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Cycle Touring Navigation: Paper Map or GPS Device? | Part 1

So what is it to be when you go on your next bicycle tour? The good old paper map or a modern-day GPS device (Garmin, smartphone, Bryton, etc..)?

Bicycle Tour Navigation Options 

Some people are very passionate about this subject.  I always use paper maps and GPS. They both have their merits and downfalls,  but together they are a formidable force that helps you get where you want to go with little trouble. Embrace it all I say.


Traditional Paper Map

According to a popular online encyclopedia, the first map was created about 4000 years ago.  Since then they have been the go-to options for navigation; road maps, town centres, off-the-grid explorers - most options are covered.  I think many of us have a big country map in our cars.  They are simple to use, they get you where you need to be (eventually!), and they collect memories of your adventures.  Like scars, the creases and folds have a story to tell.  The scribbles, circled areas, tears, smudged food, blood, unknown marks and general wear serve as a reminder of all your past travels.

Maps for Cycle Touring 

I find there is something special about looking at maps, especially when they are brand new.  I love the smell, crisp feel, and beauty of seeing all these places I could visit.  Opening it out inspires you to visit as many places as possible and you start to dream about all the possibilities.  You see the contours of the land and immediately get a feel for the area and how your poor old legs could feel.  They are inspiring and rewarding and despite my love of modern technology, they will always be part of my planning and adventures.  Taking a handful out of the cupboard to write this post has already brought back fond memories of my early bicycle tours and mountain bike adventures.  The circles around places to visit, the worn-out corners and the creases from when I stuffed it into my pannier.  Some may be dated now, but I don't want to part with them. They are part of my story.

Some of my first bicycle tours were planned and then cycled using paper maps.  Sitting down at the kitchen table with a couple of drinks working out where I could get to in a day, what towns to visit, and where campsites were. The pencil marks act as an index to a memory of a special moment. 

Paper maps are still a great way to plan a bicycle tour.  You can picture yourself cycling through an area, stopping for lunch, strolling down a riverbank, struggling up a hill, and looking across the fields, before arriving at your next destination.  

Paper Maps for Bicycle Touring

Using maps while bicycle touring has mainly been good for me.  I work out the rough direction I want to cycle in and stop every now and then to make sure I'm on track.  This method is fine for open roads when you don't need to make too many decisions.  Throw in a city centre into the mix and that is when I find it slightly more challenging.  And I find this always happens at the most annoying time; when I want to get somewhere fast, especially when it is getting dark, maybe raining, and I have another 20 miles to my campsite.  On the flip side, when I'm under no time pressure (most of the time), there could be a town, city or beautiful area to discover by getting completely lost.

Maps for Bicycle Touring Navigation 

There is something special about sitting by my tent at the end of the day, hot drink (or maybe stronger!) in hand - I always dig out the map and see where I have been and check out the rough route for the next day.  This is a great time to reflect on where you have been, before moving onto the anticipation of what the next day will bring.  It is often a great time for reflection

Maps can be frustrating too!  They can get exposed to the elements.  They don't tell you where you are when lost and there is no magic button to track where you are.  You need to have basic navigation skills. And with bicycle touring, it is likely you will need multiple maps for all the areas, especially if you want a good level of detail.  Maps covering large areas don't always work for me - they are simply not detailed enough for the back roads.

If you plan solely to use maps for bicycle touring, do go with your eyes open. You may hit issues. On the flip side, you might want to get lost and discover some new and exciting places. It comes down to you as a person. Do you go with the flow when it gets a little challenging or do you stress out and let it ruin your day?


That is the end of Part 1.  Next week I'll cover off GPS devices and talk you through some of the great tools I use pre and post cycle tour. I'll also run through how I like to navigate my cycle tours too.

Click here to read Part 2 Now.

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Cycle Touring Navigation: Paper Map or GPS Device?...
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