Find your way on the trail

Multiple times a year the bikepacking forums and message boards for the Arizona Trail Race, Tour Divide, Colorado Trail Race, and others explode with people asking questions about Bikepacking Navigation. Pulled together here are some but not all of the most common options most riders/races use. Part of figuring out how to best navigate is to first know which method works best for you.

Navigating the complex world of GPS can be very confusing and frustrating if you don’t know what you’re doing.  If this describes you, keep reading as I’ll try to cover the most common questions.

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The most common unit for bikepacking navigation you see mentioned by others is the Garmin eTrex 20x or 30.  They are reliable and boom proof.  Garmin offers many choices when it comes to base maps to help you navigate.

There are plenty of other GPS choices that work well.  You can read how to choose a hand held GPS at Outdoor Gearlab.

Things to think about concerning GPS units:

  • Make sure your GPX track is a color other than that on the base map (so you don’t follow the wrong line).
  • If you have a touch screen be sure it works with your gloves (dry and wet).
  • Check to see how well can you see the screen in bright light.
  • Carry spare batteries at all times.
  • Secure it well.
  • Know your device inside and out.

The most important thing you can do when it comes to GPS units is to become a master using the one you have.  Use it and use it often.  You don’t want to go into a race or tour without really knowing your unit.  Know how to trouble shoot any error you might run into.

Setting up your eTrex 20/30 is made super simple with this article by Francis Cooke.


For those looking a better peace of mind or simple just don’t want to be discounted, you should look into the Garmin InReach. The Inreach is a satellite communication devise that allows you to stay in touch globally, send and receive messages, navigate a route, track and store you journey, and has an SOS emergency system with 24/7 support. You can also pair the devise to you smart phone’s social media accounts and receive weather reports.

There are three models to choose from:

Garmin InReach - Bikepacking Navigation


Kerry at KLite has this to say:

“In my opinion the Garmin Etrex GPS range is the most simple and best GPS for long range riding… is my easy to add ‘profile’ file, that will make the user interface much simpler and the whole unit much more easy to use….it adds all my PRO ‘tweeks’ I have found and fully sets up the unit for bikepacking use.”…/7lyzgl…/AAA-KRdr0MGh3SWYjWmfHLoFa…

Apps for your Phone

The most common apps you’ll see being used for bikepacking navigation today are GAIA GPS and Atlas Guides.

Having an app on your phone as a back up is a great idea.  For some it may even be your primary means of bikepacking navigation.  Either way both of these apps will assist you in reaching your goals, whatever they might be.  Like with your GPS unit be sure you have a firm grasp on how to operate the app.

gaia bikepacking navigation
Guthook Bikepacking Navigation


The preferred app for outdoor adventures is GAIA GPS.  Like most apps available, there is a free version and two pay ones.  The Member Level is what 90% of users will need.  It allows you to download maps for offline use.  The cost is $20 a year.

To get the most out of your GAIA experience take the time to watch the suggested user created videos and tutorials on GAIA’s site.  Like with any piece or gear you bring with you, know this app inside and out before heading into the woods.

Atlas Guides

Guthook Guides or Atlas Guides started as a hiking app but have added bike routes for both the CTR and AZTR to their apps.  One thing to note is the mountain bike route shown on their app isn’t the exact “race” route.  You can read more about this in my resupply post.

Key Features:

  • Works offline
  • Downloadable maps
  • Shows turns, water, gates, bridges, highpoints, and more
  • Town list with what’s available
  • Elevation profile

Uploading GPX Files

How to upload GPX files to one’s device is always a common question for newbies.  Don’t worry it’s quite simple.

  1. Download the GPX file to your computer (Note where it saves it).
  2. Plug in your device.
  3. Open a second window so you can see the downloaded file and also the Garmin device folder in the second window.
  4. Copy or drag the GPX file into the GPX folder on your Garmin.
  5. Unplug your device.
  6. Navigate to the tracks area of your device and choose the file you just transferred to your device.

I know I said it was easy, and some of you out there will find these directions won’t work for you for and number of reasons.  A simple Google Search will deliver a ton of solutions.


One of the easiest and most common navigating mistakes when bikepacking is not checking your position often enough.  A good basic rule of thumb is to check your position at EVERY turn.

Some intersections have similar routes and you won’t know if your on the right track until you travel a bit.  Because of this it’s a good idea to check your position after making a turn. 

Planning Your Route


There are many websites you can use to create, track, and find routes.  Here are just a few.

GAIA – Your best option as a back up to your GPS unit.

MapMyRide – One of many great resources for creating your own route. – Created by enthusiast cyclists with the goal of sharing awesome bike tours with other cyclists. Now with more than 1,000,000 registered users.

Google Earth – Do you need words here…

Ride With GPS – Empowering people to get outside, reconnect with nature, and embark on two-wheeled adventures.

MTBProject – User submitted trails and information database of mountain bike trails.

Trail Forks – Trailforks is a mountain bike trail database & management system for riders, builders & trail associations.


Not many use them but paper maps are still available for certain trails and always a good back up in case your electronics crap out.

National Geographic Maps

Benchmark Maps

Adventure Cycling Association

Colorado Trail Map Book

Arizona Trail


Article – iPhone Vs. Garmin GPS
Website –


Read these next or checkout the main resource page.

Gear lists from the AZT, TD and CTR; Pros & Cons; Things I’d do different; and Tips.

Stony Pass - Colorado Trail - Bikepacking - Hiking - Colorado Trail Dispatches
Cold-Weather-Bikepacking-Craig Fowler-Colorado Trail-How to


Arizona Trail Logo - pregnant triangle - One of Seven Project - Arizona Trail Guide - FINISH TIME CONTEST
Tour Divide/Great Divide MTB Route Logo - tour divide guide
Colorado Trail Logo- One of Seven Project - colorado trail guide
Kokopelli Trail Logo - Kokopelli Trail Guide - Bikepacking

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