#289 GPS : Journey into Terra Incognita

Doris the GPS Autovoice has plenty of advice for the wayfaring stranger. But it’s not always good information.

It looked straightforward on the map. Turn off West Evans Creek Road on to Dixie Gulch Road, which meandered up into the Cascades and joined Jumpoff Joe Creek Road. That would take me down into Pleasant Valley, Oregon. Helpful though the folks at the gas bar in Sam’s Valley had been, they hadn’t thought to provide street signs on the two-track dirt roads I found myself.
So I follow what I think is Dixie Gulch until I emerge from the forest onto a clearing near the summit, with five wooded trails leading from it. I try each one in turn: “Off route: recalculating,” said Doris-the-voice. So if every trail is the wrong one, which one do you follow? Rather than face turning around a fully-laden R1200GS by myself on a single track, I take the coward’s way out: back down to Sam’s Valley and on to I-Five …
Where am I? And where am I going? This is not an existential conundrum, but the two questions that need answering every time you set out on a ride. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t get there from here. Global positioning is a great invention, but all it can really tell you is where you are. It does this by trilateration—comparing your relative distance from two or more geostationary satellites. I was once publicly castigated for calling this triangulation—though the end result is exactly the same. Do the trigonometry.
So a GPS unit also needs a reference database that includes a map, a destination, and waypoints. The GPS that compares where you are with where you want to be and guides you there via the waypoints. Well, usually. Sometimes you end up where the GPS thinks you want to be, and sends you via routes you were trying to avoid. And however much you curse the unit, the cause is always the same: pilot error.
Wise is the rider who sits at his computer before departure, plots the route using the GPS company’s mapping software and downloads it to the GPS, the more waypoints the better. But this isn’t foolproof either. I’ve found inconsistencies between mapping software and the algorithms used to plot a route. Equally wise is the rider who previews the route in his GPS and checks for consistency.
I’ve found it best to enter waypoints as intersections rather than city names, too. If you enter a city name, the GPS feels obliged to take you to the municipal hall or other equally obscure location. I remember circulating in a parking lot in Borrego Springs, California while Doris balled me out for missing the waypoint: a post office.
What a GPS unit does best is get you from the airport car rental outlet in an unfamiliar city to your hotel and back, telling you where to gas up before you drop the car off. Remember this, and it puts the idiosyncrasies into context.
So, which to buy? The default option for clumsy, fat-fingered bikers like me has been Garmin’s Zumo (TomTom Rider being no longer available in North America). I bought my 550 model in 2006 direct from Garmin at the “motorcycle journalist discount price” of $699 US. (Oddly, the MSRP was also $699.) The 550 came with Garmin’s MapSource software as well as features like Bluetooth, XM radio and a MP3 player. I’ve never used any of them.
The 550 was also ruggedized, waterproof, and featured a sturdy, locking cradle, RAM mount, glove-friendly touch screen and “hard” buttons in case the touch screen went AWOL. Once I’d got the hang of MapSource, downloading routes into the Zumo was a breeze, and as long as my route was fairly straightforward, it worked well. But for backcountry work, the limitations showed. Neither MapSource nor the Zumo database distinguish dirt roads from gravel from paved backroads. You need a paper map for that. I remember spinning along Hwy. 247 in California’s Mojave Desert with Doris metaphorically screaming at me to turn off through the cholla bushes. On an Electra Glide? No way, Jose Cuervo.
Equally irritating is the 550’s inability to display elevation while actively navigating. The 550 displays elevation only when in compass mode. Two vital pieces of information for marginal-weather motorcycling are air temperature and elevation. Ten degrees at sea level could drop you below freezing at 1,500 metres.
Overall, though, my Zumo has got me safely in and out of all kinds of potential trouble, and I wouldn’t ride unfamiliar terrain without it. But I always take a good paper map as well. Apart from an issue with corrosion on the cradle’s electrical contacts, it’s been reliable too. Until the touch screen crapped out last year, that is. A real person, Darlene, in St Louis, Missouri answered the 800 number and handled my service request (“Any problem, hon, just call me right back.”). Garmin sent me a refurbished unit for a flat $150, shipping in.
And now there’s a new Zumo, the 350LM, with a larger screen and lifetime maps. But there are no screen-saving “hard” buttons, and the cradle doesn’t lock, meaning you have to demount the unit every time you go for a leak in a gas station. I don’t doubt the aftermarket will fix this, but right now it seems a pain. MapSource is gone, replaced by BaseCamp, which “thinks everything is an adventure.”
So should you buy the new Zumo? I’m hanging on to my refurb 550 for the time being, and I’ll see how my tester gets on with the 350LM. MSRP on that? Why, it’s … $699.

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