Offline Planning and Navigation For Long Bike Trips

Planning a long-distance solo cycling trip from the comforts of your couch far away is difficult by itself. Lay on top of that the fact that you have to be relying on your past self when actually navigating according to that plan in the middle of unknown territory. If this sounds terrifying to you, don’t be. It’s become increasingly simpler if you know what you’re doing. Alternatively, group bike tours are a perfect introduction before going on your first solo trip. More on that topic here.

Situational awareness is the foundation if you are out and about in foreign land. You need every hint you can get to know where you are and where you are going. In that sense, it seems like a metaphor for life itself …

I remember faintly how back in the last millennium paper maps and compass were the only way to get around. Plus a flashlight if you miscalculated and were still on the road after the sun went down for the day. Although this type of navigation was very satisfying, it’s also very time-consuming and often leads to the frustration of constant stops to check with the map when you could be on the move. Something that’s crucial on a bike tour with time constraints.

Enter GPS and the whole world changed. For a while Garmin has the market cornered on GPS units including the Edge series for bikes. But if you ever used a GPS from any brand to navigate by bike you’ll know that the user interface is clumsy, the battery life makes has you worried constantly, the maps are expensive, while the GPS units themselves are really expensive, the displays are too small, programming your own courses is cumbersome, but worse of all, they cause the user to have no overall situational awareness of where they actually are at any one point.

Can you use Google Maps offline for cycling?

In principle, Google Maps can handle offline cycling navigation via map downloads. Offline Maps are still better than nothing in an emergency or if mobile data is limited when you’re on the go. Google Maps can work without mobile data, however, it is not optimally designed for bike touring. It’s a roulette if it does know specific cycling paths or sends you down a high-traffic road together with motorists.

Google Maps simply lacks functionality like simple route planning, but fundamentally altitude and gradient. Those are important factors if you want (need) to go far and fast on a bike trip. It’s especially unuseful in countries where Google services are prohibited, notably in China. Personally, I only use it for a rough estimate of where I am and which direction I need to go.

The best cycling route planner

… is also the cheapest.

A Garmin bike GPS will cost you $300 to $400. In addition to that, the maps are $100 a pop. So much for the idea that bike traveling is a cheap way to experience foreign countries, right? Not if you blow your budget on unnecessary gadgets. Don’t get me wrong, a Garmin bike computer has its merits while mountain biking, but has its limits on long rides where navigation is key.

Here’s a solution that is 10x better and 3x cheaper:

refurbished iPhone 7 ($125) and a power bank ($30-$60) to be running MapOut ($5) for offline navigation.

Eight benefits of this solution:

  1. Offline navigation, no cellular contract required. The places you need navigational help are typically out there in no man’s land where there is no cell signal anyway. That’s why offline navigation is the only viable solution.
  2. Free maps. You can download maps from anywhere on the planet for free using OpenStreetMap.Org. No more buying $100 map packs for every new place you visit.
  3. Huge display! You have a huge display which is required for real navigation. The iPhone 7 is an older design by now, but compared to a dedicated GPS has still more screen area at a fraction of the weight and size.
  4. Fast, responsive touch interface. It’s a given on modern smartphones, but still not on current GPS units. You’ll never take a quality touch screen for granted if you ever needed fumble a common unit one-handed while trying to ride your bike in a straight line.
  5. Week long battery life. Its great that Garmins for biking are so tiny and light, the problem is that they are useless on long trips because despite what they say, the battery life is 8 hours tops. Just get a portable powerbank and you can power your iPhone all week. Note that these high capacity 27,000 mAh battery banks can last a week, but that comes at the cost of weight size and, well, actual dollar cost. Don’t be surprised since on the imiages they kinda look the same. If you want a battery that just lasts two days, get the 13,000 mAh units.
  6. Route planning on the fly. This is a huge underestimated benefit. On long distance bike tours pre-planning the route is the thing to do. But you can always bet on, things changing and changing fast. You thought you wanted beautiful gravel paths along the tranquil river but then you discover that your butt is tired, its only 4 hours to sunset, and you are still 100 miles from your hotel ā€“ you need a new route! With most navigational computers you need an external device to do detailed route mapping, not so with this app. In 3 minutes you can easily plan a new route by swiping on your phone.
  7. Situational awareness. When you use turn by turn directions on a small bike navigational computer, let’s be honest, you really have no idea where you are. You simply have to trust it and follow its directions. The thing with trust is, it often makes stupid and costly mistakes. This happens all the time: You make a wrong turn and it forces you to make a u-turn and go back to follow its pre-determined route. If you had MapOut, you would see that the route your are on is fine and that after 5 minutes they will join up again ā€“ just keep going and stop riding in circles for your GPS!
  8. Privacy. You have no data connection therefore you cannot be tracked by malware, spyware or your friendly neighborhood apps. No social media apps like Strava are saving your every move so it can be sold to Google.

How to use MapOut

Install

  1. Setup your iPhone with wifi.
  2. Pay and download the $5 MapOut app in the AppStore (iOS only, not Android).
  3. Download all the maps you will need.
  4. Plan your route and GO!

Planning your route with MapOut

All route planning is done offline, you don’t need wifi or cellular connection.

  1. Settings: Set imperial or metric.
  2. Turn on map overlays and make sure that bike routes, transportation, and MTB routes are on. This way the map will always show recommended bike routes on the map highlighted in green.
  3. Make a new route for each day. Double tap to indicate the start location.
  4. Along your intended path, tap in regular distances to generate the desired route. Zoom in and out to as need to see what is optimal. It works best to tap about every 5 miles so it chooses the route you are requesting between every check point you set. Also, zoom in before clicking to make sure it’s the road you think it is.
  5. Continue tapping along the route and when you make a mistake just tap on the undo button.
  6. When you are done, click on the save and exit. Now when you click on your freshly designed route, you will see the entire route and its terrain profile – which is kind of important on a bike trek.
  7. Thats it. Well done, move on to the next day’s route.

To help you in the planning process, I compiled helpful tips to ride faster and farther on long days in the saddle to ensure you hit your daily minimum mileage.

Practice makes perfect: trip preparations

Things do not happen perfectly just by themselves, it takes lots of thought and preparation to make your plan go off without a hitch. We all know a certain kind of people. The ones that always have the most amazingly dramatic stories to tell about horrible situations and problems ā€¦ because of the manufactured drama. They love drama. I don’t.

If you want drama with your adventures, when you are traveling to another country to do multi-week bike camping, feel free to wing it. And here’s how to do it: Just throw a bunch of stuff in a suitcase at the last minute and then, surprise, surprise, you forget something important and have to take taxi rides all over town to various bike shops to find the thing you forgot. Done. You can thank me later šŸ˜‰

If you’re like me and don’t like artificial drama, test out your plan first. Test your equipment, your riding gear, your tent, and your navigation. This can easily be done around town on roads you know. It’s not about the destination but about gaining experience and trust in yourself and in your stuff. And if you come across a hiccup or improvement, you’ll be glad it wasn’t thousands of miles away.

Even if you have done it before with the selected equipment, and even more so if you haven’t, you’ll want to do an entire dry run at home to make sure you’re not missing any vital tool or piece of equipment. Here is a common checklist you can use to test out before bike trekking:

  • Pack up bike, camping gear, and carry-on bags as if you were getting on the airplane.
  • Pretend you just arrived at your biking destination. Unpack bike and load it up.
  • Take it for a spin with all gear attached and navigation in place.
  • Ride the bike to a park and set up tent. Don’t get arrested for illegal camping. Or just do that in your garden for less potential drama.
  • Break camp and bike home.
  • Repack bike and all gear like you were getting back on the airplane.

If this seems like overkill, combine any one of those steps with a normal ride or activity. The point is to test your plan and potentially reveal shortcomings you hadn’t thought of. Your reward for doing your due diligence is a trip that looks and feels effortless.

Also, packing a bike into a suitcase is not exactly a simple matter. Even for folding travel bikes. And that also applies to anyone opening the case in transit. The TSA (or equivalent) routinely opens odd luggage to check it out first hand. Because of this, you have to pack extra carefully. Although you may have infinite patience to pack your expensive bike properly to avoid any hint of damage, the TSA has no such patience. You have to make it easy for them. Not only does the bike need to be properly padded, but it also has to stay together in a big un-moveable ball so that when the TSA pulls it out, they can easily put it back in just the way they found it.

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