Navigation for Bikepacking: GPS units, Phone Apps, Maps and Route Files

Christophe Noel

Expedition Leader
There seems to always be discussions around the use of various electronic navigational aids and how to best apply them within a bikepacking scenario. I'd like to open this thread as a data dump if you will and also a place to aggregate questions relative to the subject. To get it rolling, a few questions:

What GPS units or mobile phone apps do you currently use?

What would you like to be able to do with your current system that you can't seem to achieve now?

What other questions do you wish to have answered

I think as a group we'll be able to cut through some questions and dig up some good answers.

Christophe Noel

Expedition Leader
...And...I'll go first.

Devices I use:

I use three main navigational tools. I sometimes use a, bike-specific GPS unit loaded with a topographical micro-SD card of the entire US. I also use a Garmin eTrex 30, also with a micro-SD topographical map card. On occasion I will use my iPhone loaded with maps and using a Bad Elf GPS receiver.

There are a multitude of pros/cons for each system. The 705 doesn't accept replaceable batteries, meaning it sucks for multi-day rides. The eTrex sucks for day to day rides as it's complicated to operate. The iPhone system is hard to mount, eats power, and is delicate.

What I'd like to get out of my devices:

Much easier downloads of maps. Getting third party Icelandic maps on my eTrex was hectic, but I did it. Finding and downloading more routes would be nice. Better using those routes on the trail would be nice. Would also like to find more app-based solutions.


Expedition Leader
What I use:
Garmin 705
Motorola mobile phone with Backcountry Navigator

The 705 has been bombproof over almost 10 years of use (I think I bought it in 2005). It still has great battery life 10-12 hours but the integrated battery limits its use to day trips. Easy map uploads on the microSD card.
I did have some problems with speed and distance tracking when I updated the newest OS but it was easy to go back to the old system.

I usually use my phone/backcountry navigator when traveling by vehicle and just want to confirm exactly where I am at. I am still an old school atlas guy when in the truck. Battery life and need to recharge is still the downside to using a phone for anything but day trips...perfect for a car

I am currently shopping for a replaceable battery GPS unit for bikepacking trips where I need extended route finding ability...
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To be honest, I don't use any electronic devices for any of my backcountry travel. Maps, a waterproof case and a compass have never led me wrong.

- they don't need charging
- they're (even as a combo), lighter than almost any dedicated GPS
- don't rely on outside tech (satellites, relatively clear skies)

I have been meaning to put one of those binder clips on my stem to hold route notes for a given day, but I'm rarely in a rush, and so just pull over if I need to confirm my route. Plus, if I change my mind as I am travelling and want to go off my preplaned route, I can easily evaluate options without scrolling around on a tiny screen.

That's probably not helpful for your purposes, but if I were to convert to a device, it would have to have exceptional battery life and minimal weight, be waterproof, and be about tablet sized, while also folding up and tucking away into a pocket if needed. So, not in the present marketplace.

Two-Wheeled Explorer

Proceeding on...
Variable depending on what I am doing.

Mountain and Fat bikes:
Garmin eTrex 20 with SD map card and spare batteries. (I don't use an HRM so the 20 model works for me.)
Carry Samsung Galaxy Rugby 4 with Backcountry Navigator app. (Really like that has USFS maps for National Forests, which show trails the USGS topos do not.)
Topo map and lensatic compass.

Touring bike:
Garmin Edge 205, soon to be replaced with a Edge Touring, with special charger that uses AA batteries.
Carry Samsung Galaxy Rugby 4 with Ride With GPS app. (Yes, same phone, different app.)

My next touring bike (Either a Trek 920 Disc or a Specialized AWOL.) with have a dynamo hub so keeping things charged should not be an issue.


Expedition Leader
I am bumping this zombie back up to the top as tech continues to change.

Personally I've been working with the Avenza app on my phone and tablet. I started using this because BLM, NPS and Alaska State Parks has been releasing their maps on that app. Others are Gaia, BackCountry Navigator, and Waze, GPS. BTW from what I've found the Bad Elf is still one of the best collectors for phones and tablets. I have been using the B.E. at work for a few years now.

What are you guys using?
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Getting back into biking, I am discovering a lot of new options for navigation. Fundamentally I am adverse to using a phone. In addition to using up battery power that might be needed for calls, touch screens can be problematic with gloves, is brittle should I crash or it fall loose, and exposure of the device to weather bothers me.

I like the concept of purpose specific devices, so I settled on a Garmin e-trex 20x. I have it attached via a handlebar ball and socket mount. The joystick works with gloves and it is weatherproof enough for my needs.

Free maps are available and can be downloaded here:

The Routable Bicycle Openfietsmap Lite maps are optimized for bicycle navigation. I loaded the entire eastern US (1.9 GB) on an SD card, which booted up great on the 20x. There is sufficient detail of streets, parks, bike paths, most wilderness roads, and some trails.

The maps cover nearly all parts of the world.


I'm using a Garmin eTrex 20x as well. Using the supplied belt clip thingy, I've managed to strap mine to the stem of the bike with the folded up remains of an old tube as a damper-cushion. I bought mine bundled with some kind of supplemental street map package (I've forgotten which one, will track it down later), which has done a surprisingly good job with most forest roads and even some trails. That said, I typically consult google maps before hand and scribble some notes down on paper, and/or bring a full paper map with me. The unit comes with me for hiking and splitboard trips as well.
Hopefully it's just mine that has a defect, but on hot days the screen will sometimes "grey out", for lack of better words. It becomes nearly unreadable, forcing me to sit it in the shade for a few minutes before checking my position. Anyone else have this issue? I hate to replace an otherwise good unit, but being lost in the desert is a bummer!


Hopefully it's just mine that has a defect, but on hot days the screen will sometimes "grey out", for lack of better words. It becomes nearly unreadable, forcing me to sit it in the shade for a few minutes before checking my position. Anyone else have this issue? I hate to replace an otherwise good unit, but being lost in the desert is a bummer!
How old is the unit? I only picked mine up a few weeks ago, so I haven't used it in hot weather, but I would think this unit would be fairly robust and not be affected that way in heat.

From the manual:


I'm more surprised that the cold weather rating is not better, but I think maybe the limiting factor here is the usefulness of alkaline batteries under those conditions.
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I think I have had it for about two years now. I have not had it down to -4 as of yet, but it works great in the cold. Starts getting a bit squirrelly above 85 or so. I thought it might be a display setting (auto dimming or something), but no luck.


Expedition Leader
I run an eTrex 20x that's been reliable so far. Haven't seen any screen issues other than being hard to read in certain lighting. In bright sunlight with the GPS backlight off but shadowed it's impossible for me to see it. In direct sunlight it's very clear, though. Mine's about two years old.

FWIW, if I was considering an eTrex now I'd just spend the extra few dollars for a 30x, although I have been nothing but satisfied with my 20x.

Mounted on my stem with standard Garmin zip-tie mount (like this from MTBR).

These are the topo maps I typically use:
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