Bikepacking Navigation: Smartphone App or GPS Device, Which is Best?

A good bikepacking trip is a chance to unplug from the responsibilities and complexities of daily life and get a little lost out in the wild. But not literally! Literally getting lost can be bad. If you want to experience the freedom of pedaling toward a distant horizon and not looking back, you’re going to need a reliable bikepacking navigation system.

But what does that mean? If you’re just starting out in this quirky sport, you may have heard that there are a couple ways to approach bikepacking navigation: you can use an app on your smartphone, or a dedicated GPS device made by brands like a Garmin and Wahoo. Which method is better? Do you really need that fancy (and expensive) GPS device?

The answer is a solid “it depends.” I’ve bikepacked and toured more than ten thousand miles navigating with a smartphone, and almost as many miles with a Garmin eTrex 22x. I still switch between them and sometimes use them both, depending on the trip. In this post I’ll lay out the pros and cons of each so you can decide which better suits your current bikepacking style.

I usually recommend that beginners start with their smartphones to keep things simple and affordable. There are already enough gear-related challenges to overcome when starting to bikepack; let’s not add another! When it’s time to upgrade because the phone no longer meets your needs, you’ll know it. But if you’re currently on the fence, perhaps with a long trip coming up, I hope this post helps you decide whether to add a GPS navigation device to your gear collection.

Bikepacking Navigation Basics

If you’re new to all this, you might be wondering: what does “bikepacking navigation” really mean anyway? Are you supposed to carry a huge paper map or a list of step-by-step directions? You certainly could, and this is how they bikepacked in the “good old days” (it was also uphill in the snow both ways) 🙂 but fortunately today we have the miracle of digital navigation. (Side note: paper maps can still be part of your navigation strategy; more on this below.)

In short, modern bikepacking navigation consists of keeping the dot on the line. You have a device that shows your route (the line) on a map of the surrounding area, and your current location determined by GPS (the dot). You might need to pan and zoom the map to look at road names or landmarks and cross-reference reality with the map, but mostly you’re just trying to keep that dot moving along the line.

The “line” (route) is represented by a GPX file or another similar format, which is basically a long list of GPS coordinates connected together by short lines. Your route data might also have waypoints, which are GPS locations of important spots like water sources, campsites, stores, or any other place the route designers saw fit to point out.

Smartphone Navigation Apps

If you’re going to use a smartphone app for bikepacking navigation (more on the pros and cons below), here are two popular options I recommend:

RideWithGPS: This is first and foremost a cycling app, so it tends to focus on roads and well-used trails and the base map does not have detailed topographic data. The route planner is top-notch and includes a heat map so you can see which routes are popular with bikes — super helpful when trying to find bike-friendly routes through unfamiliar developed areas. Many route developers have already published their routes on the platform so it’s easy to access them, though any GPX file can be imported if needed.

Gaia GPS: This app is focused on general backcountry navigation, so it may be a better choice for rugged and remote trails. The base maps include topographic data so you can understand the land around you, rather than just focusing on the elevation profile of your route. They also include land use layers so you can see whether you’re on public or private land, which is incredibly helpful for dispersed camping.

Both apps have a free tier but charge a small fee for offline maps. Totally worth it! You will almost certainly need offline maps at some point, and the cost is very reasonable.

Smartphone with bike navigation app
Screenshot of the RideWithGPS app while navigating a bikepacking route

Smartphone Advantages

Suppose you decide to use one of the above navigation apps on your smartphone for your next bikepacking trip. What are the advantages over a dedicated GPS device?

Cheaper: You probably already have a perfectly good smartphone. Take the several hundred dollars you would have spent on a GPS device and spend it on other gear or a plane ticket to your dream ride.

Simpler: Though manageable, there is a learning curve to GPS devices as you adjust to a new system of menus and buttons. If bikepacking is new to you, there’s already a lot to figure out. Most of us are very familiar with app interfaces, so smartphone apps feel more intuitive than GPS devices and take less time to learn.

Better interface: Smartphones and their user interfaces have been so thoroughly optimized that they are usually smoother and faster than GPS devices, which can feel laggy by comparison. Panning and zooming on maps is so much easier with a touchscreen, which only the most expensive dedicated GPS devices have.

One less thing to pack: You’re probably carrying a smartphone anyway, so this falls under the “multi-use gear” principle of lightweight bikepacking.

One less device to keep charged: Though dedicated GPS devices usually help with battery management (more on this below), they are one more thing you have to think about when managing a limited supply of electrical power. Depending on your device you may need to carry a different kind of charging cable or batteries, and think about what happens if any part of that system fails.

You’ll need it anyway: Even if you eventually start using a dedicated GPS device for bikepacking navigation, you’ll still want to load your route into a smartphone app. It makes a great backup method in case your GPS device fails, and is easier for big-picture planning. Thus time spent learning to use an app won’t be wasted down the line.

GPS Device Advantages

Now suppose you take the plunge and buy yourself a shiny navigation device like the Garmin eTrex, Garmin Edge, or Wahoo Bolt. Here are the advantages over a smartphone app.

Better battery life: Running a navigation app on your smartphone, especially if you check the screen often, drains the battery like there’s no tomorrow. If there is a tomorrow and you don’t have electrical power tonight, this can require a big stack of power banks (recommendations here). A dedicated GPS device helps with battery management and diversifies your power needs. A GPS device also needs to be charged, of course, but it allows you to conserve your smartphone battery which is generally faster to deplete.

More rugged and impact-resistant: You can mount a smartphone on your handlebars (more on this below) but it’s nerve-wracking on rough trails. A dedicated GPS device mounts more securely and is less likely to be damaged in a crash. If it is damaged, you’ve only lost your navigation and not your communication, camera, route notes, and everything else you use your phone for.

Better in wet or cold weather: Navigating with a smartphone is tricky in bad weather. Water can obviously damage a phone, and some touch screens are finicky with damp fingers. In dry weather I’ve had my phone battery drain from sub-freezing air while mounted to my bars. Big warm gloves and touch screens don’t mix. Dedicated GPS devices have none of these problems (excepting the few touchscreen models from Garmin): they can handle pouring rain, sub-freezing temps, and gloved hands, no problem.

More compact: Most GPS devices are more compact than today’s smartphones (remember when smartphones used to actually fit in your pocket?). When handlebar space is already limited due to bikepacking bags and other gadgets, a GPS device is easier to find space for.

Built-in backup: It’s always important to have a backup navigation method, especially if bikepacking solo. Most of us already carry a smartphone while bikepacking, so if you also have a GPS device you’ve got your backup covered. Pre-load your phone with the offline route data (using one of the apps mentioned above) and you’ve got a solid 2-part system that’s unlikely to fail completely and leave you stranded.

Beyond those generalities, different GPS devices offer different advantages. Some, like the Garmin Edge and Wahoo ELEMNT models, double as cycling computers and training tools for the more performance-focused among us. The Garmin eTrex series, focused on backcountry navigation, can also be used for backpacking and other outdoor adventures in remote places. For a comparison of the most popular options, see GPS Nav Devices for Bikepacking.

When I Use Each

So when does it make sense to invest in a GPS navigation device? Putting all those advantages together, you can see why I started using a Garmin eTrex (detailed review) as my bikepacking adventures grew longer, more rugged, and more remote.

My experiments in bikepack racing were the original impetus — I found myself riding long days through bad weather with few opportunities to recharge my phone — and I’ve continued using it for rugged touring too. I don’t use it all the time though, and sometimes still prefer the simplicity of my smartphone. Here’s how it breaks down for me:

Smartphone only: I leave my eTrex at home for short local trips, touring-style rides on pavement with frequent access to the power grid, and some longer trips with a companion where we can trade off nav duties and be each other’s backup. I navigated most of the Great Divide with my smartphone, even though I had my eTrex with me as a backup while riding solo. My phone was simpler, easier to use, and recharging opportunities were frequent enough. I also chose to leave the eTrex home when bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan, since my partner and I both had smartphones as well as dynamo hubs and a solar panel to help with charging. That route was easy to follow and intersections were infrequent, so even in bad weather we rarely missed the eTrex.

GPS device with smartphone backup: I use this system for bikepack racing, any solo trip bigger than a local overnighter, and rugged riding where my phone stays tucked away for safety. For example, I was glad to have it on a recent section ride of the Western Wildlands Route even though riding with a friend. That ride had enough cold and wet weather, rough roads, and frequent intersections to make handlebar-mounted smartphones tricky. It was also a no-brainer to use the eTrex for events like Bones to Blue and Pinyons and Pines.

Mounting a Smartphone on Your Handlebars

Handlebar-mounted navigation is essential on routes with frequent turns. It’s maddening to stop at each intersection and pull out your phone to check directions! Frequent turns often come up while passing through towns, where it’s safe to mount a smartphone on your handlebars. But if you have complicated directions on rugged ground and you don’t fully trust your phone’s handlebar mount, a dedicated GPS device is worth its weight in gold.

There are many types of handlebar phone mounts out there, and I’ve tried several. They’ve all worked but I’ve never fully trusted any of them. My smartphone is an important tool while bikepacking, and if it were to fall off or be damaged in a crash I would be really sad (this is one reason why you should always have a backup navigation method!). I’ve come close to killing my phone in a crash, and once saw a riding partner slip in mud and dunk her phone in a puddle (she got lucky, the phone survived).

Thus I often take my phone out of the holder and tuck it in a pocket or top tube bag when the trail gets rough. In my earlier days of riding on pavement and gravel, this rarely came up. But recently, as I’ve been drawn to rougher 4×4 roads and singletrack, my phone spends more time in my pocket than on my bars. This was a big factor in my decision to buy a Garmin eTrex.

Phone mount on the left, GPS device on the right. You’ll notice the phone is NOT in the phone mount for this section of trail, and that’s not just because I’m using it to take the picture.

Rain is another issue. Many modern phones can withstand a bit of moisture — they’ve come a long way since the days when you had to double-bag them in ziplocks and a bit of moisture still did them in (anyone else?). But touchscreens get finicky in the rain, and unless you have a very waterproof phone you’ll want to protect it in bad weather. Bikepacking in the rain is already bad enough, and losing your handlebar navigation can really up the frustration factor. In bad weather, as with rough trails, a GPS device is the way to go.

If you do choose to mount your phone on your handlebars for navigation, the Quad Lock system is considered the best and most reliable. I’ve used a number of cheaper clamp-style mounts and this style (Lamicall Phone Holder) seems sturdiest to me (detailed review here).

Empty Lamicall phone mount on left (phone is being used to take the picture), and Garmin eTrex on the right.

Backups and Other Systems

I can’t overstate the importance of having a backup navigation method, especially for solo bikepackers who can’t mooch off a riding companion if their primary method fails. Bikepack long enough and eventually, probably at the most inconvenient time, you will loose / break / drain the battery of your smartphone or GPS device. What then?

If you’re using a GPS device, your smartphone is your backup. Preload it with offline maps and route data. But if you’re using a smartphone as your primary navigation method, how will you find your way to civilization if and when it fails?

This is where paper maps can still be helpful. On the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route it’s common to see riders carrying Adventure Cycling’s paper maps. They include resupply notes and points of interest, provide a helpful big-picture view, and don’t require any battery to peruse in your tent at night (except for your headlamp, I suppose). If your route doesn’t have paper maps available for purchase, as most don’t, consider printing your own along with a list of cues for important turns and landmarks.

Another option: carry an old smartphone as your backup. Preload it with your offline route data at home over wifi; you don’t need a cellular connection. This can even make a good primary navigation method, allowing you to save your real phone’s battery and keep it safer in sketchy conditions.

It’s also important to consider your route and how likely you are to meet other humans on it. Paper maps and cue sheets can leave you hanging if you can’t figure out where you are, so you need to think about how bad that would or wouldn’t be. If you expect some passing vehicles, your worst-case scenario is to ask for help or directions. If, on the other hand, you expect remote trails with few other users, you should prepare very carefully and have two electronic navigation methods plus paper backup.

Final tip: Download Google Maps for offline use in the area where you’ll be riding. You can do this on both Android and iPhone; here’s how. Though I wouldn’t rely on Google’s road details for remote riding (sometimes small roads are mislabeled, private, closed, or just plain wrong), it’s great for big-picture planning, bail out routes, and checking businesses and their hours when thinking about your next resupply stop from your tent.

In Conclusion

While a GPS navigation device can be very useful for bikepacking, it’s definitely not required. For some types of riding — smooth, simple, close to civilization — it can be downright overkill. But if you’re adventuring in more remote places, extreme weather, or rough terrain, you’ll likely find a dedicated GPS device worth the money.

Read next: The Best GPS Navigation Devices for Bikepacking

More Bikepacking Resources

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 20,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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    3 thoughts on “Bikepacking Navigation: Smartphone App or GPS Device, Which is Best?”

    1. Hi Alissa,
      thank you for the analytical breakdown of phone vs GPS device navigation for bikepacking. I’m at a junction to buy a new (Android) smart phone, and wondering if anyone has brand/model recommendations.

      Reply
    2. I’ve been running GPS on my bike since before they were cool, starting with a Magellan around 2003. Nowadays I always have my Garmin eTrex 30 or Montana 600, depending on the bike and the ride. They are more rugged, more waterproof, easier to migrate tracks to/from Basecamp (my primary trip planning and archive app), and cheaper to replace than a phone if damaged. I save the phone battery for phone calls or occasionally looking up information not in the Garmin.

      Reply
      • Thanks Mark, makes sense to me. I wonder, was that 2003 Magellan a lot bigger than today’s units? I’m picturing a pretty bulky device on the handlebars. 🙂

        Reply

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