I'm looking for what's available in terms of navigation for long distance rides.

I will hopefully be doing some cycling around Europe in the coming summer, and would like to be able to know that I'm not going to get lost.

I'm open to all solutions, be it GPS navigation or strapping a map and compass to my handlebars!

What are the pros and cons of my options and what is most workable?

  • 3
    Hi. This question is asking for opinions which doesn't always go down too well on the Stack Exchange network (see: bicycles.stackexchange.com/faq#dontask). If you can provide more detail, like your budget, what sort of devices or systems you've considered already, you might be ok. Mar 14, 2013 at 18:34
  • I edited out the request for personal preferences to improve the objectivity of any further answers.
    – WTHarper
    Mar 16, 2013 at 1:24
  • This still isn't really answerable as it stands; the answers it's producing are showing that this is a discussion, not a question. Have voted to close, but I think that it could still be edited to be more specific. What are your preferences in terms of how you read a map? Will you have ready access to power? What is your budget? Do you have any map-reading experience? etc. Mar 31, 2013 at 14:22

6 Answers 6


I spent all last summer biking around Ireland, France, Italy (a bit), and Germany with my wife. We went with map and compass to avoid being dependent on a battery to not get lost.

Map Scale. In general, you need at least 1:250k map scale in my opinion. More detailed (i.e., 1:200k or less) is nice, but you can end up buying/schlepping a lot of maps that way.

Ireland. We used a 1:350k Rough Guide map that was just not quite detailed enough for bike touring.

France. Go with Michelin 1:250k regional maps -- super accurate.

Swizerland. Use the SwissTrails pdfs (a tour operator, but they are good), and follow the signs. Most amazing signage in Europe.

Germany. The ADFC/BVA bike maps. Also has crazy lots of signs, but the map really helps.

Italy. We used Michelin again but were disappointed in the accuracy, particularly compared to Michelin's France maps -- never found a good alternative though (we left Italy after a week since it was just too hot to tour in July).

Map Holders. See "Map During Touring?" on this site for info on map holders.

Compass. Definitely strap a mini-compass to your handlebars. Invaluable.

Camera. I didn't really think of a camera as a navigation device before this last trip, but it is really useful to take pictures of maps. Many European towns have maps posted on the outskirts, and it can be helpful to take a picture to refer to later. We would have been lost in a park in Italy had we not taken a picture of the trail map on the way in. Similarly, you can save on printing costs at an internet cafe by taking pictures of Google Maps at various zoom levels. I wouldn't plan a whole trip based on camera maps, but it is really nice to supplement. Just make sure you have extra batteries, that you know how to use the pan and zoom on your camera, so you can look at the details of a map-picture.

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    For Germany, you probably referred to the ADFC (all-German club of bicycling).
    – StefG
    Mar 20, 2013 at 8:36

I would use GPS for wilder trips, and a combination of online services and paper roadmaps for more civilized trips.

Both ways of doing it generate some dependency and some indepencence:

  1. With GPS, you depend on the battery, but you know your position in realtime, and if your device has embedded mapping you virtually never need to stop and ask for directions. You can even replan as you navigate with ease. Depending on your pace and how much you want to interact with local people and get tour tips, that may be desireable or not.

  2. With ordinary paper road maps, you don't need to turn anything on, neither to buy expensive gadgets, but you end up needing some extra sources of information. Any internet-café will give you access to abuntant map services, so that you can plan ahead, and then navigate.

I have travelled these ways already, and currently I use to plan ahead online, specially with GoogleEarth/Maps looking for secondary roads. Then I take minimalistic notes on paper, and optionally take some gadget with me during the ride. I prefer to follow, in parallel, what I have planned and what I am seeing on the road, thinking stuff like "well, after that hill the road is going to fork, and I have to take left" or "after the next town, there will be 30km for my destination". I leave the gps turned off, and only turn it on for reference in case I have some doubt or get lost.

GPS these days are very reliable (I would recommend Garmins), but also satellite imagery and online road maps are so vastly abundant that they make simple a travel that in the past would be complicated.

Hope this helps!

  • by the way, I don't use cyclecomputers anymore, but most fellow riders think this is excessively minimalistic... Mar 14, 2013 at 18:33

Will you be planning your route beforehand, or will it all be on an ad hoc basis?

I suspect if you're going to do everything ad-hoc, then you will need an array of maps. I guess the most difficult thing here will be translating a path on the map into a daily rideable distance.

However I have gone touring with a pre-planned route so I can certainly say what worked for me. This was basically spending time on the web beforehand, and on the road using a cycle computer and having a smartphone for backup.


I use a site called BikeRouteToaster to plan routes. I don't know how well-known this site is, and I'm certainly aware of other sites that offer this, but I like this one. You get a Google Maps interface which allows you to create routes. Having created your route you get things like distances and elevation profiles there and then, so you can fit your route to what you want to ride for the day. The end result is a file containing your route - GPX is an standard format which has been around forever, it also export TCX files for newer devices.

Cycle Computer:

Central to my planning was a Garmin 800 (I see there is now a new one out, so you may get a bargain). This is quite a high-end computer so you will pay accordingly. However it contains a GPS and will take in suck in the courses from BikeRouteToaster. The big thing about this is that it has a micro SD card on which you can put maps.

Now, don't get me wrong, the display on this unit can make map-reading quite painful, but in terms of showing your immediate vicinity and indicating which way you should go, it works well. You're not going to get lost.

The maps, unfortunately, have to be in a proprietary format, and this again is reflected in the price. However the good news is that there are various resources on the web which will convert Open Source Maps into the format required by the device. I bought a 16GB card and have pretty much all of Europe on mine, at no cost. I used http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/ to do this, but there are others I guess.

The good thing about using a computer is battery life - my 800 will quite happily run all day with power to spare, and will recharge via USB. And this is the big win over something like a smartphone, which will drain pretty quickly if you're using its GPS all the time.

Mobile Phone

Having said that, a smartphone is great to have as a backup. Most of the time it just sat dormant in my pocket, but every now and then I would get it out just to use its GPS/maps. I have an application called Memory Map, which offers high-quality commercial maps (Ordnance Survey in the UK, IGN in France etc.), but again which come at a price. I've been using this app for years and have built up a collection of maps... Alternatively of course you have freebies like Google Maps (although bear in mind it is worth caching maps beforehand since you won't necessarily have a phone signal when you need it).

Having the smartphone was my alternative to carrying paper maps, and a 5" screen may not work for everyone.

Like I say this setup worked for me, but I do think it is dependent on how much you want to prepare your route in advance. I realise that overplanning could potentially spoil this kind of holiday if you're not careful.


If you're planning on europe you should see See http://www.opencyclemap.org/ for national and regional routes.


I have left all of my navigation needs to my iPhone5. I like the 'one-device' scenario. For my longer distance stuff I am starting to get into cue sheets. I think mapmyride.com has them available when you make a map. Cue sheets have distance and name of next turn but also how long until the turn.

My iPhone does all of that so I don't know how much you want to fiddle with on the bike ride. A mounted smart phone with scrolling cue sheets is easier to read than a map.


I use a Garmin 800 - planning is great and there are maps for most of the world. Good battery life.

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