The difference between a high-quality GPS unit and a cheap knock-off is like comparing a Mil-Spec tritium compass to one you’d find in the bottom of a Cracker Jack box. This distinction is even more important for us trail riders, since clear reception and durability are critical to finding your way off-road. As such, recognize the technology you’ll need and be sure to buy a good GPS. In Romania, we used the Garmin eTrex Legend HCx and eTrex Summit HC, both of which are more than capable when it comes to demanding two-wheeled use. Serious riders know that battery life is a limiting factor and vibration will, over time, cause the contacts to dirty-up. Having a unit that can accept 12-volt power from the bike is the most secure way to power the GPS.Master the functions.
Most GPS units feature a wealth of functions, buttons and features, and you’re not going to master these from simply reading the user manual. The best way to become familiar with your GPS is to go for a hike and play with every single function along the way. Doing this at a walking speed is much more practical than trying to master your GPS on a trail ride, and you’ll learn more than you think by simply playing around with the thing in your living room.Mount it:
Of course, it isn’t practical to ride with a GPS in your pocket and pull it out when you need to navigate. The best method is obviously the handlebar mount, and the best handlebar mount is one that is going to stay put while still being accessible. We had a lot of success with the RAM high strength composite cradles and mounts (www.ram-mount.com) that attach to the handlebar with a U-bolt base. Wherever you mount your GPS, you want to make sure that the unit itself is tucked away enough to provide adequate protection without making it too tough to access the buttons.Find a good angle.
Finding a decent mounting angle and position for a GPS on your handlebar is simply a matter of trial and error. You want to be able to see the screen when you’re either sitting or standing. A good rule of thumb is this: If you aim the GPS so you’re looking dead-on at the screen when you’re halfway between sitting and standing, it’s close to being in the right spot. You’ll also want to make sure that the screen isn’t angled too far to the left or right, which it almost certainly will be if the arm of the handlebar mount is pushed low and tight against the bar itself (for protection). A good way around this is to file the stops on the GPS-side socket so that the rubber ball has a bit more clearance. Going too far will compromise mounting solidity, but some delicate filing can help you reach the perfect spot.Set up your display.
Modern GPS units like the Garmin eTrex have several different displays with countless options, and we’d need this entire magazine to describe them all to you. Here are the basics: For most off-road applications, the ‘map’ page is the most useful and the one you’ll be looking at repeatedly. Pick this page, turn the auto zoom off and set the text size to medium. Be sure to set the display mode to ‘Auto’ so that it isn’t switching colors twice a day. Then, choose a nice, bright background color scheme-diamond is great on the Garmin-and find a contrasting routing color (pink works really well). Oh, and unless you’ve spent some serious time across the pond or are unnaturally gifted with math, be sure that your distance/ speed units are set to ‘Statute’ or you’ll be converting kilometers all day.Dial in your data fields:
Once your display is set up, you’ll want to get your data fields dialed in. As a general rule, more than two data fields on your map page will make it crowded (unless your GPS has a huge screen), so stick with the most important. For Romaniacs, we used ‘Speed’ as one data field (because there were maximum speeds in certain town sections that we had to adhere to) and ‘Course’ (the direction you are moving in). There are a wealth of data fields available including elevation, distance to next, overall average and accuracy. Play with them all and decide what you like.Determine ‘up.’Most GPS map displays give you two options: ‘Track Up’ or ‘North Up’. In ‘Track Up’ mode, the route you are following is laid out directly in front of you; conversely, ‘North Up’ provides an overhead view of your route with north at the top, just like a topographical map. It’s commonly easier to follow a route in ‘Track Up’ because you just have to keep the little arrow (you) on the colored line (your track). If this view just doesn’t make sense you can use ‘North Up’, but beware of getting turned around if you’re just glancing at the screen. And remember, the GPS needs to be in motion to know which way it is going. It can get confusing when the screen flops if you are not moving (or going slowly).
In order to maximize the benefits of your GPS display, you’ll need to find the best zoom level for the terrain, speed and route that you’re riding. In most instances, however, this means constantly adjusting your zoom level to suit what you’re doing. For example, if you’re buzzing flat out on a fast fire road, you might want to zoom out to between 0.5 or even 1.2 miles. But if you’re trying to navigate a set of switchbacks in the woods, you could be in as close as 50 or even 30 feet. This is another one of those things that you’ll learn through experience, but there’s nothing wrong with continually adjusting your zoom to find the best display for what you’re doing at that moment. On average we set our zoom to around 500 feet or less in Romania, but would adjust this as the terrain changed.Stop before you fidget.
This might be a good time to point out the obvious fact that riding a motorcycle takes exceptional concentration, especially if you’re trying to navigate through unfamiliar terrain. While it’s OK to glance at your GPS to make sure that you’re on course, you should never look at it for extended periods of time; doing so is a sure way to find yourself upside-down in a ditch. If you get lost or just want to tweak a setting, don’t try to fidget with your GPS on the fly. Instead, find a safe spot to pull over and do what you need to do. Not only will this make the required action faster because you’ll be giving it your full concentration, but you’ll undoubtedly be saving yourself from doing something dumb while not watching the trail.Find higher ground.
Let’s be clear: Modern GPS units are incredibly sophisticated, but they aren’t magical. If you’re not getting a clear satellite signal, it’s probably because the antenna isn’t finding a good line to the sky. If this happens, spare yourself a freak out and instead put your energy into finding higher ground. There are a lot of things that can affect a GPS signal-from clouds and fog to dense trees or buildings-and nine times out of ten you just need to get away from them to reacquire the satellites.Double up.
If resources and handlebar real estate permit it, serious off-roaders should strongly consider running two GPS units, side-by-side. The reason for this is that two screens allow you to effectively double your view in that you can run one GPS zoomed in tight and the other backed out. This eliminates the need to play with the zoom level and it also gives you a backup should something happen to one unit or the other.Secure for safety.
If I rode with $250+ of cash on my handlebar, I’d sure as heck make sure it was secure. Your GPS is no less valuable than money, and whether you use safety wire, a lanyard or a zip-tie (pictured), you should be sure to tether your unit to its mount. In Romania, my teammate lost one of his Garmins in a high-speed crash, and it took a scary 45 seconds for us to find it. Don’t make the same mistake.Carry extra batteries.
Sounds like a no brainer, right? You’d be surprised how many people forget to pack spare GPS batteries in their fanny packs. AAs weigh next to nothing and take up little space, but you need to make sure to store them properly so they don’t rattle around, leak or drain. That said, keeping spare batteries on hand (or, better yet, tapping into your bike’s power source) will ensure that you aren’t left hanging halfway into a ride.Remove after flight.
After your ride is over and you’ve expertly navigated your way back to the truck, take a minute to pull the GPS out of its mount and store it in a safe place. If you’re an adventure rider, this will keep your GPS from being stolen if you head into a restaurant at the end of the day. For trail warriors, making a habit of stowing your GPS after a ride will ensure that you don’t accidentally leave it out in the elements on the trailer ride home or pressure wash it with your bike. I’ve found that a goggle bag works really well as a place to keep a GPS safe and sound while not in use.Clean with care.Despite most GPS units’ claims to be ‘weather resistant,’ you don’t want to go blasting your GPS with a garden hose to clean it off-most manufacturers’ warranty plans don’t cover raw stupidity. Think of your GPS as a delicate cell phone, and care for it as such. This means soft rags, lightly soaked cotton swabs and no harsh chemicals that could eat the rubber or plastic components.Have (responsible) fun! Riding with a GPS opens a variety of doors for the off-road rider, and is a fun tool to use to help you explore the great outdoors on two-wheels. Have fun feeling like a fighter pilot as you plot your way around your favorite trails!