Ultimate GPS: GPS methods for cars, motorcycles, bicycles and hikers

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Yamaha Motorcycles Street Event - AMS


Ultimate GPS Routing

Experience tells me that 90% of the people who own GPS' aren't using them to create routes. To the contrary – they're using them to see where they've been. And for those who are creating routes, nine times out of ten they're using their mapping software that was bundled or bought as an add on to go with their unit when they bought it. If you're ready to step up to the next level routing then read on, we're going on a little trip.

For starters all maps have inaccuracies. Thus using two to three maps while routing, usually a combination of both paper and digital is helpful for determining where the errors are. An older digital map says a road exits, a current atlas says it does not, and yet a newer digital map says it does not either. Thus we can assume for the most part that the road is gone.

This becomes critical whether your routing a pavement route, a dual sport trip or a gravel road ride. You may have a Sportbike and don't want to wind up on a gravel road - with a bad map you may. Or, you may be routing a dual sport adventure only to arrive at a gate, or as a few friends and I did – four tall cedars strategically planted left to right across where the road used to go. Checking your route against various sources before you ride will save you a lot of headaches later on down the road - literally.

I've come up with an intricate system for planning a route that allows me to verify as much as possible what roads exists ahead of time, and create a route using external software that can be read more accurately by my GPS than the software created for it by its manufacturer. But before I get ahead of myself, let's get started with the process.

Step 1 - Plan a Course

For this step we begin with a good quality road atlas. If you're planning a ride on the West Coast, the best choice I've found is the Road & Recreation Atlas series by Benchmark Maps. Benchmark updates their atlas' every 2-3 years and while I do find a flaw here and there I find them superior to atlases by DeLorme, Rand McNally and other corporate mucky muck companies. If you plan to do any tertiary or gravel roads on your trip you owe it to yourself to get a good atlas with a current copyright on the inside.

I scan the atlas and determine the route I want to use. Today's trip is a dualsport route where we'll leave the town of Blyn in Washington State near the 7 Cedars Casino on the Olympic Peninsula and ride a route south to the old logging town of Quilcene, about 22 miles south. Some of the route is on pavement, some of it is on gravel. We know this from looking at the original map we see in the Washington Road and Recreation Atlas.

Now, with the atlas at my side, I proceed to step 2.

Step 2 – Paint Your Route

At this point I boot up my computer and load up National Geographic's Back Roads Explorer 3D mapping software. I zoom into the area I plan to begin my ride at and magnify it to level 4. Now I select the Route Tool and begin to paint my route. It's a little clunky at first, but after a few sessions you'll get the hang of it. As with all software there's a learning curve you'll have to overcome before you become smooth with the process.

I set down the route tool and begin to 'paint' the route which will show in red as I draw. If I make a mistake the folks at National Geographic have incorporated an erase tool that allows me to go backwards and correct my error. If you're using a touchpad on a laptop, you may find it easier to contact a mouse and paint with that, especially if you're right handed.

Once you've painted your route, click your mouse and notice the window that comes onto the screen. This will allow you to name the route and see the mileage, but more importantly it's going to allow you create GPS waypoints, or rather you direct the software to create the waypoints. This is the most critical step of the process as it's what's going to keep you on course during your ride without having to stop and think twice along the route.

Typical routing software such as that created by Garmin and others does not place waypoints intuitively into the route as you create it, rather it places 'route points' in for the turns. The National Geographic software uses a different system creating waypoints at critical turns along the route so you know about them before you arrive there, not at the point of the turn.

When you click the 'GPS Route' button the next question the software will ask you is how many waypoints do you want to incorporate into your route. This route is 21 miles so I ask for 22 waypoints. But the software will not place a waypoint at exactly each mile, instead it will determine the critical turning points and place waypoints in a few hundred feet just after them. What this means is that while you're on the road, you can run your GPS in compass mode and you'll always know which way to turn when you get to a junction.

Once you've told the system your want the 22 waypoints, it places them into the window at the bottom of the screen. You can click on each waypoint listed and it will show you just where that waypoint lies on the map. The one here in the picture below is waypoint #4. You can see that as we travel southeast on the road the way point is placed after the junction of another road. There will be no doubt when you reach the junction before the waypoint as to which way you need to travel. If your GPS is in compass mode your compass will be pointing at waypoint four and away from the road junction. What could be easier than that!

Step 3 – Upload The Route to your GPS

Eventually we will open up the route in your GPS software, but before we can do that we need the conduit to get it there. That will be your GPS since NG and other software manufacturers don't speak a common language, only the actual GPS can do that. Connect the cable that connects your GPS to your PC.

If you're using an older version of National Geographic Back Roads Explorer, a USB connection to your GPS may or may not work since NG was slow in coming with version updates. To accomplish having the right version drivers was a complex mess with the older version, but the current version, Back Roads Explorer 3D has all the latest drivers for the most common GPS'.

With the GPS turned on Click the 'GPS & Handheld Options' icon and follow the instructions to send the route into your GPS.

Step 4 – Download the file to your GPS Software.

Now with the route in your GPS, open your proprietary GPS software. For instance if you have a Garmin device, open the Garmin/Mapsource software. With the software open use the menu or icon that will allow you to download the route into the software from the GPS.

Step 5 – Revise and Alter

h2>What you'll need

Up To Date Road Atlases - $20 to $25

Benchmark makes the most accurate if you lve on the West Coast. Look for the Road & Recreation Atlas series. Otherwise purchase atlases that offer the most detail for the areas you want to ride and have the most current copyright dates. You can buy them through the Sound RIDER! Store.

A GPS - $200 to $1,500

It doesn't take anything fancy to get started, but you'll like a color screen if you plan to use topographic maps like the ones in Mapsource's Topo software. You can get a 10% rebate if you purchase your GPS through REI as a member. It's buyer beware if you try and find a low budget deal on the internet since some sales are one way only and rebates often can't be had unless the unit was purchased through an authorized dealer.

GPS Mount - $10 to $150

The expensive mounts are usually overkill and have more moving parts that can later cause trouble. The best mounts we've found are by RAM Mounts. They're durable and simple to use.

National Geographic Back Roads Explorer 3D - $49.95

Don't settle for older versions, or the NG TOPO! series. GPS drivers are out of date on these older versions and you don't need the bulk of the level 5 maps in TOPO! Back Roads Explorer 3D comes with maps for the entire US on 17 CD-ROMS. You can buy it through the Sound RIDER! Store.


Now you'll see the route on your screen. You'll notice it's a series of lines connected to each other by the waypoints. They don't necessarily follow the contour of the road, but there's no need to worry, the format they are in is what will keep you on track as opposed to having routed this route in the proprietary software. Go ahead and add any additional waypoints you want to the route such as vista points, a lunch stop or otherwise.

Step 6 – Select Your Maps

You can't send the maps in the Back Roads Explorer 3D software to your GPS, only the route can be transferred. This is another reason why we sent it from BE3D to your GPS and then into your software. As you see the route on the screen of your proprietary software select the maps around the area you will need to have. This is an important part of the process, because without those maps you'll be riding with nothing but the waypoints to guide you and it won't be easy to know where you are on the route.

Step 7 – Upload the Route and Maps to your GPS

Your route is tweaked and you've selected your maps. Now use the menu bar or icon to send the whole package back to your GPS. Once you've complete that save the file to your computer for use later.

Step 8 – Go Ride It

You've got this very fine tuned route in your GPS so it's time to go ride. Once you get to the starting point, turn on the 'track log' of your GPS so you can see where you actually travel. This is handy because in the event a road is closed and you need to detour, you'll have your tracks to make the needed adjustments on your route you've saved at home on your computer.

Step 9 – Tweak the Route Back at Home

You've had a great ride, but there a few alternate routes you discovered along the way and you'd like to make adjustments on your route in your proprietary software version. Fire up the software and download the tracks in your GPS into the route file. Now you can see where you've been and adjust the waypoints on the original route accordingly. Keep in mind the rule about placing your waypoints after critical turns so your compass points the way at each junction.

Step 10 – Share it with your Friends

At this point you've might have a route that a few buddies would like to take. Email it to them if you like, or better yet, take them on the route and let them use their track logs back at home to know where they went for future use later.

Now all this seems like a bit of work, and it is. The first time I did this method I took a dual sport trip along the Olympic Peninsula following over 50 miles of gravel roads I'd never traveled. The day went smoothly, with the exception of one recent road closure. At the junctions life was a breeze and I learned to trust my route and the GPS. Had I not developed this method, I probably never would have attempted such a trip into unknown areas. Since then I've been to many other new places using the same method and it's because of a system like this that I'm more confident with getting out there and seeing new places.

PT/Winter 2006


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