Sport touring motorcycle enthusiasts spend a lot of time preparing for extended weekends in twisty paradise. Previous maps are compared, local information is gathered and the forecast, well, let’s not even get into that. Two popular topics in today’s digital riding world are that of route planning and GPS navigation. Most GPS options (regardless of platform) only allow us to specify a yes/no preference for expressways before deciding which route is most efficient. This soulless, automated travel into the bland is what we in motorbike society are trying to get away from.
For rural county roads, many make use of the anagram-flooded “alphabet soup” technique. Seasoned riders with a disciplined knowledge of the area crease single sheets of typing paper into their tank bag, alpha-numeric road names strewn vertically next to their respective “L” or “R”. Having a physical map on hand is advisable for any road trip but for some of us it’s hard to focus on the name of the road we just passed.
That’s where OsmAnd comes in. Android specific, this “Linux of the GPS world” navigation app abandons all “wouldn’t you rather?” commuting frills for an open-natured culmination of possibilities. At first, OsmAnd feels a little awkward/tricky but after setting aside fifteen to thirty minutes to investigate it’s configuration, it becomes obvious that this is a great little freebie.
Yeah, that’s right. It’s free. There’s a paid option that we’re not exploring. Our goal is to hit the road and follow either our own route or someone else’s without the stress of maintaining an internal compass (not that there’s anything wrong with that). First, let’s have a closer look at the app itself.
OsmAnd is capable of reading GPX files. GPX files are a commonly used XML schema, providing GPS coordinate information for use with host applications. In short, GPX compatible applications can open these files, process their data and display the resulting information on a map. That information can then be used to get from point a to point b (or z) in any which way the file specifies. For those of you who’ve dealt with poorly compiled GPX data in the past, let us put your mind at ease with this free map plotting service that’s not only reliable but easy to use.
How Do I Get My Custom Route Into A GPX File?
This is where the fun begins. Ride With GPS is a map plotting service who’s demographic includes bicyclists and scenic travelers. While they do want you to sign up for a premium account, their free account boasts plenty of features including all of that which is necessary to plot and export a custom road map. They’re also capable of importing a variety of different map file formats.
Below is an example route, appropriately dubbed “Cheese Curds and Chicken Strips” by our own Travis Burleson. Clicking the “View full route” link (top-left corner) opens a new window. From there you can select the “Export” tab before downloading it’s GPX track.
Once activated and logged into their site, plotting a map from scratch is as easy as clicking the “plan” button (top of page). The base maps are currently interfaced with Google which makes for an excellent satellite view. Selecting “follow roads” and clicking on the map for the first time marks the beginning of your route. Optionally, you can enter an address into the “Jump to Location” form before being prompted to make it your starting point. All subsequent entries are met with a “would you like to navigate to this location?” dialogue, allowing you to carefully plan every turn.
Finished working on your map? Clicking the “save” button let’s you specify a few more details including description, road conditions and privacy. When all’s said and done, you’re ready to export the route in (properly compiled) GPX format before importing it into OsmAnd.
Ride With GPS provides excellent support as well, featuring both a user forum and direct contact with representatives. Even their general help pages introduce useful information rather than hypnotizing members through a maze of generic yadas. Also, they invite feature requests.
I’ve Created And/Or Downloaded My Route’s GPX File. What Next?
File management is far more simple with some Android devices as apposed to others. My current phone (December 12th of 2016) is a somewhat dated Samsung Galaxy S5, which I find convenient for it’s size, weight and waterproofing. It’s file transfer process is tedious at best, requiring third party software and a few extra steps.
If your phone can transfer files via USB, connect it to your computer before locating the GPX file you just downloaded. Browse your phone’s file system and navigate to a folder that’s easy to find from within your phone’s touch screen. Copy your GPX file from your computer to this folder before safely disconnecting your phone. You’re all set (skip the next paragraph).
For those of you with a less-than-friendly file transfer process, other software can be simple enough when put to practice. One method is to send the GPX file to your phone using Bluetooth, e-mail or WiFi FTP (advanced). I personally find DropBox to be the easiest solution.
After the transfer is complete, either a file manager such as Explorer or DropBox can locate and open the route on your phone. You’ll be prompted to choose which app opens GPX files by default. Select OsmAnd and tap “always.”
My GPX File Is Imported Into Osmand. Am I Ready To Ride?
Interacting with technology while riding a motorcycle reads to be both a punchline and a bad Vegas stunt show. The only safe way to do it is to avoid doing so in the first place. Should complicated interaction be unavoidable, pull over before doing what you must. Assuming everything is in order and you’re prepared to automate your instructions, you’re going to want to hear them. For that, you need a helmet communication interface.
Another important consideration is that of voice quality. TTS (text-to-speech) voice engines have come a long way over the years but one in particular, IVONA TTS HQ, really stands out. Their free Amy UK English voice calms the nerves while alerting you to upcoming navigational maneuvers.
With a helmet interface and TTS voice engine installed, it’s time to configure OsmAnd to do it’s thang. Open OsmAnd, enter it’s settings screen and carefully think through your personal preferences to situate it’s behavior. The free version limits the number of offline map downloads, so we advise installing only frequent localities. I’ve set my own preferences to the following:
- Default Profile – Car
- Map Orientation – To Direction of Movement
- Screen Orientation – Same as Device
- Voice Guidance – TTS Voice English
- Voice Guidance Output – Media/Music Audio
- App Theme – Dark (saves battery)
- Use Kalman Filter – Checked
- Navigation Service – OsmAnd (Offline)
- Fastest Route – Checked
- Avoid – Toll, Unpaved, Ferries
- Auto-Center Map View – 15 Seconds
- Snap To Road – Checked
- Announce – All But Speed Limit 😉
One popular concern that’s often raised when discussing smartphone GPS navigation is it’s effect on the subscriber’s data plan. If you’re worried about your monthly bill, of course it’s okay to disable the “use internet” feature. The offline vector maps are sensibly clear and easy to use.
More importantly, your GPS signal has no effect on your statement and short of riding below the tree line of some mountainous region in a third world country, yes you’ll have GPS coverage wherever you go. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve ridden using my phone’s GPS navigation where both cell and data signals are rendered null. The GPS technology built into your smartphone is a completely different animal, one which you can trust even in isolated locations.
Everything’s Ready. How Do I Traverse My Custom Route Using OsmAnd?
- Activate your Android device’s GPS signal.
- Open the OsmAnd Android application.
- To the bottom left, tap the menu icon.
- Toward the top, select “Configure Map”.
- Select “GPX Track”.
- Select ONE (not multiple) track from your stored listings.
- Next to the menu icon, tap the navigation button (right turn arrow).
- When prompted (“Do you want to use displayed track for navigation?”), select “Yes”.
- Toward the bottom right, press the blue navigation icon to begin.
- Enjoy your ride!
Sidenote: To reverse and follow your route back to it’s initial starting point, select the gear icon and “Reverse GPX Direction” from the navigation menu before initiating step nine. Be careful! The app now thinks it’s alright to point you into oncoming traffic! Exit ramps become entrances, one way streets are inverted, dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!
A Trio Of Pitfalls Remain
A smartphone GPS signal tends to drain it’s battery quickly. Long routes (3+ hours) may not be feasible unless you install some form of power port. BurnsMoto sells a variety of different power connectors at reasonable cost. Their weatherproof USB socket is durable and voltage safe, drawing just over one amp. What’s more, they’re compact and easy to conceal.
Another issue is placement. Loading a custom route into OsmAnd before throwing the phone into your pocket works fine but direct access might be preferable. The ability to (quickly and safely) glance down and confirm you’re not lost while also making sure that the application hasn’t crashed insures a better journey. For that, there’s the Ram Aqua Box. Be sure to measure the dimensions of your phone along with it’s connected power cable before ordering.
Lastly, being as how this entire page is Android dependent, I invite anyone using an alternative platform to contribute information for other devices. iPhone, Windows and other PDA users certainly have the same vested interest in the use of said functionality. If it’s GPX compatible and ready to better the world of sport touring motorcycles, help us make it known!
What Are Your Favorite Motorcycle Route Planning Resources?
There are other ways to generate and traverse a custom motorcycle route. What method do you prefer? What do you like about it and why? Your input is invited. Post an article!