How to track my road trip via GPS
August 23, 2006 12:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking a road trip on my motorcycle with no particular destination in mind. I'd like to track my route using a GPS, and in the evenings, overlay that day's trip on a map. For some reason my Google-fu fails me and I can't seem to find a straight answer to the question: what is a resonably priced GPS unit that will allow me to record my trip? And as a follow-up: do I need special software to do the "map-overlay" thing?
posted by SlappyPeterson to Technology (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Dan Lyke, at Flutterby (which is kind of like a little tiny MetaFilter ;-) is a cyclist, and I know he's covered this sort of thing before.
posted by baylink at 12:25 PM on August 23, 2006

I think most if not all GPS receivers allow you to track your route, and download it--both my Garmin StreetPilot III (~5 years old and no longer in production, superceded by newer models) and my Garmin eTrex allow this. On Garmin products these sets of data are called, logically, "tracks,"--I don't know if that terminology applies over all GPS receivers or is Garmin-specific.

Special software can help with the "map-where-you've-been" function, but may not be strictly necessary depending on how much you're willing to do with it. For example, if you can export the data to something readable by Excel, you can massage the data a little bit on your own and get it into a format that's usable by the Google Maps API and plot it that way without any additional software, if you already have your own webspace you can use. Not too terribly difficult, I found, but probably not for someone with no web experience at all.

Alternately, your GPS may come with software that allows you to do this. The City Navigator software that came with my StreetPilot can do this; the eTrex didn't have software which did that on its own, IIRC, but it was compatible with the City Navigator software I already had.

One consideration might be how much memory is available for tracks, and if the unit is configurable as to how often you save a data point (and consequently, how quickly you fill up the memory). I can configure my eTrex to record data points at whatever frequency I like. On my StreetPilot, however, this is not configurable, and it has enough memory to cover maybe 7 hours of driving, so if I'm driving longer than this and I want to be able to see where I've been, I need to remember to download my tracks some time during the day.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:39 PM on August 23, 2006

Since you're not heading anywhere in particular I assume you don't want the gps system to give you directions while on your bike? If you just want tracking you can get a much older cheaper unit.

I'd recommend the garmin etrex legend, it's the lowest end receiver that has WAAS (a system that improves accuracy). It has rudimentary navigation and a very basic built in map but the tracking seems very good.

I bought a used one recently and I've been very impressed with it. You should be able to pick one up for $60 to $120 used, you can also get cheap 3rd party bike mounts on amazon.

It comes with an rs232 cable (too old for usb) to connect to your pc. If you want to view tracks I'd recommend spending $20 on google earth plus, for the gps support. I think it's the nicest map viewer out there.
posted by Olli at 12:46 PM on August 23, 2006

For this, and other info on how to do this trip: head on over to ... a whole community full of crazy iron-butt type people that like wandering long distances at high speeds on two wheels.
posted by SpecialK at 1:11 PM on August 23, 2006

If you're just looking for tracking, and not necessarily realtime mapping or other features that Garmin et al offer, you might try running an app on a cellphone:
posted by lalas at 1:25 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: Olli, DevilsAdvocate - thanks for the great info. One more question, though - do I need some special software to export tracks from the GPS to my PC, say as a GPX file? I checked out the manuals for the Garmin eTrex GPS units and they don't mention anything about being able to export saved tracks.

Thanks again for the great info everyone!
posted by SlappyPeterson at 1:46 PM on August 23, 2006

The serial protocol is very well documented (newer usb models are a little more complex but still widely supported)

The Garmin units all come with software to download the tracks (works fine under virtual pc on my powerbook fwiw), or you can also use third party software (EasyGPS comes to mind as one option).

I second the recommendation on the etrex legend. I had one, upgraded to a gpsmap 60CSx for the sirfstar, but if you want cheap and mostly reliable the legend is a winner.
posted by devbrain at 2:07 PM on August 23, 2006

You should read Rich Owings's blog, GPS Tracklog, and his book, GPS Mapping: Make Your Own Maps, both of which are about this very subject.
posted by mcwetboy at 4:36 AM on August 24, 2006

This GPS unit does data logging and has a USB connection download your track to your PC so it's viewable in Google Earth. Not sure how long it takes to fill up the track, though. Obviously you won't be able to see any kind of display on the unit but you could connect it to a PDA to display a live map or just turn it on and let it save the GPS track if that's all you need.
posted by aceyprime at 6:30 AM on August 24, 2006

I overlay maps with GPS tracks using a combination of Garmin GPS12, serial-to-USB cable to connect the GPS to my serial-port-less laptop, then download to Delorme Street Atlas. I also save all my waypoints and tracks to the XP filesystem for later retrieval to the GPS. Other than the laptop, very low budget stuff.
posted by 55TaskForce at 10:02 AM on August 24, 2006

Using the tools at you can:

* Organize rides and other events
* Plot, save and print maps of your favorite routes
* Invite others to your rides
* Join rides and meet other people
* Keep track of who's attending your rides & events
* Start and manage your riding group or club
* Keep track of your ride/club members' locations
* Much, much more!

posted by de void at 11:38 AM on August 24, 2006

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