based on the highly popular xe.com currency exchange website, the XE Currency app will allow you to choose a handful of currencies and convert between them all at the latest mid-market rates.
I mainly find this useful to ensure I’m not getting ripped off by money-changers, but also to watch for spikes in conversion rates that may affect my travel budget (other Brits abroad may remember 23rd June 2016 particularly well).
My travels of late have tended to involve a slightly more complicated financial picture than the ‘spend as little as possible, preferably nothing’ approach of my earlier cycle tours. To track and visualise what I’m spending, I use an expense tracking app called Toshl, into which I spend a few minutes each day putting my expenses.
For someone who was more or less financially illiterate, this has shed a remarkable amount of light on the actual flow of funds through my travel activities and, in turn, helped me adapt my ways to better fit my means.
If keeping track of travel money is a source of stress for you, I would highly recommend starting to use a simple tracking app such as Toshl as the first step towards a remedy. It can also simply produce an interesting summary of the financial aspect of your journeys, which I’m planning to demonstrate in a future article.
Starling (Android/iOS) [UK only]
The UK’s newest fee-free overseas spending debit card provider, Starling Bank, relies on this app to communicate with its customers. Though technically not just an app but also a bank account, I’m including it here because of its particular relevance to the bicycle traveller looking to keep their overseas card withdrawal and spending fees down.
Here’s a full write-up of my experience with Starling if you’re keen to read more.
- Download the Starling app and sign up for an account here.
Photography Apps For Cycle Touring
Most new smartphones in 2018 come with absurdly good cameras, sensors, processing algorithms and editing software built-in, so I no longer consider any third party app truly essential in the photography department. Keeping your photos backed up is another story, however…
Google Photos (Android/iOS)
My only reason for including Google Photos here is for its automatic backup feature, which upon detecting a WiFi connection will upload in the background all the photos you’ve taken since the last backup, storing them in your combined Google Drive / Photos account.
In its free incarnation, this will store 15GB of your original resolution photos and an unlimited number of compressed but nevertheless high quality versions of the same (you can choose which in the app settings). You can pay to upgrade to a 1TB capacity account if you need it.
Plug a card reader into your phone or otherwise connect with a compatible ‘proper’ camera, copy the images over, and it’ll do the same thing. Really this is about safeguarding your images, rather than photography per se (and you do care about having backups, don’t you?).
Dropbox (Android / iOS)
If everything being Google-oriented isn’t your bag, the Dropbox app will perform exactly the same backup function via its Camera Uploads feature, though I find Google’s web interface and in-app editing features more appealing. Again, free and paid options differ mainly in terms of the amount of storage you get.
Other Apps For Cycle Touring
Finally, I’ve come across many other useful apps that just don’t quite fit into any of the other categories. Here are a few:
AccuBattery will give you detailed stats on your phone’s power consumption, including estimates of how long it’ll currently last with the current fleet of running apps; useful when you don’t know where the next charging opportunity is going to be. It’ll also prompt you to disconnect your charger at a level that’ll reduce battery wear and help prolong its life.
- Download AccuBattery for: Android
Sky Map (Android)
I’ll probably never learn the constellations unless I actually need to navigate by them, but the Sky Map app is great fun when you’re lying out under a starry sky and you want to identify what you’re looking at. It’s also great for picking out other celestial bodies when they’re visible to the naked eye.
- Download Sky Map for: Android
AnkiDroid / AnkiMobile (Android/iOS)
The apps accompanying the open-source flashcard platform Anki allow you to memorise things effectively on the go via the proven learning technique of spaced repetition. I find it particularly useful for language learning, memorising words, phrases, alphabets, and the like. The open platform gives you access to shared, community-created ‘decks’ of cards covering most such topics.
The Android app is free; the iOS equivalent is paid and the revenue supports the broader Anki project.
A VPN App
Ride for long enough and you’ll inevitably reach a country where some website or app or service you rely on has been blocked by the government. Pre-empt this by installing a VPN (virtual private network) app and setting it up in advance.
What these services essentially do is make it look like you’re accessing the internet from somewhere else, encrypting your data in such a way that your actual whereabouts is untraceable.
There are thousands of free VPN apps out there, most of which are full of malware and security holes and whose developers are out to sell your browsing data to the highest bidder. Avoid those and choose one of the recommendations audited by a trusted site with a reputation worth losing. I haven’t included any specific recommendations here as they change so frequently, but TechRadar have an updated list for 2018.
That’s it for 2018’s app selections! Any I’ve missed that you’d consider particularly useful to the globetrotting cyclist?
(And just to reiterate: for your first trip, leave all this stuff behind.)