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Using a GPS for motorcycle touring

This post is has dated in some ways since written. I have a newer post about navigation on a motorcycle here

If you are going to tour another country or even just another state by motorcycle then a GPS can really make navigating easy however there are a number of things to consider before purchasing and also some user tricks you should know.

As of writing there is still only one brand that accepts user defined routes and has global detailed map coverage and that is Garmin. I am surprised that nobody has tried to compete with them. Most GPS's are no good since they do not accept any user defined route i.e. you designing your tour/ride and uploading the file to your GPS. Only Garmin and Tom Tom allow this. Tom Tom map coverage has been expanded greatly and for some people their Rider unit will be fine however there remains some major destinations with no maps available so I am not going to refer to the brand further in this article.

So what Garmin model to buy? This is really important as many are not suitable since even Garmin restrict which models accept user routes but it need not be a motorcycle specific model. First of all forget any of the new models with the glass screens, you cannot operate them with gloves on because the glass multi touch screens are capacitive not resistive touch control and in daylight the screens are impossible to see (try it with your iPhone/android device) Second you must get a model that has the ability to use multi point routing and this is different to the trip planner function in new models which do not handle multi point routes.

I would strongly recommend you read up on the latest at a GPS forum to confirm which new models will do proper multi point routing as Garmin are rather deceptive with their descriptions. As of writing the 2014 release models accept user define routes uploaded long as they have no more than 30 waypoints. Depending on where you are riding this may work for you. Country roads 30 junctions is a long way but add in some city turns and well those 30 points may not be enough. Additionally some places  you want more waypoints to force the GPS to take the scenic route not shortcut onto highways. You could always split your ride in half and load the second half of day ride at lunch time. I dare say a combined 60 points would cover some peoples riding fine.

New Garmin's without waypoint restrictions are the Zumo series which are dedicated motorcycle GPS units and the Montana models. The Montana has no maps included but is the most versatile GPS Garmin make. Besides being waterproof and customisable it can run on its own internal battery all day and would make an excellent motorcycle GPS as no wiring or battery pack is needed. The Zumo is similar to the Nuvi units but add's waterproofing.

As far as I know the following older 'car' gps's 7xx, 8xx, 14xx, 16xx and 5000 series will all handle multi point routing, ALL other Garmin models don't, they either do not accept files at all or only navigate from origin to one point in a user defined route then you manually have to select the next point. They won't navigate them automatically.

Another option with 2014 release models is to use the Garmin basecamp software to plot a route and add shape points which would get around the 30 waypoint limit. The problem with this is 1. Won't work if using a aftermarket map even one approved by Garmin. 2. Won't work if on tour away from home PC where your official Garmin map is installed and 3. The Garmin software is primitive and frustrating compared to the excellent online mapping sites.

Motorcycle specific models are expensive. I now have both a Zumo 660 and a Nuvi 1450 and 760. Personally am not convinced anyone needs a Zumo since I have used the 760 car GPS in a waterproof case without issues for 6 years however the Zumo range are a safe bet and if you ride with a GPS every time then the Zumo make sense. For someone who rides at home without a GPS but wants some assistance for a upcoming week in Thailand a cheaper option is a 2nd hand regular car GPS unit placed into a waterproof case. A 1450 Nuvi offers 5" screen and will fit in the handle bar cases sold on eBay or the So Easy Rider V4 case and that or a 760/765 Nuvi can be purchased on eBay for around $70 each 2nd hand.

On the road I don’t connect a speaker inside my helmet because I find the screen more than ample guidance so prefer to not have the additional intrusion on my ride. Besides I always ride with earplugs to save my hearing. But if you option a model with Bluetooth then you could sync a Bluetooth headset/speaker or simply plug one into the headphone jack if you don’t mind the wire.



For a one off tour you could simply place your GPS in a tank bag with a clear cover if your someone who wants to navigate yourself traditionally with the GPS merely as backup. Depending on the model motorcycle this can work ok but hard to see on any bike where you are leaning forward. I have ridden in Malaysia and Thailand all day only looking at GPS end of day when finding hotel and then needing to stop and get bearings so a tank bag can be used ok and for me would suffice fine as still makes it easy compared to paper maps. However when renting some bikes have plastic tanks or like BMW’s don’t accept regular tank bags or on scooters there is no tank so for many reasons a case on the handlebars I find more suitable.

There are a few styles of cases available now. I have the original version made by So Easy Rider in France (Latest is V5 with many improvements) I think it is still a versatile arrangement as it can be strapped to absolutely any style of motorcycle so is good when renting. The case has two sections, you place the GPS in the front and a battery pack in the rear. (the internal Garmin batteries will run the units for about 1 hour - not the 7 to 8 hours Garmin used to claim...) I found the battery pack So Easy Rider suggests of 3600mAh to be a touch small to power a GPS all day so I have a 6000mAh unit which I got cheap from eBay that has run it for 10 hours one time but takes 8 hours to recharge. (Update I also tried a 4500mAh which will run the 760 Nuvi for 7 1/2 hrs.) Note you must use a two wire ‘power only’ USB/Mini Usb cable from the battery or your GPS will go into data mode. (these can be purchased on eBay or simply make your own)

ebay holder

If installing one to your own bike then perhaps the handlebar mount cases sold on eBay would be a better option. These also accommodate a battery or on your own bike you could install a 12 volt to USB power invertor and avoid needing a battery but it is so easy to have the battery pack and just charge it and end of day. I have a 3 USB outlet charger with folding power prongs I got from eBay that can charge a phone, battery and one more device all from one power point. In the morning you either clip on or if using the more versatile So easy Rider case, strap on the GPS on in a minute and your away and no hassles with rental companies who do not like you pulling their bikes apart to hard wire a GPS (actually some ban it)

I have tried the above case and found it works ok on a bike with conventional bars but less so on other bikes and some it won't fit due to nowhere to clamp on.

The next item you will need is maps for the place you are going. The device will come with maps for the country it was purchased in. If you were going to say the USA then since the devices are cheaper online you could purchase one from there on eBay and get the map for your trip and save money. Garmin offer maps for almost every country on earth, some countries like in Japan, 3rd party developers have made English maps for Garmin or alternatively many community developed free maps are available online. Some of these rival the official offerings so you should spend a little time looking before buying anything. A good source for info about finding maps for any GPS is GPSPower forums.


So you have your GPS, maps and a mounting system but how to make routes that go via the sort of roads a rider might prefer? There are many options, I currently use a site called Ride With GPS which allows me to plot a route extremely easy by simply clicking with mouse to produce my planned journey on a map and then export it as a Route file.

You can copy this route file to the GPS unit via USB cable and place it inside the unit’s GPX folder (if you join site it will auto transfer to your device) and mostly the gpx route file will work. Sometimes the device will route you differently than what you wanted (finding a short cut or deciding a road you chose in no best) and in this case I export the file from the site as a Track file rather than a Route file (you can see on the site the two options) Then I have what is a breadcrumb type of route with many points rather than a route file with a few main points for the GPS to navigate between. The track file is not immediately compatible with a Garmin but what you have made is a very detailed route the GPS has no option but to follow it closely and to use it you just need to use a 3rd party program to convert the track to a route file but retain the more detailed multiple points. I use GPS babel and usually limit the points to 100 which gives the GPS enough to force it on my route but you can go 150 if you needed more accuracy but more than this might slow things down a bit.

Once you have copied the file to your GPS unplug it from the computer and let it power up. On older units you will need to find the My Data button and import the route file from a list then go to Routes menu button to use. On new units it will say found new data do you wish to import and you say yes.

The Nuvi 760 menu and file system layout.

There are some tricks with user defined routing that can cause you a real headache on the road if you are not aware. When you are plotting your route in the mapping interface (for me that is the Google map that Ride with GPS uses) be very careful where you click. If you place the waypoint near a junction then when the data is transferred to the GPS the waypoint location on Google maps might be a bit off and on the GPS map the same point that was on the main road now sits slightly off to one side and the GPS thinks hey you want to visit this car park or side street on this journey so it will plot a route on the day off the highway and into nowhere then back on again. Set waypoints as much as you can cleanly away from junctions on a clear bit of road.

Also be careful when on multi-lane roads to place the waypoint in the correct lane (zoom in) and not on the opposite side of a divided road unknowing by being zoomed out too far where the road looks like only a two lane item because yes the GPS may route you via the next off ramp and back to the waypoint on the other side of the divided highway and then back to where you started. Of course you can see this when riding mostly and just ignore but it can get confusing in a big city if you have not checked the route carefully.
Sometimes the route the GPS calculates is different to the one you desire. It could be a minor thing that you ignore or major variation. There are a couple of things you can do. Firstly you can export the file you made as a Track file as previously mentioned or if this does not work then you need to work out the point where the GPS goes its own way and then split the days ride into two route files at that location.

Ok so time to hit the road. When you power up the device on day one of your ride it needs to load the map for the new country and find satellites in that country so mount it and let it go to work while you load up rest of bike – allow some time and then it should be ready to navigate, select your day one route and select go. In a small town I usually have mapped my start point just a short way down the road in the direction I know I will travel and say no to the option first presented by the GPS “do you wish to navigate to the start point” I might refuel first and then the GPS soon picks up when I am on the route and starts to give directions. If I am in a big city however it is better to let the GPS find it’s own route through the city to a point just outside that you wish to ride from. So in that case I would have the start point quite some distance away and said yes to the option to allow the GPS to take me there.

The reason I suggest this is with a user defined route the GPS seeks to hit each waypoint so if you take a wrong turn at a freeway overpass the GPS will want to route you back to the point you missed in a loop before it will continue. However if it is navigating you via it’s own route to a final destination then in that same scenario it will look how to take you on via the next most feasible route and not try going backwards to tick off a missed waypoint.

Similar to this if you are entering a huge city to return a rental bike then you can try using the pre defined route to the shop you made which will go fine as long as you don’t take any wrong ramps but the better option in complicated road networks is to stop on the outskirts having enjoyed the best route there and then give the GPS a new job to navigate you to the address of the shop itself. (this is not possible in all countries due to language and map data limitations) If in a place where the address cannot be input the save the shop as a favourite before setting off but if like me you forget this and go off route then try zoom out and see if you can just head in the general right direction, If you can join the route again at a later point then the Garmin will discard the missed waypoints and resume the navigation to your final destination.  

Hope this has been of some assistance to anyone not sure on using a GPS for motorcycle touring.


  1. Gday IC,
    I am also a fan of Garmin and use it everytime I ride, not just for touring. I use the Zumo 660 and mount it on the stem nut with a Ram mount. Yes the 660 is a bit more expensive but I figure I get a good deal for the following reasons: It has the lifetime warranty. It is vibration proof as well as waterproof. It has a MP3 player and you bluetooth your phone to it so you can take/make calls on the go. You can bluetooth it to your headset or plug your speakers or Earmolds directly to the unit.
    I'm not sure I would like having it in a tankbag as you would be always taking your eyes off the road to look at it, as would be the case if you were travelling through an unfamiliar city. I prefer using the Earmolds as they cut out most of the wind noise and I can listen to the GPS instructions and navigate and keep my eyes on my surroundings.
    I use this program to plot my routes you just plot your route, plug your GPS into your computer and copy it to your GPS, easy peasy.

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