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Using a GPS for cycletouring

Etrex image

Why we decided to use a GPS

I was a little a resistant at first to using a GPS on tour as it was just another electronic piece of kit to have to worry about charging batteries for. I was also quite happy navigating using paper maps. However after having had several cycle computers fail to record our distances and times correctly and with the possibility of geotagging photographs we decided to invest in one.

There are some tourers who plan their routes for their tours on mapping software and then send them to their GPS to follow. We prefer not to be restricted by this approach as we usually have a rough idea of where we would like to go and then make up our route as we go along. Our route is quite often altered according to wind direction, weather, how we are feeling at the time and how interesting the area is. Therefore we still plan our route for the next few days and still navigate using paper maps. We primarily use our GPS for checking our actual position against our paper map and for recording where we have been. The track logs record the distances, the elevation profiles and times for each days cycling. We then use the saved tracks to geotag our photos when we get home.

If you do wish to plan out your cycle tour routes before hand on mapping software, then we suggest you have a look at the information from Mark of the 'End to End on Two Wheels site who has used a GPS on various tours and has some good information on using them here.

What GPS for touring?

We initially thought about getting just a basic GPS data logger rather than a dedicated GPS as we were initially only concerned about recording where we had been. However when we looked in to it the dedicated GPS gave us more features that would be more useful to us on tour. For example having a screen with a map that showed us our current position was useful to Frank who always worried that in the event of an emergency or if something happening to me she might not know exactly where we are.

There are quite a few dedicated GPS units out at the moment that are suitable for cycletouring but what are the main features to look for:

  • Battery life - when on tour it is not always easy to recharge batteries so you need a GPS with a good battery life.
  • A GPS that uses AA batteries is useful, alkaline batteries are easily available anywhere should we be not able to charge your rechargeable batteries.
  • Memory capacity for storing tracks and maps. A GPS that uses a micro SD card system will give you unlimited memory capacity, for saving and storing tracks and maps.
  • Barometric altimeter - although not an essential feature but this can be a useful for looking at the weather trends during your tour.
  • Electronic compass - again not an essential feature but can be a useful for navigation, we find it useful for walking navigation and geocaching.

The first GPS that we bought and used for touring was the Garmin Etrex Vista HCx, this was an excellent piece of kit that gave us a good 25 hours battery life and had all the features mentioned above. We have recently up-graded to the Garmin GPSmap 62s. This has all the features mentioned above but has a slightly reduced battery life of 20 hours, however our main reason for upgrading was our interest in geocaching and the great paperless features of this model. Also we got a great deal on a bundle with the complete UK 1:50,000 OS mapping software.

gps mountCycle mounts

You will need a cycle mount for your GPS which makes it easy to see and use the GPS whilst cycling. Garmin's own cycle mounts work quite well and they have proven to be quite reliable even on bumpy gravel roads. The GPSMap 62s is fairly easy to put on and remove using the clip that is permanently attached to the back of the GPS.

However with the Etrex Vista HCx there is also some play in the mount which results in the unit wobbling slightly but this is easily fixed. If you cut 3 small pieces of insulation tape and stick them onto the base of the mount it will fit snuggly and you will loose the wobble.

GPS maps

There are several maps available for the Garmin range of GPS's, several produced by Garmin themselves. A cheap alternative are the free maps available from Open Street map project. Open Street maps for the Garmin range of GPS's for most parts of the world can be found here. If you do use the free openstreetmaps do consider adding to the project yourself, it is not that difficult to learn how to edit the maps, there is more detail here.

Batteries

As we mentioned above one of the main reasons for choosing a GPS is good battery life. Garmin suggest 25 hours use from a set of fully charged batteries. Like all electrical things battery life is very much down to how often you switch from screen to screen and use the various functions. Under normal use a fully charged set of 2000mha Eneloop rechargeable batteries will last us 2 - 3 days of cycling time. We carry two spare sets of 2000mha Eneloop batteries which we charge up using a Uniross mains charger. Both the Garmin GPSmap 62s and the Etrex Vista HCx have a battery indicator and give a warning bleep when the batteries are getting low which is useful.

Geotagging

iPhoto imageGeotagging our photos has made it much easier for us to organise and review our photos when we get back from our tours. As we both take a small digital camera we would often come back from a tour with nearly 2000 photos and it isn't always easy to remember where exactly a particular shot was taken.

Geotagging your photos is really quite easy. Before setting off on your tour make sure you synchronise the time on your camera with the time on your GPS unit, this is because geotagging software compares the time in the EXIF data of a photo with the times in your GPS track logs. The software we use is 'myTracks' (for MacOS but I'm sure that there are similar Windows software) this is a brilliant piece of software developed by Dirk Stichling. The interface is so easy to use and integrates nicely into iPhoto 09 which supports geotagged photos. You simply load in your GPS tracks and drag & drop the photos from that day into the track from that day and myTracks works it all out for you and then writes the geotag data back to the EXIF data of your photos. GPS locations of your photos can then be viewed in iPhoto or you can export your photo tracks to Google Earth as a .kml or .kmz file. With 'MyTracks' you can also join GPS tracks, edit them, export them as a .gpx file and there is also a nice viewer for the elevation and speed profiles from your GPS tracks.

Geocaching

This is something we hadn't heard about until we bought our Garmin GPS unit and saw that it had this 'Geocaching' feature. The introduction to Geocaching on the 'Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site' sums it up nicely:

Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment.

Someone once also described it as 'A hobby where people use billion pound technology to find Tupperware in the woods'. We certainly have found it fun and it has added and extra dimension to cycletouring. We don't go out of our way to find caches but if our route passes near to a cache we will go to find it. More information can be found at www.geocaching.com.

How to use a GPS

We found the manual that came with our Garmin GPS very limited in its explanation of how to use a GPS. We have therefore written our explanation on how to use the Etrex Vista HCx here which you might find useful.

We have also written a step by step guide to installing custom POI's (Points of Interest) here.

For maps to use with your GPS see our 'Electronic Mapping' page.

Useful GPS links