The Chainlink

I haven't seen much discussion in awhile on the current state of GPS units and am soliciting opinions.

I'm mostly concerned with navigation, not all the performance metrics of which these things are capable.

Referencing DC Rainmaker, the best of the lot in price/performance, according to him, is between the Garmin Edge 520 vs. the Wahoo Element Bolt, with the caveats of the recently announced Garmin Edge Explore hitting the same $250 price point when it releases in the fall and the Kickstarted Hammerhead Karoo being delivered/user beta-tested at present, albeit at a much higher price. Lezyne also seems to be introducing new units that better deliver on navigation. Finally, Garmin also has higher priced 820 and 1000 that highlight navigation but come with higher prices and waning value.

use case scenario #1:

Want to ride in an area to which I've never been, i.e. far Northwestern Illinois "Driftless" area. Find a route somewhere online with a downloadable .gpx file. At present, I can get that map on my phone via RidewithGPS or Garmin connect but not sure if those apps will work without a paid subscription to follow the course, and/or have turn-by-turn navigation if I had a GPS unit. In the event that cell reception is non-existant, are you better served by a dedicated GPS unit? And in that case, do you need a paid subscription to a 3rd party application to receive directions?

And that's just with roads....

use case scenario #2:

Want to ride a mountain bike trail in boonies somewhere, let's say Pisgah North Carolina. Assuming no cell reception exists, does anyone have experience with using a GPS unit that overlays maps from another source like mapmyride, ridewithGPS, or MTB Project?

Sorry for the ramble question but any thoughts, experiences, opinions are appreciated. Thanks!

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Look at the areas with Google maps while you have a connection and it'll remember the area while you're there. I use this feature at rallies in some remote parts of Missouri and Michigan where 2M radio communication is a challenge, let alone cell coverage or data.

I don't use navigation instructions, but your phone should remember those, too, if you plug in the trip.

Paper maps and a written route never hurt, either.

I basically agree with Tricolor. Notice in his reply he does not even mention dedicated GPS units. It is all cell phones and possible paper back-up. I use the word iPhone to specify my experience with specific models. You could probably substitute any decent smartphone. 

I carry an iPhone SE with active cell service. I use Google Maps and an app, “”.  Before going on my trip I open maps-me and zoom in on the areas I will be in then download the files. The files are OpenStreetMap files which in my experience are kept up to date better than proprietary Garmin street maps. All of Illinois is four files. It is very easy to save certain landmarks ahead of time in For instance, I rode Le Tour de Shore this year. I saved landmarks for all the rest stops. I think you can save routes but I never bothered, besides my actual routes are subject to change. The charge in my iPhone will not last a day with all services and active tracking turned on. It likely will die in half a day with screen active watching the dot move over the map. I set it in low-power-mode in the settings/ battery section. I rode the two-day tour with no charging in that mode. I carry an unactivated iPhone 4S as a back-up. When out of wifi Google maps and maps-me work nicely even on an unactivated iPhone IF you saved your target areas an offline map while on wifi.

I still own a few GPS units. My iPhones get a location fix quicker than any of my older GPS units because iPhones use GPS and cell towers for their location. Ten years ago I would use a GIS program to draw a shp file from georeferenced tiff tiles. I think I used gpsbabel to convert that to a GPX file. Then I would download GPX into the Garmin. The Garmins can also save a track that I could download and examine times and speed. An iPhone will do that but it sucks battery. Now I just use the iPhone to take a picture of my Cateye cyclometer. I can load the picture to see where it was taken at what time and it shows elapsed distance.  This my experience in navigating roads and bike paths.  Last time I did wilderness off-trail hiking I used topo maps and a Brunton. 

Yes, paper backup. I carry a few 4x6 ruled index cards and a sharpie. If I have route notes those are laser printed on cards before the trip. Inkjet printed cards when damp with rain or sweat make nice abstracts but are illegible.


See you on the road, Elwood

I  have found DC Rainmaker  to be a  reliable source for reviewing and  comparing these  products.  I  bought a  Suunto Ambit 2 watch in 2015 and it  was great for plotting  routes via the website, sending to the watch and then  following them.  I  have  recently upgraded to  the Spartan Sport and so far  it is also quite good for  navigation. I use an  inexpensive bike  computer  that has  only a handful of functions on my handlebar. You  have  to  figure out what  works best for you.

Thanks for the responses guys. 

What I was ultimately looking for was kind of answered which is that the current state of dedicated devices still does not seem to measure up to our cell phones in navigational use.  I'm still unsure as to what dedicated services cost.  When I follow online instructions to start a route in RidewithGPS, I'm immediately prompted to "upgrade" so it would seem that that service has no free navigational service.  

David:  Does your Suunto routing require a membership fee in order for your watch to voice directions?

I did just try out the Mountain Bike trail scenario last weekend in Black Mountain NC and it worked flawlessly, was FREE, and barely put a dent in my battery using it for about 2 hours.  If anyone cares:

1. download MTB Project app to cell phone, then download State info for which state you'll be riding.

2. download Offline Map in Google Maps on your phone for same area

3. load up MTB ride within MTB Project app, see your location dot, go ride!

Also, if anyone cares, I'll be trying my #1 scenario in Freeport this weekend.  I have a specific route loaded in cellphone apps Garmin Connect, RidewithGPS, Google Maps, and a paper cue sheet.  My goal is to be able to follow a specific route electronically, with as little hassle/pre-planning as possible, for free.  Will report back next week.

Hey Dirke, thanks for staring this thread and for the report(s). I am in the work-it-out-on-paper-ahead-of-time camp but am always happy to be pointed towards other tips and resources!

There is no membership but I did buy a watch which was not cheap. Anybody can use the software but only a Suunto watch would sync with it.  I create routes on Movescount and upload them to the watch.  It does not talk to me but I  see the route  both graphically and  I  can  set things  like "miles  to  waypoint" where it  would  count down to my turn  at  Clark  St.  

I  have  free accounts at Strava and Ride  with  GPS.   Strava  works well and  one thing I like  is when  you create a route  and hit the print command the print preview is  essentially a  printable cue sheet you  can  pass  out to others.  I have  had problems creating routes elsewhere  and uploading the gpx file to  Strava.  They have a method of doing so at Strava labs  but the upload fails about 30 times  before  I  can  get  it to work and I  don't  bother  doing that anymore and don't give out cue sheets. I can  upload routes to  Ride with GPS  but  it does not have  that cool ability to  create a cue sheet. My bike club uses Ride with GPS for their route  library so I  was forced to figure that out.  I  do not  use it for anything  other than  allowing others to see my routes. 

I have  used my phone to  do this and it worked well but it drains battery and I  usually do not  have  my phone on my body when  I ride and  I do not  mount  my phone anywhere on the bike like many do. 

I hope that helps.

Again, thanks everyone for your interest and contributions.

I had great success last weekend in riding in the "Driftless" area west of Freeport, utilizing my cellphone without a dedicated GPS unit, free web services, and an overly-prepared paper cue sheet as analog backup.

For anyone interested, here's what I did.

*(This was done under full surrender to Google services on an Android phone and worked flawlessly and easily. I'm not sure how/if it would work without accounts for Google Earth, Google Maps, RidewithGPS, and/or an iphone) If anyone does, or knows a better/easier/alternative that is similarly cost-free, please comment!

1. Find a route you want to ride. In my case, I searched for Freeport, IL in "" (on a computer) and found one most similar to the organized ride put on by Freeport bikes and Comrade Cycles. There is an "export" function where you can save a .kml version of the route.

2. Open Google Earth (on a computer), then open the .kml file (File > Open > yoursavedroute.kml)

3. (Still in Google Earth on the computer) Save the route to your places (File > Save > Save to my places)

4. Now in Google Maps on your phone, Save an offline map of the general area (Google maps, upper left hamburger menu > Offline Maps > Select your own map)

5. Now with the offline map on your phone, view your route (Google maps, upper left hamburger menu > Your places > top menu scroll left to MAPS > select the map you just imported). You should see your new route outlined in easy-to-see red and once you are physically in the area, your blue "You are here" dot will show your location. Go ride!

Other than the rock-solid feeling of being able to see your location on a given route, I suppose the greatest attribute of this method of navigation over just a cue sheet is that you still have a full functioning map that you can use to alter your route on the fly should you need to, even without cell signal. Due to numerous circumstances, we chose to cut out some gravel after lunch at the Slurp 'n burp and take a paved road for awhile where it ultimately linked back up to the original route.

This route had a lot of turns so I can still see where a dedicated head unit that spoke turn-by-turn directions to you would be a nice convenience, but I am still unclear as to whether any of that requires any kindo of paid subscription to one service or another. If anyone can answer that one for this thread, please comment.

Final note: for testing purposes, I had the same route loaded up in apps on my phone in Garmin Connect, RidewithGPS, and Google Maps. The route showed in Garmin Connect and RidewithGPS but only in Google Maps did my location dot show my place within the route. My assumption is that a Garmin head unit is necessary for the Garmin Connect app to work and to see your location. Within RidewithGPS, anything I pressed prompted me for payment. You can see the route we followed here.


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