GPS navigation for motorcycle touring is a subject that seems to still be misunderstood. There are two primary choices of device, the smartphone or a GPS and two schools of thought. First lets clear up why standard navigation tools are of little use for a rider. Regular navigation software is designed to take you from A to B by the fastest route. Like this.
But a rider wants to take all the nice roads so the best route between these two towns can look like below.
A regular GPS or smartphone navigation app cannot guide you along a breadcrumb route like this, it was never designed with that in mind. Even superb apps like Maps.me which I use every trip overseas lack the ability to import or follow custom routes. You can see the above has many dots which are control points to shape the route. The route can also have custom cuesheet entries (shown as green flags) which are route turn instructions and these act like waypoints and force the GPS to follow them. Together theses elements stop navigation software taking the straightest route to the destination which at its core it is always trying to do. (most routes do not use as many points as above which I chose to highlight things) So to follow the nice curves you need a app or device that can use a custom route, sound simple huh. Not quite, there are two separate key requirements. The app or device must be able to import a route file and it must be able to then navigate more than one waypoint along that route file, that later part is what many programs and GPS units lack.
Creating your route
After coming up with an idea for a ride you have many ways to create a route of it. A big misconception is you need to use PC software like Basecamp, which frankly is terrible. There are dozens of web based route planners. Most people seem to be using Google maps which is not the best tool because it lacks the advanced features of a good planner and has limited waypoints.
Having looked at many of the web planners I can see why people choose Google as it is very easy to use. But there is a proper gps route planner tool that is just as easy to use. Ride with GPS. (no affiliation) This planner offers the same simple creation as Google maps. Click from point to point and drag the route to shape, you can build something in seconds.
There are many other planners. Furkot, Rever, Motogoloco, Harley Davidson Ride Planner, Honda Trip Planner, Kurviger, Tourstart and the list goes on. By all means look at these and decide yourself but major flaw is none incorporate Google Street View. This is essential when route planning to check road conditions or access to hotel, cafe, highways or fuel. Ride with GPS is dead simple for beginners yet also allows more experienced planners to edit cuesheet data which is something I like to do in some countries as well as adding custom POI data. That may be just to add a message to myself about a picnic stop or I may choose to remove the turn instructions entirely from the route and only provide the waypoints to the GPS and let it decide the best way. Don’t be put off by the logo which is a push bike, it offers motorcyclists every tool you will need and originally had a different theme, just cyclists came to love this site so that is now reflected in the logo that used to be a motorbike and pushbike.
The site has comprehensive help page with video tutorials of all aspects of making and using a route but it is so simple, if you can click and drag your route in Google maps then you already know how this works and should be up and running in minutes. Turn off avoid highways option (unless relevant) find your start point on the map, be it home or hotel or bike rental shop. Click on the map and a start point is attached. Click along the roads you want to ride, the route auto snaps to follow the road.
You can undo anything, drag and bend the route, and that’s it you just made a route. You can export the file as a gpx route and use it as is however I find when making a route for countries with complex highways that are elevated or have elevated junctions you may encounter an issue with the navigation device getting confused. This can happen because there is a road underneath the expressway or flyover that has service road beneath it. Best to clear the cuesheet list of anything related to the expressway.
Further to this once you get used to things I suggest deleting all the automatically generated cues and insert your own at key points to shape the course and let your smartphone or GPS decide what turn instructions it gives you instead. That removes cues that are place at intersections which can confuse the devices occasionally. This is not such a big task once familiar with the software but until then you can use the route as is. In countries with more simple road infrastructure I find no problems if using the route as is.File formats will vary depending on what device you plan to use.
For a Garmin GPS I prefer to export the file as ‘route’ file with just the key waypoints as shown in the cuesheet list which I always customise. Some devices can use the ‘track’ type file export which will produce a breadcrumb trail type route with 100’s of waypoints. Older GPS’s and some software may have a limit on the number of waypoints they can accept in a file and I would suggest always ticking the ‘reduce to 500’ option. For use in a Garmin the track file is too big, you can use an external tool like GPS Babel to reduce the number of points in the file down to 100 and save it as a ‘route’ file, that will give you a very detailed route that the GPS will never vary from but lots of points may make the navigation slower to load or update its graphics. For other apps you can export as a KML file. Any existing route file format can be converted to another format using the GPS Babel tool or you can import other peoples routes into Ride with GPS and convert them.
So how to use that route. Most people want to use their smart phone rather than a GPS. I have used both and find the GPS superior but will leave them until later and talk first about smartphones.
We all have a smartphone already you only need to add a mount and method of powering the phone which makes this attractive to many riders. Smartphones do tend to get very hot when using their GPS. If you are riding somewhere with no rain then having the phone in a open air mount should avoid the device overheating and shutting down. However you will need to consider a case if not a waterproof model. The battery in your phone will not last long using the GPS so consider how you are going to supply power to it. If the bike has no power socket you could wire up one to the battery or simply use a power bank to run your phone. These are cheap and can be mounted on the bike easy. Some motorcycle phone cases have a place for a battery built in.
You can have turn by turn voice prompts sent to a Bluetooth speaker or Bluetooth ear buds using any phone app. I wear earplugs so only tried this once and found the voice constantly talking drove me mad and ruined any enjoyment of the ride. However if you like this then make sure to still look at the map and confirm what the voice is telling you is right way to proceed. Navigation software can get itself tangled up in knots and literally take you around in circles or try impossible things like turns off bridges, I have seen them all suggest stupid things. You always need to look at the map and compare to roadside signage and when necessary ignore the turn instructions and do what is logical.
Many people are using Google Navigation app with routes made in Google maps however it only allows ten waypoints. This is enough for simple routes but with limited number of control points Google will always try straighten your route to make your trip faster. Some places this will be no problem, but try to use it on a detailed day ride and it doesn’t work. In some countries lack of cell coverage and not able to have the maps offline in that country is another issue. If Google allow more waypoints in future then this may become the best smartphone navigation.
There are a few apps available that support imported routes and multiple waypoints. I am going to limit this article to the ones most commonly discussed on rider forums and skip the obscure. For Android smartphones there is OSMand and for iPhone there is Motion X.
OSMand above, Motion X below. I have played with both, I used Motion X a bit when it came out. I used to put the phone on the window ledge in the Shinkansen trains and see how fast it was travelling and referred to it on my first ride here. I also looked at OSMand more recently here when I had access to android device but neither are able to be operated whilst riding which is a huge disadvantage to a GPS.
The graphics are similar to Google, a 2D map slightly tilted at an angle. The other problem I found with smartphone navigation is personally I find the screens very hard to see while riding in daylight.
I tried another phone app Go-Go Navi when I moved to Japan (see above – only A to B navigation) but even with superior 3D graphics I often could not make out the instructions clearly while riding. Using Go-Go Navi I almost crashed twice as too much time diverted from the road ahead trying to shield the phone from sun to see the map. On a high resolution small screen the detail is hard to make out if not close. I used to have to stop on side of road frequently when using my phone to navigate here but on expressways flowing at 100kph with no place to stop it is not good situation. On the positive side the Go-Go Navi app could work fine underground with no satellite signal as the phone used cell towers to continue to plot it’s location.
There are two more apps I will mention, these are not free. Scenic Route is very popular app in North America for iPhone. It will navigate a user defined route but you need to pay to download maps. The interface appears similar to the others with a tilted 2D map and turn arrows. If only riding one country this might be worth looking further at but if needing to keep buying maps then cheaper to use something else.
The Ride with GPS route planner I recommended also has its own navigation app available for users who join their membership scheme. I tested their app and its operation is very simple. Any route you have created automatically shows up in the app, no need to transfer any files. You just click on the route select navigate and away you go. It’s a 2D map view but you can use it in landscape view which helps a little. It has large clear turn instructions (not shown in my photo but same as the off course notification) and of course Bluetooth to speaker. If you are not technically minded and wanting the easiest setup this might be it. I have this as a backup for my rides overseas in case I lost or damaged my GPS I would be able to continue with my ride easily.
Turning to GPS devices you can see there is a big difference in the display you get. Being a matt non gloss resistive screen it is easier to see in the sun and can be operated by gloves. The GPS interface has oversized text and big buttons. Newer models automatically change to split screen junction views with some maps even having photo realistic junction guidance. All will at least will provide lane guidance through urban areas. You can touch and switch to overhead map, pan and zoom then revert back to birds eye tracking view while riding. As of writing the graphics are far superior to what the smartphone apps offer in apps that can use custom routes.There is no need to buy a motorcycle model. I’ve been using a car model Garmin Nuvi for 10 years in a So Easy Rider case with a power bank behind the GPS. Rain and temperatures up to 46 degrees where the unit still operated despite too hot to touch. Dust, mud and bounced about on handlebars all over the world and even submerged in icy water briefly. Still working fine and the velcro straps mean it fits any rental motorcycle. TomTom GPS’s don’t offer maps for half the world and cannot use open street maps so I am not going to mention them further.
A second hand GPS can be bought on eBay as low as $50. You can add a case and power bank and power cable be setup for about $100. You can obtain maps for any country from the Open Street Map internet site for free. It’s also very easy to get updated POI (point of interest) files for your Garmin GPS thus you can check things like nearest fuel whilst riding and get speed camera warnings too.
But note if buying a car GPS you need to choose the right model. Multi point routing is removed from some models. The cheapest are older units like the 765 and 1450, or a little bit more the 1490 Nuvi is maybe cheapest with the junction view feature and big 5 inch screen. As far as I know the 7XX, 8XX, 14XX, 16XX series all are safe choices for a used Nuvi. From 2014 Garmin Nuvis list having a 30 waypoint routing ability however it is limited to Garmin official maps so best to avoid. Newer models again have reintroduced the full multipoint routing option but have moved to using glass screens same as phones which make them not user friendly for riding.
Unlike phones or cameras there isn’t a need for more powerful devices because the software and the task they run is unchanged. New models might get better bluetooth and that’s about it so buying an older unit isn’t buying inferior.
Using a car GPS on your bike you will need power. You can wire it to the bikes battery and Garmin have a cigarette plug power cables or just make your own. Note if using a USB power cable needs to be what is known as a ‘power only’ USB connection not a regular ‘data’ USB cable. You can buy them on Aliexpress or Amazon or just make your own from a spare cable as I did, easy. Using a power bank, a 6000mAh battery will power a Garmin Nuvi for about 9-10 hours and it has about 1 hour internal power. Again you need a power only USB cable for the power bank to the Nuvi.
To obtain maps for your GPS there are sites which automate the process from Open Street Maps for you (just google it) Once you have the map file if it is not already named gmapsupp.img then you should rename it as such. The file then needs to be placed on a micro SD inside a folder called Garmin. Insert the card into the GPS and when powered up go to the settings and see the map. To use a custom route copy the file to the GPX folder of the Nuvi via regular USB cable. (Or if you are member of Ride with GPS it will transfer the file direct to the device for you) After booting up the GPS will prompt ‘do you wish to import new route’ and you can then preview the route, pan zoom or even simulate travelling the route.
Lastly the specific motorcycle GPS models. For most people there really isn’t a need to spend the higher price Garmin ask for these, however if wanting the best setup on your own bike they are nice. Japan however is a bit of a special case that makes buying the Zumo almost mandatory. Here they do not use the western address system of number, street, suburb but an older grid type method like also used in the Middle East. The Japan model Garmin has custom software that allows for that and navigation by phone number which is the method used here. Everything has a phone number assigned and you simply type that and the device works out the address. You cannot transfer this capability to a non Japanese model.
The commercial Garmin Japanese map is also important for the highway system where the junction view data makes it much easier to navigate big spaghetti junctions. Not limited to the device but having a huge POI database allows me to ask for the nearest convenience store for food or drink or the nearest petrol in rural areas while I am riding and simply have the device add that as a via point to my custom route. The cost was a lot but after four years I cannot imagine riding here without those features now. Given the devices seem to last forever over time it should prove to be better value that my cameras or phones that are always being replaced.
The cheapest option is your existing smartphone. You need just a mount and power lead or power bank. There are free apps and they offer basic guidance which may be all some people require. The phone screens are harder to see in sunlight, the map graphics can be small and you need to stop on side of road to pan or zoom the map but they will work underground which is a strong point in places like Tokyo where roads are submerged for tens of kilometres. The car GPS is an affordable option with proven long life span. Besides having a better interface that can be seen and operated easy while riding the device will not shutdown in heat and will still obtain satellite signal in poor weather conditions in remote place. The motorcycle GPS is an expensive option. The good point is the dedicated mount. However that makes them less suited to touring overseas if the rental bike doesn’t have a Zumo mount. It is a luxury setup but for someone touring their home country frequently they would not be disappointed.
When touring with any sort of device you need to let it find where it is and the satellites for that country. It is best to do this the day before you want to ride because it can take awhile. Power up the device and in the menu select the Where Am I then sit it on a window ledge or table at coffee shop, it can take 10 minutes initially in a new location but from then on will reacquire the satellites within moments of being turned on. Well it’s a huge subject and I am not delving deeply into any particular area as I am aware my posts are already too lengthy for many readers.I have written more about using a GPS in specific countries and my guide to riding Japan in particular has further details specific to here.
This article is bias towards using a GPS and I make no apologies. If you are motorcycle touring in other countries you will appreciate having good reliable navigation, particularly in cities. I see frequent touring riders struggling with smartphones and complaining about poor navigation. I mention why not just buy a GPS only to be told no I have this sorted then watch same thing happen again. It’s a one off item that will probably last the rest of your life and if doing group rides then just one device can be shared between whoever is the lead thus the cost is very little. The value of being able to pan and zoom the map easily while riding cannot be overstated. That alone makes a GPS vastly superior to any phone navigation app.If you would like any assistance then feel free to comment.