To GPS or Not to GPS

That is no longer the question.

After making our way across North America without the use of GPS (and sometimes without a map or directions) I have turned the stress of navigation over to Google and Garmin. You see, worrying about what we were missing wasn’t the only burden of route-planning that was proving too heavy to bear. It was also the challenge of plotting–and following–an enjoyable route. The UK, as I was quick to realize, was not like the USA or Canada. The shear number of roads, paths, trails, and carriageways that don’t appear on even the largest scale national maps was surprising. And even if I did buy a new county map every other day, the miles of roads that appear to go unnamed and unsigned would still slow our progress to a crawl. The day would be spent stopping at every crossroads to check the map and compass, oftentimes unsure where it was we actually were. With the exception of signed B-roads in Scotland, we were often just following the compass and hoping for the best.

When I said I quickly plotted a course out of Edinburgh to the Lake District, I actually did so using Google Maps and sent the track–a breadcrumb trail of GPS data–to my non-mapping Garmin Edge 305, the very same bike computer that I’d been using since 2007*. The resulting ride was so superior to any route I had tried to plan, that I was instantly convinced this was the way to go. As an experiment, I handed Google my complete trust. We pedaled our way from our airport hotel into the city along a beautiful canal, through Edinburgh University, and then south out of town across Midlothian and into the Borders. We rode on narrow one-lane roads that seldom saw any traffic. We followed the digital grayscale line on my outdated piece of technology as it bent left and right and directed us onto faint singletrack trails, paved bike paths, and straight to the campground that I had right-click-directions-to’d. For three days we enjoyed a glorious, stress-free ride on quiet roads as we made our way to the Yorkshire Dales. Then, from the house of our WarmShowers’ hosts, I plotted a route along the canals skirting the periphery of Manchester, Birmingham, and other  cities I sought to avoid. And I continued using it right into the heart of Stratford-Upon-Avon where we parked our bikes beside Shakespeare’s birthplace and decided then and there that this is how we will navigate through Europe. To abuse the Bard’s language a second time in a single post is indefensible, but here goes: We knew where we were, but cared not how we got there. What? You thought I was going to quote Yorick?

We'd spend the bulk of three days riding alongside a series of canals as we head south.
We’d spend the bulk of three days riding alongside a series of canals as we headed south. Canal Paths I likely wouldn’t have ever known about if just using the map.

I didn’t have to stop at every intersection and consult the map and compass. I didn’t have to curse the lack of street signs or stop and ask for directions, or buy a new extra-large scale map every day. I could just ride. I could just enjoy the view, note the scenery, and let my mind wander.

Of course, using the outdated Garmin Edge 305 does have its limitations. For starters, there is no basemap. I have merely the shape of a line to follow. And sometimes that line can be particularly confusing. More than once we stood on the side of the road and wondered where it was actually pointing to, only to realize over there, in the corner behind that garage, lies the entrance to a bike path. Only a local would have known. And though it serves as a wonderful navigator through the UK’s myriad roundabouts, it’s inability to properly warm me of an upcoming turn occasionally has us slamming the brakes on a descent, only to head back up the hill and turn onto a low-angle road or path I didn’t first see.

Not on the map. No sign at the intersection. But a joy to ride thanks to Google's bike directions.
Not on the map. No sign at the intersection. But a joy to ride thanks to Google’s bike directions.

The Garmin is only half the solution. The other half is Google Maps. And I must admit that I have been incredibly impressed with its ability to plot a bike-friendly route for us when asked. No, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t distinguish between on-road and off-road, and it has been known to lead us onto some very muddy bridle trails, but if given the choice between sticking to high-traffic roads that appear on national maps and faint muddy trails, I’ll take the latter every single time.  After all, going off-road is the reason I built up the Fargos. And though I know many will suggest all manner of other websites from RideWithGPS to BikeRouteToaster to MapMyRide to Strava, my workflow already has me using Google for researching camping locations, attractions, shops, and all manner of other things. After all, this isn’t about going for a bike ride as much as it is about living a life in constant motion. So, for those who are really curious, I send the URL for my Google directions to this page at GPS Visualizer which converts it to a GPX file. I then import it to GPSies, save it in my profile for later reference, and export it as a Garmin Course TCX file straight to my device. It was easier when Google allowed you to export directions as a KML file from Google Maps, but GPS Visualizer’s conversion is quick and painless.

Okay, so this isn't perfect...
Okay, so this isn’t perfect…

I suspect when we finally reach Central Asia (or southern Morocco for that matter) and the number of roads and trails diminishes to just a handful of choices (like riding across Montana or Ontario) then we’ll be able to rely entirely on maps. But for now this is how I’ll be handling navigation. It’s been two weeks since the switch to this method and life on the foreign road has gotten much, much more enjoyable.

*Not exactly. The one I had since 2007 fell off a table three times in a span of ten minutes in Ely, MN, effectively killing the mode button and freezing it on the data screen that was last visible. I can hear parts rattling around inside when I shake it. I bought a used replacement from somebody in China on Ebay during our month off in July and though its battery seems to drain faster than mine did, it is working well. I’ll finally upgrade to one of the newer models if/when this one should perish.

Special Thanks: Tremendous thanks to our WarmShowers hosts Sylvie and Ben (aka “Frogs on Bents“) for welcoming us into their house for two nights in Warwick, for sharing their tickets to Warwick Castle with us, and for allowing us to eat and play and relax with them and their children. We were also extremely fortunate to spend three nights south of London with a couple we met on the QM2. Carolyn and Kevin opened their home to us, stuffed us with food, and made it oh-so-easy for us to use their house as a home base for exploring London. Carolyn’s mother Liz, who we also met on the QM2 and lives next door, was also keen to shower us in generosity. We’ll be leaving the UK with new friends, including Emily Chappell (who also generously hosted us for a fun night in London), great memories, and an even greater sense of what it means to be generous and kind.

Kevin and Carolyn made us feel at home for three nights. We can't wait to return the favor when we're back in Washington.
Kevin and Carolyn made us feel at home in their house for three nights and treated us like longtime friends. We can’t wait to return the favor when we’re back in Washington.
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Doug Walsh

Writer, Traveler

Doug Walsh is a writer, traveler, cyclist, and gamer who spent two years traveling from Seattle to Singapore, the long way around, by bicycle and sea. He's the author of the upcoming novel "Tailwinds Past Florence."

8 Comments
  1. I know that you aren’t looking for more sites to use, but I still think you should check out plotaroute.com. It’ll natively give you a gpx file, and it lets you plot routes using cycle paths. It also has a nice search function powered by google… So, it may actually work right into your workflow. I hope the trip is going well!

    1. Thanks Josh, both the for the suggestion and for reading along. I’ll be sure to check out the site tomorrow as I plan our route south through Belgium.

  2. It was so wonderful spending this weekend with you guys, and I will be reading your blog even more avidly from now on. Looking forward to seeing how your journey across Europe unfolds – and I will definitely be in touch when I get near Seattle. Thanks for stopping by, and reminding me of what a wonderful life it is, travelling by bike. I can’t wait to get out there again…

  3. Doug and Kristin – Just wanted to again say how much I look forward to your blog posts. I click on the link immediately when I see the new posts on facebook. As a fellow traveler I deeply enjoy reading about your adventures. I love the techie notes along with the narrative on routes, culture, road quality, food, new friends and anything you write on. Indeed, we’re all traveling vicariously through you. I rode out to Snoqualmie today and we ate at Snoqualmie Falls Brewery and Taproom. Had a great time and I think it’s safe to say the town sends its best regards.

    Also enjoyed re-living our 2012 trip to Warwick Castle and many of the areas you’ve visited in England. We were rained on a fair bit in August; looks like you’re having better luck. Carry on and know that we love your reports!

  4. Doug & Kristin, you both look so very happy! Even in the mud, Kristin, you look radiant! I love the pictures so please keep posting them. In a way, your eyes are our eyes, for those of us following your posts! I enjoy reading them immensely! I think of the two of you often. Amy put a collage of pictures from your party together, so she has been thinking of your journey as well. Wishing you all the best…love, Aunt Susie

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment. We’re so happy that you’re enjoying the posts and please tell Amy that we’re going to put together a “day in the life of” video that she might be able to share at school with her geography class this year.

      Also, you probably know this, but you can access a lot more photos on Flickr by clicking any (most) of the photos in the blog.

      Here’s a link the albums page where I organize all of the photos I upload.

      https://www.flickr.com/photos/endurodoug/sets/

  5. Wow Doug and Kirsten after all the riding, mapping, camping, and a numerous number of other stuff that you do, I’m surprised but pleased that you both have time to share all of the fun new exciting things you are seeing along the way with everyone 🙂

    Looking forward to hearing all about the European leg of your ride

  6. Great writing again Doug! I’m proud to say that I knew the Shakespearian references right off, but fail miserably in understanding the technology you quoted…GPS Visualizer, GPSies, TCX Files, etc.. They’re all Greek to me! I’m glad it’s helping to minimize your stress, and allowing you to enjoy the sites along the way. It was great talking with you on the phone yesterday! Go Seahawks!

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About Us

We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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