Last winter, I finally broke down and decided it was time to buy a proper GPS unit. For years, I’d been making do with a cellphone for street riding, and a Garmin eTrex Legend Hcx for offroad. It was time to upgrade!

After digging through my couch cushions for change, and robbing the kids’ piggy banks, I had enough money for a Garmin Zumo 396. But, just before placing the order, and just before a couple of planned motorcycle adventures, I was asked if I wanted to review a loan Garmin Zumo XT.

Some specs

The Garmin Zumo XT debuted in early 2020, as an adventure-focused motorcycle GPS system. Previous Garmin units had the option to select the twistiest roads automatically. The XT takes things a step further, with “Garmin Adventurous Routing.” Use this option when automatically mapping a route, and you can incorporate unpaved roads, 4×4 trails and other fun, while staying inside public land boundaries (a very important feature in the U.S.).

The Zumo XT comes with pre-loaded on-road and off-road maps for U.S., Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands and Bahamas. With wi-fi updates, you can also download BirdsEye Satellite Imagery, at no charge. Several travel-oriented apps come built-in as well.

It’s IPX7-weatherproof, and comes with a built-in Li-ion battery with battery life as long as six hours when disconnected from the charger. The 5.5-inch touchscreen is very bright, made to far exceed Garmin’s cheaper units.

All in, it’s a very powerful gadget, far exceeding the streamlined handheld GPS units that I used before. Pricing is around $499 in the US, $650 in Canada, depending on where you are shopping and whether there’s a sale on.

I installed the Zumo on almost every bike I’ve ridden this year, including this KTM 390 Adventure. It’s easy to attach it to the battery; just run the cable through the bodywork and into the handlebar mount. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Installing the Garmin Zumo XT

My XT came with a mounting kit, including knock-off RAM-style mounts. Instead, I used a universal claw-type RAM mount that I previously used for my eTrex Legend. This would allow me to quickly switch the GPS between bikes.

Hooking up the power cord is easy, if you’re OK with a basic setup. Garmin provides a loooonnnng cord with ring terminal connectors. Screw these to your battery terminals, then run that cord to your handlebars, carefully routing it through bodywork. The cord terminates in a charging mount. Click your GPS into this mount, and it automatically powers on. Away you go (but not without worrying about the mount dropping your GPS onto the pavement—it seems finicky and chintzy at first. That’s why this farkle exists).

Wet, soggy days are no problem for the Zumo XT. Neither are suspiciously unmarked public roadways. This ancient route through New Brunswick’s Acadian dikes was on the map, and even a long-disused trail to the abandoned town of Grole (re-settled in 1970!) when I was in Newfoundland. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

Basic usage

On the box, Garmin says the Zumo XT is ready to use—turn it on, and go. That’s mostly true. You don’t need to plug in any chips or download any maps (although you can update them if you choose)g, for basic nav. I synced the XT to my helmet and phone, and set out. I started running New Brunswick’s back roads between Saint John and Moncton, curious to see the GPS’s AI-powered routes, compared to my own selections.

At first, I was somewhat disappointed when the GPS sent me down the highway, not through favourite backroads like Route 121 or the 845 . . . and then I realized the Adventurous Routing system works on a sliding scale, and I’d set the “adventure rating” to minimum. Jacking up the “adventure rating” made the ride significantly more interesting! In fact, in later usage around Nova Scotia’s Sunrise Trail, a classic biker route, I found the GPS picked the exact same roads through the area that I would have chosen, after years of riding through the area and carefully selecting the best.

That’s good news for GPS owners, but it kind of made me wonder if my experience pre-running that area for rallies was now irrelevant—just one more instance of machine replacing man?

Maybe, maybe not. On a recent trip through Newfoundland, that same auto-route feature struggled in some of the island’s more serpentine one-way streets, in the city of St. Johns and old outport communities. Google Maps did the same here, so I don’t blame the GPS—but it pays to be able to think for yourself, even as the machines grow smarter and smarter.

Still, it’s nice to have a clever friend along as you ride. The Zumo XT warns of upcoming speed changes, or changes to motorcycle helmet laws, or road hazards, and even advises of lane changes. If you want, you can even configure it to give you satellite weather information, or warn about speed cameras. If you want to pay for mobile data, you can have a much-improved riding experience, if you max out the unit’s capabilities.

The GPS will re-calculate on-the-fly if you diverge from its instructed route; I was actually able to send the unit into a confused muddle by doing this. However, that was a repeated purposeful attempt to egregiously ignore all instructions and see what happened. If you’re paying attention to what the Garmin’s saying and more-or-less follow along, you’ll be just fine.

The Zumo XT’s search function uses a split-keyboard arrangement, similar to other Garmins. It’s good, although not perfect. On that same tour around Newfoundland, it failed to pick up remote gas stations on more than one occasion, where Google Maps found the same stations. One great thing about the search feature, though: It also integrates search results from the Foursquare app, which is built into the GPS.

The GPS also has Tripadvisor, Ultimate Public Campgrounds and iOverlander built into the search function, as well as options from The History Channel to search nearby historical locations, a fuel price search function, and a National Park search function. Some of these require the GPS to be paired to a smartphone to use, but others require no Internet connection. Together, they make this a very helpful tool if you’re planning your day’s ride on-the-fly.

You can connect your phone to the Zumo XT for navigation purposes, or for communication or even music playback control. Photo: Garmin

In-flight entertainment

Along with all that trip-planning utility, the Garmin Zumo XT can integrate with both your smartphone and your helmet comm via Bluetooth. Great—you can hear turn-by-turn instructions over your helmet comm. You can also listen to music over your helmet comm, but control it through the Zumo XT’s screen.

Depending which helmet comm you have, this may or may not be useful. Many riders will prefer to use vocal commands to start/stop music, or skip tracks. However, it’s convenient to do so by the GPS dash as well, and I personally used this feature quite a bit when riding solo. I didn’t use it when group riding, for good reason.

I typically mounted the Garmin to the left handlebar, as this made it easier to control with a non-throttle hand if needed. Photo: Zac Kurylyk

All jammed up

We’re starting to expect a lot from our motorcycle electronics. On my last big trip, we had four helmet comms connected to each other, plus our individual phones connected to those comms, and in my case, a GPS connected to both my phone and comm as well.

The more pieces you add to this chain, the more likely you are to encounter a bug. Earlier this year, on a similar group ride, I found my Sena comm would completely drop my group conversation after the GPS’s audio cues kicked in. It was intermittent, but on many occasions, the Sena would just give up on reconnection after the Garmin interjected itself.

I’m not blaming Garmin for the Sena’s woes, but I do think buyers should be aware of potential issues between the GPS and Bluetooth-connected devices, once you start multiplying the complications. The good news is, if you do run into these issues, they’re usually eventually sorted out by a call to your comm’s manufacturer, or just common sense. Or, you can un-pair something in the chain, if needed.

What I didn’t do with the GPS

I put thousands of klicks on this unit this year, but there’s one thing I didn’t do: While I messed around with the Garmin Drive app, I didn’t find I needed it for anything. I can see how many riders would find it useful, though. Garmin says the app “provides real-time information for traffic, parking, advanced weather, and photoLive traffic cameras, in addition to the ability to send and receive calls, texts, and notifications from your Bluetooth-enabled mobile device.” Thanks to COVID-19, I haven’t been able to travel anywhere I really need any of those functions, except for maybe the calls and texts, and I don’t really want those while I’m riding anyway.

However, if you do, that function is there.

I also only scratched the surface of the Garmin Explore app. This app allows you to build offroad navigation maps on your phone, upload them to your Garmin, or download it off the GPS after you’ve traveled somewhere.

This is not a replacement for BaseCamp, the program that serious Garmin users are long familiar with (which is also compatible with the Zumo XT). However, the Explore app is probably more user-friendly for the average consumer-level user, at least when it comes to offroad routes. That’s especially true if the rider doesn’t have a desktop or laptop computer, which describes more and more people these days.

The Garmin Zumo XT also works in portrait mode, but I preferred landscape mode. Photo: Garmin

More help and information

With the considerable capability built into the Garmin Zumo XT and its associated apps and software, it would take far more than this article to explain all their functions, strengths, and weaknesses. However, there are resources that can be very helpful, starting with ADVrider’s own Mapping & Navigation forum—see a thread on the Zumo XT here. If you’ve got a problem or question, chances are someone else on that thread has already encountered it, and can help.

Another highly useful resource: The New England Riders Facebook page. The bigwigs over there are GPS junkies, and can help with pretty much any question you have. New England Riders also has this uber-helpful Learn Basecamp lesson series.

There are also many, many helpful how-to videos on YouTube.

The bottom line

I’ve used this Garmin for thousands of kilometres in a wide range of weather conditions, and have yet to encounter a serious issue that I could blame on the GPS. If I do, I’m sure I can suss it out with advice from the forum/Facebook experts. The Zumo XT is powerful, and has proven extremely helpful in my travels already this year—and I’m sure it will prove even more useful as COVID-19 restrictions ease up, and I’m able to travel farther from home. It’s here to stay now, after all—the Zumo XT proved so useful that I asked Garmin if I could buy the unit. More adventures lay ahead!

Disclaimer: Garmin loaned ADVrider the Zumo XT for a limited time for the purpose of review. After using it on a trip the author asked Garmin if the used review unit could be purchased, which they agreed to. 

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