bikepacking smartphone gps app

Best GPS for Bikepacking and Satellite Messengers

If you’ve ever been backpacking or bike touring in an unfamiliar place, you’ll understand the importance of having a good GPS. Sure, you could use a paper map or try to use Google Maps on your phone, but those both have significant disadvantages over a dedicated, handheld GPS unit

The importance of having a GPS for bikepacking is no different. In fact, it’s probably even more important than for a bike tour because of the remote areas you find yourself in while bikepacking.

Finally, we’ll take a look at where personal locator beacons and satellite messengers fit in, like Garmin’s InReach series and the Spot X.


Summary of Best GPS for Bikepacking

The eTrex 32x. Simple, reliable and our Top Pick for Best Bikepacking GPS

Update August 2019: With the eTrex 32x recently released, it’s worth looking at the eTrex 30x which is being phased out. It’s possible you could find some screaming deals on these…

eTrex 20x Being replaced by the eTrex 22x, so it’s worth looking around to spot some deals.


Garmin Edge 1030Click for Price

Wahoo ELEMNT – Click for Price

In this article, we’ll look at how to choose a GPS for bikepacking. 

We’ll also look at the following topics.

  • Garmin eTrex GPS Handlebar Mounting Systems
  • Garmin eTrex 32x Review
  • Garmin eTrex 20x and eTrex 22x Review
  • Garmin Edge 1030 Review
  • Best Satellite Messenger/Satellite Communicator for Bikepacking (Garmin InReach)
  • Alternatives to Garmin GPS Devices (Wahoo ELEMNT)
  • How to Choose a GPS for Bikepacking and What is a Bike Computer?
  • Dedicated GPS or Smartphone GPS App for Bikepacking?
  • Is a GPS App for a Smartphone Worth It?
  • Do I Really Need a Backcountry GPS? 

Choosing a GPS for bikepacking can be a little different than choosing a GPS for backpacking or other outdoor activities because of a variety of factors. It’s for this reason that there are hundreds of cycling GPS units out there for sale.

And to be honest, figuring out which one to get can send you down a rabbit hole of feature comparisons where you’ll slowly lose your sanity. So we’ve done the work for you.

We’re big fans of keeping purchases simple. For that reason, we’ve chosen three GPS devices for bikepacking that we think you can’t go wrong with. We’ll also lay out some aspects to keep in mind when purchasing any GPS for cycling trips.

Finally, we’ll touch on the other burning question: GPS or Smartphone GPS App?


Garmin eTrex Handlebar Mounts

Now that you have your eTrex, it’s not all that useful if you can’t actually read it while riding. You’ll want one of these handlebar mounts for eTrex GPS devices in order to get the most out of the unit. These GPS handlebar mounts are generally composed of two parts that you’ll need to buy:

  • eTrex Cradle – This is the component that actually holds the eTrex 20x/22x or 30x/32x in place. You don’t want to go cheap on this piece of the system, since cheap cradles and holders will not be able to hold your GPS in place on bumpy roads, and you risk losing your eTrex. This detaches from the actual handlebar mount. Luckily, this cradle doesn’t break the bank.
eTrex GPS Cradle – Click for Price
  • Handlebar Mount – This is the piece that actually attaches the cradle to your handlebar. The attachment mechanism can be as simple as a couple of zip ties that keep the mount in place, like this RAM Mount. If you want the ability to adjust the angle and height of your GPS on your handlebar, you’ll want something with a ball and socket arm, like the RAM Handlebar U-Bolt Double Ball Mount. Note that this RAM Handlebar mount already comes with the eTrex Cradle, so no need to by the cradle separately.

Best GPS for Bikepacking Overall: Garmin eTrex 32x

First and foremost, here is our pick if you’re ready to take the leap and get a bikepacking GPS that has stood the test of time. The Garmin eTrex 30x has been out for several years and has grown hugely in popularity amongst bike tourers and bikepackers alike. The 30x, along with its cheaper alternative, the Garmin eTrex 20x, are so popular that they have essentially become the gold standard for cycle touring and bikepacking.

However, Garmin has just put out a new line of GPS units for 2019 that include the 30x and 20x successors: the Garmin eTrex 32x and eTrex 22x.

Time will be the ultimate test for the 32x. However, considering the popularity of its predecessor and the fact that the eTrex 32x refines a few key areas that were lacking in the 30x, we think this is, no doubt, a solid #1 choice for a bikepacking GPS.

The eTrex 32x. A solid choice for a bikepacking GPS. Click for Price.

Garmin eTrex 30x Quick Specs:

  • Dimensions: 2.1” x 4.0” x 1.3”
  • Weight: 4.96 ounces
  • Screen Size: 2.2”, color, not touchscreen, sunlight readable
  • Memory: 8 GB internal, microSD card slot
  • Waterproof: Yes, IPX7
  • Batteries: 2x AA. Can also run off cache battery via miniUSB
  • Battery Life: 25 hours
  • Maps: TopoActive Maps. Also compatible with free map resources like OpenStreetMap
  • Compatible with RideWithGPS files: Yes

Garmin eTrex 32x Review

Battery Life

The eTrex 32x boasts 25 hours average battery life on one set of batteries. In the GPS world, this is awesome. And then there’s the fact that that the batteries used in this unit are simple AA’s. These can be standard disposable AA batteries or rechargeable. This is a massive benefit, because it means you can find replacement batteries basically anywhere in the world, even in the most remote mountain village.

It is also worth noting that we’re talking average battery life. With the 30x, which the 32x is based on, many people have reported going several days of non-stop usage before having to replace the batteries. With some tweaks to screen brightness and backlight, screen-on time, and other features, that number can climb. Also, choosing lithium batteries, although more expensive, will give you much longer battery life and ensure that the unit operates well at lower temperatures.

One last note on batteries. If you don’t want to bother with AA batteries, you can remove them and run the unit directly off an external or cache battery connected to the eTrex 32x’s miniUSB port. This is becoming a popular choice since other devices also use USB charging and one cache battery can be used to charge them all. And for those with a Dynamo Hub, charging becomes even more practical.

Waterproof

This doesn’t just mean water “resistant” like so many other devices claim. The eTrex 32x meets IPX7 Waterproof Standard which means it can resist complete immersion. Drop this thing in a stream? No problem. Riding in the rain for several days in a row? You’ll be miserable, but your GPS will keep on chuggin’. GPS accidently falls out of your pocket and into the toilet bowl while you’re putting the seat down? Well, the GPS will be fine. Your pride might not.

Altimeter

The eTrex 32x comes with a barometric altimeter just like its predecessor. This might seem a bit trivial, but it’s the altimeter that allows the GPS to calculate accurate cumulative elevation gains. On a long bikepacking trip, we’d argue that tracking elevation gain is just as important as tracking distance covered. Knowing what lies ahead and what you’ve already done in terms of climbing are essential pieces of information when assessing if you should push a little more in order to get to that next town or whether to just call it a day and set up camp.

Magnetic Compass

Another feature that you might take for granted. When you’re following a road or marked trail, the compass might be as important, as long as you can locate yourself on the map. But if you’re completely off trail and you’re only way of navigating is by using visual landmarks as references, you’re going to be glad that this thing has an accurate compass. The magnetic compass makes the eTrex 32x a true backcountry GPS.

Small and Light

At 4.96 ounces and with dimensions of 2.1 x 4 x 1.3 inches, the 32x easily fits into pockets. Of course, on a bike tour it’ll be mounted to your handlebar or your stem. However, that makes the fact that this thing is so small and light even better, as it won’t impact your steering or handling. Furthermore, its small size means you have more room to mount other things to your handlebars like stem bags and handlebar rolls. As a side note, it’s never a bad idea to attach a lanyard to the GPS so that you don’t lose it in case the mount comes off the bars or stem.

Price

For the quality of this device, the price point is more than fair. This thing is built to last for years. Even better, it’s perfect for other activities like backpacking, kayaking, and hiking, so you’re not just buying a device that can be used for only one sport. We wouldn’t recommend it for city navigation purposes though, as there are far better units suited to that sort of application.

Can Use Free Maps

One of the biggest complaints seen with the eTrex 30x is that the included base map was not very good, and that additional maps from Garmin are expensive. Those two things have been partially adressed by the fact that the 32x comes preloaded with Garmin’s TopoActive maps. So far, these TopoActive maps have been getting rather decent reviews.

However, users should also know about the world of free, open-srouce maps. Yes, free. And incredibly useful. RideWithGPS is an online mapping software with a free version that allows you to trace out a route on a huge variety of free, open-source maps. These include satellite maps from different worldwide agencies, dozens of different topo maps, and many other specialty maps including, most importantly, cycling-specific maps. You are not stuck with the base Garmin maps!   

Easy

In terms of navigation-specific GPS, the eTrex 32x has one of the easier learning curves. It has less features than some of the more expensive, smartphone-like bike computers, so there is less to learn overall. The user interface is really not as bad as many of the previous Garmin units that came before it. Some folks have said the user interface is not as intuitive as it could be. However, this is just like any new device you buy, you need to be willing to learn about it. If you are willing to put in the time to learn how to use it, the eTrex 32x will undoubtedly be your go-to GPS for bikepacking trips.

Accurate

As well as using standard US-based GPS satellite networks, the eTrex 32x also uses GLONASS, another global satellite network. Although GPS essentially covers the entire globe, there are some dead spots here and there, and the GLONASS compatibility attempts to help with that. Neither network is necessarily more accurate than the other, it’s simply a question of having a higher chance of acquiring a signal from more places around the globe.

Things to keep in mind:

Screen Protector

You’ll want to get one of things. For how durable the eTrex is, the screen scratches just as easily as your smartphone’s screen. That’s just the nature of anti-glare screen these days. However, as with any screen protector, it’s a cheap investment that goes a long way in getting the most out of your GPS.

No Locking Feature

If you forget to turn the unit off and put it in your pocket, frame bag, or backpack, you might accidently nudge the toggle stick. Not a big deal if you are mindful of turning it off before stowing it away.

Getting Used to It

This goes for any GPS unit. Just allow yourself to come to terms with the fact that you will have to sit down and learn how to use this GPS. There’s no question that the eTrex 32x is one of the easier GPS devices to learn, but you’ll still have to devote some time in order to learn the ins and outs. But again, that’s with any GPS you buy and, honestly, the eTrex 32x is one of the easier ones to learn on.


Best Budget GPS for Bikepacking: Garmin eTrex 20x and eTrex 22x

Although we recommend the Garmin eTrex 32x because of its extra features, the Garmin eTrex 20x and eTrex 22x are a close second, and would be our top choice if money is an issue. It retains the small, size, weight, ergonomics, and the overall simplicity of the 32x, which we like. What it gives up are the barometric altimeter and the magnetic compass.

The eTrex 20x – Click for Price
The eTrex 22x – Click for Price

Garmin eTrex 20x and eTrex 22x Quick Specs:

  • Dimensions: 2.1” x 4.0” x 1.3”
  • Weight: 4.96 ounces
  • Screen Size: 2.2”, color, not touchscreen
  • Memory: 3.7 GB internal (20x)/8 GB (22x), microSD card slot
  • Waterproof: Yes, IPX7
  • Batteries: 2x AA. Can also run off cache battery via miniUSB
  • Battery Life: 25 hours
  • Maps: Garmin TopoActive maps. Also compatible with free map resources like OpenStreetMap
  • Compatible with RideWithGPS files: Yes

Garmin eTrex 20x and eTrex 22x Review

The main difference between the eTrex 20x and the eTrex 30x is the 3-axis compass and the barometric altimeter in the 30x. Whether these features are worth the extra few dollars for the 30x depends on how you use the GPS. But here is our take on it.

With the new 2019 Garmin GPS lineup, the 20x has been succeeded by the eTrex 22x. The biggest difference between the two comes in the fact that the 22x comes preloaded with TopoActive maps, which is a huge step up from the base Garmin maps that many did not like. Some firmware updates were also included in the 22x, making the unit overall more stable from a useability perspective.

The eTrex 22x will still give you a compass heading so you can tell which direction you’re facing, however, it can only do this while you’re actually moving. So, if you’re standing still and trying to get a compass reading, or trying to figure out which way you’re facing, it won’t work. This is because the 22x uses your immediate last location point from satellite data to extrapolate the direction of travel. So if you’re not moving, you have no immediate last known location, and it can’t tell which way you’ve come from or which way you’re going. In our mind, this is a bit annoying. Having to be in movement in order to get an accurate compass heading is not really practical. How often this will be an issue will depend on how far into the backcountry you’re going to get, but we’ve found that having an accurate directional reading on a GPS (that you can read at a standstill) is a very useful feature.

The lack of a barometric altimeter is perhaps less of an issue. A barometric altimeter, like the one on the eTrex 32x, uses barometric pressure readings to give accurate elevation data. The eTrex 22x will also give elevation data, but it relies on the GPS topo map downloaded onto the device. In short, the eTrex 32x gives much more accurate elevation data than the eTrex 22x. In terms of bikepacking, we think this only really matters if you’re going to be riding in the mountains and in terrain where there is a dense network of single or double track trails. In this case, having accurate elevation information makes all the difference in making sure you’re on the right trail. If you’re not going to be in this kind of situation, then the eTrex 22x will suit you just fine.

Otherwise, the eTrex 22x offers the exact same benefits as the eTrex 32x. To recap:

Battery Life

25 hours average battery life. More if you use lithium-ion batteries and you use energy-saving methods like screen brightness adjustments. You can also run the 20x off a USB charger using the miniUSB connection.

Waterproof

Just as waterproof as the 30x. Can be fully submerged according to the IPX7 waterproof standard.

Altimeter

As mentioned, there is no barometric altimeter, though you will still get an altitude reading from topo data. Just know it might not be entirely accurate.

Magnetic Compass

You won’t be able to get a directional reading when you’re standing still. Only while you’re moving. See above for an explanation.

Small and Light

Exact same dimensions and weight as the 32x.

Price

This is where the 22x beats the 32x. The low price for such a reliable unit is what makes the Garmin eTrex 22x the best budget GPS for backcountry use.

Can Use Free Maps

You’re not just limited to buying those expensive Garmin maps! Even though the 22x comes with the new Garmin TopoActive maps which have been getting good reviews, users should know about free resources like OpenStreetMaps and OpenCycleMaps which have loads of free maps. Not only are they free, but they are excellent quality. Entire bicycle tours and bikepacking routes have been designed and ridden using these maps.

Easy

Learning curve is the same as with the 32x.

Accurate

Uses the same satellite networks as the 32x. 


Best Satellite Messenger/Satellite Communicator: Garmin InReach Mini

With areas across the world becoming increasingly connected due to satellite technology, it’s almost a no-brainer to bring along some sort of emergency communication device when you’re bikepacking. These have many names: satellite messenger, satellite comunicator, personal locator beacon or PLB, emergency locator beacon, etc. Whatever the name, they are intended for one main purpose: to contact help in case of an emergency.

For bikepacking, we’ve found the Garmin InReach Mini to be the best choice. In fact, we recommend the InReach Mini for all ultralight activities from ultralight backpacking ot adventure motorcycling to backcountry skiing.

Other contenders for best satellite messenger for bikepacking included the Spot X and the Garmin InReach Explorer+. But we chose the InReach Mini as the best satellite messenger for bikepacking for good reason. Read on….

Garmin InReach Mini Quick Specs:

  • Dimensions: 2.0” x 1.3” x 3.9”
  • Weight: 3.52 ounces
  • Screen Size: 1.27”, color
  • Waterproof: Yes, IPX7
  • Batteries: Built-in lithium-ion, microUSB rechargeable
  • Battery Life: 20 days (not hours…days. Depending on settings of course)
  • Navigation: Bluetooth connection to phone, with EarthMate app.

Emergencies with the InReach Mini

Let’s clear up what we are wanting out of the Garmin InReach Mini for bikepacking: obtaining help when things don’t go as planned. That is its main purpose. And it does it spectacularly. We see all other uses as secondary or bonus features.

The InReach Mini uses the Iridium satellite network. The other main satellite network that gets used by companies is Globalstar. Iridium is used by Garmin, Globalstar is used by Spot. While we think the Spot devices are getting better (notably the Spot X), there have been far too many failures with the devices and/or the Globalstar network of the years for us to comfortably rely on Spot devices. For that reason alone, we’ve chosen Garmin over Spot. Your mileage may vary of course.

The Spot X may be cheaper than the InReach, but we don’t think the cost savings are worth the decreased reliability.

Spot X vs. Garmin InReach Mini for Bikepacking

Here is a rundown of the advantages of the InReach Mini over the Spot X for bikepacking purposes:

  • Reliability: Quite simply, from gathering years of anecdotal evidence across various countries, activities, and people, the InReach’s Iridium satellite network simply works better than Spot’s Globalstar network. Knowing that your message or call for help got through is your number one concern with a device like this. So the InReach Mini is the obvious choice when bikepacking in the backcountry.
  • Navigation: The InReach Mini’s main function is to acquire a satellite signal and communicate your location. Navigation is secondary. We recommend you pair the InReach Mini with an independent GPS device like the eTrex 30x or a smartphone GPS app like Gaia GPS. This way you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket. If you still want to integrate navigation into your satellite messenger, we recommend the Garmin InReach Explorer+.
  • Weight: The InReach Mini weighs 3.52 oz, compared to the Spot X which weighs 6.7 oz.
  • Connectivity: You can connect the InReach Mini to your phone via Bluetooth in order to send text messages via satellite. Even though the Spot X comes with its own integrated QWERTY keyboard, we think being able to use your own phone is still easier. Plus, let’s be honest… those tiny keyboards remind us of Blackberries. And we know what happened to those.
  • Size: The InReach Mini is… well… mini. Many people say that your emergency beacon should be on your person at all times while bikepacking (or any other activity really) in case you cannot get back to your bike after a fall. The InReach is easily stored in a backpack, on a belt, or on a backpack strap. Much more comfortable than the Spot X which is twice the size and weight. If you do put the InReach Mini on the bike itself, it will mount much more neatly onto your handlebars than the Spot X.

Best GPS Bike Computer for Bikepacking: Garmin Edge 1030

For those who want the best of the best in GPS navigation and performance metrics, there’s the Garmin Edge 1030. This GPS bike computer is absolutely loaded with features for the stat-obsessed and gear junkies. If you’re wanting as much data as possible without compromising on navigation accuracy, this is the device for you.

Garmin Edge 1030 Quick Specs:

  • Dimensions: 2.3” x 0.8” x 4.5”
  • Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Screen Size: 3.5”, color, touchscreen
  • Memory: 16 GB internal, microSD/microSDHC card slot
  • Waterproof: Yes, IPX7
  • Batteries: Built-in lithium-ion, microUSB rechargeable
  • Battery Life: 20 hours
  • Maps: Garmin Maps. Also compatible with free map resources like OpenStreetMap
  • Compatible with RideWithGPS files: Yes

Garmin Edge 1030 Review

Navigation

At 3.5 inches, the 1030’s screen is extremely practical for viewing and exploring maps. For bikepacking, this is helpful as you’ll be spending a lot of time looking at navigational maps. Having a large screen is great to reduce the amount of zooming and panning you need to do when exploring new areas. The turn-by-turn navigation can be turned off on long bikepacking trips, which is nice as well, since that feature isn’t all that useful when you’re riding all day on relatively remote areas. However, the turn-by-turn feedback on the Edge 1030 is fantastic for city riding, with cues, and even warning for upcoming sharp bends.

Screen

In the past, users have complained about other Garmin GPS’ unresponsiveness when it came to their touchscreens. The 1030’s screen uses updated software which makes it behave almost like a smartphone screen. We say almost, because it is still not quite the same. But then again, you’re not going to use this like you would a smartphone. The screen is bright, colorful, and works very well in bright sunlight to boot.

Battery

The rechargeable internal battery has an average life of 20 hours, which seems to be consistent with user findings. This is really impressive considering how much data this thing is constantly reading and displaying. In terms of charging, you can either use an external cache battery or the Garmin Charge Power Pack, which mounts on the backside of the included out-front mount. Because of where it mounts, the advantage of the Power Pack is that it frees up space in your top tube bag because of where it mounts. You can also use this Power Pack to charge other devices. For bikepacking, we still recommend bringing a separate external cache battery. We should also note that the 1030 doubles the battery life of its predecessor, the Garmin Edge 1000.

Performance Data

The 1030 offers almost anything you can possibly think of in terms of performance data. For bikepackers, that might not be the most useful thing, but then again, it depends on what type of bikepacking route you’re doing. If you’re into light and fast riding, or getting into bikepacking races or endurance bikepacking, then the 1030 will help you monitor your progress. It’s also an incredibly useful took in terms of training.

Connectivity

The ability to pair the 1030 to other sensors is second to none. The set up process to pair with your cadence sensor, speed sensor, rearview radar, heart rate strap, and headlights, or electronic drivetrain is quick and painless and works reliably.

Night Riding

The 1030 uses a backlight for low-light and nighttime rides. More importantly, it does so without being so bright it blinds you. Very convenient if you’re planning on using mounting this to your commuter bike.

Things to keep in mind:

Price

This is not the cheapest option. For the simplicity that a lot of bikepackers want, something like the eTrex series is all they need. But that’s not all of us. So, despite the price, this is still our editor’s choice because of how feature-loaded and functional the 1030 is.

Ruggedness

This would probably not be our first choice if we were downhill mountain biking every day. With how big it is and how many falls you take while mountain biking, we wouldn’t risk it. But if you’re confident in you’re riding, then go for it.

Firmware Updates

Garmin is notorious for pushing a product out before all the bugs are resolved. You’ll see a lot of reviews complaining about the number of updates. However, since the 1030 has been out for a while now, the number of updates have also drastically reduced. The bugs are significantly less common now.  


Alternatives to Garmin GPS Devices

We want to acknowledge that this article is Garmin- heavy. The simple reason is that Garmin has been in the GPS industry (in military and marine applications) for a number of decades. And they’ve done so without significant competition. As such, they have a massive competitive edge (no pun intended). We don’t want to say they’ve perfected their craft, because they haven’t. But they have perfected it to a far greater extent than other companies.

That said, there are companies out there that are putting out GPS bike computers that could give Garmin some much needed competition. Most notably, we think the following two GPS bike computers are worth looking at. However, keep in mind that we’d still recommend the Garmin devices we reviewed here firtst.

Wahoo ELEMNT

The main advantage the ELEMNT has over the Garmin 1030 comes from user interface. It seems to be a little more intuitive. The main disadvantage is that the ELEMNT requires pairing with a smartphone (with cell service) for a lot of its features, whereas the 1030 can do all those things in the device itself. For bikepacking where reception can be spotty or nonexistent, the Garmin 1030 still wins.

Lezyne Super GPS

Another decent alternative to the Garmin series of GPS devices. If you’re staying within cell phone range, the Super GPS is not a bad option. The GPS offers surprisingly good accuracy and battery life is generous as well, at 22 hours. However, connectivity issues, confusing user interface, and smaller screens make the Lezyne less suited toward bikepacking than we’d like.


How to Choose a GPS for Bikepacking and What is a Bike Computer?

If you start shopping around for a bikepacking GPS, you will inevitably come across the words “bike computer.” What’s more confusing is that many higher end devices are “GPS bike computers.” So what’s the difference between a GPS, a bike computer, and a GPS bike computer and why should you care?

A bike computer is essentially a unit that collects and displays data. They’re the little screens you see professional cyclists constantly checking during their races. The data collected is usually comprised of speed, altitude, power, heart rate, cadence, calories burned, distance, time, temperature, and even which gear you’re in (if you have an electronic drive train). Cheaper units may only offer a few of those data, while more expensive units will have even more features including Bluetooth connectivity, touchscreens, WiFi capability, info graphics, and on and on. The bike computer is primarily used by those who are interested in statistics and tracking their performance. Generally, you’d get a bike computer when you’re purely focused on training and racing in a familiar area where navigation isn’t an issue.

A GPS bike computer has all those features mentioned above and adds navigational capabilities to that. Cheaper GPS bike computers will have a little less functionality on the navigation end, while higher end units can be just as good as a dedicated GPS unit. A GPS bike computer is geared toward riders who are tracking performance over long distances, are riding in an unfamiliar area, or both. Think endurance bike racers (including endurance bikepacking) and professional cyclists on a long tour where the course is not marked. In this case, riders are focused on where they need to be going and they’re monitoring their personal performance.

Finally, a GPS leaves out most of the detailed performance data that a bike computer offers. It still offers things like speed and distance traveled, but it is primarily focused on one thing: navigation. A GPS is for people who are riding in an unfamiliar place and likely in relatively more remote areas (not a city). In this case, the GPS delivers a high level of locational accuracy and reliability in order to provide the navigational cues the user needs to find their way.

Between the three options, we believe a reliable GPS is the most fitting for bikepackers. Although it’s fun to track performance stats, they aren’t the most relevant pieces of information on a bikepacking trip. Bikepacking takes you to very remote areas where you’re going to much better off with a device that can tell you exactly where you are rather than one that can tell you exactly what your cadence was on that brutal 2-hour hike-a-bike you just did.  


Dedicated GPS or Smartphone GPS App for Bikepacking?

Only a few years ago, this wouldn’t even have been a question. If you were looking around to see which GPS device to get for backpacking, hiking, or cycling, you’d only be looking at dedicated GPS units. In the last few years though, companies like GaiaGPS have developed incredibly powerful apps that take advantage of a smartphone’s GPS antenna.

But how do you choose whether to get a dedicated GPS or a smartphone GPS app? This is a pretty common question for riders trying to decide how to navigate on a cycle tour or bikepacking trip. And it’s a good one. We live in an era where our devices are becoming more consolidated.

Our advice: get both. A good quality dedicated GPS is not that expensive, and a smartphone GPS app like GaiaGPS is a worthy backup.

Technology is getting to the point that some devices are becoming jacks of all trades. The cameras built into our phones for example are getting so good that point and shoot camera sales have plummeted. For the average consumer, there is just no use for them anymore. Professional photographers like John Bozinov have even gotten to the point of using the iPhone as their primary camera on certain outings. (On that note, if you’re interested in reading about camera gear for bikepacking and bicycle tours, check out our post on the Best Cameras for Bikepacking). However, the fact is that smartphone cameras still have achieved the same standards of performance as traditional DSLRs and mirrorless camera systems.

And the same goes for your smartphone’s GPS app. It is a wonderful tool, but it is not going to perform better than a dedicated GPS. Our recommendation is to invest in a dedicated GPS for bikepacking, and also get the smartphone app to use as a GPS as a backup.


Reasons to Get a GPS Instead of a Smartphone GPS App

Battery Life

GPS battery life is, on the whole, far better than smartphone battery life. It wouldn’t be fair to make that statement without qualifying it though. So, what we mean is that, if a GPS device and a smartphone with a GPS app were running non-stop in navigation mode (airplane mode with GPS antenna on for smartphone), with the screen on the entire time, the GPS would blow the smartphone battery life out of the water. To be fair to smartphones, though, you can dim the backlight or turn off the screen completely to save battery. However, you are not getting the same kind of functionality that you would with a GPS device in that case. Let’s also not forget that some GPS’ like the eTrex can run off AA batteries, meaning back up power is cheap, light, and readily available anywhere in the world.

Back Up

In the backcountry, having a back up is the name of the game, especially if you’re traveling solo. If your GPS goes down, you still have your smartphone to use as a backup, or at least to call for some kind of assistance. If you’ve opted for a smartphone GPS app, and your phone bites the dust, you’re out of your means of navigation and your means of emergency communication. Having a separate GPS device avoids putting all your eggs in one basket.

Specialization

Dedicated consumer GPS units have been used for the past two decades. In that time, the technology has found its way into GPS watches for runners, GPS devices for backpacking, for fishing, GPS bike computers, etc. They’ve been used in all sorts of environments. Although the basic idea is the same, what to look for in a bikepacking GPS is going to be slightly different than a GPS for hiking or backpacking (think form factor, weight, how it mounts to handlebars, or fits in your hand). A smartphone is even further from an ideal bikpacking GPS because of all the extra features that it offers. And because of these extra features, it is going to have to compromise in other areas of the overall design, making it less appropriate for bikepacking.

Accuracy

GPS devices use antennas that are often more robust than the ones used in smartphones. There are various networks of satellites that GPS antennas rely on to get a lock on your location. Most smartphones do share the same networks that GPS devices use, but the way in which GPS devices triangulate your position (and the speed with which they do so) is much more reliable and accurate than what your smartphone’s GPS antenna is capable of.

Reliability

A GPS is designed for one primary purpose: navigation. Your smartphone is designed to have many primary purposes. This means a smartphone is going to be able to do a lot of different things, but it won’t necessarily be optimized to do any of those things particularly reliably. Think about how quickly your battery drains when using your smartphone to navigate. A GPS is designed to optimize battery performance for navigation only, making it a much more reliable tool. On top of this, smartphones have stability issues because of all the apps they are constantly running. It is not uncommon for your GPS app to not function properly because another app is interfering with it.  

Durability

This is a major one. Most smartphones are not designed to function within the same range of environmental specifications that a GPS is. And when you’re bikepacking or bike touring, you are going to endure all sorts of different environments. You want a device that can withstand humidity, downpours, dust clouds, and operate well even when exposed to below-freezing or extremely hot temperatures. The GPS doesn’t just withstand the elements, certain models are burly enough to withstand impacts from falls (which can happen more often than you might care to admit on a singletrack bikepacking trip). Quite simply, smartphones are generally nowhere near the same durability as a dedicated GPS.

Ease of Use

Most cycling GPS units have handlebar mounts (out-front mounts) made specifically to make readability easy while riding. The GPS user interface itself is designed around the fact that the rider will be interacting with it while on the bike, so the screen is easy to interact with even on a bumpy road. A smartphone’s UI is not designed with this in mind (you are usually not moving when using it). You don’t want to be fumbling around trying to read the smartphone’s screen with one hand while simultaneously trying to keep from crashing with the other.


Is a GPS App for a Smartphone Worth It?

Yes.

Despite everything we’ve just mentioned, we still think apps like Gaia GPS for android or iOS are brilliant. We would seriously recommend not solely relying GaiaGPS as your primary form of navigation, but we won’t deny that it is a fantastic app when it works. It has stability issues and bugs here and there, some of which don’t show up until you’re out on the trail, it is still a very powerful tool with tons of free map layers to choose from.

Let’s also not forget that it is extremely affordable (cheaper than a GPS unit). There is basically no reason not to have a smartphone GPS app downloaded and preloaded with all the maps for your ride. You’re most likely going to be taking your smartphone on your bikepacking trip anyway, so adding a GPS app is a no brainer.


Do I Really Need a Backcountry GPS? 

Ever been backpacking, hiking, or bike touring and come to a dead end or a fork in the trail? What do you do? You pull out your paper map or pull up Google Maps and find out what the deal is. You’re not far from home, you’ve got cell reception, and the paper map you printed is good enough even though it’s a screenshot of someone’s hand drawn picture.

One of two things happens. There’s tons of people around, the trail your on is well-marked and well-used. You could ask someone for directions, but you’ve got your pride, so you stuff your face into Google Maps and figure it out. No big deal. If all goes to plan, you consult your map, realize you made a wrong turn a quarter mile back, and merrily go on your way back in the right direction. Minor inconvenience. Navigational success.

Now, let’s say you’re really off the beaten track, 10 miles from the nearest frequented gravel road. You turned off that road a couple hours ago onto this abandoned logging track that has now petered out into nothing. You’re in the middle of a pine forest and the underbrush is dense. That gravel road was up and over a pretty significant hill. You pull out your cell phone to check Google Maps.

You’ve barely got reception, but it’s there, just like you thought it would. You load the map and try to zoom into your location. Your phone’s GPS is able to locate you on the map after 10 minutes. Clouds are rolling in. You try to make sense of the map, but the default map layer doesn’t show any useful information in terms of nearby roads, trails, or landmarks. You switch over to satellite view. It takes another 10 minutes to load the map. You zoom in and realize that this layer is useless because the forest canopy is so thick you can’t even see the road you came in on.

Now what? Do you follow your instincts and keep moving forward knowing that you don’t have a reliable GPS or way to navigate? Or do you retrace your steps (hopefully they’re easy to follow) and potentially lose hours trying to get back to the main road in order to have another crack at navigating?

Well, now is when you admit to yourself that it would have been a good idea to invest in a proper GPS for bikepacking. At the very least, a GPS app on your smartphone would have been a good investment. Either way, since safety should be a priority, a GPS is always going to be a smart buy. It will not only give you peace of mind, but it’ll give you a tool you can use to ensure you come home safely and live to get out and ride another day.


In Summary

A GPS is the go-to form of navigation nowadays. We recommend investing in a dedicated GPS unit. Our choices for this are:

Overall Best Bikepacking GPS: Garmin eTrex 32x

Best Budget Bikepacking GPS: Garmin eTrex 20x and Garmin eTrex 22x

Best Satellite Messenger for Bikepacking: Garmin InReach Mini

Best GPS Bike Computer: Garmin Edge 1030


3 thoughts on “Best GPS for Bikepacking and Satellite Messengers”

  1. Thank you!
    Does the eTrex 32x mount onto handlebars pretty well? Which mount would you suggest, assuming there are mounting bracket choices out there.

    Reply
    • Glad it was useful! Yes, one thing we like about the eTrex compared to other devices is that it is still relatively small, so the space it takes on handlebars is minimal. We’ve gotten a few questions about mounting options for the eTrex series, so there is a new section in the page above with those options. Hope it helps!

      Reply

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