What You Need to Know About GPS Bike Computer Navigation

What you need to know about GPS bike computer navigation to go to the outdoors with confidence.

Do you know how to properly use your GPS Bike Computer´s navigation feature? Are you sure your GPS Bike Computer will guide you through your intended route safely? What happens when you miss a turn? Will your device be able to get you back on course?

In this post we help you to have a better understanding of your GPS Bike Computer´s navigation capabilities, advantages and limitations.

WHAT IS A GPS BIKE COMPUTER ROUTE?

GPS BIKE computers can guide you from an origin to a destination by means of following a path joining both points. The path is stored in a file usually known as a track or a route. There are 3 ways in which the device can get a track file for navigation

  • By uploading a GPX file from an external source that may be one of a ride that a friend shared with you or that you downloaded from a web route sharing site.
  • The GPS Bike computer has built in maps with what is known as routing capability. This means that the maps have metadata embedded that allow them to calculate the path or track from a start to an end point.
  • The GPS Bike computer may have maps with no routing or limited routing capability and uses its companion app to calculate and send the route to the device

Let’s give a more detailed look to each one.

WHAT IS A GPX FILE BIKE COMPUTER ROUTE?

The GPX file format was developed by Topographix (https://www.topografix.com/gpx.asp) and was adopted years ago by the GPS industry as a standard format to share GPS data. It contains the information needed for navigation such as waypoints, tracks and routes based on geographical coordinates. For those technically inclined, it is an XML based text file.

The GPX track files, the ones used for navigation, contain a series of points to be followed in a chronological order and they look like this in a text editor

 

<trkpt lat=”20.686993″ lon=”-100.514058″>
<ele>1892</ele>
<time>2022-01-18T00:10:31Z</time></trkpt>
<trkpt lat=”20.686714″ lon=”-100.514776″>
<ele>1891</ele>
<time>2022-01-18T00:10:46Z</time></trkpt>
<trkpt lat=”20.686305″ lon=”-100.515573″>
<ele>1895</ele>
<time>2022-01-18T00:11:03Z</time></trkpt>

 

The two mandatory components are the coordinates of the point (lat/lon) and the timestamp (time). This sample, also has elevation data which is optional. Remember, it is the Time Stamp that defines de order in which the points have to be followed or, in other words, the direction of the route.

HOW DO I CREATE A GPX TRACK?

The most common ways they are created is either by:

  • Recording them with any type of GPS device

  • Generated through a web mapping service and then download it to your device following the specific instructions provided by the site.

There are several sites that allow to create routes. Start by checking the apps from the GPS brand you have. For example, The Garmin Connect apps both in Desktop and Mobile allow to create a route and synchronize it with your device instantly.

There are third party services like Plotaroute, RideWithGPS, Strava, Komoot and if you have a Garmin, the Garmin Connect application as well. Some have free access with limited features and a payment is needed to get access to all the features.

This is a route I created with the Plotaroute free version with a download option in the menu. See our guide to load tracks/routes to your device.

 

WHAT TYPE OF MAPS DO GPS BIKE COMPUTER MAP HAVE?

Mapping wise, your GPS BIKE computer may have:

  • No map, navigation is only available by GPX “breadcrumb” following type. You will have to follow the track as close as possible and if you go out of route, you will have to find how to return to it by yourself.
  • Map with no routing capabilities, navigation is done by GPX “breadcrumb” following type. If you go out of route, you will have to find your way back by yourself as well but being able to see the underlaying map may help.
  • Map with routing capabilities. Upon loading the GPX file, the device will calculate the route using the map data and create turn by turn navigation instructions to guide you through the route. If you go out of route, the device will find your way back to the route provided there are roads mapped in the zone you are riding in. See our post 5 Steps to Follow a GPX Track with a Garmin Edge 530 for more detail.

It is important that you check the routing capabilities that come with your device to avoid unpleasant surprises.

DO ALL GPS BIKE COMPUTER MAPS HAVE ROUTING CAPABILITIES?

As mentioned above, not all GPS Bike computers have maps with routing capability.  In this table we list a few of them

BRAND MODEL DESCRIPTION
Garmin Edge 130 Plus GPX track navigation only. Back to start only on active route
Edge 530 Map with routing.

Create routes to Point on map, courses, Trailforks, saved locations, back to start.

Edge 830 Map with routing.

Create routes to Point on map, courses, Trailforks, saved locations, back to start, in device route creation, address search, POI search

Edge 1030 Plus Map with routing.

Create routes to Point on map, courses, Trailforks, saved locations, back to start, in device route creation, address search, POI search

Wahoo Elemnt BOLT V1 Map with no routing. Routing options with the ELEMNT companion app.
Elemnt BOLT V2 Map with routing. Added routing options with the ELEMNT companion app.
Elemnt ROAM Map with routing. Added routing options with the ELEMNT companion app.
Hammerhead Karoo 1 & 2 Map with Routing

HOW DOES A GPS BIKE COMPUTER GUIDES YOU BACK TO YOUR PLANNED TRACK?

If you went off route and your device has routing capabilities, it will calculate a return to your intended route. Some will prompt you to do a U Turn to return to the point where you left the route, some others will guide you to the closest section of the route from the current position.

If the device has no map or a map without routing capability, you will have to find your way back to the course.

GPS BIKE COMPUTER WITH A MAP WITH NO ROUTING CAPABILITY

The Wahoo Elemnt BOLT V1 GPS bike computer has a map without routing capabilities as well as very limited data content like street names.

Except for the option of back to start on the active session, all the routing options are done through the companion app where the route is created or loaded and then sent to the device.

This image shows the available options in the app

 

  • Take me to… opens a map based on the type of cell phone you have, Apple Maps for IOS, Google Maps on Android. Here con can search for a point of interest or a street or simply touch the screen along the path you want to follow. The app will calculate the route and send it to the device. The Elemnt BOLT shall be turned on to send the route.
  • Create from history creates a route based on your saved activities.
  • Sync from web downloads track files from 3rd party websites such as RideWithGPS, Strava, Komoot and others.
  • Import file allows to select a compatible file (GPX, TCX or FIT) from and email attachment, website, Dropbox, etc.
  • Retrace current ride to reverse the current activity
  • Route to start return to the starting point of the current activity.

GPS BIKE COMPUTER WITH A MAP WITH ROUTING CAPABILITY

A GPS Bike computer such as the Garmin Edge 530 has in device routing capabilities. The Navigation menu shows options such as

  • Browse map and select points along the path you want to follow.
  • Courses follow a preloaded GPX file or a course created in Garmin Connect.
  • MTB Trail Navigation if you have a Trailforks account, trails in your area will show in this option.
  • Saved Locations create routes to reference points that you have saved in your device.

Also, while on a ride you have the option to select Back to Start with two alternatives: Along Same Route or Most Direct Route.

All the above options are available within the device with no need to use the Garmin Connect app.

A WORD OF CAUTION ON AUTOMATICALLY GENERATED ROUTES

Letting technology make the route calculations for you is very nice. But you should be aware that either the fastest or the shortest are not necessarily the best or safest options. The calculated route could guide you through unpleasant or unsafe places. Check before you follow them or as a minimum, be aware of this possibility. If needed, change it.

CONCLUSION: WHAT IS THE BEST GPS BIKE COMPUTER FOR NAVIGATION?

If navigation is your priority then the best option is one that has a map with routing capabilities within the device, without the need of a cell phone. It is easier to find options to create the routes.

From the models on the table above that would be the Garmin 530, 830, 1030 Plus, the Wahoo Roam and Bolt V2 as well as the Hammerheads.

What would you get?