[2022 May Update] I wrote this in late Summer 2019 as a reminder for myself. It's had some good feedback, and I've learned a bit too, so please go to this updated page which I'll update going forwards!
What is GPS?
The Global Positioning System [GPS] is a US military Global Navigation Satellite System which gives you a location pretty much anywhere on the planet Earth as a set of coordinates. There’s actually a growing number of these systems being deployed as countries and companies look to reduce their dependency on something which could be taken away at some point. There’s a decent list here for those interested.
What about Twistybutts?
So when you do a Twistybutt, unless you’re one of the brave few (and probably on a Ducati classic) using a piece of paper taped to your handlebars, you’ll be using some form of GPS navigation system on the ride, aiming to follow the path TougeExpress has carefully crafted for us.
You get this file, shove it into your device or phone and then just go right? Oh, it’s not that simple? When is it ever. Let’s review this to ensure happy happy Twistybutts.
The file is usually sent by TougeExpress as a .kml or .gpx file created on Google Maps, so let’s start there.
What is .kml?
KML (Keyhole Markup Language) is a standard file type usually associated with Google Maps and Google Earth. It’s called that because Google bought the company Keyhole to start it all. These are usually .kml files but there’s also a .kmz file, which is a zipped format containing the .kml file and any other useful meta info. It’s designed as a presentation format for annotating maps.
What is .gpx?
GPX is another file format which is designed to encapsulate a lot of data about topography, including GPS data and other locations. The format has explicit formats for routes, waypoints, and tracks as distinct data types.
.gpx is generally considered the better option for transferring data between GPS devices and it’s widely supported.
However, there’s more to it than that. Again.
Waypoints, Routes and Tracks
Waypoints: These are single fixed locations which you may have set yourself, or the application may have chosen, such as a good restaurant or a geographic location, stored as a GPX location.
Track: this a larger file, but has a higher resolution, a higher number of GPS points to follow, meaning an app can usually place them on a map and get the roads you wanted more accurately. A potential downside being that some apps and devices may have a limit to how many of these points they can render. These are also usually the type files created when you record a run/hike too, like a bread-crumb trail.
Route: this is lower resolution, has fewer waypoints, fewer GPS positions and your app/device may use its own logic to decide how you will navigate from one waypoint to the next, depending on your settings. This means that two riders with two different apps or devices and settings, may go down different roads.
The maps we use, be them paper or digital are not the same. Indeed, some are intentionally not the same. These differences can make a difference as to how a device sees and chooses your route (also see ‘Why is my route different?’). We need to be aware then of what map we’re using and test to see what differences that has to the one the route/track was created on.
All other factors being equal, OpenStreetMap and Google Maps are sufficiently different that designing a route on one may not get you the exactly same sequence of roads as on the other. This is often because we’re going on small, minor roads with lots of branches.
So what do I do for the Twistybutts?
Let’s look at my own example:
My first year I had the source route “golden master” [GM] .kml from TougeExpress made in Google Maps. I imported that .kml file into trip planning website Furkot – which also uses Google Maps – and exported as a .gpx route and then imported it into my navigation application on my phone – OSMAnd+.
It didn’t go so well.
When I missed a turn the app running on my smartphone would then try to recalculate to get me to the next waypoint, since it was the only real information it had, and to get there may or may not on the GM route since it was finding the way between waypoints.
Some of this was my lack of understanding of the application (See ‘Know your navigation system’) but I also didn’t understand that the exported Furkot route was still using Google Maps base, and OSMAnd+ is based on OSM (OpenStreetMap). An exported track would’ve been better, but not perfect.
The next year I used Kurviger which also uses OSM. I went the long way of making a 1:1 copy of the GM by comparing the route natively in Google Maps and Kurviger side by side and then exporting from Kurviger as a .gpx track. This meant I had to split the route into 3 sections as this is a high resolution solution, and at the time Kurviger seemed to struggle with more than a certain number of its route designing points.
[2022 edit - it seems that Kurviger is now able to handle more route designing points.]
Breaking it into multiple parts as a track also meant my OSMAnd+ phone app could follow it, and guide me back to the track, not a waypoint if I went off it. This took a long time but you should know what to look for along the way anyway. This worked well for me.
These days, TougeExpress will give you a Google derived .gpx track if you ask, so all you have to do now is to import that into a site / app which has your system’s basemap and check it against that GM. You may have to carve it up for the site or your navi to handle.
This was my last way – I imported that into Kurviger, did a quick side by side, made some minor tweaks, and then sliced it into 3 parts and exported it as a track.
Also, don’t forget to mark the fuel stops / places of interest in your system too, and that the fuels stops are open – sometimes they aren’t open when you think they are (sigh).
The Final Checks
Now you have your 3 .gpx files (or what is appropriate for your system – see below). Now load them on your navigation system and quickly compare to the GM – did it get it? Even at this point I’ve seen some subtle issues which could put you on the wrong road, so I’ve gone back, tweaked, re-exported/imported and checked again. I’d attribute this to very minor differences in the way the application renders the way.
Know Your Navigation System
(aka ‘Why is my route different?’ )
I didn’t fully understand some of OSMAnd+’s options on my first run – as well as not appreciating routes vs. tracks. It all added up to wasted time and missed turns – to the tune of ~3 hours. That was on me.
You need to know what maps your system uses. You need to know if you have a track or a route file and what map that’s from. You need to understand what your settings are for routing too. For example, if you have ‘get me there quick’ enabled, there’s a good chance it could generate an unintended route, or when you go off a route, it’ll put you on a main road to the next waypoint – that is not The Twistybutt Way. This may even happen with a track on some devices. Essentially, you need to know how you app or device works.
Some people have tried to use Google Maps, only to find on the day no data signal in the mountains, so no streaming Maps. Some people found on the day they didn’t know how to tell Google Maps to follow a specific route. You don’t want to discover these gems on the day. Learn your app.
[As of late 2019, Google Maps now allows downloads in Japan which should reduce issues with not being able to get map data when out of signal areas - providing you remember to download the map data beforehand.]
Map Not Keeping Up?
Another factor to remember is that on some systems there can be a lag (or accuracy issue) where the device/app thinks you are based on the GPS information its receiving, meaning if you’re going quickly – but still inside legal limits obviously – you might miss a turn, so be aware a bit before and keep an eye out for the kind of turn you’re going to be making.
One issue phone users face (and this is seemingly less of an issue for dedicated device users) is that their devices can get hot, and either become functionally unstable or flat out shut down.
Firstly, local map solutions like OSMAnd+ seem to have this less as they’re not streaming map and position information in and out.
There are other things you can do: remove any covers on the phone, close any applications you aren’t using, turn WiFi off (even Bluetooth if you don’t really need it) and reduce the screen brightness as much as you can. Also, mount the phone where it’ll get some breeze. This might mean moving it on your handlebars, or adjusting/removing your screen. Anything to get some cooler air around it.
Get out there and ride, and be sure to talk about any issues as opportunities for exploration at the bar later.
If this all seems like a lot of work, and yours works fine out of the box, that’s great, but if you do the Twistybutts and have ‘issues with the map/route’, take the time to see if there are any potential fixes here.
Also, bring a paper map and a paper list of road and town names. It never hurts.
Remember: The is NO substitute for knowing your route, or at least recognizing when you are not on it.
[Apps I know people use include the OSMAnd+ I use, Google Maps, MotionX and Kurviger, as well as the dedicated Navis from Garmin and OEMs. For paper maps, the Mapple Touring books are excellent.]