Bare-bones navigation for touring

Would you give up your GPS for this?
One of Sustrans' excellent cycling maps for the UK
The scale model of the solar system is real. I admit I took a photo at Uranus.

Here’s something you don’t much think about before your first tour: how you’re going to figure out where the hell you are. I have to start this, of course, with a wee caveat since nowadays most people have GPS built in to their phones, and a lot of cyclists use computers to navigate. I am not one of those cyclists, partially because I find I don’t like staring at computers when I’m supposed to be touring (my spedometer takes up enough of my attention as it is), and partially because I’ve got a bit of a purist standpoint on it, and I find navigating by more traditional means much more fun.  Having said that, I did have my phone in my pocket to be used as a backup, and used the maps once or twice when I was really unsure. Most of the time, though, I was using Sustrans’ rather excellent cycling maps.

The Traditional Way

Cycling maps have a few advantages. They mark the things you need to know (where the closest pub/LBS/petrol station is, what kind of track a cycle route is) and suggest better routes. The scale is a bit nicer than on an atlas meant for driving, making it a bit easier to match your surroundings to the map, but not so fine-tuned as a walking map, which you breeze through annoyingly fast.

There are downsides: the most I got out of any of my Sustrans maps was 2 days of riding, because I’d come to the edge of the map and have to buy a new one. They can add 10 euros a day to your riding budget. That definitely adds up, and it sucks. I did trade a few at hostels, but that’s not a reliable solution.

Another downside is that you might not find a suitable map at all before you’re meant to go on the next day’s ride. I bumped into this when I was in Cambridge, heading into Oxford. There simply wasn’t one map that covered the area in between them, and I wasn’t about to buy two maps for one day’s ride. I came across a fellow rider’s route at Squarewheels – Richard’s Oxford-Cambridge route is well travelled, with plenty of correspondents sending in their times and reviews. (I even ended up doing that day’s ride with a stranger who happened to be using a Google maps printout of the route.)

Now I had no map, but this is one of the ways that Richard’s route is presented:

The Insane(?) Way

17 April 2010

1. Start south along King’s Parade, 10m elev
R into Silver Street (junction on curve),
over River Cam and past rising bollards
L at tfl, SO at rdbt, grass on left
Follow 90deg right at tfl into Barton Road
Continue beyond city limits;  could use (OK) bike path on RHS, to
                                                                    (2.4 miles)
2. SO at big rdbt, over M11, SO at 2nd rdbt
Continue through BARTON, COMBERTON, Greenwich Meridian just before TOFT
SO (R/L) across A1198 and into LONGSTOWE, Continue on B1046
pass water-tower on right, 79m elev
on downhill just before Little Gransden, suddenly:
Sharp L onto C-road SP GAMLINGAY.
                                                                   (13.5 miles)

…et cetera. If that sounds arcane, the glossary on his site will sort you out.

Without a printer, sitting at a computer in a public library in Cambridge, I decided the most useful thing to do was open up Google maps and do a quick scan of the route as described, and then actually just copy down Richard’s instructions, and hope for the best the next day.

Would you give up your GPS for this?

It worked a treat. I found it the most intuitive, least intrusive form of navigation I’d ever used. Maybe it’s because I’m a verbal type, who knows, but “turn left at the Church” is easier for me to read than a map. It’s incredibly compact – I hate stopping to flip a map over – and I’ve done plenty of rides around 80-100km since, and used only a few pages of notes. I ended up using some symbols for roundabouts, T-junctions, or bridges. Any town name in caps is one you actually pass through, whereas lower case town names are just ones that are mentioned on signs that you follow. Things like bridges, railroads, rivers, churches, forests, or any other notable roadside attraction help you keep confident you’re on the right track.

I haven’t bought a map since. If I’ve got a ride, now I’ll just work out the route the day before on Google maps, write out the notes with approximate distance points, and then go. Is that insane? Sounds like a lot of work? Perhaps, but I also find that writing out the route makes me far more confident on the ride, since I’ve actually put it in my brain the night before.

Sure, I still keep the phone in my pocket for backup. But as long as I really don’t care for GPS, I’m sticking with my insane little way.

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By Johanna MacDonald

Johanna is an artist, photographer, writer, musician and actress originally from Canada, but currently living and breathing in Helsinki, Finland. Summer 2010 she rode all the way through the United Kingdom. Check out her in Twitter @happeningfish.