Adventures with the GPS thingy

25 01 2011

I like paper maps, I really do! They are nice to touch, they fold out to give a great overview of where you are, and just using one makes me feel good. But when your on a bike and have hundreds of miles to cover they can become a real pain to use. As my rides have increased in length, the further I have travel from home the less interesting the roads I use have become. I can’t realistically use paper maps to navigate the many thousands of narrow lanes that cover this country. On top of this, I’d like to take my cycling adventures off the tarmac and on to the even more complex network of bridleways that cover the countryside. There was only one solution, use a GPS device to navigate. So after much research, and by a lot I mean A LOT! A lot more than went in to buying our new house, I ordered a Garmin Dakota 20.

It would seem that deciding which device to buy was the easy part. Most people’s experience of using a GPS is in the car. You tell it where you want to get to, it works out how to get there and then the women directs you, most of the time. On the bike it’s a little different. Often you want to follow a route that starts and finishes in the same place and to do this you either follow a  a route that someone else has created or you created the route yourself before you set of. This is where the fun starts.

I’ve spent the last 2-3 weeks learning GPS talk. What is a track? How is this different to a route? How does my device follow a track? How does it follow a route? Can I get it to beep at me and tell me which way to go at a junction? How do I turn the screen off to save the batteries? Which maps should I use? Can I get on-screen instructions? It’s all a complete minefield as it seems there’s more than one way to skin a GPS.

So what have I learnt so far about the Dakota 20? I have to stress that I’m not going to explain how to do things on the Dakota, such as how to load the maps, or how the software works. What I want to do is let people know how I have found using the Dakota as that might inform other people’s decision as whether to buy it not. If you do have any questions and if I can help then I will gladly reply.

First up some basics, it uses AA batteries which are easy to replace, so if you carry spares you will never run out of power. Not tested battery life properly yet, but the biggest variable seems to be how much screen backlight is used. It has a touchscreen which works well and I’ve used it with big winter gloves whilst riding and not found it a problem. The screen is also more visible than I had thought it would be. The Garmin bike mounting kit is a lot smaller, neater and effective than I thought it would be.

I have loaded UK Open Street Maps onto the device which are free. I’m using the maps produced by Andy Gates which you can get from here: I want to get a copy of 1:50,000 UK OS maps for off-road and walking use as the Open Street Maps can be patchy when off the road network. I use both G5 and Intel mac’s. The Dakota mounts with no problems on both systems. I’m using Garmin’s Bascamp software on both mac’s with copies of Andy’s maps available from the link above. For creating tracks and routes (see below) I’ve been playing with Bascamp as well as Bikehike and Bike Route Toaster. You can view Ordnance Survey maps using bikehike which is very handy.

If following a route using autorouting in follow road mode then the Dakota works like a car GPS and gives you instructions on where to go. Using it like this you can turn the screen off and set it to beep and light up when you approach a junction. I think this will be good for saving the battery. A route is the journey between any two way-points. The Garmin can create a route that contains up to 50 way-points. This means a long route will need to be broken down in to smaller chunks in order to fit within the 50 way-point limit. The way-points should not be too far apart or the GPS may direct you down a road you do not wish to take.

A track is like an electronic breadcrumb trail. You can set your GPS to record where you have been, it will record a track point every few seconds which can show up on the map if you wish, like an electronic breadcrumb trail. You can also create a track using either software on the computer such as Basecamp or a websites such as Bikehike. You can load a pre-created track on to the GPS that will show up as pink line on the map. You can follow that pink line when cycling but I have not yet worked out how to get the Dakota to behave as it does when following a route, alerting me at a junctions, and turning the screen on, I don’t think it will. This means when following a track the screen always has to be on which I think will take its toll on the battery. However, a track can have up to 1000 track points, which means you don’t need to break a long track into smaller chunks.  I’m finding the differences in functionality between using routes and tracks slightly annoying. I believe other devices such as the Garmin Edge series may not suffer from this problem as they also use courses that are kind of a combination between a route and track, I think?

That’s it for now. I’ve not used the Dakota for off-road navigation yet because I’m in the process of servicing the mtb, but I suspect I will have to use the track approach. Well that’s unless I can use autorouting in follow road mode on the OS maps to navigate down bridleways, which would be very useful! We shall see.

Despite the slight track/route frustration I love having this device. My long road rides have typically headed south from Birmingham and into the Cotswolds, but this morning I put together a nice 100 mile loop using Bike Route Toaster that goes West to Shropshire and then South to Worcestershire on roads that I’m not very familiar with. See all that open space to the West of Birmingham, it’s quite exciting. Click on the picture below to see the route.

What’s most exciting about this route is that I’ve found the much talked about but all elusive Western passage from South Birmingham to Shropshire avoiding the Black Country and Kidderminster. Yay!

OK, time to go exploring.




4 responses

17 03 2011

I’m considering this Garmin at the moment. My current one has no mapping but you can follow a course, just a line. I also like the idea of it running on AA batteries.

4 05 2014
nikki pugh

Hi James,
I’m liking the look of the Elusive South West Passage route as a basis for a bit of touring that starts with following the path of the Elan Aqueduct out of Brum from Frankley (roughly corresponds to the Northern edge of your route).

I was wondering if, after riding it, you had any words of wisdom to share about bits to avoid or anything like that?


8 05 2014

Following the Elan Aqueduct is an interesting idea. Birmingham residents have this life line link with to the Walsh green desert regions thanks to the water it supplies us. And as a Birmingham based cyclist I’m often drawn out to Mid Wales. So following the aqueduct makes sense. Having found a goggle map with it’s route plotted, turns out it is hard to follow by road out of Brum. As you noted, the route I called the Western passage does roughly follow the Aquaduct. As for advice, depending on how far you are going, you could follow the aquaduct more closely by using the Hagley road, which is a bore, so I’d stick to my back lane route, all be it more hilly. The route gets really lumpy on the approach to Cleobury Mortimer and Clee Hill but with a great decent on the other side in to Ludlow. It’s from there that you can really follow it’s path. From Ludlow just follow the aquaduct along back-lanes. There are pleasant lanes out to Knighton (good cafes/bakery in town) and over the boarder then head along the really pleasant and slightly lumpy A488 to Penybont. The A44 to Rhayder is a bigger road with some long straight sections but it passes quickly. Great cafes in Rhayder before you head in to the Elan valley. I’ve not mapped the whole route out but I’m guessing it’s about 85 miles. Would be a nice ride and now that you’ve brought my attention it, one I may have to ride myself, so thanks.

25 05 2014
nikki pugh

Thanks James,
Here’s one of my early draft routes (start obviously needs re-locating to the Elan valley model in Cannon Hill Park, back lanes definitely feature). Probably we found the same goggle map with the visible features plotted. I need to cross reference these to see if they’re actually worth diverting for – as you say the pipeline is sometimes hard to follow by road.

Thanks for the other tips. For some reason the word “lumpy” comes up a lot when I talk about this idea to people…

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