Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Where the BLEEP are we?

We love maps. 

Almost as much as Pamela loves coffee.


It seems like we go on tours just so we can buy maps of new places.

At times, we have set aside a pannier just for maps.

John could spend hours poring over maps.

John shares his map obsession with friends

I love touring during blackberry season, since I can pick blackberries whenever John is looking at maps. 

We have gone to lots of expense getting many of our maps laminated. The lamination isn't just for rain, it also greatly extends the life of a map that gets unfolded and re-folded lots.  It also protects against someone pouring, rather than poring over the map.

So it might come as a surprise that we use GPS devices.    

We got our first GPS when we lived in New Zealand. To be honest, there aren't a lot of roads there, but we still bought 1:50,000 scale maps for the whole of the South Island, and had them laminated. Then we'd go ride on the unmapped forest roads, where all these maps were of no use! Well that's not entirely true. While the forestry roads weren't shown on our maps, we could use the latitude and longitude data from the GPS to determine exactly where we were on the map and how far away we were from civilization. But mainly we could see if we were riding around in circles, and we could use the track-back/breadcrumb feature to get home if we were hopelessly lost. But we also could see how far we had gone and how much we had climbed.

GPS devices have advanced a bit since our initial purchase and now one can get a GPS device with color maps, route profiles and even temperature.  And unlike traditional bike computers, they don't require re-calibrating for different wheel or tire sizes. One of the great features is when we see some interesting-looking side road, we can quickly pan around on the maps on the GPS to see if the road goes anywhere. This saves a little time versus stopping to take out and unfold the map. It's also handy if we don't have a map in the detail scale to show the tiny roads that often pique our curiosity.

I got an Edge 705 a few years ago. John got the 800 last year. These two devices are very different, and clearly were not designed by the same teams. The 800 is the newer model and has a touch screen interface. Because I am so used to my 705, I have some difficulty finding things on the 800. Because John had not used the 705 much, he has less trouble. One of the features I love on the 705 is the route profile that updates throughout the ride and can be scaled to display all or part of a route. We have not been able to figure out what is being displayed on the 800, but we the route profile that is displayed doesn't match our expectations, the 705 or the online software profiles. The 800 does have temperature and last Sunday it showed that we were truly insane, riding in -8C temps. Maybe I didn't really want to know!

But back to mapping functions. The really cool feature of  using a GPS and mapping software is that we can plot out a ride ahead of time on a computer, then download it to the device and see/follow a route on the GPS, without having to stop at every corner to pick blackberries, uh I mean check the map. I still want to pick blackberries, but sometimes we tour out of blackberry season, and then I'm just left taking pictures of people looking at maps. Above is a screen shot from RideWithGPS showing a preplanned route along with a nice elevation profile, letting me know ahead of time what I'm in for. This online application also generates cue sheets that are reasonably accurate and handy to give to our non-GPS enabled riding companions. There are a few other online GPS mapping programs, but RideWithGPS is my favorite and the one I have had the best luck using with my 705. I've had no luck using routes from MapMyRide on my 705. The MapMyRide  routes work fine on John's 800, but choke my 705. With the online tools we can also share our routes or get routes from other folks. Just be aware when taking routes from unknown sources that they may have picked busy main roads, where you would prefer small back roads, or they include dirt and gravel roads and trails, where you might prefer something paved. If you use any of our published routes, expect small roads and dirt!

We don't always have an internet connection, so we also use the Garmin software that comes with the Garmin maps. We have a small lightweight laptop (11" MacBook Air), that we sometimes take with us on tours. The Mac version of the Garmin software is a little quirky, but we found lots of remote places where we could not rely on an internet connection and online tools. The main issue we found with this software is sometimes it puts in Chinese characters for via points, which wouldn't be awful if this didn't actually corrupt the downloaded routes. So long as we change those via points to use English characters, the downloaded routes work fine. We have not have the same type of issues with the Windows version of the Garmin mapping software. In addition to working offline, the other advantage to the Garmin software and maps is that most of the online tools use Google maps, which tend to include lots of trails masquerading as roads, especially in Europe. We've been in places where we know there is only one road, but Google shows dozens, most of which are trails.

We still have and will continue to buy paper maps. It's great to sit down and plot out a route on a proper map, especially one with topo lines or color coding for terrain. The Ordnance Survey maps in Ireland show the mountains in a lovely shade of brown. So John aims for the brown stuff whenever we ride there. Paper maps are really good for the big picture. We have sometimes spent hours seeking out a ranger station just to find a particular map for a national forest. We need maps just to find places to get more maps.

I'll also admit to naming my GPS. This way I can blame or credit her for a route. We call her Gigi. She's actually Gigi II, since I stole the name from Dan and Janet Morgan who used the name Gigi first for their GPS.


  1. Why Gigi? It stands for Gravel Garmin as that is where she always led us... D&J

  2. Shortly after the original Gigi acquired her name for taking D&J and friends on gravel when they didn't actually want to be on gravel, I took a look at her settings. They had (accidentally) unchecked Avoid Gravel. She was just doing as told!

    And I'll point out that we discovered this on our Dirt Roads of Vermont Epic Sojourn, where gravel was most definitely preferred!