Over the years I’ve been asked more times than I can count, about how I keep myself from getting lost on my bikepacking trips. By far the most common question I get is “Do I need a special bike GPS”.
As a general rule, you do not need a GPS for a bikepacking trip and most bikepackers will just use a phone instead. A bike GPS would be a prerequisite for your trip when you are bikepacking across multiple countries or for many days in a row. In these situations being able to take replacement batteries is crucial.
While a bike GPS is not necessary for all trips, it does have some distinct advantages, especially when on certain types of trips. However, this does not mean that the alternatives, such as using your smartphone or a physical map, are not also good options, and each is suited for a different type of trip.
When is a bike GPS necessary?
There are certain specific advantages that a bike GPS has over other options such as using your smartphone or a physical map. These make a bike GPS better suited for specific types of trips.
Firstly, bike GPS computers can run off of batteries. While this may initially seem like a negative in a world where we want all our devices to be rechargeable, it is a huge benefit when bikepakcing. Not only does this mean that a bike GPS will last much longer than using a navigation app on your smartphone, but it also means that you can take a set of spare batteries with you. This can be particularly helpful on longer trips where you may not have access to electricity, especially if bikepacking abroad.
While using a portable charger for your phone is an option, these are often only able to re-charge your phone once or twice, still meaning that the phone will have less battery life overall than the bike GPS. It also means that you can keep your phone battery for more important things, such as tweeting.
Some people prefer using a bike GPS as it allows them to have a dedicated GPS system that they can keep mounted to their handlebar at all times. This allows you to know immediately if you are going off course, and can help with peace of mind rather than having to stop and check the map every 10 minutes.
We asked a large cycling community which type of map or GPS they used as their primary navigation tool. It appears that the majority of people used their phones. However, some members did specifically comment that the type of trip they were going on impacted their decision.
Bike GPS systems are designed for riding, as such, they are much more durable than smartphones or physical maps. This means you can be a lot less afraid of breaking your bike’s GPS on a rough trip, and they are more suited for wet conditions.
The last, and possibly most important benefit of a bike GPS, is that it offers an element of redundancy. If you are using your phone as your primary communication tool, source of entertainment, and GPS, then if it breaks or runs out of power, you are in a much worse position than if you had 3 separate devices.
There are many advantages to using a bike GPS, however, unless the specific advantages are in areas you will benefit from, having a bike GPS is not necessary. We would suggest getting yourself a bike GPS if you are planning a trip longer than a weekend or overnight trip, or if you are planning to do a bikepacking trip covering multiple different countries. In both of these situations, the advantages a bike GPS offers will be worth the extra investment of the GPS system.
Can I use my phone as my main GPS?
If you are looking at bike-computer alternatives, you’ll have likely thought about using your phone’s GPS. Navigation apps on phones can be a great resource for a bikepakcing trip, offering many advantages over traditional bike GPS systems.
The most obvious advantage is the lower cost, you’ll likely already own a smartphone capable of running the many navigation apps that are now available on IOS or android, and so the only cost you will have to pay to use your phone is for a phone mount for your bike.
While having one device that does everything can be a disadvantage (as we discussed above), there are benefits to only having to carry one device. Obviously on any bikepacking trip, weight is a priority, and reducing the amount of extra gear you carry will help with this. There is also the advantage of only having to keep track of one piece of gear, and only having to charge one device when you stop for the night. While these might seem like small benefits, they do add up.
As you use your phone every day, you are likely to find using your phone for navigation much more intuitive, they have larger screens, are easier to adjust your route mid-trip, and have a variety of different apps you can choose from. While google maps might not be your first choice, its bike navigation instructions have really improved over recent years. If you’re looking for a more focused app for a bikepakcing trip, take a look at Komoot, which allows riders to share trips and routes.
Should I take a physical map bikepacking?
In the age of technology we all live in, it may have been years since you last used a map, but taking a physical map on your trip might be something you should consider.
While taking a map (as well as a compass) can be cumbersome, they work as a great redundancy option for any reason your primary GPS device fails.
Some people even prefer to take a physical map and use their GPS as the backup, finding the experience of reading a physical map fun and helping to keep them in the moment. It also helps you to stay away from the screens that you were trying to escape from in the first place.
While some maps come in waterproof vinyl versions, the main disadvantage of using a physical map is their excess weight, the skill required to use them as well as the risk they become damaged on your trip.
It is clear that while bike computers have their benefits, they are definitely not required for your bikepacking trip. The majority of bikepackers use their phone due to a phone’s ease of use, accessibility, and the fact that most bikepackers already own a phone capable of running navigation apps.
No matter which option you take, it is important to make sure you have more than one way of navigating your trip. Be that taking a bike GPS and phone, or a phone and a physical map, you should have a way to find your way home if one of your navigation tools fails.
Where to get physical maps for bikepacking?
In general, the best type of physical map to use for a bikepakcing trip will be official Ordnance Survey maps. These offer detailed maps including gradients, trails, and routes that can be found in waterproof vinyl forms. However, the best map for your trip will be dependent on the country you are visiting, for example, if you are planning a trip to the US, consider taking a look at the US Forest Service maps which are a great recourse for the bikepacking routes are America’s national forests.
The most popular bikepacking app is Komoot, which offers a range of pre-made and user-designed bikepacking routes. It is free to use within your home county but will charge you a one-off fee of £30 for worldwide maps and coverage. For a completely free alternative, using google maps is definitely an option. Although make sure to take a note of any inclines on your trip, as in our experience, google maps is not as good at accounting for these in their journey time estimates.