Digital navigation while cycle touring
Quite some time ago I made a conscious decision regarding digital navigation and how I use it. Yes, I’m aware some people prefer paper maps, but much as I love paper maps, the world has moved on, and I moved with it. Digital navigation simply offers far more benefits to me, but of course we’re all different, and you may feel differently. This post is about my usage of digital navigation while cycle touring.
I have an ageing Garmin Edge 500. The firmware on that device is probably at least 15 years old (with a few updates in between) and it has very limited features. In case you didn’t know what it is, it’s a GPS-enabled cycling computer, which can also use external Ant+ sensors. For example, I have a heart rate strap, so I can record my heart rate along each part of a ride. When you do serious training, you train according to heart rate zones, so it’s important to be able to tell what your heart rate is. Outside of such training, that bit only really has novelty value. I certainly don’t take a heart rate monitor when cycle touring!
My Garmin is old, and doesn’t display a map on-screen, though it can follow a GPX trail. It does so by displaying a bread-crumb trail on-screen, and of course it displays prompts, e.g. “Left” or “Right”. It’s primitive digital navigation, though it does work.
I decided to not replace my Garmin. Sure, many newer cycle GPS units are far more advanced, with full-colour maps, and better battery life, plus other features. My choice could be seen by some to be a step backwards: I chose to have all my functionality – communication, data, camera, navigation and more – in a single device. Naturally, that means a phone. Now the average mobile phone is a fragile thing, and certainly not suitable for what I had in mind. Besides, most phones are not waterproof. Clearly, I needed something a tad more special, but whatever it was, it had to run Android.
Much research later, I found the answer I was looking for: a Doogee S40 rugged phone. It’s bigger than most Android phones, and heavier. This is due to the rugged shell, and the large capacity battery. Oh, and did I mention most Doogee phones are waterproof? How waterproof? When my mate Dom and I cycled the Grand Union Canal, he ended up in the canal with his bike, along an atrociously awful stretch of towpath. His phone survived without an incident – he uses a Doogee too!
In one unit, the Doogee S40 answered all my needs: I could run the RideWithGPS app, plus a myriad of other apps, it has a decent(ish) camera (many of the pics on this site was taken with it) and ample storage, plus it’s rugged, has great battery life and is waterproof. For the record, I’m not being paid to say any of this. Instead, I’m just a very happy customer.
It doesn’t matter how large a battery capacity your phone has, sooner or later it will run out of charge. When you’re at home, or at work, that’s usually no issue, as you simply put it back on charge. When cycle touring, especially off-grid cycle touring, like I tend to do, that changes things, as there’s no mains socket to plug into. That means you need to have a portable way to recharge your phone. I use a Svartgoti 20 000 mAh power bank. As any mobile phone user would know, running GPS all the time drains the battery fast. As I rely on my phone for navigation, it means I hammer the battery. Add into the mix the fact that I take many photos while out riding, and the battery life is further reduced. So much so that on longer tours I can totally drain that large-capacity power bank.
Even in the UK, you can harvest a surprising amount of free energy, using a solar panel. I have a (claimed) 80W fold-up solar panel that I use, to trickle-charge the power bank. To be clear, the solar panel isn’t there to charge up the power bank, but rather to slow down the rate at which it discharges. Sure, the solar panel can fully charge the power bank, but that would require many days of strong sunlight, while nothing else is being charged via the power bank.
Not all power banks are equal
My power bank needs are very specific: I need a large capacity unit and crucially, it must support something called pass-through charging. Pass-through charging means it can charge other devices, while at the same time being charged up. A power bank that doesn’t support this is of very limited use to me, as I need to be able to charge it, while relying on it to top up my phone. Importantly, it’s important to know that you lose energy when charging a device, and even more when relying on pass-though charging. This is down to physics, and there’s really precious little you or I can do about that, except to try and overprovision as much as we can.
My bike has a hub dynamo, and dynamo lights. I simply cannot praise dynamo lights enough. As soon as the wheels start turning, the lights come on. For a long time I was sceptical, until I cycled the Exmouth Exodus all-night ride one year, and was chatting with another rider who used dynamo lights. I’ve been a convert ever since. My headlight offers USB-charging, and I can switch the mode between either having lights on, or doing USB charging. Sadly, hub dynamos, great as they are, don’t generate enough power to do both simultaneously. This means that during the day I charge the power bank, and at night I’ll always have decent lights. Win – win! Honestly, if you haven’t made the switch to dynamo lights yet, do so as soon as you can. You won’t regret it!
In a nutshell
Basically, my strategy is to rely on my phone, which is constantly being topped up by my power bank. The power bank is usually being trickle-charged by my hub dynamo, while my backup power back is being trickle-charged by the solar panel.
Of course, this all means I’m extremely dependent on a single device. Especially on longer rides, where I simply don’t know the route, if my phone died for whatever reason, or perhaps was lost or stolen, that could leave me in a pickle. Obviously, I need some sort of backup. Have you guessed what it is yet? Yup, my trusty old Garmin! Though I don’t rely on it for navigation any more, it’s still there, still available, should I need it.