Planning and following paths with a Garmin Edge bicycle computer

Owning a Garmin Edge 800 bicycle computer and regularity touring through Korea, I more than once planned a path on a PC, uploaded to the Garmin, tried to let the device guide me along my planned path and got confused and frustrated with the results. Same happening to you? I tend to keep forgetting how things play together nicely (they do, in fact) so I mainly wrote the following for my own remembering. But if you also get some help out of it, do let me know in a comment please. And if you get lost despite reading and understanding all of the following, you won’t be able to feed back to me anyhow ūüôā

Planning a path at the PC
Let me first get a few definitions cleared, they are often the source of bad confusions:

  • Trackpoint: If you travel along a path, Trackpoints define this track. Simple — you always go in a straight line from Trackpoint 1 to 2. If you want to go around a corner, you’ll need another Trackpoint in-between the two to define the corner. In real life, the straighter your path, the less Trackpoints you need. The curvier your path, the more Trackpoints you’ll require to define all the twists.
  • Coursepoint: Same as a Trackpoint, it also defines a point along your path. But additionally it carries some user-defined information, mostly used for navigational purposes. Say your path follows along a real-world road, through a curve. You would need a few Trackpoints to define this curvy road. Now, suddenly, the¬†path approaches a real world¬†intersection and you should do a right-turn into another real-world road. That’s where a¬†Coursepoint comes into play. Add the “instruction” “turn right” to¬†the Trackpoint which is¬†at the intersection and you have a Coursepoint. When you later download all the data to your Garmin device and go for a ride, you will be alerted to “turn right” once you approach that Coursepoint.¬†
    Note that¬†you decide what sort of information you assign to a Coursepoint. It could be “turn right into Highway 55” or “Last watering hole for 50km” or “last climb before the finish” or “say goodbye to your brakes”.
  • Track: A Track is is a path that you have previously traveled. Your Garmin records Tracks when you move, you can then download them to your computer or share them on the Internet. Tracks usually contain more information than only the where you’ve travelled. Examples for additional data is speed at any point along the Track, elevation, heart rate, bike cadence, temperature, etc.
  • Course: In contrast to a Track (which is a record of your history), a Course is a path that you are planning to follow. Courses are what this post is mostly about — plan a ride on a computer and then follow that plan in real life.
    I hope it now makes sense that Coursepoints are reserved for Courses, they wouldn’t make sense for a Track.
    Garmin devices can, btw, convert Tracks into Courses. That means you can follow a Course that you or someone else has travelled before. Since additional info such as speed is stored with the Track, the Garmin, when following a Course that was converted from a Track, also knows how fast you’ve been once you rode there last. This is how Garmin’s “Virtual Partner” works. If turned on and supplied with a Course which contains such data, it shows you how far your virtual patner (read: you during the¬†previous ride) are ahead/behind.
  • Route: This only applies to devices which support routable maps, such as theGarmin Edge 800/810, but not the Garmin Edge 500/510. The 800/810 have the ability to download a map, just like your car navigation system. You can then e.g. see both your Track (that you’ve travelled) and your Course (that you are planning to follow) superimposed on that map.
    Some of these maps¬†are additionally routable, Ie¬†they contain information about what roads are connected with each other and which ones are not connected — think overpasses, not all roads which cross each other on a map are actually connected in real life! If you downloaded such a routable map to your device, then you can also ask the Garmin to “Navigate to a certain point”. After you define that point, the device will then calculate a way from your current location to that defined point. Such calculated path is called a Route. Note that this has nothing much¬†to do with a Course that eg. you drew earlier on a computer — the Garmin may have an entierly different opinion about the best way from point A to point B than you do ūüôā

With that out of the way, your task how to plan a path shold be clearer: At a computer, draw your path by placing Trackpoints on a map. At important points (such as turns, intersections, diversions, shops and whatnot) add a Coursepoint and type some description you will understand while on the road. Finally, download this data as a Course.

There are plenty of programs and web pages availabe to create Courses. The easiest to use is probably Garmin’s own Garmin Connect. It is however currently very limited in its features — it can not even create Coursepoints, you are limited to Trackpoints only. A shame, given that the Garmin Edges support Coursepoints so well.

Two other well-known online services for creating Routes are Ride With GPS and Bikeroutetoaster. I personally prefer to use the latter one, mainly because:

  • You can edit Track/Coursepoints after you created them (-> do a rough planning of the whole course first, iron out the edges later)
  • A Trackpoint can be changed to a Coursepoint and vice versa (-> Create your Course as Trackpoints first, then change some Trackpoints to Cousepoints where you need additional info later)
  • It can automatically route sections of your Course even using Openstreetmap (OSM)¬†where Google has no routing information (eg Korea: Google has map data of Korea but no routing information. OSM however has some routing information. You can display Google maps to draw your course but in the background ask to use OSM to do the routing between to cicks for you. Makes planning much faster if you don’t have to click endless Trackpoints along a curvy mountain road…)
  • And — it’s free ūüôā

If you plan to use Bikeroutetoaster, remember to create an account and log in. It’s your only way of saving (unfinished) work at the site and load it back later.

As mentioned above, when drawing your Course on Bikeroutetoaster, you may use the automatic routing function. If Google has routing info for your country, use this function. Just click at the beginning and end of a road and the site will add Trackpoints to follow the (curvy) road. If Google can’t route (such as in Korea), try routing with OSM instead. You may or may not yield good results. If a routing is wrong, you can always undo the last section and route manually for some distance, then turn OSM routing back on again.

If you have a Garmin Edge 800/810 with routable maps installed, you could in theory even only place a few Coursepoints on intersections of roads to define a general idea of which roads to ride on. Then, once such very rough course gets downloaded¬†to the Garmin¬†Edge,¬†the device¬†could¬†do all the routing details for you. I’d advise against this however, since all the detailed information such as Course distance & elevations will be completely wrong by the time you plan your Course. You may end up with a bad surprise during your ride…

Once you’re done placing your Trackpoints, you can convert some of them to Coursepoints and enter your additional data (“turn right”, “buy water here”, “roll over”, …). Note though that at least my Garming Edge 800 can only display¬†10 characters on-screen. So avoid instructions such as “Turn right into Highway 1 if you’d like to die, otherwise turn left”. I usually just write “L-Rd35”. In Bikeroutetoaster you can also set the Type of Coursepoint, such as “Turn left”,¬†“Turn right”, … If you set these, you will later see an Icon such as an arrow pointing left. Finally,¬†the Garmin will not display the¬†contents of field “Directions” but only what you enter in the field “Name” together with the appropriate icon as defined by the selected point type. The “Directions” field is only useable for the Cue Sheet that you can optionally download from the site.

Downloading the Course to your Garmin Edge

Depending on what software/site you used to create your Course with, putting the Course to your Garmin Edge may vary. The universal file type for Tracks and Courses is the GPX file. About all mapping software and navigation devices should be able to read/write GPX files. So if in doubt, you can download a GPX file of your course.
From there, Garmin enhanced the GPX file format and defined the TCX file. TCX files can hold more information,¬†although it’s pretty propietary to Garmin; not many other vendors support it. So if you can, go download a TCX file of your Course if you plan to put it onto a Garmin Edge.
Lastly, Garmin recently introduced the FIT file; a further enhancement over their TCX file. I yet have to see software which supports FIT, but I guess this will be the future. Eventually.

Now that you have downloaded your TCX or GPX file of the Course, connect your Garmin to your computer, browse to its “Garmin” directory, in which you’ll find another directory called “New Files”. Copy your GPX/TCX file in there (and note that at least for my Garmin Edge 800, I can only copy one file a time in there. If I copy more than one, only the first one will be recognized later!). Then disconnect your device, turn it back on and your Course should show up in the device’s “Courses” menu.

If you are using Bikeroutetoaster like me, here are a few more hints:

  • Before downloading the Course, give it a name in the respective field. Obviously. That way you’ll find it back when you point your Garmin Edge to the “Courses” menu.
  • You can set “Course Point Warnings” a defined distance before you hit the Coursepoint. Consider this: You set a Coursepoint on the center of an intersection, it’ll say “turn left”. During your ride, your Garmin will, once you move over this Coursepoint, alert you to “turn left”. If you’re rolling over the intersection at 60km/h at that moment I wouldn’t want to be the lamp post in the far left corner once you engage the left turn…
    To give you a pre-warning, you can set a distance at which the Garmin will warn you of an upcoming Coursepoint. It’ll then display the¬†Coursepoint text¬†together with a prefix. Say you set pre-warning¬†to 100m, and set the prefix to “W:”, then the Garmin will warn you 100m ahead of the Intersection with “W:turn left” followed by “turn left” 100m later on the intersection.
    This can be a convenient feature, do note however that the number of characters the Garmin will display is still limited to 10. Ie keep the Prefix as short as possible.
    Also note that if you have many¬†Coursepoints¬†spaced closely together (say you navigate through a city with a¬†Coursepoint every 10m, such as “left”, “right”, “right”, “left”, …) then having warnings 100m ahead will hopelessly confuse¬†you as they will get happily mixed with the real instructions and you’ll get horribly lost. Trust me, you will ūüôā
  • You don’t need to download the TCX file and¬†manually copy it¬†to your Garmin. Instead you can click on “To Garmin: TCX” with your device connected to your computer and have the Course directly transfered to the Garmin. This feature should work for Windows, MAC and with¬†¬†Andreas Diesner’s Garmin Communicator Plugin even for Linux.

Using the Course on your Garmin Edge

Now that you have the Course on your device, go to the menu and choose “Courses”. Your Course should show up there. Select it and upon tapping the wrench-icon, you’ll be presented with a few options — the main reason why I wrote this post, these options¬†appear confusing at first:

  • If your Course contains timing information (the Course was converted from a Track that someone rode earlier or the creating software allowed you to enter your planned speed), then turning on “Virtual Partner” will compare your actual progress during the ride against the previously performed/planned timing. You’ll see it as a graphic of 2 riders, one being ahead of the other.
  • If you plotted your Course precisely, you can turn on off-course warnings. The Garmin will then warn you if you depart from the plotted course. If however your Course was plotted rather coarse (eg too lazy to put many Trackpoints along curvy roads) then it can be pretty annoying that the Garmin permanently alerts you about leaving the course, only to find it back a few seconds later in order to loose it again. I prefer to turn this feature¬†off if I got sloppy during planning.
  • Turn Guidance is probably the most confusing option of all (and AFAIK only applies to Garmin Edge 800/810; I believe other models don’t have this option): Most importantly, if your¬†planned Course contains Coursepoints and these Coursepoints contain some¬†text, your Garmin will always pop up this text as you move over such¬†Coursepoint. It doesn’t matter whether Turn Guidance¬†is on or off.
    If however you have a Garmin Edge 800/810,¬†and you have downloaded a map of your area to the device¬†and this map is routable (see the above¬†definition of¬†Route for more details), then you might want to¬†turn on Turn Guidance. The Garmin will then take your Course and try to route it on the available map data. Ie it will create a Route for you; this route might however not exactly be the same path that your Course was, depending on how you set your Coursepoints. If you then start riding and approach a turn, the Garmin will automatically switch to map view and show a line along the path you are supposed to take. It will also display more detailed instructions such as “turn hard left into Park Lane”. This is the most convenient way of navigating but again, may not be the same as your planned Course. The Garmin will still display your Coursepoint texts in that mode of operation.
  • Under the “Map Display” options (Edge 800/810 only, I believe) you can choose to Always Display your Course superimposed on the map display, no matter whether you follow the Course or not. This is the most simple way of navigating a course — just superimpose it on the map and as you approach a junction or intersection, manually switch your Garmin to map display and see where you need to go.
    You can also choose to highlight Course Points on the map (note: I have never tested this, would appreciate feedback…).

Once you’re done setting things up, hit the big green Go button and go riding. Also note that changes to the above settings only take effect before hitting Go. If you want to change things later, you must stop¬†your Garmin following the course, do your changes and hit Go again.

In case you are using Turn Guidance on your Edge 800/810, you have a few additional Routing Options in your Settings menu after navigating to System, Routing. You can:

  • choose whether you want the routing to be optimized for Car, Bycicle or walking
  • avoid various pathways such as highways in the calculated route
  • ask the Garmin to automatically re-calculate the route in case you leave the prescribed route — or keep the existing route which is preferable in case you insist on taking a certain Course and are willing to backtrack to that Course in case you left it

Go riding and let me know how it goes!

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