Navigating A Bike Tour With Your Smartphone

In this guest post, Grace Johnson explains how an HTC Desire smartphone is proving exceptionally handy to navigate daily routes and stay in touch during a world bicycle tour. Take it away, Grace…

Alicia's Smartphone
A smartphone can be a very handy all-in-one gadget on a bicycle tour.

Together with my husband Paul, we’re bicycling around the world in search of inspiring cycle images. We’re currently (September 2011) in Nepal and so far we’ve found our smartphone to be extremely useful for navigating our route and other tasks.

Before I go into the details, here are two important things to know. First, we plan our route day-by-day and not beforehand. Second, navigating with a smartphone requires an internet and satellite connection. If you will be cycling in an area where there is no internet connection, it is possible to load Google Maps into your smartphone’s cache. It is also possible to load maps from Open Street Map but so far we haven’t used them.

This article is divided into 5 sections:

1. An Example Of How We Navigate
2. Country-Specific Navigation Quirks
3. Other Uses For Our Smartphone
4. Some General Comments
5. Summary

An Example Of How We Navigate:

The exact navigation process will be a little different in each country. This is what we did in Thailand.

We started by loading Google Maps on our laptop (it has a bigger viewing screen than the phone) and deciding which town we wanted to reach. We looked for a town:

  • 50-100km away
  • Near the main highway and with a number of hotels (it’s our experience that hotels in or near main towns and highways have more chance of being a ‘normal hotel’ rather than a ‘resort hotel’)
  • Back roads heading towards the town

When we were ready to head off, we let the smartphone calculate a ‘walking route’ to a town en route to our destination. We looked for a town 25-30km away from our current location and 1-2km off the main road.

The ‘walking route’ was usually fantastic: dirt roads with almost no traffic. Sometimes we even ended up on canal paths. Paul would check 1-2 times an hour to make sure we were on the right road. If we missed a turnoff, we let the smartphone calculate a new route. Once we reached the first town, we repeated the process until we arrived at our destination.

Locate The Back Roads of Southeast Asia
Locate the backroads of Southeast Asia with a smartphone.

Country-Specific Navigation Quirks:

  • Thailand – Thailand’s ‘resort hotels’ appear together with normal hotels in the hotel application. Resort hotels, in our experience, are often places surrounded by high walls, where men take their girlfriends or prostitutes for an hour. After a while we learned to guess quite accurately (by the hotel location) if the hotel was a ‘normal hotel’ or a ‘resort hotel’.
  • Cambodia – Before entering Cambodia, Paul had researched that the cheapest telephone provider was a private telephone company. Once we entered the country all of the telephone shops we visited only sold the government telephone provider’s card. So that is the one we ended up buying.
  • China – China has a passion for demolishing and rebuilding which even Google Earth can’t keep up with. As one cyclist told us: “I just read a trip report from someone who cycled this route 2 months ago and their information is already out of date.” A couple of times we arrived at locations where hotels should have been and all we saw was a field of rubble. Another Chinese quirk is that the small towns surrounding a larger town will often have the same name as the large town.
  • India – Ladakh (the himalaya region of northern India) is very close to the Chinese border and the Pakistan line of control, so the Airtel sim card that we bought for the rest of India didn’t always work there. To buy a SIM card for Leh, (the capitol of Ladakh) we would have had to submit 5 passport photos. We decided not to buy a SIM since there basically is only one road from Leh to Manali. Once we were further away from the Chinese and Pakistan borders, the Airtel card started working again. On the Ganges River Plain, coming out of the mountains, we noticed a lot of small back roads but we soon discovered one big problem: all of these back roads had numerous river crossings. In the dry season you could walk across the dry river beds but in monsoon season the water was waist high with a strong current. Only the main highways had bridges.
  • Europe – We haven’t used the smartphone in Europe although general comments on the CTC forum suggest two main points: 1) Google Maps show all of the possible roads to ride on in a given area but they won’t show if the roads are public roads or non-accessible private roads and 2) Google Maps show roads that cross international borders but don’t indicate if a crossing is open to all travelers or only locals.

Other Uses For Our Smartphone:

  • Hotels – Hotels and sometimes even restaurants will show up on Google Maps, although usually only the more expensive hotels appeared
  • Hotel location via footprint – Once at our hotel, and before going into town for a meal or to look around, we make a ‘footprint’ (location marker) for our hotel. It’s too easy to get lost in the dark. Once in China we forgot to ‘footprint’ our hotel location. That evening we lost our way and without the ‘footprint’ to guide us – it took two hours to find the way back to our hotel.
  • Latitude marker for friends and family – Paul’s sister feels more comfortable when she knows where we are. So every couple of days Paul will make a location ‘footprint’ for her and other friends to see. A number of them then zoom in on our location via Google Earth and this generates some interesting e-mail comments such as “Are you having teeth problems?” (Our hotel was next to a dentist) or “I didn’t know you liked kids that much” (Hotel next to a kindergarten) and “You guys really bike fast!” (We had taken a bus or airplane.)
  • PDF reader – In many Chinese restaurants they won’t prepare food for you until they know exactly what you want. So before we entered a restaurant Paul would turn on the smartphone and load a PDF we have of a typical Chinese menu into the smartphone’s PDF reader. In the restaurant he would show the waitress our Chinese menu and then she would then point to an item that the restaurant could make.
  • Modem for internet  – If the hotel doesn’t have wifi, we can hook one of our laptops up to the smartphone.
  • Checking e-mail – If we are expecting e-mail from someone, it is much easier and faster to check e-mail via the phone than on our laptops.
  • Sending e-mails – In most of the hotels with wifi you can use internet and receive e-mails via their wifi but you can’t send e-mails. The reason for this is that the hotels don’t want their wifi used for mass spam e-mailings. So when we want to send an e-mail of course we set the wifi out and send the e-mail via the telephone’s sim card.
  • Satellite map view – You can view the road you want to cycle via a satellite photo. This allows you to judge how busy the road is, if it has a shoulder and if the terrain is flat or hilly. One day in China we planned to cycle 60km through a river valley. According to our paper map the road was flat but instead it turned out to be 25km of steep uphill riding. This was a very unpleasant surprise! At the end of that day we checked the satellite photo and sure enough it showed that the road went up and down the mountains. From then on in China we checked our route first via a satellite photo.
  • Alarm and compass – We have used the alarm and compass function, and I’m sure that our phone has a lot more functions that we don’t even know about.

Hilly Route
Find out how mountainous a route is, with your smartphone.

Some General Comments:

  • No envy – Almost everyone in Asia has a mobile phone, even farmers and hotel cleaners. A local person doesn’t see the difference between our HTC smartphone and a cheap mobile phone. So we’ve never received an envious look when we pull out the smartphone in a restaurant, hotel or other public place. Usually half of the restaurant customers are talking and playing with their own mobile phones. On the other hand, when we pull out our laptops we notice the envious looks.
  • Weight – For cycling through the Himalayan region of Ladakh and Spiti, we decided to save weight by storing our laptops in Nepal. We only carried our smartphone, and used it to e-mail people and for internet. I do have to admit that I was glad when we got our laptops back since I dislike trying to write messages via the ‘one finger’ keyboard on a smartphone.
  • Comments from locals – Comments such as “Your GPS is wrong!” are common. It took some 15 minutes to explain to one Indian man that even though the highway was a shorter route to the next town, we preferred cycling on back roads since they had less traffic. In Thailand we were quite often stopped by locals who were convinced that we were lost and figured we needed help to find the right road.
  • Battery life – For 8 months we have been cycling and staying in cheap hotels in Asia. This makes it easy to recharge batteries each night. We don’t have to carry solar panels or hook the telephone up to a dynamo. Also, we conserve battery life by keeping the phone in a handlebar bag and only checking it once or twice an hour to see if we’re on the right road. On rare occasions when we were cycling a complicated route and checking the phone continually, the battery was nearly worn out by the end of the day.
  • Costs of using telephone sim card – India Airtel is one of the cheapest telephone services on our trip so far. Their price for data transfer is 90 rupees (about $2 U.S.) for 1 gb. In Nepal, it is more expensive: 1,110 rupees (about $14 U.S.) for 500 mb. A couple of days before we enter a new country Paul will search the internet for the cheapest sim card internet data transfer package in our destination.


Our smartphone has become our third travelling partner and has greatly contributed to making our trip more relaxing and – believe it or not – adventurous.

I remember earlier trips without it, when we asked locals for directions to a nearby town (via back roads) and we were ALWAYS directed to go there via a main highway. Or how about the times we cycled through a town/city in circles and only after an hour or two did we finally recognized a store or house that we had passed earlier.

Compared to paper maps (which can be very inaccurate, as we found out with the Nelles India map!), with our smartphone we are 10 times more likely to find and cycle on unpaved, traffic-free back roads. We can also give more attention to our surroundings because we always know where we are on our map and how far it is to our night’s destination.

Contact with locals is also more enjoyable. You are no longer dependent on them for route and hotel information, and no longer feel anger and frustration towards them when their information turns out to be incorrect. It’s a lot more fun talking with an Indian about the game of cricket than trying to get correct road information from him.

Long live the smartphone!


Thank you Grace, for sharing your experience with a smartphone on a bicycle tour.

Do you use a smartphone on tour? Share your experience by leaving a comment.


  1. Nancy Peterson
    14th October 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    Hi Friedel and Andrew

    We are now 6 months into our extended bike tour and use our iPhone in most of the ways that Grace mentions. We use it to access Google maps throughout the day to check if we are where we think we are on the paper maps we are carrying and to find small roads that may not appear on the paper maps.

    We also use it to access the internet when we break out the computer at the end of the day (by tethering via USB) if wi-fi is not available at the hotel we have found or is unbearably slow. It makes it much easier when picking a hotel as we don’t have to worry about whether they have wi-fi (though most do, so far) or if it’s any good.

    We have bought a local sim and loaded it with credit to allow use in each country so far (Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand). Australia was a different story as we had a phone plan already. It is surprisingly easy to get a local sim and do a pay-as-you go (and very inexpensive), but can sometimes take a bit of searching and repeated asking at various phone shops. Hopefully it will continue to be easy as we continue through SE Asia.

    Perhaps it is not quite so healthy to feel dependent on access to the web and perhaps it somewhat defeats the purpose of ‘getting away from it all’ but it really does provide a feeling of security and is a good way to relieve the feelings of loneliness that can sometimes hit you on the road.

    We are in Thailand at the moment and trying to work our way around the floods as we head north and for us in particular it has been a great resource to be sure we always have access to the web to try to figure out what the situation is without having to rely on locals who may only know what is happening in the immediate surroundings.

    I am very glad we brought the phone along in addition to the laptop – it is really worth its weight. And we can charge it off the laptop via USB so it really doesn’t add much bulk. All in all, a good addition to the cycling ‘tool’ bag.

  2. Shaun Murray
    16th October 2011 at 11:40 am #

    I’d be much happier with mapping software that didn’t rely on an Internet connection. If you’re lost, I’d imagine the correlation with no phone signal and more importantly no data signal is high.

    That’s why I’ve stuck with Nokia smartphones. The maps are downloadable to the phone for entire countries and work offline. Because they work offline, they also use less battery. 8 hours with the screen on, gps and sports tracker tracking my route isn’t unusual for me out of a phone. Google maps and Open Street Maps are bitmap driven maps too so they require loads of data bandwidth either to transfer or to store the tiles.

  3. Martin Hanzalek
    31st October 2011 at 9:40 am #

    Google Maps are fine, but you get quickly into the problems, when there is no signal – which happens quite often even in Europe in mountaineous regions. We usually do following (a little bit more difficult at the begining, but pays off quickly):

    – use software called Mobile Atlas Creator (freeware) to download maps from internet for the area we want to go. It uses for instance Google maps and can create layered atlas with several diferent maps (google photo, streets, other maps sources)
    – then upload the atlas created (it has usually several GB) by it to our mobile phone (we use Nokia, but it should work on any phone that has Java) and use it with another peace of free software called TrekBuddy
    – TrekBuddy itself does’t have the routing capacity, it just shows you where you are on the map, but it is in most cases sufficient. The main advantage is that you stay offline, so you don’t consume your phone battery.
    – of course, when you get into troubles, you can always (hopefuly) go online and search on the net…

  4. jonah emke
    11th November 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    With the advent technology, everyone seems to rely on iphones, sat phones, and gps navigators. We have to remember that when the satellites die, or the weather is ultra poor, or heaven forbid you run out of batteries, there is no substitute for a compass and a map (providing you have the skills to use it)

  5. A. Lopes
    8th February 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    I would recomend OsmAnd for Android users. At the first glance it does not look that great, but once you realize its potential, you get hooked. You can use data connection maps from diferent sources or you can download maps for offline use (google maps or even the small vectorial OpenStreetMaps). The ofline routing is nothings special but does the trick on a pinch (when somethimes it does not work its mainly becaus the OpenStreetMaps have small error, like missing connections between 2 roads that fool the software into tinking they do not connect). You can also plan your route using , save the GPX files and load them to OsmAnd and follow them. Could not find any other software that did this. Maybe someone else knows of a software that can load and follow GPX files in android, and can share it here.

  6. Roddy
    11th February 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    I use the ViewRanger app for hillwalking in the UK. No reliance on data connection, so ideal for hills and backcountry – but you have to pay for maps. Mapping isn’t available worldwide (yet!) but is much higher quality than you’ll get from any legal ‘free’ source. UK maps are official Ordnance Survey 1:25K or 1:50K.

  7. Peter Gostelow
    27th February 2012 at 9:18 am #

    I have finally joined the World of smartphone technology here in Africa with a basic Samsung Galaxy, but I won’t be using it to navigate using google maps. There are too many rural areas where there is no signal. I could possibly download maps before, but I like to use paper maps (and possibly always will). Reading this post I can’t believe how cheap Internet is in India – 1gb of date transfer for $2! Here in Zimbabwe it is more like $100 for 1gb!

  8. Jeff Ibbo
    19th January 2013 at 7:45 am #

    In Turkey you have to register a foreign phone. Phone shops will happily sell you a sim, pop it into your phone and show you it works – which it will – for a few days – then it will be blocked and it’s nigh impossible to fix at the phone shops.
    Ask about this before you pay for the sim – things might have changed since we were there last year. Apparently it’s a government measure to stop black market in foreign phones.

  9. David Sherring
    3rd August 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    I am planning to use my smartphone with a hub dynamo and mini usb connection. Anyone have ideas on this. Also, I use my smartphone in the car with TomTom, and it is very good. Any reason why I couldn’t do this on the bike. I like the idea of creating maps, and tomtom won’t really let me look at the whole area easily. One drawback is that tomtom also won’t calculat a route for a bike, which is why any ideas from people would be very welcome. Thanks


  10. Bob N
    13th January 2016 at 7:42 pm #

    My problem with using a smartphone as my map is that very often I like to view the big picture: look at all the roads and towns, and perhaps spot something interesting that would make me change my route. With a phone’s small screen, you can’t easily do this without a lot of scrolling around and back again. So you cut yourself off from many possibilities. You can’t beat a paper map for seeing all the possibilities at once.

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