NAVIGATION AND BIKEPACKING: A GUIDE
When I started touring a couple of years ago I was planning and executing my routes primarily using paper maps. As my journey took me out of the first world it became harder to find good maps so I turned to Maps.me, a basic but useful smartphone application with which you can easily download the maps for entire countries for use offline. This was an improvement as it gave me access to detailed maps right on my smartphone, but I was still using it like a digital paper map. I generally planned my routes mentally by tracing over the roads I wanted and marking waypoints at turnoffs. Although a little clumsy it worked fine most of the time, though on smaller roads with lots of turns it became awkward and required a lot of stopping to check the map. There had to be something better. Fast forward to today and I can now easily plan complex routes and comfortably follow them, almost never having to stop to check the map and all but eliminating the chance of getting lost. This has taken me to ride some utterly spectacular roads and trails which I would have certainly missed a couple of years ago. There is still a place for Maps.me in conjunction, but it is no understatement that modern navigation has revolutionised the way I travel by bike.
Let’s face it, navigation is a key component of any bike trip. Choosing a good route can be the difference between having an exciting adventure and being bored for hours or days stuck on busy, monotonous highways. Everyone has different preferences, but I think it’s fair to say that most cyclists generally enjoy riding on quiet roads with minimal traffic and beautiful scenery. Some, like me, gravitate towards off road routes whilst others like to keep to smoother surfaces. In either case avoiding main roads is usually a good bet. There are two main steps I’ll cover in this guide – planning a route, and then actually following it using your map. The more complex the planned route, the more important it becomes to have good mapping technology available while you’re biking. If you are sticking to major roads there will probably be signs and few turns so you will have a hard time getting lost. On a route with many small twists and turns however it gets vastly easier to miss a turn-off and find yourself going wrong. Without a convenient method of navigation you will also find yourself having to stop constantly to check the map which can be frustrating and wastes a lot of time. PLANNING In the planning stage what we are looking to do is create a route in advance and to save it as a GPX file, which we can then open and utilise in our mapping application. Quite simply, a GPX is a line on the map representing your route - it is the digital equivalent of taking a red marker pen to a paper map. But unlike with a paper map where you have to keep track of where you are, modern GPS means you can effortlessly see exactly where you are on your map, and where you are in relation to your GPX route. It makes navigating as easy as that – simply follow the line on the map. Turn-by-turn navigation can be integrated but in my experience this isn't needed as I find it easy enough just to follow the line. Turn by turn navigation tends to quickly drain your battery and is ultimately unnecessary. You simply follow the line and turn when it turns. Battery usage is therefore minimal. Of course you can always choose to detour from your line if, as often happens, you spontaneously decide to veer off your planned route. It's very easy to get back on track as you can simply find your way back to the line and then keep going. There are various ways to plan out a GPX route. Websites such as RidewithGPS.com and Bikemap.net make it very easy and are quite intuitive. My preference is for RidewithGPS, which lets you switch between map layers (such as Google maps, Google satellite, OpenStreetMaps, OpenCycleMaps, local topographic maps etc.) and you can even drop into Google street view to see what the road will actually look like, though of course this won’t work in very out of the way places which haven’t yet been covered. Click to choose a start point, then keep clicking your next points and the software will connect the dots to make your route, showing you the distances and elevations involved.
Use of satellite imagery in particular can allow you to create very interesting routes in remote places. See below side by side images of the same place, on the left is a topographic map, showing no turn off from the road going south. On the satellite map however we can see there is in fact a small road heading west.
If you don’t have access to a computer for planning your routes (if for example you're travelling and don't carry a laptop) then you can easily do so on your smartphone instead. These days there are a number of great apps that allow you to do this (and RidewithGPS now even has an app for smartphone route planning), but the app I would most recommend is OsmAnd+ , which is also the app I recommend using for navigation. With OsmAnd+ you can easily plan detailed routes offline, and satellite overlay is simple to switch to. It also allows you to bring up OSM points of interest (which could be anything from supermarkets to alpine huts, depending on your criteria selection), which can be very useful. Using the same app for both planning and navigating also saves having to worry about exporting/importing GPX files, which isn't a big deal but nevertheless makes things a little simpler. I won't go into too much detail here about specifics of using OsmAnd+ as they have their own guides (just Google or go through the app's 'Help' section), and it's relatively intuitive. OsmAnd+ is available for both Android and iOs - the regular OsmAnd version is free, but you'll have to pay for the full '+' version. I would strongly recommend upgrading - whereas OsmAnd is pretty underwhelming, OsmAnd+ is a powerhouse. The difference in features between the two is very dramatic; I definitely wouldn't bother with the regular un-upgraded version.
If you're on Android there is actually a way to get the fully upgraded version of the app for free. You'll first have to download a free third-party app called F-Droid (you won't find this on the Play Store so you'll need to search for it on Google to download it) - which is the unofficial, third-party version of the Play Store. Once you've downloaded and installed F-Droid, open it up and search for OsmAnd+. For whatever reason, the full version is free if you download it from F-Droid, whereas you'd have to pay for it through the regular Play Store. It's the same app in either case, and I've been using OsmAnd+ downloaded from F-Droid for a long time, with no issues. If you're on iOs, you'll have no choice but to pay for OsmAnd+, but it is well worth the small cost.
On Android, you have access to another great tool in AlpineQuest, which can be used both for planning routes and for navigation. Using the Auto-routing feature (found under 'Create a placemark') you can easily and quickly create routes exactly where you want them, adding waypoints at places of interest along the way. Compared to OsmAnd+, AlpineQuest has a number of advantages for route planning; most notably the ability to draw routes freehand (for areas where there are no roads) and more convenient use of waypoints. It also lets to use Google maps (as well as Google satellite), whereas OsmAnd+ does not. Although these days I find that OsmAnd+ is overall a better all-round app than AlpineQuest, I do still use both. I use OsmAnd+ for navigation and for rough route plans, but when I want to plan a complicated route I still prefer using AlpineQuest.
Another very useful (free) app which I strongly recommend downloading is iOverlander (for both Android and iOS) which is a fantastic tool for finding campsites, accommodation, facilities and places of interest. It can lead you to hidden spots that you would never have found otherwise, and it really is a game-changer in some parts of the world. It's a remarkably useful app for travel in general, whether you're on a bicycle, backpacking, or even driving a car or van. I can't say enough good things about this app!
Once you’ve got a route planned out you’ll need a way to follow it. You might be wondering why I’ve only really talked about smartphones, and in truth these days I really don’t see a lot of benefits for a dedicated GPS device such as a Garmin. Smartphones are more versatile and the extra weight of a GPS unit could better be spent on a battery pack. With that said, everything discussed in this article will work just fine with a GPS device so if you want to use one then by all means do. Import the GPX track onto your device and you're good to go. It’s very important to have a way to attach your smartphone (or GPS) onto your handlebars so you can easily check it during a ride without having to stop. To conserve the battery it’s best to keep the screen off as much as possible and I usually have mine on flight mode as well (GPS will still work). Unless I’m in a particularly complicated section with lots of turns I tend to keep the screen off most of the time, only turning it on briefly now and then to check if there are any turns coming up. This is very easy to do and keeps battery drain very low.
For attaching your phone to the bars I would look no further than Quadlock. Consisting of two parts; a mount that goes onto the bars and a case for the phone itself, the Quadlock system makes it super easy to take the phone on and off (I can even do this one handed whilst riding if I want to take a quick moving photo), and it holds the phone rock solid on the bars. I have really put mine to the test with some insanely rough off-road downhill bombing runs, and the phone has never budged an inch. It really is amazing. The Quadlock system has been faultless for me over more than two years of hard use so I can massively recommend it. I find the case to be great too, offering a surprising amount of protection for the phone.
Once you have your GPX, all you need is a good mapping app for your phone. Maps.me doesn’t support GPX files, so you’ll need something more powerful. As I mentioned before, my personal favourite app for navigation is OsmAnd+ – having tried pretty much all of the other smartphone mapping apps on the market, I feel that OsmAnd+ has the best features and is the best all-round app currently available. For Android, AlpineQuest is a close second and does have certain things that it does better, but overall I prefer using OsmAnd+ for the majority of my navigating. OsmAnd+ also has a big advantage in that downloading maps for offline use (something you definitely need to be doing) is much quicker and easier than with AlpineQuest - because of the file format used, the maps take up dramatically less storage space, which is great when you have to download maps in parts of the world with slow internet connections!
Once you've downloaded your maps, you can simply import your GPX route to your smartphone and be ready to go. If you're using your smartphone to plan your routes instead of a laptop, you won't even need to do this as it will already be on your device. There is something of a learning curve when using these applications (especially OsmAnd+ as it has so many features) but you'll get the hang of it before long. OsmAnd+ has plenty of guides available to show you how to use it, just Google search and the answers will come. It's really worthwhile spending a bit of time getting to know your mapping app; OsmAnd+ especially is getting better and better so learning how to use all of its features will give you a major advantage!
Knowing how to use GPX tracks gives you access to a host of routes designed by other people. Bikepacking.com is a good place to start, and you can find a lot of great routes just by searching on Google. If you're looking for the toughest and most rewarding route in Patagonia, check out my Nana O'Higgins route!
You could spend hours browsing the internet looking through routes people have devised. If you see one you like, just download the GPX to your phone, import to your mapping application and you’re all set. Modern navigation can unlock the backcountry and allow you to easily follow complex routes that would once have been a nightmare. If I ever find myself pining nostalgically for the old days of paper map and compass I can always turn my phone off, but the novelty on that wore off quite some time ago and for me there is no going back; the convenience of GPX mapping really is incredible!
EDIT: Revised and fully updated as of June 2020.