Motorcycle Camping Road Trip: Navigation and Electronics

This is a motorcycle road trip gear review, in installments, from my 23 days living on the road and off of my motorcycle. I keep a personal “motorcycle diaries”, cataloging “lessons learned” and “bring next time”. These are some of my notes. More gear review categories can be found here.


Navigation and Electronics


  • Paper maps
  • Compass
  • GPS device
  • Determining direction and time off of the sun
  • Satellite messenger device
  • Charging devices from the motorcycle and portable chargers

Paper maps are a must, because you never know when your electronic devices or GPS will protest. It might even be right when you are ready to shove off on the first millimeter of your journey, such as what happened in my case. If you do use a GPS that is powered by your motorcycle, but is something that also takes batteries, bring those back-up batteries. I do not know if it was the constant rain, or what, but the battery harness I had set up to connect to my Garmin GPSMAP 62s would periodically stop powering the GPS, and I at times had to rely on battery power. 6218_CRIf the GPS were to have completely stopped working, and if conditions were such that I could not tell the cardinal directions from the sun and shadows, then the compass would be handy. If riding in unmarked or poorly marked areas, that compass and a topographical map could become important for navigating. Thoughts on the Garmin was that it works, but it is almost as if the company built its products around older, clunky technology and now it would be too massive an effort to transition to a platform with the fluidity of cell phone GPS. It is nice having buttons on the GPS device, though, that are pressable even with motorcycle gloves on. There are multiple ways to get to the same screen via the buttons, which means the device would still function even if some buttons were to break. A touch screen GPS would not have such back-up options.

The sun can be used for directional and time orientation, if it is visible. If in the northern hemisphere, the sun will always be to the south. If the sun is too bright to look at, note where the shadows are cast. Or recall from elementary school how the runaway slaves from the American South looked for moss on the north side of the trees to know they were headed the right direction towards freedom; moss is on the north side of trees for the same reason that the north face of mountains retain the most snow – because they are not on the sun facing south side. Piecing information like those together, the other cardinal directions can be figured out. Another useful sun trick is that as if one looks towards the sun in the latter part of the afternoon, and stacks one’s fingers between the horizon line and the bottom of the sun, and multiplies each finger by 15 minutes (or 20 minutes for thumbs), that is approximately how much time there is left until sunset.


For safety, having a satellite messenger device, whether Spot Gen3 or DeLorme InReach, is comforting for self and others, because you can check in with your coordinates to let people know your are safe, check in at a location you like so you have it on record for future reference, or send out an SOS. The Spot will not show you the coordinates you are at live (unless you have it sending to yourself and your phone has reception and can receive the message); the DeLorme does have GPS capabilities for live use with the Explorer version but not the SE version, but I hear it is not so ideal to where it is a better back-up rather than primary GPS. I have had the Spot for years, but is a little spotty at times in getting the non-emergency messages out, and those can take up to 20 minutes. I have shut off my Spot too early, and people waiting for my ping freaked out and thought I went missing. The folks at Spot say that if the emergency SOS button were to be pushed, that message would be out and received within 5 minutes. There is a light on the Spot that indicates a message supposedly went through, but no actual confirmation. I had done homework on the DeLorme InReach, because with text capabilities and message sent confirmation, it seems a preferable device to have on hand. However, despite a few phone calls to customer service to find out more details on how it actually works since the ones on display in stores are props and nonfunctioning, I still had enough outstanding questions that I decided to go with the Spot a bit longer. The DeLorme is larger and so would not fit in my motorcycle jacket pockets (and I would like a satellite messenger device on my person, just in case), and the DeLorme device and plan are more expensive. However, the DeLorme could be paid for monthly, though that is not so useful if spontaneity is how one (does not) plan; with that lifestyle, having an ever ready and supported device makes most sense. I am still keeping an eye on the DeLorme in the future, and if I were to go even more remote and especially outside of North America, I would probably pick up a DeLorme, which also has the fuller global coverage of the two devices. The other useful thing about having these devices, is that for about $18 more a year, there is search and rescue (SAR) insurance that can be purchased. Note the fine print, however, for exclusions, and the detail that only the owner of the device that signals the SOS is covered by the SAR insurance.

Then there are all of the other electronics we bring: phones, tablets, laptops, cameras. I still have not figured out the best electronics charging set-up that would work for laptop, camera batteries, etc. (I suspect Goal Zero Yeti 150 might work best, as it has receivers for regular wall plugs, which is necessary for laptops and camera battery chargers.  Downside is that it does take up some space though not excessive, and it weights 12 pounds.)  For what I was doing, I found the SAE USB converter great for either charging my phone directly, or preferably, charging my portable charger that I could then use to charge my phone or tablet. Since my road trip, I have seen examples of motorcyclists making a hole in their panniers and threading a charging cord into their pannier, so their tablets and devices could be stored safely while riding and be charging. I am still learning how the electrical aspects of motorcycles work, but from what I understood, those riders had connected a fuse block to the battery, put the fuse block under the seat, and therefore had connectors further back on the motorcycle to which the pannier charger cords could be plugged. The fuse block also allowed control over which accessories and cords were powered or in the off position, and meant that the battery itself did not have a tangle of cords connected to it. There is a limit to the draw each motorcycle can handle, so pay attention to your motorcycle’s limit (I hear it is usually 2-3 items, extra lights counts as one, each item of heated gear counts as one, assuming the motorcycle is humming at about 4000 RPM minimum). I was also told there is motorcycle voltage monitor, that can be connected to the battery and put near the instrument cluster, so as you are riding, you know whether you have too many accessories zapping the motorcycle’s juice.

Because of my history with batteries, I carry a smartphone-sized portable charger/jump starter (Lightning Pak Ultra Slim), but it may be wise to reserve the jump starter for your motorcycle in a bind, instead of draining it on tablets and cell phones, and to carry a second (less expensive) portable charger for the small devices.

Hopefully one day, with Europe leading and the US to follow close behind (crossed fingers), laws will be made requiring manufactures to have the same charging cords across devices and companies.  That would free up a bit of tangle.

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See the rest of the Motorcycle Diaries