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Can you use a smartphone or tablet as your GPS?



Of the various GPS receivers available on the market, Garmin certainly has the largest market share of those targeted for two, three or four-wheeled motorsports. For those that have been riding for a few years you most likely have used a Garmin device at some point and Garmin does have some good GPS devices. Before I get to deep into this article I'll admit that using a mobile device (smartphone or tablet) as your only GPS navigation solution isn't going to work for everyone. Many will be concerned that they will damage their expensive smartphone in a fall - and if you're an offroader, sooner or later, dirt naps happen. But, for many riders, depending upon where you mount your mobile device, the chances of hurting it in a fall-over are low if you have a good mounting system.

So why would someone consider using a smartphone or tablet as their navigation device? One reason might be that you already own a smartphone and the prices of a GPSr devices sold for use by Motorcycle riders is close to or more than the cost of a good smartphone. It could be that carrying two devices (although a backup device can be a good thing) with you that can do the same job isn't appealing especially when one of those devices can do a whole lot more than the other. Or, maybe the GPS device you've been using just keeps presenting limitations in the features it offers relative to your riding needs.


One of the long standing arguments against using a smartphone as a navigation device was that they weren't robust enough and the displays were to dim for use on a motorcycle in bright sunlight. As it turns out for the past few years there have been iOS and Android based smartphones that have caught up to the dedicated GPS receiver (GPSr). These phone models have very good waterproof & dustproof ratings (IP68 or better) and their displays are very good in bright sunlight. Speaking of bright sunlight, or more correctly, high temperatures, smartphones and tablets are typically rated for operation up to 95˚F. Past that temperature and most smartphones will first shut off the display - if the phone gets much hotter it will turn off completely to save itself. When I'm riding in very hot conditions I usually attach the sun shield I made and turn off my wireless charging - which generates a significant amount of heat. If my phone is still overheating, I then wrap a wet sweatband around the backside of the phone & mount - this usually takes care of the overheating for as long as I need it to.


When it comes to GPS receivers, many smartphones are equally as good as most standalone GPS devices. My iPhone 13Pro Max is a high end model with very good GPS satellite reception and reasonably good noise filtering. It can receive GPS satellite signals from US-GPS, Russian-GLONASS, EU-Galileo, Japan-QZSS, and Chinese-BeiDou. Of course you don't need to spend the kind of money that high end phones costs in order to get a good on-bike smartphone Nav solution. And, one approach is buying a used-phone with no cellular plan for this purpose. All cell phones sold today have a GPS receiver that works without a cellular plan or network connection, they are a good option if you want to keep your expensive phone in your pocket.


iPhone Reception Indoors!


With a good case, to help with bumps, dumps and mounting, a smartphone can provide a reliable and durable navigation and planning device that a standalone GPSr could only dream of competing with for overall capabilities in one device.


Regardless of how capable smartphones and tablets might be, you need to find the right combination of application(s) and hardware to meet your needs. Most of us choose our phone manufacturer, and therefore the operating system, which may or may not determine our Navigation App choices. Most Navigation Apps are available on both iOS and Android phones - but not all - so do your homework.


If you've read any of my previous GPS articles, or attended one of my seminars, you know I use the following set of "Basic Criteria for an Adventure Riding GPS" to determine if any GPS Navigation device is something I would recommend.


So, let's see if a mobile device, Nav App and Mount can do the job.

  • Pre-ride Planning: Pre-ride usually means before you get on the bike, turn on the key and press Start. My Planning App of choice is the online app It runs in most browsers, including my iPhone's. I don't have the eye sight I use to have so I use an iPadPro (tablet) for all of my planning work. Furkot is one of the best online Trip Planning apps available on the Web - but like most App's it may not be for everyone. You might only need a route/track editor that can also set Waypoints. If you want, or need, to do some offline Trip editing while you're traveling, check out your Navigation App to see if it can do what you need to do to edit your travel plans. The Nav Apps I use can do the job when I need to make offline changes on my iPhone or iPadPro. All route creation and Trip Planning apps have their learning curve, so just like your Navigation App, you need to take your time and learn how your Trip Planner works if it's not your Nav App. ✓CHECK



    Here is a screen recording of Furkot running in my iPadPro's browser. Click on the Play button above to start the Drag-n-Drop video.


  • Finds stuff for you: Your chosen Nav App should have offline Maps with good, up to date, Point-of-Interest (POI) data that is easy to search. When your smartphone/tablet has a network connection, many Nav App's can search both the offline maps you have installed as well as online resources . ✓CHECK


    Click on the Play button above to start the Seach video.

  • Import, Create and Navigate Waypoints and Tracks: The most common file type for sharing Navigation data is GPX (The GPS Exchange Format) and your chosen App must be able to import and properly recognize the standard data types within a GPX file: Waypoints and Tracks. A Track should be able to be followed, at a minimum, on the map. Some of the better App's should be able to actually navigate the Track providing you with additional routing data - much like you would get from a network connected App like Apple Maps or Google Maps. To learn more about Tracks, and the other GPX data types, have a look at my article Routes, Tracks, Waypoints ✓CHECK

  • Record and save your ride path: Your App must be able to record your Trip. This is important for a number of reasons but number one is your safety - you'll never be lost since your App has recorded and saved a bread-crumb-trail for you to follow back to your starting point. ✓CHECK

  • Share ride data: Your chosen Nav App and smartphone should be capable of sharing (exporting) a GPX file with other devices by way of wireless file transfer (Bluetooth, WiFi) at a minimum. Most high end phones can also share data by saving to removable microSD Card - just in case your riding companions standalone GPS isn't capable of sharing wirelessly, they usually do have removable microSD Cards. ✓CHECK

  • Portable, ruggedized and waterproof: Todays high end smartphones are more durable and many are water and dust proof at least to an IP68 specification level. If your chosen smartphone isn't up to that level of durability, a rugged, waterproof case will take care of this requirement. The right case can also provide a good mounting platform: for example a Quadlock Case, though not waterproof does offer a very good mounting system. Quad Lock's Vibration Damper Mount might also be a good option for those smartphones that have Camera Image Stabilization. I've used three different iPhones (XS, 11ProMax, 13ProMax) on my bike for many thousands of miles with no issues and I don't use a vibration damper. I do mount my iphone up on the BMW Nav Prep Crossbar above the instruments which provides a reasonable amount of vibration damping. If you need to mount your phone at the handlebar, I would recommend using a vibration damper. ✓CHECK


  • Powered by Battery and external 12VDC: Of course all smartphones have batteries and most smartphones have the ability to charge via a USB port and/or via Wireless Charger. Since my iPhone's are water and dust resistant I use a Quad Lock case and Wireless Charging Mount on the bike. Using Wireless Charging I don't need to plug a USB/Lightning cable into my iPhone while on the bike or in the car - where I use the same mount. ✓CHECK




    Quad Lock Wireless Mount


  • Screen is Viewable & Glove Friendly: For years most standalone GPSr's have had rather small screens but the newer offerings have moved up to between 5.5in (140mm) and ~7in (178mm) diagonal screen sizes. The larger smartphone's today have between 6in and 6.7in (170mm) diagonal screens. Then there are tablets - with screens from 7in to 10in diagonally. I personally find that screens larger than 7in (178mm) are to distracting. But, for Trip Planning, I do carry a 12.9in M1 iPadPro with me on long trips.


    In years past most GPS devices were hard to see in bright sunlight conditions. Some of the newer offerings are much better but they come with a similar high end price to smartphones. Smartphones and tablets also had the same issues until the last few years. Newer high end mobile devices have more than adequate outdoor brightness: for example, my iPhone 13Pro Max has between 800-1200nit brightness - much brighter than any standalone GPSr product on the market today.


    When it comes to screen interaction, there are two aspects to Glove Friendly. First, your Nav App's User Interface should be designed well for using gloves. Are the on-screen buttons large enough and spaced far enough appart to allow you to interact while waring gloves. Second, your gloves may need to have touchscreen activating material - at least on the index finger and thumb. The very tips of the fingers and thumb should also be touch-active because trying to touch a small on-screen button with the flat of a finger or thumb is very hit & miss. So, I look for gloves that meet my riding needs - Summer, Rain, Winter, more Rain - and have the finger & thumb pads and tips made with touch-active material. I'm giving this bullet a CHECK since there are many gloves available to choose from today that are touch-active. You can also use products like AnyGlove for Leather to augment the finger tips of touch-active gloves as well as make non-touch-active gloves touch-active. ✓CHECK




    It's easier with touch-active finger tips.



  • Software is user updatable: All mobile Apps are by design updatable and it can take place anywhere you have a network connection - no special updating software or connection to a Windows or Mac computer required. If your Nav/Planning App developer doesn't update your App(s) on a regular basis, I would suggest moving to an App that does update regularly. ✓CHECK


  • Optional World Wide Routable Maps and Map Types: All mobile Nav Apps either have preloaded Maps for a particular region or offer them for additional purchase. The maps used are usually the first thing I look at from a mobile Navigation App. Here and TomTom map products cover much, but not all, of the world. They usually have good, to sometimes just OK, data. I prefer Apps that use maps that cover the world so I typically rely upon Apps that use OSM maps (OpenStreetMap). Even if your favorite App uses OSM maps, you should still evaluate how the OSM map's appearance has been implemented - not all are equal - and we all have our own visual requirements. I prefer a Nav App that has Map Style options. These various styles might include Topo & Hillshading as well as various colorations for better contrast in bright sunlight. ✓CHECK


Pricing is the first or maybe second thing most of us look at when it comes to mobile Apps. For me, it's the second thing right after all of the features listed above.


Some Mobile Nav Apps are free to download but usually have a cost for Maps or additional "Pro" features. This is an area that deserves a closer look by you. I normally pay the minimum (usually Monthly) price for the "Pro" features and a small map area so I can evaluate the features and map style/detail that is most important to me.


My three favorite Nav Apps can be seen below. Scenic uses Here Maps and as long as I'm traveling in North America it is my go to Nav App. Outside of North America, I mostly rely upon the OsmAnd App and I duplicate my travel data in Guru Maps Pro and Scenic as backup's. OsmAnd and Guru Maps both use OSM maps. OsmAnd has better looking maps but Guru Maps Pro has by far the better map panning and zooming performance. Both OsmAnd and Scenic have integration with the WunderLINQ App and hardware so I can use my BMW's Multicontroller (wunderwheel) to interact with the Nav App, when needed while riding, without removing my hands from the handlebar. Integration with WunderLINQ is a requirement for my primary Nav App's.




Scenic V3





Guru Maps Pro


In Summary


I certainly haven't covered anywhere near the abundance of potential mobile solutoins when it comes to phones, tablets, mounting hardware or navigation and trip planning applications. But, I hope you get the idea that if you use the above criteria in configuring a solution that works for you, the answer to my opening question is that you don't need a standalone GPSr. Do your homework and pick the one(s) that fit your travels the best. Use them often and if, over time, they can't keep up with your needs there will surely be a solution that can.



Current Recommended List:

  • Your chosen mobile device and Nav App solution - that meets the above Basic Criteria
  • Garmin GPSMAP 276Cx
  • BMW Motorrad Navigator IV, V, VI
  • Garmin zumo™ 39x, 59x Series, XT
  • Garmin Montana 600 & 700 Series

Good Navigating.






Dan Townsley - All Things GPS



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