GPS Your Bike

Story by Costa Mouzouris//
January 1 2014

A global positioning system receiver, or GPS receiver, has become an indispensable tool for the travelling motorcyclist. GPS navigation was originally developed by the U.S. military, and became available to the public in the early 1980s. There’s still nothing better than a detailed map to help you visualize and plan a route; however, GPS has the capability to guide you to a destination, or allows you to program a ride route ahead of time, thus making navigation more convenient. It’s also useful if you experience a breakdown or are running low on gas. Its “points of interest” list includes gas stations and dealerships close to your current location. It’s also less cumbersome to use than a map, and you don’t have to constantly stop and look at it to get your bearings.

A GPS device receives signals from 24 navigational satellites orbiting the earth, and it uses triangulation to pinpoint its location on the globe. The modern GPS unit uses these coordinates to display your location on a digital image of a map, and it is this image that scrolls across the GPS screen as you travel. Simply put, it measures the distance the signal has travelled from each satellite and it calculates a precise location in latitude and longitude coordinates. A minimum of three satellites are needed to locate your GPS, though the unit is capable of picking up more, and the more satellites it picks up, the more accurate the reading will be.

GPS accuracy varies depending on signal strength and on the unit itself. Units with access to the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) offer position accuracy as low as two metres; non-WAAS devices, as low as 15 metres. WAAS is a system that provides signal corrections, thus enhancing accuracy, so look for it when shopping for a GPS unit.

GPS units can also calculate speed, distance travelled, elevation and the estimated arrival time to your selected destination. More elaborate systems allow you to plan your route, either using a computer or the unit itself.
When shopping, look for a GPS unit that offers automatic routing (it gives turn-by-turn directions), is programmable, and most importantly, is waterproof. There are different levels of waterproofing, identified by an IPX rating. The rating ranges from IPX0 (no waterproofing) to IPX8 (continuous submersion at more that one metre depth). Motorcycle units are rated IPX7, which means they can be submerged at a depth of up to one metre for 30 minutes. This is more than enough protection for riding in rain.

Garmin makes motorcycle GPS receivers, although they are expensive, ranging in price from $650 to more than $800. An alternative is to buy a handheld unit made for outdoor activities like hiking and hunting. These units are also rated IPX7, and they are rugged and programmable. They also cost several hundred dollars less than motorcycle-specific receivers, and mounting hardware is available. Their biggest disadvantages are small screens.

Another convenient feature is Bluetooth connectivity. Many aftermarket electronic accessories do not have Bluetooth capability, though they will allow Bluetooth integration through a Bluetooth-enabled GPS unit. This can be used to connect a Bluetooth helmet headset to a cell phone or other device.

Most GPS units come preloaded with detailed North American maps (except handheld units, which come with a base map). Also, look for units with external memory capability in the form of a memory card slot. This will allow you to load different maps. If you do get a handheld device, you’ll have to add detailed mapping, like Garmin’s City Navigator North America, which includes mapping for Canada, the United States and Mexico. You can also travel with your GPS by adding maps for Europe, South America or other regions. Mapping software starts at about $80, and lifetime update access will add about that much to the price.

You’ll also want the capability to update maps online through the manufacturer’s website, so your GPS will always contain the latest information on new roads and such. Note that maps are never up-to-the-minute accurate, and it may take some time before the new development around the corner from your home appears in your GPS. As mentioned, some units come with lifetime updates included in the purchase price, and this is the most cost-effective way to receive them.

A GPS unit is portable and can be used in any vehicle you own. Mounting hardware can be sourced through Ram Mounts ( for just about any application from bicycles to kayaks. Just make sure that it doesn’t interfere with the bike’s steering or make contact with a fairing.

When installing a GPS unit on your bike, I recommend using a switched power source instead of going directly to the battery, as this will power down the unit when the ignition switch is turned off, if you forget to turn it off. Also, always get into the habit of removing the unit from your bike when you park in public places; a thief can snap one off its mount in seconds.

I use a Garmin GPSmap 60Cx handheld unit mounted in a Ram Mounts cradle and ball-mount handlebar clamp. With the appropriate mapping, this unit has proven very useful in North America, Europe and Australia, and its mounting system easily transfers onto different motorcycles. Although a pair of AA batteries can power it for about two days, I have wired it to my bike using the PDM60 power distribution module (reviewed in Motorcycle Mojo May 2013).

Regardless of which GPS unit you use, I’d recommend the PDM60, as it eliminates the need for additional accessory outlets and fuses.

Even if you buy the latest feature-laden GPS unit, you should still pack a map; a paper backup has proven indispensible when a glitch put my GPS out of commission, or when you need to see the big picture.

Some excellent Canadian online sources for GPS hardware and software are in Calgary and in Toronto.

Technical articles are written purely as reference only and your motorcycle may require different procedures. You should be mechanically inclined to carry out your own maintenance and we recommend you contact your mechanic prior to performing any type of work on your bike.


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