I recently got back from a bike tour across the United States in which I was tour leader for seven teenagers. I have been using google bicycle maps for years now with great success. I used it on the tour all the time. It's amazing what smart phones do these days. Thanks to the Google Map app on my phone I never got lost once. I felt like a super human bike tour leader. Anytime I needed to find a bike shop or grocery store I just hit a few buttons and poof! Ron's Grocery Store 4.6 miles ahead. It's like magic. I can tell you first hand that there is now cell service across 95 percent of the country. At least this is so with Sprint along the Northern Tier Bike Route.
There are Garmin bike GPS computers available but they cost 600 dollars. There is no point getting one of those if you have a smart phone. You could take a car GPS but they are not much use either. Since they are designed for cars, they will always want you to go on the interstate. Standalone GPS devices usually are not connected to the internet so you can't search for specific businesses. Google Bike Maps is hands down the best way to navigate by bike. It always finds the most scenic and bike friendly way from point to point.
Paper maps of an entire state do not have enough detail to show the small roads best for cycling. Often people cycle on busy highways even when much nicer back roads exist because they are afraid of getting lost on the back roads. This is not an unfounded fear. I would not venture off the highway in an unfamiliar area without clear directions.
Go to Google Maps and look up bike directions between Madison, WI and Chicago, Il. Google Maps wants you to make 218 turns in 175 miles. The directions are so complex that following a blinking dot on a cell phone screen is the only way to stay on course. And you should follow these directions. Google does a good job of putting you on the best bike paths. The directions from Madison to Chicago are almost entirely rails to trails paths. They were beautiful. Often the trail disappears and reappears a few blocks away. I would not have made it from trail to trail without Google.
Google Maps worked beautifully in every part of the country except for Montana and South Dakota. Those areas are so sparsely populated that the interstate is practically the only road there is. There is, however, a vast network of gravel roads but you don't want to go on them unless you are a glutton for punishment. We once got stuck on a gravel road for ten miles. It was 100 degrees and the gravel became so large and thick that we had get off and walk our bikes. One trouble with Google Maps is that you can't tell the difference between gravel and paved roads. Google will try to make you go on the gravel roads. Don't listen to it. It is legal for cyclists to ride on the interstate in these states because of the lack of alternate routes. Fortunately Google bike maps are peachy keen in every other state.
This might only work on Android phones. One of the kids on the tour had an iphone and her Google Maps app only had car and walking directions. Walking directions work okay too though. Bike and walking directions are usually similar.
In this instructable I will start with the types of Smart phone touring which require the least amount of tinkering to types which require building your own battery. Anyone can navigate by smart phone. It is a completely different cycling experience.
Step 1: Charge Phone When You Eat or Rest-No extra battery
This is the simplest and cheapest way. The drawback is that it s unlikely you will be able to keep the battery charged all day. Be aware of things which make the battery run down more quickly.
Google Maps uses a lot of power for three reasons.
1. Tracking Satellites uses lots of power
2. The Screen uses lots of power
3. Constantly downloading new map data uses lots of power.
You can use different strategies to get the most functionality from your phone depending on how much power you have available. I will list strategies from least battery consumption to most.
If your phone has a removable battery you can get several of them and replace throughout the day. Keep in mind you will need to be able to charge several external batteries at once for this to be of any use. Also, most phones with removable batteries have the option of buying a considerably larger third party battery, or a battery built into a case.
You could pull this off with your phone off most of the time. Open google maps, plot a course to a bike shop, write down or memorize the directions, then turn off phone. Your phone would probably last a week this way.
You could use the GPS while disconnected from the internet. Open Google Maps, plot course to bike shop, turn off the network (same as turning on airplane mode). On my phone I can still see my location and the directions on the map after I turn off the network. I can't zoom in very far because the phone can't download new map data, but it is good enough to see where i am or what streets are coming up. Even when I had no data service for a few days in Idaho I could still see my location on a low resolution map. For four days in Canada I had no cell service. We went to Tim Hortons (everywhere in Canada) and downloaded offline maps with their WIFI. Click menu in google maps, make maps offline, choose the area you want to see.
You could leave the network on but only look at your screen a few seconds at a time. This saves energy because your screen uses power and whenever your turn the screen off it should also turn off gps tracking (probably uses more power than anything else). When you want to see where you are, just turn the screen back on and the map resumes gps tracking.
Keep a cell phone charger with you at all times and charge your phone at every opportunity. Get the highest current charger safe for your phone. Be aware that USB charging is usually limited to 500 milliamps and wall chargers are usually 900 milliamps. Cell phone chargers often break on the road. I went through a few of them. Don't buy chargers at Sprint or AT&T stores where chargers cost 30 dollars. You can get them for eight dollars at dollar stores, which are all over the country. Make sure you get a "charging" cable and not a "data" cable. Data cables are limited to 500 milliamps.