Garmin eTrex HCx cycle touring setup

Garmin eTrex HCx

The following setup is for using a handheld GPS unit as an aid to navigation on a multi-day cycle tour in Europe. There are different ways to navigate, and they differ fundamentally. Some are active, by which the GPS is 'thinking' as you travel, and others are passive, by which the GPS is only presenting a pre-drawn 'pencil line' to follow. The method described here is mostly for the passive type, but with a degree of active as a fallback option for if you move off the pencil line and become lost. There are two reasons to opt for passive: firstly to save battery, and secondly because the course will be carefully planned beforehand and if the GPS begins to actively think for itself it will be tempted to lead a different way.

GPS unit: Garmin eTrex Legend HCx or Vista HCx with 2GB Micro SD card and handlebar mount for a bicycle. Software: Garmin MapSource on PC, and City Navigator Europe NT on DVD.

Setting up the GPS

Install the required maps on the GPS unit

Open MapSource on your PC and create a Map Set by clicking the Maps tab in the sidebar and selecting the Map Tool on the Tools Toolbar at the top of the screen, then zoom out to 50 miles or so and mouse over the map, clicking to select the map tiles you require. As you mouse over each tile it will be highlighted with a yellow border, and when you click them to select, they will turn orange. The name of each selected map will also appear in the Map Set Name field at the bottom of the sidebar. When you've added all the map tiles you require, edit the Map Set Name to something you prefer – the name of your cycle tour, perhaps (functionality is not affected).

Using the USB cable, connect the GPS unit to your PC and turn it on, then click Transfer » Send To Device in the upper toolbar. Select Maps and click Send. It may take a while for the transfer to complete if you've selected a large number of map tiles. Then check that all the detailed maps are actually visible on the GPS unit by moving the screen pointer to where they should be and zooming down to 300 feet. You can also check which maps are on the GPS with Menu » Menu » Setup » Map, scrolling to the 'Info' icon, and pressing Enter where you can see the map tiles listed by name.

There's no need to save any changes when closing MapSource or opening a new file. Be aware, though, that the transferred Map Set is named gmapsupp.img by default and if you transfer another, it will overwrite the existing one. So create only one Map Set for transfer, containing all the map tiles you'll need for your tour but no more, because the maps are stored on the Micro SD card, not the GPS's internal memory, and sufficient space needs to be kept free on the card for when you record your progress en route.

Store your intended route on the GPS unit

Route is actually the wrong word. Course is better, because a GPS Route is something specific, and not relevant to this method of navigation (read more about the difference between GPS Waypoints, Routes, and Tracks).

Create the GPS Tracks you'll need for your cycle tour. There are various ways to do this. I use Google Earth but you can use online course creation tools such as GPSies, Bikely, and MapMyRide (to name but a few). Save the Tracks in .gpx file format to your hard drive and open them in MapSource to check they follow the course you intended.

Transfer the Tracks to your GPS in the same way as with Maps (above), then check they're actually there with the GPS's Menu » Menu » Tracks » Enter. They should be listed as Saved Tracks and when you select each one with Enter » Map, the GPS should display it on the onscreen map. Note that the GPS unit stores these Tracks in its internal memory, not on the Micro SD card where the maps are. You cannot view a Track that is stored on the card.

Your Saved Tracks on the GPS should represent the pre-planned course you intend to travel on your cycle tour. Of course you don't have to follow this course at all. You might choose a different way on the day. And if you get lost, you can still use the GPS to guide you to your intended destination, ignoring your Tracks completely by using Waypoints and selecting Menu » Menu » Find » Waypoints then selecting a Waypoint and Enter » Go To » Follow Road.

The Find screen doesn't just offer Waypoints. You can 'Find' Cities, Addresses, Food, Points of Interest and various other things, but it might be useful to store your key destinations – campsites, hostels, ferry ports, etc – as Waypoints beforehand. At any time you can then use Go To on the GPS and it will generate a Route you can follow, with turn prompts if required.

eTrex HCx settings selection

(1) To make the Tracks as clear as possible for following on the GPS unit's map and to select which ones to display on the map, press Menu » Menu » Tracks, then for each listed Track, scroll to it and Enter, then select a colour and check Show On Map as required.

(2) To select a line colour for the Track of the course you actually follow, and to choose whether the tracklog Wraps When Full or not, press Menu » Menu » Tracks then select Setup to edit. On the Track Log Setup screen, uncheck Wrap When Full because the tracklogs will be saved on the Micro SD card which should not become full. Therefore, at the same time, scroll to Data Card Setup and Enter, where you check Log Track To Data Card and can also view already stored tracklogs.

(3) You can manually set and reset the zoom level as required when you're actually cycling, with the buttons on the GPS unit. You'll probably want the course you're following to display as Track Up on the map, and to stop the zoom level being auto-adjusted. These are set by pressing Menu » Menu » Tracks » Setup, then in the Set Up Menu selecting Map and editing as required. I set Lock On Road to On.

(4) In case you'll need to navigate to a Waypoint with Go To rather than follow a Track, set up a suitable Routing method with Menu » Menu » Setup, then in the Setup Menu select Routing to open the Routing Setup screen. There you have a number of settings, amongst which are the Follow Road Options which you can scroll to and press Enter. Many cyclists opt to Calculate Routes for 'Delivery' rather than 'Bicycle'.

(5) Install the very best batteries in the GPS unit and carry some spares. I use Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA batteries as they're the longest lasting (and lightest, and most expensive) I've found. In passive 'follow track' mode they should provide at least 36 hours of continuous use with the backlight off. If you set the GPS to navigate actively they won't last as long because it's continually calculating and recalculating which uses more power.

Using the GPS on tour

Subject to other personal preferences on how the Garmin eTrex HCx is set up, it should now be ready for use on tour, with each day's intended course stored as a .gpx Track and with night stops, ferry ports, stations, etc stored as Waypoints in case they're required.

To view the course for a particular day, press Menu » Menu » Tracks, scroll to the name of the Track in the list of Saved Tracks, then Enter. On the Saved Track screen make sure Show On Map is checked, then scroll to Map and press Enter. You will see the map with your course shown on as a distinct wiggly line.

Note that if all your Tracks are already set to Show On Map you can ignore the preceding paragraph. Just turn on the GPS and using the QUIT/PAGE key scroll through the main pages to the unit's map page. Your current position will be shown as a black arrow pointing to the top of the screen, and if you're anywhere near your course you will see the wiggly line. All you need to do now is follow it as you cycle along.

To record your course at the same time, press Menu » Menu » Tracks and on the Track Log screen check On. As long as space exists on the Micro SD card, the tracklog will continue, except that a new tracklog will begin every midnight and each time the GPS unit is switched on. When you're home after completing your cycle tour, you can transfer the tracklogs from the SD card to MapSource and re-live your course by flying along it in Google Earth.

For more information on using a Garmin eTrex HCx see Robert Lipe's GPSFAQs

Related: route planning in Google Earth, creating a cycle route on Google Earth.

40 comments on “Garmin eTrex HCx cycle touring setup”

  1. Shivin wrote:

    Very helpful article. I was wondering how you make this GPS work in "active" mode. Is this a feature of the map (I use Topo Usa 2008) ? Thanks.

  2. Patrick wrote:

    I doubt if it has anything to do with your map. What I mean by "active" mode is when the GPS is navigating for you, either a Route or to a Waypoint, and you see a thick purple wiggly line and possibly prompts on the screen. If you deviate, the GPS recalculates for you. That's what I mean by "active". You wouldn't do this with a Track, which is just a pencil line, so to speak, that you choose to follow or not.

    Either method will work with no map at all, although it helps to have one.

  3. Paul wrote:

    I've followed your instructions which are much more helpful than the garmin manual! Can you tell me how I get the screen up which says distance to next turning point or destination (with an arrow showing direction to head in)? I've had it up before but not sure how I did it

  4. Patrick wrote:

    I don't have my GPS in front of me just now, but as far as I remember you need to be in Go To mode (so the GPS is actively navigating a Route or a Waypoint along the purple line) and be on the Compass Page. You should then see the bearing pointer showing your course of travel, and a box at the top giving Dist To Next.

  5. Ray wrote:

    Hi, I use my HCx for cycling with TOPO UK maps and it all works fine except when I download a track to mapsource it doesn't seem to have recorded any times and therefore speeds. Should it?
    I tend to delete the track logs and just save the tracks in map source. I've just had a thought that perhaps the logs hold the times.

  6. Ray wrote:

    Just sorted my problem. I was saving my track logs on the HCx before transferring them. The track logs all have time and speed, but the saved track does not.

  7. Patrick wrote:

    Ray wrote: Just sorted my problem.

    Thanks for letting us know.

  8. Mike S wrote:

    An excellent article – try selling it to garmin to supplement their poor manual ! I have an HCx Vista and find tracks difficult to see when cycling at speed (finding the green line to be the most visible). Are you aware of any way of getting a more visible line, such as is available for routes ? I've experimented with "track-back" without any luck.

  9. Patrick wrote:

    I know what you mean about the line. That's how it is. You can't get a line like the one for a route. The trackback feature is pretty useless, but overall I think the HCx is a good unit.

  10. Keith wrote:

    I just want to take maps from bikely or mapMyRide and put them on my Garmin etrek legend HCx so I can follow them turn by turn on a route someone else already did. I have the .gpx files and pull them to MapSource then send to my garmin. Once on my Garmin how do I actually get them up to tell me turn by turn where to go? Please help, Im new at this.

  11. Patrick wrote:

    For a Legend HCx to guide you turn by turn, you need a Route-type .gpx file. The ones that people have ridden and saved are a Track-type .gpx file, and they won't tell you turn by turn but you will see a wiggly line to follow. A Track also is limited to 500 trackpoints when transferred to the GPS, so if you download one from Bikely etc and it has more than 500 you need to filter it down in MapSource. You do this by opening the Track Properties window and clicking Filter, then select Maximum Points as 500. After that, save it as a .gpx file with a new filename then transfer it to your Garmin. 500 trackpoints is usually plenty for a whole day's ride.

    To follow the Track using the GPS, press Menu » Menu, then Tracks, then scroll down to the Saved Track, press Enter and tick Show on Map and press OK. When you are actually on location you'll then see the wiggly line in the map window. This is the passive type of navigation described in the Post above and the one I prefer. It also uses less battery.

  12. Rik wrote:

    Hello there,

    I use my GPS mainly for hickig and cycling. When I use it to follow a track (pasive mode as you caal it), the black triangle indicating my postion will travel over the map. If I use the global track in the window this is OK, but usely I have to zoom to find more detail about the course to follow. In this case the track will only be partially shown on the screen and the position triangle will leave the screen and I have to displace the map all the time. Is it possible to fix the position triangle somewhere on the screen and make the map move in the screen as is the case in the "Go too" mode? In the tracback mode (active mode), the map also moves in the sceen and the program will bring me to the point to which I want to tracback, but will not follow the track.
    I have been looking at all the options of the system, but could not find out how to make the map to move on the screen in the passive mode, instead of the positioncursor. Does anyone know how to do this?
    Many thanks,


  13. Patrick wrote:

    Hello Rik. I'm not sure what's happening there. When you are using the GPS to follow a track you use the main map page. On my eTrex Legend HCx the map page is accessible with the top button on the right of the screen. You will see the map showing where you are – the black arrow pointer near the bottom. When you move, the map will move and the arrow (you) stays where it is.

    You fix the black arrow pointer to point upwards near the bottom of the screen in Map Setup – General by selecting Orientation: Track Up.

    If you have put a track on the GPS it will show on the map, but only when you are in the location where the track is located, unless... see below.

    You can also view a track via Main Menu » Tracks » Enter » Track Log then scroll to track » Enter » Map (if Show on Map is checked). But this won't show the black arrow if you are not actually near the track. This is not the way to use the GPS for following a track. Follow the track via the main map page.

    I never use trackback as I find it useless.

  14. Mike wrote:

    Hi Patrick,
    I just got a new HCx after my very old vista died. I use it to walk to predetermined waypoints loaded in the gps; i.e., stand in the desert, hit find, pick a waypoint in memory, then hit "go to" and start walking. My old unit kept the bearing indicator actively pointing towards the chosen waypoint from the moment I hit "go to", until arriving at the destination, even when my heading changed. The bearing pointer on the new HCx seems to continually freeze. I'm not sure if I have the unit set up correctly. Any ideas?
    Thanks so much for your informative site,

  15. Patrick wrote:

    Hi Mike.

    Mine is a Legend, not a Vista with an electronic compass, and I've never used the bearing pointer. All I know is that you can toggle between the bearing pointer and the course pointer. So I'm sorry I can't be much help... except try the YACF GPS forum – the best place I've come across for GPS related issues. You can register (free) then put a question. There are one or two experts on there so you might find the answer. Good luck.

  16. Mike wrote:

    Thank you Patrick – I will check it out. Btw; I found your site via a Garmin related search, but really like your cycling info as well. The snow is going quickly here in Utah and I've been able to get a few rides in on the cyclocross bike on non-ski days. Have a great season in the saddle,

  17. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks Mike. You too.

  18. Jim wrote:

    Just a quick thankyou Patrick for the clear instructions that Garmin seem unable to produce. I was going to sell my Garmin and possibly book myself in for a brain scan before I read your post. Now I can install tracks and follow them. I'm off for another jaunt to France in 2 weeks and will be giving it a big trial. I used Bikeroutetoaster that enables you to download straight to the garmin and works well. Just need to get my head round the other stuff now but the main function is working well for me.
    Thanks again. Jim

  19. Patrick wrote:

    Jim – a couple of things I didn't mention above...

    If you are using Bikeroutetoaster to create each day's track they will probably contain more than the Garmin's 500 trackpoint limit per track, in which case you can use MapSource to filter each one down to 500 maximum. I do this before I transfer them to the unit by saving them to my PC and opening in MapSource.

    If you are also using the Garmin to record your track as you go along, I would (i) save each day's at the end (of each day) then (ii) clear the unit's tracklog, then (iii) reset the trip odometer screen, and begin again next day, then save that one, etc.

    I hope you enjoy your trip to France.

  20. Chris wrote:

    I wonder how this GPS device now compares to Garmin's recent products. In particular, does it still offer more than the Garmin Edge 200. I like the fact that the eTrex Legend HCx is a handheld GPS first, but can be mounted on the handlebars.

    Did you just need the Garmin Large Diameter Rail Mount Adaptor (25-30mm) or the Garmin eTrex handlebar mount bracket that includes the above?

    Finally, do you still reckon it does the business? It's available now for less than £100 and our anniversary looms... 🙂

  21. Patrick wrote:

    The Garmin Edge 200 doesn't seem to have in-built mapping and is essentially a GPS-enabled cycling computer. I use City Navigator Europe maps with my eTrex Legend although I suppose you could manage with the base map supplied. The City Navigator maps are worth the extra IMO (simple vector maps, which is what you want). I bought a handlebar mount as illustrated on Garmin's website but got it from Handtech (I think). For some reason it comes with a replacement back for the GPS, and this back doesn't fit but you don't need it anyway – just the bracket.

    The eTrex Legend HCx does the business. I would buy another in preference to anything else – including the Vista. The battery life (two AAs) is exceptional and there is an advantage with normal batteries if you are cycle touring. Less than £100 is a good price but bear in mind the additional cost of the map DVD and the fact that it can only be registered to one GPS unit – not a problem but means the GPS effectively costs £175 rather than £100 (still good value).

  22. Chris wrote:

    Thanks, Patrick.

    £175? At the very least I would expect to be able to plot a ride using online mapping software, save the .gpx file then import it in to the Garmin. I would like other functionality, but as a minimum I wanted to follow the little pink line. And save a record of the rides I do, including being able to upload the record to Garmin Connect and view the data. Does my £100 allow me to do all that, please?

  23. Patrick wrote:

    Your £100 does allow you to do all that. The only difference between £100 and £175 is that you would have a detailed map rather than the base map. The wiggly line would be the same. You just wouldn't see all the minor roads on the screen.

    I have used my eTrex without the detailed map when I've forgotten to transfer sections of it (the place I was going) beforehand. It's not really a problem. The wiggly line follows where the minor roads are in exactly the same way – you don't see all the actual roads on screen but you do see the line. The other functionalities of the unit are unaffected by whether you have the detailed on-screen map or not.

    Well worth £100 IMO. I've seen the Garmin City Navigator UK & Ireland NT map for sale for £25. It is the whole of Europe that costs £75 (although I've seen that for sale for £60).

  24. Kern wrote:

    ... our anniversary looms ...

    I'm sure your better half will be thrilled to receive a GPS for anniversary! 😆

  25. Patrick wrote:


  26. Hilary wrote:

    Chris wrote as a minimum I wanted to follow the little pink line. And save a record of the rides I do, including being able to upload the record to Garmin Connect and view the data.

    I'd like to do that too. Can you use the free Open Streets mapping for this purpose?
    I'm also likely to need an 'Idiots Guide'! 🙂

  27. Patrick wrote:

    You can use Open Street Maps. Good point Hilary. There may be a little more to learn (I haven't used Open Street Maps) but they are free. However, you do not need any maps at all to follow the pink line, nor to upload rides to Garmin Connect.

  28. Darren wrote:

    Hi, I'm new to my garmin etrex vista hc x. I'll mainly use this for cycling, I've bought & been using garmin topo maps great Britain which work ok. When I try to use my trip & way point manager, I follow your instructions as in previous posts & when I pass my mouse over the maps none of the grids are highlighted. Do the maps need to be unlocked? If so I have no activation numbers.
    Many thanks for any help Darren

  29. Patrick wrote:

    If you mean the maps on your computer, you probably need to unlock them with a 25-character code that you should have received with the maps. Then, to highlight the grids in MapSource you select the map tool and click on the map.

  30. Darren wrote:

    Hi Patrick, thanks for the response. It's the maps (trip & waypoint manager) that came with my etrex. I can't find the 25 character code numbers or letters,i suppose the next step is to try product support. I bought the etrex in october & have only just starting to mess with it for the summer,i purchased a garmin preprogrammed sd card with TOPO great britain.
    Cheers Darren

  31. Patrick wrote:

    Darren, my Garmin map DVD has an 8 character product key marked on the sleeve. Mapsource TOPO Great Britain should have something similar. Perhaps you need to phone product support with that key and they will give you the 25 character code to unlock the maps.

  32. Darren wrote:

    Thanks again Patrick, I've emailed them I'll give them a call. I will let you know how I get on.
    Many thanks Darren

  33. Chris wrote:

    Had to uninstall MapSource as it disabled Flash. Restored the PC to an auto restore point prior to the installation. May try an installation in stages later.

    I see that the price on Amazon has gone up again. The Legend is now more expensive than the Vista model at nearly £130. Just got mine in time – less than £100 makes this an attractive piece of kit, although I've now bought a second bracket (they've gone up too) for another bike at about £14 for the pair. I can live without the City Navigator DVD, for now at least, and just follow the pink line and black arrow.

    Really pleased with it after trial and error to see how to get my 'breadcrumb' track off the GPS device and online at Garmin Connect. I'm even going faster...!

    Right click on 'View Details' to open in a new tab, then click on 'Player' (Details / Splits / Player) to run through the track. Good stuff 🙂

  34. Patrick wrote:

    I've never heard of MapSource disabling Flash. Strange. Perhaps Garmin BaseCamp (free download) will work.

  35. Karl Karlsson wrote:

    Tip: If you need to import a bigger track that 500 points and if filtering it is not an option you can rename the log to "ACTIVE LOG" and then it will import as the active log in the Etrex, Then you can save it as a track

  36. Preloaded with US, Canadian and Mexican maps, the Garmin is obviously loaded for the North
    American market, however, one should be able to update the
    maps with those of the parts of the world where you will be traveling.
    With the help of this, you can actually calculate the lowest or highest height.
    Our first night in Paris was spent on the net checking out Sat Navs and especially
    the Garmin reviews.

  37. Ross wrote:

    I know this is an old site, but I thought I'd add this in case it helps someone. I plot a route using ridewithgps then export both a route and a track to my PC. I edit the turn by turn instructions using Routeconverter and add audax controls, cafés, and other things of interest (as well as adding road names etc and checking the auto generated instructions are correct (often they're not)). Then I merge the edited route with the track (filtered down to 500 points) using Mapsource. When I upload the combined file to the eTrex I have turn by turn instructions with an arrow giving direction to next turn (plus speed, distance, time etc) on one screen and a map with the track highlighted on it on the other screen. Works a treat. I never let the Garmin calculate a route for me.

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