April 11 2011 by Jason Fogelson
Motorcycle travel used to be simple. Load up the bike with a tarp and a sleeping bag, get out the map and ride. Simplicity has given way to technology, as there are now GPS solutions designed specifically for bikes.
"GPS" stands for "Global Positioning System," shorthand for the satellite-based navigation system that forms the basis for live mapping. A network of 24 NavStar satellites was completed in 1993, and became operational in 1994. Four satellites signals are needed at any given moment to calculate a user's position. Until 2000, non-military users only had access to a degraded signal, which limited GPS's accuracy. Since 2000, GPS accuracy has been greatly improved for consumers. The U.S. Department of Defense is responsible by law for maintaining GPS as a national resource, under the direction of the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Executive Committee.
Consumer GPS units used to be expensive, bulky, delicate and power hungry. Advances in electronics have reversed all of these characteristics.
Here's what to look for in a motorcycle GPS unit:
Weatherproof: Unlike a car GPS unit, a motorcycle GPS is going to be out in the wind and the weather, just like you. Most bike GPS units are designed with weather-tight ports and housings for riding in the rain and cold. In some cases, you might be able to get away with buying a weather-proof case for your GPS.
Easy to operate: Make sure that your GPS can be operated while wearing your gloves. Try out the unit with your heaviest, bulkiest gloves on and see if you can access all of the features.
Large, easy-to-read display: It's important to keep you eyes on the road when you're driving a car. It's even more critical on a bike, so a big, clean display is critical.
Connectivity: Most GPS units can give audio prompts ("Turn left in 200 yards") that are even more helpful than visual cues. Getting that audio into your helmet can be easy with a Bluetooth connection. If you already have an audio system on your bike, or a portable audio system for your helmet, check to see if your GPS unit can interface with the existing system.
Power: Even the best GPS unit is worthless if it runs out of juice. Consider adding a dedicated power outlet to your bike, and check to see how much power your unit requires.
Mounting options: If you're going to be using your GPS on a regular basis, a good solid handlebar mount is a smart choice. For occasional use, or for use on a rental bike, I usually put my GPS in a see-through map holder strapped to my wrist, or in the map pocket of a tank bag.
Software vs. Hardware: If you have a smartphone, you probably have access to GPS already, whether you realize it or not. Several companies have free or very inexpensive apps that can turn your phone into a GPS unit, saving the additional expense and bulk of carrying a separate, dedicated GPS machine.
There's no excuse for getting lost anymore -- unless you really want to!