Finding a one-size-fits-all solution for bicycle route planning and navigation is not easy. There are so many variables involved in route planning that handing over all of the decision making to an app can be a little risky. You might be after a route that follows quiet single-track roads, or perhaps a more direct route which takes you on faster, busier roads, or you might be keen to be off-road as much as you possibly can. You could stick to paper maps, or no maps at all, but generally the effortlessness of navigating with a little bit of digital magic can save a lot of time both in planning and in not having to back-track (so often!) after taking the wrong turn while peddling.
Over the past few years we have tried a few different phone and web apps for planning our routes and navigating while on the road. The 3 that stand out for various reasons are komoot, Locus Maps, and Google Maps. I’ll briefly run through a few of the pros and cons that we found for each of these, but if you are in a rush, you might like to know that the one that we now use every time we head off on an adventure is komoot (we aren’t sponsored!). As well as these 3 options we should also make a mention of Maps Me which is a great and easy to use app. It seems to be popular amongst cyclists but I haven’t used it enough to give it a proper review. The reason I haven’t really been drawn to it is because the maps don’t have topological contours drawn on and on the few times that I have used it I noticed that the cycle route choice isn’t quite as good as Komoot.
We discovered komoot after trying 4 or 5 other options whilst on our trip from Brittany to Gibraltar in 2017. We had become frustrated with other apps for being overly complicated or for time and again leading us to tracks that didn’t actually exist or were not suitable for our heavily laden bikes. For our needs komoot is by far the best app that we have found. komoot gives the perfect balance between being customisable but still easy enough to use while out and about. The algorithm that works out the route for your journey is also the most impressive that I have used.
The app itself is free to use but there is a charge for offline maps. Maps are $3.99 for a single region or $29.99 for the entire world. There is also a premium subscription which gives more advanced features such as being able to split your tour into multi-day legs, and getting weather forecasts for your upcoming locations. I have subscribed to the premium subscription purely for the multi-day tour editor function. By splitting the tour into daily legs it makes planning much more manageable, especially for long journeys. The only reason that I didn’t score komoot with 5/5 is because the multi-day planner can be a bit fiddly to use, especially if you decide to come back to change the length of one of your days – I cannot find an option to allow me to re-calculate the start and end points of all future days to take this into account – this means either tediously editing each day individually or creating a new trip starting from the end point of the day that has just been edited. In the scheme of things this is a minor niggle but I have found it a little frustrating at times.
Navigation is simple and easy to follow. You can have voice navigation enabled to make it even easier but I find that the on-screen prompts are so clear and easy to follow that I don’t usually bother with audio. More recently I have started using a Wahoo Element Roam GPS device which can integrate directly with komoot and means I don’t need to use my phone at all for navigating with my komoot journeys.
komoot is really excellent at creating routes which follow cycle paths, bike-friendly trails, and single track roads. As with any bicycle route planner however we do occasionally find ourselves pushing up steep, stony mountain paths or cycling along roads that are busier than we were hoping for, but on the whole it works very well.
I have only just scratched the surface here of all that komoot has to offer. Somehow the developers of this app have managed to pack a whole lot of great features into an app that is really easy to use. This is definitely the app that I would recommend for anyone heading out on a bicycle adventure.
Pros of komoot
- Easy to use.
- Excellent at bicycle friendly routing.
- Can also be used off-road as well as when hiking or walking.
- Reasonable pricing (offline maps).
- Clear navigation prompts.
- Shows user-contributed points of interest and photos.
- Can be used directly with various GPS devices and bike computers.
Cons of komoot
- Multi-day route planner can be a little fiddly to use.
Until we found Komoot, Locus maps was always the app that I would recommend. Once configured correctly Locus does a great job at finding bicycle friendly routes. There is very little about this app that cannot be configured or tweaked. You can use various routing profiles, select from dozens of map providers, change styles and layouts, and change all kinds of other settings. Locus Maps comes in a free version and in a paid “Pro” version.
Some of the details of the on-screen display that show up while navigating are a bit small to easily make use of while cycling – especially on a sunny day. For this reason I tend to leave the audio prompts switched on while using Locus Maps and just turn on the screen for clarification from time to time. The route that Locus Maps suggests is only as good as the routing profile that you decide to use – and there are quite a few to choose from. If you would like to be able to plan your routes or perform re-routing while offline you will also need to install and configure a separate app called BRouter.
There are certain situations in which Locus Maps really excelled for us – in particular if we were heading into a town or city at the end of a day, or wanted to pass through a city quickly and easily, we would switch over to BRouter’s “fastbike-lowtraffic” routing profile and it would help us to find a fairly direct route while avoiding busy main roads as much as possible.
With all of the hundreds of options available in this app however there comes a level of complexity that I find can be a bit too much of a faff when I want to be enjoying the ride and being outdoors. I consider myself to have a reasonably good level of technical ability so I guess there are many who use this app without fully configuring it for their specific preferences. It is also perhaps telling that every time that I recommended this app to somebody I had to spend half an hour just showing them how to use it and which settings I found worked best for me.
This app remains installed on my phone because it does a very good job. From time to time we do use Locus for a 2nd opinion.
Pros of Locus Maps
- Highly configurable.
- Wide range of routing profiles to choose from.
- Free option available.
- Paid option not expensive.
Cons of Locus Maps
- Too many configuration options can be overwhelming.
- No web-based route planner for planning on a laptop or bigger screen.
- Installing and setting up additional offline router app seems a bit clunky.
I’m including Google Maps on this list because for many people it is the navigation app that is most familiar. Out of each of the 3 apps reviewed here this is the simplest and most intuitive to use. Google Maps has had the option for bicycle directions for a few years now and it’s a really handy feature to have. For day to day commuting or for an afternoon ride to the park it works well. With clear on-screen navigation prompts and familiar voice cues it definitely has its place.
For bicycle tour planning and navigation however I find its use is really limited (and to be fair, Google hasn’t designed it to be used for this purpose). The lack of configurable options, route details, and awareness of specific aspects of bicycle touring means that the routes it selects are usually nowhere near as enjoyable as those that the other 2 apps would send us along. On quite a few occasions, when Lucy and I were experimenting with using Google Maps for tour navigation in rural areas of France, we were directed a number of kilometres down dead-end tracks, or into private driveways and the gardens of surprised locals.
There is no doubt that Google Maps is a great app for navigation, but I would not recommend using it for bicycle touring if you have a choice. It does well at taking you from A to B but it does feel like Google Maps is focused on the destination rather than the journey.
Pros of Google Maps
- Completely free.
- Easy to use.
- Clean and intuitive design.
Pros of Google Maps
- Not designed for touring.
- Bicycle routing in some areas isn’t reliable.
- Often favors busier roads.