GPS vs Smartphone Navigation For Adventure Riders
Which one’s for you?
Nick Selleck of Maschine works with satellite navigation as a mainstay of his work, and he has a few thoughts to offer on what type of hardware might work best.
The nature of adventure riding means riders are often heading into parts unknown, so it makes sense to have a have a navigation aid, usually either a GPS or a smartphone.
I’m fortunate in that my work has me travelling all over the country finding great tracks to ride, and then leading groups on pre-planned routes. This means I have to know exactly where I am on the planet at all times, and how to guide people back there.
I’ve accumulated a lot of grey hairs over the years of using GPS, so I hope sharing these ideas might shortcut some of the tougher lessons I’ve had to learn.
I’m so often asked: “Which GPS should I buy?” or, “What app should I use on my phone?” These things clearly vex a lot of riders, so let’s have a look at that.
First up, the similarities between GPS and smartphone:
- Both can pinpoint your position on the globe using satellites
- Both can record a track log of where you’ve been
- Both allow uploading Tracks to follow when out on the trail
- Both allow searching for, and locating, towns, track names, fuel stations and other features.
Does that mean paper maps are redundant?
Pretty much. Purists and ol’ timers may scoff, but I rarely use paper anymore, especially while riding.
When you think about it, motorcycling is the ideal medium for digital mapping and GPS use. We don’t have endless storage compartments to stow maps in, but we can have a seemingly endless supply of maps right there on our handlebars. I generally still carry paper maps with me in my tank bag, but lately I’ve ridden more and more without them. Even when I do have them on board they never get used.
It should be said having paper maps on board gives you a back up in case of an electromagnetic doomsday or your bike gets washed down the Murray River at Tom Groggin crossing. Should all your electronics fritz themselves for some reason, or get damaged in a crash, paper maps should help you to get home safely.
It’s also nice sitting around a table on a fresh, cool morning with a map and planning out the day’s adventures with your riding buddies over a caffeine hit. I have many coffee and beer stained maps to attest to that!
Smartphone or GPS? That’s what we want to sort out.
To keep things compact and organised, here’s some of the main points of each.
A GPS is best for following pre-planned routes. The prices on units varies, but expect to pay around $800 for a Garmin. There are other brands on the market, but frankly I wouldn’t waste my money. They’re not at the same level as Garmin
- Can follow planned routes with turn directions, distances and so forth calculated and displayed on screen
- Hold a preloaded database of locations and services like fuel stations that doesn’t require mobile data access
- Motorcycle GPS units are very durable, being waterproof and dustproof. The touchscreens also work well when wearing gloves
- It’s difficult to get a good overview map of tracks nearby because as you zoom out on the map you lose detail
- To get the most out of it the user needs to understand how the GPS works and how to navigate the menu
With smartphones, Apple IOS or Android doesn’t really make much difference.
Many people already have a smartphone and that makes the phone option cheaper. But what we’re really talking about from a cost perspective is the mapping apps required to make a phone really useful in the field as a navigation tool. Also, if you’ve got the real estate available in your cockpit there’s no reason why you can’t use a tablet like an iPad Mini or an Android.
- There are so many apps available it’ll make your memory more bloated than a beached whale
- Cameras built into the phone are getting so good now I use my iPhone 7+ for taking more photos than I do my ‘proper’ Canon camera. Hell, even some of the images in this article are taken with the iPhone. Can you tell which ones?
- You can make phone calls
- You can sync your phone to your Bluetooth headset to receive spoken directions from mapping apps.
- Smartphones are more intuitive and sometimes simpler to use
- Phones suck power when using GPS for mapping and will only get a few hours battery life unless they’re plugged into an external power source
- Waterproofing and dustproofing is a consideration. Phones are generally more fragile, with broken screens a constant concern. Some later phones like the iPhone 7 are becoming tougher
- Using phone touchscreens with gloves on can be a hit or complete miss. Look out for gloves advertised as having touchscreen-compatible finger pads. You can also get a product called ‘Nanotips’ which I’ve had success with by painting on my glove fingertips
- Phones are only as good as the maps in the app. The best I’ve found on the market for navigation in Australia is Hema Explorer Pro. See the list of apps on these pages for more
- The rider needs to remember to download map sections over wi-fi before going bush, otherwise they’ll be chewing up mobile data or simply not have maps available to view.
Mounting and power
Regardless of which tech you choose you have to be able to read the screen while riding and have it powered up. This is where Ram mounts are gold. If you’ve been around adventure bikes for longer than a day or two you’ve probably seen the 25mm black balls hanging off handlebars and other places. They’re wonderfully universal and a great way of putting the screen exactly where you need it. It also makes it super easy to swap from one bike to another. Be aware though, it can also make it super easy to steal your stuff, so I take my Ram mounts off each night.
As convenient as Ram mounts are to stick things anywhere, you’re best keeping them off your handlebars if you can. Remember, all that additional weight will act like a pendulum swinging around and upsetting your control inputs.
Phone mounts are another challenge. Lately I’ve been using the Quad Lock case and mount and it works brilliantly. I have used others in the past but Quad Lock exceeds them all for security, simplicity and reliability.
If you use a protective case for your phone (and you should) make sure you factor that in when ordering or test fitting a phone holder. In the past I have used a basic, thin, silicon case on my iPhone 7+ and it’s survived many thousands of off-road kilometres exposed to dust and rain without many problems.
To power up your tech goodies it’s best to hardwire them to your battery or use the bike’s power outlet if it has one. You may need to do some additional wiring on enduro-style bikes to make 12-volt power available.
The set up I run includes an SAE plug that’s hard-wired to my battery. I can plug in my GPS and then I have a USB power hub that sits in my tank bag that I can plug all manner of gadgets into.
So which should you use? GPS or Smartphone?
My answer is to use both. For all the reasons I’ve outlined here they each have their benefits and I’d find it much harder to do my job without either one.
Reality is nowadays I think spending money on good apps and mounts for your Smartphone is primary and then also get a GPS when you are getting more serious with your adventuring. Having both gives you some redundancy too should one of them fail.
Here is a list of Smartphone apps I use regularly and recommend. Search your app store to find them:
- Hema Explorer Pro – the best mapping available for the whole of Australia with generally the most accurate detail. It’s $49.99 to purchase initially plus $49.99 annually to access the Pro version of higher resolution maps. You really do need the Pro version for off-roading so you can see all the minor tracks.
- MotionX GPS – cheap (as in $1.99!) mapping with some good functionality and multiple maps to choose from
- Mud Maps – quite popular
- Memory Maps
- Rever – USA-based social ride-sharing platform. Maps are pretty good but very USA centric, as more people use it more rides plans will be available
- Emergency + – when crap happens this app will help remind you what number to dial for 000. More importantly, it’ll show your precise location with nearest street intersection or lat/long coordinates you can pass onto emergency services
- Google Maps – best for navigating around towns when trying to find the local Bunnings or best coffee shop
- BOM weather – check out the rain radar to see if you really should be pushing north to Tibooburra
- Spotify – play music or podcasts to keep you entertained on the boring transport sections
- Go Pro Capture – preview the vision from your GoPro on your phone screen so you don’t get home with a whole bunch of blurry images because of the filthy big bug splat you didn’t notice on the lens
- Google Earth – sometimes viewing satellite images can tell a different story to maps
- Garmin Earthmate – pair it up with your Garmin inReach GPS tracker to send and receive text messages via satellite as easy as a normal text
*This article featured in Issue #25 of Adventure Rider Magazine Australia.