GPS Systems For Bicycle Touring
After 4 years of cycling without a GPS, we finally took the plunge and bought the Garmin 62S.
Our indulgent purchase of the summer has triggered a lot of interest from our cycling friends, so in this article we’re explaining why we bought a GPS, its use for bike touring and we’re highlighting some of the other popular GPS options currently available.
#1. Why did we buy a GPS? We managed to cycle around the world without a GPS for 3 years, so clearly this is a luxury and not a necessary piece of equipment.
In much of the world, where road choices are limited, a GPS doesn’t add a lot to the navigation experience and sometimes it can even be a negative thing. It’s all too easy to blindly follow that line on the screen and become immersed in your own little bubble, ignoring opportunities to talk to people (after all, you no longer need directions) and the many opportunities for serendipitous adventure. Knowing when not to use a GPS is as important as knowing when to use it.
If there’s only one road, a GPS doesn’t give you much advantage in terms of navigating.
That said, we currently live in crowded Europe and a GPS is incredibly handy when navigating through a lot of cities and populated areas. There is no way you’ll ever be able to buy a detailed map for every city centre, so a GPS can save endless pain getting into and through the bigger places on your route.
At the other end of the spectrum, we’re also hoping to ride some remote tracks and when it comes to back roads, a GPS can be very handy indeed. When we tried to follow parts of the TransAndalus trail last year, we got hopelessly lost (despite having relatively detailed maps) because there were so many random tracks and driveways that were hard to distinguish from the real roads. A GPS would have saved us a lot of hassle.
Another great reason to get a GPS is for all the free maps and tracks! It costs a fortune to buy high-detail maps but with our GPS, we now have access to a great bicycle map of Holland, 1:24,000 scale topographical maps for most of the U.S.A. and routes mapped by other cyclists on sites like Ride With GPS.
#2. Why the Garmin 62S? We were turned onto this series of GPS models by Tara & Tyler’s excellent experiences with the previous model (the 60CSx). Andrew took charge of this decision, and liked the 62S because it has:
- A fast processor, meaning images of even very detailed maps show up quickly, without any lag. On other GPS systems with slower processors, the screen couldn’t refresh fast enough.
- A micro SD card slot, so we can add more memory.
- Buttons to navigate between the various functions. Personally, we find buttons easier to use than touchscreens, especially when we’re wearing gloves. We also find that we get used to where the buttons are, and can use the GPS almost without looking at it.
- A robust, waterproof case for cycling in extreme weather.
- AA Batteries which can be bought anywhere (although we’ll use rechargables and keep them powered with our SON Dynamos).
The Garmin 62S, mounted on the bike and ready to go.
We were also reassured by people who told us this GPS series from Garmin performs well in cold weather. Not that we plan to be cycling in -40°C but we do some winter camping, so cold weather performance is important.
On the downside, the 62S is bulkier and heavier than many models.
Which Other GPS Models Are Good For Cycling?
If you want to explore other options, here are a few of the models we evaluated. All have their merits for cycling. Which one you pick depends on your budget and your preferences. If you’re really trying to do things on the cheap, look for older models of these GPS Systems. You can often buy them for a song on eBay.
The main difference between the two is that the 550t has a camera, so you can quickly snap photos that are automatically marked with the location where they were taken.
You’ll probably still want to carry a separate camera, so unless taking photos with geolocation tags is really important to you, save yourself some money and get the 450t. The listed specs for the two models are identical in every other respect.
Battery life is 16 hours, it takes a micro SD card and it weighs 190g, with batteries.
Garmin eTrex Vista HCx
This is one of the cheaper GPS systems on the market but for the price it performs very well indeed. Its compact size is especially nice for bike touring, and it’s featherlight at just 155g, including batteries!
The Vista HCx ( on Amazon) also has a 25-hour battery life out of the box, and the memory can be expanded with a micro SD card. Tom Allen has an earlier model from the same series and likes it. He has this to say about the eTrex series of GPS systems.
There are a few models in the eTrex range; all are basic, rugged hand-helds which are still on the market after many years, attesting to their simplicity and usefulness, and most of these models have mapping functionality. Mine isn’t perfect, nor is it the best of the bunch, but it does everything I need it to do.
There’s also the Satmap Active 10 Plus to check out (although it gets mixed reviews; some say it’s more suited to walking than cycling and apparently the SD Card slot is not entirely waterproof), and – if battery life isn’t an issue – you can always use your Android or iPhone smartphone as a GPS.
- How To: Make The Most Of A GPS On A Cycling Trip – Lots of helpful tips on using a GPS for a bike tour.
- GPS For Cyclists – An excellent overview of various GPS options for biking (this is a very helpful comparison site too)