If you are considering buying a GPS unit and placing it onto the handlebars of your dirt bike, it is always best to research the technology first so you get a better understanding of what you actually need the most so you can make a better informed purchasing decision.
I have used GPS units on my dirt bikes for the past 10 years now and I can tell you that they have come a long long way in technology, strength and efficiency.
GPS units these days are full of cool features like compasses, weather reports, cameras, calculators and wifi sharing which are all very cool.
But it’s important to know what is absolutely necessary and what is just ‘fluffy dice’.
Garmin Montana mounted on a KTM 690
Over the years I’ve figured out the important GPS stuff and so this article details those essential tips and ‘must haves’ that you need to know before spending your hard earned cash on a shiny new GPS unit.
Also, if you want to check out my reviews based on the GPS units myself and my friends have used over the years, have a read of my GPS for dirt bike reviews article here.
#1 Make sure you buy the right accessories to suit your GPS as they do not come with the unit.
#2 Make sure the warranty is solid with the retailer and have a chat with them first so you fully understand the warranty.
#3 GPS units need to be IPx7 waterproof, shockproof and built tough to take punishment that only a dirt bike can deliver.
#4 Make sure that the GPS unit you purchase can be operated with gloves on and not just the touch of a fingerprint like a smartphone.
#5 Make sure the screen is large and bright so you can see it easily in direct sunlight.
#6 Both GPS and GLONASS will increase coverage and really helps when you are riding under the cover of trees.
#7 The GPS unit needs to have topographical mapping so you can view the terrain ahead of you.
#8 The GPS unit should support at least 1000 way-points for longer journeys.
#9 The GPS unit needs to support GPX files.
#10 By hard-wiring the GPS cradle to your dirt bike you won’t have to worry about keeping fresh batteries.
#11 Learning how to upload GPX files to your GPS unit will let you discover other undiscovered trails in your area and abroad.
#12 Garmin software is not like smartphone software and so it pays to spend some time learning how to use it.
#13 Learning the difference between way-points, routes, tracks, icons and points of interest is really important.
#14 GPS units have more features than dirt bikers will ever need so don’t worry about learning all of it. Just learn the essentials.
#15 Keep your eyes on the road. All the tech won’t be able to help you if you’ve crashed badly at high speed from looking at the screen and not on the trail. Stay safe!
#1 Buy the Right Accessories.
When you buy a GPS system they don;t come with the essentials.
You will need to buy them all separately. Here is a quick list of the accessories you will need with your purchase –
→ SD Card
→ USB cable
→ Batteries – AA and Lithium ion
When you are purchasing your GPS unit, ask your retailer to help you with the right accessories and they will be able to help.
Also, the right GPS units come with basic handlebar mounts that work but are not adjustable. That is why I always recommend using the RAM GPS handlebar mounts.
I use RAM mounts to harness my GPS device to my handlebars. RAM make tough mounts that hold your GPS and smartphone no matter what! RAM make mounts for every popular model of GPS units and smartphones.
#2 A Good Warranty Policy from the Retailer.
Unfortunately GPS units aren’t perfect and they do freeze and fuck up from time to time.
This means that if your GPS unit breaks down, you need to be able to get it back to the authorized retailer and they need to take care of the rest as quickly as possible.
So before you purchase the GPS unit for your dirt bike, have a quick chat to the retailer that you are purchasing it from and make sure that they have a clear understanding of their warranty responsibilities.
If they don’t clearly understand the warranty for their GPS products or dodge the question altogether, you are in for big headaches if it ever comes time to use your warranty.
#3 It Needs to be Waterproof, Shockproof and Really Tough.
I don’t need to tell you how much punishment a dirt bike receives on an average ride.
Those impact forces and massive vibrations run through the entire bike and especially into the handlebars.
Watch how the professionals setup GPS devices for use in the World Enduro Super Series –
This means then that a GPS unit needs to be able to handle this sort of impact, shock and vibration on an ongoing basis with ease.
Also, your GPS unit is going to get wet. That is a guarantee.
If the GPS unit is not completely waterproof then don’t buy it, it’s just not worth it in the end.
When shopping for GPS units, always look for the IPx7 standard.
The IPx7 standard basically means that you can drop the GPS unit into water to a depth of a meter for 30 minutes and it won’t affect the unit in any way.
#4 GPS for dirt bikes. It has to be Glove Friendly.
Being out riding and having to take off your gloves every time you want to use the GPS is a real pain in the ass.
Unlike smartphones and tablets where the screens respond to the touch of a finger, some GPS devices are designed to operate when the user is wearing gloves.
Always check this because it’s a really important and essential feature.
#5 A Big Bright Screen That You Can See Through Sunlight.
In my opinion, the larger the screen, the better because you will be able to see it better when you are glancing at it quickly while in motion.
Also, the screen has to be bright enough to see even when the sun is shining directly on it.
If you can’t see the screen because it is too small or not bright enough you will be forced to pull over and find a shady spot to view the screen.
Ain’t nobody got time for that!!
#6 GPS and GLONASS Support.
I cover this in my history of GPS article here but basically, GLONASS is the Russian version of the GPS satellite tracking system.
They both work the same way and have roughly the same amount of satellites in the sky except that the GLONASS system works a little bit better when you are under the filtered cover of trees.
When a GPS unit supports both systems, it means that you will get better coverage, 20% better in fact according to Garmin.
What this means is that you will experience less drop outs when you are riding under the cover of trees or in canyons, which can mean the difference between taking the right route or taking the wrong one.
#7 Topographical Maps Support.
Topographical (topo) mapping is just so important for dirt bike riding.
It is one thing to be able to follow a simple GPS line on a screen, but following that same line that shows hills, mountains, canyons, ditches, rivers, waterways, and other types of terrain is a whole different story.
It is this terrain and elevation information in either 3D or 2D which tells you the type of terrain to expect and the obstacles that are coming up in front of you.
This data is essential to dirt bike riding because you get a better lay of the land to make much better informed riding decisions.
Not only that, topo mapping allows you to view every point of interest in your area and lets you create way-points so you can plan your trip.
Topographical mapping software should be free and comes standard with your GPS unit.
#8 The GPS Unit needs to Record at Least 2000 Way-points.
I have used some GPS units that don’t record way-points or only record a few.
I scratch my head when I see this because all serious dirt bike riders will need to record hundreds of way-points on their trail riding adventures across plenty of topo maps.
Basically what this means is that the GPS unit needs to have plenty of memory to be able to store valuable data without being restricted in any way.
#9 GPX files Support.
GPX files are mapping data files of trails that have been created by other people in their GPS units.
This means that if your GPS unit supports it, you can experience other people’s trail discoveries and also build your own for sharing.
This opens up a whole new world of undiscovered trails for riders to explore and the really good news is that the GPX files are mostly free to get!
To get these GPX files you simply download them from selected dirt bike websites around the internet.
Lucky for you guys I have scoured the internet and assembled together the best free (and paid) websites that offer GPX files for download for dirt bikes only, and placed them all in my GPX files for download list article here.
Thank me later!
Ok so those were my GPS unit ‘must haves’. If you lack any of these then your GPS experience will suffer.
Now that I have taken care of that, I will move onto my…
5 Handy Tips for Using GPS Units on Your Dirt Bike
#10 Hard-wire the GPS Cradle to Your Dirt Bike.
Okay, so Garmin claim that you can get up to 16 hours of life out of AA batteries and 22 hours from the lithium ion batteries. (Garmin 680t)
Realistically though, cut these estimates in half as this is all you will get from GPS units.
GPS units burn through power like crazy and batteries aren’t ideal.
By hard-wiring your GPS cradle to your dirt bike and using rechargeable batteries you won’t ever have to worry about replacing flat batteries.
This one will require a bit of technical knowledge about the electricals of your dirt bike but if you don’t know how to do it, go see your local bike mechanic and they will be able to wire it up for you.
If you think this is the right path for you, just make sure that you don’t wire the GPS unit directly to the bike battery! This will keep your GPS unit on 24/7 and it will drain the battery if you don’t use the bike for a couple of days (learned that the hard way lol).
Instead, wire it to the ignition where the power will flow to the GPS only when the ignition is turned on. Alternatively you can install a waterproof on/off switch on the handlebars that will let you turn the GPS unit on or off manually.
#11 Learn how to Upload GPX files to your GPS unit.
Uploading somebody else’s dirt bike adventure trails into your GPS system is fun and you will be surprised at just how many there are.
To figure out how to do it, just connect your GPS unit to your computer via USB cable and watch a video or two that will show you how to do it. Here is a good video to show you how –
#12 Take Time to Familiarize Yourself with Garmin Software & Keep it Updated.
Garmin are by far and away the most experienced GPS unit makers and they know what serious outdoor adventurers require.
This means then that most likely you will buy a Garmin and if so, you need to learn the software.
Garmin has Basecamp which is their topo software. Here is a introduction video from Garmin.
The knowledge you gain from your learning time will become invaluable to you and your riding buddies when you are out on the trails.
#13 Learn the Difference Between Way-points, Points of Interest, Icons, Tracks and Routes.
The GPS information that you see on the screen is made up of a whole bunch of different bits of data that make up the total map.
The main ones are waypoints, points of interest (POI), icons, tracks and routes and you’ll need to know what each one is if you want to use the GPS unit properly.
I could explain it to you but I’ll leave it up to the real experts. So instead, here is a link that explains it all properly.
#14 GPS Units Have More Features Than You’ll Ever Need.
Every year it seems, the GPS manufacturers are trying to outdo themselves by adding in an ever growing list of features.
These include weather information, bluetooth for communications, group rider tracking, cameras, speedometers, sun and moon data, hunting season calendars and the list goes on.
Realistically, you won’t be using any of this shit for dirt biking so don’t worry too much about that.
Just focus on the main tools that get you from point A to point Z and the tips that I have written about in this article and you will do just fine.
#15 Keep Your Eyes on the F*ing Trail!
And lucky 15! Herald the trumpets because I’ve saved the best for last! And that is; if you are riding with a GPS unit..
Keep your eyes on the trail ahead of you and off the GPS unit!
You should only be looking at the GPS info when you are going really slow or have stopped completely.
I find it funny how the more technology helps us, the more it can hurt us as well. It’s a real paradox.
Seriously, I reckon the number of riders that have crashed from being distracted by the GPS screen is really high.
But they will never admit it because it’s way too embarrassing to mention 😀 Ouch.
I hope you liked my GPS essential tips and ‘must haves’. If you are looking to buy a GPS unit for your dirt bike, make sure you spend some time to understand the technology first so you can maximize your investment and use the GPS unit to its fullest extent.
What type of GPS unit do you have? Do you like it? What sort of problems have you had with it if at all? Let me know in the comments below and if you liked this article please give it a share on social media.
Title photo courtesy of Malcolm Smith Adventures.
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