Sometimes, you just want to hop on your bike and ride somewhere without any pressure, any direction and just follow your nose and the road. But other times, you have a destination to get to and you want to get there the fastest way with the least amount of hassle. Whichever kind of ride you’re going on, a sat nav can make sure you stay on the right road.
The best motorcycle sat navs
TomTom Rider 550
TomTom is synonymous with sat nav for cars and it was no surprise when the brand made the switch to motorcycle navigation as well. This latest offering, the Rider 550, uses a 4.3in touchscreen display that is easy to operate with gloves on and it comes pre-loaded with European maps or for a slight price premium, world maps.
Included in the purchase price are map updates until 2035 (effectively lifetime) and the device will also alert the rider to points of interest as well as safety camera locations and traffic notifications. It too has a choice of routes, from direct to scenic. We've given the TomTom 550 a more detailed review, too.
What you need to know
There are fundamentally two kinds of motorcycle navigation options; a dedicated standalone motorcycle-specific sat nav, similar to the one you’d use in a car, or something based on a smartphone app, which many people also use in their car.
A dedicated motorcycle sat nav will have a power source from the bike, will be waterproof and will have all the relevant map information stored on it, though you will pay for the privilege. One advantage though is that the information will always be there and won’t rely on any data connections.
If you’re planning on using a smartphone navigation app, then this will probably be a lot cheaper than a standalone sat nav; but the data is likely to need to download as you go so you’ll need a strong signal at all times, and you’ll also probably need a decent phone case to protect your valuable device – we’ll look at those another time. Alternatively, you may be able to download the maps direct to your device but this will inevitably cost money.
But these are what we reckon are the top systems for your bike.
Garmin zumo XT
Garmin is one of the leaders in GPS technology, with a variety of uses including marine, mountaineering and recently, car and motorcycle. We've subjected the Garmin Zumo XT unit to a more detailed review, too.
The Zumo XT is the latest motorcycle product from the company and features a 5.5-inch touchscreen for control and display which, naturally, is compatible with riding gloves for ease of use on the go.
It comes with European maps pre-loaded and there’s also access to satellite imagery to get a better picture of the road ahead – particularly useful for the off-road route options. The Zumo offers a choice of direct or winding routes and courses can be pre-plotted and uploaded to the device, as well as recorded and downloaded afterwards.
A variation on a theme, the Beeline uses a small, subtle circular screen to display directions from an app installed on your smartphone. You can choose from an arrow that points either directly at your destination all the time, guiding you in the right general direction or turn-by-turn directions that are displayed as you approach each junction.
Targeted at riders of retro bikes where a full-sized screen would look out of place, it’s a neat solution but it won’t warn you of traffic problem en route, for example. We've also subjected the Beeline Moto to a more in-depth review.
Google’s omnipresence means that just about every smartphone sold today comes with the app installed natively and any computer can also access the same maps through a browser or an app, depending on the operating system.
Initially a clunky mapping system, it now offers up-to-date road information, real-time traffic information and turn-by-turn navigation. If you have a Google account, you can plan a trip on computer and send it to your phone to use as your navigation device on the bike. Generally it downloads map information as you ride but there are options to download the relevant sections to your device before you head off, to prevent a loss of navigation if you lose your mobile signal, for example.
Waze was one of the first – and most popular – alternatives to smartphone apps such as Google Maps or Apple’s notoriously inaccurate (to begin with, at least) Maps app. While not specifically aimed at motorcyclists, Waze uses opensource map data, meaning it can be updated quickly as new roads are built and it also relies heavily on user-supplied information, particularly for traffic warnings. Its traffic-avoidance is among the best out there, meaning that although you can generally get further ahead in traffic on a bike than in a car, it will still try to find the fastest route possible without straying too far from your chosen route. The app is free and you just buy the maps you need.
Not strictly a navigation app but What3Words uses a three-word combination to identify any location on the planet to an accuracy of three metres, according to the producers. Many emergency services are recommending people install and learn how to use it, as it can offer an extremely accurate and easy way to give their location should they need assistance.
Once installed on a smartphone, a location can be specified using either a postcode or the correct What3words code and a navigate button will open a route in a navigation app of choice to take you straight there. At MCN Towers, we’re grass.summer.appear
Calimoto combines elements of both a standalone sat nav and a smartphone-based version. Downloaded as an app to your phone, the base app is free of charge and you get a small area of map included in the free version. The app majors on the scenic route options and includes a round-trip choice, when you just want to ride and end up where you started and try new roads. However, you have to purchase maps if you want to go beyond your home location offline and these can add up; for example, the UK without Northern Ireland is £4.99 a week or £39.99 for a year’s use. But you do get access to other users’ routes and the option to plan routes on your computer and sync to your phone.
Previously known as Viewranger, Outdooractive is an outdoor route app that while catering for walkers and cyclists, also provides routes for green-laning for motorcyclists, as well as 4x4 drivers. These are based on BOATs – Byways Open to All Traffic - and these are country lanes that are classified as roads, even though they are often more like bridleways or footpaths. This is the mapping and route system used by the Trail Riders Federation, an organisation to promote respectful and lawful trail riding in England and Wales. It’s based on Ordnance Survey maps so is useful for all sorts of outdoor activity.
The TET app
The app for the Trans Euro Trail is pretty specialised – it maps out sections of the trail that crosses Europe on predominantly greenlanes and off-road trails. It travels from the bottom corner of Europe – almost in Africa – up to the Arctic Circle and runs through virtually every European country. There’s a real community built up around the TET and the app, currently available for Android devices, is checked by the TET ‘linesmen’ who have ridden the full 50,000km of routes.