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Common Tread

Should I get a motorcycle GPS? Which one is best for me?

Jul 02, 2020

GPS (Global Positioning System) technology has changed the way we navigate our world. Whether you’re a city rider with an smartphone, or an adventurer crossing the desert wasteland, it’s always nice to know where you’re going. 

Today’s devices have come a long way from the hand-scrawled directions taped to your gas tank. Remember when MapQuest printouts were high-tech?

Why ride with GPS?

At this point, I think we’ve all used our phones or standalone GPS units to navigate. These devices use radio waves, satellites, and some math to establish your position. That position is referenced against other data to display useful information like where you are in relation to other points of interest, or how far away your next turn is. Which information you need will determine what kind of GPS you’ll want. The most common reasons for getting a motorcycle GPS are:

  • Frequent riding in places with little to no cell reception.
  • Frustration with traditional maps or smartphone-based navigation.
  • Desire to use map files, or being required to use them for some kinds of racing.

Many riders want to use GPS to take their rides to the next level, but it can be hard to figure out what unit is best for your needs. Don’t sweat it. I asked some GPS experts and friends of RevZilla to give their thoughts, and hopefully this guide will get you pointed in the right direction. 

Alaskan motorcycle trip
Unless you know Yukon roads like the back of your hand, you'll probably want reliable guidance for your trip. Photo by Ferdinand Feng.

Jack O’Connor is the director of the Pine Barrens Adventure Camp Riding School in New Jersey. He’s overseen countless events and watched thousands of GPS units tackle harsh off-road conditions, and even used GPS equipment to plot part of the MABDR. Jeff Kiniery is a fellow Zillan and a GPS geek of the highest order with many miles of experience both on- and off-road. And Carlos Barrios isn’t just an ADV addict; he’s worked with navigation systems professionally as an electrical engineer. These guys know GPS.

Let’s get some GPS vocab out of the way so we can speak their language, and then we can get into the details.

GPS — Global Positioning System, most common system used in the United States.

GLONASS — GLObal NAvigation Satellite System, an alternative to GPS initially launched by the Soviet Union. Some GPS chips can also use GLONASS to triangulate for better navigation.

GPX — The most common GPS filetype.

Route — Robust navigation file that includes street names, turn-by-turn navigation, and information about the surrounding area. May include restaurants, hotels, points of interest, landmarks, campgrounds, gas stations, and more.

Track — Bare-bones navigation file made up of waypoints. Does not include information like street names or turn-by-turn directions.

Waypoint — A user-generated reference point. A chain of waypoints makes a track.

Topo/topographic map — Map that shows changes in elevation, expressed as incremental lines.

Turn-by-turn navigation — Riders are alerted to upcoming changes in course. “Turn left onto Main Street in half a mile.”

Awesome, I can speak basic GPS now. So... which motorcycle GPS device should I use?

If I could recommend a one-size-fits-all GPS and call it a day, this would be a much shorter article. Riders have a wide range of options, each suited to a different purpose. Your basic choices are:

  • Get a road-oriented GPS.
  • Get an offroad-oriented GPS.
  • Use your smartphone and a stock navigation app (Google Maps, Apple Maps, etc.).
  • Use your smartphone and a third-party app (Guru Maps, Maps.Me, etc.).

Let’s look at GPS units first, since that’s what this article is primarily about, and then we’ll talk about getting the most out of your smartphone. If you’re still on the fence about buying a GPS unit in the first place, skip on down to the smartphone section and see if you’ve seriously underestimated your phone’s abilities. 

Offroad navigation motorcycle
Adventure riders rely on GPS units to guide them through roads and trails. Photo by Mohit Suthar.

Are motorcycle GPS units worth it?

All three GPS experts agreed that the answer depends on what you want to do. As an event organizer doing AMA ADV rides, Jack sees more and more organizations using GPS files for their events. No more arrows or route sheets. Jack also feels that a standalone GPS unit is worth it for two-wheeled explorers in remote areas, or for street riders who want to start using map files instead of the boring routes generated by phone apps.

“With Google Maps or your car’s GPS, we tell the device where we want to go, and it tells us how to get there," Jack says. "A motorcycle GPS is about control. We tell it where we want to go, and we tell it how we want to get there. It’s a better riding experience.” On top of that, Jack believes that a dedicated unit is the most reliable option available. To get the most bang for his buck, Jack saves a couple hundred dollars by buying refurbished units, making a GPS even more “worth it.”

BMW GPS
Jeff used GPS to plan a West Coast tour. Here, his personal GPS is mounted to a rental bike to help navigate unfamiliar roads. Photo by Victory Jon.

Jeff uses GPS for off-road racing, as well as street riding, and he’s not looking to give up his GPS any time soon. He especially likes the ability to create routes that feature the best sections. This eliminates “wasted” time on dull roads. He also prefers the ability to record good sections that he finds while riding so that he can visit them again later, usually by connecting several fun roads together. 

Carlos believes that a smartphone with the right app is plenty for most riders. His favorite apps use GPX files just like a standalone GPS unit would. He’d say that switching to file-based navigation is worthwhile for most riders, but buying an expensive GPS unit might not be.

“A Garmin zūmo is going to set you back around $500,” says Carlos. “If you are a rider that commutes every day, you know where you’re going. A GPS won’t help you much. If you do rallies, or 10,000 touring miles each year,  or some kind of riding at that level, having a dedicated waterproof device is the only way to go. Yes, you’re still going to have the issue of building routes, plugging it in, all that monkey business, and it does cost significantly more. That rider is spending lots of time in the saddle, so it’s worth it.”

For the weekend rider, a GPS could easily be overkill. Carlos just recommends something waterproof and a RAM mount. “The only thing I would be careful with is battery life, so run a cable up to whatever device you’re using," he suggests. "Screen on all the time and working that GPS chip hard will run your battery down. Make sure the power is switched so it turns off with the bike. Also, keep in mind that your phone’s built-in waterproofing doesn’t last forever. You’ll want to add something like a case or cover for added protection.”

How about some example GPS units? 

Sure, let’s start with the Garmin zūmo XT, a GPS unit intended for street and ADV riders. A GPS like this would be a solid choice for that mile-munching tourer Carlos mentioned.

It’s waterproof (IPX7), large, bright, and pre-loaded with on- and off-road maps. Terrain can be displayed using road maps, topographic maps, or Garmin’s BirdsEye satellite view. And features like “adventurous routing” will steer you towards the fun roads, not the slab. The zūmo XT can use GPX files to navigate, or it can share files you’ve created through the Garmin Drive app. Recording tracks is also possible. Mount it vertically or horizontally.

In actual use, it’s not too different from other GPS systems you’ve likely used. It’s the motorcycling-specific features that set it apart. The zūmo XT is glove-friendly and better-equipped to deal with storms than your phone. It can warn riders of hazards like super-sharp turns, railway crossings, and even state helmet laws as you cross borders. That information can be piped directly into your helmet via a Bluetooth connection to your communicator of choice.

Garmin Montana 610
The Garmin Montana lineup is a popular choice for dirt riders and hikers. Garmin photo.

Off-road and hardcore ADV riders will look at something like the Garmin Montana 610. The Montana is closer to a hiking GPS than a road GPS, and that’s ideal for riders deep in the wild. While the 610 is perfectly capable of route navigation on the street, and even turn-by-turn directions via City Navigator NT, it’s best known for guiding riders through off-road tracks. The rugged case design is beefier than almost any phone. Jack likes the Montana for off-road riding and says it’s the most popular off-road GPS device at his events, though it wouldn’t be the only GPS in his arsenal since it isn’t as good on the street. He also points out that you shouldn’t put all your navigational eggs in one basket off-road, especially when riding alone. A GPS on the handlebar and a phone in your hydration pack will give you two chances instead of one. Upgrade to the 680T version for higher quality (100K) topo maps.

Trail Tech’s Voyager GPS unit is a relatively new player in the space. (Available for enduro and ADV bikes.) It keeps a low profile on the handlebar, though tossing a $600 GPS unit down the trail with your dirt bike can be pretty scary. That said, having a waterproof (IP67) TFT dash with navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, and more on your dirt machine is pretty awesome. The dash also displays your machine’s vitals, not unlike the Trail Tech displays that off-road riders have relied on for years. Equip a group with Voyager Pro units, and each rider’s position will be displayed on the map in real time.

These are just examples to get you thinking about how your GPS should match your riding style. Don’t just spring for the cheapest (or most expensive!) option and think it’ll do what you want.

Once I have a unit, where do I get maps?

As Jack wisely told me, “The map that you have is just as important as the device that you have.” Garmin, for example, will sell you lifetime maps (updated for the life of the device) or one-time maps. Check out the device manufacturer’s options for the fewest headaches.

There are also plenty of free maps, accessory maps, or third-party maps out there. If they aren’t routable, they won’t be much use to most street riders. Remember, a route is not the same as a track!

If you have any local riding pals with GPS units, start by asking them if they’d show you some maps of their own. Odds are, they’ll have GPX files ready to load into your GPS or phone. Maybe ask to do a ride with them to learn the ropes. If they’re anything like Jack, Jeff, or Carlos, they’ll be more than happy to talk GPS until you get it.

Let’s say you don’t have any friends… with GPS units. Try local motorcycling forums or rider groups. You’ll learn to make better maps of your own after seeing how known good ones work.

Sometimes you’ve just got to make your own maps. For street, Jeff highly recommends Harley’s Ride Planner, a free service on their site. It’s an excellent tool for plotting out complex routes and exporting in a variety of formats. GPX will probably be all you’ll need. Jack suggested GPSFileDepot for off-road maps. 

There’s one more way to get a map: at the registration table for an event! All riders at Jack’s events get copies of the map file to upload before setting off.

How do I create a GPS route or track?

When Carlos makes his routes on his computer, he’s usually doing both off-road and road riding and he starts with Google Maps, looking for twisty roads and elevation changes.

“I view it in terrain mode, and sometimes satellite to see green forests, and I’ll create the route there,” Carlos says. “Then I add the start and end, and extract a GPX from Google Maps. A website called GPSvisualizer.com will let you do that. You share your map, get a link, paste it on the extraction site, and it spits out a GPX with a route. Then I just send the GPX to GuruMaps, or I might send it to my GPS via Mapsource or Basecamp. For phones, I’d Dropbox it to myself using the Dropbox app. I organize my folders by region. I usually use tracks, but if I want routes, I would use my Garmin.”

Because of the extra steps needed to export a GPX from Google Maps, Jeff often starts instead in Harley’s Ride Planner. “Harley Ride Planner is great for GPX,” he says. “I set a starting point about two or three miles from my house, then set an end point. Now we have a line. Then I start from the beginning of the route, zoom in, and look for interesting roads. I try to keep most of the riding on three-digit county roads. They’re usually interesting, maintained, and have higher speed limits.”

One of the most important parts is to turn on satellite view. “Zoom in and make sure your newly discovered twisty road actually has yellow lines!” Jeff also recommends separate “out” and “back” routes. “That way if you have spots that intersect each other, it won’t get confused, and you can’t get mixed up.” The end file is exported as a GPX and uploaded to the GPS unit, ready to ride.

Off-road riding is a little trickier, since Google Maps will probably just show wilderness. Jack creates his routes for events by pre-riding a track and making plenty of waypoints as he goes. Once complete, his GPS saves the ride as a track, which can then be shared with riders at his events. 

GPS crash dirt bike
A ruggedized GPS is better equipped to handle off-road drops than your wafer-thin smartphone. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

How do I mount a GPS?

Most motorcycle GPS manufacturers offer a handlebar mount of some kind. There are plenty of RAM mount options, too. You’ll want to position near your left grip, since your right hand will be busy with the throttle and front brake, although not all bikes have room for a GPS unit there, and you might have to place it on the tank. A thoughtfully designed motorcycle GPS will have controls on the left hand side, or at least the option to move the touch controls closer to the left. Jack, Jeff, and Carlos all recommended powering your GPS unit with your bike, rather than relying on the unit’s internal battery. (Just make sure you use a switched power source! Don’t wire straight to the battery.) 

Always remove the GPS while away from the bike to prevent theft or damage. Lockable mounts are available for some units.

What are some common GPS misconceptions?

“Most people are just used to car GPSes,” says Jack. “They don’t think there’s a learning curve, it just magically guides you through the woods. Many settings need to be tweaked, and you have to know what those settings do. Don’t just show up at a ride, power your GPS up for the first time, and expect to know how to use it!”

In Jeff’s opinion, many people don’t realize how difficult it is to make a route worth following. “Let’s say I want to make a turn onto Market from Broad. I don’t want to drop a waypoint right before the street, I need to drop it right after the turn, so you clear the waypoint as you’re riding through it. Don’t expect to make a perfect map your first time. Keep practicing and learning.”

Carlos warns against not knowing your device, too. “If I have a route with 45 waypoints and I miss one, or there’s a detour, I can usually figure out how to hop back on the route. Know your settings. On an off-road track, for example, your GPS might keep trying to take you back to the point you missed. Beware of auto settings. The more you can learn about your unit, the better.”

Carlos also pointed out that there can be slight differences between your system and somebody else’s, so be careful. “If I make a route on my home computer, and I email that file to you as a GPX, and you open it in Garmin Basecamp, you’d expect to get the same route, right? Usually, yes, but it all depends on the maps you have installed. It’s up to the application to shape the route using the maps that are available to it. It may not exactly match what I saw on my screen. Tracks take more attention but they do exactly what you planned every time.”

Smartphone maps
Are you using your phone to its full potential? Photo by Markus Spiske.

How do I use my smartphone as a GPS?

Since this is Carlos’ specialty, I’ll let him tell you how to get more out of your phone. He started using phone GPS tech about 10 years ago, and he quickly learned to, uh, persuade phones to offer navigational features they never had. Now, he has a well developed system for smartphone navigation that’s taken him all over North America. Take it away, Carlos.

For most riders, a phone is totally fine, even in some off-road situations. There are a few apps out there and it’s all about what missing features you’re trying to replace. A lot of street riders can get where they need to go with Google Maps or Apple Maps. Everyone knows what those apps can and can’t do.

Now, if you’re willing to sit at your computer and plan a really good ride, there are a few options. First, you need to set your goals. If you just want to follow roads, for a daily ride, you’ll want to use routes. That way, you get turn-by-turn navigation and all the other nice features. To do that, you’ll need routable maps. A routable map has the visual shape of the road, the road names, the crossroads, all that. The other kind of map is a track, which is just graphic.

Off-road riding usually uses a track. It’s a graphical line that you follow and you can overlay it on top of a map if you want more information so you know where you are. The GPS will not tell you where to turn. You will have to look at it.

Jack's offroad navigation equipment
Here's Jack's setup. The phone is a $80 Kyocera running the OsmAnd app. Photo by Jack O'Connor.

Just like with Garmins, a lot of apps for phones also allow you to do both tracks and routes. I use an iPhone, but most apps are made for Androids, as well. Guru Maps is a really cool one for a couple reasons. It allows you to do everything that the standard apps do, like create tracks using Garmin Basecamp, Google Maps, or whatever you prefer, and then you export the generic GPX. That file can contain graphical maps, routes, tracks, waypoints, whatever you want. Dropbox, Google Drive, and even email will let you load the map to your phone. No plugs or anything! If you want to share it, it’s that easy, too. It’s perfect for sharing with group rides.

Guru Maps does tracks, turn by turn, map downloads, and works without cell connection. If you take the Backroads Discovery Routes, they created the tracks by running a GPS through the run, including speed and altitude, so you can color code the altitude and plan your route by looking at it and knowing when you’ll be making big changes in elevation, because maybe you don’t want to camp at 14,000 feet! Other color coding might show hard routes and easy routes. Routes can be packed with info. You just select what you want it to show. GuruMaps organizes data very well. The only drawback is that their points of interest database isn’t that great. 

Another one is called Maps.Me. Very similar stuff except no track overlay. It’s A to B, turn by turn with a better points of interest database. Maps.Me uses pre-downloaded maps so it works without cellular connection, and it even works great overseas. It’s been fantastic. A third app I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about is GAIA GPS. I’ve never used it, but it seems to be popular with hikers and bicyclists. (Note: Jack recommended the app OsmAnd, which is similar to the apps Carlos mentioned.)

These apps are game changers because your phone is always with you, always connected, and as long as the maps are downloaded, you can navigate without cell connection. Overall, smartphones used to lag far behind with chips and antennas, but they caught up in a big way.

GS Trophy off road navigation
It's worth it if you use it! Photo by Zakaria Zayane.

Why is having a motorcycle GPS worthwhile?

For group rides, a GPS keeps things safer and more organized. “As a ride leader, I can make sure that everyone in the group has a map," Jeff says. "Even having a glove-compatible touch screen is so much better than using a phone.”

For individual rides, Jack and Carlos both like the control that a GPS provides. With some planning and the right map, a rider can skip right to the best riding without wasting time, and that improves the riding experience.

“I use GPS to plan rides with a good friend of mine, and we can go gas tank to gas tank without seeing a stop light,” Jeff says. “You can find so many small roads that you would have never considered connecting that can bring you to beautiful places… GPS in general has improved my rides in the city and outside.”