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Cycle Touring Navigation: Paper Map or GPS Device? | Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of this blog post about the world of cycle touring navigation.  Read part 1 here.

Navigating on a Cycle Tour

As touched on in Part 1, I love paper maps and still use them for bicycle touring planning and navigation. However, I also love GPS devices - they are a fantastic tool to have at your fingertips and can get you where you need to go at the touch of a button.

GPS devices do bring many benefits to cyclists.  For me, one of the key benefits is the ability to get you back on track when lost. If you do get lost and on occasion need to get to a destination a little quicker than usual (maybe darkness approaching or meeting up with someone), then using some form of GPS device is a great backup to have.  The simplicity of clicking a 'Locate Me' button, entering a destination and hey presto, you will almost certainly be back on track.  The only caveat is you need to know where it is you are going!  The point is, technology is there to save time and improve life, so why not take advantage when it suits?

GPS for Bicycle Touring

Back in part 1, I mentioned what a pain it can be to be lost in a busy city with a paper map.  Scratching around trying to find a point of reference and working out if that is where you are now standing.  Getting a little stressed because you want to get moving in the right direction.  That has been me and more than likely, many of you.  Don't get me wrong, this doesn't happen often and sometimes getting lost isn't a bad thing, however, there are times when you just want to get going and having a backup is always a plus.  This is what led me to start using a smartphone for my first taste of GPS for cycling.

  • Smart Phones

I have had pretty good experiences with this method and always get where I needed to be.  They are very easy to use and have great built-in navigation apps.  Most smartphone vendors partner with navigation companies these days and are very well-maintained, polished products.  Competition in this market is fierce, meaning there will always be enhancements to benefit us all.  The beauty is that most of the time it is just a simple software update, rather than purchasing a new device.  Today (2015) the devices are amazing and will only get better, especially battery life and availability of maps.

iphone for cycle touring navigation 

For me, there are three areas that need to be kept in mind when using smartphones for navigation.

 

  1. Battery life.  Navigation/GPS drains battery life very fast!  This may vary from vendor to vendor, but I find the iPhone battery can lose 50% of its charge in a couple of hours (in 2015).  This obviously varies with people using phones differently and devices are at different stages of their life.  Test it at home before you go away is my advice.  If you stay in a hotel, then battery life is unlikely to cause you an issue - it all depends on how long you ride for each day.  If camping or riding for longer than your battery life, then a backup battery or solar charger is needed.  Or some very long café stops!
  2. Data usage.  Navigation can be very heavy on data usage as the maps are generated as you ride, although some maps can be downloaded to help with this. Be careful and check with your mobile phone company before setting off.  The way I got around data usage was to purchase a navigation app that allows you to download maps to the device and then use the app with data turned off (offline maps).  I have an app called Scout (formally Skobbler) and it works really well.  Battery life doesn't improve that much with offline maps, but using Scout saved an awkward conversation with my boss about my work mobile phone usage!   Technology is always moving forward, so keep your eyes open for the latest developments. 
  3. Protection.  Smartphones certainly aren't cheap, so get yourself a good quality case that is waterproof.  Ideally, something that doubles up as a handlebar mount.  Don't be disappointed by cutting corners here - get a quality product.

 

The one feature that I am starting to use more with my smartphone is the assistance service (SIRI on my iPhone).  I have always known this exists, but to be honest had never used it until my last bicycle tour.  Riding towards a campsite near La Rochelle, France, I decided I was too hot and wanted to divert somewhere a little nearer.  There were no campsites marked on my paper map, so I suddenly remembered SIRI.  Pressing the button and asking 'Please show me campsites within 20 miles of my current location' brought back a great choice of possible places to stop for the night.  Select one and press 'Start Navigation' and away you go.  I'm sure you can think of many possibilities for making use of this service for cycle touring.  Give it a try next time you go away.

Overall I find using my iPhone a good experience.  If you are looking for a budget way to navigate, using what many of us already own, then this will work well for most people.  It will give you turn-by-turn navigation and will always find you on the map when lost.  My advice is to give your set-up a trial at home before going away and see how you get on. Make changes if needed before you leave and not on the road.  Maybe visit somewhere not too far from home where you haven't ridden before and get lost!

GPS Cycling Devices

The smartphone and paper maps method worked well for many rides.  Using the offline navigation app kept the bill down, but battery life did start to frustrate me a little.  I was riding further and further and constantly found myself fighting to keep it charged.  That was my excuse to purchase a new toy!

After my usual deliberation, I purchased myself a Garmin Touring GPS device.  This proved to be the best match.  I originally looked at the Garmin Edge 800/810 devices, but I found them too expensive, needed map upgrades to visit new countries and they had lots of options I simply didn't need.  All I needed was basic navigation and some simple functions (distance, average speed etc..)  The Garmin Touring gave me navigation using openstreetmaps (completely free) and the simple speed, time, etc... functions I needed. 

Garmin Edge Touring 

What do you get with a Garmin Touring?  Not very much, but that is the whole point.  It is a stripped-down version of the Edge 800/810 devices.  Gone are the features like wireless updates, cadence sensors etc... (the Plus version of the Touring model does allow for heart rate monitors if that is your thing).  You get an SD card with all the maps, some mounts for your handlebars and a USB cable to charge and upload/download.  As with all Garmin GPS devices, you can use their online mapping software, Garmin Connect.  The device also allows you to navigate on the fly by entering the address or moving a PIN to a place on the map.

Garmin Connect

I have been using the Garmin Touring for cycling for about 2 years now.  It has been a good experience.  Very easy to navigate the menus - they are all self-explanatory and do what they say.  Battery life is brilliant - I generally get around 8-10 hours out of mine.  It can reduce if in a busy city centre with many turns and you decide to get lost, making it can work harder. To help protect it I have added a rubber skin, which increases its robustness, especially if you drop it like I do!  The device is also waterproof.  To how deep I don't know, but it has survived many downpours!

Garmin Edge Connect 

The Garmin touring has never failed to get me moving when lost.  It finds you on the map, you enter the address or drop a pin and press 'Ride'.  Pre-defined routes can be created using Garmin Connect and uploaded in seconds for later use.  I do try to limit using pre-defined routes, but I must admit they can be handy.  For example on my last tour, my ferry arrived late in the day and I had to make a 40-mile journey to a campsite, ideally before nightfall.  Having a route I created earlier made my life easy.  Rolling off the ferry with turn-by-turn directions to the site got me moving fast. 

The other great feature of this device (and many others) is the points of interest (POI) navigation option.  Select a hotel, restaurant, campsite, or whatever from the list that is close by and click 'Ride' will take you there, turn by turn.

 

Endomondo for Cycle Touring

Strava for Cycle Touring 

During the first few months of usage, there were some frustrating times.  I can only talk about my experience with this specific device (it may be different with other vendors).  Some of these points are things you have to learn to live with and some are just a learning curve. 

 

Planning and Navigating my Bicycle Tours

I use everything available to me.  Maps, devices, online tools, etc...  I don't like to limit myself.

My process is pretty simple really.

  1. Think of roughly where I want to go and stay
  2. Maybe purchase a paper map
  3. Mark possible campsites and areas of interest on a paper map or right/type up some notes
  4. Go riding
  5. If it goes wrong or I want to make a change at any point, use whatever I need to get moving

 

I generally use a map at the start of the day to get an idea of directions and only turn on the navigation part of the GPS device when I want to find the campsite or I get lost.  If I really get into trouble, open up a map on my smartphone.  And now I have discovered SIRI I think I'll be making more ad hoc changes along the way - something that I always enjoy doing.

 

Summary

I will always use GPS devices.  They are part of my touring kit list now and I cannot see them disappearing soon.  They can be temperamental like any electronic device and may send you on a wild goose chase!  But if used effectively, they will help you get out of any navigation nightmare or through a complicated city centre.  They will enhance your cycle touring experiences.

Likewise, I will always have a paper map with me.  The enjoyment of seeing where I have come from and where I'm heading on a paper map is always a pleasure that I don't want to lose.  The history they hold from previous bicycle tours in the various rips, stains and imperfections is something to be treasured.

Remember that no method of navigation is going to be perfect and shouldn't be solely relied on.  Use everything available to you.  It is about the journey along the way.

 

 

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