Navigating an adventurous route on your motorcycle is different to navigating on a car journey, or for bushwalking or hiking on foot.
We recently travelled south through Chile and Argentina to Ushuaia, on a guided tour, following the trusty corner-man system. Back home in Australia, we prefer self-guided motorcycle adventures using a Garmin Zumo GPS device together with GaiaGPS for route planning and navigation.
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What to look for when choosing a motorcycle navigation system
Maps and directions on GPS or phone devices should be clearly visible while riding in bright sunlight, driving rain or dusty conditions.
Your chosen GPS device or smartphone app needs to be glove-friendly, stay charged, mounted securely to withstand vibrations, and sufficiently rugged to survive the weather and any accidental bike drops. Also useful is a quick release to remove your expensive GPS or phone and prevent theft when during stops.
With your eyes on the road, any voice turn-by-turn instructionsneed to be heard inside your helmet, integrated with your bluetooth helmet intercom or headset (we use Sena).
Creating a route for a motorcycle journey has different challenges to car journeys, where you want to get from A to B the fastest route. For biking, we want twisty, fun roads that avoid boring, busy highways and tolls please! Look for a GPS device or app that allows you to plan on a big screen, and easily sync or import GPX files. It is helpful to have points of interest displayed, as smaller bike tanks require more frequent refuelling, and riders need more frequent rest breaks with coffee.
We like to track our rides. Back home, your significant other might want to know that you are safe and be able to see your location. Since motorcyclists often travel in small groups, it is useful to know where your riding mate has gone.
Aside from routing and navigation, some motorcycle apps provide additional features, such as crash detection, social community, and curated riding routes.
Paper maps still have their place, slide one into your tank bag along with your reading glasses. Paper maps are good for a big picture overview, to chat over with locals and friends, and to mark up your routes.
Which is better for motorcycle navigation - a GPS device or smartphone app?
Choices, choices. Should you use a motorcycle GPS device, a smartphone app, or both? Which device, and which app?
The type of riding you do will influence your choice of device and apps for motorcycle navigation:
- If you are going out for a spin on local bitumen roads in an area with good road signs and mobile coverage, you probably don’t need a GPS device, a free smartphone app like Google will likely be enough.
- If you like to get off-road for some adventure motorcycling in the country or state forests, then consider a GPS, or a premium smartphone app with offline topographic maps, such as GaiaGPS.
- If you are planning a multi-day tour to places unknown, you might want both a GPS and an app supported by good route planning software. This allows you to organise your daily routes, accommodation and fuel stops, and other points of interest.
GPS devices and apps both provide features for route-planning, navigating with turn-by-turn directions, tracking your ride, and estimating when you will arrive. But some have better map layers or are easier to use than others.
Compared to a smartphone and app, motorcycle GPS devices are robust, and easier to see when riding and use wearing gloves. The screen layout of the GPS device is optimised for motorcycle navigation, while the user interface apps may not be as good (small fonts, poor contrast). GPS devices like the Garmin Zumo XT cost a lot more than an app, but route planning with Garmin Basecamp is not a great experience. Apps allow easier route planning software on a larger desktop screen that sync seamlessly with your phone. GPS technology in your phone works accurately without internet or mobile coverage, but you will need to remember to download maps for offline use before you leave home (this is a premium feature on most apps).
If you are a learner, or on a provisional license, your state regulations may prohibit you from using a smartphone for navigation while riding. You may be able to use a mounted GPS device, as a GPS device is not a phone.
Which is the best motorcycle GPS device?
We have Garmin Zumo 595 devices, an older, now discontinued model which has served us faithfully. The current model for motorcycles is the Garmin Zumo XT. We also use a Garmin inReach device for safety.
TomTom also make a motorcycle GPS, the Rider 550. We have limited experience with this device, but there are many reviews online.
We wouldn’t recommend using cheaper car GPS devices on a motorcycle.
Garmin Zumo XT
TomTom Rider 550
The ACCC cracked down on GPS providers using the marketing slogan “Lifetime Maps” since Garmin and TomTom’s idea of “lifetime” is not what you or I might expect from this promise. Buy a new device and you’ll pay for the maps again.
Can I use a smartphone to navigate on a motorcycle?
If you ride solo with your phone mounted on your motorcycle, you may not be able to call for help if you crash and are separated from the bike. I have a Garmin inReach that is attached to my jacket. Or ride with friends for safety!
GPS works without internet, and maps can be downloaded for offline use. Put your phone in airplane mode to save battery if travelling in regional areas without mobile coverage.
Which is the best smartphone GPS app for motorcycle navigation?
Apps for navigation can be divided into those that are general navigation apps, such as Google or GaiaGPS, and those that are motorcycle-specific, such as Rever or MyRoute-app. Some apps excel at finding new routes or planning long trips, while others are great for navigating on your bike in city areas with features like lane assist, or better for off-road adventuring in regional areas.
App features that are useful include:
Some useful GPS navigation apps are not motorcycle specific. We use both Google (for freeway and city travel) and GaiaGPS (for hiking, off-road travel by 4WD and motorcycle, and route planning) in Australia and overseas. Other apps, such as Rever and MyRoute-App, were built specifically for motorcyclists.
- Voice guided navigation connect with bluetooth to your helmet headset
- Accurate estimated time of arrival, with real-time traffic information
- Good points of interest, including fuel, food
- Can share location (requires internet access)
- Routing is limited (eg 10 waypoints), and hard to export routes from Google to GPS device
- Less accurate in regional areas when riding off-road
- OsmAnd (voice guided navigation with lane assist, offline maps and topography, good POI, GPX files, but no satellite maps or web interface for route planning )
- Waze (traffic, hazards, and speed cameras, but no topographic or offline maps, limited routing, and no support for GPX)
- Maps.Me (offline maps, but no web interface for route planning, and no GPX support)
- Local Australian government topographic maps
- Excellent route planning tools, custom waypoints and folders for organisation, with sync from website to phone app
- Import and export GPX files, easy to share routes
- No estimated time of arrival
- No curated motorcycle routes, hard to search Public Tracks to find great roads
- Limited points of interest, can’t search for fuel stops, food
Links to GaiaGPS are affiliate links, I earn a small commission at no cost to you. This does not affect my recommendation of this app that I use extensively.
- Community motorcycle routes to help find great roads
- Route-planning by surface type, points of interest including fuel, and sync from website to phone app
- Share location, safety alerts, tracking your friends
- 3D animations of your rides for sharing on social media
- Navigation with turn by turn has some limits (25 waypoints, no off-road)
- Negative online reviews of bugs, inaccuracies in offline maps, and battery use are a concern
- Curated motorcycle routes to help find great roads, particularly in Europe
- Good route planning tools, customisation, folders for organisation
- Supports GPX and other file formats
- Separate navigation app currently in beta costs another $30 annual subscription