GPS Systems For Bicycle Touring

Garmin 62SAfter 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.

There are 2 questions that seem to keep coming up:

#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.

The straight, straight roads of eastern Oregon
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).

Garmin 62CS GPS
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.

GPS Cold Weather

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. Garmin Oregon 550TWhich 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.

Garmin Oregon 450t or Oregon 550t
If you want a touchscreen, the Garmin Oregon 450t (£ 7.99 on Amazon ) and Oregon 550t (£ 7.99 on Amazon) are popular models among bike tourists.

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 Oregon 550t review

Garmin eTrex Vista HCxGarmin 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 (£ 12.99 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.

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  1. James Dean
    22nd June 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    An interesting article. I’ve been using the gpsmap62s for the last three months crossing Europe from Leeds, England to Istanbul. It’s been an invaluable tool and has never let me down, I have eight re chargeable batteries which last me about 3-4days. I can re charge them whenever I stop in a campsite or bnb. I think one of the plus signs for me is that having the confidence in the gps leaves me to enjoy the trip n surroundings rather than constantly trying to figure out where I am and where to go. It’s weathered more than it’s fair share of storms on the Hungarian plains and several times I’ve dropped it and it’s still working. I’d highly recommend it to anyone, even though they aren’t cheap they’re definately worth the money.

  2. Shaun
    22nd June 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    If you’re slimming down on devices and don’t want to go for a GPS, I’d suggest a Nokia Symbian phone like an N8 or C7. Nokia Maps are downloadable to the phone itself unlike the iPhone or Android’s Google Maps which eat up data allowances – expensive when roaming. In my experience the Navteq provided maps on Nokia’s Map service are pretty accurate.

    The N8’s camera might be enough instead of carrying another camera. My C7 is ok for a camera, especially distance shots – better than most of the HTCs but not quite iPhone 4.

    Lastly, Nokia do a dynamo driven bicycle charger – Google for a DC-14 . I use that with a C7. The bottle dymano is cheap and nasty and the handlebar mount is a little basic but for about £20 you get the electronics and cabling to charge a phone. Add a Nokia CA-146c adaptor (about £2 on ebay) and you can charge most USB equipment.

    Nokia Symbian phones aren’t fashionable, Nokia have (stupidly) gone for Windows as their primary phone OS and Symbian is clunky but they’re usually cheaper, better made and have twice the battery life of other smartphones.

    They also announced yesterday that they’re putting Maps on their non-smartphones. The C2 costs under 70 Euro and they have dual-sim models coming. Those might be perfect for touring, sipping power and allowing both your home SIM and a local SIM.

  3. Jon
    22nd June 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    I have a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx, which is a great little handheld. I use free maps based on openstreetmap data (like the wikipedia for maps), which are converted into routable Garmin maps by this service: Openstreetmap is a community project – if you find an error or a missing feature anyone can (and should!) go and update the master map – but most of Europe and N. America is now very accurate, and the rest of the world is coming along nicely.

  4. chris
    22nd June 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Check out this site for free cycling maps:

  5. Doug W
    22nd June 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    Interesting article. We spent a lot of time this past weekend debating pros/cons of a GPS and, for now, decided that the trip we have planned at the moment didn’t warrant it — we carry a basemap then create routes in GoogleMaps and print cue-sheets. A bit old-school, but this works for us for the 3-10 day trips we’re currently limited to.

    One thing the GPS can do that maps can’t is to let you know where you are. As the article says, back roads can become very confusing. We were going to try and take a shortcut through some Burea of Indian Affairs land in WA on our upcoming trip but one glance at network of dead-end (and likely un-numbered) roads on the map is all it took to know it would be foolish to enter that area without a gps. I see us getting one, but I also see us leaving it in the handlebar bag except when we really need it.

  6. Jean-Christophe
    22nd June 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    We have been using a GPS since a year now and are really happy to use it when cycling for the following reason:
    1. finding your way in and out cities
    2. planning routes while on the field (it’s easier, but it can be done also with a normal map)
    3. looking for geocaches when having a break 😉
    4. bragging? not really, but seeing what has been achieved in terms of altitude, odo, etc. (some cycling computers offers almost the same stats, and the price difference is not that big to entry GPS).

    Our GPS is a Dakota 20, it’s a really affordable unit, with the same functionnalities as the more expensive Oregons (apart from the camera). Albeit, the performance could be better, but it is not slow.

    We have been using maps from OpenMtbMap and VeloMap. I tend to prefer the later as they fit more our cycling habits, road and a bit of off-road. But OpenMtbMap are designed for mountain bikes, hikers and cyclers. Maps are mainly of Europe, Asia and Africa.
    And recently I’ve been using maps from radreisekarte ( which are much more readable, however there aren’t many countries mapped.

  7. Myles
    25th June 2011 at 1:35 am #

    In response to Shaun’s comments – you CAN download maps to the iphone. I use a gps app called motionX, works brilliantly. Maps can be downloaded in advance over wifi.

    The iphones large, hi-res screen make it ideal for navigation. One issue is battery consumption. I turn off all non-essential battery draining features such as 3G, bluetooth etc. I also use a ‘Mobile Gum Plus’ external battery pack, capable of charging the iphone 4 times. With this set-up I get about 25 hours of use.

    • Shaun
      25th June 2011 at 2:45 am #

      I have MotionX on my iPad. The problem with it is that the downloadable maps are OpenStreetMap based. These vary wildly in quality as they’re crowd sourced. Where I am in semi rural Yorkshire, UK, they only have the major roads, missing out the more interesting cycle routes.

      The second problem is that at full detail, the bitmaps for just the UK would require 1.7TB. Nokia’s vector format maps for all of Europe with greater accuracy take up just 2.2GB. It may be unfashionable to have a Nokia smartphone these days but their mapping software is second to none.

      • David
        27th June 2011 at 4:27 pm #

        Thanks for this info Shaun & Myles, this is exactly what I have been wanting to find out.

      • Frank
        28th June 2011 at 9:59 pm #

        Shaun, please help OSM to improve the maps by adding the missing cycle paths. I don’t think that e.g. Garmin is going to make a map especially for cyclists for the UK. The German and Dutch OSM based maps are quite good.

  8. Ronny
    18th July 2011 at 10:26 am #

    Do any of you have any experience with the Garmin Edge 800 on bike tours?

  9. Eric & Elaine Hendrickson
    19th July 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    We use a Garmin 60CSX for several years mounted much in the same way as the photo, the only thing we do different is we have a wrist strap on the GPS and make the strap go around the mounting unit, we have done this because we almost lost the GPS once when it fell off while riding on a very bumpy trail.

  10. The Nomadic Romantic English Gentleman
    20th July 2011 at 9:03 am #

    Very interesting article. Being a senior pedaller my quest for the far flung corners of the the world are now limited to around Hampshire allowing me to travel to the New Forest and Isle of Wight. So my HTC Wildfire using a combination of Google Maps/Places/Navigation/My Tracks and Bike Hub gives me all the GPS I need for short 3-5 day tours. You have got to love Mobile phone technology and Google Android.

    The Nomadic Romantic English Gentleman

  11. Mike
    24th August 2011 at 11:03 am #

    I am very tempted by the 62S, I have found a good deal on a 62st that is just €45 more expensive… does anyone have experience with the pre-installed topo-map in this version when used on cycle tours ?

  12. Andy
    16th May 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    I used a Garmin 62s for about a year with no problems until it unexpectedly started switching off. I started to notice it would turn off if I was riding on rough ground. It got to the stage where it switched off whenever I hit the slightest bump (even on sealed surfaces). I contacted Garmin who told me that the 62S is not designed for cycle use and did not have the ‘shock protection’ that the dedicated units have, thus I could forget the warranty. I now use the Oregon 450T which I find much easier to use while riding and it doesn’t wobble about on rough terrain as nearly as much as the 62S did (I use/used RAM mounts for both). Got to love GPS….

  13. Rideon
    1st September 2014 at 10:11 am #

    I just installed an app called BikeComputer on my Moto G.
    It provides ability to download regional maps which can be used offline for route planning and avoid data usage. It’s a free app and a Pro version with more features of course. Well reviewed.

  14. Karl
    18th January 2016 at 2:45 am #

    I must admit I fancy Garmin GPSmap64s as I like the rugged look and prefer buttons.I currently use the Satmap Active 10 which I am not happy with due to being very unreliable with many faults.The battery life is awful especially with the screen turned right up which is necessary in bright sunlight however now I use my dynamo to power it this is no longer an issue.

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