Smartphone, GPS and the Sahara

As of 17:00 GMT today, a small number of TR crew members will be leaving for the Sahara. The Sahara, let’s remind ourselves, is a vast expanse of sand where life is not really striving. But more than life, the really annoying thing is that telephone masts are non-existent. Un-be-lie-va-ble. I wrote a few angry complaint letters to Vodafone but they have refused to comment to this date.
 
In the absence of 3G, we will be forced to go “offline”, a mode of communication which all but ceased to exist since 1492, when Christopher Columbus twitted that he found the last place on earth not to have cell phone coverage. A few years before that there was the dinosaurs.
 
Sooo, what to do you may ask. Well, we’ve gone all “time team”, brought out the digger, took our smartphones and searched for the best offline and off-road GPS navigation software out there. The rest of this article is history in the making.
 
The NOTS
A large number of applications where rejected based on the following criteria:
  • Some did not do offline (all the major free ones like Google Maps)
  • Some couldn’t load GPX files (waypoints are a necessity where roads don’t exist)
  • Some did not have coverage of the Sahara
  • Some had photographic maps as opposed to topographic maps
  • Some had topographic information stored as images as opposed to vectors i.e. too heavy for the limited storage capacity of a phone
 Two real gems were found:
Both have all the features you need to not lose yourself too much in the desert. Downloading the map tiles is a little bit painful on both as the coverage areas and zoom levels have to be specified manually. We went for full country (Morocco) coverage at a medium zoom level (zoom 11 on Backcountry) and a selected number of cities at maximum zoom level (zoom 16 on Backcountry).
 
The real life test starts tonight. We’ll report on our progresses soon.
 
PS: I have to come clean and admit that we’re taking the support truck (Defender 110) for this first foray into almost unchartered land. The bikes will follow once we are sure we can come out of there alive. The full benefits of the apps will still apply thanks to our IP54 dust and waterproof motorcycle phone mounts obviously!
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Is this real?

A group of three bikers approached us recently for a trip to Spain. Their ages total up to more than 160 years so operating the keyboard was already declared a great success and celebrated duly. A number of good questions were raised. Here is the transcript:
 
ABG (Ancient Bikers Gang), speaking of our route planner: “First thing that came to mind: is this real, where is the catch?”.
Totally real, we use our search engine for our own touring trips. The way it works is quite simple actually. Instead of listing the best roads one by one like other websites, we have decided to cut them into small chunks and let an algorithm piece them back together to create a trip that matches your preferences. Each little piece of road is given a note for:

  • Twisties
  • Scenery
Whilst each waypoint / town is given a note for:
  • Good places to stay for food / bed
  • Tourist attractions (the worthwhile ones like UNESCO)

The algorithm then finds the collection of roads and waypoints which maximize those four parameters while at the same time matching your start / end locations (A to B mode) or regions and duration (Touring mode). It’s a little bit more complicated actually as there are a number of rules to prevent going back to the same places too often etc but I won’t bore you with the details.

 Now, nothing is perfect, and if you find a bug do let us know (puncture@twistyride.com). However, it is easy to see that this planner is a lot more user friendly than browsing through large-ish collections of roads and piecing them together by hand. You can also add your own roads at:
 
ABG: “We have about 7 days, possibly stretch it to 8 or 9.”
So 8 minus 2 to go down and 2 to go up that’s 4 days in Spain? Let’s try with this. You can use the two modes of the search engine:
– A to B, where you specify a list of places you want to visit and let Twisty Ride do the rest e.g. journey to Santiago de Compostela
– Touring, where you specify a starting place, duration and region and let Twisty Ride do the rest e.g. 4 days around Madrid
 
However, the main problem here is that 8 days, departing from Milton Keynes, is not really enough for something as far as Spain. We took two weeks last time we did it and went to see Gibraltar. But if I had 8 days, I’d spend them in the Alps anywhere from Geneva to Nice and from Annecy to the Simplon Pass.
 
Do not hesitate to contact us if you are planning to do a trip, we are always happy to help!
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Which Motorcycle GPS?

It’s easy: mobile phone case if you can find the right one, TomTom Rider otherwise. Next question…

Ok, I’ll explain myself. First of all, I’d like to say that I am currently building a little statue in the name of the guy who thought about putting a GPS on a motorbike. I know some riders do not want to let go of the map but let’s be honest here: I prefer riding than pulling on the side of the road every 5 mins and do like I know where I am. Because I don’t. Some will evoke the poetry of loosing oneself and I agree. Only that with the sat nav I know how to find the path again. And there are other benefits too like when you decide to stop for the day, any decent system will be able to guide you to the nearest hotel, phone details and star ratings included. Buy a sat nav system. You won’t regret it.

Now, on the subject of buying, the big question is which one. So I’m gonna make it easy for you, there are only three choices: TomTom Rider, Garmin Zumo or your smartphone. Trying to stuff your existing sat nav device in a transparent pouch just does not work. You’re riding a motorbike. It vibrates, it rains etc. Don’t do it. Why only those three? Because, unlike cars, there is no obvious place to put a sat nav on a motorbike. It therefore requires a dedicated mount with as many options as there are bikes out there. And there is only one manufacturer that does that: RAM Mount. You get mirror mounts, stem mounts, stirring column mounts, reservoir mount, clutch/brake mounts, handlebar mount etc. This is why TomTom have chosen them as their OEM, this is why Garmin has chosen them as their OEM and this is why a small number of mobile phone case manufacturers have chosen them too.

TomTom Rider
Not sure if it’s the one that started it all in the motorcycling world but it’s definitely made an impact. So what do you get here? A quality product which will withstand all the rain you will come across and a fair number of drops from various heights too. The term is “rugged”. I know, I own one. The user interface is great too. The main aspect is that it’s very intuitive to use especially when entering waypoints which is the predominant activity when touring. It can be operated with gloves, and you do operate it with gloves (zoom in / out, last minute change etc). And finally it is considerably cheaper than the Zumo.

Garmin Zumo
You get all the waterproofness and ruggedness of the TomTom. You get a slightly larger screen and of course it is operable with gloves. But… it is a pain to use for planning a trip. The integration with the PC is convoluted and the interface to add waypoints and manage a tour is unfathomable. I know, I own one too. All that at a higher price tag makes it a no go for me.

Your Own Smartphone
Yep, GPS reception is now ubiquitous. And so is sat nav. Apple recently released their own free navigation software and Android users have already had it for a while. Sat Nav on a mobile phone works well, no doubt. The free one provided by Apple is actually made in partnership with TomTom. Free sat navs do not work offline however so if you plan to leave the country you need to choose an alternative App that does. TomTom can be bought as an App and does work offline very well. Garmin can also be bought as an App but does not work offline which should make you wonder why you would buy it in the first place.

There are a number of manufacturers that do phone mounts for motorcycles and incidentally Twisty Ride is one of them. The key aspects you want to cover here are:

  • Waterproofness (all are);
  • Ability to plug onto the battery (don’t be fooled by bicycling products as they generally can’t accommodate a charger); and
  • RAM mount.

This leaves just a few options on the market. One last thing you need to know about using mobile phones as sat nav is that their screen cannot be operated with gloves. Whilst it is convenient to do so we found that fiddling with the phone whilst driving is not mandatory and one can easily live without. The big plus with this solution? The price.

Over to you.

iPhone Motorcycle Mount