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GPS - Some options

The subject of GPS is often discussed on forums and circles of riders. Common questions include:

  • Can I use GPS on my bike for trail riding?
  • Can I use my phone as a GPS on my bike?
  • Will the battery last long enough?
  • Do I need an internet connection for them to work?
  • Can I plot trails on my computer and copy them to my GPS?
  • Can I use my in car GPS on my bike?
The simple answer is, yes, GPS can be used on your bike and it can be a very handy tool to use especially when travelling and trying new places and routes. However, lets straighten out some basics first.

We're talking about trail riding here and not so much road riding. So there is one fundamental thing you need that your day to day SatNavs don't offer. They need to be able to track you off-road. Most in-car units only have the road network on them and are designed for turn by turn navigation EG - "turn left after the next 50 yards and exit the round-a-bout at the 3rd exit". This basically means, they'll get confused when you go off-road. 
(There are some exceptions and we'll come back to road navigation later on.)

Looks like it's going to rain
You're on a bike, so what ever you use needs to be protected from the rain or be waterproof.

So first things first. You need a SatNav that will track you off-road and up green lanes and be waterproof. In order to do this, it is preferable that they have some sort of map to follow, in the same way you would follow a traditional map. Simplifying this, your options will fit into one of the following 3 brackets:

Dedicated bike SatNav with Off Road capability Out door Sat Nav as typically used by walkers Your mobile phone with software loaded

The commonly referenced option for these is the Garmin Zumo (660 is the current model). These are used the world over for everything from day to day commuting to full expeditions. Now in the box you will get everything you need to hook it up and fasten it to the bike but the off road maps are extra. All in, you'll be looking at something like £600 to set you up with one of these. However, there are some cheaper alternatives surfacing, you can pick-up some basic WaterProof satnavs for around £100 that will then run MemoryMap which will cost you between anything up to £200 depending on the level of coverage you want.    These sorts of devices are quite common place in the trail riding world. There are quite a wide range of options for these starting around the £150 mark. You will then need to budget for your maps, there are some quite handy ways to buy these now. You can buy them by the areas you use, for instance, you'll buy a couple of national parks worth of coverage for about £20. Don't forget that because these devices are primarily targeted at walkers, you'll also need a mount which will be another £25 to £50.  The use of phones is becoming more common place and recently there have been some handy changes by two of the key software players that helps. All you need to do to get up and running is buy a mount, download the free map app and then purchase some maps. There are even now some opensource maps that were built by cyclists available for free. So, excluding the cost of the phone you could be up and running for under a tenner. 

So there are your basic options, what else do you need to consider?


Which ever of the 3 you use, they are all powering high power screens and constantly tracking GPS is quite a power hungry task. I know if you're considering your phone, you might think the battery lasts OK, but when was the last time you left it on for 3 or 4 hours straight and kept the screen awake. Often on these things the screen dims to save power. 

On the best devices, you might just squeeze out 5 hours of usage before its next charge. If you're heading out for the day, that is going to be pushing it, never mind if you're heading away for the weekend. So you need some sort of additional power source. Well, the simplest is the one you're sitting on. With very little technical know how you can wire a simple 12v power source up to most bikes. This will let you charge your new gadget on the go. 

So which one do you fancy?

This is a subject that is well worth turning up to a TRF meet for, there will be people there with various SatNav combinations that will be able to give you advice. Get on a ride out and you'll be able to see them in action. If you are considering the dedicated SatNav or Walking type computer it will really come down to personal preference and budget. A point to note on some of the walking based GPS units is that they won't handle road based satnav as well, so if that is a consideration make sure the one you look at can do what you want. 

On the other hand, if you're considering the phone option, there are some further pointers in this article.

Mounting options

So if you're using a dedicated SatNav, this is probably not required. However you will need to consider the following for the other two options.

Ram mount and cradle for your walking GPSDedicated rugged hardcase for your smartphoneCheap multi-purpose holder for touch screen devices. 
These are typically device specific, so you will need to check which is right for your selected hardware. They can cost between £20 and £50.You buy these specific for the brand of phone you are using. They are very ruggedised and offer the best water and bounce protection for your phone. However, watch out for completely sealed cases (the type you could take your phone diving with) these don't offer an ability to charge. There are many about and some now offer backup batteries on the back of them which you can charge before leaving home, they will extend the life of your phone for a couple of charge cycles. Budget between £25 and £50 for a reasonable one.These are really the jack of all trades options. They come with a clear screen on the front so you can see your device and some foam packers inside to fine tune it for your device. You could use any touch screen device like a car satnav in these. These can be picked up on eBay for as little as £8. 

Buying maps

With the dedicated units, this is pretty much a case of going with what is compatible. Garmin offer their Discover Maps which will provide various flavours of OS mapping. Other devices can use the MemoryMap software, this includes some of the hand held GPS units and now many phones. Most of these have software with them which will let you route plan on a PC first and then download your routes to the device, a little like marking your normal maps with a highlighter pen. This is a useful feature as you can create routes for re-use in the future and planning it on the PC is easier than the device. With which ever map you chose the 1:50,000 OS scale is about perfect for trail riding and all you need. All of the following map options are what you class as offline maps so you don't need to be connected to the internet if you are using them on your phone. 

MemoryMap -  will work on a number on Windows PC's, iPhones, Android Phones and Windows Mobile ready devices (although this can be fiddly to get working on some windows devices), Memory map even do their own range of handheld hardware for the job which at the time of writing this the base model was available for £210 with all the UK 1:50 maps installed. If you are looking at these, be careful with the flagship S7000 because it isn't a waterproof model. It is worth keeping an eye open for offers and discounts on the full UK DVD's. The disk will allow you to install your maps on up to 5 devices. Phone, Tablet, PC etc.

The phone and tablet only version of their software is very simple to install and get working and the ability to simply buy a section of a map at a time can make it a very cost effective option. To get going, simply download the app from the Play or Applestore for free, create an account, buy some credit and start downloading the areas you want. You are not restricted to regions, you buy in 25,000sqkm blocks and you activate the areas you want. 25,000sqkm is about £16.The only downside of buying the mobile version is you can't copy the maps back to the PC.  
MemoryMap web site

Garmin Discover Maps - these maps are purely for the Garmin range of hardware (as far as I know). They use OS based data to provide a similar platform to that of MemoryMap and you can use their Basecamp software on your PC to plan and share routes. These maps do have an added feature over standard OS maps in that they offer turn by turn street navigation within OS map itself, which is a very nice feature. 


ViewRanger - This is a mobile only app but for those looking at using their mobile or even tablet as a GPS device it provides a fantastic option. Everything is done from your phone or tablet much like the MemoryMap mobile version. Simply download the app in PlayStore or AppleStore which is free, register and you're away. To this point, it is very
similar to the MemoryMap app but it has a few features up it's sleeve that are a nice touch. Access through their interface to 1,000's of open source maps which are totally free. Street maps for road planning and the cycle maps make a great option that you can use for trail riding. All totally free and all totally offline. If you prefer to use the OS maps, these are available at sensible prices of around £8 per region and can be bought a region at a time. Furthermore you can gain access to these maps via a web browser on your PC for route planning but you must be online to use that. From what I have seen, if you want to try SatNav for the first time you can't go wrong with this and if you've used SatNav for a while and nevr tried this, get online now and take a look. 

Navicomputer - If you are a Windows Phone user there are some options starting to surface. I have yet to see this one in action but it looks to be similar to ViewRanger and allow access to offline open source cycle maps, plan routes and save GPX file. 


So hopefully that gives you an idea of what is out there but remember, it's always worth having a paper back up of your map, especially if you don't know where you are going.