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We are going to do a bike tour through France and Spain with a friend at the end of the summer. I was wondering what is the best option for a gps. Ideally we want something with the ability to display maps. I know that sometimes it is possible to download some free ones off the internet (the ones they sell are really expensive!). Anyone has experience with this?

My budget is limited so I don't know if I can afford a Garmin 800 or even a 705.

The other priority is that it should have a more or less decent battery life. I personally prefer AA battery in case I cannot charge it somewhere.

By the way, has anyone used an iPhone for such a task? My friend has one. I can immediately think of a couple of drawbacks. First, the danger of breaking such an expensive gadget. Second, consuming all the battery very quickly.

I do mountaineering and trekking in the mountains as well so perhaps I wouldn't mind spending a bit more if I get something that I can later use on those trips as well.

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Has anyone tried openstreetmaps? –  Nik Apr 6 '13 at 11:20
    
The more esoteric mapping functions are useful, indeed, but not actually necessary. The overall fun of planning ahead and hacking your own "navigation strategy" in a limited (and cheaper) device most times is greater than the more comfortable (and lazy) offer of abundant embedded maps. But sure, they KNOW how to advertise... Don't take your credit card to the shop! –  heltonbiker Apr 6 '13 at 18:36
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@Nik - I've tried OpenStreetMaps on my Garmin 800 for road riding. Great. Bought myself a 16GB micro SD card and have put multiple maps on it - most of Europe in fact. The only thing with putting them on the 800 is that they need to be in "Garmin" format, but http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/ helped me there. I have no experience of OSM on devices other than the Garmin, I would also be unsure if you could still do this with the 810, maybe someone could confirm? –  PeteH Apr 7 '13 at 11:40
    
similar to bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/15215/… but get a sim with some data. Battery could be an issue, but you got to have mobile anyway these days. –  imel96 Apr 22 '13 at 3:42
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7 Answers 7

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Smartphones are great on the flexibility side (lots of customizeability, different app options, etc) but tend to have a less trustworthy satellite connection and a poor battery life compared to dedicated GPS devices.

I would suggest you to consider an eTrex or GPSMap62 if they are in your price range.

As for the actual need of embeddable mapping ability of the device, I have a very old eTrex Venture (the grayscale display, green unit one), which had support only for a somewhat limited set of Points of Interest (not routeable map at all). I had been able to hack some custom-made maps inside of it with softwares such Mapdekode (VERY nerdy, I have to admit), but in the end that all worked fine, with the "thrill of discovery" always present during navigation, since it only showed points and not the roads themselves.

I believe that nowadays such hackings must be easier, and most probably even unnecessary, given the overwhelming amount of WebMaps available at any internet access point.

If I were to plan a trip like yours nowadays, I would get a smartphone or tablet to plan the ride the night before in Google Maps, and a mid-level Garmin unit to navigate during the day along the more or less predefined route. Most probably I would even let the GPS turned off in my pocket, turning it on just for quick checks. I have already done that, it's fun and unobtrusive, but most folks think this is too minimalistic...

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Does the eTrex support maps? It looks like it is within by budget, however there are many models and some don't seem to support maps... –  Nik Apr 12 '13 at 9:44
    
eTrex is in fact a product line. THE entry-level eTrex (yellow one) is quite minimalistic, and unfortunately the price slope is quite steep from one model to another. Not to say that sometimes you get a lot of functionality you don't want (and pay for it) just to get one extra feature from the next model in the line... –  heltonbiker Apr 12 '13 at 14:05
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If you have an iPhone or an Android phone there are various free options, some based on OpenStreetMaps, but even Google's own solution is excellent. For google maps you can download areas to store locally (for those areas you know you will have no connectivity) and it is free!

I'm playing a lot of Ingress at the moment, which requires 10 - 20 hour stints with my phone continuously running GPS, with the screen on (ie very high load) and my solution to the power problem was this 12,000 mAh battery pack from Amazon. It is only a little larger than my Galaxy S3 so sometimes I hold it with the phone, or I pop it in my rucksack.

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Garmin now has a lower cost touring gps that is more suited to navigation than than training. It comes with maps and runs about $250 USD. It's called Garmin Edge Touring. There is a more expensive model which supports a heart rate monitor for about $50 more.

I'm guessing this would work well with software like ridewithgps or garmin connect to plan out routes and upload them to the device.

Here's a link to the product page: https://buy.garmin.com/en-US/US/into-sports/cycling/edge-touring/prod134596.html

Alternatively, if you prefer to use a smartphone and may not be able to charge your phone frequently. I recommend a battery bank charger like the verbatim power bank charger, a dynamo powered usb charger, or solar usb charger (which may work better to charge a battery pack and charge your device from that as needed). Be careful when selecting something like this, since some of these may or may not support the iphone.

The new iphone 5s has a special co-processor to handle navigation tasks. This should lead to decreased battery usage over older iphone models. This might be a consideration if your plan is up and were planning on upgrading phones.

Keep in mind, you may not always have a data connection with a cell phone in remote areas, so you may need to consider apps that can cache maps offline.

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I am planning a cycle tour this Spring from Dieppe to Paris and want to use a GPS to navigate. I wasn't sure whether to use my iPhone or my Garmin eTrex 20. The eTrex 20 is a mid-range unit with a colour screen and you can transfer maps to it through a microSD card.

In the end the eTrex 20 won out:

  • Compared to an iPhone it is extremely rugged. My iPhone would never have survived the fall my eTrex suffered when it wasn't fully seated in its mount. The eTrex now has a minor chip on the plastic casing and that's it.
  • the eTrex is waterproof which is ideal when you are caught in a shower and want to spend as little time as possible navigating. You can get waterproof iPhone cases but you would need a lot of trust to use it in a downpour.
  • I've never had that much joy with offline maps on an iPhone as occasionally tiles do not download and I only notice when I'm lost in the middle of a city with only a load of grey squares for help. Much better to have the full maps on your device (e.g. OpenStreetMap/OpenVeloMap or pay for the CityNavigator maps).
  • The battery life of the eTrex 20 is amazing: you can get 24+ hours from 2AA batteries.
  • It's easy to download POIs to your device to include restaurants, shops, hotels etc which you may find useful on tour.
  • A separate device for navigation is good as if the iPhone battery dies when you are lost you can't call for help!

One major negative is that the eTrex is slow. Map redraws take a few seconds and it's not always intuitive to use. Also the BaseCamp software is not great and it's not straightforward to set up the device for navigation, but after a few trial runs I've got used to the quirks (mostly by avoiding using BaseCamp as much I can!).

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A few weeks ago I used a Blackberry Playbook (mini-tablet) with Open Street Maps (OSMAND) downloaded onto it for a two week bike tour in the North-east United States.

I found it very, very helpful! Especially when you don't know where you are. It can pinpoint your location on a map in about a minute.

For the future I would recommend something smaller with really good battery life. An iphone is a good size, but the battery life is too short. A smartphone with an excellent battery life is probably.

In the future I would also consider a solar charger to use while I'm riding. Battery life was the limiting factor for me.

In North America Open Street Maps is pretty good, but it is not perfect (no map is), so you still need to talk with locals and ask about the best routes.... and actually that's a fun part of cycling anyway.

Google maps may be the best on-line maps, but I don't think that Google maps has a good off-line version. You might need to hunt around a bit for something else. OSMAND was good for me.

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I have a Garmin Dakota 20 on the bicycle, it is excellent for this use.

Pros :

  • cheap
  • excellent usability, fast, µSD card, can store lots of tracks/maps/etc, readable in sunlight
  • Uses AA batetries
  • very long battery life
  • waterproof (no problem in pouring rain)

Cons :

  • touchscreen sometimes not as precise as I'd like
  • uh... that's about it

Forget about the smartphones (battery life is too short, unreadable in sunlight), and anything that has LiIon or any type of battery which is not AA.

You can buy AA batteries anywhere, so if you're in a pinch, or forgot to charge, no problem...

I live near Lyon in france, so if you plan to coming near, drop me a message, I'll send you some GPX traces to approach the city through the proper safe and nice route... I see way too many tour cyclists on the 4 lane highway because there are ZERO signage to point them to the right cycling route...

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There are many apps available on all smartphone platfroms based on Open Street Map.

On iOS I have had very good experience using MotionX GPS. It's cheap and feature packed.

The quality of the OSM maps will vary from incredibly good to useless, depending where you're travelling. MotionX can fetch data from other sources and can even be used without any map at all (eg: ocean navigation) so it's still the right choice even if the OSM maps aren't very good where you're travelling.

With regard to battery, you can buy waterproof/shockproof cases with a built in battery that will significantly extend battery life. But they're very expensive. You can also buy just an external battery pack, which plugs into the dock connector and will give you an extra charge or two - these are fairly cheap.

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