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.
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.
The main disadvantage of RideWithGPS is that its not very convenient to plan routes with if you are using a smartphone browser, and the app doesn't allow for route planning. If you don’t have access to a computer (if for example like me you are on a long tour and don’t carry a laptop) then another great option is to use the Komoot application on your phone. Though not as fully featured as the website planners, it is still very effective and works well, particularly in Western countries where the maps are more accurate. For shorter trips where you have access to mobile internet (and battery is not an issue) Komoot also has a navigation feature with turn-by-turn instructions, although I never find this necessary outside of busy cities.
Although I do use Komoot occasionally, my main tool for planning on the go these days is AlpineQuest, which is also the app I use for navigation. Using the Auto-routing feature (found under 'Create a placemark') I can easily and quickly create routes exactly where I want them, adding waypoints at places of interest along the way. Doing my route planning within the same app I use for navigation also saves me time as I don't have to worry about downloading and importing a GPX file as it is already saved within the app. AlpineQuest is Android only, but for iOS Garmin BaseCamp is also a fantastic route planner. Smartphone apps have come a long way!
Another very useful app worth checking when planning routes is iOverlander (for both Android and iOS) which is a great tool for finding campsites, accommodation, facilities and places of interest. I'd highly recommend checking it out.
Once you’ve finished planning your route and you've saved it, take out your smartphone and bring up whatever website you were using to design the route (even if planning your route with the Komoot application you’ll still need to open the website), navigate to your saved route and select ‘export as GPX’. This will save the GPX file to your device and we can then open it using our mapping application. Of course, if you're using AlpineQuest to both plan and navigate a route then you can skip this step as it will already be there on your map!
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 a year of hard use so I can massively recommend it.
All you need now is a good mapping app for your phone. Maps.me doesn’t support GPX files so we’ll need something more powerful. There are plenty of great options on Android – some good ones are Backcountry Navigator, Locus and ViewRanger.
As I mentioned though my personal favourite by far has been AlpineQuest – I feel it has the best features, especially the ability to measure distances and easily plan out both basic and advanced style GPX routes directly on the app. The fact that you can plan complex routes within the application itself is a major advantage and means that its the only app I'll ever want, eliminating the need to carry a laptop for route planning.
All of these apps are only on Android however, so if you have an iPhone your choices will be more limited. GaiaGPS (iOS exclusive) works fantastically well and has all the features you could want. You will have to pay for it, but it will certainly be worth the investment. If you don’t want to pay I have also heard good things about MapOut, so that might be worth a try first.
Once you’ve chosen your app you’re almost good to go! Simply open the app, import your GPX file and then choose to display it. You can also download the area of the map you want so that it’s available offline. Depending on how much storage you have on your phone you can choose different levels of detail (the more detail the bigger the file of course) – I find that level 14 zoom is the best compromise when downloading large areas.
You can choose whichever map layers you find best, and some apps (such as AlpineQuest) allow you to stack multiple map layers on top of one another, with customisable opacity. My most used combination for navigating (and also for planning) is OpenCycleMap with a Google Roads overlay (see below), as I find this gives me the best detail and is fairly accurate in most of the world. Depending on where you’re riding though you may have better local options.
With all of that done, you’re ready to jump on the bike and get exploring. Knowing how to use GPX tracks also 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.
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!
If anyone has any suggestions or corrections for this guide, please let me know and I'll be happy to update it!