A sequence of posts explaining George's approach to cycling with a (Garmin) GPS

Current status of the tutorials

The first three tutorials:

Tutorial 1 - Device selection and purchase

Tutorial 2 - acquiring and installing navigable maps

Tutorial 3 - Creating and using pre-planned routes

are now all completed as planned. Comments and queries welcome of course.

Tutorial 4 - Logging your rides and mapping/viewing them is in note form only.

It's all very much a 'pilot' course at present. I'm aware that the differences between different Garmin devices are likely to cause some difficulties. The material is all based on my Edge 605 at present. It should be fine for the Edge 705 too. When I started this I was naively assuming that Garmin would keep things as consistent as possible, but that doesn't seem to be the case.The Edge 800 certainly has differences. I hope to get hold of one myself soon to find out what the differences are. I'm not very familiar with non-cycling-specific Garmins.

Tutorial 1 - Device selection and purchase

A little consideration of your requirements should help you decide what kind of GPS you should buy. 

Questions about the requirements:

  1. Definitely want route navigation?
    'Yes' excludes devices such as the Garmin 500 that don't have map display in colour.
  2. Want heart rate and cadence monitoring?
    Yes means you need a device that picks up heart pulses from a chest strap.
  3. Dedicated cycling GPS or a general purpose 'outdoor' model?
    Dedicated ones have smaller screens but look right and don't fill up the handlebars. Some cycle-dedicated models can also do cadence and heart rate. General purpose models display more map, but not enough to get a good view of day's ride. I almost always use a paper map as well to provide a wider context.
  4. Map purchase
    Whatever the outcome of the above questions a big part of the price will be determined by whether you decide to buy proprietary maps (from Garmin) or use the excellent re-purposed OSM mapping data available from http://shop.opencyclemap.org/ In my view the opencyclemap is superior to Garmin's own, but OS mapping data is available for the latest Garmin (model 800) and you may prefer it for the detail it offers (at a high price and only for the UK). If you are going to use the opencyclemap, you should buy a 'bare' Garmin Edge 800 (£245 at http://www.handtec.co.uk/product.php/3510/garmin-edge-800 ) or one of the previous generation dedicated Garmins (Edge 605 or 705) which can still be had at bargain prices around £100. I have had a Garmin 605 for about 4 years and make a lot of use of it. The screen is a bit small but still very useable.

Postscript at April 2014:

Recently I've been recommending the Garmin Edge Touring model to my friends. It's a simplified version of the Edge 800 without any of the sport/training features. It seems to be priced at around £180 ukp without maps.

At the high end there is the Edge 810 at around £300 ukp. As well as the sport/training features it includes Bluetooth for pairing with smartphones to transfer routes to/from mapping apps on the phone.

Even if you get a Garmin without the sport/training features, you can use yor PC or Mac to upload your tracks to strava.com and compare them with your own and other performances.

All the Garmin devices have software/firmware issues which you have to learn to work around. The 800 may be better, I don't have direct experience, but I know that one of the major issues is still there.

And Garmin's proprietary software for PC and Mac is worse. In the next lesson we will learn that you don't need to install any of Garmin's proprietary software on your PC or Mac; open Internet tools are a better way to go.

Coursework

Become the owner of a Garmin cycling GPS or a suitable Outdoor GPS

We'll progress to the next lesson when a majority of the class are in posession of a Garmin GPS. I hope that will be possible by the end of August.

Tutorial 2 - acquiring and installing navigable maps

About digital maps and Garmin

The digital mapping files on Garmin devices contain two very different kinds of data that serve quite distinct purposes:

  1. Map image tiles
    Digital images that are used to present a view of the map around your current location. Since the maps are zoomable, the map data must include images for each available zoom level. (The images are stored in the form of a lot of 'tiles' - square .jpg images, each covering a small area. I only mention this for interest, you shouldn''t need  to know about the tiles).
  2. Geodata
    A description of the road (and track) network in the form of a linked network of geographic points, together with details of the type of each road and even their names. This data is used both to generate new routes, when needed, on the device itself and to give instructions for turns at junctions, etc.

Most of the types of digital map that we shall be discussing provide both kinds of data, but there is one type, called 'Topographic' or 'Topo' that do not include any road network data. Topo maps are intended for cross-country walking where roads are unimportant. They can be used for cycling navigation together with a pre-loaded route derived from a web mapping system, but the navigation instructions will be quite primitive (such as 'Go Southwest', etc. at every turn in the road, whether at a junction or not). Useful nevertheless if nothing better is available.

Sources for maps

Maps available from Garmin

Garmin offer several types of digital maps for use with their devices. We'll discuss the various types of Garmin-supplied maps here only briefly because my preference and the focus of this course is on the use of OpenStreetMap/OpenCycleMap as an alternative that offers some advantages, which in my opinion go well beyond the obvious cost savings.

Base map: The device itself  includes a 'base map' that is built-in. The base map includes only the network of major roads throughout Europe and a few large geographic features. It is very unsuitable for cycling use since hardly any of those roads are suitable for cycling and many prohibit cycling.

Topo maps: see above. The visual rendering isn't attractive, but the amount of detail is high. They're probably derived from Ordnance Survey in the UK, IGN in France, etc. No ge0data is included, as discussed above.

City Navigator maps: These are the same maps used in Garmin's car SatNav devices. They do include a lot of geodata as well as map tiles, but the geodata often leaves out key information useful for making good cycle routes, e.g. roads with cycle lanes, gaps in road barriers, off-road cycle trancs and the Sustrans routes in the UK.

Ordnance Survey maps: These have recently become available for use with Garmin devices, but amongst the cycle-specific devices only the Edge 800 is compatible with them. The map images are of the same very high quality as OS paper maps and they should include a quite a lot of the Sustrans National Cycle Network (as shown with green dots on OS maps).
I've no direct experience of using them. A friend who has been using an Edge 800 for a while tells me that the routes it generates (i.e. when making routes on the device itself are not good for cycling. That doesn't surprise me, because good cycle route generation requires a lot more information than just the well-known cycle routes.

OpenStreetMap/OpenCycleMap

OpenStreetMap is actually a very large geographic database generated and maintained by a huge number number of voluntary mappers. The database is stored on a set of internet servers and is updated continually by volunteers. (We'll say a bit more later about becoming an OSM mapper.  It's much easier than you might imagine and you can start by just adding a couple of features). The use of the OSM database and maps derived from it is entirely open and free (http://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright/. If you follow the link you will see that some data has also been contributed by national mapping agencies, including Ordnance Survey. Their contributions are under the same terms).

The OpenStreetMap database is used for many purposes. The most obvious one being the generation of maps for display on screens or for printing. The map that appears at http://www.openstreetmap.org/ site is just one of many different renderings. You can see some others by pulling down the menu at the top right under 'Standard'. One of those is 'Cycle Map' which is the result of an initiative to make sure that all the signed cycle routes (Sustrans, local authorities, etc.) are included and tagged as such in the OpenStreetMap database. You can access the same OpenCycleMap at http://www.opencyclemap.org/.

Another use for the OpenStreetMap database is to produce sets of map tiles and geodata for 'routing engines' and GPS devices (Garmins, phones, etc.) that are capable of calculating routes. There are quite a few sources for such datasets each with slightly different characteristics, but the most useful one (in my opinion) for cyclists was produced by same person who initiated the OpenCycleMap extensions to the OpenStreetMap database. His name is Andy Allan and he maintains an online shop where you can buy SD memory cards containing OpenCycleMap datasets for a range of European countries, specifically designed for use in Garmin devices. He also offers a wider range of datasets for download and copying onto your own SD card. At the time of writing there were SD cards available at £15.99 for:

  • UK + Ireland
  • Austria + Switzerland
  • Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg)
  • North Germany
  • South Germany

and downloads available at £9.99 for:

Possible issues with the use of OpenStreetMap/OpenCycleMap

  1. Completeness. The most obvious question is 'how complete and accurate can a map made by a load of volunteers be?' The answer, in my experience is extremely so for the UK and most of the parts of Europe I have cycled it, although there can be occasional glitches and missing features - even missing roads. Obviously I haven't done a comprehensive check and in any case features are being added and corrected all the time. In the UK the coverage seems better than 99% for roads and cycle tracks. The Netherlands is even better, thanks to a donation of data from the Dutch national mapping agency. I wouldn't expect the coverage in a remote part of Spain to be very complete (perhaps only 50% of rural roads were there the last time I was in Andalucia 3 years ago, on a quick check there seem to be >70% now). Surprisingly, when you're following a pre-planned route that you have download from a web mapping service, the absence of a small feature or a road from the map isn't a very major deal. You still see the route and your position on it against a background that includes most roads and other features, so decisions at intersections are still usually straghtforward.
  2. Glitches in the display and use of OSM/OCM data on Garmins. When navigating a route, the mauve line representing the route is sometimes temporarily obscured by a thick black line representing a road. The work-around is to zoom out until the mauve line reappears. These black lines shouldn't be there. They seem to be a consequence of the combination of OCM mapping and Garmin hardware.
  3. Issues when using routes provide by some routing engines. These may include false instructions to turn off onto a nearby parallel road and even false instructions to turn around and go back. This happens only very infrequently. It seems to be due to the way in which the Garmin tries to interpret the route and issue instructions. If it becomes a problem, you could switch off the turn instructions and just follow the route as it is shown on the map:

Settings > Routing > Guidance method > Off Road

Coursework

Acquire an OpenCycleMap SD card or a downloaded dataset and load it into your Garmin device.

To make the new map appear on your device, you may need to choose it:

Menu button > Settings > Map > Map Name > OpenCycleMap (select)

Note that the map doesn't look the same as the one at http://www.opencyclemap.org/. But it contains the same information, with a colour scheme and feature renderings determined by the Garmin.

Tutorial 3 - Creating and using pre-planned routes

Generating routes

Routing services

There are plenty of web sites offering cycling-specific mapping and many that offer automatic cycle route generation. It isn't our purpose here provide a comparative review of cycle routing services, so we'll just list a few salient facts about the two main options in the UK, cyclestreets.net and the recently-launched 'cycle directions' feature of Google Maps:

  • Routing services require the use of a comprehensive geographic database (see Tutorial 2). Good cycle routing depends on the availability in the geographic database of a lot of good cycle-specific mapping data for cycle lanes and tracks, cycle-permeable road barriers and so on.  
  • There are currently only two geographic databases available for use by internet-based mapping services:
    • The OpenStreetMap database which is cooperately generated and updated as descibed in Tutorial 2. It is available to routing and mapping services for free and unrestricted use. It used by the cyclestreets.net routing service.
    • The database underlying Google Maps, which is proprietary (it is comprised of geographic data licensed to Google by the various national mapping agencies such as Ordnance Survey supplement by data collected by others on behalf of Google). The Google mapping database is used by the directions features of maps.google.com, maps.google.co.uk and so on. 
    • Other geographic databases are owned by Garmin, TomTom and other companies and used in Garmin and other GPS hardware and software. They form the basis for most car satnav systems but they are not available to internet-based routing services and they do not include sufficient cycle-specific data to enable good cycle routing.
  •  The quality of cycle routes generated by a routing service depends on the completeness of the geographic database used and on the cleverness of the algorithms in the 'routing engine' - the software that generates routes.
  •  At present the routes generated by cyclestreets.net seem to be of higher quality. 
  • At the time of writing (August 2012) Cyclestreets has been offering cycle routes in the UK for more than 3 years and recently extended its routing service to cover most of Europe. Google had been offering biking directions in the US since 2010 and in July 2012 announced their extension Austria, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Drawing or tweaking the route

Fully automatic routing is the reason for the popularity of satnav devices for cars, but when we're on our bikes we're often interested in going via places that don't necessarily lie on the shortest route or even on the most cycle-friendly one. Fortunately you can generate routes by drawing them over an online map. It's best to use a mapping site where you can specify 'draw along roads' - so that the line you draw will automagically follow the road. Gpsies.com offers that capability as does the Google maps cloud service (aka 'My Places').

With the Google maps routefinding you can tweak an existing route by grabbing the line representing the route with the mouse and dragging it to a different road. Cyclestreets.net is due to launch a 'go via' capability that should achieve a similar result.

GPX files

Once you have generated a route, you need to save it as a GPX file suitable for loading into your Garmin. 

GPX is a file format used to hold descriptions of routes on maps. Garmin devices accept GPX files that can be used to navigate a specific route, but not all of the possible GPX file formats are fully compatible with Garmin devices. GPX can hold a variety of information defining a route or describing individual points (waymarks). We are interested mainly in its use to hold a sequence of trackpoints derived from a route shown on a digital map. By generating a GPX file containing a sequence of trackpoints that conforms to certain constraints we can be sure that the route we navigate on the device will be the same as the one we saw on the screen of our computer.

Most web mapping and routing sites offer the ability to save a route as a file on your computer in some variant of the GPX format, but not all fully compatible with Garmins and Google Maps saves routes only in KML format which must be converted to GPX.

The aim of this tutorial is to get you started on generating routes for your Garmin using whichever internet-based mapping or routing service you wish. We shall overcome the diversity of formats that they generate by using the gpsies.com web service to store all the routes we generate and download them whenever required in a fully Garmin-compatible GPX format.

At this stage you could make a start on the coursework at the end of this Tutorial by getting yourself an account on the gpsies.com site and taking a look around the site.

If you use cyclestreets.net to generate a route, you will see these two options on the page describing the route:

  • Icon View on larger map in GPSies
  • Icon GPS device export (GPX)

I recommend using the View on larger map in GPSies option to transfer the route to your gpsies.com account. Below is a screen grab of the gpsies.com page that you will see (in a new window) after selecting View on larger map in GPSies. To save it in your gpsies.com library use the modify track/save on GPSies button. On the next screen you should give it a name (by which it will be known in your list of routes on gpsies.com) and then click the Save on GPSies.com button. On the next and final screen you should choose an Activity type (cycling) and click on the Save button at the bottom of that screen. If that all sounded a bit long-winded, be assured that it's simple when you get used to it and the convenience of building up a route library at gpsies.com that you can share with others and refer back to is worth the effort.

 

If you have used maps.google.co.uk to generate a route, you will need to save the route in your Google 'My Places' library, then download it to your computer as a KML file (the only file format offered by Google Maps) and then upload that to gpsies.com.

Installing GPX files on your device

The instructions given here are based on the Garmin Edge 605 and 705. The Edge 800 and other Garmin devices will differ in some details.

Once you have a route in your gpsies.com account you can download it in precisely the format needed for navigation on your Garmin. 

So having stored a route on gpsies.com, how do we get it onto our Garmin device.
The screen grab below right illustrates how to get a route downloaded to your computer.  We have already selected the file type GPX Track and in the box that appears after clicking show options we have used the slider to reduce the number of track points that we will download below the Garmin device threshold of 1000. If we now click on the download button the route will be downloaded to your computer into whichever folder your browser normally puts downloaded files as a GPX track file.
The final step is to copy it from your computer on the Garmin. To do this, plug the Garmin into the computer using the USB cable. You should now see the Garmin as a device on the Desktop (with the name Garmin). Clicking on it will reveal its files, which should look like the screen grab below. The GPX track file should be copied into the folder Garmin/GPX, where two routes are shown already loaded on my device: Brighton-RyeViaLewis(revised).gpx and Swindon-Stroud(cyclestreetsShortened).gpx.
Once you have done that you can Eject (unmount) the Garmin device. Routes loaded into the device will remain until you delete them. The storage capacity of the device is sufficient to hold dozens of routes, but there is another reason for keeping the number down. They will all be listed in the menu of routes in the tiny Garmin screen whenever you go to select a route. Andthe names of the routes shown on the Garmin's screen are not the same as the file names! The name of a route in the device's route menu will be the name that appears inside the file between <name></name> tags, near the top of the file. GPSies will usually put a meaningful name there. If you want to modify the name, you can use a text editor to edit the string between the <name></name> tags before putting it onto the Garmin. This can be useful, for example when going on tour - I insert a 'day number' at the beginning of the name of each route so that they appear in the Garmin menu in day number order.
 
Additional info for Edge 800 users (courtesy of Shaun MacDonald):
The Garmin 800 stores route data as .fit files rather than TCX or GPX. Also you have to place it in the NewFiles folder, otherwise it won't pick up the new route properly nor reliably. Then on first boot it converts it to .fit and puts it into the right place in the memory after processing it. There is probably more to be said about this, but we'll have to wait for further feedback from Edge 800 owners. (Based on this review I have decided not to upgrade for now, see my comment at the bottom of Tutorial 1).
 

Using a route:

menu button > Where To? > Saved Rides
Choose a route by name if you have several loaded, then choose 'Navigate'

Coursework:

1. Set up an account on gpsies.com and familiarise yourself with the site's facilities.

2. Use cyclestreets.net to create a route and transfer it to gpsies.com as described above.

3. Get the route into your device and use it to navigate a bike ride.

Tutorial 4 - Logging your rides and mapping/viewing them

[This is an incomplete draft of the the tutorial in note form, to be completed.]

Making logs:

Use the 'start/stop' button to start logging. The next press of the same button will suspend logging and another press will continue the log in the same file. I tend to start a log at the beginning of the day and leave logging on because if I stop it during a break I often forget to restart.

To terminate the current log file and start a new one you have to use the confusingly-named 'Reset' function.  To do so, first use 'start/stop' to stop logging, then hold down the 'lap' button until the reset occurs. The current log file is closed and the next time you use 'start/stop' a new log will be started. Nothing else is altered.

Settings:

Menu button > Settings > Map > Lock On Road > Off
If this option isn't set the log can include a lot of erratic assumptions about which road you were on! I find that this option needs to be checked regularly - the device sometimes seems to set it to 'On' unprompted!

Accessing log files on the device connected by USB to your computer:

The logs are in:

Garmin > History

With names like this:

2012-07-09-09-59-16.tcx

You can copy them to your computer and/or upload them directly to a web mapping service.

[We will add material discussing the use of mapping services and the conversion of log files to navigable routes in a future tutorial.]

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