Chances are you already own a GPS navigation device of some sort. Maybe it’s your smartphone, maybe you have an automotive GPS, maybe you have a dedicated motorcycle GPS, or maybe you own all three.
These days the question isn’t so much whether or not you own a GPS (every smartphone includes GPS capabilities), it’s what can you do with the GPS you’ve got?
This is especially relevant for motorcyclists.
Does your GPS have the feature set needed for the kind of riding you do? Which is the best GPS for your motorcycling (or scooting) needs? And why might you want to choose one kind of GPS device over another?
How much GPS power do you need?
Not every ride calls for a full-featured GPS navigation system. How much navigation power do you need? Are you using your GPS to plan and navigate the ‘round-the-world adventure of your dreams? Or are you just having a fun day with friends getting lost on some new-to-you local backroads? Are you spending a few weeks off-roading on the TransAmerica Trail or a Backcountry Discovery Route? Or perhaps you just need Siri or Waze to guide you around some unusually heavy traffic on your daily commute?
All of these are great uses for GPS navigation, and each require a different set of GPS features to get the job done.
What is the best motorcycle GPS for you?
So what is the best motorcycle GPS navigation device for you? What are the pros and cons of each? And which best fits your budget?
Let’s assume for now that you don’t own a GPS device of any kind — you are the proud owner of an old flip phone and plan on using it forever (Right on. Old school.). But let’s also assume that you love to ride your motorcycle both near and far and think perhaps one of these new-fangled GPS gizmos could really enhance your 2-wheeled fun, not to mention be an important piece of technology to own in case of emergency.
Here’s a quick look at the three most common motorcycle GPS navigation options — from a cheap smartphone GPS, to a full-featured (and full-priced) GPS for motorcycles — the pros and cons of each, and how each can be the right choice for you.
Smartphone GPS Navigation
Use a Car GPS on Motorcycle
Use A Smartphone GPS On Your Motorcycle
These days most everyone owns a smartphone. And every model of modern smartphone (and most tablets), iPhone and Android, has some level of built-in GPS capability. While these can be somewhat limited in their capabilities (compared to other GPS options), often times they are all the GPS navigation power needed to get you where you want to go via a route you are content to take.
A smartphone GPS is the least expensive motorcycle GPS option available (assuming you already own the phone). Just install the appropriate RAM Mount for iPhone or Android on your motorcycle or scooter, run a power cable from your phone to the auxiliary power outlet on your bike, and presto, you can ride for hours confident you’ll get where you want to go (and back home again).
To hear the GPS voice prompts and listen to music while you ride simply plug in your earbuds and wear them under your helmet. Done.
Pair with a Bluetooth communication device
To go wireless and add some additional functionality you can pair your smartphone with a motorcycle bluetooth communication device such as a Sena 20s or Cardio Scala Rider. This will enable you to wirelessly listen to music, hear GPS direction prompts, talk with other riders, even make phone calls and check your messages; all without the need for earbuds. For ease of use many of these features can be controlled hands-free using just your voice.
3rd Party Apps
Smartphones may be a convenient and inexpensive GPS option but their built in navigation features and route planning capabilities are limited. Fortunately there are an ever increasing number of 3rd party app developers helping to remedy this situation and bring additional GPS functionality to your phone including offline maps.
Apps such as Maps.Me, Rever, Scenic, and TopoMaps+ each (at the time of writing) enhance a smartphone’s native GPS capabilities with sophisticated new features and continue to grow more robust all the time.
We’ll take a deeper look at 3rd party GPS apps in a future Riders Blog article.
Reliance on cellular data
A significant consideration when using your smartphone as a motorcycle GPS is its dependence on cellular signal for data transmission; data such as the maps and waypoints used by the GPS. Some 3rd party GPS apps provide a good work around for this but many still rely heavily on cell signal for their data transmission. Because of this reliance smartphones are generally best suited for GPS use in and around urban areas and other places that have reliable cellular signal.
Smartphones are fragile
Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of using your smartphone as a motorcycle GPS is that smartphones are fragile. Smartphones are not designed to withstand the constant vibration, dust, flying road debris, wet weather, and other physical realities of riding a motorcycle.
Using a protective case for smartphones such as the Otterbox can help compensate for this, but these physical stresses that come with riding a motorcycle remain a concern and can potentially shorten the life of your phone.
- cheapest GPS option. Chances are you already own one.
- excellent choice for urban use where cell signal is strong.
- great for simple uses where you let the GPS chose the route for you.
- variety of screen sizes available
- 3rd party apps can extend navigation and route planning functionality
- protective cases available to help make vibration-proof, shatter-proof, dust-proof, and weather-proof
- easily mount to your motorcycle or scooter
- easily powered using common powercords and adapters
- pair with bluetooth communication devices
- require cellular signal for optimum functionality
- fragile, vulnerable to impact, vibration, dust, dirt, rocks, moisture
- touchscreen and user-interface is small, not glove-friendly or motorcyclist friendly
- limited route planning ability (improved by 3rd party apps)
- primarily for paved roads only
Pair your Smartphone with A Garmin inReach
You can greatly extend the capabilities of your smartphone or tablet by pairing it with a satellite GPS and emergency communication device such as Garmin’s InReach Explorer+, InReach SE+, or InReach Mini.
InReach Satellite Communication devices use the Iridium Global Satellite Network for data transmission. This eliminates the need for cellular data communication and assures you remain connected everywhere on the planet (literally). So long as the device has a clear view of the sky you’ll be linked to GPS satellites for navigation, weather information, and all important emergency services; even when riding in the most remote places on earth.
When a smartphone or tablet is paired with an inReach device, the inReach provides all the GPS, mapping, routing, and satellite communication technology, while your smartphone or tablet provides a larger screen and more nuanced and user friendly user-interface. Together these form an extremely powerful GPS navigation and 2-way communication system that is certain to only grow more robust in the years ahead.
Garmin Earthmate App
Another great feature included free with every InReach Explorer or SE is the Garmin Earthmate App. The Earthmate app serves as a hub for all of InReach’s technological capabilities and helps turn your smartphone or tablet into a full-featured global satellite communication and navigation tool. The app includes mapping, route planning, tracking, emergency SOS communication, and a host of other features.
(The Earthmate app is for iOS and Android devices only. Use the free Garmin Basecamp software for desktop/laptop Mac’s and PC’s).
The only downside to using an InReach device compared to a smartphone GPS alone is cost. An InReach Two-Way Satellite Communication Device can cost as much as some smartphones, plus they require a monthly subscription. However in return for that expense you gain a far more capable and dependable GPS system with features such as route planning, global GPS satellite navigation, route tracking, 2-way communication, and the life-saving emergency SOS feature.
If your motorcycle riding is generally split between riding around town (use the smartphone GPS) and longer more remote and adventurous trips (use the InReach), then pairing your smartphone or tablet with an InReach Satellite Communication Device may be the perfect motorcycle GPS system for you.
- global GPS connection via Iridium Global Satellite Network
- no cellular signal required
- connects to phone via bluetooth for enhanced user interface
- Earthmate app — suite of features for every level of ride
- route planning and tracking
- 2-way emergency SOS communication
- use smartphone GPS for city, InReach for beyond
- additional cost of InReach device
- InReach monthly subscription plan is required (can be activated/deactivated month to month as needed)
Use A Car GPS On Your Motorcycle
If you want more GPS horsepower than your iPhone GPS or Android GPS can provide, but not all the bells and whistles (or cost) of an InReach 2-Way Satellite Communicator or a dedicated Motorcycle GPS, then using a car GPS on your motorcycle can be a great option. Perhaps you even own a car GPS already.
GPS navigation for cars such as the Garmin Drive and TomTom Go are a good intermediate step between a smartphone GPS and a dedicated motorcycle GPS. They provide much of the same cellular-data-free functionality as a motorcycle GPS but at a much lower cost.
With a car GPS you can plan trips, specify routes, import and export GPX files, select waypoints, food, gas, lodging, and other points of interest (POI) to visit, get live traffic updates, and most every other thing you can do with a motorcycle GPS, all free from reliance on a cellular network. Car GPS devices work with the same free route planning software GPS manufacturers provide (like Gamin’s Basecamp) and can also import GPX route files created from other sources.
This said, a car GPS does lack certain other capabilities many motorcyclist’s like to have. For example, some car GPS devices lack the ability to pair with a motorcycle bluetooth communication device such as the SENA 20s. This makes hearing directional voice prompts impossible while riding. You can of course view directions on the screen but often when riding a motorcycle the constant sunlight and glare makes this a bit hit or miss.
You’ll need a mount
Let’s not forget to mention that automotive GPS’s do not come with a motorcycle mount. So you’ll need one of those. There are a variety of motorcycle mounts for a car GPS available and are of specific design for each GPS model.
And a case
Similar to smartphones, car GPS devices are not designed to withstand the constant vibration, dust, road debris, and exposure to weather encountered when riding a motorcycle. Neither are they designed to be operated while wearing gloves.
To compensate for this there are a number of GPS waterproof protective cases available to help dampen vibration and protect from the elements. Some cases even enhance the GPS screen’s sensitivity to touch while wearing gloves (such a the RAM Aquabox).
On the downside these protective cases can be bulky. And while they do help to minimize vibration and other damaging forces they can do nothing to reinforce the internal circuitry and soldered connections of the GPS and prevent them being damaged by these stresses.
All this said, even with these shortcomings, using a car GPS on your motorcycle can be a very capable and affordable GPS option for the rider who perhaps only occasionally needs more than their smartphone GPS to get around.
- some similar functionalities as Motorcycle GPS
- no cellular signal needed
- free OEM route mapping software
- can save custom routes for future use
- can import 3rd party GPX routes
- protective cases and mounts available
- no OEM motorcycle mount
- no vibration reinforcement
- not weatherproof
- can’t use touch screen with gloves
- limited waypoints
- may not be compatible with Bluetooth headsets
- no off-road tracks
Use A Motorcycle GPS
If GPS navigation has become a regular part of your motorcycle rides, it might be time to step up to a motorcycle GPS navigation device that is designed specifically for the job. Popular motorcycle GPS models include the Garmin Zumo XT and the TomTom Rider.
All motorcycle GPS units are built with features specific to the needs of traveling on 2-wheels. These features may vary between different GPS manufactures and models, but the basics are the same.
The outer casing of a motorcycle GPS unit is tough and made to withstand both the natural elements and man-made stresses that are a regular part of riding a motorcycle. Design features such as an impact-resistant low-glare screen, and a casing made of weather-resistant materials, help motorcycle GPS units better withstand the heat, cold, sun, rain, mud, snow, sleet, bugs, rocks, and even the occasional unplanned dismount you may encounter on your way.
The internal components of a motorcycle GPS device are also reinforced to withstand the constant bumps, vibration, and other stresses encountered while riding a motorcycle. The soldering, electrical circuitry, joints, the touchscreen, as well as case itself are all strengthened. In most cases they should even be able withstand the occasional spill without worry.
Mount to a motorcycle
All motorcycle GPS units come with a motorcycle-specific mount designed to easily attach to the handlebars or another convenient mount point on your motorcycle. Powering the GPS can be done either by connecting the mount directly to the motorcycle’s electrical system, or using the bikes auxiliary power outlet.
For ease of operation the motorcycle GPS user interface is designed with a rider in mind — the touchscreen is low-glare and can be used with gloves on or off. Display elements such as buttons and typography are are made large for easier viewing while in motion.
Motorcycle specific features
Behind the scenes the software running a motorcycle GPS also provides a variety of features specific to motorcycling. (Features vary by GPS model).
- navigation using both Routes and Tracks
- on-road and off-road capabilities
- automatic routing preference for scenic or twisty roads
- import and export of GPX and other route file formats
- route planning using software options such as Garmin’s Basecamp
- provide an ever-growing library of Points of Interest (POI’s) and Waypoints
- ability to add custom POI’s
- easy pairing with bluetooth devices such as smartphones and SENA Communication headsets
- automatic live monitoring of tire pressure
- tracking of maintenance records and schedule
- photo storage
- music playback
New features continue to be introduced.
- built to withstand vibration and exposure to wet weather
- mount using included motorcycle specific cradle
- power via hardwire to electrical system or using accessory socket
- full-featured GPS
- full trip planning, route planning, and route sharing capabilities
- on road and off-road, routes and tracks
- motorcycle friendly user interface designed for use with gloves
- easy connection to 3rd party bluetooth devices such as phones and hands-free communication headsets
- also can be used as a car GPS
- most expensive GPS option
You can go home again
Whatever your motorcycle GPS needs — big, bigger, or biggest — there is an affordable GPS navigation option available to help get you where you need to go, and back again. Just pick the one that’s right for you and hit the road.
Ride safe. Have fun.
Products related to this article
- GPS for Motorcycle
- Automotive GPS
- InReach Satellite Communication Device
- Android Phones
- Bluetooth Communication Headsets
- Protective Cases for GPS
- Protective Cases for Phones
- Power Cables for GPS
- Power Cables for Phones