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Route Planning and GPS Navigation 101

Keen to plan your own routes? Read on for some ideas and resources to get you started. We (Kia B and Pete) did a presentation in March 2023 on this very topic, we’ll do our best to cover everything we spoke about on the night. Make a cuppa and settle in!

It might be that you just want to get away for the weekend and see somewhere new, or you might be looking for string a few days together and really get out there. Maybe plan an epic across a continent? In any case you need to be realistic about how big a challenge your idea really is and plan accordingly. We’ll do our best to arm you with some tools and ideas to help make this a reality.

Route Planning Tools

There’s a handful of tools we come back to every time we plan a route. There’s many more out there, many we tried, many we didn’t like very much.

Ride With GPS (RWGPS) is the most powerful route planning tool. It allows for detailed planning, much more so than rival planners such as Komoot and Strava. Unique to RWGPS is the ability to import other people’s routes and use parts or modify them to suit your needs. The heatmap function is also very powerful allowing you to see where other cyclists are riding and to get an idea of whether a road or track is passable. RWGPS has a basic planner you can access for free, the advanced tools that we use regularly are available with a paid account. If you are considering planning your own routes it’s definitely worth investing in access to the fully featured planner.

Strava route planner has a couple of unique advantages over other tools, since it is so widely used the heatmap is very accurate. Included is a feature where you can see who has ridden a segment recently, which is great for getting an idea about how long a section will take and it may turn out someone you know has ridden it, so you can ask them for advice. We love a side of community building with our route planning!

MapOut is an iPhone specific app that has is perfect for on-route planning. It has a detailed base map that is available offline and a great feature where you can select a portion of the route to see what is coming up and helps planning on a more hour-to-hour level. At the time of writing it costs $8 AUD. Mapout is incredibly useful as a secondary navigation device, especially if you need to re-route and you don’t have access to mobile internet.

Type of routes

One of the most important logistical considerations is the type of route you want to ride

A loop route that starts and finishes in the same place. Great for exploring a region and a popular choice if the only way to get there is via car. One example of this is The Dirty Rat, starting in Ararat you can do a couple of days riding in Gariwerd (Grampians) and finish back at the train station or car.

A linear route that allows you to ride through a region without needing to get back to where you started. A common theme for our recent long weekenders was catching a train to Gippsland and riding to a station on the Albury line in the north of the state (or vice versa). This has the additional challenge of planning around the trains, it doesn’t always go perfectly but its a great way to access the Victorian high country.

An out and back route is a logistically simple route. A great example of this are the rail trails we have access to in Victoria. The Lilydale-Warburton trail and the Great Victorian rail trail is only a short train ride away from the city. These routes are typically low-effort planning and allow flexibility in where you choose to turn around.

How much should I take on? Some ideas for goal setting..

You might have dreams of taking on a big adventure. In all cases it’s worth starting small and working up to bigger challenges as you gain the skills to be self sufficient on the bike. Different goals include an easy overnighter, an unloaded day trip, a long weekender, an off-road expedition or a road touring trip on the tarmac.

1) The Easy Overnighter

An easy overnighter consists of a low kilometre, low stakes and high enjoyment bike ride. Arguably the best way to ride your bike. We will run through a few examples of an easy over nighter and how you may approach it. Firstly, you could do situational bikepacking. This means you could explore from a spot. You would set your tent up and unload your bike, and then go ride some trails and come back. This is beneficial because you can do your bike ride mostly unloaded, and have less weight on your bike. Logistically your bike ride would be circular, as you would start and finish at the same location. An example of this is Will Harnett’s Dirty Rat Rides through Gariwerd National Park. We ride to Jimmys Creek Campground in Gariwerd, and set up camp. We then explore with our bikes unloaded through magical Gariwerd. Another example of an easy overnighter is going flashpacking. This means you don’t have a loaded bike and you sleep at accommodation. This is substantially easier as you don’t have a loaded bike, and you don’t need to worry about packing sleep kit. You could plan a multiple bailout option bikepacking route. This means if you aren’t feeling it, it’s easy to stop. An example is Goldfields Track. It’s not the easiest route, particularly if you’re underbiking. However, it is really easy to bail the route. There are so many roads that run near it, it’s pretty easy to take the tarmac and leave to a train station. Another easy overnight is a route that goes through multiple towns. You can create a route where you can have a nice pub lunch or visit a winery. This means you can frame it not as a day of riding, but a day for whatever activities you desire, using your bike as a pleasant mode of transport between stops. A example of this is Great Victorian Rail Trail. You start at Seymour, then Tallarook, Yea, Alexandra or either Eildon or Mansfield. Help the local economy and communities after COVID and bushfires. Finally, another easy overnighter could be a flat route with no hills, again Great Victorian Rail Trail or Murray to Mountains rail trail. A handy tip is that generally all rail trails are flat because trains can’t go up steep hills.

2) Weekend Warrior

A weekend warrior trip is when you work 5 days a week, and you only have a two day weekend. You need to squeeze in maximum fun with minimal time. A weekend warrior trip involves stringing a route together with key locations including multiple resupply points and multiple destinations. Build the route on Ride With GPS and cross-reference the route on strava heatmaps to make sure people are riding there. Strava also has an off-road option to avoid tarmac.  Another consideration is that on a weekend warrior bikepacking trip, you need to be very time-conscious. You will need to wake up early. It is kind of a race against time to get it done because you need to get to the train station to catch the last V-line back to Southern Cross station. Essentially, this means there is minimal faffing or breaks. It’s good to have time up your sleeve in case something doesn’t go to plan. An important note: take the moving time estimate on MapOut with a grain of salt when cycling off-road on a loaded bike. You will almost certainly travel slower than the suggested time. Another consideration is that if you stay in accommodation, or shelter like a hut instead of camping, you probably get an extra hour of riding which is important if you are time-poor on a long weekender.

3) An Off-Road Expedition

Route planning for an off-road expedition is similar to a long weekender trip but essentially longer. You use the same mentality of picking key destinations and piecing together a route, but this time your ride is longer and generally more isolated. As such, you need to make a few more considerations. You need to be considerate of the terrain and bike weight, because having so much gear for an expedition, it may take way longer than what you initially anticipated. So a helpful tip could be start small with daily estimated distance. Having Satellite tracking and SOS is particularly important on an expedition. We usually use a spot tracker or garmin inreach. Going on an off-road expedition, it is important to have at least the basics of bike mechanical skills and spares. Go tubeless. It saves so much heartache as you are less likely to get a puncture with self-sealing sealant. Have an app on your phone which allows offline mapping. Mapout and RWGPS both allow offline mapping. You also need to be considerate of re-supply distances from towns.

If the route doesn’t go to plan

In bikepacking, unfortunately things don’t always go to plan. We will go through a couple of example problems, and how you may mitigate risk or problem-solve.

If the route is too difficult: Find a shorter route to the nearest town. This can include being aware of bailout options including main towns, train station and c-roads. If you pre-empt this as a possible problem, you can also create a B Route before your ride. Alternatively, Mapout is great for on the fly planning, and you can sync it to a Garmin (not e-trex) or Wahoo directly. For Android Users, there is an equivalent called OSM (Open Street Map), which, in theory, can route you offline. It is important to look at the elevation profile because it may take much longer than expected.

If you experience a major mechanical: Make sure you know where shelter is (this could be by looking at Mapout offline map squares for potential Huts, accommodation). Consider all options, in the case of an emergency, shelter is better than no shelter. Make sure you have a Spot Tracker and Garmin InReach, and ensure your emergency contacts are updated and your pre-set messages are set. 

GPS Tracking: Garmin InReach vs Spot Tracker

When riding an off-road Expedition or a long weekender trip. GPS Tracking is pretty important. If something bad happens, you need to be able to call for help.

Garmin InReach

A Garmin InReach has a two-way communication. This means it can send and receive messages as well as pre-set messages. You can also sync the Garmin InReach to a Garmin Explore app through Bluetooth, and type messages through your phone. It is definitely on the expensive side, and you have to pay a subscription. However, you pay for peace of mind. Another downside is that it is a tedious process to share the device for an event.

Spot Tracker

Spot Tracker only allows you to send pre-set messages. It is a one way communication device. This means that no one can contact you. You can put your ride on maprogress, and people can follow you from a website. Both a Spot Tracker and Garmin Inreach allow SOS beacons to emergency services. These devices are very straightforward to share if there is an active subscription already.

Navigation Device: The age-old debate

There are various types of devices you can use to navigate your ride. We will now make the case for, and point out the flaws of each device.

eTrex Garmin.

Garmin eTrex’s are pretty bulletproof. The eTrex takes AA batteries so you don’t need to rely on it being charged. ETrexes are also perfect for a race-setting or a pre-set route where you only need to follow a line on the screen. The downside is you can’t load routes on the fly. It needs to be off a computer via microUSB cable. You also can’t upload rides on to Strava directly, you need to manually upload from your computer. A con with eTrexes are that sometimes can be issues recognising the USB device off a computer. ETrexes use a microUSB cable which aren’t very common anymore, so it isn’t the easiest cord to replace if you lose or damage it.

Wahoo

Wahoos are simple to operate as they are bike orientated.  Wahoos also allow you to upload routes on the fly onto your device. You can upload your rides on to Strava or Ride with GPS directly. Wahoos are generally button-operated which is better in wet conditions. The downside is that they aren’t particularly bombproof, and rely on smartphones to make most of the changes.

Garmin (non-eTrex)

Garmins have a lot more features than a Wahoo, and can also sync directly to riding apps. Garmins mostly have a touch screen, which is polarising in the cycling community. If you ride day rides and are mostly a fairweather cyclist, touch screen is convenient. If you ride in the rain, ride gravel or MTB, touch screen can be tedious to operate. Based on the amount of features on a Garmin, it is a steep learning curve.

Mobile Phone

The most immediate advantage of using your phone for navigation is that you can save hundreds of dollars not buying a device and the maps can be really detailed (like MapOut).  The downside is that it has a short battery life. When navigating off a phone your phone battery drains quicker. If you are reliant on internet for the route, and it drops out you are screwed. Navigating off a mobile phone also means you need to constantly log into your phone to navigate which is tedious, and risk the potential to miss a turn. We have the range of Quadlock mounts for mobiles in store which aid greatly in attaching mobiles to handlebars

Helpful Route Resources

Commuter Cycles – https://www.commutercycles.com.au/blog/category/routes/Big trips to small overnighters 

Overland Archive – https://overlandarchive.com/ Backcountry, big kilometres, and difficult

Cycling Wild https://cyclingwild.com.au/  A few of Will’s routes from around Victoria and further afield.

There Will Be Dirt https://therewillbedirt.com/ Extremely extremely crazy and difficult routes (i.e packbiking)

Adventure Cycling Victoriahttps://www.adventurecyclingvictoria.com  Mix of easy to challenging multi-day bikepacking routes in regional Victoria

Bikepacking.comhttps://bikepacking.com/ Only a couple of Victorian routes, however many international routes

Ride High Country https://www.ridehighcountry.com.au/ Mountain biking, trail, gravel and road routes in the Victorian Alps

Curve – https://www.curvecycling.com.au/ Mix of flashpacking and challenging routes within regional Victoria

Desire Lines https://desirelinescc.com.au/ Blog post and stories from a diverse mix of bikepackers throughout Australia

Talk to your community: Melburn Durt, anyone from Commuter Cycles, people you see on Instagram. People within the cycling community are generally more than happy to help out 🙂

Helpful Route Planning Tips

We will conclude with some random and useful route planning tips.

  1. If it says ‘Spur’ it’s probably a stitchup
  2. If it says ‘Old ____ Road’ it’s probably a good road to cycle on (cars probably aren’t driving on it anymore)
  3. If it says ‘Gentle Annie’ – it isn’t gentle. Gentle Annie is generally a long uphill trail without a resting spot

We hope you found this useful. One of the best part of cycling is creating your own adventure, so get out there and happy trails 🙂

One comment

  1. Thanks for these valid tips. Your blog was very useful. I liked all the references near the end and have clicked on ALL those links to investigate further. I am especially grateful for the pointer to the MapOut tool for my iPhone. I have downloaded it to have a play to learn how to use MapOut. The idea of something that can work for me offline is particularly appealing. I already use RidewithGPS and Strava and agree with you about the pros and cons.
    Route planning has been quite an onerous learning curve for me. Perhaps it is because I have a tendency to try to understand things far too deeply instead of just getting on with it. On this point, I thoroughly agree with you that Garmin’s tools take some effort to learn.
    At 71, attempting to ride mostly off-road with a fully loaded fat bike, I find many of the routes other people publish have daily distances that are far to ambitious for me. So I’m forced to do my own planning, making sensible choices.
    Lastly, thanks to all the folks at Commuter Cycles and the community of wonderful cycling enthusiasts for these excellent blogs and newsletters.

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Commuter Cycles acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional custodians of the lands and waterways in the area now known as Brunswick, and pays respect to their Elders past, present, and emerging, as well as to all First Nations’ communities in Australia.