A Whole Bunch of Stuff
You Should Know About Using a GPS on a Motorcycle

How GPS Works


I'm fully aware there are riders who think using a GPS on two wheels should be limited to  Goldwings ,  1200LT's, Ventures and maybe the odd sport tourer and that they have no business being on a cruiser or light tourer.   If you're one of those then what the heck are you doing reading this page?   Go away! <grins>

Since you're still here I'll assume you're either thinking about investing in a GPS or already have one.  This page will be targeted more toward the former but you never know when you might find something new on the subject.

For Starters how about a list of reasons you might want a GPS on your bike

If any of the above sound like you then read on.  Please know there will be some generalizations.  Some GPS units are far more capable than others.  I'll try to remember to note differences when necessary but basically some units will give you elevation, others will not.  Some units will automatically design a route for you and allow you to input your own 'points of interest' others will not.  Some have hard drives (avoiding these on a bike is a wise idea) others hold maps on internal memory and memory cards you can add.   Some units will fit in your pocket and have internal power while others are made specifically for use on (or in) a vehicle and use 12 volt battery power.    Shop carefully and decide exactly what you want and need in a GPS before plunking your money down.  Also shop, shop shop!  There can be variations in the hundreds of dollars between the MSRP and what some vendors actually sell these devices for, especially if you can find a remanufactured unit on E-Bay. 

So, what are some things you might want in a GPS?  For use on a bike you'll definitely want a fairly bright screen, don't go with anything that will wash out badly in the sun.   Be sure you can hit the buttons with gloves on.   You'll probably want to be able to upload routes with waypoints from a computer.   Do you want voice prompts for turns?   Will you be happy enough with a unit that tells you "turn left in X feet/miles" or do you want the voice to actually provide street names?    Will you be able to hear the voice on a bike?  If so you'll probably need a GPS with Bluetooth or a phone jack for remote speakers (in your helmet works really well).   Some have altimeters some don't, some are water proof most aren't.   Is there a way to mount the unit on your handlebars?

Let's Start Shopping

I'm going to focus on Garmin products primarily because I've had several and am familiar with their features    Garmin's are very robust, have excellent technical support and arguably the best maps available.  I have no experience with Magellan or Tom-Tom or any other brand GPS so just use the following as a general guide and shop those brands too.  Just keep in mind it's likely a GPS on a bike will be dealing with vibration, harsh road conditions and weather.  Make sure there is a way to mount the unit you're looking at on a bike (more on that later).

For starters there is the excellent and very low priced Garmin StreetPilot i2 .  You don't get a whole lot of bells and whistles but you do get a complete and detailed map of the U.S, auto routing, voice guidance and (as with all that will be mentioned here) a built in list of fuel stops, restaurants, hostelries and even parks and museums.  The screen is monochrome.   A major upside of the "i" series is its size, about the same as a hardball.

A step up from the i2 is the StreetPilot i3 which adds a color screen and then the StreetPilot i5 which adds more features.   Take a look at the linked pages, note the features and start making a list of those that appeal to you.  None of the above are water proof.

From the "I" series Garmin moves up to the "C" series beginning with the StreetPilot C320    That is the one  most recommended for motorcycles because the other "C" series units have built in hard drives which are susceptible to vibration damage.   I'm sure there are riders out there who have thousands of miles on hard drive based units but why take the chance when card memory is so inexpensive and you can get all of the U.S. and Canada inside a 2 gig chip?   There are two problems for riders with the 320 series.  The screen washes out badly in direct sunlight.  There are sun shades available to combat this problem.  The unit is not water resistant.  The speakers are open to the elements and 'could' in some situations allow water to work its way into the case.   If you only ride when the weather is fair then this won't be a problem but if the H20 begins falling on a ride, you'd want to stash the unit in a saddlebag away from harm.

All of the above GPS units will auto route.  You tell it where you want to go inputting address information or letting the GPS question you about 'what' you're looking for "Motel 6? Right this way sir".  The above units will 'not' let you insert your own points of interest (stopping places) along a route.  That means if you're going to be doing 500 miles one day and you need fuel every 100 you'll have to input five separate routes beginning at a gas station and ending at a gas station.  The GPS will find those for you and it doesn't take much time or effort to do this, just something to think about.   

From the "C" series the next step up at Garmin is the Quest series   and is among those recommended by Garmin for use on a motorcycle. This GPS doesn't have the touch screen of the "I", "C" or some other series but the buttons are very intuitive and not a problem to use with gloves.  A major upside of the Quest is its internal battery that lets you take it off the bike and into your hotel room to plan a next days route.  The Quest screen does not wash out badly in the sun.

Next step is the 26??/27?? series.  Entry level here is the very capable and tried and true StreetPilot 2610 This is a huge favorite of tourers for its ease of use, bright (even in the sun) screen, touch screen controls and its capabilities.  This unit will run several trip odometers for you (simultaneously), is extremely accurate and you can configure the map screen to suit your riding style with pop up tabs showing you things like speed, time, altitude, neighborhood addresses along with (when auto routing) pop up windows showing you when and where to turn.  As with the other units mentioned above there is voice prompting if you choose to use it.    If you use your bike to commute you might want to look at the StreetPilot 2720 with its traffic notification capability or the super feature rich (and pricey) StreetPilot 2730 with built in Satellite radio receiver and MP3 player.   At that point we've even reached gadget saturation for me!  The StreetPilot 2820 adds Bluetooth hands free phone communication.  Do you really want to talk on the phone while you're riding a bike? 

/files/includes/images/garmin_zumo.jpg (18808 bytes)With new models coming out on a regular basis there's no way this page /files/includes/images/tomtom_rider.jpg (37342 bytes) will keep up with them.  For other options check Garmin's websiteMagellan's Website is here and Tom Tom .   Both Garmin and Tom Tom now have a GPS specifically for motorcycles and they have obviously listened to riders about what they need.  Garmin's "Zumo"  (picture left) has become very popular with riders thanks to it's large buttons suitable for use with gloves on, big bright screen and other features that motorcyclists really appreciate.   Tom Tom's "Rider" (picture right) was also designed with input from riders.

Once you've zeroed in on the model that best suits your needs and bank account I'd suggest checking E-Bay and other online shopping outlets for pricing.  This is a very competitive market and there are bargains to be had.  Occasionally you'll find a unit that someone purchased for a single cross country trip selling at a substantial discount.  Grab it!  These things don't wear out. Just be sure, if you purchase on E-Bay you are buying everything that was originally in the box.   Once in awhile sellers omit power cords, remotes and even software.   

Mounting The GPS On Your Bike

Garmin produces excellent and very robust motorcycle cradles for many of its products and most work hand in hand with mounts made by RAM    At this point you have more decisions to make.  Can you live with a "U" bolt around your handlebar or do you want something more elegant (and probably a couple of more $$).   You can visit RAM and browse their catalog directly or check out GPS City for very competitive pricing and a complete line of GPS related products.

The Cadillac (Lexus?) of mounts is made by Touratech   You might be holding your heart when you see the pricing but these are absolutely elegant, usually aluminum and/or stainless mounts.   This is the mount you want when only the best will do.  Touratech might not have mounting solutions for all the GPS's mentioned above.

Powering The GPS On Your Bike

As mentioned previously, some units have built in batteries (or take standard AA or AAA alkalines) but you really don't want to run on internal batteries when the unit is mounted.  They're usually only good for 4-6 hours.   Almost all GPS's designed for vehicle use come with a 12 volt plug so you can just use your car battery.  And on your bike?  Sometimes that's a little problem.  The best solution is to find a spot where you can mount a standard female 12 volt power outlet.  Sometimes (if the GPS gets power via a USB plug) this is the ONLY solution since there's almost always a transformer inside the plug to reduce actual output to 5 volts.   Cutting the wire to the plug and hard wiring to your bikes systems can and probably will fry the GPS.   

You can find weather sealed 12 volt outlets at most any auto supply store, even Wal-Mart.  Get a little creative with your mounting solution for the socket considering every bolt on your steering head is a likely suspect.   Usually mounting to a windshield bracket is fairly simple /files/includes/images/gpsbracket3.jpg (34123 bytes)

If your GPS really uses 12 volt power (the owners manual specifications page will tell you) you can hardwire a harness to your bike's OEM accessory outlet or, if you can find one, any wire that is always hot in the headlight bucket.    You DO want the connection to be powered at all times if you're on a trip.  As long as the GPS is powered up it is keeping track of your actual time on the road, stopped time, average trip speed/time, total trip time etc.

Security For Your GPS

If you weren't a little concerned about your GPS being mounted on handlebars for all the world to see and some thief to try ripping off I'd have to say you're either a little nuts or have way too much money.  These things are expensive and they are very desirable.  Probably 99.9% of people who walk past your bike would see the GPS think "cool!" take a closer look (but not touch) and go on their way.  It's those darn one tenth of a percenters you've got to worry about.   


Be proactive about keeping your GPS out of view.  If you have a riding jacket or suit, drape it over your windshield and the GPS when you park.  Nobody is going to want your grungy old clothes.   If you have a bike cover, even a small half cover, use it at least to cover your seat (everyone will think you're just trying to keep it cool) and instruments along with the GPS.   Of course you could always remove the GPS from its mount every stop.  That's probably the preferred method but it'll stop keeping your travel data while unplugged and in your saddlebag.  If you can live with that then by all means, lock it away out of sight.

RAM is helping with security by offering locking knobs   for its mounting arms and Garmin has security screws that require a special type screwdriver on some of its mounts to prevent easy removal. 

Speaking of removal.  If you worry about your expensive GPS hopping out of its cradle (a higher possibility for off roaders) you can devise your own tether.  Check This Gadget Page for an idea or two.

Maps and Memory

The various makes and models all use different configurations to make map details available to the user.  Some have an internal hard drive with all the detailed maps (usually) pre-loaded by the manufacturer.  Others are supplied with mapping software (either on CD or DVD) that you load onto a chip of one kind or another.  Some use SD (secure digital) chips while others use larger CF (compact flash) memory.    After reading quite a few reports on various GPS forums I've learned there is a difference in speed when using those memory chips.  Long story short, you usually get what you pay for.  An example (there are many other manufacturers).  SanDisk makes two frequently used qualities of chip the "Standard"   and the "Extreme"    In timed tests the Extreme seems to outpace the standard by a large margin when asking the GPS to create routes.

For some odd reason, SD memory chips are frequently sold at prices below their much larger CF card cousins for comparable memory size.  Result, I found myself with a couple of 1 gig SD chips for my digital camera which would have been great for holding map information for my 2610. Unfortunately the Garmin uses the larger CF cards. 

To the rescue, an adapter card.  These puppies are hard to find.  I ordered one from an E-Bay vendor in Hong Kong. (go to E-Bay and search for "sd to cf adapter" )  I used a card reader to load almost the entire U.S. map onto the little SD chip. That was inserted completely into the CF II adapter which went into the 2610 no muss no fuss.  The first time I turned on the GPS with its new memory configuration I saw a message that indicated maps were being loaded. I'd never seen that one before and it turns out it only happens once.

Once the GPS was up and running I went into the options area and actually 'un' checked the majority of loaded maps since I'm really only interested at the moment in California/Arizona/ Nevada roads. My 'theory' is that with most of the mapping turned off access might be a little faster for those areas left active.  The user can always turn the map 'blocks' on again if needed.

Is there any speed difference loading routes? I haven't held a stop watch on it but if there 'is' any difference using the adapter it isn't obvious. Bottom line, if you already have SD memory you 'can' use it in your Garmin. The CF II adapters work fine.

Final Thoughts

A GPS mounted on a bike really can be a huge help when touring but it can also be the path to serious injury or worse.   Many Garmin models designed for vehicle use have a "safe" mode that disables some functions when the vehicle is moving.  I would STRONGLY suggest leaving safe mode turned on.   The protected functions often require a lot of attention which is time and focus you're not using on the road and that is a path to disaster.   Other than pushing a button to change screens leave everything else alone until you can pull over and safely devote your time and attention to the GPS.     I'd suggest the same for cell phones but that's a whole other issue.  Same reasoning though.  Anything that detracts or distracts from your absolute focus on the road and traffic conditions around you could kill you.  Nuff said.