There’s been a lot of discussion about GPS and mountain biking around here lately so we thought we’d put together our first ever Mountain Bikers’ Buyers Guide to help you make the right choice. Look for more buyers guides for other MTB products coming soon!
Basic Features Most GPS Devices Include
While there are a wide range of GPS choices available, most will at least include the basics:
- USB connection: Older GPS units used serial connections but today’s devices include a way to connect to your PC or Mac.
- Speed and distance tracking: Standard on 99.9% of GPS units.
- Ability to mark points of interest: These are called waypoints and most devices give you a way to mark your current location and add a short title to help you remember what you marked.
- Elevation tracking: GPS devices have varying degrees of accuracy around elevation/altitude readings but almost all are accurate enough for consumer use.
- Path tracking: Most GPS devices are constantly marking where you are on screen so you can follow your path back to the start in case you get lost. This series of data points showing where you’ve been is called a “track.”
- Basic navigation: At a minimum, most GPS devices will help you navigate (via straight line) from point A to point B.
Beyond the basics, you need to decide what you want to use your GPS for on the mountain bike trail.
Navigation or Fitness… or Both?
There are two main uses for GPS devices on the trail: navigation and fitness training. Of course many of us want a device that does both and that’s certainly possible – but it’s generally more expensive than a single-use device.
If you want a GPS to use for trail navigation, you’ll want to choose one with a color screen, the ability to load detailed maps, and support for an external memory card. Keep in mind that detailed “basemaps” may or may not come pre-loaded with your GPS and can cost up to $100 each. Some manufacturers make a distinction between topographic and driving maps so if you want turn-by-turn directions like the ones you use in the car, make sure you get driving maps in addition to topo basemaps for the trails. Almost all basemaps show things like bodies of water, roadways, railroad tracks, cities/towns, and other landmarks which are useful for navigation.
For workout and fitness level tracking, choose a GPS unit that can be paired with a heart rate monitor, power meter, etc. Also consider the included and compatible fitness training software for your GPS. There are plenty of fitness tracking websites that allow you to upload your GPS data directly via web browser for analysis.
Beyond general usage, consider other features you may find useful:
- Battery type: Some devices include an integrated rechargeable battery while others require AA or AAA batteries that must be replaced.
- Form factor and bike mounts: Larger units, like those designed for use in the car, can be mounted to bike handlebars but they’re often awkward. Scope out compatible bike mounts before you choose your GPS.
- Other usage: If you’re into outdoor activities other than biking (say hiking or running), look for a device that can do double (or triple) duty. Just remember, cycling-specific GPS units perform better on the trail than multi-purpose devices.
Recommendations for Mountain Bikers
With all those considerations in mind, here’s a list of our top picks for mountain bike GPS devices in three categories: cheap and good, mid-range, and money is no object. Also be sure to read all the reviews here on singletracks to find out what mountain bikers are saying about other devices we didn’t include.
Cheap and Good GPS Devices for Biking
- Garmin eTrex H: Does all the basics but doesn’t include navigation or fitness functions. No matter, it’s available for less than $100 and is the only GPS we used for years before upgrading.
- Garmin Forerunner 205: This wrist-mounted fitness device is great for both biking and running. Consider getting a bike mount for the Forerunner since it tends to impede wrist motion on the bike. For heart rate monitor compatibility, you’ll need to spend a bit more for the Forerunner 305.
- Garmin Edge 205: At $249 MSRP, this is the most expensive of the “cheap” devices but it’s also the best suited to mountain biking. Still, it doesn’t contain robust fitness or navigation features so you may find the need to upgrade sooner rather than later. Includes bike mount.
Mid-range GPS Devices for Biking
- Garmin Edge 305: One step up from the Edge 205, this device adds support for a wireless heart rate monitor and other fitness tools. Bike mount included.
- DeLorme PN-40: Available online for less than $300, the PN-40 includes a color screen and basemaps for navigation. It’s a little bulky on the handlebars but is a great choice for color navigation on a budget and does double duty as a great hiking GPS.
- iPhone: We weren’t sure where to place this one but if you already have an iPhone you can get decent mapping apps for less than $10 each. Of course the iPhone is a bit more fragile than devices specifically made for outdoor activities and you may not have access to basemaps if you’re out of cell tower range.
Money Is No Object
- Garmin Edge 705: If you have the coin to spend and are looking for a GPS to use primarily for biking, go for the Edge 705. This GPS does it all, from color screen navigation to wireless fitness tracking, all in a convenient and easy to use package for mountain or road biking.
Where to Shop for Mountain Bike GPS Devices
While more and more local bike shops are stocking GPS devices these days, you’ll generally find the best selection online at electronics retailers like Amazon.com. You’ll also get the best prices at Amazon, in some cases lower than what cycling retailers pay. Of course it’s always a good idea to support your LBS so check there first to see if they have what you need.
Choosing and buying a GPS for mountain biking takes a bit of research and planning but it’s well worth the effort. The right GPS can help you say on the trail, find the best singletrack, and elevate your training to the next level. Happy trails!