Cheap Motorcycle GPS - How to Make One Using an iPhone for Under $150

Hitcase Pro with Iphone 5 and MotionX GPS
Article By:
Chris McNamara
Founder and Editor-in-Chief
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Monday


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Below is how to make an effective GPS for your bike or motorcycle for under $100.

First, a little Q and A:

Q: Why do I need a GPS?
A: You don't need one. Folks have been riding trails for decades without them aided by maps and or intuition. But many maps, especially for skinny dirt trails, are not the most detailed, and a GPS when used effectively can get you out of a jam. If you are riding dirt and want to follow a complicated track a GPS is all but mandatory unless your trail has road maps.

Q: Will the setup described below work for a standard bicycle?
A: Absolutely. However, the power options are more limited because there is no motorcycle battery to connect to.

Q: What are the pros and cons of a smartphone over a standard GPS?

Pros
  • you save money: a typical Garmin unit runs $500 and, perhaps more importantly, the mount can cost more than $500 and require time-consuming installation.
  • you save weight: the handlebar mount for the motorcycle GPS, case and phone weigh well less than a pound. And since you probably take your phone with you riding anyway, you could argue the weight of the phone doesn't need to be counted (although weight on the handlebars is different than the weight of the iPhone in your pocket).
  • the smartphone apps can be loaded with satellite images, which are very useful when you find intersections not shown on a map.
  • you can load tracks while riding or at base camp. Garmin units generally require a computer to load tracks.
  • it's relatively cheap and easy to connect your battery to your smartphone (see below).

Cons
  • Smartphones can have a very short battery life if you do not take steps to conserve power. Here is a good article for iOS7 phones. Alternatively, you can add power using the info below.
  • an iPhone can break off and get lost if you have a poor handlebar mount.
  • It takes some time to get everything set up; probably 30 minutes on the bike and maybe an hour with your computer and smartphone to set things up and then load the tracks you need. You could argue that it takes as much or more time to install and configure the comparable Garmin system.

There are 5 key parts of a cheap motorcycle GPS:
1) Smartphone
2) GPS App
3) Burly Case For iPhone
4) Backup power source or battery to USB charger
5) And, of course, tracks to follow

1) Smartphone - iPhone 5, 6 or 6+
The iPhone works well. More importantly MotionX GPS is not available on Droid. This forum thread at ADVrider.com has some suggestions for Android users.

2) GPS App - MotionX GPS
So far it's the best app we have seen because:
  • you can easily load tracks. See this article Those directions only work for .gpx files. If someone sends you a Garmin .gdb file, you will need to convert it to .gpx. This tutorial shows 3 ways. However, the first way says to use MapSource, which only works on Windows computers. For Macs, follow the same instructions, using Garmin BaseCamp. (download here )
  • you can download many layers, including topo maps, aerial photos, etc. and most importantly, save them on your phone for offline use.

I Always pre-download three layers for offline use:
  • Motion X Terrain (shows many OHV trails)
  • Satellite Imagery
  • USGS Topo Maps (shows much more detailed contour lines than Motion X Terrain and old 4 x 4 roads)

NOTE: MotionX does not automatically come with satellite or USGS Topo maps that can download for offline use. You need to follow these steps:
1) In the MotionX app, go to Setup and then Purchases. Purchase the ability to add custom map URL's for $4.99.
2) Follow the steps at this article . It's written for the MotionX HD iPad app but 90 percent of the instructions work for iPhones. Use your intuition for the other 10 percent.
3) The satellite maps source I use is USGS World. You will need to cut and paste this URL into MotionX http://services.arcgisonline.com/ArcGIS/rest/services/World_Imagery/MapServer/tile/[Z]/[Y]/[X].

for USGS Maps, I use USA Topo and this URL
http://services.arcgisonline.com/ArcGIS/rest/services/USA_Topo_Maps/MapServer/tile/[Z]/[Y]/[X]

Be very careful when cutting and pasting the URL. Just one bad character and you will get the dreaded "no map data" screen.

Where to store tracks?
I use Google Drive to organize tracks. With the Drive App for iPhone/iPad, hold your finger down on the file and a window pops up giving you the option to open that file in MotionX GPS).

The Importance of Offline Use
When you need MotionX the most, you may not have internet access. It's crucial to have maps downloaded before your ride and that you downloaded the right amount of detail (the app default saves storage space by downloading less tiles - we recommend downloading as much detail as possible). Of all the layers, the satellite image is probably the most important for getting you out of jams as trail maps and USGS maps usually lack all the off-route trails. A good satellite image tells you that the fork to the left dead ends in a 1.4 mile.

Example of How Satellite Images Save Your Butt
The screen shot below shows how satellite images can save you: I was riding a single track at Cow Mountain (coming down from the upper left corner of the screen). I did not have a track so was following the OHV map. When I got to junction, I went right but quickly felt like something was wrong. I looked at satellite image and could quickly see the section I just rode had three variations and I was now backtracking on an alternate variation. I was able to correct course and avoid other trail variations not shown on the OHV map that would have had me going in circles.

Cow Mountain
Cow Mountain

Another example, on a previous trip, we got to drainage and the BLM OHV map clearly said go right. We went right but the trail started disappearing. We should have turned around immediately but we were so confident in the OHV map and lacked offline satellite images (there was no cell service) that we continued on and on for an hour…creeping at a snail's pace as we were unsure whether to turn back or press on at each junction where the trail got more faded. Water, gas and endurance began to run low. When the trail vanished we realized the map was dead wrong: it should have shown us going to the left. We backtracked and got back to the car. With a satellite image, we would've easily seen the correct way at first moment of doubt.

Remember, unless you follow the battery savings tips at the link above, you may only get an hour or two of battery life. Use the battery tips, and get 4+ hours of use and recharge your phone from an external USB battery or Solar Charger when necessary.

3) Burly Case - BikeConsole
The iBikeConsole is not only our favorite option, it's one of the least expensive. It has some big advantages over the Hitcase (described below): it doesn't require an extra bike mount, has an easy way to plug into your cell phone charger and is over a hundred dollars less expensive. The downside is it doesn't come on and off you bike easily so you can't easily use your phone to take photos, video, etc as you can with the HitCase. Note that BikeConsole makes a model with a battery. The pros of this are you get more charge and don't have to wire the device to your battery. The downside is that you can no longer plug your charger directly into the case.

Our favorite case for also being able to shoot video is the Hitcase Pro for iPhone 5. It's burly, slides on and off your bike easily (handy for handing off the phone to a friend to look at the map). It is also compatible with all GoPro mounts.
HitCase Pro on handlebars of a 2014 KTM 500 EXC
HitCase Pro on handlebars of a 2014 KTM 500 EXC

If you go with the HitCase, you will need a handlebar mount. Our current favorite is K-EDGE GO BIG because it's lightweight and burly. Most other handlebar mounts are very bulky. We thought we liked this mount , but it broke on the first ride (and nearly lost the iPhone!). We had to add in some weather stripping as padding to make it fit right.
K-edge handlebar mount
K-edge handlebar mount

4) Power Source
The best option is to wire your battery to your phone by:
a) - installing a Battery Tender Junior - has an SAE connection
b) - buying a Battery Tender Quick Disconnect Plug with USB
c) run a USB cable for your phone from under your seat, around your gas tank and to the GPS mount.

NOTE: the USB adapter may slowly draw power, so you need to disconnect it and/or plug in your battery tender with not riding for a week or more.

External Battery Power Backup (optional)
We high recommend either a solar charger or an external battery in case your phone battery drains faster than expected. See our current favorites in our external battery review and Solar Charger Reviews.

5)Tracks to Follow
Two great sources for dirt rides are GPSxchange.com and advrider.com


Checklist for before each ride
  • download base maps and satellite images for off-line use (do this over wifi, takes a long time over cell signal)
  • follow the battery saving tips linked to above
  • make sure mount is solid
  • bring backup power source for iPhone
  • make sure tracks are in a format your App will recognize

Chris McNamara at Big Sur  2008
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Chris is the founder of OutdoorGearLab and serves as Editor-in-Chief. Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara's life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris' sanity. He's climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, "Why?" Outside Magazine has called Chris one of "the world's finest aid climbers." He's the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 14,000 dangerous anchor bolts. Chris is also the founder and lead author of the rock climbing guidebooks publisher, SuperTopo. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also has two Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals here and here.
 
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