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 GPSiesBikely, 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.