Motorcycle GPS - Explore the Open Road in Style
Published: December 17, 2008
Updated: October 14, 2012
Simple navigation via GPS is something that most of us take for granted. They're everywhere, affordable, and reliable. But wait a minute -- what about those of us who ride motorcycles? At face value, it would seem like any standard suction-cup mountable GPS would be fine on a motorcycle. That is, until you actually try it. The truth is that riding demands more of us than a car, and it also demands more of a GPS. And a motorcycle GPS is an important tool -- it's rarely possible (and never safe) to read a map or call for directions while traveling on two wheels.
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Attach a cheap GPS to your bike and go for a ride. The first thing you'll notice is that you can barely make out the screen due to the vibration of the bike. If you're facing the wrong direction, the sun makes the screen unreadable. After all, these things were designed to be inside cars. What if it rains? Expensive electronics and water are rarely a good combination. Plus, all smart riders wear gloves for protection, and the touch-screens on most GPS units are designed to work with bare fingers.
See motorcycle GPS in action
A special GPS for a special vehicle
Fortunately, GPS manufacturers have heard our pleas. Maybe some of them ride... Now there's a whole new generation of GPS models from major manufacturers such as Garmin and TomTom that not only survive the trip, but were designed with the motorcyclist in mind. A large, easy-to-read screen is essential. Consider also whether you tend to ride more during the day or at night you're a night rider, you'll want a device that's easy to read in the dark. For day riding, you want to consider glare-resistance. The no-brainers are all there: Waterproof or water resistant models, the ability to withstand vibration, and touch-screens that respond to a gloved finger.
However, they have taken it a couple of steps beyond that, so there are many other very nice features to look for when you're shopping for a GPS for your two-wheeler. For example, your GPS will probably be mounted on or near your gas tank. There isn't anywhere else to put it. Ever spill a little gas on your tank while filling up? We all have. Look for models that are fuel-resistant in as well as to water-resistant.
Speaking of gas, most bikes don't have fuel gauges. No low-fuel indicator. Your first warning is when you run out of gas. In addition to directing you to the nearest fuel stop as you'd expect, some actually have an electronic fuel gauge. Reset it when you fill up, and it'll warn you when it thinks you've ridden enough miles to need more.
Turn-by-turn directions by Bluetooth
These units also have a screen which is easier to read in bright sunlight. Even so, looking away from the road can be dangerous, and one of the most convenient features of a GPS is spoken turn-by-turn directions. Of course, you're not going to hear anything over your engine -- much less the road noise. That's why they've made them compatible with your Bluetooth headset, or have an optional speaker which can be mounted inside your helmet.
Another important consideration is battery life. Most bikes don't have the 12-volt plug found in even the cheapest cars, so you're going to be relying on that battery. Compare expected battery life when selecting your motorcycle GPS. Your best bet is to get one with removable batteries, whether it has a rechargeable battery pack (buy a spare) or takes standard batteries you can pick up at any convenience store.
How to choose the right motorcycle GPS
We all have our favourite brands, but when it comes to motorcycle GPS units its hard to look past the Garmin zumo 660. This model was designed by experienced riders, which explains why it's so intuitive virtually everything you expect to see in a bike GPS is included. The screen is wide to reduce the problem of reading the display while the bike is in motion, and it displays information you can take in at a glance, allowing you to keep your eyes focused on the road as much as possible. The casing is both water resistant and resistant to sprays of fuel, so you don't have to worry about ruining your new toy if you accidentally spill some while you're fuelling up.
The zumo also has a few nifty perks when it comes to trip planning. You can create a route on your home PC and then transfer it over to your GPS device, giving you a lot more control and detail when it comes to trip planning. But the designers of the zumo 660 have gone one better you can actually replay your rides via Google Earth after you've finished them on the real roads. Bluetooth and an MP3 player are also included, so you can rely on audio directions if you don't want to have to look at the GPS while you ride.
The Rider 2 from TomTom is another GPS unit which has been surrounded by a lot of buzz, and like the Garmin zumo 660 it's been marketed as a GPS device created 'by bikers, for bikers' - but many customers have complained that this one just doesn't live up to expectations. On the plus side, the unit is high quality and integrates easily with Bluetooth, but many riders find that the reliability and features of the unit don't justify the price tag.
If you're interested in a Garmin model but you don't want to shell out for the 660, an acceptable cheaper substitute is the zumo 220. It's not as feature-rich as the 660, but it has many of the same essentials like the ability to plan out your route on your PC and transfer it over to your GPS. The zumo 550 is also a highly recommended device, although it's even pricier than the zumo 660.
Using Your Motorcycle GPS to Good Effect
Having a GPS on your motorcycle opens up new possibilities. It allows you to coordinate long trips more easily, and you'll be able to start getting off the beaten track a little more. If you like to ride out and explore unplanned routes, you'll be able to look ahead and figure out which roads are suitable for your bike and how much fuel you'll need to complete a trip. In other words, a GPS can be used both for planning out your trip in greater detail, or simply throwing your plans to the wind and riding where you please without the risk of getting lost or stuck.
Now the last limitation that was keeping you from taking that weekend trip is gone -- you can get a motorcycle GPS that'll fit the bill. But you're a biker, and that means preparation. You wear a helmet even when you're not expecting to crash, so keep some paper maps in your saddlebags. Remember that as amazing as your shiny new GPS is, it can break, be stolen, or the batteries can die. But you won't let that stop you, right? I knew it wouldn't.
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