George's Notes on GPS Navigation for Cyclists

Keywords: open source GPS, cycle route planning, Garmin Edge 205 305 605 705 800, Garmin ForeRunner

Previous title: GPS navigation on George and Jean's Brittany 2008 Tandem Tour
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Getting Sustrans National Cycle Network routes as GPX files

Posted July 2011

This forum post explains how to download GPX files for almost all the Sustrans National Cycle Network routes (i.e. those mapped as 'NCN xx') from OpenStreetMap. This could be an invaluable new resource. Download GPXs for the all the NCN routes in the area you want to cycle, load them into your Garmin (see below) and you should be able to tour with certainty of staying on the NCN routes.

I haven't yet tried using any of the routes obtained in this way. There seem to be some problems in the ordering of the points - they don't always form a contiguous route, I intend to investigate whether this can be sorted out. Meanwhile, use this tip with caution.

Here are a couple of related tips:

Planning and navigating day-ride routes using and a GPS

Posted August 2010

The CycleStreets journey planner is a popular UK-based cycle route planning tool that plans excellent A to B journeys using algorithms that exploit the increasingly useful detailed data on the road network that is available in the OpenStreetMap database.

I have been experimenting with using journeys planned by CycleStreets as leisure rides with the aim of finding pleasant low-traffic routes in parts of the country with which I'm not very familiar. By using CycleStreets I was hoping to substantially reduce the time taken to plan my leisure rides.

My previous method for planning such rides was to use heavily-modified versions of the Google Maps 'Driving Directions' as described in earlier posts below. Although that method produces good routes when used carefully, it is time consuming and involves a lot of route tweeking.

My experience to date with using the CycleStreets journey planner (for two rides of about 40 miles) is mainly very good, so I think it's worth describing the experience here.

Creating the route

Since the CycleStreets journey planner is intended for planning A to B journeys, leisure rides must either be one-way with a return by train, or you must return by the outward route. Another option would be to plan a 3-legged triangular route.

Here are the steps I follow with the CycleStreets journey planner:

Following the route

Even though I have become used to following routes on my GPS device, I think it's important to carry a map. That's because (a) it's helpful and interesting to see more than the small display of the GPS can show you and (b) many things can go wrong with the GPS navigation, from a flat battery to a poorly chosen route and it's important to have a fallback navigation system. But much of the time I find it's quite satisfactory to follow the route on the GPS screen, with an occasional glance at the map to give a wider context.

Here are some comments on the experience in more detail. This part is largely specific to the Garmin Edge 605 (and other Garmin devices in the same family). For maps on my Edge 605 (described below) I have the base map and one of the following more detailed map options - the Garmin 'Topo' map or the recently-available OpenCycleMap Garmin Maps. I'll describe the experience of navigating with each of these options.

Once a route is loaded as a GPX file in the Garmin, use 'Where to>Saved rides' to select the file (note the displayed names are from the XML <name> element in the file, not the file name). Then choose 'Navigate'. The device should then display the planned route as a magenta-coloured line superimposed on the map.

A. Using the Garmin 'Topo' map (or just the base map):

These maps consist entirely of rendered map images, without any locations, vector data, street names, etc. Therefore the navigation process is fairly basic. It was probably designed for off road and cross-country riders and walkers. The process is:

I find this apparently basic method of navigation quite useful. It is unobtrusive and fault tolerant - if you choose to diverge from the planned route it stops issuing instructions but still shows where you are and displays the Topo map.

B. Using the OpenCycleMap Garmin Maps:

These maps are derived from the excellent 'crowd-sourced' Open Street Map, which is now virtually complete, at least for the UK. Furthermore, they seem to include the vector and textual information necessary to support 'turn-by-turn' navigation on Garmin devices (as do the Garmin City Navigator Maps). In my opinion this is a mixed blessing, for reasons explained below. First I'll describe the process:

This navigation mode may be appropriate for getting from A to B in a city, but it is over-prescriptive and a little annoying for leisure cycling. And as far as I know there is know way to turn off the 'turn-by-turn' mode and revert to the 'Topo mode' as described under A above. (See the update above on turning off automatic route recalculation. I'm now happier with the turn-by-turn mode of navigation.) It is a particular problem when the usually reliable OSM/OpenCycleMap data is wrong. On one occasion I got 'Navigation error - no road'! After that, it did revert to the 'Topo' type of navigation, which was actually more useful.

That's about all for now. I'll post updates as I discover more.

Notes on converting Google directions to a .gpx file for navigation as a 'Saved Ride' on Garmin Edge 205/305/605/705 GPS devices

Posted April 2010

Addendum for UK cyclists:

Using routes on Garmin devices offers excellent routes throughout the UK, taking account of cycling conditions, gradients and much more. It includes a facility to download a route as a .gpx file for loading into Garmin or other GPS devices, but for the above-mentioned Garmins (Edge 205/305/605/705) the requirements listed above apply. I.e. you should use the converter page to constrain the size and convert the <rte> format produced by CycleStreets to <trk>.


GPS navigation on George and Jean's Brittany 2008 Tandem Tour

Posted October 2008

I have been fighting with online mapping systems and GPS devices for 2-3 years with the aim of using a GPS for navigation on our annual cycle tours. Until this year, none of them has come near to meeting our needs and we have fallen back on paper-based maps with daily routes pre-planned and traced with a highlighter. 

I've now finally found a system that meets almost all our needs and I'm writing it up here in case it is of interest to others. 

It is based not only on a specific GPS but relies also on the use of Google Maps for route planning as well as several web-based open software tools for file conversion. 

Our requirements are:

We chose a Garmin Edge 605 bicycle-specific GPS, but we used almost none of the PC/Mac software that Garmin supply for use with it. Nor did we use the GPS's built-in route planning feature - I don't think it can provide the type of routing that is conducive to enjoyable cycle touring.  

Instead we used Google Maps 'Get directions' with the 'Walking' option to generate each day's route. The basic routes generated by Google's router were heavily modified interactively using Google's brilliant 'dynamic routing' feature which allows any part of the route to be dragged to follow any road and/or pass through any point on the map. The route 'snaps onto' roads in a very impressive and intuitive manner. It takes us only a few minutes to create a route for each day following the most attractive-looking roads and passing through exactly the places we want to visit.

The colour screen of the GPS renders whatever pre-loaded maps it contains in a legible manner, but the screen's small size is inadequate for getting an overview of the day's route for planning stops or making changes to the route. Our solution to this was to carry the relevant pages from a Michelin 1:200,000 Road Atlas which were displayed on top of a handlebar bag.

Equipment and Maps

You can obtain topographic maps for the UK, France and some other European countries from Garmin or their retailers, either pre-installed on SD cards, supplied on CD/DVD or downloadable. In the latter case you have to use Garmin's not-very-intuitive tools to install the maps for the areas you will visit. I installed them onto a separately-purchased blank 1 GB SD card. This card provides adequate space to install maps for all the areas we are likely to visit in the foreseeable future.

It's worth noting that OpenStreetMap is becoming a useful source of free mapping that has been ported to the Garmin, at least for some areas. Caveat: I have not yet tried these on my Edge 605. If you have, please report on it in the comments to this page.

Making our daily routes and installing them in the Garmin

1. Use Google maps 'get directions' with the 'walking' option and then employ 'dynamic routing' to make a route for each day's ride that follows attractive routes on the smallest available roads. Avoiding hills  is another possible aim, but it requires a map with contours or some other means of profiling the route. Google Maps does not yet provide that. Google Maps Terrain view now includes contours. I'm looking forward to using that on our next tour.

2. Extract the Google Maps route and convert it to a GPX file using the script described at:

which is aimed at Bikely users, but I got good results using it to make files for the Garmin. I used the 'Bikely GPX option'. I haven't tried the 'Garmin Course' option. But  I did use the 'Cue Sheet' feature to get printed Cue sheets with details of all the turns. These were used occasionally along the way to clarify things.

Another relevant tool for this conversion is described at:

You have to copy and paste the GPX text produced by either of these scripts from a browser window into a text editor, then save it with a meaningful name and a .gpx postfix so you'll be able to find it on the Garmin.

3. Copy all the GPX files into the Garmin/GPX folder in the Garmin's internal memory or the folder with the same name on the SD card. (The GPS can use them in either place).

4. To navigate using one of the routes, use the Where To?>Saved Rides menu on the Garmin to select a route from those you will see listed. When you return to the GPS map view you will see a pink/mauve coloured line showing your route overlaid on the map. When you are following the route you will get a prompt on the screen for every change of direction. 

If you diverge from the route, the Garmin will continue to track your position on the map and log your route (if the logging feature is turned on, see below). When you rejoin the planned route the directional prompts will resume. 

Logging routes and converting log files for display on a Google map

  1. The Garmin does a good job of making a log of each day's ride. Just press the 'start/stop' button before you set off. The log will be terminated when you turn the Garmin off, or when you use the 'reset' button. The logs are stored in the Garmin's internal memory in the folder Garmin/History with files named by the date time when they started. E.g. '2008-09-21-07-33-37.tcx'. 
  2. The .tcx file format used for logs is a Garmin-proprietary XML dialect intended for use with the Garmin Training Center software. But it is possible to convert tcx files to the KML format, which can be imported into Google Maps and Google Earth. I found the most reliable and effective converter is the online one offered at: If you plan to import the KML tracks into Google Maps it's a good idea to use the converter's Track simplification option and to reduce the number of points to about 200-400 per day using the slider on the converter page.
  3. If you want to see a height profile of the route and various statistics such as total distance, total climbing, etc., load the GPX file you have generated back into's track library (you have to register and then use the Upload page). This method for getting statistics and profiles will work with any GPX file, whether a planned route or a log of ridden route.

We obtained this excellent record of our recent tour of Brittany using the above method.


Topographic maps don't  support route planning on the Garmin itself. Any routes planned while on tour using the Garmin will be based only on the built-in Base Map of Europe which includes major roads only which are generally unsuitable for cycling. This was problem for us when we hadn't planned our routes through two cities in sufficient detail. We made the Garmin plan routes for us on the fly, but the results were neither short nor quiet.

It may be possible overcome this problem by installing the Garmin City Navigator Europe maps in addition to the topographic maps. But we didn't do that because we prefer the more open and flexible approach to route finding based on pre-planned routes made using Google Maps.


This was the first of the 20 or so cycle tours we have completed on which we never lost our way nor had to stop to work out where we were. The Garmin Edge 605 deserves a large chunk of credit for this - it's a very well engineered device with impressive GPS positioning performance. 

We were less impressed with Garmin's supporting software and we were very pleased to find that the Internet community has supported digital mapping to such an extent that made it possible to follow the more open approach described above. We're very grateful to the Google Maps team and to the developers of the other software tools mentioned above.

George Coulouris, October 2008, revised January 2009, May 2009, April 2010


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