A decade ago if you wanted to make your way around Europe by bike you had two choices to help you on your way – a paper map or a dedicated sat nav. And if you didn’t have either of those, you’d be reliant on your basic butchering of the local language and some nifty hand-signals to help you find a petrol station in France on a Sunday.
Table of Contents
A quick intro
While you can still opt for a paper map and while dedicated sat navs have become more and more sophisticated, your smartphone is now a serious contender.
While phone-based navigation is nothing new, data-roaming charges used to be the main thing holding them back. We’ve all heard horror stories of travellers returning from abroad only to be faced with a multi-thousand-pound bill from their mobile network for their roaming data use. Bad times!
These days, most UK mobile networks allow you to use your data allowance in Europe for free and some also set you up with a travel package that allows you unlimited data for a set daily fee.
There’s no doubt that apps are getting smarter, more nimble, more accurate but a dedicated motorcycle GPS is still a preferred option for many bikers. They’re waterproof, usable with gloved fingers and have anti-glare screens. They’re capable of easily recording routes, marking waypoints or uploading pre-configured routes wirelessly. Gone are the days where you’d need a Computer Science degree to program a route on your computer and get it onto your sat nav.
If you’re in the market for a dedicated motorcycle sat nav, the game has moved on but one thing hasn’t changed over the past decade; there are still only two real contenders: Garmin and TomTom. With all their experience, it won’t surprise you to know that their latest motorcycle-focused sat navs are amazing bits of kit but there’s no escaping the fact they still carry a rather hefty price tag.
In this guide, we discuss the best options for all budgets, what to look for in a motorcycle-specific sat nav, why and when a phone-based sat nav is a better option and the various tips and tricks to getting the most from your device.
WiFi connectivity and lifetime World maps
TomTom’s top-end sat nav is another route-finding beast. It has a 4.3″ screen that can be operated through gloves, it’s fully waterproof to IPX7 standards. It comes with lifetime world maps, Winding Roads – TomTom’s specific motorcycle route planning and community-powered routes, Bluetooth connectivity, real-time traffic and speed camera alerts.
Class-leading featured-packed GPS
Garmin’s top-end motorcycle sat nav packs all the features you could ever want. From a large 5″ anti-glare display to the fully waterproof body (it can be submerged for up to 30 minutes) with glove-friendly controls. The removable battery is a nice touch, extending the life of the device. The 595LM comes complete with lifetime maps (denoted by LM), Bluetooth connectivity, speed limit warnings, trip-logs and biker-specific routes.
Garmin 595 vs TomTom 550 comparison table
|Garmin Zumo 595||TomTom Rider 550|
|Weight||375 grams||280 grams|
|Battery life||4 hours||6 hours|
|Traffic alerts||Yes (when connected to smartphone)||Yes (when connected to smartphone)|
A bit like the Apple vs PC or Apple vs Android battle; bikers tend to be either Garmin fans or TomTom fans. However the reality is that the interface and functionality has changed a lot over the years.
If your Sat Nav unit is over 5 years old, a lot has changed.
For me, the TomTom edges it. However if you’re a fan of plotting your routes down to the very last turn, with lots of waypoints, Garmin’s BaseCamp software will let you do this.
TomTom is a better plug and play option. Their web interface makes it a doddle to enter your destination, get their suggested route, drag it around a bit to customise it and then send it to your device.
Feature-wise, both devices go head to head, there’s little between them. You might prefer the larger screen of the Garmin but with Bluetooth connectivity feeding you instructions, you barely need to look at either device once you’re on the go.
Anatomy of a good motorcycle sat-nav
Top-end motorcycle specific sat navs have everything you need and more. If you buy a Garmin 595LM or TomTom Rider 550 you won't be lacking any features but here are the core ones to look out for on any motorcycle-ready sat nav device.
- Waterproofing: The chances are that when it pisses it down you'll want to change route and get to your destination as quickly as possible. It's no use having your phone on an open mount in this situation.
- Easy route planning: Both Garmin and TomTom have powerful computer-based route planning in their computer-based BaseCamp and My Drive applications. But you also want to be able to plan a quality motorbike-friendly route on the go with the tap of a few buttons.
- Connectivity: If it doesn't have Bluetooth your sat nav won't be able to pair with your phone or a headset. That means you can't make or take calls or get turn-by-turn instructions. WiFi connectivity is a bonus as it means you'll be able to upload and download routes without cables.
- Low-glare screen: You want to spend as little time looking at your sat nav as possible. Good connectivity helps but an anti-glare screen means you'll have a clearer display, whatever the conditions.
- A solid mount: Top-end sat navs tend to come with RAM mounts, which are about as good as it gets but you can upgrade a standard RAM mount to a lockable mount meaning you don't need to think about removing your sat nav every time you fill up with fuel or stop for a bite to eat.
- Live updates: This is where phone-based navigation is seriously good but dedicated devices are catching up. Live updates ensure your route remains dynamic and adapts to the circumstances. The top-end Garmin 595LM will also show you live satellite-style weather on the go.
- Memory expansion: You don't want to have to delete old routes in order to add new ones or download new maps, so the ability to use external storage like an SD card is a real bonus. Cheaper sat navs won't have external storage capability.
The cheapest motorcycle sat nav
If you want a dedicated sat nav for your motorcycle, there aren’t a lot of ‘cheap’ options out there. If you’re on a budget, your best bet is to couple a cheaper sat nav with a waterproof case and mount it on your bike.
This Shenen 7-inch sat nav is under £60 and gets good reviews from users. It features UK and European mapping. There’s no Bluetooth connectivity but if you just want a good idea of your route and where you are, rather than turn-by-turn navigation it’s a great bit of kit for the price.
No budget? Then use your phone
We all know how much technology is packed into our smartphones. While a dedicated motorcycle sat nav is a nice thing to have, we have definitely reached a point where your phone is more than up to the task.
Whether you’ve got an iPhone or you’re on an Android device, you’ll have built-in route-mapping or you can download a whole host of 3rd-party GPS apps.
Waze to go!
Our pick of these 3rd-party apps is Waze. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re in for a treat. Oh and it’s free, too.
The community-powered navigation app offers accurate turn-by-turn directions just like you’d get from Google Maps but because it’s community-based you are shown real-time updates, calculated by other road users who are also using Waze.
You and other ‘Wazers’ can notify the app of live events, from road closures to police sightings to hazards or traffic.
On a motorcycle, this is seriously handy. From warnings about mobile speed traps to instances of police cars parked up or traffic jams, Waze is near-instant and accurate. If you’re riding on unfamiliar roads, Waze will give you a heads up as to what’s around the corner.
Our Best Motorcycle Sat Nav
The Garmin vs. TomTom debate is a bit like the Mac vs. PC or Apple vs. Android.
The fact is, they’re all very good and it comes down to personal preference. Our pick goes to the Tom Tom Rider 550 World which started with a retail price of £499 but it can now be had for £305 through our link.
It’s a seriously easy bit of kit to use, slim and compact, easily connects with your phone, come with detailed World maps and it is bursting with excellent features.
Motorcycle Sat Nav Top Tips
If you want to plan exact routes with multiple waypoints, go with the Garmin.
If you just want to stick in a destination and get a decent twisty route, TomTom's interface is simpler.
Don't worry too much about battery life. With both of these units, they'll be wired into the bike.
The live traffic features on a GPS device will require a connection to your smartphone (usually via Bluetooth) and it'll then use your phone's data. So make sure you have a data package that works in the country you're visiting and won't cost the earth.
Don't leave your sat nav on the bike, even if you have a lockable cradle. It just attracts unwanted attention to your pride and joy.
Before you head off on a big trip, make sure you update your sat nav's mapping software version, to ensure you have up to date routes and that your sat nav won't give you any issues.
Motorcycle Sat Nav FAQs
Is it legal to use a Sat Nav in France?
It’s perfectly legal to use a dedicated Sat Nav device or a sat nav app on your phone while in France. However French law dictates that motorists cannot use a device which actively deters the effectiveness of speed cameras.
While this rule is fairly ambiguous and was introduced with the main aim of making it illegal to use radar jammers (which stop laser-based mobile speed cameras from working), if your sat nav warns you of an impending speed trap, in theory, the police could hand you a fine.
The reality is unless you’re caught at a silly speed or just plain unlucky, you’ll have no problems.
What’s the difference between TomTom World and Premium
The TomTom World package comes with lifetime world maps and contains everything you’d need to mount your sat nav to your motorcycle, including a RAM mount. The Premium package also comes with an in-car mount, a protective case, and a lockable RAM mount attachment.
Thanks to the following websites which helped us research and write this motorcycle sat nav guide:
Enjoyable, educational article. But despite the write-up repeatedly outlining why the TomTom edges it, Ben recommends the Garmin as the ‘Best Buy’ and the TomTom ‘runner up’! Bit confusing?
I’ve owned both of these devices and, unfortunately, I would rate both of them as ‘good enough’. The problem being that there isn’t much to choose from for motorcycle navigation.
The latest Garmin devices do not support M1 Macs, so I essentially had a brick. The TomTom lacks in accurate routing. My mailbox is two miles away but it routes me around several dirt roads to make it a four mile trip. Several things in my neighborhood are on the wrong side of the street. This doesn’t elicit confidence if I were to use it on a trip in an unfamiliar area.
I have as late bought a cheap-ish Apple CarPlay device for my bike and it is galaxies better than either of these devices. It’s a shame there isn’t more competition in the space so we can have some modern, innovative Navi’s for our two wheeled friends.