by Christophe Noel

Two years ago, iPads and tablet computers were around and folks were navigating with them, but not like they are today. Costs have come down drastically on tablets, and software functionality has gone through the roof in the last 6 months alone. No longer do you have to trudge around with laptop computers and/or large paper atlases for off-road adventures. The technology is so practical you can even use it on motorcycles. It’s even starting to give GPS manufacturers a run for their money –so much so that Garmin just released their first android-based navigator – and a slew of manufacturers have started coming out with “heavy duty tablets” (including this crowed-sourced tablet that can even help you get found in an avalanche) that are going to give traditional GPS units a lot of competition.

Typically anywhere from a small 7” tablet (as seen on the KTM dirt bike above) to a large 10” tablet suffices, and unlike a laptop it’s a pleasure to use, the battery lasts a long time, passengers can handle it, your kids can use it to watch movies, you can store and play music from it around the camp fire, and it slides easily into a map pocket when it’s not in use. Android tablets are leading the way on the software front, so much so that I’m not even bothering mentioning iPad or Microsoft tablet options. There may be some options but you’ll have to figure them out on your own. If using the tablet in rugged areas or mounting locations like on a motorcycle, there are heavy duty and waterproof cases.

How it works, in a nutshell…

Android tablets are basically large versions of Android cell phones, minus the phone functionality, and with the addition of a few features which make it more usable than your cell phone including its noticeably larger screen. The battery lasts all day like your cell phone, unless you’re using the GPS functionality a lot (which you will be) so you generally have to leave it plugged in including on your motorcycle. You don’t need a tablet set up with a cell phone plan (though you can get one if you want). You download the maps and set up your destinations online before you leave, so there is a little prep. Most importantly is the software has a little icon that shows where you are on the map. This allows you to make decisions at intersections a little easier, much like navigating with your smart phone.

Start by considering your trips. Where you go has an impact on how you’ll use it. 97% of the USA and most first world countries have all of their roads mapped into something called Open Street Maps. If it’s not in there any you have technical know-how, you can add your road. My wife and I recently navigated across Italy with the tablet and it was completely accurate. But incidentally, Google Maps also worked great there so having two systems was a little redundant. The 3% applies to off road in very remote areas (particularly in western desert states), or navigating ATV trails or motorcycle single track. These will likely not be Open Street Maps so it means that you have to sketch your route prior to leaving using Google Earth. I do this with all motorcycle trips in Utah, for example, because there is so much single track and the desert is constantly moving roads and trails around.

Screenshot: An off road route drawn in Google Earth to a route overlooking the Grand Canyon.

Do I even need a GPS or this technology?

A lot of this depends on where you are, and where you’re going. I spent 10+ years roaming around the desert doing things the old school way – with a map, and occasionally a compass. I stubbornly prided myself on being old school. Once I had the technology I realized I missing a plethora of incredible roads and other little details to check out that I could have seen with the pre-trip prep that I now do. I also found that I was often missing turns and would have to turn around. While having a good map of your area is still mandatory, using the cheap tablet and/or other GPS based device is now mandatory for me. I now consider my map second or third defense, and a little prep with these tools can make your off road trip 10 times more efficient. Likewise, if you’re leading a group, a GPS route is crucial so you don’t have to swing a u turns with 10 cars behind you.

Getting the right tablet

There are two popular types of tablet/cell phone technologies, Apple’s IOs and Google’s Android. Microsoft has their system too, but it’s not popular yet with mappers so I recommend avoiding it. Apple has neat mapping software and I’m sure there are some tools that work well, but Android is where it’s at in my opinion. I have an iPhone and I have a handful of the Apple-approved mapping apps but none of them have been solid enough for me to consider using it regularly or to purchase an iPad. That said, people are on the Apple platform and use it successfully.

Android is open source software, and Google stays hands-off with app development. This means small developers can add apps and Google’s marketplace and customer reviews dictates what’s successful whereas Apple has a bureaucracy that requires approval for all apps. This is why there’s been an explosion of great mapping software with Android and all of this innovation particularly recently. Likewise, iPads are expensive and top-of-the-line Androids are relatively cheap. For example, I have Google’s incredible Nexus 7 tablet that was only $239, and that’s considered expensive. It has resolution on par with Apple’s “retina” screens and it works so well that I have trouble bring myself to put it on my dirt bike where it might get damaged. There are Android tablets capable of great navigation for as little as $90 though they might be slow for household duties. You don’t need a tablet connected to a cell network and this will save you money. If I need to access the internet and they’re service, I just use my iPhone and will occasionally turn on the WiFi hotspot functionality. The mapping files, unlike using Google Maps, are downloaded to the tablet using WiFi and are stored on the tablet.

Can’t I Just Use My Cell Phone?

Technically you can, but practically it doesn’t work very well. The screen is too small, they are expensive to replace if you damage then particularly with off road travel, and there are some quirky things related to the phone (for example, auto screen-locking functionality) that makes it a difficult to continuously navigate with it. Both IOS and Android are similar on both phones and tables, and the call functionality is the same. If you have an Android tablet it will work very similar to Android phones and you’ll gain an understanding of the software. Having been an Apple zealot for a few years now, I’m now actually extremely impressed with Android – it works great. I’m not sure if I’m ready to switch my phone yet, but I’m definitely considering it.

How durable are the tablets, and how long before they go obsolete?

Generally they are pretty durable but just like computers, they go fairly obsolete pretty soon. My motorcycle friends who are using them consider getting new tablets every year or two part of the cost of riding. Some buy damage replacement plans and they basically get a new tablet ever year or two for the cost of the plan. This also keeps them on the latest technologies and processor speeds. This said, there are new tough-tablets coming out and mapping surprisingly does not requires massive computer power. A top of the line tablet now should easily last you two or three years, in addition to being practical for use in your house. My motorcycle friends who Otter Boxes and Ram Mounts and other systems to keep the dust out of them. Some are water proof while others aren’t and sometime you have to put away the tablet if you’re riding a motorcycle in the rain. If you’re using the tablet in your off road truck, a decent case will be more than enough protection with dust being the worst enemy.

Do I need Electricity?

Yes. Using the GPS with the tablet will draw some juice to it has to be plugged in. They use USB which is a simply 5-volt / low draw system that can plug into cigarette lighters. If adding one on your bike, you will need to buy a little USB port to wire into your bike to plug it in.

Android Software

The whole adventure of using tablets came from some of my dirt bike riding friends who have lots of time on their hands and in every way understand mapping and are on the cutting edge of the technology. The leaders behind the best software has been motorcycle riders mostly because traditional maps and software haven’t cut it when it comes to single track and ATV riders.

My favorite and most heavily used app is from Click here to read all about its origins on the site. Interestingly, the author also has a new gizmo for power management including winches, etc. Right now the program is disabled for new downloads from Google but it should be back up shortly, with luck. Good comparable apps include BackCountry Navigator and View Ranger Outdoors GPS. My favorite app that turns your tablet into a simple, brainless GPS unit is called NavFree. We downloaded the map for Italy and this is how we got around the country in addition to use of Google maps. We had traditional maps as well and they never came out other than in the hotel room to get a ball park idea of where I was heading 4 hours away. It’s just like using Google Maps for data except that you download the maps first. A slightly more detailed map system that also provides play by play but has better local maps is called OSMAnd. And finally, there are many more options. For example, see this link for some of them including coverage of Soviet area and Africa coverage that hasn’t been added to Google and OSM.

Apple software

If you’re planning on sticking with your iPad for off road navigation, this has been covered extensively on Expedition Portal by community members. Here’s a link to the discussion.

Overland Navigation: New Opportunities with Tablets

About the Author: Christophe Noel

Christophe Noel is Expedition Portal's Editor and the Senior Editor for Overland Journal. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.