SatNav on phone, map & compass

Navigation Tips for Great Adventures

I was tired after being in the saddle for nearly 12 hours, miles away from accommodation, unsure if /whether there would be anything to eat when I arrived and light was fading on the track, and I didn’t have lights. The reason? Primarily navigation.  Want to avoid this? Read on for some hard-learnt navigation tips for great adventures in unfamiliar places.

On familiar roads and trails you don’t need to think that much about navigation; take a wrong turn and you’ll work it out. On an adventure ride, wrong turns and stopping to check the route slash your average speed. That’s not an issue of Strava vanity, it massively reduces distance covered and extends the time of the journey with all sorts of consequences. I found this out the hard way when aiming for a youth hostel on the South Downs Way. When rolling I was managing a respectable 12mph overall, but I’d had to stop at more or less every junction to check the route. With further breaks for photos, food, rest and puncture repairs I’d managed an average of closer to 5mph.  So you need great navigation for great adventures. Here are some tips to avoid navigation misery.


Before you navigate, detailed planning is essential. Even if following an established route, study the map carefully, use satellite imagery too, to identify tricky-to-navigate sections. Commit these to memory, add a comment to your GPX if you can. The night before you ride check the route on the map again, and once more before you set off.

Use a Sat Nav with Voice Prompts

Turn-by-turn instructions enable you to navigate quickly, keeping your eyes on the track. A countdown to junctions is incredibly useful as it alerts you to keep an eye out for a finger post or other way mark. Comments on the track ahead turning this way or that are also reassuring. Voice prompts also save battery as the screen can be kept off most of the time. I did the South Downs Way purely with paper maps and compass. It was a serious drain on time to keep stopping, finding my place on the map repeatedly and then confirming the route.

Practice with your preferred App

Never download a new app or buy a new super-accurate satnav just before you head out on an adventure. Load up some familiar local routes and get to know how to use it BEFORE your adventure! You need to know what works for you and what doesn’t. For example, which info do you want to see on the home screen? I strongly recommend this approach for my preferred app, OSMAnd. Also work out how to mount your phone so you can see or hear it, and how to switch it on while riding. Practice really will make all the difference between having a great adventure or becoming frustrated – or worse, lost – and out of charge.

Have a Backup

Batteries don’t last for ever and tracks can be made impassable.  On the LowLE trip we had to re-plan due to brambles, crops, and a bridge closed due to engineering work (no mud on that occasion!) so the best planned GPX route can quickly become useless. You need to be able to navigate around these obstacles safely, so carry a map of some sort and a compass to help. Carry spare batteries too, but if you are unsupported you must be able to continue and nothing stops a waterproof map from working, not even being dropped in a puddle!  It’s not quick, but it is reliable.  Satnavs can re-plan routes too, but can be a bit hit and miss on rights of way for cycles and having a bigger (A4) picture to hand can really help plan over a distance. 

I’ve learnt all these the hard way, so you don’t have to! To recap, my top 4 navigation tips for great adventures:

  1. Planning
  2. Use a satnav with voice prompts
  3. Practice with your preferred app
  4. Have a backup

These tips work equally well for hill walking, but Two Wheels Better!

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