GPS navigation for motorcycle touring is a subject that seems to still be misunderstood. There are two primary choices of device, the smartphone or a GPS and two schools of thought.
First lets clear up why standard navigation tools such as simple phone apps or simple GPS devices are of little use for a rider. Regular navigation software is designed to take you from A to B by the fastest route. Like this.
But a rider wants to take all the nice roads so the best route between these two towns can look like below.
A regular GPS or smartphone navigation app cannot guide you along a breadcrumb route like this, it was never designed with that in mind. Even superb apps like Maps.me which I use every trip overseas lack the ability to import or follow custom routes.
You can see the above has many dots which are control points to shape the route. The route can also have custom cuesheet entries (shown as green flags) which are route turn instructions and these act like waypoints and force the GPS to follow them. Together theses elements stop navigation software taking the straightest route to the destination which at its core it is always trying to do. (most routes do not use as many points as above which I chose to highlight things)
So to follow the nice curves you need a app or device that can use a custom route, sounds simple huh. Not quite, there are two separate key requirements. The app or device must be able to import a route file and it must be able to then navigate more than one waypoint along that route file, not just from point A to the first waypoint on your route.
Creating your route
After coming up with an idea for a ride you have many ways to create a route of it. Using a GPS a misconception is you need to use PC software like Basecamp, which frankly is terrible. You can make your route very quickly using online tools.
There are many route planners. Furkot, Rever, Motogoloco, Harley Davidson Ride Planner, Honda Trip Planner, Kurviger, Tourstart and the list goes on. By all means look at these and decide yourself but major flaw is none except the one I am going to suggest incorporates Google Street View. This is essential when route planning to check road conditions or access to hotel, cafe, highways or fuel.
Ride with GPS (no affiliation) is dead simple for beginners yet also allows more experienced planners to edit cuesheet data which is something I like to do in some countries as well as adding custom POI data. That may be just to add a message to myself about a picnic stop or I may choose to remove the turn instructions entirely from the route and only provide the waypoints to the GPS and let it decide the best way.
Don’t be put off by the logo which is a push bike, it offers motorcyclists every tool you will need and originally had a different theme, just cyclists came to love this site so that is now reflected in the logo that used to be a motorbike and pushbike.
The site has comprehensive help page with video tutorials of all aspects of making and using a route but it is so simple, if you can click and drag your route in Google maps then you already know how this works and should be up and running in minutes. Turn off avoid highways option (unless relevant) find your start point on the map, be it home or hotel or bike rental shop. Click on the map and a start point is attached. Click along the roads you want to ride, the route auto snaps to follow the road.
You can undo anything, drag and bend the route, and that’s it you just made a route. Above you can see a simple route I just made by clicking on the roads. Zoom in a little or you may click off to the side of a road and have the GPS want to detour off down a side road a few metres as you ride the route.
You can add a POI point of interest onto your map for visual planning reference but if you want the GPS to give you a special instruction then that can be done via the Cuesheet entries list you see on the left of screen.
Above I have added a coffee break instruction to the Cuesheet at a location along the route just as an example. Now when you ride this route the GPS will tell you this as one of its turn by turn on screen prompts. (if you use Route file export – more on this next)
Exporting your route
Now you can export the file as a gpx file and use it in your GPS or certain phone apps. You can choose a few types of files the ones important to our purpose are Track or Route GPX files. A Track file is like a breadcrumb route with 1000’s of waypoints the GPS is forced to follow. A Route file has no waypoints but instead has all the cuesheet information ie the intersection turns which the GPS is then forced to follow.
Using the Track file the GPS will generate all the turn by turn prompts itself, using the Route file you will get a mix of the Cuesheet turn advice and additional turn advice from the GPS. Which one of these works best can vary depending on the map you are using, official or 3rd party and the country you are riding.
RidewithGPS suggests using a Track file but I find my Garmin GPS’s do not like these files and will show them as an offroad track not as something it can turn by turn navigate. I need to use an external tool like GPS Babel to reduce the number of points in the file to 100 and save the file back as a Route gpx file for it to be compatible with Garmins but other devices you may simply save the file as a track and use as is.
RidewithGPS suggests not using a Route file but that is what I find best. The file exported in this format with just the cuesheet entries has worked for me in most countries around the world but there can be a conflict.
You are planning in RidewithGPS on a Google map usually and that may have a mismatch with the Garmin map or Open Street Map you have loaded in the GPS. All three are going to be almost identical but there can be differences occasionally things might be a few metres out from one map to the other and this very rarely can cause a route to not work properly for a portion.
Here is an example.
Lets say the above is your route but the highway overpass on one map is a few metres different and so your turn right waypoint in the GPS sits a little to the left on top of the highway. What you then end up with is like below and the GPS will calculate a route that goes north to the ramp then along the highway then off the next ramp adding those waypoints before it then resumes your original route.
In this situation you might try another map or you can simply edit the cuesheet which is what I choose to do for every route I make. It is more work but it has a few benefits.
Above I cleared the automatically generated cuesheet entries and added my own entries at strategic points so when the GPS ‘joins the dots’ to follow these points it will not take a shorter way nor be able to get confused if there is any difference between the maps.
That may seem like more work (and it is) but often it can be done quickly and there is another way I use this which is to let the GPS choose the better route. This is something I only do when I am using latest Garmin maps or in a location where it does not matter what particular way I cover some part of my route.
Above I cleared all the cues which were numerous and added just two cues of my own. The first at the top tells the GPS to follow ramp to the expressway and the 2nd tells the GPS to use the road exiting the expressway, naturally in between it can figure to use that expressway. But then I let it decide what roads to take to the park at the seaside. This is a portion of an exact route which I rode and the GPS chose a logical quickest route from the 2nd cuesheet point to the park.
Finally the other reason you may encounter an error in your GPS route from what you made relates to more than one road being at one location. This exists where highways run on top of other roads and can confuse a GPS if you had a cuesheet entry exactly at the place where two roads sit on top of each other because the device asks which road are you referring to. I found the easy way to avoid this is by removing any cuesheet entries on elevated expressways, in between where you join and exit it will always take the expressway unless you have some rule in your device set to avoid highways.
You can generally leave all the other cuesheet entries and have none of the problems I mentioned with the junctions, the accuracy of maps continues to improve all the time but if you see your route in the GPS is not what you planned then it is likely one of the map problems I mentioned.
Route creation and export summary
When planning my rides I most use this method. Create route in RidewithGPS, clear all the cuesheet entries and add my own cuesheet entries some of which include custom messages to me like the cafe example. Export the file as Route gpx format to my computer.
To use the file in your GPS simply copy it to the GPX folder for Garmins (not sure about TomTom since they have no 3rd party map support so I see them as useless) then the device will prompt you to import the file when you turn it on or go to the Data folder and import file, then you can view the route, simulate the route and of course ride the route.
UPDATE – I’ve removed the rest of this post that compared phone to GPS as it was dated. I’ve tried many phone navigation apps since writing this and still feel phone based navigation is crude on a motorcycle compared to a Garmin GPS. Here is a link to my most recent look at phone navigation.
The graphics are poor with no junction guidance like pictured below. Phone glossy screens are difficult to see in daylight and almost impossible to operate while riding with gloves. Additionally the vibrations are now damaging the cameras in new phones. If needing to use a 2nd device then any claim of saving money or baggage with phone navigation is lost and you can buy a use Garmin for less than a used phone.