Gadgets for Getting Out

May 26th, 2020
Hammerhead Karoo

Hammerhead Karoo, $399 

Big things may come in small packages, but sometimes they come in, well, big packages. The Hammerhead Karoo is a case in point. Unlike so many other cycling computers out there, the Karoo is unapologetically big, thick, and heavy. It’s probably not the kind of head unit that you’d want to slip into your pocket. But if you want useful navigation, a customizable display, and a big, beautiful screen, the Karoo could be the ticket.
Usually, I prefer not to ride with a cycling computer in front of my face. I find them distracting. For most of my riding, both on-road and off-road, I don’t need to know how fast I’m going, how many miles I’ve ridden, or how many feet of elevation I’ve gained. (I do like to know these things after the fact, however.) But I do like using a computer when I need to know where I’m going. And that’s where the Hammerhead Karoo excels.
Several things make the Karoo great for navigation. For example, the screen has a much higher resolution than most other head units, meaning you can see more detail in the maps. The operating system is Android, which will be familiar to anyone who has used an Android smartphone and should be pretty intuitive for those who haven’t (I’ve never owned an Android phone, but I got along fine with the Karoo). And it’s fast — there’s no lag time when switching screens or flipping through a menu, and the pinch-and-zoom function on the map is immediate and precise. The touchscreen even worked with all but the thickest of gloves.
The Karoo is highly customizable for whatever you want to display while riding, and even the navigation is adjustable. In the settings, you can choose your turn-by-turn directions to be off, always on, or “on cue.” I primarily used “on cue,” which I found to be very unobtrusive. (Note that the Karoo doesn’t have a speaker, so it won’t beep at you, but it can give you audio alerts via Bluetooth.) The Karoo will show your route as a solid red line on the map, which is easy enough to follow if you prefer not to have turn-by-turn directions.
To help get you where you’re going, the Hammerhead has free global maps you can download onto the head unit using wifi (it also has a SIM card slot if you’re traveling internationally or don’t have access to wifi). You can build a route directly on the head unit by dropping pins on the map, upload routes via the dashboard on, or use the Google Chrome extension to “grab” routes from third-party sites like RideWithGPS, Garmin Connect, and others. The dashboard also has a route builder, but I found it to be a little clunky. I kept having to make micro-corrections to the route, as it would automatically route me away from major roads, even when the roads had good shoulders or bike lanes. I found it much easier to build a route on RideWithGPS and then simply click the Chrome extension button, upon which the route would magically appear on my dashboard and upload onto the head unit. It doesn’t get any easier than that. (Of course, you need to be using Google Chrome for the extension.)
One of the interesting things about the Karoo is that Hammerhead is constantly sending updates. It seemed that every week or so a new update would come out, resulting in more and more functionality. For example, when I first received the Karoo for testing, it wasn’t compatible with the Garmin Varia radar unit I also had in for review. Then, just a few weeks later, Hammerhead released an update, and boom! It suddenly worked seamlessly with the radar unit (and other accessories that use ANT+).
I could go on about all the little things that make the Karoo so nice to use, but I’ll just mention one here and let you go on with your day. With the big, fast touchscreen, it’s very easy to type on it (easier, in fact, than on my own smartphone, which should embarrass a certain multibillion-dollar tech company). Why would you need to type on your cycling computer? For one, if you’re touring and using the Karoo as your primary navigation unit, there’s a good chance you’ll need to connect to a lot of different wifi networks along your route, which means typing in a lot of network names and passwords. My own wifi password is an abstruse alphanumeric code based on the Fibonacci sequence. In short, it’s long, and it’s a pain to type in on anything without a full keyboard. On the Karoo? Piece of cake.
For $399, the Hammerhead Karoo is on the higher end of the pricing spectrum for GPS head units, but it’s also high on the list in terms of performance. With its excellent navigation, big screen, and lightning-quick responses, it should be on the short list of any touring cyclist shopping for a new cycling computer.
Update: While I was finishing up my review, Hammerhead discontinued production of the Karoo to make way for the Karoo 2. We generally don’t run reviews of products you can’t currently buy, but Hammerhead has assured me that the Karoo 2 will be close enough in functionality that the vast majority of my review would apply to the new unit. Moreover, Hammerhead will continue to push updates for the Karoo if you already have one or if you find one on the used market. What about the Karoo 2? The folks at Hammerhead are keeping their cards close to their vest, but they tell me that the 2 will be smaller and lighter, and fans of the Karoo’s big, beautiful screen won’t be disappointed.

Garmin Varia RTL510 Radar Taillight

Garmin Varia RTL510 Radar Taillight, $200 (not including head unit)

Short of having eyes in the back of your head, Garmin’s Varia RTL510 radar taillight is the best way to keep track of approaching vehicles when you’re out on the road. An update to the original Varia Rearview Radar, the RTL510 is sleeker and has a much brighter light that is visible within a claimed 220° range. It’ll detect vehicles within 150 yards and, as a car gets closer to you, the Varia will flash to get the driver’s attention.
If you already have a compatible head unit, you can buy the standalone RTL510. (Compatible devices include most Garmin Edge head units, as well as those from other brands that support ANT+ connectivity. I used the Varia with a Garmin Edge 530 and a Hammerhead Karoo.) Otherwise, Garmin sells a Varia bundle for $299 that includes a small head unit that only acts as a display for the radar.
Setup is pretty simple: install the Radar using the included seatpost mount (making sure you don’t have any bags or racks or anything blocking the radar), pair it with your head unit, choose flashing or solid mode, and off you go. If you’ve got an Edge computer, approaching cars will show up on your display as white dots moving up the side of the screen to the upper right-hand corner (that’s you). If there are several cars behind you, you’ll see several dots. The display will also show you the vehicle’s speed relative to yours by way of color: yellow for normal speeds, red for higher speeds, and green when the car has passed. The display will beep when a car enters the radar’s range, and it will beep furiously if a car is approaching very quickly.
In practice, I found the Varia RTL510 to be extremely reliable. Whereas the original Varia Radar would sometimes miss approaching vehicles, scaring me half to death, the new one never missed a beat. I found it especially useful in a couple of situations: first, while commuting in a city, I liked being able to look down and immediately see whether and how many vehicles were behind me so I could plan ahead for lane changes and turns. (The beeping, however, got pretty annoying in heavy traffic.) And two, when riding out on country two-laners, especially roads without shoulders, the radar would often detect vehicles before I could hear them. This was especially useful when it was windy and I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed the vehicle until it was passing me. Seeing a car on the display, I could wait until the dot got to the middle of the screen (at which point the actual car was still a good ways behind me), and then move over to the right to allow the car to pass.
It’s important to note a few things. One, the Varia can detect vehicles behind you, but it doesn’t know whether a car is passing you with plenty of breathing room or is about to run you over. Two, if a car approaches from behind but then slows down and matches your speed, it could disappear from the display. This happened to me a few times. And three, the RTL510 appears to be more sensitive than the old Varia, meaning that it can and will detect fellow cyclists (as well as smaller vehicles like motorcycles). If you’re riding in a paceline, it won’t detect the cyclist behind you (because you’re going the same relative speed), but if you’re pootling along by yourself and a fast cyclist approaches from behind, you’ll probably see it on the display.
The RTL510 is USB rechargeable, and Garmin claims a battery life of 15 hours in flashing mode or six hours in solid. I exclusively used flashing mode and charged the battery every few rides. Throughout the testing period, the Varia worked exactly as it’s supposed to — it had better, for $200. I have but one complaint: the included seatpost mount attaches with a rubber o-ring, and, even when very tightly mounted, the Varia would shift to one side or the other. I kept having to awkwardly reach down between my legs and straighten it, only to look down 10 minutes later and see that it was canted to one side again. It drove me nuts. I highly suggest considering the bolt-on seatpost mount, which Garmin sells as an accessory for $20. (It would be nice if Garmin just included the bolt-on mount with the Varia.)
If safety on the road is important to you, and you’re not ashamed to spend $200 for a taillight, the Varia RTL510 is money well spent.
Update: After I completed my review of the RTL510, Garmin released not one but two new radar models, as well as a smartphone app called — wait for it — Varia. The new RTL515 is essentially the same as the RTL510 reviewed above, with a couple of additions. One, it has a new “peloton mode,” a low-intensity flashing mode for the taillight so as not to completely blind the cyclist behind you. And two, it has Bluetooth connectivity in addition to ANT+, meaning it can connect to your smartphone. The RTL515 goes for $200.
The second new radar model, the RVR315 (you’ll be quizzed on Garmin’s alphanumeric naming scheme later) is just a radar without the taillight functions of the 515. As such, it costs less at just $150.
Both new models can connect to your smartphone using Garmin’s new Varia app, which allows your phone to function as a display for either radar unit. Like Garmin’s radar-compatible head units, the Varia app will beep when a vehicle appears in range and show vehicles as dots on the screen, using the same color scheme to show relative speed. If you already have a compatible head unit, the new radar models will work just fine with it. But the older radar models don’t have Bluetooth, meaning they won’t work with the new Varia app.

Garmin inReach Mini

Garmin inReach Mini, $350 (not including subscription)

Nowadays, the sheer mass and computing power of the electronics you can bring with you on an otherwise simple bike tour rivals that of a NASA mission. It’s enough to strike fear and loathing into the hearts of bike luddites everywhere. But, luddite or not, it’s hard to scoff at safety. You may think that your smartphone is the ultimate safety device, but cell towers have their limits. Satellites? Not so much.
Garmin’s inReach Mini is a tiny little satellite communicator that, with the push of a button, sends out an SOS to the nearest rescue service. But the inReach Mini is a lot more than just an emergency beacon. With the inReach, you can keep in touch with loved ones via text messages, and said loved ones can even track your position in real time. You can also access maps and weather forecasts. All of these uses come at a cost, of course — specifically, $350, which isn’t exactly chump change. And even then, you have to buy a subscription to actually use the thing.
Subscriptions range from $12 to $65 per month, depending on text message usage, tracking point intervals, and a few other metrics. And you can choose from annual subscriptions or what Garmin calls “freedom” subscriptions, which cost a little more than their annual counterparts but which give you the “freedom” to turn your subscription on or off as needed, with minimum 30-day commitments. So if you’re doing a 60-day tour, with a freedom plan you would only need to pay for those two months.
For the purpose of this review, Garmin gave me an unlimited plan, which meant that I could send and receive as many text messages as I wanted, have the shorter two-minute tracking intervals (as opposed to 10 minutes), and get unlimited basic weather messages. (For all plans, SOS messages are unlimited.) I should note that I didn’t actually test the SOS function of the inReach. I imagine that scrambling a local search and rescue team for the purpose of a gear review would not be appreciated. But, according to Garmin, activating the SOS function of your inReach Mini will alert GEOS, a private organization that will respond to your message, track your location, and alert the nearest search and rescue team. To activate the SOS, you have to flip open a cover and press and hold the button, making it unlikely that you’d do so accidentally.
The inReach Mini is a perfectly capable stand-alone device, but pairing it with another device makes it much easier to use. For example, composing a text message directly on the inReach is slow and cumbersome (if you typed text messages on your cell phone, say, 10 or 15 years ago, you know what I’m talking about). You can load the device with preset messages to make things easier, or you can do what I did: download the Garmin Earthmate app on your smartphone (free with your inReach subscription) and use the app’s messaging function to type just as you would normally. The Earthmate app also has a great map function, which you can use for navigation and tracking. The inReach Mini is also compatible with many of Garmin’s wristwatches and cycling computers.
While testing the inReach Mini, I frequented one of my favorite local campsites where I never have cell service. When I got there, I would send my girlfriend a text message letting her know that I’d arrived. A few minutes would pass, then the inReach would chirp at me to confirm that my message had sent. (Things like dense tree canopies and cloud cover will increase the amount of time it takes to send and receive messages.) About 10 minutes after that, I would get a response. And so on. It was text messaging in slow motion — novel and quaint at the same time.
I also took the inReach Mini into the true backcountry, on a mountain bike trip in the mountains near the border with Idaho. It was a two-hour drive on rough dirt roads to get to our campsite from the freeway. The trails snaked through extremely dense, lush forest and up steep, rocky passes. Getting injured out here was not an option; it was a good place to have the inReach Mini.
In addition to using the text message function with friends back in Missoula, we also had sent a link to a friend beforehand who could then track our progress using MapShare. While riding the trails, the inReach would ping the satellite with our location every two minutes, and our friend followed along from his computer back home. I also made judicious use of the topo map on the Earthmate app to check our position and see how far we had yet to go.
The Garmin inReach Mini is a lot like a bicycle helmet: you hope you never really have to use it, but you feel safer having it, at least as far as the SOS button goes. Likewise with the inReach’s other functions — I feel a lot better being on my bike in the middle of nowhere, even by myself, knowing that I can still be in contact with friends and loved ones. I’m pretty sure if I were heading out on a solo bikepacking mission now, especially something longer than a weekend trip, my girlfriend would strongly suggest I have an inReach with me. It would make her feel better to be able to pull up a web page and see exactly where I am. The inReach Mini isn’t cheap, but peace of mind rarely is.

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