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The best cycling apps for route-planning and navigation

Joseph Delves
26 May 2021

Find your way to one of the three best navigation apps for cyclists

If you want to find somewhere to ride, plot a route through unknown terrain or see what other riders are getting up to, a cycling route-planning app can be of service.

Apps such as Strava, Komoot and Ride with GPS comprise an online database of pre-existing routes uploaded by users, along with the mapping tools needed to design your own.

Sa Calobra mountain pass

With most users doing the detailed work of researching and designing their tracks on a full-size computer, each of the three also has a phone app that can help you navigate in the real world.

However, given the constraints of the average smartphone battery, a more common approach is to send any route you’re interested in onwards to your GPS bike computer.

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Also allowing you to record and store details of your ride, each of your three favoured apps focuses on slightly different priorities. Read on to find which is likely to be the best fit for you...


The most popular platform emphasises recording and sharing over route planning

The most well-known and widely used exercise tracking service, Strava was founded in 2009. Since then it's allowed riders to use a GPS device including their phone to record activities and then plot them on a map alongside other data like speed and duration.

It has since become very widely used amongst cyclists and runners, partly because of its hotly contested King/Queen of the Mountains (KOM/QOM) segments that can turn your local routes into a virtual racetrack.

Beyond its original mission of motivating solo athletes by virtually linking them up, Strava clearly decided there was money to be made from pivoting towards being a kind of social platform for athletes. This means much of its current dashboard is given over to a feed featuring the activities of any athletes you follow.

Great if you’re into that sort of thing, less useful if you’re not, it does mean you can see what your friends are up to and steal their routes. At the same time, you’ll get data on any of your own recorded rides through the adjacent training log tab.

For those more concerned with finding places to go, there’s the option to search pre-existing segments or save those that you’ve seen from your feed. The segment explorer feature also allows you to hunt down routes by name or location.

However, the more in-depth route creation function, which lets you plan your own extended trips, is part of Strava’s subscription package meaning you’ll need to pay up if you want to access it.

If you do, you’ll find that in common with many platforms, Strava uses the opensource OpenStreetMap base maps, which are pretty good these days as long as you stick to the tarmac. In suggesting routes it also calls upon Strava’s extensive heatmap dataset to help suggest popular stretches you might want to include.

Beyond building your own routes, other benefits of subscribing include access to a more detailed training log, along with options to sign up for training plans and performance analytics.

However, even on the free version, there’s plenty of other features to play with. These include motivational challenges to attempt, along with Strava’s famous KOM and QOM segments which place you on a virtual leaderboard if you pass through any pre-designated segments during a recorded ride.

These are widely fought over, and when synced with a compatible GPS unit you can even get a live view of how you’re progressing up the virtual standings.

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With plenty of pros on the platform, it’s also a good means of stalking your heroes, along with comparing your own measly efforts with their training and racing programmes.

Getting routes to your GPS computer is also likely to be easy, with Garmin and Wahoo devices both happy to sync with Strava. Offering a lot more than just mapping and navigation, Strava is OK for finding existing routes, although the need to pay to build your own might put some users off.

You can find our complete review of the Routes feature here

+ Social side, Competitive KOM segments; Detailed multisport activity tracking; Large route database; Good UX  
- Route planning requires a subscription; Superfluous features for navigation-focused riders


Route finding and offline navigation suited to off-road escapades

Komoot’s unique selling point is its offline navigation feature. What this means is that you can design or choose your route, and once downloaded, navigate it without requiring an internet connection. This allows you to take digital mapping and GPS location into the back of beyond, or at least until your battery runs out.

Aiming to make it easier for people to get out and explore, it’s nevertheless one of the best options for turning your phone into a satnav and for finding off-road routes.

Of course, in the interests of not riding off a cliff, if you’re heading anywhere remote we’d always back it up with a paper map. Safety concerns aside, Komoot’s collection of low traffic or mixed-terrain routes is pretty good.

Helped by the fact that each automatically shortlists local points of interest uploaded by Komoot users, you’ll generally get a real sense of what the ride might be like before you settle on one to follow.

That said, Komoot’s definition of the surface type, divided between options like singletrack, access road, gravel or asphalt, can sometimes be a bit off. Meaning you might find yourself on terrain a good deal wilder than you imagined, a degree of extra research is a good idea to avoid finding yourself in over your head.

Unfortunately, this fact isn’t helped by the fairly basic OpenStreetMaps based mapping which doesn’t show accurate contour lines or terrain features.

These caveats aside, it is very good for finding conventional road routes, along with wilder routes for mountain biking, touring or even walking and running. Taking in data regarding where people are actually riding, its algorithm is also good for helping you discover less travelled bits of more familiar locales.

Once downloaded you can also choose to use the maps on your phone screen or get turn-by-turn directions via headphones. The pricing model allows you to download specific areas for a one-off payment of £3.99 or the entire world for £29.99.

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There’s then a premium upgrade if you want that allows for live tracking and some multi-day planning features, along with integrated weather forecasts.

At the same time as helping you plan, Komoot will record your rides, although it requires some encouragement to then share them with other platforms like Strava. On the plus side, it does allow you to hunt out friends from your Facebook contacts who are also using Komoot, so you’ll likely find some tyre tracks in which to follow.

Find out more details about Komoot here.

+ Offline navigation; Lots of points of interest; Good off-road routing; Clear mapping and navigation; One-off purchase  
- Needs to be backed with a paper map in remote spots; Waytypes and surfaces can be incorrect; Doesn’t sync with other platforms

Ride with GPS

Does what you'd expect with excellent route planning included as standard 

I always associate Ride with GPS with people’s dads. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but predating Strava by some years, in my head it’ll always be associated with the early days of cycling GPS technology.

Luckily, it hasn’t failed to move with the times. Largely eschewing the social media model chased by other platforms, in some ways this has also left it a more focused offering.

Still doing what it says on the tin, it’s fundamentally about creating and sharing GPS routes, not competing or analysing your performances. Carefully logged by the aforementioned middle aged cyclists, these dedicated souls often go to the trouble of giving detailed descriptions and adding photos.

I’ve found decent routes across both the UK and mainland Europe.

If you can’t find something that fits the bill, the tools to create your own are also serviceable. It's slightly clunkier than some, but the ability to select from a wide range of different base maps including Google and OpensStreetMaps is useful, while the open-source topographical information is also a bonus.

Long since sprouting an app you can use on your phone and the ability to export routes to on-bike devices, the free version is still a good option for drawing up routes and recording rides. At the same time, you can use the app itself for navigation as long as your battery allows.

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Pay a bit more for premium membership and you’ll get turn-by-turn navigation, advanced route editing tools and offline maps. There’s also the ability to analyse your ride data.

However, if you’re not bothered about metrics, even the free version is still a good place for finding and cataloguing your rides. In short, Ride with GPS might not be flashy, but it gets the job done.

+ Good route planning tools; Clear mapping and navigation; Large database of routes  
- Not much of a social side, which some people won't consider a negative

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