I bought a Garmin trekking GPS unit (eTrex30) for our trip to India partly to have a good bike computer and partly to capture a gps record of our travels. It did both of those things very well. There wasn’t any scope to use the navigation features in India and we didn’t really need them for the rides we did, and anyway I’ve always been very happy to use paper maps which have many more uses than simply following a route. However since then I’ve been exploring ways to use GPS navigation on planned routes and I must say I’m really impressed by how useful it is.
I’ve become a real convert although there is no substitute for a proper map when you are lost or need to solve a problem, or just know about the area you are in. The real benefit is being able to identify turnings in the route without constantly stopping to check a map or trying to read maps while riding which I don’t find at all easy.
In an area where your route is easy to find, as we had in the highlands of Kerala or in less populated parts of the UK, you don’t have to deal with road junctions very often so stopping to check the map makes a good break. In other areas you may be needing to look out for turnings and especially side roads much more frequently and that’s where GPS navigation is a great help in both warning you of approaching turns and ensuring you take the correct turn.
I’ve used the eTrex for navigation on several rides recently, including our 4-day trip on Sustrans Route66 and several rides on complex routes through urban areas. In each case it has never let me down although occasionally poor planning or lack of information has meant that the route itself was not appropriate so the human operator is still a crucial part of the system. However you get that with any method of navigation and there were many many times when I was able to spot the correct route when the signage or other information in the real world was confusing (and sometimes when friends were convinced the route went somewhere else). The ability of the GPS to show you where you were and pinpoint the actual turning and direction to take, even when it was a narrow alley you might otherwise fail to notice, was extremely impressive.
There are some weaknesses. The reflective screen is a good idea to save batteries but it’s not much use in the dark, so you have to keep pressing the joystick to light it up, and in daylight you have to ensure there is plenty of light falling on the screen. On a solo bike that’s no problem but on our “back to front” Hase Pino tandem I have yet to find a way to mount the eTrex where it is not in the shadow of my copilot for a lot of the time. On a recent ride the unit had a couple of wobbles when the display became corrupted for a short while and one of those was just before a turning so I missed it. Not a big problem except we were going down quite a steep hill so the ride back up was a bit of a pain.
Also the eTrex seems to have only one way of displaying the track you are following, as a pink line, which is not so easy to see on the reflective screen when your road is coloured red or orange. When you use the Satnav style navigation with the etrex choosing a route to your destination, it displays really clear arrows at turnings – white with black outlines. I don’t understand why it can’t do that when following a track you have created and I don’t understand why I can’t choose the colour of the track I want to follow. Lots of other things are configurable but not this.
But overall the way it frees you up to enjoy the ride and look around (as long as you keep checking for turns coming up) and keep up a steady pace rather than pausing regularly to check the map is brilliant.
Of course you need a way to plan and “plot” your routes and you need to have suitable maps on your GPS unit so I’ll discuss that in following posts.
I chose the eTrex30, as I’ve previously mentioned, because it has several features that recommend it to touring cyclists. It’s relatively cheap, 2-3 days battery life with AA cells so you can buy new ones or recharge them off the bike, very rugged, operates as a cycle computer with the benefit not losing the record of your previous journeys when you reset it, fits easily on the bike with a variety of mounting brackets available. A key feature is that it’s possible to use free maps from Open Streetmap on a Garmin, paying for mapping can be very expensive, especially if you tour in many countries. Unlike earlier Garmin machines, the eTrex allows you to have many different maps loaded on the unit at the same time.
However there are plenty of other GPS units available from Garmin and others, some designed as fitness monitors, I believe some people use car satnavs units on their bike and if you are particularly interested in UK Ordnance Survey maps, Mapyx offer a great deal on combining their PC mapping software with a dedicated Lowrance GPS unit with OS maps at a much better price than Garmin charge for OS mapping. However you should be careful to check whether the unit you buy will do everything you want, the buy cheap/buy twice rule often applies.
The eTrex clips directly on to Garmin’s handlebar mount, here the mount is fitted to the little Brompton Lighting bracket which is a useful accessory to create more handlebar space for your gadgets. The cable tie fastenings don’t really apply enough grip so I’ve glued a piece of inner tube onto the plastic light bracket before mounting which makes it nice and stable.