2009 KTM 690 Rally Factory Replica through a Mongolia steppe

Above: If the terrain is lacking distinct features like the steppe above, using a GPS makes navigation a breeze compared to paper maps (Mongolia, 2015)


The advent of GPS technology has certainly been a game-changer for the modern-day adventure motorcyclist, who ventures off the beaten path far away from any marked road, signs, or people to ask for directions. Long gone are the days when you had to rummage obscure little shops to find maps for the next remote corner of the world you wanted to visit, with the only ones available often being totally outdated and incomplete. Nowadays, in a few minutes and with a few clicks, you can download the latest maps online, plan a new route turn by turn, or load up one that has been done by somebody before, while making sure that you hit all your points of interest, and that the distances between gas stations match your fuel range. 

Here are a few tips to help you make the most of this amazing technology

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HARDWARE

There are basically two options, either a dedicated GPS (ideally motorcycling-specific, like the Garmin Montana and Nuuvi series) or using a smartphone with a suitable app. 

The dedicated GPS devices tend to be waterproof and robust and have a resistive touch screen that is easy to read in direct sunlight and works great with gloves on. The interface is usually much more polished and functional, which gives this option an edge in usability while you are riding. A dedicated GPS also typically offers many more capabilities when it comes to following and recording off-road, non-routable tracks, which gives them a clear edge for adventure riders.

On the other hand, smartphones with a GPS app can leverage their cellular data connection—if there is reception—to get the latest road traffic and mapping data, opening hours and other information that you might need on the move, in addition to being useful for lots of other applications. They are definitely fiddlier to use while riding, a sturdy waterproof case is a must, as is a pair of gloves that is compatible with capacitive touch screens, whether factory-made or converted yourself with some conductive thread.

Sometimes the line between road and off-road riding gets a bit blurry (Malaysia, 2015)

Sometimes the line between road and off-road riding gets a bit blurry (Malaysia, 2015)

GETTING THE RIGHT MAPS, TRACKS AND SOFTWARE

Between internal memory and removable storage cards, space should not be an issue, but I would recommend storing only a couple of weeks’ worth of detailed mapping info on your device, to keep boot and loading times fast. 

Don’t follow your GPS blindly, even if you get tracks somebody else has ridden previously; the terrain might have changed significantly in the meantime (Kazakhstan, 2015)

Don’t follow your GPS blindly, even if you get tracks somebody else has ridden previously; the terrain might have changed significantly in the meantime (Kazakhstan, 2015)

For Garmin devices, I have had very good luck using the free open-source maps available from Openstreetmaps, which are fully routable and include pretty much all relevant points of interest. In some third-world places it might be worth investing in a paid map set, such as Tracks4Africa or similar, although I haven’t felt the need yet after 36 countries. 

For smartphones there are a plethora of app options that work well on both Android and iOS platforms, but you want to make sure that you use one that allows you to store mapping data locally, so that you can still reroute even if you lose your cellular connection. My favorites are Maps.me for on-road and MotionX for off-road navigation, and Google Maps and Waze while I am in cities (I have an unlocked phone and get a local SIM card with a prepaid data plan whenever I arrive in a new country).

Between websites such as GPSexchange.com and forums such as ADVrider and Horizons Unlimited, you can find cool tracks to ride all around the world, without having to spend lots of time planning on the computer or looking at maps.

IDEAL GPS SETUP WHILE RIDING

Whichever option you choose, the GPS should be mounted within easy reach, centered and ahead of you, so you can keep your eyes on what lies ahead as much as possible. The mount should be powered with a fused 12V DC power source from the bike (make sure the charging rate is fast enough, phones using a cellular data connection consume lots of energy), ideally while keeping everything waterproof. 

The nice thing with smartphones is that in addition to GPS use, they run all kinds of other useful apps as well…

The nice thing with smartphones is that in addition to GPS use, they run all kinds of other useful apps as well…

The display should be locked in either landscape or portrait mode (depending on your preference), so it doesn’t switch around while you are leaned over. Especially off-road, keeping the view locked in North Up mode will help give you a better sense of direction and overview, both while moving and at a standstill, because you don’t have to focus on a constantly changing windrose or direction symbol. 

Have the zoom level set to match the terrain and your speed, zooming in closer when there are lots of turns and you are going slow, and zooming out so you can preview upcoming turns early enough at faster speeds. I normally let my GPS do it for me automatically on roads, but prefer to keep the setting manual off-road, and vary from 80m/250ft to 500m/0.3 miles.

If routing information is available, showing the distance to the next turn and total remaining distance is helpful.

If your GPS or app offers the functionality, record your tracks and waypoints so you can later review and share them with friends.

HAVE A BACKUP

Technology can be great, as long as it works. In case of a failure, you should have at least one backup option that will help you find your way. 

Paper maps can be a great simple option if you know how to use them (you should!!), and they are available for the area you will be riding in. 

As a round-the-world rider, paper maps are just too much hassle, cost and inconvenience for me to source all the time, so in addition to my main Garmin GPS, I have my smartphone and tablet, which I carry anyway. I keep both of them fully charged, in ziplock bags for water protection, and with a full offline map set installed, so they are ready if I ever need them.

 

You wouldn’t want to get lost and end up on the the wrong path in an area like this (Cambodia, 2015)

You wouldn’t want to get lost and end up on the the wrong path in an area like this (Cambodia, 2015)


Since May 2014, Lukas Matzinger (@LukasM) has been riding a KTM 690 around the world, covering more than 55,000 miles through 30 countries on three continents so far. Passionate about off-road riding, he avoids the tarmac and sticks to backcountry dirt roads, 4x4 tracks and sometimes even single-track trails. You can follow his journey via Around the World with LukasM on Facebook or on Instagram @lukas.matzinger 

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