Which GPS can I use to record my cross-country motorcycle trip?
October 25, 2011 12:22 PM   Subscribe

What inexpensive GPS receiver can I use to log my cross-country, 1-2 month motorcycle trip? I won't have a computer with me, and I'd also like to be able to use it for some basic mapping.

I'll be crossing the country on my motorcycle this spring, and I'm trying to pin down the gadgets I'll be taking with me. I've decided not to take my laptop.

I'd like to be able to plot my entire trip on a map. It seems like a GPS log is the best way to do this: no dependence on cell service, simple, easily turned into map overlays when I get back home. I don't need turn-by-turn directions or any of the features in a typical "car" GPS, and I like the simplicity, battery life, and durability of the handheld GPS units I've looked at. But I'm not sure of their capacity, and I would like the GPS logging to be as much of a "hands-off" solution as possible.

Assuming that I'll be on the road for 1-2 months without reliable access to a computer, how can I keep this sort of log? I've considered rolling my own solution with something like the Adafruit GPS logger shield for the Arduino, but I worry that something will bug out halfway through the trip and I won't realize it until I get home, since I'd set it up as a "set and forget" sort of thing.

Maybe the right thing is a handheld GPS with SD expansion, like the Garmin 60Cx? I'm fine with buying several big SD cards and swapping them out along the way. Is there anything less expensive than the 60Cx, though?

A lot of the handheld GPS devices without SD card slots say something like "10,000 points, 10 saved tracks". How long would that last me, practically speaking? Can I configure the thing to log my location less frequently to stretch out the useful life of one "track"?

I looked at some of the previous questions on GPS logging, like this one, this one, and this one, but none of them seemed to address all of my concerns.

posted by aaronbeekay to Technology (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you carrying an Android or iOS GPS enabled phone?
posted by bitdamaged at 12:57 PM on October 25, 2011

Yeah, forget the GPS, upgrade you phone.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:01 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not being flippant, perhaps I should elaborate:

You decided against bring a laptop, but a good phone will do most of what your laptop can do and is an immensely powerful versatile tool to have with you. (you can't use it to program the next hit video game, but you can use it to access the internet, take notes, find local points of interest, take photos, take photos with embedded GPS co-ordinates, translate other languages (both spoken and written), and so on.

There is a wealth of advanced special-purpose GPS apps, you'll be able to download a few and figure out which you like the most, which stores its log in a format you like the most, etc. They don't require a cellular connection.

(There are also apps that do all sorts of other things for vehicles and journeys, and on an android phone, you can leave more than one app running at the same time, though it works best when the apps are designed with that in mind)

Battery life is probably your concern - out of the box, a smartphone will only be good for a day or two between charging, so you either want to plug it into a battery pack, or mount it on your bike and leave the charger permanently attached, (or perhaps mount a solar charger on the bike, but that sounds like the kind of hassle and wildcard you're trying to get away from).
Find a battery power connection on your bike that is only powered when the engine is running, and hook the charger to that, and leave it hooked in always. If you ride every day, the phone will never run out of power. If you're not riding for a few days, then it doesn't matter if the phone has power not because you're not logging anything anyway. But you'll like find that the phone is useful enough for other things that you'll be motivated to keep it running even when you're not logging.

If you want to enhance the battery life, you can also put the phone is airplane mode - ie tell it to turn off all its cellular/wireless/radio transceivers. GPS will still work in airplane mode, because it's passive - only the satellites transmit.

I'm not up on the latest phones, but the latest Google Nexus should be top of the line and a safe bet.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:26 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to take a look at the SPOT Messenger - added safety,too.
posted by HarrysDad at 1:30 PM on October 25, 2011

Yup, what you want is a SPOT Messenger. I carried one on my trip this summer (Here's a link to my tracklog.) SPOTs also can send "Checking In OK," "Need Assistance" and "Send EMS Right Now" messages. This is especially valuable for solo travelers. Battery life is a nonissue; the SPOT runs on nonrechargeable lithium AAs that you can buy at any Target or Wal-mart. My SPOT ran for about six weeks of daylight hours on one set of batteries.

You should also carry a GPS for the fugawi factor. The 60Cx is a very good GPS; I carry a 60CSx (the same unit but with an added altimeter.) However, on my trip this summer I discovered a gigantic bug that affects all 60CSxes that have updated maps installed. I do not know if this bug affects the 60Cx also but I assume it would, since they share a firmware platform. You can read about the bug in my post at Adventure Rider. Garmin is aware of this bug; it has Level 1 priority and they call me every few weeks to keep in touch, but they have not yet resolved it.

Don't trust a phone to do a GPS's job, or a SPOT messenger's job. There are many, many places in the lower 48 where there is no cell service. If you are doing your ride right, you will find many of them.
posted by workerant at 1:55 PM on October 25, 2011

Response by poster: I'll be bringing an iPhone (I can't disconnect that much), but I was looking for a standalone solution. I've used my iPhone on bicycle trips before, and it's the most wonderful companion you could ever imagine until you cross the border into no-cell-service, after which you exist as a blue dot in a sea of infinite grey nothingness.

The SPOT Messenger looks like a great idea, and I'll put it on my list. If it's possible, though, I'd rather have something that's got a screen and a few maps, so I can use it to get un-lost if I need to. I don't really have the cash for a SPOT and another GPS, though.
posted by aaronbeekay at 3:00 PM on October 25, 2011

FWIW, you can find used SPOT messengers for cheap. The 1st-gen model is available for as little as $40-50 through eBay/Craigslist. It does cost $100 annually for the subscription that makes it work, though, and you need to get the company to reassign a used device's ESN to you when you subscribe.

If you picked up an inexpensive used GPS with preloaded USA basemap (which I've seen even on some Garmin eTrex models, IIRC), you could use that for getting un-lost, and use the SPOT to save your track/summon help.
posted by richyoung at 4:00 PM on October 25, 2011

Note on the iphone front. You've expressly noted that you don't need directions and turn by turn. As others noted GPS doesn't actually break when you don't have cell coverage you just can't download maps. So the iphone does make for a pretty good tracking tool (battery life may be an issue). Something like this is free and may be worth taking a look at.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:48 PM on October 25, 2011

Android lets you have pre-loaded maps, and while I wouldn't know if iphone does (obviously whatever you're currently using on it is half-assed), but I'd be surprised if you couldn't buy an app that would handle GPS properly. It'd save a lot of money since you already have the hand-held GPS unit.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:48 PM on October 25, 2011

Sparkfun GPS Logger
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:03 PM on October 25, 2011

aaronbeekay: "...but I was looking for a standalone solution."

Oh, okay. How's this?
posted by workerant at 6:40 PM on October 25, 2011

Some of the 3rd party iPhone GPS apps let you load-up maps for use when you have no cell service.
posted by Good Brain at 12:29 PM on October 26, 2011

I use an AMOD AGL3080 logger to geotag my photos. Good for 15 hours on 3 AAA batteries. How much and how frequently it records data is configurable, but apparently 128MB is enough for over a million datapoints.
posted by unmake at 9:47 AM on October 27, 2011

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