GPS on a trip?

Long gone are the days when you have to navigate over terrain and across countries using maps and a compass. With a wealth of online tools available ranging from OSM to Google to bike specific routing. The adventurer now has many options when planning a cycle tour or even just a day’s ride. Is all this technology really necessary though? Why are you choosing one method over another? Will it change the experience of your trip?

I think these are all vital questions to ask yourself when planning a big trip. On my first cycle tour I must admit I was quite naïve. I chose the option which would be ‘least effort’ as I decided to go cycling to Paris almost out of the blue. Simply putting the points which I wished to cycle through and letting Google maps do the rest, making sure I checked the box ‘avoid highways’. After printing off the route onto about 10 pages making sure I had detailed pictures of every junction I had a route. Even better it had only taken me 45 minutes to construct. Setting off into the unknown, blissfully unaware of what would happen should we get lost.

By some miracle those few A4 pages sufficed and we successfully found our way to Paris from Manchester with very few difficulties. If we were unsure I used the ‘maps’ function on my iPhone. In retrospect we were very fortunate as my phone managed to hold its charge, dwindling battery life is not a problem you want to have to address whilst on a cycle tour. So despite it being possible to navigate using a phone GPS it is not always practical.

In spring when I was planning my trip across Europe I was faced with a problem. Do I carry maps and do it the old fashioned ‘proper’ way? Or do I buy a GPS and load a route onto it? I started looking at the map option, however the detail I needed combined with the fact we were cycling through 8 countries would mean an awful lot of maps. These have all got to be stored and carried…not ideal. Therefore I began looking at GPS units. It is easy to get carried away when researching with the many features and shapes and sizes. However do you really need thousands of extra features? If the answer is no then why pay extra for them? I wanted a simple GPS that would show me my position; where I had to go. After reading many good reviews and them seemingly producing units to cater to what I needed, I decided to go for a Garmin. Now there are many cycling specific Garmin’s however I didn’t need all the bells and whistles further more a rechargeable battery that only lasted a day would prove a big hassle. So I elected for the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx.

Simple, solid and robust. It does what I need it to do…and more!

  • 2xAA batteries which are easy to get hold of on expedition and easily replaced. Gives you the option of using solar rechargeable also.
  • Long battery life lasts about 2-3 full days cycling.
  • Memory card expandable so you can add maps and routes onto it.
  • Easy to use menu which you can navigate easily and fully customisable.
  • Full cycle computer so you log your full trip including elevation.
  • Compass so the map can rotate to which direction you are cycling –this proved very useful when lost.
  • Bike mount accessory so it clips nicely onto your handlebar.
  • Rugged it’s a solid build and can withstand a few drops and is waterproof.
  • It just looks like an old mobile phone so will not attract any attention of being a ‘flash gadget’.

I was able to put my whole route around Europe onto it easily and loaded maps onto it using OSM free download. Alternatively you can buy Garmin’s city navigator download, but why pay for something when you can get a great substitute open source? It is a superb GPS and when you can get one easily for under £100 on eBay there really isn’t much to lose, I really can’t see the advantage of a cycle specific Garmin Edge when this is just as good and much better value for money.

A superb addition to my bike and much needed for my tour as we were cycling a specific route it never let me down. However if you don’t have a specific route and are looking to explore and go off the beaten track is it really worth the investment? Or would it detract from the ambiguity of your trip?

14 responses to “GPS on a trip?

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  4. We have SON hub dynamos and ewerk converters to power our lights, phones (for gps and email), mp3 players, camera and rechargable batteries. If you are wild camping and adventure cycling then buying batteries is not an option. In many developing countries they will package up flat batteries and dupe travellers with them or they will fake well known brands. In esence your new batteries may fail after 5 minutes leaving you with nothing. This also negates the need to carry your flat batteries until you find a disposal point. I like having the option to be able to charge all my devices from one point rather than remember to buy batteries (as I am extremely forgetful whilst wandering round foreign supermarkets in a hypoglyceamic state).

    • A great point! I hadn’t really thought about developing countries. As we were just travelling around europe the added weight and cost of dynamo hubs didn’t really appeal to me i prefered just to pop in some batteries and go rather than recharge. However on a longer trip I agree with you I think a dynamo/solar charger is an almost essential piece of equipment if you have anything electronic. Luckily we got almost 3 days out of a single pair of batteries so the GPS certainly conserves its batteries well.

      • Thats pretty good with the GPS, we would only get a day out of our phones when GPS tracking alone. After some experimentation we found that a good dynamo beats a solar charger. It took 2 days with full sun to charge a smart phone with a solar charger or a “paltry” 60kms at a reasonable speed with a dynamo.

        On our first trip we relied on downloaded maps on a tiny laptop and google. This was fine for navigating but difficult to plan together (We don’t plan day by day before we leave on longer trips, just a general idea and make it up as we go along). We found it really difficult to both look at a tiny screen and discuss the next few days without getting frustrated at the others scrolling around. On our second long trip it was really nice to have paper maps and although we had to carry them around it meant we could both sit down and look at the route together and see the bigger picture. We also kept them all and I am going to make a big collage with our routes, and notes and photos.

      • Yeah on my first trip we used printouts from google maps, not in great detail but with the occasional use of a smartphone somehow worked. On the second trip we knew before we left where we wanted to go and so created a cyclable route before hand I felt this worked well and will definitely use this method again as it was easy and with the garmin you just follow the line which reduces time lost by getting maps out and checking your route.

        However this summer I am gonna go on a more open ended tour I think just buying some maps and setting off going wherever seems interesting. I think it sounds more fun, also your idea with the collage is great! I have the route we took round europe printed out and on my wall but in significantly less detail. I would like to get a huge map of the world then put on with coloured lines the different routes which I have cycled I think that would be really fun!

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  8. Alex After 3 years on the road our conclusion is that this Gramin is the best. Solar panels do not work fast enough. We use a modified holder from RAM mounts – which has proved excellent. Working through China the gps helped when the signs were impossible. The feature to find shops and hotels is great. I do not think I would tour without one – but with a 1 to 400,000 map as minimum as well.

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