The Highs and Lows of Motorcycle GPS navigation

The Highs and Lows of Motorcycle GPS navigation

For years my motorcycle GPS was a white sticky label with road numbers and town names written in succession. I read road signs and town names and looked at the map if – or rather when – I got lost.

This method got me to many places across Europe – including one inadvertent crossing of the border between The Netherlands and Germany at autobahn speeds, through the checkpoint, when I think I was meant to stop.

However, the point is that even with the most basic of motorcycle navigation solutions, I always got where I was going, eventually.

Fast forward a lot of years and now my TomTom takes me on what I call Motorcycle GPS Magical Mystery Tours. Put even the most subtle of reroutes or diversions onto my programmed route – my route, not an autogenerated one – and I’m either exploring all sorts new and interesting places I didn’t want to visit or being bombarded with requests to turn around.

Are GPS’ really better than knowing where you are going? Let’s get into it and perhaps provide some stimulus for the developers of these devices who tempt us with worry-free motorcycle navigation, and forget to mention the moments of sheer frustration.

Why do we even need them

A fundamental question, to which the answer has to be no. We don’t need a motorcycle GPS, no matter what the marketing departments tell us.

The marketing departments are selling the desire for convenience or perhaps a weight off your mind. “Sit back and enjoy the ride“, they whisper seductively, “we’ll get you where you need to go. You have nothing to worry about.”

Flies On The Visor - Motorcycle GPS

I don’t need a GPS to find a major town. A quick look at the map to identity the major roads and the general direction and off I go. Where the GPS comes into its own is when I need to find an exact location in that unfamiliar town, without searching high and low and eventually asking for directions I can’t follow.

Then there is the case where a specific route is to be followed. Hours are spent picking the roads we want to ride. Waypoints are placed, fuel and tea stops are planned. This is an exacting science and all part of “the ride”.

And it is when it comes to riding that specific route that having a navigator to ensure each turn is correctly negotiated, is a real bonus.

Yet the question remains, do we need a GPS. Could we ride the same routes and destinations without one? Yes, we could, but like many others, I’m sold on the idea of doing the planning sat at my desk with a large mug of tea. When I’m out riding, I’m happy to let Bleating Betty chirp in my ears about upcoming turns.

They could all improve

If the “need” is really a lustful desire for a new gadget, then is there a gap between the Marketing Departments seductive claims and reality?

My love/hate relationship with my TomTom Rider 500 is something I’ve moaned about before. But it isn’t a TomTom thing, nearly all of the motorcycle GPS units and phone-based apps I’ve tried, appear to have holes in them.

Perhaps it is me. Maybe my expectations should be more realigned to the fact that I have a complete European map book enclosed in a small portable unit (or my phone) and it could guide me from the backend of nowhere to Frank Hansen’s front door in Norway … if I knew where in Norway Frank lived that is.

But that is not what the Marketing Department “sold” me. Sadly I’m not sure the Marketing Department actually ride motorcycles or use a Motorcycle GPS’.

Motorcycle GPS - Marketing Department - Flies on The Visor

Is it time for the “they don’t need one to navigate to the nearest trendy coffee bar” joke?

Seriously, if you have ever looked at your GPS/Phone app and thought WTF? Or perhaps Why is it doing that? Or even How do I …?, then you understand what I’m talking about. Most GPS’ don’t seem to think like a motorcyclist.

I wonder if that GPS/App was ever given to your average motorcyclist, without any instructions, who was then asked, “Go use that and tell us what frustrates you”? I’m going to go with, No.

I’m not going that way

And so to my primary complaint about the TomTom 550. If I haven’t followed my programmed route, it could be because I missed the turn or because I can’t take the turn.

Maybe the road is closed, or there was an obvious miscalculation when joining the waypoints. Whatever the reason, once I’m obviously not going that way, why does it take the TomTom 550 so long to work this out – if at all?

Motorcycle Navigation

Give me two, perhaps three instructions to turn around, but when I’m a mile down the road, heading away from the turning point I programmed in, it is fair to assume there is a good reason for my failure to comply with the instructions.

The Garmin Zumo 595 is the only motorcycle navigation unit we have seen that recognises what is happening. After a few “Turn around” messages, it puts a button on the display “Skip this waypoint?”. What a wonderful feature.

If I’ve missed the turn I’m going to be able to turn around within a mile. After that, I don’t want to stop and clear a waypoint. I don’t want suggestions all day long about how to get back to that waypoint. I just want to go to the next waypoint.

There is always the possibility that the best route to the subsequent waypoint would be through the waypoint I’ve just skipped. So now what?

There has to be an acceptable limit to the intuition I can expect from a GPS. Yet sometimes the sheer stubbornness of GPS units amazes me.

Is it so hard to program a motorcycle GPS to display an easy to use “Skip Waypoint” button and then route to the subsequent waypoint without going through the one I just skipped? Or even make these options in the How I’d Like My GPS to Behave menu.

Which Motorcycle GPS’ have we tried?

Having had a good moan, here are a few of the GPS’ and Navigation Apps we have tried.

TomTom Rider 550 – Enough said already

Calimoto Motorcycle Navigation - Flies On The VisorCalimoto – I tested an earlier version than the one currently available, but Calimoto could not tell the difference between a road joining the one I am on and my need to simply continue on my current road.

Every time I passed a junction joining my road, Calimoto would tell me to turn left or right away from this road if it was on a bend when all I needed to do was keep going.

Calimoto does have good taste in Free Motorcycle Routes though. Download any of our routes onto your phone and if Calimoto is installed, the route will automatically load.

Google Maps – Apart from me finding the tasks of designing and saving routes on Google maps less than intuitive, when I follow a route I’ve loaded, the safety camera alerts stop working.

Perhaps it is a feature, or maybe Google has now fixed that bug. If I could be certain of every speed limit, and I never made a mistake, I wouldn’t need it. But even then, why turn off features in the navigation software when I start following a route?

ViaMichelin – Considering it is free, no one should complain. Your choices are to accept Michelin’s ad-funded service, in which I can’t find a way to save or load routes, or I put my hand in my pocket and pay for something.

Then there is the whole mobile data debate. ViaMichelin is an online service with no option to save maps locally, so functionally it never really got out of the starting blocks for me. It is free though and the maps are excellent. What else would you expect from Michelin?

Calimoto Motorcycle Navigation - Flies On The VisorMyRouteApp Navigation – In the middle of a tour of Spain, the voice commands stopped playing. Shortly afterwards MyRouteApp – Navigation started taking long tea breaks and then suddenly coming back to life.

After much messing about, I traced the issues to an update of the MyRouteApp Navigation software that put my perfectly functional, but old, version of Android on the no longer supported list. I get that technology moves on, but please don’t update me to a version that I can’t use.

For desktop route planning though, MyRouteApp is superb. I even paid for the lifetime gold membership with my own cash money.

Phone Apps in General – They look like a really good motorcycle navigation option, often costing much less than a dedicated GPS unit. There are some generic problems through you may wish to consider.

USB is 5-volts and your bike is 12-volt so you are going to need an adapter. Hardwiring to the bike would be the preferred option.

You don’t really want your expensive mobile phone out in all weathers, so you’re going to need a weatherproof case for it.

And then there is the too hot to charge and shutdown issue. Navigation apps use a lot of power. Your phone is powering the GPS chip, processing your location and displaying the map. All this activity drains the battery and generates heat.

With your phone in a case to protect it and with it out in the sunshine where you can see it, on a warm sunny day you may well see the phone say it can’t charge because it is too hot or even shut itself down to stop any damage. I’ve been there and got that T-Shirt, and it was one of the reasons for buying a TomTom.

Garmin Zumo 595 – Carle, who uses the Garmin Zumo 595 finds the screen is not bright enough on most days, and the unit weighs too much. The weight causes the Zumo 595 to bounce more than others when mounted using a ram mount arm. Carle added an extra screen support bracket to one of the Africa Twins, and the Zumo 595 still bounced even on ordinary roads. I’ve often wondered if this is why the first Zumo 595 stopped working?

Garmin Zumo 595 Motorcycle GPS

One massive plus for Garmin Zumo 595 is that it has a skip waypoint button that appears if you have missed a waypoint. It is a real must-have feature for any motorcycle GPS, even if the Zumo one can be hard to press with gloved hands.

Garmin Zumo 395 – When I asked Roger what annoyed him about the Garmin Zumo 395 he uses, he gave me a list of the things he likes about the unit. Perhaps Roger is the target user and I’m just off on a rant about GPS’?

Fair is fair though, and Roger’s quick summary review of the Garmin Zumo 395 is …


I like it even though it is the base model. It’s relatively easy to use for a non-tech-savvy human such as myself. All the basic functions are intuitive to use.

As tested in Scotland recently, the touch screen can still be used whilst wearing thick winter gloves, and it stands up to torrential rain without a malfunction. The screen is clear and easy to read on the bike at speed, and I like the little features such as the fuel counter which I set to 200 miles on the (manual) Africa Twin. Mapping as with all the latest branded sat navs is excellent.

When I poked Roger, for something that annoyed him …

There has to be an easier way to upload routes to the Garmin. All that faffing about with computers and cables just to put a route on the GPS – Really?

The other thing about the Zumo 395 I don’t like is the position of the 12V power input on the device. Normally the Zumo 395 gets its power from the supplied mount, which is very good, other than it doesn’t lock.

A wire broke on a tour once, and I needed to use the 12V “cigarette lighter” lead to power the device until I could get the tank off and fix the cable. The problem is when the Zumo 395 is in the mount, the mount blocks off the input for the power connection.

But on the whole, I like it. Keep it simple. Do the basics well. Beyond that – I’m not interested.


Bottom Line

So what has this long rant about motorcycle GPS’ all been about?

Despite the advances in technology, the increased speed of processors and the ever-advancing (so-called) “intelligence” of the software that drives our GPS’, there is a very good chance Roger is right.

Perhaps the path to motorcycle navigation nirvana is in the base model that does the simple stuff well and doesn’t have any of the fancy features. Have a good idea of where you are going. Read road signs and road numbers.

Maybe my problem with motorcycle navigation is that I’m a geek at heart and I like shiny new things to play with … Have you seen the Garmin Zumo XT? with it’s 5.5 inch display and 1280×720 pixel display?

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. BrianJ at 3:46 pm

    I use the earlier 590ml which works for me,keen on the my route app etcetera Basecamp works its not perfect just takes a while to get your head round it but its worth it

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