Cycling off-road: How to navigate

Finding your way cycling off-road

Cycling off-road is great fun and brings you closer to the landscapes you’re riding through. On unfamiliar tracks and paths, finding your way is easy too, when you know how, even when far away from busy signposted routes. You just need a good map that has all off-road rights of way reliably and clearly marked.  

In Great Britain, the best maps for hiking and off-road cycling are Ordnance Survey Landranger and Explorer maps. For other countries, use either the local equivalent (e.g. IGN in France) or an international mobile navigation app like Komoot, which has less detailed maps but will keep you from getting lost.

Ordnance Survey paper maps

These are superb quality, but a big folding map does have two disadvantages for cyclists: (1) you usually need to stop to consult the map, and (2) the map can only tell you which way to go as long as you always know your precise location. Working this out off-road can be time consuming and may require a compass and some skill.

GPS devices – the expensive option

Modern GPS devices can give you top quality digital maps plus satellite navigation on a small handheld device with a long battery life. These brilliant devices tell you exactly where you are and which way to go and can be attached to your bike, so hands free. They cost a few hundred pounds.

Free phone app with top quality maps

As long as your smartphone has GPS capability, as most do nowadays, you can get most of the advantages of a dedicated GPS device in Britain from Ordnance Survey Maps Online and their free smartphone app. Pay just £24 for a year’s access to the best maps of the the whole country, the equivalent of over 600 paper maps! Download the app, clip the phone to your handlebarslink to Amazon and you have a hands-free satnav with the best mapping for off-road cycling and hiking. (Scroll down for more details.)

Lost? No problem: the little red pointer shows you exactly where you are on the map. No phone signal? No problem: maps and routes can be saved for offline use.

The picture above shows the Landranger 1:50,000 scale map. Zoom in easily to the finer detail on the 1:25,000 scale Explorer map when you need to. That can make a big difference sometimes; it even shows which side of a hedge you should be on!

Planning rides

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Maps from Ordnance Survey can be viewed on all your devices and synced between devices. So you can plan and mark a route on your laptop and it will appear on your phone app. There are some useful planning tools: for example, you can toggle between OS maps and satellite view to check out terrain and paths visually at the route planning stage.

Personally, we usually print out the route as a backup, and take a spare battery or power bank for the phone. That way you cover all possible glitches.

For a key to symbols on OS maps. See here.