Using navigation devices (i.e., a GPS bike computer / Garmin / cell phone) that have the desired functions and are reliable can save a lot of time in bikepacking races and when doing long-distance cycling. The advantages of various devices are assessed.
The piece of equipment that will save more time than any other during a bikepacking race is not a lightweight frame or an aerodynamic pair of wheels; it is a GPS navigation device that you are familiar with using and that has your route loaded onto it. It’s possible to use more traditional / low-tech navigation methods like paper maps or cue sheets, but doing so will lose time compared to having a screen showing where you are and which road you should take next.
If there is no fixed race route (e.g., in the Transcontinental Race) then you could ask the GPS devices to find a route for you, but people who have done so have invariably been frustrated by the chosen route because it is far from optimal in terms of time and effort. Such devices also struggle when calculating particularly long routes. It’s therefore far better to plan your route on a computer at home and transfer the files to the device. See the previous page on Route Planning for advice.
Some people successfully use a smart phone for their navigation, which can work if you have a good charging setup (see the USB Chargers page) and maps pre-loaded as well as the route so that you don’t need data access to view the map. Personally, I prefer to use a dedicated GPS device for navigation, but have my phone setup as a backup device in case there is a problem with my GPS.
GPS Bike Computers
The important characteristics for a GPS device for bikepacking are the display size and clarity, the navigation capabilities, and the battery life/power source options. Popular bike-specific models include the Garmin Edge series, the Magellan Cyclo series (also branded as Mio), and the Bryton Rider series. Some people also use more hiking-oriented models like the Garmin eTrex series. Whichever you choose, I encourage you to get it as soon as possible during training so that you can become very familiar with it’s operation.
One more criterion for bikepackers when choosing a GPS computer may be phone connectivity. I don’t find this feature useful while riding, but it is nice to be able to connect the phone at the end of the ride to upload the data to Strava to stay socially connected when far away from home. The Edge 820 and 1000 can both do this, while the other models discussed here cannot.
Garmin is the clear market leader, so I limit this discussion to the suitable models that are in their current range (as of December 2016), which are shown in the table below with the important specifications listed. The Edge 520 can do some mapping, but is not suitable because it can only store a limited amount of maps in the memory, which cannot be expanded. I personally prefer the Edge 1000 because the larger screen makes it easier to choose a different route while riding. Excellent in-depth reviews of all of these and many more models from other brands are available on the DC Rainmaker website, links to which are included at the bottom of this table. BikeRadar havea useful overview of all Garmin Edge models that were available in early 2017 here and a page that also includes models from other brands here.
|Edge 1030||Edge 1000||Edge Explore 1000||Edge 820||Edge Explore 820||Edge Touring|
(speed, power, etc.)
|DC RM||N/A||DC RM||N/A||DC RM|
Some people use the Garmin eTrex series because those models use standard AA batteries that are easy to replace instead of the internal batteries used in the Edge series that need recharging relatively frequently. The eTrex models are more hiking-oriented but bike mounts are available. If being able to use standard batteries is important for you then it is possible to power a model with an integrated battery with AA batteries if a USB charger that is powered by AA batteries is used (e.g., see this one at Amazon). All of the Garmin Edge models mentioned as being suitable can be charged while riding.
With a route pre-loaded onto the device, you can either ask the device to give turn-by-turn directions or just have the device overlay the chosen route on the map (to do so, access the Course, go into its Settings, and choose Always Display). By simply overlaying the route on the map, it’s easy to follow the line when you choose to or deviate away and navigate on the fly when you find a better option.
Asking the device to give turn-by-turn announcements and directions has some advantages in terms of being less likely to miss a turn, but it can be quite annoying when you decide to do something that wasn’t in the original plan. Personally, I tried turn-by-turn navigation for one ride but quickly turned it off because it annoyed me too much. I far prefer to simply have my route overlaid on the map and to mentally keep track of how far it is until the next turn and then I use the map display to show me which road to take; multiple other experienced bikepackers have also reported this as being their preferred technique.
Navigation devices can also be used to find services. GPS computers normally have a Points Of Interest (POI) function in the navigation menu, which can help you to find grocery stores and hotels in the area. Phones can also be quite useful in such situations. Phones can also be useful to translate simple message into other languages to aid communication.
A speed sensor is not needed when using a GPS-based bike computer, but I like to use one because it makes the speed reading more stable/accurate, particularly when there is no clear view of the sky or when riding slowly. It also makes the gradient value a lot more accurate when climbing, and I’ve heard that the computer accesses the GPS satellites less frequently when a speed sensor is used, so the battery life is slightly better. The newer Garmin speed sensor (Amazon) that wraps around a wheel hub and senses orientation is far more reliable than the traditional version that uses a spoke-mounted magnet and sensor, which can easily move out of alignment. When buying the “bundle” version of the Garmins mentioned above, it will come with the speed sensor plus a cadence sensor and sometimes a heart rate sensor.
Bikepacking races use satellite trackers to monitor all riders’ positions. In the Transcontinental Race, rental of the Spot Trace model is included with the cost of race registration. The Trace’s operation is relatively straightforward: turn it on at the start and then it automatically goes to sleep whenever you stop moving for a decent amount of time and wakes up when you start again. All you need to do is occasionally check the website to see if your position is being updated correctly and push the button to see if the battery status is still OK.
Batteries must be the high-power Lithium type (Amazon) and can last anywhere from 7 to 14 days, so you should bring a spare set with you, although they may also be available at the checkpoints. Despite the simplicity, problems can arise, so I encourage you to read and bring the pdf of the user’s manual on your phone.
Family and friends may become quite obsessive watching your dot move across the digital map. Unfortunately this causes many of them more worry than if there was no dot to watch because they don’t realize that when the dot stops moving for an extended period without any explanation, it is far more likely to be for some inane reason than for the reasons that they are dreading in their minds. You should warn people about this before starting the race.
Spot trackers are available to purchase through the Spot Website if you want to use one outside of a race. They are not too expensive to buy, but a yearly subscription must be paid for the tracking, messaging, and rescue service.
Some bikepackers prefer the simplicity of using only paper maps without a GPS computer. That is certainly possible, but a lot of time can be lost during a race checking a paper map, and the more the dense road network is, the more time is likely to be lost.
Even though a GPS device is the best tool for following a pre-planned route, it is not ideal for giving you an idea of where you are in the broader context or what is coming up along your route. For those purpose, I encourage you to bring larger-scale maps, ride profiles, and distance charts.
I’ve previously taken paper maps with me on the Transcontinental Race at between 1:300,000 and 1:700,000 scale depending on the density of the road network. I cut out a strip from each map that includes my route highlighted with pen and a decent amount either side to allow me to get myself oriented to my surroundings or to asses some alternative routes if necessary. Such maps can then also be used as a backup navigation method if my main navigation device totally fails.
Another way to carry decent maps is on a mini tablet computer; I realized before the 2016 Transcontinental Race that the paper maps that I wanted to bring, even when cut down to just the essential sections, were a similar size and weight as my iPad Mini. I therefore installed the maps.me application, downloaded maps for most of Europe that could be used offline, and transferred the GPX files of my route into the app. This worked great during the trip to browse my route while stopped to eat something or getting ready in the mornings and I could plan my schedule for the rest of the day based on the terrain and towns that I would pass through. I didn’t use the iPad for much else during the trip, but it was nice to have it after the race ended and I was hanging out at the finish town for a couple of days.
Maps show distances between places well, but most don’t convey elevation information, which is equally as important as distance when trying to plan your schedule. It’s therefore a good idea to bring an elevation profile for each section of your route. These are automatically generated by most route planning applications, so can easily be printed off or saved as image files on your phone. I add extra notes to the elevation profiles showing where major towns are along the route so that I can calculate distances between places in the current route section.
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Last significant page update: November, 2016