Cycle Touring Route Planning and Navigation

Before we set off we wanted a cost effective, straightforward way of navigating. We knew that once we left Western Europe we were going to be limited to low resolution road maps, not ideal for finding those quiet country lanes and navigating our way through big cities.

During our rides in the UK we started playing around with Garmin eTrex H. It’s a cheap unit (around £70 on eBay) with high sensitivity and a robust outer shell. Navigating is done by uploading your own “Tracks” then following what is effectively a marker on a line from Track start to Track end. It does not have the ability to upload detailed maps and will not be able to tell you where the nearest coffee shop is, but it’s an affordable solution that has served us well over the last 10,000km or so of our trip. ||


– Garmin eTrex H GPS.

– Laptop, required for route planning on the internet and for uploading Tracks to the GPS.

– Serial to USB cable. The eTrex H only comes with a serial cable, newer version should have USB.

– Garmin Map Source software includes Garmin eTrex H driver.

– GPS bike mount to fix GPS unit to handlebars.


As with anything there are pro and cons. We have tried to list them all below. As can be seen a later version GPS should alleviate two of the cons we experience.

Reliable, accurate and fast GPS.Laptop and Internet access required to create and upload new Tracks
No need to purchase expensive GPS mapsFirst time setup can be a little fickle
Cheap – small outlay in the beginning to buy GPSDoes not show landmarks or cities, only the line of the Track you have loaded
Ability to review height profile of routeAverage battery life of 17hrs without route tracing (newer version should have longer battery life)
Knowing your altitude is useful in the mountains and for longer climbsThe Garmin eTrex H is limited to 750 points per Track, so you have to split up your longer Tracks accordingly (newer version allows more points)
Ability to have access to exact position data. Useful if you need to tell someone your exact location 
Can trace your entire route if you fancy reviewing at a later stage. 


This might look like a lot of work but once you are set up and have gone through the process a few times it’s pretty quick. We generally route a couple of weeks in advance in about half an hour. This time spent is saved very quickly when you consider the time exhausted trying to find your way in a foreign country especially when you can’t read the signs or speak the language.

Steps 1-4 can be useful for your route planning even if you don’t have a GPS and just want to check the height profiles of different route options.

  1. Jump onto the Internet and access then click on Course Creator
  2. Find your start location on the integrated Google Map (annoyingly you cannot search for it, the webmaster won’t acknowledge our pleas!).
  3. Set the options: Use Auto Routing. Data: Google
  4. Click along your desired route and a Track will be automatically created (if the road is not found, uncheck Autorouting). As you create your Track you can review the real-time route profile (altitude, distance) generated via the Summary tab. When we are planning we often review a few routes to find the best combination of a fairly scenic route with not too many harsh climbs.

    Elevation Chart for Munnar, India   Route Summary

  5. Once you are done routing go to the Summary tab then select Download To File (gpx) 

  6. We often take a photo of the route profile with our phone so we can refer to it on the ride. Useful to know exactly where that killer climb is. 
  7. Once the file is downloaded we use Garmin Map Source to upload the file to our GPS. If you don’t have Map Source you can use one of the many free apps available on the Net but you might need to install the GPS driver.
  8. Before uploading the Track you need to make sure the number of Track points is less than 750 as it is the maximum amount allowed on the Garmin E-Trex H. (You can skip this step if you have a newer GPS model that allows more points per Track.) To split up a Track we do the following in Map Source. Edit –> Track Properties. Holding down shift select the first 750 points then copy. Open another instance of Map Source, then Edit –> New Track. Then paste the points in. This will be your first Track. If the points remaining on the first instance are less than 750 this will be your second Track. If it still exceeds 750 then repeat the above until the original Track has been split up into Tracks containing no more than 750 points.
  9. To upload the Track, ensure the GPS is on and plugged into the PC. Then select Transfer –> Send To Device. If you do not see the device then turn it off and on and plug it in again. If it is the first time, ensure the driver has been installed successfully and the operating system has identified the GPS. During the upload the GPS unit will give feedback and signal upload successful.


This solution has worked really well for us as generally Google maps is the most detailed and accurate map available. A big benefit of this solution is that there is no need to buy expensive GPS maps for every country we travel through. Of course sometimes you may spontaneously decide on a different route, but you can always see where you are in reference to your planned route and it tells you how far you are from your end point.

The pre routing takes out so much of the hassle of getting lost on our way that we never ride without it. Every time we breeze through big cities, know exactly where the climb starts or find the small road not even marked on our map we bless our little GPS and the small investment in time spent planning our route in advance.

If you have any other thoughts or tips regarding route planning and navigation, please leave a comment below.


  1. No dynamo running off the wheel for power?
    No photovoltaic cells on your helmet? – Surely your VCE Physics CAT in this topic would have finally come to some use….If you can't find your CAT, I can send you mine which is remarkably similar to yours.

  2. this is such a useful post. ive been wondering about this issue a lot for my trip starting august this year!

  3. Thanks for the easy to follow explanation and link to biketoutetoaster.

    The information you have gathered here is incredibly useful.

    We appreciate the time you spent putting this together.