An essential part of touring is knowing where you’re going – and if you’re not the type to trust your instincts when you’re on unfamiliar ground, some kind of navigational aid should be a vital part of your equipment. There’s nothing worse than getting lost in the middle of nowhere! The days having your entire touring group pulling to a halt to gather around a cumbersome folding map are long gone – and it’s satellite navigation, also called global position system (GPS) units that have taken over. They’re lightweight, easy to use and you can have it right there in front of you as you ride. Too easy! As with most things in life, there is a range of options when it comes to GPS units. From the bare-bones basic to top-shelf with all the bells and whistles. But what will you really need?
Three Styles of GPS
There are three types of GPS that are suitable for use on a motorcycle. For starters, there are the basic hand-held types used by hikers. These offer an easy-to-use interface, and can be linked up to a laptop computer to help you plan your trip. They can also be used while boating and off-roading, if that’s what you’re into.
The downsides to a hiker-style GPS are that the features and menus can be tricky, and you’ll need to sort out a mounting system if you want to keep one eye on the map and the other on the road.
Next up are the motorcycle-specific devices, such as the TomTom RIDER. The RIDER has been designed with motorcyclists in mind – it comes with a specialized mounting that the unit clips into when you need it, and has large touch-screen controls, ideal for plotting your way around, even with thick winter gloves on. The housing has been designed to handle the rigors of life on two wheels, and is weather-proof.
The RIDER also has a cool headset attachment, which rests inside your helmet and can relay spoken commands to the unit via Bluetooth, so you won’t even need to take your hands of the bars – just tell the GPS you want to head “Home” and it’ll plot you a route and lead you there.
The third type of GPS unit that motorcyclists tend to use are the GPS / PDA hybrids, such as a Blackberry with GPS software loaded on. The upsides are that it doubles as a communications device, has a large screen and is highly portable. The downsides… well, let’s just say that if you’re out cruising on a weekday, you probably don’t want the office to be able to email you!
Other Factors to Bear in Mind
Once you’ve decided what kind of GPS you want to look at, there are more factors that you’ll need to consider before making a purchase. Such as, how good is the battery life on the model you want? Can you have it wired into your bike’s electrical system so that it draws power while you’re on the road? Is the GPS accurate enough? Can it be updated?
They’re all good questions – and they’ll all need answering before you fork over your pay check. Good battery life is essential – on a long trip (six hours or more), you’ll need to consider a unit that has exceptional battery life. What could be worse than getting six hours from home, relying on the GPS for directions, only to have the batteries die when you need them the most? If you decide on a cheaper unit with lesser battery life, the lesson here is simple: carry spare batteries! Most handheld GPS units run on 4, 6 or 8 ‘AA’ size batteries, so they’re easy to source and carry.
To avoid the issue of battery life, consider having the GPS hard-wired into your bike’s electrical system. For the most part, GPS units draw very little current, and because the battery is being recharged by the alternator while the bike is running, your battery power will not be compromised.
As for accuracy, most road cruisers won’t need to have a super-accurate GPS. Most units on the market at the moment offer accuracy up to 26 feet. The more accurate models (which use a system called Wide Area Augmentation System) are good for accuracy within a 9-foot radius.
The final, and perhaps most important factor for many riders, is price. How much do you want to spend on a GPS, and how do you get the best bang for your buck?
Starter models, such as the Magellan Roadmate are available from $250. For the better models you can pay anything up to $1400. Widely regarded as the best value for money for motorcyclists is the TomTom RIDER, which retails around $700. It’s got all the features riders need, including door-to-door address route plotting anywhere in the United States – it’s a winner.
Things to Remember:
A GPS system is only as good as the maps it has loaded into its memory – an out of date map on the GPS is as bad as an outdated folding map. Make sure you keep your GPS maps as up to date as possible.
GPS units don’t work well undercover. They rely on being in line-of-sight contact with satellites outside earth’s atmosphere, and anything – including trees – can interfere with the signal. If you spend a lot of time on roads that run through forested areas, it’s worth considering one of the new SiRF Star III Chipset models. They offer superior coverage in leafy areas.
Security for GPS units is an issue – because of their portability, they’re very easy to steal. Make sure yours has a secure place to rest when you stop for lunch.