Do you use only paper maps? Smartphone offline map applications? A dedicated GPS device? Nothing but verbal directions from the locals?
We are generalists and use a combination of all the above.
We have carried paper maps for just about every country or region because we find it easier to plan and see the big picture of potential routes on paper. Plus, we have found our paper maps great for writing notes on. We often show our paper maps to people we meet along the way and let them show us their favorite route, point out places they recommend, and sometimes, what routes are best avoided.
We also do planning on our smartphone-based applications (we use two different offline mapping applications) that helps us understand distances and possible ride duration. We use two different apps:
Pros: This works well offline, it is easy to download the maps, and it is free.
Cons: You can only do routes as point A to point B. So, no multi-stop routing, which makes it difficult to change the suggested route if you want to take the less direct route. Does not allow searching specifically for camping.
Pros: You can download a useful wiki as well as the map that then gives you additional information about interesting sites along your journey. Under the accommodation search you can search specifically for camping. You can do multi-stop routing.
Cons: It is not free (but it only costs about US$5). It needs to be online (have data available) to do routing, but once the route is completed using data then that information is available offline during your journey.
We also use Google maps on the laptop computer to do some big picture planning, usually to figure out overall distances and potential routes that will span multiple days/weeks. Our preference is to travel in the neighborhood of 150 miles a day but sometimes aim for less if we know the route is particularly difficult. For example, in the remote mountain areas of Peru we would only plan on riding 50 miles if the road was particularly bad. Along Ruta 3 in Argentina we would easily ride 400 miles each day because the road was paved, straight, and easy. We also found that Google maps was a good way to share route information with other travelers. I think there is a way to make a Google maps route available offline on your phone but I did not investigate this option; it is a newer feature that wasn’t available on our 2014-2017 RTW trip.
Each riding day we used a GPS mounted in the cockpit of Mike’s bike. We have only carried one GPS (Garmin Montana) and one phone (iPhone 5) on our trip. We used free open source maps for our Garmin and found these maps to be as good or better than anything we could have purchased (see our “How to download free maps for a Garmin GPS: step-by-step instructions” post). Early in the trip we used Garmin Basecamp software to make detailed routes for our GPS device. As the months rolled by we increasingly began to rely on the phone mapping applications and this eventually became our preferred method because it didn’t require using the computer. For a couple very large cities we planned the routes in Garmin Basecamp and uploaded them to the GPS – this worked relatively well especially for Guatemala City and Bogota. We didn’t trust that the automatic route a GPS or Google would give us in these mega-cities would be the safest way to go, and we were right. Planning our specific routes through big cities ahead of time made these stressful rides quite painless.
While we like using paper maps for planning we love our GPS, especially for getting through larger cities, knowing how much farther we have to go during the day, and having a real-time map showing what the upcoming terrain and road will be like.
In a side-by-side comparison we often use our paper and phone apps for planning routes, gauging distances, and seeing how the GPS will likely send us. If there is a large discrepancy between the various formats we research why and adjust accordingly. We often need to pick points along the Garmin GPS automatic routing and force a new route or detour; sometimes the phone app routing knows things the Garmin does not, and vice versa.
In Europe, where they are so many choices of roads to get to any destination, we usually loaded the specific points we wanted (such as a mountain pass or scenic viewpoint) and then we would do GPS automatic routing as “shortest distance” on the Garmin. This invariably led us down lots of tiny unmarked roads and was a really fun way to travel, at least in Western Europe.