How to be a navigation Guru with your Garmin

How to be a navigation Guru with your Garmin

If you thought using your Garmin for navigation might be an IT skill harder than setting up a VPN to watch Eurosport, do not worry, here are the steps that can turn you into that navigation guru that everyone hopes to get dropped with.

Sunday 1st July 2018

If you spend any time at all cycling in unfamiliar areas, especially overseas, and you are not using your GPS for navigation, then you are sadly missing out on an amazing tool that is spending many many hours 3 feet from your directionally challenged mind. 

Here we focus on the ubiquitous Garmin but other brands of GPS unit may well suffice. And don't think you need a fancy-pants Garmin with a big screen and built-in maps, even the most basic Garmin's going back to the simplistic  Garmin 300/500 from 2010 can do the following for you:

  • Store a number of great routes recommended by cyclists in an area you've never been.
  • Provide easy to follow breadcrumb trail on the screen and deliver audible warnings the moment you go off course. 
  • Help you get back to your start point or hotel should you become lost or disorientated, even if you did not have a route uploaded.
  • Store small sections of a route to help you navigate a complex area that you think you know but you just not 100% sure (especially useful if leading a group).

Step 1: Get your route

Obviously, this is the most critical part of the process and there are several ways to do this.

  • Find websites with recommended routes. If you are in a new area it often pays to do a search on the local cycling websites to see if anyone has already uploaded the recommended routes. This is the best way to get a “rider-approved” route, hopefully with some description too. A great place to start is on the ride section of the Unfound website.
  • Use Strava Route Builder. On your strava dashboard (desktop version), click “My Routes” which is underneath Dashboard in the main menu. Then click the “Create New Route” button. You can then search for the area you wish to ride and start drawing your route. A great feature is the “Use Popularity” switch which allows you to place two points and Strava will use its data to provide the route most popular for cyclists.
  • Garmin Connect also has a route builder, and although not as good as Strava's system, it is easier to upload using the Garmin Connect App if you have a blue-tooth enabled Garmin. 
  • If you are in very remote or uncycled area then there will be an absence of good data for Strava’s Popularity algorithm and in that case, a good way to evaluate possible routes is to use google maps street view. As you manually draw out a route on Strava, cross-check with the google maps street view to check the road conditions.
  • You can also use your stored activities on your Garmin device to create a route, for example, if you wanted to repeat a route you did with a guide but on your own.

Step 2: Upload your route

I have not used ALL models of Garmin GPS units personally, but a quick look at the online instructions indicate that they all do use the same method for uploading routes. 

USB Cable

Simply use a USB cable to connect your computer to your Garmin. Hopefully, you’ll be able to sail through those annoying “USB device not recognized” type errors and be able to see your Garmin Device as a folder on your system. All you need to do is copy your newly downloaded GPX or TCX file into the folder on your Garmin called “New Files”. Once it's copied over you can disconnect your Garmin, turn it off, and then back on (I believe the Garmin “unpacks” the folder on startup).


If you have a blue-tooth enabled Garmin (I think most in the last 5 years are), then you can upload with the Garmin Connect App. The best way to do this is to sign into your account on the Garmin Connect websiteand then navigate to Training > Courses. Here you can create a course but even better, you can import a course (small link below "Create a Course" button). Once you have named and saved a course in the system it will be available on the app on your phone and can be sent to your device from there. 

Checking Your Uploaded Course

After you have allowed time for your course to upload, and also turned off and restarted your Garmin, you had better check the course is there before you start off. The course can be found in the training/files section of your Garmin. 

Note: if you wish to use an existing recorded activity from your Garmin as a route to follow, then there is no need to upload anything. Simply view the route details on your Garmin device and select "convert to course".

Step 3: Using your route

Some of you may have maps on your Garmin, and if that is the case then you probably are already used to the navigation function. This guide is aimed at those that have simpler Garmin devices, riders that might not have even realised that they can use their device for guidance. 

When you are ready to navigate, on your Garmin select the course file (found in the files/training section) and select "ride course". Usually, you will be asked "Navigate to the start of the course" and this is entirely optional. If you are already some way into the course area then it might be better just to go straight to the nearest part of the course rather than the start. This is where it might be necessary to zoom out so that you can see the course in its entirety and then you can easily head in the general direction of the course until your path intersects the course. Then your Garmin will tell you you've "found course" and you can start to follow it. 

Here are the key things to note:

  1. Garmin devices without maps will display a simple line on the screen. Well two lines actually, one line being the course and the other line is your "breadcrumb trail" - where you have been.
  2. The use of routes is totally separate from recording an activity. You can start/stop route guidance at any time, or select a different route, without having any effect on the activity you are recording. 
  3. Zooming in and out while navigating is an important part of the process. You may need to zoom out to see a course that is in your area or to get your bearings, and you might need to zoom in to ensure you are on the correct route at a complicated junction.
  4. The direction you travel on a course is important. You can easily do a course backwards - simply follow the course line, but if you want alarms if you go off course and/or alerts to left/right turns then you need to be going in the correct direction.

Other Top Tips

  • Garmin's have a "Back to Home" feature which is very useful indeed if you are exploring a new area. Wherever you are you can select this function and your ride becomes a navigable course, which can lead you straight back to your hotel. If you have already come 90% of the way back then don't turn around and follow your entire route back, simply zoom out and get your bearings and follow (in reverse) just the first part of your ride. 
  • If there is a complex section to a route that you tackle every few months then its a good idea to keep at least one course that passes through this section. Even if you vary the ride before and after the complex part, you can still use your course just for the difficult part and then cancel navigation once through it.