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Adventure Bike Navigation For Beginners

Posted by Josh Shorley on

Electronic navigation can be an overwhelming topic that many of us have yet to master. And it’s fair to say that there are differing opinions to what works best. Navigation is a bit like choosing the right tire… some are better than others depending on your needs, price per unit can drastically vary, different brands/models have different features, etc. Let us break some things down for you, that should hopefully point you in the right direction, or at least some sort of direction.

First things first, never underestimate the power of the good ‘ol paper map. Last year we spent several hours on Garmin BaseCamp to prepare for our South Dakota ride, and we still ended up having to use a combination of paper maps and a phone based GPS app. Sometimes paper just can not be replaced.

Garmin owns a large chunk of the market and for good reason. TomTom has a motorcycle unit but it’s not very mainstream and our knowledge is limited. The Garmin Zumo unit is a motorcycle specific GPS that is waterproof and programmable via their computer based programs like BaseCamp. For us simple folk the idea of creating your own navigable tracks, also referred to as .gpx files, is NOT a simple task. Nor is it easy to learn, especially if you don't do it often. With some time, commitment and patience you can figure it out. You can also download existing .gpx files at places like and and then simply upload and enjoy. Some other creature comforts of units like the Zumo are XM Radio, cell phone management tools, weather information, traffic updates and expandable memory. 

Another option is the Garmin GPSMAP or Montana series units and they can be significantly less money than the Zumo. These units are also a little easier to move from bike to bike. Pay attention to screen size as this might make it easier to see where you're going. Depending on your Zumo model, you may not find it as user friendly as the handheld type units.

If you’re an Android user you might find the OsmAnd app a great way to navigate. You can pick up a cheap and tough Android based phone with built in GPS capability for around $60. OsmAnd does not have as many features when using the iOS platform so it's probably best when using Android. 

Generally speaking we are most comfortable with cell phones and in turn, this makes them the most intuitive. They are also becoming more powerful, water resistant, and have apps for days. Since most of the GPS phone apps are so easy to use in populated areas, they are probably the best fit for around-town use. Garmin also has a decent phone app that allows you to send information from your phone directly to some of their units, but it’s still not as powerful as Google Maps or the like. Ride With GPS and Rever are other popular riding apps that are worth taking a look. Rever is another up and coming app that runs on Butler Maps’ data and directly markets the motorcycle community and also allows you to locate your friends and download offline maps. They also have some fun riding contests that you can participate in.


Things to consider... 

  • Think about your battery times and test everything before you leave. Now days some phones charge on different amperages than others and your standard plug in may not charge your phone. In this case a hardwired GPS may be easier, or maybe even a GPS that claims to get a day's worth of battery life. 
  • On long trips, computer based programs make it easier than phone apps to manipulate your GPS tracks. But as mentioned before, this is not the easiest task. Or you find some that are already created and you're ready to go. We'd be glad to share our GPX tracks with you!
  • GPS units allow you to find your way no matter how far away the closest cell tower is. However most modern phone and GPS apps allow you to preload maps before you leave civilization. It’s worth messing around with and testing around the house before you leave.
  • Phones are overall easier to manipulate when navigating through city life.
  • Most everyone already has a smartphone so if the budget is tight, why invest in another unit when the your phone will ultimately do what you need?
  • None of the units we've discussed allow you to call for help if you're out of cell range. The new Garmin inReach units may be the solution, but our knowledge on these are limited.
  • Phone’s aren’t completely mud and waterproof, and if you're on a long trip they might be impossible to replace at a moments notice, so keeping them safe and packed away might be a wise choice.
  • Believe it or not, your phone will shut down if it gets too cold or hot so the weather could throw a kink in things.
  • For the cell phone power user, you’ll have to choose your favorite app, or apps, and figure out your niche.

    Plans change, so make sure you’re ready to change it up if you need to. Plan on multiple routes and do your homework before you leave. Also take into consideration your mounting options as this factor can make or break your safety or offer easier manipulation while on the move. If your navigation device is mounted up high it’s easier to glance at rather than down low on your bars. You certainly don’t want to take your eyes off the road for very long. It might also be important to make sure your device is visible while standing, or best of all, just wait for the audible command to turn and keep your eyes on the road (this feature is limited with some phone based programs and unit choice). Mounting behind the windscreen can also help with weather protection and sun glare. If you need advice with mounting options, we'd love to help you with that!

    We could go on and on but this should be a good start. If you have any other questions please reach out anytime!


    Coauthored with Troy Wolf. Troy is a fellow adventure rider and owner of Realm7. He's also the brains behind and knows his navigation tools inside and out.


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