The definitive reference to navigating on motorcycles, with a focus on GPS
Motorcycle navigation is different from almost any other type - because it’s not just about going from Point A to Point B, it’s often not about Point B at all. The route itself is the destination. Any general form of GPS / navigation is focused on getting you to Point B in the most efficient way possible, and that is all. Motorcyclists frequently don’t want an efficient route. We might want one that makes no sense at all.
Terminology around navigation is ambiguous, often misused, and as such can be confusing.
GPS Navigation, or Sat Nav is really 5 different technologies coming together in one.
It is important to understand that the above items are different technologies. If you are unhappy with your overall navigation solution, try to understand which piece of it is not satisfactory. In many cases, you can change out one of the items above and leave the others alone. In other cases, a few of the technologies may be tied together inseparably.
Maps are just that - they show only how roads and terrain are laid out. This is just the cartography - the maps themselves - think of a physical paper map. They don’t tell you where you are, or how to get anywhere else. GPS systems almost always come with a basemap, which can be changed, updated or upgraded. Different types of maps are available for a given area including road, marine, aviation, geodetic and topographic maps, etc. The basemap can be basically just a series of images, or they can contain actual road layouts as well. In many cases you can change out the basemap while keeping the other aspects of technology. Many phone apps can use multiple map sources, online or offline. Even Garmin maps can be run on alternate map sources from Garmin or third parties like OSM.
GPS, or Global Positioning System, is satellite technology coupled with a receiver which tells you where you are - Latitude and Longitude. The GPS receiver is the device you buy, or is integrated into your phone. The receiver receives signals from multiple GPS satellites at once and calculates a position based on hyper-accurate timing data. A minimum of 4 satellites are required for a “lock”, though many receivers have 12 or more channels for higher accuracy. GPS technology - by itself - does not provide maps or navigation, it only locates you on earth (providing your latitude and longitude). GPS is the US-based system developed and implemented by the US military. Russia has a similar, parallel system called GLONASS, and Europe is developing the Galileo system (not yet fully operable), and India and China have their own upcoming systems as well. Each system would require a receiver compatible with the constellation it’s meant to work with. WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) is a secondary, supplemental system implemented by the FAA to make GPS even more accurate over North America for aviation purposes using geostationary satellites. With GPS + a basemap, you can now find your relative location on earth.
Location Databases are basically a phone book of addresses, businesses including gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and more. The only difference is this database contains coordinates of the locations in latitude and longitude. This is generally how you will look up where you want to go. This information can be displayed against the base map to show where each item is located. Additional waypoint data may be included such as restaurant types, contact info, and business hours.
Routing means actually finding a route, or multiple route options, from point A to point B (and points C, D, E, F, G… and so on). Oftentimes the user can input route preferences such as “faster time” or “shorter route”, and avoidances like “avoid tolls”, “avoid dirt roads”, etc. The destinations can be set by lat/lon coordinates, cross roads on the base map, or through information in the location database by looking up an address or business. A routing engine requires a base map that includes road data. Base maps of topographic images only cannot be routed against. A map and routing engine are rarely separated, but can be in advanced setups. Routing can be pre-calculated, or calculated for a scheduled future time (if traffic or weather data is available), or is most often just done in real time after the destinations or waypoints are entered. A key point is that different devices with different routing engines can calculate wildly different routes, even given the same starting and ending points. Adding additional waypoints will help ensure various routing engines calculate routes similarly, but there is never any guarantee. A saved “route” is not really a route at all, it is still a series of points which must have a path re-calculated before use.
Navigation, also called turn-by-turn instructions, are the real-time step-by-step instructions provided to the end user on how to follow the route. Navigation instructions are provided to the user after the route is calculated. This is the presentation of the route, in real time, as you move along it. During navigation, it will also generally show your remaining distance and estimated time of arrival (ETA), as well as other possible information like distance traveled and average speed. Advanced features include traffic and weather information along the route. The navigation instructions can be visual, audible, or both. Navigation is exclusive of routing, mapping, etc. These technologies all build on each other.
ETA means Estimated Time of Arrival. Based on information either in the basemap or location database, roads or road segments are identified as having certain average speeds. When your route is assembled by the software, it will calculate the average time it should take to arrive at your destination. This can be affected if you are traveling slower or faster than the calculated average (due to traffic, weather, or other reasons), or if you take any stops or detours that were not accounted for by the routing engine.
A Route is a specific navigation option from a specific point A to a specific point B. There are many possible routes from any given point A to point B. A route is navigable - meaning turn-by-turn directions and ETAs are available after the routing process has completed. A route consists of “waypoints” and “via points” to be navigated sequentially.
A Track is similar to a route in that it shows a single, specific way from point A to point B. However, a track is NOT navigable like a route. Think of it as just a highlighted line on a map. Many more points typically define a track compared to a route. The individual points themselves are insignificant, but overall they shape the track. Some tracks are able to be trimmed such that excess points are removed while still retaining the overall detail. In between the points on the track is just a straight line - connect the dots.
A track can be created while travelling by recording a series of points (aka “breadcrumb” trail). A track that was previously recorded can be displayed so that you can “track back” to where you came from.
Tracks can also be created from a route. A track generally consists of many more points than in a route, as frequently as once every 20 feet or so, as there is no navigation between the points - just a straight line is drawn. No other routing logic is used between the points.
A Waypoint is a specific point on a map. It can be “point A” (your beginning), “point B” (your destination), or any other significant point on a map (rest stop, parking area, photo opportunity). It doesn’t have to be directly related to or included in a route or a track, it can just be a point of interest there for reference. However, a route can use waypoints within itself for routing.
A Via Point, or “Shaping Point” is used to tell a route to go through a certain location (e.g. take a specific road), but is generally not announced. It is just used to shape a route. Basically, go from point A to point B via point C.
Announce or Alert means that during navigation a waypoint will be treated as a significant point, one that you need to be aware of. Time and distance to the next point can be reported, just like the destination. A via point that is not announced is only used to shape a track, and no other calculations to that point are provided. You may not be aware that you have crossed the location.
GPX is an open XML file format that can contain waypoints, via points, tracks, and routes. GPX is the most common and interchangeable format for navigation data. Other file types are KML, KMZ, GDB, and others. GPX files can be shared and exchanged by email, bluetooth, downloaded, or any other means of sending files.
Selective Availability is something you don’t need to worry about. This was in the past when GPS was first available to the public, the US government had the ability to reduce the accuracy of GPS signals. Some people believe this is still the case, but it is not. Selective Availability was turned off in the ‘90’s during the Clinton administration, public GPS systems have been as accurate as possible for decades.
Latitude and Longitude are the actual coordinates of a point on earth. Latitude is the distance from the equator, positive numbers or numbers preceded by an N are the northern hemisphere and negative numbers or numbers preceded by an S are the southern hemisphere. Longitude is the distance from the Prime Meridian, with positive numbers or numbers preceded by an E are located to the east of the Prime Meridian, and negative numbers or numbers preceded by a W are located to the west of the Prime Meridian.
Latitude and Longitude come in various formats, which can be confusing. Also each format can be represented with either positive and negative numbers, or the alphanumeric prefixes or postfixes. Latitude and Longitude are generally separated with a comma in every format.
The various formats are as follows, along with examples (all examples represent the same point on earth). Note the differences of using letters vs positive / negative numbers, and the placement of the letters.
Navigation Caveats: All Routes only contain a set of POINTS. This was mentioned above, but is important to understand. The actual navigation in between the points is ALWAYS up to the application interpreting them. You can NEVER be certain that any two applications or devices will calculate a route and navigate in-between the points in the same way. Each application or device has its own settings (shortest, fastest, twisty roads, avoidances, etc) and algorithms to determine the actual route. The more points you put in, the more certain you can be that your intended route will be interpreted correctly. However, some devices have upper limits on how many points can be accepted. Tracks get around this problem because there is no navigation between the points - applications will just connect the points with a straight line. As such, a track is consistent from device to device. It is critical to understand the difference between a route and a track. A track is the only way to ensure accuracy from person to person, device to device. However, in almost every case, tracks cannot be navigated - you cannot get turn-by-turn instructions from a track... (with one exception that I know of, using Locus Maps on Android which IS capable of providing basic turn-by-turn navigation on a track).
Navigation In Practice: Real-world navigation NEVER goes exactly as planned. You WILL miss a turn or exit. You WILL go off track. You WILL come across unexpected construction or other road closures (due to accident, storm damage, etc). You will take an unplanned pit stop for gas, bathroom, or food. These off-route excursions can cause unexpected consequences in your GPS. Be sure you understand how your device or application handles recalculation of routes unexpectedly, and how to set it back on course. This takes practice and experimentation. Some devices can turn on or off auto-recalculation, and some circumstances may be better suited for one or the other.
Most pieces of software will fall into one of three categories, but some have limited crossover capability into other categories.
Garmin makes the only ecosystem I’m aware of that can adequately perform across all of these items - between their GPS devices and desktop software.
This method of navigation can be fun if you originally set out to do it this way. But often you end up in this situation because of some kind of failure of your intended navigation system.
This can be local trips, longer trips on roads that you know well, or trips that you take often. Sometimes you can even memorize a route from a map.
Roll charts are skinny, rolling paper instructions. You may be able to find ones to download, or you can assemble your own. Once the strips of paper contain the information you desire, you cut and tape them together in one long strip that can be rolled up onto a spool. The spool goes into a clear housing with another spool that the paper rolls onto. You must manually advance the roll chart after each navigation instruction, as you proceed along the route. There are forms of shorthand used to make the information on the roll chart as simple and concise as possible. Some can contain small maps or graphical turn indications. These are most often used in off-road rallies or enduros.
Old-school guys seem to prefer this way, as prior to the late 1990’s it was the best way to take trips in unfamiliar areas without reliance on other people.
Navigating from your mobile phone has become the primary means that many or even most motorcyclists use, primarily due to convenience and cost. At the most basic, buy a phone mount or sync to speakers in your helmet and you have a quick and easy form of navigation.
YES, there are work-arounds to some / most / all of these issues with phones, but they are generally band-aid solutions. Some of them may work OK for you, but Phones <> motorcycle GPS. I have personally destroyed 6 phones using them in the capacity of a motorcycle GPS.
Understand that a phone may work for you 90%, 95%, or 99% of the time. It may work great, until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t is when you may need it the most. Dedicated motorcycle GPS’s work 99.9% of the time. Some sort of failure, theft, or catastrophic damage is always possible, but a dedicated motorcycle GPS will mitigate most of the failure possibilities that plague phones in extreme circumstances. Extreme circumstances include hot weather, cold weather, wet weather, dusty environments, high vibration environments, long / multi-day continuous usage. If you never ride in any of these extreme circumstances, you may find using a phone perfectly satisfactory.
You can put a phone in a waterproof case like a LifeProof or Otterbox, or use a waterproof mount like a RAM Aqua Box. It's still a pain, you need to create a hole to charge it, which lets in condensation, which gets between the screen making it hard to read and can freeze. On a hot day the cases trap heat and the phone shuts down. It also makes the difficult-to-use touch screen even more difficult. There is little you can do to make a phone resistant to heat or cold other than keep it out of the sun or keep it in a pocket (where you can’t see it).
Phone batteries don’t last very long during normal use, and navigation apps will drain you down after a few hours. Use them under 45 degrees F and your battery power drops significantly. Under 32 degrees and you risk permanent damage to your phone’s battery. So you need to power it - but with what? Powerlet makes a USB cord. I had one fry the cord and damage my USB port on the phone. Battery tender makes an SAE to USB adapter, I have a number of them but it doesn't put out enough power to actually charge a modern smartphone running a screen and GPS. So you wire in a good ole’ 12v “cigarette lighter” style plug and use your phone's native charger - but cigarette lighter plugs have no tactile lock and come loose on motorcycles due to vibration. So you tape it together, which traps moisture inside and promptly rusts both connections. Or you run an external backup battery (e.g. Anker) from a tank bag and still ruin USB connections, experience looseness due to vibration, and rust from the weather. There are no good solutions that are as reliable as a hard-wired connection. Wireless, if your phone supports it, is the best option to get power to your phone, but most wireless chargers still rely on USB power inputs.
I've lost three phones to X-Grips, one off-road and two on-road. They now have a rubber band “tether” that will help hold the phone, but that makes it less convenient - requiring two hands and many seconds to put your phone in the mount or remove it. Quad lock is another option, but you’re stuck with a not very good case with a big hole in the back. I’ve had luck with Mob Armor phone cradles, using RAM mounting hardware (Mob Armor Switch with Marball), and various other mounting options exist, but they all have pros and cons. Phone screens are hard to read in bright daylight, very prone to glare. There is also potentially the issue of theft. Putting the phone elsewhere on the bike or your person limits you to audio-only navigation with no ability to make changes on the fly.
The touch screen issue can be somewhat worked around by using touch-screen compatible gloves. Except I have about a dozen riding gloves for different bikes and different weather conditions: some Gore-Tex, some neoprene, some leather, some short cuff, some mid-cuff, some gauntlet. On any given trip I might bring two or three pairs. They're not all touch-screen compatible. Even the ones that are, work poorly. If they get dirty, dusty, or frayed they stop working the touch screen. If the screen gets wet, forget it - it won’t react to anything.
One strategy employed by many is to not have the phone out in the weather. By using in-helmet speakers, whether wired to the headphone jack (not recommended) or via Bluetooth to an intercom system like a Sena or Scala Rider, you avoid many of the pitfalls of battery life, screen usage, and weather related problems like water, freezing and overheating. However you lose the ability to interact with the phone, change destinations on the fly, or see alternate roads on the map.
Lastly, you either need continuous cell service, or you need to remember to pre-download offline maps for where you're going, if your preferred app even supports that. Where motorcyclists like to ride there is frequently poor or no cell coverage. Downloading the maps in some apps is a fine workaround, provided you have the storage available on the phone. A multi-day / week trip could take 2-4 GB of data. If you need to change route on the fly, you better have wifi to download the new areas.
Compared with the phone hardware, which, at the moment, is largely unsuited to extreme motorcycle environments, there are a large number of really good navigation apps depending on what you need.
* Apps change frequently, and it’s entirely possible by the time you see this, the information may be out of date.
Used by nearly everyone, Google Maps provides great mapping and routing, some traffic information (via Waze), offers voice navigation, and can pre-download map areas. This is a good go-to app if you need to find something quick in a new area.
Great for getting somewhere 30 seconds sooner than with other mapping applications. Has the most real-time traffic information including police and construction alerts. Waze is my “daily” navigation app, used for ETA, traffic routing, and police alerts. It will almost certainly provide you the most efficient route in an urban area compared to any other application.
OpenStreetMaps is an open-source map, which is used by OsmAnd - a good Android app that is expandable with plugins. There are Apple versions too. The maps are generally of good quality and stay current due to a large community, though they’re not quite as good as Waze or Google. However it has support of GPX files and can also record tracks. There are other plugins available to further expand on its capabilities (e.g. friend tracking).
Locus is probably the most powerful mapping application. It is only available on Android devices. It has pages and pages of settings, advanced options, and can be used with many different base maps. There is a free version of the app, but some features and maps are only available with a paid upgrade. Locus goes outside of just roadmapping and has many features for hikers, geocachers, and such which can be suited to motorcycle use.
CoPilot GPS app is available for Android and Apple, and is the opposite of Locus - it’s the most basic mapping software listed here. It has everything you need and nothing you don’t. If I was going to recommend an app for my mom to use, this would be it. Simple and effective.
Rever (pronounced Revver, supposedly) is an app that is useful for recording trips for posterity. There is rudimentary trip planning capability on their website (which is well-integrated with the app), but the app itself provides poor routing and navigation capability. Also there is no night mode, making it difficult to use after dark. You can only follow a track (it basically draws a line on the map). For recording rides on-road or off, it works well and can record successfully in the background all day long. The trip summary data is interesting to look at and easily shareable online, however the app has little to no use while on the bike itself.
There are literally hundreds of other navigation apps for phones, some specific to Android or Apple. Some of the other more common ones you might see are InRoute, Apple Maps, Here, Mapquest, Sygic, Scout, TomTom, Navigon. Feel free to explore and play with them all. I feel the ones described in detail above stand out more than the ones in this list.
Rever - (web & phone app) - Rever’s planning online contains Butler map data.
EatSleepRide (web & phone app)
Furkot - web based planning only, no app, GPX file export for use in apps
Harley-Davidson Ride Planner
For a short nice-day jaunt around town or daily commuting, run Waze or another app of your choice on your phone for navigation and save a few seconds around traffic and get police reports. But for serious navigation on longer, full-day or multi-day trips in all weather, you may find navigating from your phone to be unsatisfactory for numerous reasons.
In the future I expect more phones to be fully waterproof, and makers of phone mounts will add high-speed wireless charging, which will help a lot with the issues mentioned above. However the capacitive touch-screen, button sizes, visibility and more may continue to be an issue.
If you have an automotive GPS, but not motorcycle specific, they can be adapted for use on a motorcycle with a variety of mounts and power options, similar to a phone.
Again, just like phones, there are workarounds (like a waterproof case) that can make this setup livable for regular usage, but in extreme usage you may find it to be insufficient just the same.
If you're serious about needing to get somewhere unknown or following a pre-planned route, there is no better option than a dedicated motorcycle GPS. IPx7 or greater waterproof, mounted and powered by a proper cradle which won’t vibrate off and offers security options. They have no care in the world if you have cellular service or not. These units are permanently powered from the bike, with an admittedly short battery backup for usage off the bike if needed. They are resistive touch-screen, not capacitive, with oversize buttons intended for use by gloved hands. No funny workarounds are needed, they simply get you there.
Check out the Garmin Zumo series, or the Montana or Oregon - the Zumo is more on-road focused, Montana and Oregon is more off-road focused, but both can do either. The Montana and Oregon are a smaller form factor which works better on dual sports, the Zumo is a larger screen which is better for more general touring or adventure touring.
Other options include Magellan RoadMate, and TomTom Rider. These options aren’t as well regarded as the Garmin units, and have smaller user bases supporting them.
Personally, for daily usage I run a cell phone in a Mob Armor Switch mount running Waze, or Google Maps, Locus Map, or sometimes OsmAnd or Rever running as a secondary app to follow a track or record a trip.
However for any kind of long planned trip I run a Garmin Zumo 590LM, which offers optional traffic and weather services tied through a smartphone via Bluetooth, connected to my Sena headset for voice navigation, phone calls, and music properly prioritized. In this setup the cell phone is an auxiliary item to the GPS, which can feed music and/or phone calls through. I use Garmin TPMS sensors on the tires which relays tire pressure data directly to the screen in real time. There are topographical maps and road maps for anywhere I’ve traveled, such as Europe and South America. I’ve invested over $1,000 into the setup - but it works. Everywhere. All the time. The connected bluetooth accessories can fail or die (smartphone, music, Sena headset), but the core navigation always works. And I spent at least half that amount trying to get my phone working in some kind of usable fashion, to no avail.
I will run two GPS’s side by side on some trips when the ambient conditions allow me to run a phone, it’s a nice backup to have. BUT - “A man with a GPS knows where he is going. A man with two GPSs is never certain.” Be sure you have a preferred GPS, because you may see the two GPS’s point in opposite directions while moving along at 70mph and you have to make a quick decision about which one you’re going to follow, and understand the consequences of how the other will re-route.
I can’t emphasize this enough. You will want to be intimately familiar with your navigation device or application, just as everything else with your trip. Don’t buy a new bike, or new tires, or a new GPS, or new gear just days before a trip. You want to be completely comfortable and practiced - intimately familiar with everything you will be using. Your dashboard can be your home for days or weeks on end, you must be able to scan it for information in a short amount of time and reset destinations, recalculate routes and detours on the fly. Know how the GPS will behave in different situations, and practice with shorter trips in areas you know.
Why should you care about anything I mentioned above? You shouldn’t, I’m just a random guy on the internet, but here is some information on my background and experience: