Navigating for the Tour Divide Race

There have been a few posts of late on the 2013 TDR race forum at on GPS tracking for the race. I thought I would share what I am going to be using for 2013 through a more detailed blog post.  Some context: I’m a Civil Engineer and one thing we are trained to do is risk mitigation and to have redundancy. So understand that as you read what follows.

The Tour Divide rule #3 is that you have to ride 100% of the main Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) Great Divide Route.  There are three options for doing this:

  • ACA publishes excellent maps. It is really important to check the addenda to the maps since there can be changes. There are also some additions to the route (e.g. the ‘Gold Dust Trail’) one has to ride. So most riders get the maps and then scribble on them the updates and other key changes – like closed camp sites and new (or closed) sources of food and water.
  • ACA also publishes cue sheets. These have the mileage where you take turns and where there are key landmarks, like food and water sources.
  • Every year Topofusion posts the updated GPS track for the race which can be read by GPS units.

For most riders the GPS track forms the primary navigation tool. I use all three: cue sheets, GPS and maps.

The cue sheets are my primary source of navigation. I mark these up so that I know where I can find food and water, and also reduce them so that they only have the most essential elements (such as turns).  I print them on waterproof laser printer paper as they will get soaked, making sure to use a large enough font to be able to read them. They *will* get wet. I use the Carousel Design Quad Map Case to hold the cue sheets. It also folds out to show the maps. Brilliant design, but can take a long time to get hold of one so order early!


The maps are really useful for getting the big picture of what is ahead, in particular services. Even though they are marked on my cue sheets, it helps to look over the next few days—and in particular visualize the climbs that are coming. For 2013 I’m going to probably scan the maps onto my smartphone as a backup.

For the GPS I use a Garmin Edge 800. Others prefer Garmin e-Trex or Oregon 60’s which have the advantage of using disposable batteries whereas the Edge 800 needs to be recharged.  For 2013 I’m running a Son dynamo hub (thanks Marco and Elena for the tip!) so hopefully recharging won’t be an issue.

I load onto the Edge 800 the USA Garmin street maps. Believe it or not, they include most of the totally out of the way places that one rides on the TDR. I bought last year’s version for $30 on Ebay. I like to have this available because it allows you to search for the fastest way to the nearest town or services. Came in handy in 2012 when I needed to get to a motel to warm up. Another option is to use the Open Street Map  which is an open source searchable street map but the Garmin are less fiddly.

Many people also load topo maps to their GPS. You can get quite a few open source ones from places like here. I tried this but found that they tended to be of little practical value and slowed my GPS unit down.

Whatever you do, be sure to load all the GPS track and map data to the memory card of the GPS unit, as well putting the track in the main memory. Why? Because if your GPS unit fails (as one of mine did) all you need to do is to get another unit which has the same sort of memory card (MicroSD usually) and slot in the memory card. Otherwise you need to get access to a computer to load the data to the new unit (as Mike #1 found out in 2012!).  The main memory backup is just in case the memory card fails!

Another tip: make sure that you have the GPS set up with different screens for day and night riding. Otherwise you may not be able to use it after dark (which happened to Fred outside of Whitefish in 2012).

I take a smartphone as my GPS backup. image My phone of choice is the Android Sony Xperia Active. This is the size of a credit card (but much thicker) and is completely waterproof. In 2012 Ollie Whalley used the Motorola version which leaked. He should have used the Xperia. The Sportypal mount can be used to attach the phone to your handlebars. Be sure to get a screen protector (for any smart phone/GPS) as they will otherwise be trashed by the elements. Of course I take an extra battery as a backup. The Xperia also serves as a great waterproof camera. All the photos on my blog of the 2012 race were taken with the Xperia.

There are two apps I have on the Xperia which are ideal for the Tour Divide:

  • Orux Maps will load the entire Tour Divide GPX track and you can use it to navigate the route.
  • OsmAnd will read the Garmin Street map and can be used for navigation to points of interest etc. It will download open source maps directly.

I also have my music and the Bible on the Xperia so I can listen to them while cycling. The Son dynamo hub can power the phone so I don’t need earplugs. Just put it on speaker phone.  I could use this in place of the 800 for all my needs, but I prefer to run with the 800 as the screen is a bit bigger and it is easier to use than the Xperia.

So that’s my navigation solution. Overkill? Definitely. But remember, even with maps, cue sheets and the GPS track one will still get lost. Hopefully you’ll find out you are before you cycle too far!


4 responses to “Navigating for the Tour Divide Race

  1. Good info. Thanks for the post, and thanks for the linkback to the Carousel map case photo.

  2. Pingback: Reflections on the Tour Divide | Chris Bennett's Triathlon Blog

  3. Thanks for the great TD and Nav posts. Most valuable info I’ve gleaned of the WWW regarding this adventure yet. Nice to get affirmation of some of my ideas/gear from a veteran. See you 6/13.

    • Thanks! Glad you found it of use. I’m racing the Transcontinental London-Istanbul this August and I’ve referred back to this several times to refresh my memory. All the best for the TDR – and hope you contribute something to the Cordillera!

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