While being able to navigate using the night sky is a great skill to have, there are far better options available to you, starting with a simple map.
I freely, and even proudly admit that I’m a map geek. I’ve always been one, since I can remember. Maps, you see, tell stories, and if you wanted me to be quiet and keep out of the way, give me some maps to explore.
I love paper maps, and can happily talk magnetic declination, or follow a route cross-country, armed with only a map and compass.
However, the world has moved on, and digital mapping is real, and very good. I remember when I first switched to digital navigation: I installed some software called MemoryMap on my computer, and had a number of digital maps, including a satellite-view map of Dartmoor, before Google maps had satellite view.
In those days, I used a Windows Mobile PDA, with the MemoryMap app installed, and the maps synced. It meant that, when I went hiking on Dartmoor (one of my most favourite places in the world) I could fire up the app and see a satellite view of what lay beyond the next hill. And then I got a Bluetooth GPS receiver to use with it, and could start tracking my routes. I was in heaven.
Later, I moved to Windows Mobile smartphones (back when smartphones attracted puzzled, uninterested looks from people who hadn’t yet grasped how useful they could be) and I remember using apps like SportyPal and GPSed to track my cycling.
These days, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to digital navigation, with SatNav being standard on virtually all new cars. Cycle computers have on-board GPS, many now with turn-by-turn directions, and more.
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My own cycle computer is a Garmin Edge 500 – that’s a 20-year old design, and while it once may have been absolutely cutting edge, now it’s quite primitive. Despite that, I have absolutely no intention of spending several hundred quid on getting the latest and greatest version.
When it comes to navigation while cycling, I’m not demanding, and to date the Edge 500 has served me well. All it offers is to help you stay on a pre-configured route, either via prompts that are part of the route file (.TCX) or through a breadcrumb trail on-screen. Those with experience on it will tell you it’s rather easy to miss a turning when relying on either method, and indeed I have missed plenty of turnings.
Annoyingly, the Edge 500 only has around an 8-hour battery life, too.
As I said, I’ve no intention of buying a new Garmin, Wahoo, Cateye, or any other make. No, I have a different strategy altogether, but more about that later.
Before you can decide which is the best option for you, you need to determine what your navigational needs are. Will you be needing route guidance in a a city, or will you be riding An Turas Mór? Will you need car-like satnav, which finds a route for you, or will you be following a preset route?
Regardless of how nostalgic you may be about paper maps, digital navigation – provided you don’t run out of battery – is infinitely better. With paper maps, you will need to keep stopping to check the map, as reading a map while riding on a potentially bumpy surface isn’t practical. And that’s before we factor in the possibility of trying to do so in traffic!
In days gone by, some cyclists relied on a navigation sheet held on a board fitted to the handlebars, with route guidance instructions on the board. That’s a step up from trying to read a 1:25 000 map, while cycling, and a surprising number of Audax riders still rely on such methods, but it’s indisputable that digital navigation is simply miles better.
All that remains for you is to choose which digital navigation tool suits your needs best.
Phone, or dedicated GPS?
Basically, you need to choose between using your phone, or a dedicated GPS unit. The benefit of using your phone is that you already have it, it has a larger screen than a cycling computer, and is far more powerful than a cycling computer.
The downsides, of course, are that the battery won’t last nearly as long as a GPS cycle computer, and that (most) phones aren’t waterproof.
Of course, there are many apps you can use to help you remain on-course, including CycleStreets, OsmAnd, RideWithGPS and Komoot, in addition to apps like Strava, which records your ride, and shows metrics, but doesn’t offer navigation. Those links are all to the Google Play Store, for Android devices. Here are the App Store links, for iOS devices: CycleStreets, OsmAnd, RideWithGps and Komoot.
For most people, digital cycle navigation starts with your phone. Practically everyone has a smartphone these days, and that comes with a mapping app – Google Maps, in the case of Android devices. At a push, you can switch Google Maps to cycling mode, input your destination, crank up the volume, and have your phone call out voice instructions to you.
During my aborted Grand Union Canal ride, following an injury and a few train rides, I relied on exactly this method, to cycle from Rugby to Leamington Spa, in the pouring rain, after midnight. It really isn’t the best option, as Google’s routing for cyclists often sucks, but if in a fix, it’ll do.
Usually, with digital navigation, people start off using their phones, then move on to using dedicated cycle computers. A dedicated cycling GPS computer offers many advantages, starting with far better battery life, and usually more accurate GPS. Typically, they can interface with cadence counters, heart rate monitors, and more, and some also link to your phone, via Bluetooth.
That means you don’t have to plug it into a computer to upload your ride, and the better cycle computers have full colour maps, and offer dynamic routing, to get you back on track, if you made a wrong turning somewhere.
The better cycling GPS computers will also have a barometric altimeter, and will therefore be able to display the gradient of the hill you may be suffering up. Because the burning in their thighs isn’t enough for some people, apparently ?.
A different path
I followed exactly the route from smartphone to cycle computer, but I’m reversing it now. As I mentioned above, my cycling computer is old, and instead of spending several hundred Pounds on a replacement, I got a new phone instead.
My phone is a rugged model (read ugly and heavy) and it’s waterproof. Because it’s rugged, it’s designed to take a beating and keep working, and of course I don’t have to worry about it getting wet. Importantly, I run the RideWithGPS app on my phone. With a premium account, you get voice guidance, and you can feed the app a GPX or TCX route file, to have the app guide you to remain on course.
Of course, running GPS on a phone will drain the battery far quicker than normal usage will, even if the screen isn’t switched on, and quicker still if you keep the screen on. In simple terms, using GPS off your phone can completely drain its battery in two hours, or less, so if you’ll be relying on your phone for longer rides, you will need to rethink your options. As a minimum, you may need to consider using a power bank, to keep your phone charged during longer rides, but see my post about charging your phone while riding.
As I said above, I’m switching from a Garmin to using a phone, though that is oversimplifying things. In reality, I’ll continue using the Garmin, while using my phone alongside, as that gives me redundancy. The primary navigation device, however, will be my phone. That’s simply because it has a far larger screen and can display full maps. In addition, it can give me voice guidance.
There are far better bicycle GPS units than my creaky old Edge 500, many of which support full-colour maps, dynamic routing and more, and I accept that – for most people – it’d probably make more sense to buy one of the the many models available, when looking for something that will last for a whole day’s riding.
Before forking out £100s on a new GPS unit, consider if you really need it – many do, and therefore would be better off with such a GPS unit. However, many people would be perfectly well off just using their phone, or their phone and a power bank, on longer rides.
But, if you really want to navigate by using the stars, don’t let me stop you! Each to their own.
One thought on “Do you chart a course by the stars?”
On an eCcargo bike I plug phone into a hefty powerbank in a handy pocket.pocket.
Less chance of my losing it, but heavy!
Thinking of upgrading my eBike screen as then I'll be able to see a map, and more, without stopping.