Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

25 Sep 2013

Finding the way on a bike: maps, GPS, smartphones and guesswork

Posted by Will

I’ve never owned a GPS unit in my life, let alone a smartphone, but I can see their advantages. I’m often asked how I get directions on the road. The short answer is: in lots of ways using mainly low technology methods. Paper maps are my preference with a boy-scout compass round my neck. Here, using my own experience and stories from cyclists around the world, I describe and explain a few methods of navigation in the hopes that you’ll be better able to choose a system for yourself.

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I buy paper maps as I move from country to country. In regions with lots of small countries I usually buy the regional map so I don’t have to visit a bookstore every week. For instance, in Europe I used the fantastic Freytag and Bernht ‘Europe’ atlas which covers almost all countries in 1:500,000 (I sliced it up to remove unnecessary pages and the hard spine). In contrast, China had a whole atlas to itself. The scale required varies from country to country. Somewhere with many feasible roads and a high density of junctions and settlements needs a zoomed-in scale. Tied to that is how far you’re able to travel in a day too. A closer scale is better when moving slowly, most obviously when walking.

Carrying paper maps is advantageous because they can be shown to passers-by, don’t use batteries, make a nice souvenir and give a better view of where you are in a wider sense. It’s easier to choose between different routes when looking on a paper map.

However, paper maps get wet and turn to mush if not laminated, they rip, they don’t beep/show when you have to make a turn, they don’t indicate when you’ve gone wrong and they’re not always easy to find in the appropriate scale or language. I recently had a bit of a nightmare in China trying to find an atlas with English translations for town names or provincial road numbers. Iraq and Iran only had maps in the Arabic alphabet – not ideal for asking directions. In Central Asia it’s almost impossible to find a good paper map. I navigated my way round that problem by photocopying a map a friend of mine had brought from home. So there’s by far the biggest disadvantage: it’s difficult to find good paper maps locally in man parts of the world. If you aren’t prepared to pack all the maps you’ll need from home, you’ll have to be resourceful.

Sometimes I cycle without a map at all. In many countries this is nowhere near as challenging as it might sound. Travellers from developed countries often forget that developing countries have few national, asphalt roads. Gaps between intersections of two paved roads can be as large as 100-200km. In those cases it’s very obvious where to go. On the Pamir Highway, for instance, you can’t get lost. It would be quite possible to go without a map and instead write down the distances between towns, villages and major mountain passes. Similarly, in mid-Siberia, the M53 road stretches 2000km with opportunities to make a wrong turn. Depending on where you’re headed, you may not need a map, especially if you have a compass which can tell you if you’re heading roughly in the right direction.

Of you could have a very poor map, like a download of a zoomed-out section of Google Maps to view on your smartphone, laptop, iPad or Amazon Kindle. Using the software Google Map Buddy (Google it) you are able to download sections of the Google Maps database that are relevant to you at whatever zoom level you choose (although the megabytes crank up fast once you start zooming in). I downloaded Google Maps’ coverage of Iran at a poor level of zoom to supplement the paper map I bought. I viewed it most nights in the tent on my laptop to check the major intersections for the next day.

A viable alternative to paper maps is using a GPS unit in conjunction with a website able to create detailed waypoints (bikeroutetoaster.com is great – you can see terrain profiles too). Here’s how it works with bikeroutetoaster. Using the interactive map found on the website, create your route by setting a start point, a destination and if necessary checkpoints in between. Bikeroutetoaster will automatically set a waypoint (a pinpointed location) at every intersection you will encounter on the route. Download the file bikeroutetoaster creates and then upload it to your GPS unit. Now, assuming you are at your start point, your GPS will point you towards the next waypoint, which is the next intersection. When you reach that intersection, the GPS will understand you’ve reached that goal and will point you to the next waypoint (intersection) and so on… Your GPS will have a limited number of waypoints it is able to store (500 is the minimum nowadays, the more sophisticated ones allow thousands) so make sure the route you create isn’t too long. You can even get brackets which mount your GPS conveniently on your handlebars.

It’s very clever and these websites, most offering their services for free, should be congratulated. However, consider the drawbacks. First, GPS units run out of batteries quickly. Many only last 13 hours and very few last longer than 30. The basic, cheap Garmin units need AA batteries which are expensive. If you’re in an area with a concentration of intersections you’ll need to have your GPS on all the time. The battery won’t last long. Second, this method offers no flexibility. You can’t change your route at the last minute if you find out your planned road is now a mess of construction or much busier than expected. Third, you have no idea where you are in the wider sense. You may get an idea of how far away your overall destination lies (only if your GPS is able to see past the next waypoint which basic models can’t), but you don’t get town names you can ask locals about, and locals can’t point on a GPS. Yes, OK, the GPS systems with maps on the screen solve this problem, but are those maps any easier to find than paper maps? I don’t know but I’d be surprised if they are. They’ll certainly be much more expensive.

More and more cyclists, walkers and hitch-hikers are using smartphones and possibly tablets go find their way around. I must say I’m not particularly familiar in the use of these devices. I have met many travellers using this method successfully. The availability of small, pocket-sized solar charges like PowerMonkeys enable smartphones to be recharged on the go (good for the more advanced GPS units too). Roaming internet across countries is now cheaper and there’s often coverage even in the wildest places. Check carefully about the price of internet tariffs though as it’s often difficult to get to grips with how you’ll be charged if the telecoms operator speaks a different language. Smartphones come with an MP3 player, camera, phone and other functions attached so I can see how they’re very convenient for many people.

I’m still sceptical though. I cling to the nostalgic idea that maps are a precious source of entertainment on the road even in the face of the latest high-tech gadgets. I come back to the ‘wider-sense of where you are’ argument again. On a screen that measures 10cm x 6cm I doubt your ability to make a fully informed choice between routes, even if that screen can zoom in and out at the flick of your fingers.

Each to their own though: it’s up to you to decide which method is most suitable for your trip. That will depend on the area of the world you’re visiting, your budget, your preference for technology and your willingness to get lost every now and again. And never forget that losing your way can lead to the most exciting discoveries.

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