Ride smarter with a smartphone

The motorcycling community tends to hate smartphones for two reasons.

One, many motorcyclists are extremely conservative and hate anything with the stench of newfangled technology (notice the bizarre reluctance of some riders to adopt ABS, decades after it was introduced). Two, many riders hate smartphones because car drivers tend to be distracted by them, and that’s pretty dangerous for motorcyclists.

But there are a lot of good reasons for a motorcyclist to pack a smartphone. They’re handy for much more than simply calling for a pickup when you break down. The iPhone and its competitors are arguably the most powerful and useful tools available for motorcyclists. Here’s how you can use yours to explore new roads, keep track of your lap times, or handle other roles.


Navigation

Forget your clunky old motorcycle GPS. A smartphone makes a far better navigation system, and the best part is that after you own the phone, the rest is all cheap or free. You can even buy an older “non-flagship” phone and it will still work quite well in the role.

There are many GPS apps out there, but the most common ones are Google Maps and Apple Maps. For street riding, these apps work well, although Google’s app is far superior and is available for iOS and Android devices.

With Google Maps, you can download map data ahead of time, so when you’re traveling, you already have the map for your area loaded into your phone, instead of using potentially costly data to download it when you’re traveling. Before you leave, you can use a wi-fi connection to save map data for whatever area you’re traveling through, and when you combine that with Google’s excellent system of locating and rating restaurants and other amenities, it really is hard to beat it for a street-friendly GPS app.

Google also owns the Waze app, which is very similar but adds user-generated traffic info and speed trap info and other perks to make it more specialized. If you’re a commuter, you might want to check it out.

Aside from Apple Maps and Google Maps, there are many other GPS apps on the market, some requiring payment and some for free (most apps have a cost-free test period). The free ones almost all use data from OpenStreetMaps, which can usually be downloaded ahead of time to save on roaming data charges. Garmin’s even got into the game, competing with its own GPS devices with the StreetPilot app. MapQuest, Maps.me and Sygic are three other well-known alternatives.

Want to go off-road? Outdoor Navigator Pro or BackCountry Navigator Topo Maps can help with that, although many of the apps already mentioned will also do the trick.

The GPS apps have an on-screen display just like your standard dedicated GPS units, but most can also be configured to give turn-by-turn audio directions. For street riding, this is the way to go, as long as you have a Bluetooth-enabled phone and helmet communicator. Sync your Cardo/Sena/UClear/whatever with your phone, and have that robotic voice boss you through your trip. You can even throw your phone in your jacket pocket, if you don’t have a handlebar mount, and the Bluetooth connection will mean you can still hear your directions.

Yamaha’s My Ride app offers performance tracking for street riders, among other things.
Performance

There are several apps on the market that are configured to record lap times, lean angle and other information about your motorcycle’s performance at the track. If you attend track days, you definitely want to look into something like Diablo Super Biker or similar, to keep tabs on your progress. If you’re strictly a street rider, the Yamaha My Ride app is a must-have. It uses your phone’s onboard accelerometer to keep track of things like lean angle, acceleration, speed, brakepower, and elevation changes. Not that long ago, it was science fiction to dream of stuff like this on a bike, and then it was simply a toy for the rich or a tool for well-heeled racers. Now, it’s available for free for iOS or Android.

Emergency

There are several GPS apps on the market that alert emergency services when they detect the user has suffered a motorcycle crash, including CrashLight, BikerSOS, REALRIDER and others. If you ride alone a lot, this is worth looking into.

Tracker

Want a GPS tracker while you ride? Some motorcyclists like these gadgets, which trace their routes over a map and can be configured to send check-in messages home periodically, to let wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend know that everything’s okay. It’s sort of like a SPOT Device, but your phone does the work instead of a dedicated gadget that’s synced to a satellite system. The downside is that these systems use your phone’s data plan, but it’s pretty minimal at least. However, this means you must be in range of cell towers to use them — they won’t be much good while you’re bog-bashing your way through Siberia.

In the past, Android users seemed to like the Bubbler app for this purpose, and iOS users seemed to like SWConnect. Combine these with SpotWalla’s tracking service, and you’ve got a great way to record your trip and update your friends and family as well (this is what the Iron Butt association recommended in the past).

There are some advantages to SpotWalla integration, but for most users, many of the apps we’ve already mentioned (RealRider or Yamaha My Ride) can also be used as trackers, so unless you specifically need Spotwalla, a multi-purpose app can help you avoid cluttering up your phone.

Tuning

Not many motorcycles come with this option, but you’ll see more of it in the future. For now, Yamaha has set the bar with its Power Tuner smartphone app, enabling users to fine-tune the engine maps for its YZ250F and YZ450F motocrossers. Expect more apps like this down the road.

Camera

Lots of riders like to take photos of their trips, and a smartphone means you have to haul one less bulky gadget with you. If you want, you can even use some smartphones as action cameras; for years now, HitCase has sold waterproof, shockproof phone cases that turn your iPhone into a poor man’s GoPro (there’s an in-flight video of this below).

Maintenance information

If you’re on a decently long trip and you need to work on the bike, you might wish you’d brought a manual. In the past, that meant hauling a bulky book. Now, many motorcycle manuals can be downloaded to your phone, meaning when you’re busted flat in Baton Rouge, you’ll be able to find exactly how many lbs.-ft. you need to torque down your rear axle. Of course, you can also use the smartphone to access online forums for helpful information as well.

Whether you’re dealing with a high-end Android or iOS device, or even a lower-end phone like the Kyocera on the left, most modern phones will get the job done. However, more memory and waterproofing are valuable options to have.

Which phone?

Even cheap previous-generation smartphones can perform basic GPS functions, although you might want to consider a more advanced phone if you want to use more advanced apps; you’ll also want to have a current-generation operating system if possible, to make sure your phone is compatible with modern apps.

But aside from that, there are a few options that are good to have. Ideally, you’ll get a waterproof phone, as that means you can have it on a handlebar mount without worrying about rain. A removable battery can be nice, as you can stock up on replacements to keep your phone powered up more easily that way. And you’ll want a decent amount of memory for storing GPS maps — having a phone with expandable microSD memory really makes sense here.

One advantage of the iPhone line is a wide variety of custom-fit accessories, which can make it desirable for moto usage (see below). The broad selection of and smaller market share of specific Android phones means there are fewer custom accessories for those individual models.

Which accessories?

Ideally, you want to mount the phone to your handlebars so you can see the screen easily. There are several variations of mounts on the market, from generic models with flimsy handlebar attachments and chintzy-looking elastics holding your phone in place, to model-specific mounts that attach to rock-solid RAM mounts for peace of mind. Some tank bags also have see-through pockets on top that can hold your phone in place.

If you’re really cautious, an expensive case like the Hitcase or a Lifeproof case can offer top protection and waterproofing (see above for action camera footage shot with a Hitcase). If you have an iPhone, you’ll find there’s plenty of gear on the market aimed at keeping your specific phone safe, protected and dry. Android users might have to go with a more generic product.

Some tankbags now come with see-through pockets that serve as smartphone mounts.

Also remember that GPS usage can chew up your battery, so if you want to travel farther than an hour or two from home, you might want to invest in a charging system for your phone, and make sure your phone mount allows charging. Most phones are compatible with a 12V charger that plugs into your bike’s accessory outlet (easy to install, if you don’t have one). You could also consider carrying an accessory power pack for juicing up on the road.

2 thoughts on “Ride smarter with a smartphone”

  1. I’ve never been a proponent of GPS (for paved roads!)… I went down to California from Vancouver BC via the Oregon coast and used the Scenic app for the first three hours of the trip. Although I had my entire route carefully laid out in the app, I only really used it for getting off I5… after that, and for the entire trip home, which was on roads I’d never been on before, I didn’t need any app telling me where to go. Road signs were quite good enough, thank you very much. Certainly I did look at maps before setting off, but I have no photographic memory and a general idea of where I was going was certainly good enough. Did I get lost? No. Did I make the odd wrong turn? Yes. Did I get where I wanted or needed to be on time? Yes.
    The entire trip took 6 days. Of that time I used a GPS type app for about 4 hours (3 with it blasting directions into my ears via bluetooth, one searching for a route in either a parking lot or restaurant). The second trip was today, 800km in 12 hours. No GPS, no help and mainly areas of no cellular service… take a turn and see where it leads! Motorcycle bliss!!
    Buy a map and learn where north is in relation to the sun. After that you don’t need an app

    PS even in cities like Seattle and Portland I didn’t need an app commanding me where to turn. In fact it was more of an annoyance than a help. Start using your senses more than your phone!!

    Dave

    1. Glad you found a system that works for you. I’ve traveled both ways and like maps, but GPS can make tricky navigation a lot easier. I bring both, if possible!

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