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Navigation for long distance, off road motorcycle trips

April 09, 2019

Navigation is extremely important for a motorcycle trip so we thought we would put together a guide with the fundamentals of preparing for navigating on a long distance, off road motorcycle trip. We will take a look at what equipment you can use and how to prepare the mapping data for where you want to visit as well as look into some of the safety aspects.

Choosing a route

gpx file

When travelling by road you can just use a normal turn by turn navigation system such as a Garmin Zumo or Tom Tom. These use data collected in a map to determine which roads provide the best route to your chosen destination. Within Europe and the USA these maps can be extremely comprehensive and to get to your destination you only need to put in the address and the satellite navigation system will do the rest for you. However In countries that do not have a well established road system and where you may wish to create your own route through a desert or mountain range that does not have roads these type of systems are useless.

Traditional Equipment

garmin alternative

Traditionally, Instead of road based sat navs mountaineering or sailing based systems were used. These systems have base maps of the countries and provide much more information such as terrain and altitude information. However these are not turn by turn systems and require waypoints to be loaded onto the system that you can then follow. This allows navigation across open land such as desert and tundra where there are no towns or roads.

There are Modern motorcycle specific systems available that now have this feature. They are a little clunky though to use.

A great system and probably the most used in the past is the Garmin GPSMAP 276CX which is a complete navigation package that includes topographic and altitude data and allows you to plot routes from the device alone.

Creating a route

The problem with using a proper GPS system is that you must load the route onto the device in the form of a GPX file. However if you have never recorded a route through the area you wish to travel with a gps device you have no way of plotting a route. This means you have to find GPX files from people who have previously been to this location and done the route you wish to and this is not always possible. You may wish to travel through a place where no motorcyclist has travelled yet!

There is a way however to create your own routes that you can load onto your GPX system but it takes some preparation. Using the google my maps application found in google drive (It allows you to draw onto google maps) you can look very closely at the satellite imagery of the area collected by google and then draw a route onto it and then export this information as a KML file. By following other vehicle tracks and even animal tracks that are visible on google earth imagery you can create your own off road routes without ever having visited before! Once you export the KMZ file you can convert this to a GPX file that any navigation device should be able to use. You can also use other programs such as Google Earth and Garmin’s Basecamp however this is a confusing app!

Always have a backup

If you plan to travel to areas that have low population and are remote having one device is not enough. You should have at least two devices both with the route information in case one fails.

A great multifunction setup

motorcycle waterproof smartphone case

Due to the need to navigate both on road and in cities but also in remote off road areas the smartphone is a great multipurpose tool. We use standard car style turn by turn navigation apps available on the Istore or google play for navigating on the road and in cities and then use a GPX based app such as GPX Viewer or Viewranger app for following our self created GPX routes in the remote places. We also use a small mountaineering GPS device as a back up and GPS compass should we have an issue. I like to display heading and altitude information on this device and use the smartphone with its large screen for the navigation. As a third back up we also carry an Inreach two way satellite communicator that allows us to contact help anywhere in the world in an emergency. This device has GPS functionality built in and works as a final backup navigator.


By using a good smartphone combined with a waterproof and protective mounting and case system such as the Ultimateaddons smartphone cases you can easily and seamlessly combine standard turn by turn navigation and remote GPS route navigation into one easy to use system.

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