With the advent of stand-alone motorcycle GPS units like Garmin and smartphones with GPS capability, are paper maps a thing of the past?  GPS capability can give a rider the opportunity to see where they are in real time and find a way to a destination.  But with these electronic aids come some foibles that don’t make getting to a destination easier.  GPS has its own set of deficiencies that can actually make navigating more difficult.  Perhaps, sometimes GPS isn’t the answer?

The upside of GPS

Without a doubt, GPS does provide some significant assistance.

  1. Your position is known in real time.
  2. You can receive turn by turn navigational information.
  3. Many GPSs have voice capability and can provide verbal navigation information so you don’t have to stop to receive the information.
  4. You can get non-navigational information on the same device.  Things like POIs (fuel, emergency assistance, food, ATMs etc), compass direction, current altitude, fuel remaining and other helpful information even when out of cell coverage.
  5. You can see the display in the dark without using a flashlight.

Technology deficiencies?

While often very convenient, GPS suffers from some inherent issues.

  1. When power is lost or consumed, navigation assistance stops (dead battery, connection to electrical source fails).  Power loss can occur over time as you ride or can occur instantaneously.  If you are in a remote area, the loss of navigation can make your ride uncomfortable or perhaps even life-threatening.
  2. Electronic devices can fail for a number of reasons.  Obviously, a GPS uses software and firmware.  Software and firmware problems can arise at boot up, lead to map read errors or lock up when in use.
  3. A good satellite line of sight is necessary to provide navigation information.  If you are in the woods or surrounded by mountains, loss of satellite reception is possible.  Sometimes for short periods of time and others for extended periods until you can find some open ground.
  4. Displays have become much better over the last few years, but can still sometimes be hard to see in bright sunlight.
  5. Updated maps are necessary to maintain accuracy and can introduce new errors.  Old software maps can lead you to “roads” that don’t exist, have been closed, or are on private property.  Once updated, a previously bug-free map can now have bugs.
  6. GPSs are not always waterproof but labeled as water resistant.  Being waterproof is a key requirement for motorcycle mounted GPSs.
  7. Features can be complex to use and make navigation more difficult instead of easier.
  8. Probably most insidiously, they breed a reliance on a device which can fail or have incorrect information.  Your own navigation skills may erode or never be gained.

Paper maps to the rescue?

Paper maps, on the other work well without the use of technology.

  1. Electricity is not required to display information.
  2. They don’t have software and once printed, the information is available at all times.
  3. The information is generally very reliable.  High quality maps are made over time and the roads displayed verified.
  4. The use of a paper map requires the user to remain situationally aware.  Having an idea of general direction, time, speed and distance traveled can allow a user to make an educated estimate at the current location and the way to the destination.
  5. Waterproof maps are available and quite durable.
  6. Maps specifically designed to cater to motorcycles are available.

Are paper maps a panacea?  Probably not.

  1. They require the user to take the time to understand them.
  2. Navigational information is not as readily available as on a GPS.  Riders may have to stop to read them.
  3. The rider’s position is not displayed in real time.  Turn by turn information is not available.
  4. Maps wear out.  Paper can break down over time making the marking difficult to read or the map fall to pieces.
  5. You need a light source to read them in the dark.

So while both GPS and Paper maps have their pluses and minuses, what is your navigation preference?  Do you use a GPS, a paper map or a combination of the two?

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