The essentials for navigation while cycling in unfamiliar areas are a good map and a compass. A bike computer (odometer) is useful for measuring how far you’ve been, and for following guidebook instructions. Knowing the distance you’ve covered relative to the distance remaining is key to planning your safe and enjoyable progress.
Unless you are totally map-illiterate, a GPS unit is a non-essential item for all but a very few challenging situations. However, it comes into it’s own when travelling using a GPS track (track files are available from web sites), as we found when travelling by bike paths from Austria to France. It can also help you while cycling out of cities or towns into the countryside, where you may find you are off the city map, yet still need more detail than the country map provides. This is a situation where local advice will often see you through.
Map and Compass
Hard-copy (paper) maps are essential. Some indication of relief such as shading or contours is useful. In the countryside, a scale of 1:400,000 works well –unless you want to use very small roads when 1:250,000 would be better. Chris has a bicycle bell that is also a compass on his handlebars (see this page’s banner). Far from a gimmick, it is handy for orienting the map when you come to a road junction. It is not a precision device because of the steel in his brake levers, but is as accurate as we need. A simple baseplate compass carried in a handlebar bag is of similar utility.
City maps can be difficult to get ahead of time, but are often essential for navigating through suburbia. We find getting out of major cities to be a major challenge. On the web, Google & ViaMichelin Maps are good to print out ahead of time. Lonely Planet and other guidebooks provide maps of city centres that can be scanned and carried along, even if you don’t bring the entire guide. They can also be purchased online in pdf format from Lonely Planet, especially convenient if you’re carrying a notebook computer.
For planning longer trips, an overview map is useful. Try the “find route” feature in Google Maps and ViaMichelin Maps. Note that ViaMichelin has useful “by bike” and “sightseeing” options, and Google can be set to avoid major highways. See our suggestions on route planning.
We purchased a Garmin eTrex Legend HCx for our trans-Asia trip. We have hiking experience with handheld units, but this is our first mapping handheld unit, and the first time we have taken a GPS on a cycling trip. It allowed us to plot our progress on Google Maps, and to share route information with other travellers. Battery life was a major factor in our choice of unit, since this is the limiting factor in its usefulness. A pair of rechargable AA batteries last about two days.
Asking for Directions
Don’t leave this as a last resort! Success will depend on your skills in the local language, your ability with ad hoc sign language, your awareness of the local culture, as well as luck. If you can’t pronounce the name of your destination, you can point to it on the map. But keep in mind that this assumes the person you are asking can read –not a given in some places. Also, keep in mind that travelling longer distances is beyond the experience of many in the developing world, so inquire about your closest destination first.
The views we express here are probably slanted by the fact that we are active members of our local orienteering club. A skilled navigator synthesizes information from as many sources as possible, and sophisticated electronic devices are generally only a minor aid within a broader picture.