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:
- Working out precisely where you are, and
- 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.
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:
- Short trips in a localized area with a specific route, and
- Very remote trips in the back-country.
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.
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.)
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?