Riding with a GPS

Roger Hubbold writes: this page describes a number of online software systems for creating and editing GPX files for use with GPS devices and smartphones. All comments describe my personal opinions and should be treated accordingly. If you find anything factually wrong please let me know and I will make corrections. I have not attempted to explain how to use each system; the easiest way to learn is to experiment with them, using their help pages and other materials online. 

As well as the programs described here, there are other commonly used systems. Garmin provide an online route planning system (Basecamp) to go with their GPS devices, and for those of a competitive bent Strava can also be used. I have little experience of these, so they are not described here.

In what follows, the same route from Newport to Abergavenny is used to give an idea of what the interface looks like. Each system reports a similar mileage, but altitude and gradient data, where supported, are often noisy and overestimated. The variations can be very large. Having tried these systems and compared their estimated amounts of climbing on routes where I have Garmin-recorded altitude data, no clear pattern of over- or under-estimation emerges and it can be concluded that ascent/descent data are highly unreliable. The altitude graphs, however, do give an idea of where the climbs will occur.

GPX files for routes all over the UK

Looking for a ride or somewhere to walk? Here’s a wonderful resource with rides/walks all over the UK, complete with descriptions, maps and downloadable GPX files: http://www.gps-routes.co.uk. The lengths vary from very short (a couple of miles) to around 30+ miles. Mostly they use quiet roads and bike paths.


Ride with GPS

Most recently I have been using ridewithGPS.com. Most of its common facilities can be used free of charge, although two levels of paid-for account are also available ($50 to $80 per year). What you get for the latter is the ability to split and join routes plus some other stuff – mainly to do with it organising your cycling life for you! For example, with a paid account you can link it directly to a Garmin account, to save your rides, compute ride statistics etc.I prefer to use GPXEditor for route splitting and joining, as it’s free. In other respects, Ride with GPS is better in my opinion, as it’s professionally maintained. You need to be aware, however, that to use it you will need to register for an account and it then stores your routes in that account. You need to set your account profile to maintain your privacy, unless you don’t care about these things. You can see a summary of your routes and you can download them as GPX files. You can also reroute them by dragging them on the map. It does a reasonably good job of computing ascent/descent and gradients, but tends to overestimate ascent/descent by around 20%.


GPX Editor

I have also been experimenting with gpxeditor.co.uk and found it has some capabilities that I like. In particular, you can create a new track fairly easily by clicking key points and then – unlike some of the other systems – you can reroute part of the planned track by dragging those points. Like other programs, GPX Editor uses Google routing algorithms to perform road following. The fact that you can amend an earlier part of the track in this way gives it the edge over BikeHike and BikeRouteToaster in my opinion. This functionality is also available when you load a previously planned track back into GPX Editor, and similar functionality is also provided by Ride with GPS.

More usefully, the program allows you to split tracks and reroute a segment that has been split off, and also to join different tracks together. Another advantage is that it supports OS mapping for the UK as well as Open Street Map. Most of the commands are invoked via pop-up menus by right-clicking the mouse. The nested nature of these is sometimes a bit fiddly, but they have the advantage that the whole window is available for the map itself.

You can obtain ascent/descent if you have a paid subscription. On rides I have recorded the climbing is overestimated by in excess of 100%.


BikeHike

I’ve used bikehike.co.uk regularly, and for some time it was my route planning software of choice. Chris Juden wrote a guide about free route planning software, entitled Making Tracks for GPSused here with permission. It describes BikeHike and BikeRouteToaster (see below). It has the ability to compute height data, although in common with several other systems it tends to overestimate. In the UK it can also display OS 1:50K maps in the upper-right corner of the window, which is occasionally useful for looking at contours or points of interest. (In this example the height data are displayed instead.) On a flatter ride ascent was overestimated by just 2%, but on a hilly one it was out by 30%.


BikeRouteToaster

 Bike Route Toaster has a couple of features that I used to like. First, it allows you to compute height data and to apply smoothing to that data. I found that 20% smoothing for altitude and 10% for gradient gave a good feel for the real amount of climbing. However, these days the altitude calculation doesn’t seem to work most of the time, so comparisons with other systems and with Garmin-recorded rides have not been possible. You can see that the altitude plot is smoother than in the other systems. Second, BikeRouteToaster allows you to set an offset from the road centre (e.g. left for the UK, right for Europe), which is handy where part of an out-and-back route shares a road.


Google Maps and GPS Visualizer

Another alternative for creating routes is Google maps. If you choose the Cycle option for routing then it does a fairly good job of choosing routes that we often use ourselves — not surprising perhaps, as cyclists will have contributed the information that is used to propose routes. I find it particularly valuable for planning new routes in areas that I don’t know well.

But, how do you get from a Google route to a GPX file that you can load onto your GPS unit or phone? Answer: use http://www.gpsvisualizer.com/convert_input. First, plan your route in Google, then copy the information in the browser’s address bar that corresponds to your route and paste it into the URL field in GPS Visualizer and click Convert. Once converted you’ll see a new page and you can then click the link to download the file to your computer. Voila!

ViewRanger for smartphones

An alternative to a GPS unit is to use a phone app, such as ViewRanger, which supports OS mapping in the UK, IGN in France etc. Apps that allow you to purchase and download maps to your phone have the benefit that they don’t need an internet connection while riding. Similar capabilities are provided by the Ride with GPS phone app.