GPS Navigation: Bike Touring or Cycling With A Smartphone

Alee January 21, 2014 16

A couple of months ago our Garmin dedicated GPS stopped being reliable. It turned itself off whenever it felt like it – most of the time when we were really relying on it. We had run out of open source maps, and were told that it would cost in excess of $150 to have it looked at. We’d had enough.

As soon as we arrived in Korea we purchased a smartphone for navigational purposes, among other things. As it turns out this was the best gear swap-out we’ve made in a long while – smartphones make navigation a pleasure because they are SO user friendly.

Smartphones are easy and intuitive – you can quickly download detailed maps of any country, which are easy to move, zoom in and out of, and create points of interest.

CyclingAbout Epiphany: Smartphones are the perfect navigation tool for bicycle travel.

How is a smartphone better than a handheld GPS?

They’re SO much more user friendly than GPS devices. One of the biggest drawcards of smartphones are their incredible touch screens; pinch and zoom, slide the maps around etc. The mapping ‘apps’ are always simple and intuitive, whereas GPS devices seem to be always plagued with a confusing and downright horrible menu system, filled with so many features you just don’t need! We make lots of GPS data points on our smartphone which are super easy to add and remove.

You don’t need a computer with you. You can download all your maps straight from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.

The maps are current. Any of the decent mapping apps will update their information frequently.

They’re quicker and more accurate. Amazingly, the GPS chip in our iPhone 5 is faster and more accurate than our Garmin Edge 800. Smartphone GPS speed is actually aided with mobile telephone infrastructure around the world.

They have a large screen. Bigger screen equals easier to read. Important when your device is an arms length away.

Smartphones are multi-purpose. A smartphone is of course a phone, email device, photo editor, website editor… the list goes on!

They charge quickly. Just one hour in the wall has our phone charged from 0-100%.

How do we use our smartphone to navigate?

We don’t use our smartphone in quite the same way as we did our Garmin Edge 800. We instead think of our smartphone as a paper map… a small, interactive map of the world which we can annotate. We gave up on GPS routing ages ago as we do a much better job of creating routes than our electronic devices.

We make our routes on-the-go and mark points on our maps at the key intersections. Our smartphone screen remains off most of the day to conserve our battery – we only switch it on to check where we are and if we need to turn soon.

What are the limitations of the smartphone?

Battery life. We could ride for about 20 hours with our Garmin Edge 800 on the whole time. This is not at all possible on a smartphone without being connected to a dynamo hub, solar panel or external battery.

Wet weather. Sensitive touch screens, including on dedicated GPS devices, become quite useless in the rain. We have a ‘poncho’ for our iPhone which helps when the screen has droplets on it, but is far from perfect.

Screen Glare. Sometimes the sun comes in on the wrong angle whilst cycling and makes the glossy screen impossible to see. If we do desperately need to check the GPS, we simply pull over and shade the screen.

As a bicycle computer. GPS devices often provide all kinds of bicycle computer data, and it’s true that a smartphone can do the same. But… the battery life will really suffer if you do this – you need a power source to make it through your ride. We recommend having a cheap separate bicycle computer for this kind of information.

Altitude. Most electronic devices can have spasms over about 4000m. It’s worth noting that we’ve had friends ride the Pamir Highway (5000m) with an iPhone without any dramas.

Charging Your Smartphone

Using our smartphone like a paper map, we’ve found that we use between 10-50% of the smartphones battery per day, depending on how many times the screen is switched on and off. If you have frequent access to power points (not hard in most parts of the world) you’ll be able to charge most smartphones within an hour.

Dynamo Hub Power: We have used dynamo power to keep everything topped up for the last 25,000km, and have just switched to the Tout Terrain The Plug III. A smartphone charge from the dynamo hub takes just 2-3 hours on the bike. You can read our List of Hub Dynamo Power Supplies for USB Devices for lots more information on hub charging.

We also have the Ultimate Power Resource: Dynamo Hubs, Solar Panels, Power Supplies and External Batteries which includes information on many different ways you can keep your smartphone charged.

Review: Tout Terrain The Plug III

Review: Pedal Power + SIC Cable

Review: Pedal Power + V4i Battery

Mounting your Smartphone

We use and recommend Quad Lock products for your bike mounting needs. They’re well designed, super slim, elegant and simple. You can read our review of the Quadlock Smartphone case.

Bike2Power and Biologic make enclosed smartphone cases which mount to your handlebar and will fit practically any phone. These cases are more durable and waterproof than the Quadlock product, however as a result are more cumbersome.

Ortlieb have recently updated their handlebar bag, the Ultimate 6 Pro to have a transparent, waterproof sleeve which allows you to slip your smartphone in and navigate. If you’re using an older Ortlieb handlebar bag, you can get a waterproof sleeve that will connect onto the buttons.

Do you need a SIM card to use the GPS function?

No. Using GPS satellites is free, you’re just receiving a signal. If you have a GPS chip in your smartphone and have downloaded some maps for offline use, you will always be able to find where you are!

GPS Tracking

We don’t recommend using your smartphone as a tracking device, simply because the battery life tends to really suffer. If you really need to, an external source of power will most likely be required to keep you topped up.

Some apps do require you to use a SIM card for tracking: try Strava, OruxMaps or Pocket Earth.

Waterproof Smartphones

It is possible to buy an Android smartphone which is impervious to dust, water and to some extent dropping, without using a ‘rugged’ cover. Rugged covers, although very handy for delicate smartphones, are often quite cumbersome and reduce the sensitivity of the touch screen interface.

Samsung make a phone called the Galaxy S5 Active which is identical in all aspects to the highly popular Galaxy S5, except for the addition of armour and a few external buttons. The standard Galaxy S5 actually has the same waterproof rating of IP67 certification (submerged at 3 feet for 30 minutes), so if you’re not after the rugged form, this phone will fit the bill.

Sony make a model called the Xperia Z2 which has an even more impressive IP58 certification (submerged at 5 feet for 30 minutes). That said, in terms of ‘ruggedness’, the Sony is more on par with the standard Samsung Galaxy S5 than the Active.

Apple unfortunately do not produce a waterproof/shockproof phone yet.

Using a Tablet, iPad or iPod Touch

It is possible to use tablets and iPods for navigation, especially if they have a GPS chip built in. If they don’t, there are plug-in products available to allow you to locate satellites.

You can connect tablets to your bicycle with the Quadlock Universal mount, the only issue is that a Quadlock raincover is not available for them like there is for an iPhone.

Not Recommended: Bad Elf GPS Transmitter for iPad/iPhone

We purchased this external GPS transmitter for our iPads a couple of months ago, but never found it to work as desired. For starters, the Bad Elf only works with a select few apps; we tried out some of these approved apps, but didn’t find them to be as useful as the ones we used and knew.

Despite the manufacturer claiming that it could be located by satellites within 45 seconds, this was almost never the case. Cloudy conditions or thin canopies overhead made it even worse, to the point of not being located at all. On a number of tests, we couldn’t be located from the window of a moving vehicle. We hence don’t recommend this product for bicycle touring – the best trick the Bad Elf had was to convincing us to buy a smartphone!

The Best Mapping Apps for Smartphones

*Ratings from January 2014

Offline Apps

Download maps for use without an internet connection

OruxMaps Offline Maps (Android): Orux is generally considered the best Android mapping app because it is free and has an incredible raft of features. It will take you some time to familiarize yourself with these features because the user interface isn’t exactly polished, but essentially you can upload all kinds of maps and tiles including GPX, routing, have different user profiles and even track your route (live tracking with an internet connection). Play Store Rating: 4.9/5

Locus Map Pro (Android): Locus is also highly rated by Android users. It has access to huge quantities of different maps (inc. terrain, cycling, hiking, skiing), either while you use data, or as in-app purchases for offline use. You can import custom maps, enjoy turn-by-turn voice navigation or understand places with the incorporated Wikipedia information. Play Store Rating: 4.8/5

RMaps (Android): Similar to Galileo for iOS, you can upload your own maps to this highly-rated free app. There is no navigation or routing, just mapping, but it’s free and has great reviews! Play Store Rating: 4.7/5

Maps.Me Offline Maps (iOS/Android): Our go-to application for offline mapping. Maps.Me isn’t as powerful as other apps, or as beautiful as Google Maps, but the user interface is great and it packs in a lot of searchable travel information on restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, hospitals, police stations etc. The map data is provided by OpenStreetMap (OSM) which is a collaborative open source database with information provided by hundreds and thousands of people. It’s easy to get maps, simply download the countries you need in the app (usually 5-500mb per country) when you have have a good internet connection. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

MotionX GPS HD (iOS): This is one of the top iOS app for a backcountry use. Download the maps within the app and enjoy travelling on backroads and hiking trails with detailled topo maps. Super easy to plan, track and store your exploits. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

City Maps 2Go Offline Maps (iOS/Android): For a couple of dollars, you can download maps for all countries in the world which are stored on your device. The map data is provided by OpenStreetMap which is a collaborative open source database with information provided by hundreds and thousands of people. This app even has inbuilt Wikipedia and WikiTravel information which can be found at landmarks on the maps. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

Pocket Earth Offline Maps (iOS): This highly rated and powerful iOS app allows you to import and export GPX files, download maps (cities, regions, countries) for offline use, route, turn-by-turn navigate and track your trip. It incorporates 500,000 Wikipedia entries which are incredibly useful for travel. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

OsmAnd Offline Maps (Android): As the name suggests, this app has access to OpenStreetMap data which can be downloaded to your phone through the app for offline use. If you don’t want to store maps, you can also use mobile data to access maps. A great feature of this app is the cycling and walking routes. This app includes navigation features such as voice guidance and re-routing. You can also search for addresses and find GPS co-ordinates. Play Store Rating: 4.5/5

Backcountry Navigator Topo GPS (Andoid): This top selling backcountry app has OpenStreetMap and OpenCycleMap information available for download, so it’s not just good off the beaten path. It’s also super easy to import GPX/KML information / GPS co-ordinate information – here’s a great guide to using it. Play Store Rating: 4.5/5

Gaia GPS Topo and Trails (iOS/Android): This backcountry focused app allows you to explore remote places once you’ve downloaded the topo, road or aerial maps. You can import/export your own GPX/KML files by web browser, DropBox and email. The app isn’t as cheap as other options ($20USD) but once you’ve invested, all map downloads are free within the app. Play Store Rating: 4.3/5

Soviet Military Maps Free (Android): These downloadable world topomaps (100k-500k) are former soviet military (mostly from 1980’s), and for many countries in Africa and Asia are still the best topomaps available! Play Store Rating: 4.3/5

NavFree Offline Navigation Maps (iOS/Android): This highly popular, free, OSM app has great features including offline mapping, routing, re-routing, turn-by-turn navigation, Google streetview and more. Did we mention it’s all free? Play Store Rating: 4/5

CoPilot GPS (iOS/Android): This app is free, and has lots of offline maps available. For iOS users, this is one of the better apps for offline searching and routing. You’ll need to purchase features such as turn-by-turn and voice navigation for a modest amount. App Store Rating: 4/5

Galileo (iOS): One of the most powerful offline mapping apps for iOS, although we’ve found that you’ll need a computer with iTunes to make the most of it. You can upload your own custom maps in a number of formats to the app. App Store Rating: 3.5/5

UDirect Offline Maps (iOS): The UDirect maps are clunky, so we only use them for checking out topography (which happens to be very accurate with this app). You can download entire continents of maps at a time. App Store Rating: 3/5

OruxMaps often rates as the best offline smartphone mapping app

 

Online Apps

You will need an internet connection to make use of these apps

Apple Maps (iOS): These inbuilt maps are nice to look at, but severely lack detail when compared to Google. Having said that, we have found that Apple maps are sometimes randomly better in rural areas! Like Google Maps, you can set up the turn-by-turn navigation while you are on wifi – it will then be able to navigate you to your destination without an internet connection.

Google Maps (iOS/Android): Easily the most elegant and up-to-date of all smartphone maps, they are best used with data. It’s also possible to save the Google Maps in the cache (to view it offline). While you have an internet connection, zoom in on a part of a map that you want to save. Type “OK Maps” (minus the quotes) and hit Search and you can save highly detailled maps out at 15km if you need.  Google Maps also allows you to view larger regions offline, by caching any areas you view; just remember to zoom into any areas you’ll need to view in more detail later. The turn-by-turn directions even works offline if you search for them while you’re connected to wifi and continue travelling without. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

With an internet connection, Google maps is brilliant

 

Turn-by-Turn GPS Navigation

Get on-the-go directions from your app

Apple Maps (iOS): Like other apps such as Google Maps, you can set up the turn-by-turn navigation while you are on wifi – it will then be able to navigate you to your destination without an internet connection.

Bike Hub Cycle Journey Planner (Android): This turn-by-turn app was funded by the British Government and allows you to find the quickest and quietest cycle routes in the UK. You will need an internet connection to make the most of this app. Play Store Rating: 3/5

CoPilot GPS (iOS/Android): This app is free to use however you’ll have to purchase features such as turn-by-turn and voice navigation for quite a modest amount. App Store Rating: 4/5

Google Maps (iOS/Android): The turn-by-turn directions to places works offline if you search for them while you’re connected to wifi, but we haven’t tried it out. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

Locus Map Pro (Android): Locus is highly rated by Android users. You can import custom maps, enjoy turn-by-turn voice navigation or understand places with the incorporated Wikipedia information. Play Store Rating: 4.8/5

NavFree Offline Navigation Maps (iOS/Android): This highly popular app has great navigation features including routing, re-routing and turn-by-turn navigation. Play Store Rating: 4/5

Navigon / Garmin Maps (iOS/Android): Although expensive ($50+ per country), Garmin maps are considered some of the worlds best in navigation circles, especially for rural areas where free or cheap apps lack a lot of detail. You can expect all of the usual car-GPS features in this app, although the value for money is incredibly low. App Store Rating: 3.5/5

OsmAnd Offline Maps (Android): This app includes navigation features such as voice guidance and re-routing. A great feature of this app is the cycling and walking routes. Play Store Rating: 4.5/5

Pocket Earth Offline Maps (iOS): This highly rated iOS app allows you to turn-by-turn navigate. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

Sygic (iOS): Sygic is the worlds most downloaded offline navigation app. It employs high quality car-based maps from TomTom and other providers which are stored on your smartphone allowing you to navigate without an internet connection. The navigation is voice guided, provides alternative routes and drag and drop routing. The app is free, but you will have to purchase the maps (you can even download the world maps for 111 countries for $85 AUD). App Store Rating: 4.5/5

Sygic is a car based navigation app which is great for turn-by-turn routing

 

Tracking

Like a GPS Bike Computer… track your ride

Cyclemeter GPS (iOS): Similar to Strava except without the need for an account, you can track your rides among other things. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

GPS Essentials (Android): This app includes 45 different widgets to choose from, ranging from altitude, bearing, declination and distance to latitude, longitude, sunrise, moonrise and more. If you need the numbers, get involved! Play Store Rating: 4.4/5

Map My Ride (iOS/Android): Track your ride with this app with bike computer functionality. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

OruxMaps Offline Maps (Android): Orux is generally considered the best Android mapping app because it is free and has an incredible raft of features. You can track your route or even live track with an internet connection! Play Store Rating: 4.9/5

Pocket Earth Offline Maps (iOS): This highly rated and app allows you to track your trip. App Store Rating: 4.5/5

Strava (iOS/Android): Track your rides, analyse your performance, compare yourself to others. App Store Rating: 5/5

*Ratings collected in January 2014

 

Bike Computer Apps

Want to use your phone as a bike computer?

Check out: MapMyRide, Cyclometer GPS, Cycle Tracker Pro, B.iCycle, Cycle Watch, Biological bike brain, ipBike to name a few!

Websites for Route Analysis

CycleRoute.org: This smartphone friendly website allows you to analyse routes, distances and elevation profiles of most roads around the world!

BikeToaster.com: Another powerful route analyzer, however isn’t smartphone/tablet friendly.

Have you got any other advice, tips, app recommendations or updates to this resource for us? Drop a comment.

 

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  • olee22

    What a review, wow, excellent job! Really packed with information. Thank you a lot!

    I especially like the screenshots, it saves the usual struggle of downloading, installing, trying out, and also there is a visual image behind the name.

    I already use many of your tips, and the others that I didn’t implement yet are in que for the future upgrades, like the hubdynamos.

    My current struggle is mainly with elevation.

    All GPS maps I came across so far on phones are “horizontal”, which is fine for cars. Steep elevations that can be a trouble for small engines are maybe marked, but otherwise they are “flat”.

    However, for biking, small elevations that don’t matter for cars do matter for a heavily packed bike.

    It happened to me 3-4x already during tours that the route we chose based on the map turned out be hillier than we wanted, although it didn’t look “that bad”.

    Beside asking locals, and carefully interpreting what they say, and checkin elevation marks on paper maps, I haven’t found a good way to plan ahead longer tours with elevation information built in. I also read bike-touring books, which have some suggested bike routes with the elevation profile within.

    Even with http://www.cycleroute.org/ is kind of a trial and error to find a good track in hilly areas.

    Any ideas and tips in this matter are welcome.

    • http://www.cyclingabout.com/ Alee Denham

      Elevation is not an issue for us. I normally take a close look at our topographical maps before departing on a long ride, assessing what contour lines the road crosses. I make a graph in my head of what the elevation profile probably looks like and leave it at that. Another good app that we use occasionally is “Geo Elevation”. You can plot routes easily on your phone/tablet (although they aren’t of the road itself, rather a straight line between the data points) – it then gives you an accurate profile graph.

  • olee22

    Another quesiton I have: for the rare times when we rent a car and go by car, we use a Navigon 8450 GPS. This has the advantage that it offers 2 or 3 routes to the destination, with different characteristics.
    Do you know any routing software that does this on the phone?

    Do you use your own scanned paper (bike)maps, or downloaded scanned in (bike) paper maps, or do you rely on downloading the software’s own?

    • http://www.cyclingabout.com/ Alee Denham

      Definitely Sygic (iOS) but from memory, many of the turn-by-turn apps have this feature.

      We download the maps available through the apps for offline use.

  • http://aushiker.com/ Aushiker

    I am with Olee22. That is a very interesting post and whilst I am a happy Garmin 810 user at present you do have me re-thinking my possible future use of my phone.

  • Paul Stead

    I sold my Edge 800, the screen is to way to small, maps cost to much, and garmin don’t give any after sales support. I am planning to use a Magellan Cyclo 105 cycling computer, and a Magellan explorist for navigation. I like bush hiking and cycling and I am well aware of the dangers of the Australian bush- something I will not trust a garmin product with! However I will use a smart phone for communications and a backup GPS.

  • Wakatel Lu’um

    I use MapMyRide for basic training but I also have the TomTom GPS app I use on my iPhone in the car, it now has a cycling option updated in it…that could possibly work well? It does chew up the power but I have a dynamo so not worried about that anymore…

  • Scott Cleland

    Bade Elf is rubbish? I just used Bad Elf on my iPad mini with Sygic to navigate inside a car in Scotland in bad weather for three weeks and it never skipped a beat. IN fact I broke the unit and Bad Elf replaced within a day of me doing so while I was on the road! It didn’t even drop out in really really bad weather in the far north or in bad weather at Glen Coe. Ditto for Ireland and the Ring of Kerry. Are you sure you know how to use the unit? I have also used a Bade Elf with OZrunways/iPad to navigate while piloting a helicopter. have my doubts you used the unit correctly, since you have suggested in the article that your smart phone directly connects with satellites which it doesn’t. AGPS not GPS and AGPS requires connection a server doesn’t it.?

    • http://www.cyclingabout.com/ Alee Denham

      Hi Scott

      What we have outlined is our experience with the Bad Elf, it simply didn’t function well for us. Going by what you’ve said, maybe we received a faulty unit?

      A lot of people misunderstand A-GPS, and think it’s some faux GPS system. It’s not; A-GPS requires a GPS receiver to work, and GPS receivers are built into most smartphones these days. The advantage of the A-GPS system is that you can determine your current location much faster than normal, by using almanac data over a cellular network. What happens when you have no cellular data? The phone determines it’s position using the GPS receiver alone. Basically, A-GPS and cellular data aren’t necessary, but they’ll assist in providing your current location much quicker than without.

      Alee

      • Scott Cleland

        I don’t know what was wrong with your unit, but mine wasn’t faulty, I broke it. Although, a better design might see that the kind of break doesn’t happen in the future – and in fact putting this out to the Bad Elf people got me not only a replacement, but an upgrade. The people at Bad Elf are all class. All the criticisms I’ve read have been about design as opposed to pure performance of the Bad Elf Units. I can’t see how bicycle tours would tax the unit more than aviation and or a driving tour. I can’t see how for your purposes it didn’t work. As far as I understand AGPS it requires a phone signal or a wireless connection because assisted GPS needs to talk to the servers that talk to the satellites. But I’m not an expert. Your original comment that the Bad Elf is not recommended surprised me considering what I have put the unit through and it never failed until I broke it -with the help of a poor design. The Bad Elf Pro really impressed me in fact. I used it for a whole week…driving over a thousand miles before I even needed to recharge it. The most impressive thing however, were the people at the company. I’m a pretty tuff cookie and they softened me with some real classy customer service.

  • http://www.biketourings.com/ Rideon Biketourings

    Not much of a gadget person and just recently have decided it might be a good idea to atleast make some effort to keep up with some technology if for no other reason than to know what the kids are talking about. :)
    Last night rode with the new Moto G 4G lte and used the gps with google maps navigation on a 13 mile night ride to run a couple errands. It worked fine only lost signal a couple times. Didn’t use much phone battery at all after approximately two hours of biking, grocery shopping, etc. Kinda fun. I didn’t use any kind of stem mounting instead just tucked in small outside pocket of hydration pack. Phone has gorilla glass and is “splash proof” not going test those features. So far a really good phone for using google maps and gps for navigation. I have used it for delivery driving at work and it’s also better than my previous gps gadget. Excellent article here, wow very informative and good for the less tech savvy looking for information. Thanks!

  • http://www.biketourings.com/ Rideon Biketourings

    Another excellent review from you guys, as always. Just found an app called BikeComputer yet another GPS nav app which has downloads of offline maps for route planning without having to run GPS all the time. Well reviewed and offline maps are included with Free version and there is a paid version with other features of course.

  • Dana

    What smart phones have a gps chip?

    • http://www.cyclingabout.com/ Alee Denham

      Most smartphones have a GPS chip. You can check out the specs of every phone on Phone Arena (http://www.phonearena.com/phones/manufacturers). Click on the phone you’re interested in, and scroll down to “Technology” to see if it has “GPS”.

  • Slogfester

    New to your blog and loving it :)
    Couple of points:
    I think a lot of the barriers-to-entry for using a smartphone as a bicycle computer start with the iPhone; rubbish non-changeable battery, fragile, no card. Many Android phones have replaceable batteries (I carry 3 spares= 4 days of use without charge, light, cheap [$10 for a spare battery]) and SDHC cards so easy to back up etc. Plus many are much more robust and weatherproof, e.g. new Z3
    I like the Herbert and Richter universal bike mounts as they are relatively cheap, robust, and can fit any phone.
    BTW, OSMAnd will track too.

    • http://www.cyclingabout.com/ Alee Denham

      All valid points – Android phones have many advantages, especially for bicycle touring.