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.