Full disclosure: Komoot was mentioned repeatedly in response to my 2018 round-up of apps for cycle touring. I got in touch with the team and they offered to make a modest contribution to my ride around Armenia in return for a detailed report on my experiences. Here it is.
Lots of people have been asking about the route planning smartphone app I’ve been using on the road in Armenia. The app in question is komoot (with a lowercase ‘k’), the creation of a Berlin-based team of developers, which is finding increasing favour with recreational outdoor users, and just happens to be an excellent tool for cycle tourists.
First things first: why would you use an app for route planning and navigation on a cycle tour?
There are obvious reasons, the main one being to get where you’re going without getting lost. Less obvious are that such apps are now clever enough to calculate – in many cases – better routes than those you might pick on the ground. By better, I don’t mean shorter or more direct, like Google Maps might suggest. I mean quieter, prettier, with gentler gradients, with road surfaces appropriate to the bike you’re riding, and passing by more points of interest along the way – in short, routes that are more cyclist-friendly.
This kind of functionality was hard to come by until pretty recently, and is one reason I’ve never bothered with previous generations of such apps and websites until now. It’s also because I generally like to go low tech. But for this trip I had some specific aims, and
The komoot app (Android/iOS) is free, as is the first of the regional offline basemaps you choose to download. From then on, additional maps are chargeable at £3.99 each, but world travellers might prefer to buy the complete package (£29.99) which covers the whole globe for a one-off purchase.
I’ve been using komoot daily for nearly a month, and my impressions so far have been very positive. There are a couple of caveats which I’ll mention in detail below, but none are deal-breakers – indeed, komoot has become my go-to app for route planning and navigation on cycle tours, and I plan to continue using it for the remainder of this extended tour of Armenia, and likely into the future too.
So what exactly are komoot’s strengths?
To my mind, it isn’t a single feature but rather the package as a whole. Rather than trying to do everything for everyone and cram in every possible piece of functionality, the developers’ goal seems to be simplicity of use combined with powerful key features. To that end, the app’s functionality is broadly split into three parts: route planning, navigation, and social media. Let’s go through each in turn.
Planning mode uses routing algorithms to generate optimal routes between any number of points of your choice, which can be searched for, selected on the map, or chosen from categorised listings of nearby places. The routing happens server-side; you’ll need an active internet connection to carry out this step, but saved routes can then be followed offline.
The resulting routes are generally excellent – I particularly like that I can switch between cycle touring, road biking and mountain biking, which produce different routes based on different criteria – and the database of points of interest is extremely comprehensive.
Of particular use to cycle tourists is that generated routes are displayed not just with elevation and gradient profiles but also track type breakdowns, so you can see in advance what proportions of a route are on dirt or asphalt, highway or provincial road, etc, and adjust as necessary depending your preferences. Also generated are statistics concerning distance, estimated ride duration based on your fitness, total ascent/descent, average grade, highest/lowest elevations, and the like (though in uber-mountainous Armenia these numbers usually give me a sinking feeling!).
It’s worth mentioning that the app has a matching web interface for planning routes in a bit more comfort. Routes planned and saved here are then synced to the app.
In navigation mode, the app is unobtrusive and as accurate as the mapping allows (see below); I prefer to use the audio prompts (turn-by-turn navigation) with the screen switched off, which saves a lot of battery power. The fact that this works offline for pre-planned routes is a big plus. Your actual route is automagically logged, regardless of whether it matches the route you planned, and can later be exported as a GPX file.
The most innovative element is perhaps the social media side of the app. Once you’ve logged your day’s activities, you are encouraged to highlight your favourite spots and sections on the route, and then to share your recommendations with the app’s other users, who can then upvote them. Popular highlights then begin to show up when other users plan routes in the same area, thus enabling them to benefit from good recommendations. Public trips also become searchable and show up on your profile.
You can also embed them in your blog…
The result is a community-generated database of routes and curated highlights which might not otherwise appear on a regular basemap. (On a gamification tip, you also get badges and whatnot for being an active contributor.)
It’s a nice, simple system that seems to have the spirit of exploration at its core, rather than that of competition or showmanship as with some other cycling apps. Does it work? Well, the app has 5 million users to date, so komoot must be doing something right!
I mentioned earlier that there are caveats. Komoot asked for an honest report, so here they are in detail.
The most visible issue stems from the app’s reliance on the OpenStreetMap database and open-source elevation data to provide the underlying data. All of the route planning features depend on it. This means that the functionality will only ever be as good as the data. And while the open-source data is extraordinarily good in some places (including the app’s native Germany, the UK, and most other European countries that dominate its user base), in Armenia it is far from perfect.
To be sure, it’s a lot better than it was – we added or updated more than 5,000km of track data in 2016 alone with the Transcaucasian Trail project – but there are still quirks, mostly relating to road names (which affect the audio prompts), the misclassification of dirt roads as paved (which affects routing for road biking), and the low-resolution elevation model (which creates discrepancies in elevation and gradient profiles).
Of course, komoot is by no means alone in suffering from incomplete or inaccurate mapping data. In fact, the same issues affect all apps using OpenStreetMap (which is most of them). But coverage and accuracy continues to improve worldwide, and a bit of common sense is enough to overcome most routing issues – and it’s practically a non-issue in much of Europe nowadays. That’s why it isn’t a deal-breaker. The fact that it even has such sophisticated routing features is already a game changer – find me an app five years ago that could do that!
And if the map really is blank at any point, you can draw a straight line between A and B, or switch the basemap to aerial imagery and trace the routes you see. This much-requested new feature is called ‘off-grid routing’ and surfaced in an update midway through the most recent leg of my ride. It has given komoot a big leg-up in the planning of intrepid, off-trail routes, though I am yet to make use of the feature myself.
On the topic of routing, komoot does have a particular type of user in mind with these features. While they are extremely powerful given good underlying data, users who like doing fine-grained, turn-by-turn route planning themselves will find the algorithms too dominant and the ability to micro-adjust a route too cumbersome, necessitating adding endless additional points to ‘force’ the app to take the route you want.
But this would be missing the point: komoot’s focus is clearly on making the routing feature as strong as it can possibly be and appealing to people who will utilise it rather than try to override it.
(Case in point: I’ve found plenty of new routes in Armenia that I wouldn’t have known about had I not followed the app’s suggestions.)
There are a few minor niggles that could be improved:
- It is somewhat fiddly to add new points to a route mid ride; I’d prefer to be able show preset categories on the map at all times and then simply tap to add them.
- I’d like to be able to join a pre-planned route midway, rather than replanning it with a new starting point (necessitating an internet connection).
- If I make an intentional detour, I’d like the app to recognise this rather than instructing me to make a U-turn for the next several minutes.
- If I’m going (downhill?) too fast to be able to hear the audio prompts, it would be cool if the app would detect this and show a visual prompt as well.
- And if my phone’s screen is locked, I would prefer to be able to unlock it without pausing my tour to do so.
The specific phone I’ve been using – a cheap Huawei Y6 – also has a habit of terminating the app at unpredictable intervals when the screen is off. Having looked into the issue I believe it is an issue with Huawei’s proprietary version of Android, rather than a fault with the app itself. It doesn’t happen with my Google Nexus 6P, which runs the regular flavour of Android.
Finally, I don’t believe I’ve got the best out of the social features, purely because of where in the world I’m located. I think I’m a komoot Pioneer in Armenia by default, as nobody else here seems to be using it (yet).
Komoot is certainly the most powerful route planning app I’ve come across to date – as long as you let it do its thing and don’t try too hard to override it. And if you’re cycle touring in new places and you don’t know the area, who wouldn’t want optimally calculated routes together with curated community highlights?
Throw in offline voice navigation and you’ve got one of the most powerful apps a cycle tourist could wish for. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it when I was riding across southern Thailand earlier this year.
If you’re keen to see how it actually works, check out my public komoot profile, which includes all my tracked rides (and a few hikes) in Armenia so far. Onwards to the north!