My $500 Garmin GPS stopped being reliable. It turned itself off whenever it felt like it – most of the time when I was really relying on it. I was told that it would cost in excess of $150 to have it repaired but I’d had enough. I looked to other solutions.
I purchased a smartphone for navigation upon arrival in Korea. As it turned out, it was the best gear swap-out I’d made in a long while. Smartphones make navigation a pleasure because the mapping is so easy and intuitive. I can quickly download detailed maps of any country in the world which are easy to zoom in and out of, move around, and create points of interest on.
Smartphones are perfect for my navigational needs.
How is a Smartphone Better than a Handheld GPS?
They are SO much more user-friendly than GPS devices. One of the biggest drawcards of smartphones are their touch screens; pinch and zoom and slide the maps around with ease. Mapping ‘apps’ are simple whereas GPS devices seem to be plagued with confusing menu systems. I use data points regularly, which are really easy to add and remove on a smartphone.
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 update their information really frequently.
They’re quicker and more accurate. The GPS chip in my iPhone 5S is faster and more accurate than in my Garmin Edge 800. GPS speed on smartphones is 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 a phone, email device, photo editor, website editor… the list goes on!
They charge quickly. Just one hour in the wall has my phone charged from 0-100%.
How Do I Use My Smartphone to Navigate?
I make my routes on-the-go, generally as KML files which show my routes as lines on my maps. I sometimes like to mark points of interest at key intersections so that I don’t miss my turns. I tend to use my smartphone more like a paper map, switching it on/off whenever I need to check if I’m still en route and heading the right way. My smartphone screen remains off most of the day to conserve battery – I only switch it on to check where I am. I can go for days without a battery charge if I use my smartphone in this manner!
This resource shows you how to import a custom KML map into the Maps.me app (iPhone).
What are the Limitations of the Smartphone?
Battery life. I could ride for about 20 hours with my 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 become quite useless in the rain. I have a ‘poncho’ for my 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 hard to see. If I do desperately need to check the GPS, I 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. I recommend having a cheap separate bicycle computer for recording ride data.
Altitude. Most electronic devices can have spasms over about 4000m. It’s worth noting that I’ve had friends ride the Pamir Highway (5000m) with an iPhone without any dramas.
Charging Your Smartphone
Using my smartphone like a paper map, I’ve found that I 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: I have used dynamo power to keep everything topped up for the last 31,000km, 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 my List of Hub Dynamo Power Supplies for USB Devices for lots more information on hub charging.
I 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.
Mounting Your Smartphone
I use and recommend Quad Lock products for your bike mounting needs. They’re well designed, super slim, elegant and simple. You can read my review of the Quadlock Smartphone case.
I’ve recently put together a list of The Best Bike Smartphone Cases & Mounts for Cycling. This list features all of the best options available. Some mount on the stem, others on the handlebar itself, some go in front of the stem and others come off the topcap of your headset. Some cases are more waterproof and protective than others.
Ortlieb have recently updated their Ultimate 6 Pro handlebar bag to have a 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 connects onto the bags 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!
I 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 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.
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 Z3 (compact version available too) which has an even more impressive IP65/68 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..
Bad Elf GPS Transmitter for iPad/iPhone
I purchased this external GPS transmitter for my iPad, but never found it to work as desired. For starters, the Bad Elf only works with a select few apps which I tried, but didn’t find to be as useful as the ones I 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, I couldn’t be located from the window of a moving vehicle. I 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 February 2015
Download maps for use without an internet connection
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
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: 4.6/5
Maps.Me Offline Maps (iOS/Android): My 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. Check out my resource on how to import a custom KML route into the app. 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
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
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: 4.2/5
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: 4.2/5
Navmii 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 I mention it’s all free? Play Store Rating: 3.5/5
Galileo (iOS): One of the most powerful offline mapping apps for iOS, although I’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 I 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
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, I 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
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: 4.2/5
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 I 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
Navmii 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: 3.5/5
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: 4.2/5
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
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: 4.2/5
Map My Ride (iOS/Android): Track your ride with this app with bike computer functionality. App Store Rating: 4/5
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: 4.6/5
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 February 2015