Most smartphones have a built in GPS chip just like a stand-alone Garmin or TomTom navigator and can be used in the same way. You can take advantage of this on your next motorcycle tour. Most people are used to always having their data activated so applications like Google maps rely on your data plan to download the maps simultaneously while you navigate. But there are a growing number of apps available which allow you to download entire countries or regions to your phones memory meaning you can switch off all data while traveling and still use your smartphone to navigate for free.
GPS (Global Positioning System) is a technology developed by the United States government and owned by the U.S. Department of Defense. There are at least 24 satellites made available for free public use at any given time. The technology has been around for a few decades, much longer than we have been using our smartphones, but only recently have app developers been taking advantage of the built in GPS chips.
A GPS works by receiving signals from four satellites at once and cross-referencing the information to determine coordinates (more specifically, by reading the time from atomic clocks aboard satellites and measuring their slight inaccuracy caused by their ultra-high speed orbit, Einstein’s theory of relativity in action!)
Coordinates are great if we know what they mean, but without a map they are just meaningless numbers. In order to be useful we need to match those coordinates to a map. We researched dozens of different apps and came up with a short list of the better ones available. We specifically looked for apps that can be used by motorcyclists to plot routes and navigate like we would with a traditional dedicated GPS. All four of the following apps are available for Android and iOS.
HERE Maps https://pages.here.com/app/
I’ve been using this app while travelling on my motorcycle for a number of months and it’s simple, smooth and has an offline points-of-interest database. That means that you can search for hotels, restaurants, landmarks etc. without being online. The maps for Spain & Portugal require about 700 megabytes of your phones memory. The only big negative with HERE is that it doesn’t seem to have a routes function meaning you can only choose one destination at a time with no waypoints.
This is one of the most popular GPS navigation units and even crowd sources real time traffic. This is a good alternative to HERE and is probably a bit more advanced with more features. Like HERE, there is still no feature for adding routes with multiple waypoints but apart from that it’s an excellent offline GPS app.
With the ability to download and navigate .GPX files just like your trusty old Garmin Zumo, OsmAnd is a winner and would be a top choice if you are thinking of replacing your dedicated GPS unit for a motorcycle trip. It uses Open Source Map technology which is like the Wikipedia of maps available free to the public. It’s growing and improving constantly and while accuracy will vary according to country, in Europe and the US it’s on par or better than purchased maps from GPS makers.
Locus Map http://www.locusmap.eu/
Developed for hikers and bikers, it also has the ability to download and install GPX files making it another great choice.
All four options are pretty solid choices with the final two being the obvious choice for actual route planning whereas the first two would work better for finding your way around a city. It’s important to keep in mind the following points before deciding against a standalone GPS. Navigating with your smartphone has some obvious advantages but there are still some reasons why you might prefer to buy or rent a stand-alone GPS:
- Smartphone screens tend to not be as clear in bright direct sunlight
- They are more difficult to use with motorcycle gloves
- They’re not usually waterproof and are more delicate than a motorcycle GPS, you have a lot of important info in your phone and might not want to risk it being exposed to the elements. There are solutions for this of course but it’s an important point to keep in mind.
- Stand-alone GPS software is much simpler and designed specifically for route navigation
For simplicity, reliability and durability go with a stand-alone GPS but if you have time to play around with a few apps then give these a try at home and make a decision before you leave. If you like navigating with a combination of paper maps, notes and GPS then the smartphone option might be the perfect tool for your next motorcycle tour.
I hope that these apps will continue to be developed in line with our needs as motorcycle riders and I think that with more of us using them, sharing our experiences and letting developers know what we want, we will soon have a true replacement for stand-alone GPS devices. For now, it’s important to take full advantage of the technology in our phones that we carry with us every day but to also understand its limits. If you have taken a motorcycle tour with just your smartphone as a GPS, leave a comment below with your thoughts!
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