Introduction: Smart Phone Bike Touring

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.  

Step 2: Mount the Phone to Your Handle Bars

There are many products out there designed specifically for mounting smart phones to bke handlebars.  i recommend this because you can follow complex directions hands free.  Handle bar mounting is more practical the more battery power you have available.  Here is just one out there.  Another one.  There are many instructables on this site for making smart phone mounts.  I made mine out of a conduit hanger, quarter inch bolt, some sheet metal, and a pelican case.  

If you are going to go smart phone touring I need to warn of the possible dangers to our phone.  There are bumps, rain, heat, dust, and all kinds of things which might ruin a smart phone.  I recommend you get insurance for your phone.  Remember that insurance will not cover water damage.  I avoided water damage because my phone was protected by my faring.  

Sprint is nice because their only plan is unlimited data.  Make sure you know the ins and outs of your plan or you will get an enormous data roaming bill.  

Google maps is not the only app useful for bike touring.  I listened to pandora.  I used GPS essentials to see my altitude.  I checked my email at stop lights.  I took pictures and uploaded them to facebook.  I recorded GPS tracks with Mytracks.  It was out of control.  

Step 3: An External Battery Pack!

Now we are getting into the fun stuff. Because cell phones are charged through USB, a very common format, there are hundreds of external charging solutions to choose from.  Just search on the internet or Ebay.  Get the largest battery you can afford.  If weight is an issue get heaviest you are comfortable with.  If you are touring, weight is not really an issue, as you are probably already carrying 30 lbs or more anyway.  My battery was 3 lbs.  

Make sure the battery you get can be charged to full in a reasonable amount of time.  Some batteries take 15 hours to charge with dinky chargers.  That wont help you very much.  

Find out the capacity of your cell phone battery.  My cell phone is 2000 milliamp hours/7.4 watt hours.  If you get a 2000 milliamp extra battery you get only 1 charge theoretically but probably just half a charge in reality, as power is lost through the charging process as heat.  

Don't know the difference between watt hours and amp hours?  Use this formula.  Volts X Amps=Watts.  That means 3.7 volts (voltage of cell phone batteries) multiplied by 2 amp hours (capacity of my cell phone battery) = 7.4 watt hours.  If a battery is 10 watt hours and 5 volts then 5 volts x ?Amps= 10 watt hours.  Solve for "?".  ?=2 amp hours

A laptop external battery is a good solution.  They are designed to be charged quickly and have usb chargers on them.  Look at this one.  This one should be able to charge a phone three times.  

If you are really serious you should get a battery like this one.  It is 153 watt hours!.  For example my phone is about 7.4 watt hours.  153 watt hours divided by 7.4 watt hours means this battery could charge my phone 20 theoretical times and probably 10 actual times.  With no external battery, and with your phone actively tracking satellites, your phone would only last a few hours.

Instead of charging your cell phone after it has died it would be better to leave an external battery connected all the time.  This probably would be more efficient.  My battery draws 6 watts while charging.  Once the battery is charged it stops drawing current and only draws power for the phone itself.  A 2 watt constant draw would take theoretically 70 hours to deplete.  In the real world, half that.  Even so that means 5 days of using it 7 hours a day.  Then it only takes 4-6 hours to charge.  

I am not completely sure an external battery pack would work for an iPhone.  It would for an Android and most other phones which charge from USB.  I heard that Apple is designing new products to only be charged by apple chargers.  I am not sure if this is true.  Do any of you know?  Can you answer in the comments?  Thanks.  

Keep in mind that there are tons of external batteries out there, not just the ones I have listed in the instructable.  Find one that suits your individual needs.  Shock proof your battery as well as possible and keep it dry. External batteries and cell phones were not designed with the rigors of bike touring in mind.  They will only last if you take good care of them. 

Step 4: Solar Power

There are solar panels designed for the large battery pack I mentioned on the last page.  I haven't done this myself yet but it would definitely work.  The solar panel is 40 watts, which theoretically should charge the battery pack in 3.8 hours but I would quadruple that to make it more realistic.  It would probably take 20 hours of full sunlight.  

With a solar panel you could dispense with the battery altogether and run your phone directly off the solar panel.  

Step 5: Hub Dynamo Power

Whenever people saw the dozens of wires protruding from my bicycle they all would ask if I powered my phone with a dynamo.  No, I would respond, realizing it would be really really cool to power a phone with a hub dynamo.  I haven't done this yet mainly because a new wheel with dynamo would cost 100 dollars, and that's a cheap one.  The best dynamos on the market are Schmidt dynamos made in Germany.  Some of them are 300 dollars.  If you get a hub by itself you have to have a wheel built, of else build your own if you know how.  

There are devices on the market for changing the 6 volt ac dynamo power to 5 volt DC.  Here is one for over 100 Euros.  If you have some electronics expertise you can make one for 5 dollars and is simple to make.  There are instructables on how to do this.  Basically you use a bridge rectifier to change the AC to DC, then a capacitor to smooth the current, then a voltage regulator to change the 6 volts to 5 volts for USB charging.  

You could even use a dynamo and solar panels together to charge a battery.  

Step 6: Build Your Own Battery

You can build your own battery.  I have another instructable here for doing just that.  If you are really ambitious you could make a solar panel, hub dynamo, and a home built battery all work together!  You would never run out of power.  

Here is what my bike look like with all the electronics on it.  It also has a stereo and watt meter.  Try it.  Bike touring will never be the same.