by Charlie Otto
I have bike toured with paper maps since the 1970s and never thought I needed anything else. But in the last few years I spent some time sailing, and that experience taught me to appreciate the power of modern GPS navigation. So I explored how to use the GPS for navigating on my bike tours.
Safety caution: Remember when using electronic devices while driving, keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times!
Touring the South Island of New Zealand in 2012, I used a handheld GPS strapped to my bars, but I always had to find an electrical outlet in the evenings to plug in my battery charger. If I was wild camping, I was out of luck. Also with the small handheld GPS, I had to use reading glasses to see the details on the little screen. I was determined to upgrade to better technology!
Before my next bike trip in Europe that summer, I had a front dynamo hub put on my bike. A dynamo hub enabled me to make my own electricity and charge my AA batteries while the wheels where turning, but I still had to switch them twice a day to keep the unit alive. Last spring, I made the jump to an iPad mini-tablet, charged by the dynamo hub, to keep my navigation system up and running. This system worked great, and I had plenty of power as long as I turned off the screen when I wasn't using it.
Spring 2013, I rode 3,000-plus kilometers from Madrid, Spain, to Dubrovnik, Croatia. For such a long trip through several countries, good detailed paper maps are numerous and expensive. The free maps from the tourist offices usually don't show the smaller, quiet roads we cyclists prefer.
First I found a good GPS app for the iPad mini: MotionX GPS for $2.99 from the iTunes store. This app offers all the features I was looking for:
I used the free online website, RidewithGPS.com, to help me design my route. (MapMyRide.com is an alternative that has an app for the iPad too.) To create my route "track,” I simply entered my start point (Madrid, Spain) and my finish point (Dubrovnik, Croatia) and told it I was going to be traveling by bicycle. RidewithGPS churned its wheels for 30 seconds or so and out popped a detailed 3,000-kilometer track showing every turn. Hmmm! How did it do that so fast? Will it be any good? Well, at least it was something to go on. (You can also have it design a series of short legs between the sights you want to see along the way.) I converted the new track I made into a “.gpx” file and downloaded it to my computer, then added it to the Motion-X app via iTunes/iPad/apps/MotionX. Or you can add it by emailing the gpx file to yourself, open the email on iphone/iPad, click and hold finger on the gpx file, and you get an option to open in gpx MotionX. Bingo! There it was on the electronic map on my iPad mini.
Next, using my high-speed internet connection at home, I used the MotionX app map download feature to preload the detailed maps between the two cities. I did this so I would not have to download the maps during my tour when I might not have a fast wireless connection or would have to pay for data used via cell connection. So now all the maps of my route were loaded in my iPad mini before I left home.
I found the combination of using the free tourist office maps for my general overview and the iPad mini electronic maps for detailed turn-by-turn route finding was the perfect balance. I also found the paper maps very useful when talking to the locals along the way to get directions and share my route. If they were over 50 or so, it was hard for them to see and make sense of the on-screen map.
Also a friend sent me a gpx track of the route she was planning from Athens to Lisbon, and I found another online for the EuroVelo #8 route I was going to follow. Having three tracks, each displayed in its own color, meant in most places I had three choices of routes plus, of course, any other roads on the map too.
After putting my bike together at a friend of a friend’s apartment and some nights out on the town in Madrid, I started pedaling south out of the city. Soon I connected up with the digital track I had created and was very curious about what kind of roads “RidewithGPS” had picked for me. The app found a nice separated bike trail that headed away from the city, then put me on some quiet roads that were at first paved, but later there were some dirt roads too, heading in a pretty direct line toward the coast. The website says it chooses routes based on safety and bike trails.
When using any of the route creation software, it’s smart to be prepared for some adventure. RidewithGPS, for example, seems to pick the shortest route between two points with the least amount of traffic, which is nice. I did not find a setting for road bikers who just want paved roads. You might even consider carrying extra food or overnight gear because RidewithGPS won’t be choosing the most inhabited route. This might include bike trails on old railroad beds that are wonderful, but you should expect longer distances between towns and stores.
In cities the RidewithGPS chose small side streets. For example, in Genoa, Italy, it picked an old Roman road through the eastern half of the city that took me through back neighborhoods, over old narrow bridges, and down one-way streets where bikes were allowed. In cities, the navigation required that I watch the GPS map closely because it might send me down the most unassuming alley connecting up a fantastic series of small streets through town. These small obscure routes really made my trip much more of an adventure, like a treasure hunt. I was constantly amazed at where the route was taking me. These old routes often are more direct, going up and over hills, rather than the more contoured modern roads that go around them.
Only a few times did the RidewithGPS track steer me wrong. For example, once the route took me on a footpath to a hilltop monastery that was too steep for my loaded bike and would have had me pushing my bike for hours. Another time, it took me down a dirt road that had recently been plowed over by the local farmer. So use your own good judgment when it doesn't look right!
Surprisingly, I also found that having the GPS greatly enhanced my ability to explore towns and cities. When you get lost using a paper map, you spend a lot of time figuring out where you are. On the other hand, you can’t really get lost using a GPS because it always knows where you are.
The beauty of GPS navigation is that I was more willing to explore side streets, going whichever way looked interesting to me, and I wasn’t worried about getting lost. When I had enough exploring, I could easily make my way back to my track and continue along my route. This was wonderfully liberating!
For me having both electronic maps and paper maps was the way to go, and making my own electricity with a dynamo hub to keep it all charged up was a pleasure compared with having to search for electrical outlets.
I have seen other cyclists using their smartphones in a pocket or waterproof case mounted on the handlebars, but my choice was the iPad mini because it has a bigger screen.
I bought a couple of waterproof map cases made for boating and a tool at the hardware store to put my own metal snaps on, then put the two map cases together into one unit that snapped to the top of a trunk bag that I mounted on my front rack.
The top map case held my paper maps, which hid the tablet from general view, protected it from the sun, and acted as a sunshade so I could see the screen better in bright conditions. These more general tourist office maps gave me a good overview of my route and points of reference whereas the electronic map gave me incredible turn-by-turn detail, my exact location, and a view of the immediate area around me. The top paper maps were also very useful in talking to locals on the street, showing them where I was going, and getting their advice on things to see along the way.
The bottom map bag has a small hole for the iPad mini power connector and a zipper top for easy access to cameras, wallet, passport, etc.
I wired the dynamo hub to the e-works transformer, the buffer battery (which keeps the iPad mini from turning on each time you stop), and then the iPad mini. The dynamo hub also powers my front and rear lights for riding back from the pub at night. The hub has so little drag that with everything running, I can't feel any difference in rolling resistance.
When charging from the dynamo hub, turn off all extras on the iPad mini such as wifi, bluetooth and cell services to conserve battery and, most important, turn off the screen when traveling. On a 50-mile day I could gain a 50 percent charge on the iPad mini and have plenty of juice for navigation during the day, emails, surfing, Skype, Warm Showers app, etc., in the evening. Playing music seemed to use no power at all.
SIM cards are little chips you buy that plug into your iPad and allow you to connect to cellular data service so you don’t need to find wifi hot spots to be connected. Depending on your device, tablets use SIM, micro-SIM, or nano-SIM. Know which your device needs so you can ask for the right one in the local cell phone office. In Europe I had to purchase a new pre-paid nano-SIM card for my iPad mini in every country I traveled through. They cost about $8 to $12 US dollars per GB, which lasted me a week or two.
Pre-downloading all of my route maps at home saved a lot of time while traveling. It took many overnight hours downloading the maps in all resolutions at home. But if you try to download them while you are traveling, you will use a LOT of data on your SIM card or you will have to find a very fast wifi connection.
MotionX GPS makes it easy to share your location by sending a location map to friends and family so they know exactly where you are. This can be done by email, Facebook, or Twitter.
Zooming can throw you off if you’re used to paper maps. Be aware that if you zoom out and don’t realize it, all of a sudden you won’t be getting anywhere. This can throw off your timing about getting into camp at a reasonable hour!
You can Google or ask Siri for the nearest campground or hotel, although Googling seemed to give a more complete list. Siri seems to think that boat marinas are campgrounds too!
You can copy and paste addresses from a Google search into a MotionX GPS search to set a waypoint on your map. This helps you find the location of the campground or hotel in relation to your location and route.
You can use the “Warm Showers” app (warmshowers.org) to find lodging. Unfortunately, I have had little success with Warm Showers participants getting back with me promptly; some want a week or two notice, which just doesn't work when you’re bike touring. But other bike tourers I met had good experiences with this.
Siri and the Warm Showers app gives you “miles to,” which are “as the crow flies,” so you must add 30 percent or more depending on the road miles to get to your destination. For example, at one point in Italy, it was 4.4-kilometers to the next campground, but following the old Roman road over a high mountain pass took me the better part of two hours to get there.
On long uphill grinds, you can listen to your iTunes music with the iPad mini’s built-in speakers, and your riding companions can listen too. No headphones needed!
As of the printing of this article MotionX-GPS, is currently only available for iOS devices. However a quick search on Google Play came up with many Android mapping apps that I think would work just as well. Two that looked good to me were ViewRanger and Cue Sheet. Refer to the list of app features I mentioned to help make your choice.
Safety Caution #2: When using electronic devices while driving any vehicle, remember to keep both hands on the bars and both eyes on the road! Have fun and be safe out there!
Charlie Otto did has first bike tour in 1979 and has been hooked ever since. He has completed 19 self-supported, self-guided bike tours of a month or more in the US, Canada, Europe, Cuba, New Zealand and Thailand with conditions varying from separated, paved bike trails to off pavement wilderness dirt routes.