GPS & Navigation

Navigating with Tracks – Tips & Tricks

Introduction

This article is based on a class that I have taught many times over the last few years for Touratech-USA. It has been a weekend special event multiple times at the Seattle, WA Touratech-USA headquarters, as well as the Thursday night opener presentation at both the East-Coast and West-Coast Touratech-USA Rallies. It is essentially the distilled “Greatest Hits” list of things to do to make navigating tracks with your GPS easier, more fun, and more successful. You might be amazed how much of a difference a few small set-up changes in your GPS unit can make to your backcountry travel experience. Navigating with tracks is a very much a backcountry navigation skill-set, and applies to the Touratech Rallies, the Backcountry Discovery Routes, and any other user made backcountry navigation plan. The focus will be on Garmin GPS units that are track capable. I’ll put a short, albeit incomplete list below. GPS units from other manufacturers will also benefit from these same settings. I am not familiar with GPS units outside of Garmin enough to say with certainty that all of my recommended setting are possible.

GPS Units Covered

BMW Nav 4
BMW Nav 5
BMW Nav 6
Garmin GPSmap 60
Garmin GPSmap 62
Garmin GPSmap 64
Garmin Montana 600
Garmin Montana 610
Garmin Montana 650
Garmin Montana 680
Garmin Zumo 350
Garmin Zumo 395
Garmin Zumo 396
Garmin Zumo 590
Garmin Zumo 595
Garmin Zumo 660
Garmin Zumo 665
Most other Garmin outdoor handheld type GPS units

Profile or User Mode

All of the current generation Garmin units, focused on motorcycle use, will have either different “User Modes” or “Profiles.” These units include the Zumo 590/595, Zumo 396/395/350, BMW Nav 4/5/6, Montana Series, and most hand held GPS units. All of the changes that will discusses will live in the “User Mode” or “Profile” and not be a unit wide change. This allows you to create the ideal set-up for different situations, and you can change between all of these settings by just changing just the “Profile” or “User Mode”. You also need to remember if you are setting up a unit to make sure you are in the correct “User Mode” or “Profile.” The Zumo and BMW Nav units listed above will give you the options of, “Car,” “Motorcycle,” “Off-Road.” On a Montana or other Garmin handheld GPS units the “Profile” options are user created and limitless. On my personal Garmin Montana 600 I have profiles built for every type of use I might use the unit for (Truck, On-Road Motorcycle, Off-Road Motorcycle, Bicycle, ect). The big take away here is make sure you are in the correct “User Mode” or “Profile” when you make changes, and make sure you change the “User Mode” or “Profile” before thinking something and wrong and changes the same things.

Tracks vs Routes

I cover this in much more detail in another article here. In short, tracks are a series of point (latitude and longitude locations) that create a line to follow. A track will not give you any prompts as to upcoming turns or if you are off of the line. It is the digital equivalent of taking a marker and drawing a line on the map. Routes take a handful of locations and using the algorithms set in the GPS unit and Garmin shows how smart it is by routing you between the points the best way it can figure using the road. You will get from point “A” to “B” but in is likely not the fun off-road track that you wanted. ALWAYS USE TRACKS FOR BACKCOUNTRY NAVIGATION. 

Map or Mapset  

The map (mapset is an older GPS term for map data being used) being used is important to know when using a GPS. It is also important to factor in how your GPS unit will display multiple maps if they are enabled at the same time. Naturally we would expect the GPS to show what has the most relevant information for your current view, but that is not how Garmin sets the hierarchy of maps being displayed. Garmin bases which map you see on the amount of information that could be displayed, so City Navigator will always be the default map if you also have 100k Topo or 24k Topo also enabled (I have recently heard reports that on some units 24k will take precedence over City Navigator). This will remain true if you are away from any road and just have a blank screen while traveling in the mountains, which would have plenty of topographical data to display. If you are using 3rd party maps (anything user-made or non-Garmin) you will need to experiment with to see how they interact, they are a bit of a wildcard when it comes to playing nice with Garmin maps. If you are navigating off-road (things like Touratech Rallies or Backcountry Discovery Routes) have 100k Topo enabled and City Navigator disabled. Selecting your map will be in the “Map Settings” menu, unit “Map Information.” 

City Navigator
City Navigator is Garmin’s road maps, this also includes most dirt roads. This map will include not only all of the roads for its area of coverage (for most of you reading this City Navigator North America) but also waypoints for gas stations, grocery stores, coffee shops, hospitals, and other points of interest. This map also knows what roads are, and can route you from point “A” to point “B.” This ability is called being “routable,” this makes the map larger (file size) but this isn’t much of a factor anymore with cheap memory. This map is important for day-to-day GPS use, the finding a store or address, and getting there. I think this is an important map to have for those times when you need to get out of the woods to a hotel or city.

Topo Maps
Topo is short for topographical map, meaning it will show the contour lines for hills and mountains, as well as showing bodies of water. Topo maps are traditionally used by hikers, and other overland travelers. In the United States there are two versions of topo maps offered, 100k Topo and 24k Topo. Other countries use different scales, generally based on the metric maps being used in that area of the globe.

100k Topo
100k Topo is based on information and detail level of USGS area maps. 100k refers to the scale on the equivalent paper maps 1″=100,000.” The advantage of the 100k Topo maps is that with less detail than 24k Topo the file size is much smaller, taking up less space on the GPS unit’s memory. With Garmin’s 100k Topo maps they are not “routable,” this means that the map is only showing a picture of the map. The map doesn’t know where the roads are, nor can it route you on roads to a point. In most cases the information being shown about the terrain is more important than the few roads that may be there. When I am navigating off-road I am generally using 100k Topo as my map on my GPS unit. This is the off-road map that I recommend for off-road motorcycle or other motorized backcountry travel. You will get a degree of information that is useful, without being overwhelming at the speeds traveled not on foot.

24k Topo
24k Topo is based on information and detail level of USGS quadrant (quad) maps. 24″ refers to the scale on the equivalent paper maps 1″=24,000.” With Garmin’s 24k Topo maps they are sold by region, generally a few states at a time. These maps are routable, so you can still enter an address or waypoint location and have it route you to it. The downside is a much larger map file, additional costs if you are traveling in many different regions, and in most cases too much information. When I have used 24k Topo maps on a motorcycle I have often found the need to decress the level of information being shown to prevent having a GPS screen cluttered with unneeded information. If you are hiking or bicycling 24k Topo may be good to use, but I still recommend 100k Topo for mechanized backcountry travel.

Map View or Orientation

Garmin gives you three different views to choose from when looking at the map. The map screen is probably where you will spend the most time while using your GPS. All three map views have different strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the unit the name for “3D” or “Automotive” might change, but they are the same thing. I have used all of them at some point, but only still use two of the three depending on the situation. Below are the pros and cons of each, I’ll also add my personal recommendations. The menu to change this will be under “Map Settings” and “Orientation.” 

3D or Automotive
This is the default setting on the Zumo units and most others unit it will be when in “Motorcycle” mode. It is a familiar format to most people. Most automotive GPS units and GPS apps for smartphones also use this type of view. I still use this for turn-to-turn navigation on the street, but there are downsides to this option. While the 3D view can make seeing where you are going easier, it does lack scale. By that I mean 1” on the screen does not relate to anything, there is a horizon that changes the value of that inch the further you get from your vehicle icon. The vehicle icon is at the bottom of the screen, which allows you to see further ahead, but gives you a blindspot if you miss a turn. Auto-zoom functions seem to always stay on when using this mode, your speed will change the zoom level. You are always going “up” on the screen. North is relegated to an easily ignored little arrow in the corner of the screen. The lack of scale and easily forgotten North means the big picture is easily lost, referencing paper maps is hard, if not imposable using this mode. As I mentioned, I still often use this mode when navigating streets turn-by-turn. Realize there are downsides to this map view setting, I do not recommend it for navigating with tracks.

Track-Up
This is the next logical setting after you start using tracks. Track-Up has you direction of travel always at the top of you GPS unit’s screen. Your vehicle icon is now in the middle of the screen, allowing your to see what you just passed. This keeps it easy to follow, but now you have a top down view of the map, and greater overall awareness of where you are. The top down view allows the scale to be accurate, judging upcoming turns is easier since an inch on the screen will equal the same distance anywhere one the screen. If you miss a turn you can normally still see it on the screen behind you. You still have the same downside as 3D or automotive view of north being only denoted my an arrow in the corner of the screen. Among those that I ride with this is still looked as an amateur way of setting up one’s GPS unit for navigating with tracks, it is better than 3D or automotive view, but still Busch League. 

North-Up
North-Up is the “Pro-Level” map view when it comes to navigating with tracks. You have the fixed scale like Track-Up, but North is always up on the screen. If you are slowly riding in a circle you will know it. You are no longer keeping half an eye on North, it is unforgettable. This can be tricky at time if you are heading South, and need to turn right, it will be turning left on the screen (because your are traveling down not up). I work around the by thinking in the cardinal directions. I’m no long heading down needing to turn right on the screen, I’m heading South, and will turn down West. Referencing a map is easy since North will be up just like on the map. If you intend to spend time using tracks to travel the backcountry I strongly recommend you train yourself to use this map view, once you wrap your head around it you will be glad you spent the time to do so. 

Vehicle Selection Screen on a Zumo 595LM

Vehicle

The vehicle will be the icon shown for your position, some units may call it different things. To change this will be in your “Map Settings” menu under “Vehicle,” some units this might be under “Advanced Settings.”

Garmin will preinstall a dozen or so vehicles or icons for you to chose from. In 3D or automotive view most of these are pretty awesome. If you are using a top down view the list gets shorter. Honestly I only use 3D Arrow for my top down views. All of the others I have tried are either difficult to see or distinguish the direction of travel. For my on-road only profiles, that I only use in 3D or Automotive view (such as my truck profile) I’ll use use a truck for the visual reminder of the profile I am in. Don’t trade easy navigation for a cute, little, hard to see dirt bike icon.

Zoom Level

Before getting too far into zoom levels, I recommend turning off the “Auto-Zoom” feature in the settings menu. Auto-zoom is useful when using the GPS for turn-by-turn navigation, such as inputing an address and having the GPS unit guide you to the address. “Auto-Zoom” will zoom out if you are going 20 miles on the highway before zooming in before the turn is about to happen. When navigating with tracks using a top down view (Track-up or North-up) having the zoom level fixed will make quick glances at the GPS while riding work better. If you use the same few zoom levels your mind will start to relate an inch on the screen with the actual distance on real ground. Your speed being traveled is also factored into this information being read off of you GPS screen subconsciously. I normally use 500ft, 800ft, or 0.2mi scale. I will change the scale depending on the speed I’m traveling. 500ft scale is normally riding trails, 800ft and 0.2mi is for faster forest service roads. The touchscreen GPS units are hard to adjust the zoom level while riding, it is easy to miss the buttons icons on the screen. Some of the GPS prepared BMW adventure motorcycles integrate the GPS to use a wheel mounted onto the left grip that makes adjusting zoom on the go easier. I have found leaving the GPS in one mode is still better, mostly due to having the display maintain displaying the same scale.

Data Fields

The Montana and other hand-held (GPSmap 60 series and Oregon series) units will allow a lot of customization in the data fields shown over the map. On the Montana I use the “Small Data Field” dashboard, which will allow me to have four trip computer data fields shown at the side of the map screen. The Zumo series of units will give you fewer. No mater the unit you should judge the value of the information your chose to overlay. Personally I tend to ignore the factory gauge cluster when using a GPS unit, and consolidate the where I look, other than the road to the GPS unit. Below are the data fields I find most useful and chose to show, there are more than four listed, I will change depending on the situation. It is not uncommon for me to change midday. For example I might show the temperature if it is cold in the morning, then switch that field to “Time until sundown” after lunch. If I am running a GPS during an off-road race I will likely have “Average Speed” shown to remind myself to speed it up a bit. There is no magic formula, evaluate what information you want to know while riding that day. 

Speed – This allows you to ignore the factory speedometer.

GPS Accuracy – If you have week signal you can factor the quality of location information when coming up to a turn. It takes a lot of practice to have this be of significant value.

Altitude – If you are in the mountains this can be nice to know, not much real value at the moment.   

Heading – What cardinal direction are you heading, this can be a good reminder who pausing for a big picture reference to a map.

Heart Rate (Only an option with the Montana) – How hard are you working? If you are using a compatible chest-strap heart rate monitor your heart rate can be display. If you are using a heart rate monitor synced to your Montana GPS unit it will data log even if not display on the map screen data fields. This can be fun if you are ridding with a buddy also running a Montana and heart rate monitor. Every stop can be a check of who is more out of shape or riding stressed.

Distance to Next Turn (Active navigation only) – For turn to turn navigation (not following tracks) I like this to know when I need to pay attention to the GPS more closely. 

Distance to Destination (Active navigation only) – For turn to turn navigation (not following tracks) I can rough math the time to where I’m going to.

Average Overall Speed – If I am running a GPS during race conditions a good reminder that I am too slow. Also a good reminder when road tripping if I am taking too many stops.  

Time of Day – If your motorcycle dash does not have a clock it saves the look at a watch.

Time to Sunset – On a Backcountry Discovery Route a good reminder to start looking for camp, in general it is nice to know when the sun is going to disappear. 

Temperature (Only an option with the Montana) – If it’s cold there might be ice, if it is hot drink more water. 

Track Color

Before navigating with tracks will need to go to your “Track Manager” or “Off-Road Tracks” application to select the tracks you wish to have shown on your map. The menu that will give you the option to “Show Track” will also have another menu or tab to select the color. Most units (other than the Zumo 660/665 & BMW Nav4) will default the track color to what it was when you imported it from Basecamp into the GPS unit. You can also change the color on the GPS unit itself. You are going to want to ensure the track color will contrast against the map you are using. In the case of Topo maps, you will want to avoid green (the same color as contour lines) and blue (the same color as rivers and other bodies of water). Generally I will use red, orange, purple, or magenta for track I am following. These tend to contrast well against both Topo maps and the City Navigator map. If you are doing multiple rides in one area remember to “Hide on map” your track after your ride it to avoid confusion on your next ride. This is important at events like the Touratech Rally and KTM Adventure Riders Rally where many rides are going to leave and return to the same bivouac area. 

Closing

To make a long article short, there are six things you need to keep in mind.

Use the right map – If you are navigating tracks off-road. Get 100k Topo, Garmin charges $100 for map that includes all of the United States. If you’re experienced reading maps, the information 100k Topo will give you will give you so much useful than what City Navigator will give you.

Orientation – Set to North-Up – This is the best orientation or map-view you can use for backcountry travel

Right Vehicle (icon) – 3D Arrow – Since you are using North-Up view or orientation select the 3D arrow. Now you can see your location and direction of travel clearly.

Zoom Level – 500ft, 800ft or 0.2mi scale – Get the detail level you need, but balance that with the big picture you need.

Data Fields – You might not have a lot of options depending on your GPS unit, but get information you can find useful.

Track Color – Select something that provides good contrast against the map being used.

With those half-dozen points in mind, you can now go and navigate the backcountry much easier than the factory setting would have done. As I have mentioned before, this is not a unequivocal end-all guide of how to navigate the backcountry. This is how I have done it successfully since 2012, and my recommended settings are based on recommendations by guys doing it even longer. Take this guide and use what you find useful. Try things that might be uncomfortable, I fully know the difficulty of getting used to North-Up, but I find myself reverting to it more and more even for on the road travel. Let me know if you think I missed the mark, or if things change. Good luck out there, have fun, and Godspeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Eric Archambault 

More GPS Information Below

How to load tracks for your next adventure

Terms and Vocabulary for Navigation – Part One

Terms and Vocabulary for Navigation – Part Two

Navigating with Tracks – Tips & Tricks

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