Mountain Bike Touring with your iPhone

Climbing, mountain biking and relaxing have been the tags of our trip to lake Garda in early September. Our friends traveled to Italy with us in order to have some free time away from daily routine. The region around lake Garda in Italy is well known for hundreds of top climbing crags and it is some kind of mecca for mountain bikers.

How to navigate on your bike with an iPhone

Finding a spot to climb is easy as pie and with the help of you are able to explore well rated routes and crags. One missing part of the perfect vacation puzzle have been mountain bike routes. My plan was to find some routes upfront and get them on my iPhone to utilize modern mobile technology as good as possible. After asking Google for some route informations around lake Garda I stumbled upon the German Mountain Bike magazine and their route suggestions. They do not only provide descriptions, further more they added downloadable GPX formatted files for each route.

Armed with detailed route information and track data the solution would be an app which provides all of the following features:

  • Store several routes on the device.
  • Store according map data for offline use.
  • Be able to navigate with the app by showing the current location and utilizing the build in compass.
  • Accurate terrain maps.
  • No further costs for maps or downloads.

The Solution: Trails

Searching the App Store for “Mountain Biking Navigation” did not really give any usable matches but after a few related searches Trails came across my screen.

This app is perfect for hiking and biking, it meets all necessary features. You can record, export and import GPS data. So it is a GPS logger (record) and you can track your journey for later use (export). It provides the recorded data using the GPX format which can be used in various tools like Google Earth or RunKeeper like I do. Trails is also recommended by many photographers for geotagging too.

My workflow of getting the GPS data onto my device was easy. I used DropBox and their free iOS app to get the GPX (from Mountain Bike Magazine) data on my device. You can generate a public link out of every file on your dropbox and Trails knows how to import GPS data via web links. This was the easiest way for me, you can use the web link directly if you don’t have DropBox or any other service. Importing can be done by switching to the “Imported tracks” tab and hitting “+” on the upper right corner of the screen. A web browser opens and you can navigate (or copy & paste) to your data. The imported track will get shown in the list and by selecting it you will be able to see its stats like distance, ascent or descent. On the lower right corner is a map icon which leads to the most important view. You can choose between two types, “Road” and “Terrain + Cycle” maps and slide in the altitude profile. For hiking and mountain biking the terrain map will be your tool of choice. On the upper right corner you can tap to locate your self and Trails will show your current location marked by a blue dot on the map. There you go, this is the number one navigation feature and allows to you to stay on your planned route. If your device has a compass it is utilized too which helps to decide which direction to take on “dubious” forks in the path.

Working offline

All displayed maps get downloaded from OpenStreetMap as you watch them. If you are going abroad or into an area with bad cellular reception, you might want to have all map data on your device without depending on an active data connection. Trails offers a wonderful download feature for this use case. By hitting the down arrow beside the map switch you can select the area which should be available offline. All map tiles get downloaded on your device at the desired level of detail. After waiting some minutes for the data getting stored you are as independent as you can be.

Room for improvement

The app is universal too, so it runs very beautiful on the big screen of an iPad. I would love to see iCloud integration after iOS 5 gets released. This would ease planning a lot. Imagine your sitting at home, planning your tour on the “big” screen of your iPad and everything gets automatically synced to the iPhone without moving any data around on your own. Who wouldn’t love this feature?

I ran into two little issue while downloading maps on my iPhone. By default the app selects the road map type and on preparing several tracks for a trip like me, you can run into the problem of downloading wrong map type material. I was switching between tracks and the app always selected the road map after switching. This lead to the download of wrong map tiles. The app could remember the previous selected map type of each track to avoid this problem. An offline preview mode could also be handy (without turning the device into air plane mode) in order to get an insight which data has already been downloaded to the device.

Overall the app worked perfectly, we had no issues finding our path. Unfortunately I was missing one little feature on the go. Just as you can show your current position on the map it would be nice to see the current position on the altitude graph too. This would be very helpful to get a better understanding of how much elevation is still ahead.

With the help of the app we did not waste a lot of time on reading maps and guessing where we are, we perfectly took the planned route and found wonderful trails with breathtaking sight across the lake Garda region.

Trails will accompany me on future mountain biking tours, not only on vacation but also locally. Maybe I will open a tour section on my site to provide you with GPX files of the most beautiful tracks and trails.