Every bicyclist, regardless of type, eventually asks the same question. How am I going to get there? With a bicycle, you can go anywhere you want to go. Your destination may be the grocery store around the corner, the next town over, or even another state. But before you can begin, you are going to need a route.
If you're new to cycling or new to town, developing a route may seem daunting. Which roads are the safest, the flattest, or even the fastest? Is there a bike lane, or will the greenway take me in the right direction? Is there another way that avoids that busy highway? Thankfully, whether you are looking for a low-stress way to the store or planning your next long-distance training route, there's an endless number of tools to help you develop the perfect route.
Before we dig in too far, I want to say there are too many tools to review or compare them all. My goal is to share a few favorites and the reasons why I use them. They all offer basic features for free, so you can give them a try and find your favorites.
Since 2004, I've been planning bicycle routes of all kinds from the short 5-mile annual Ride of Silence to multi-day, 360-mile cross-state rides. My number one mapping tool for developing these routes is an application called Ride with GPS. Ride with GPS is a powerful application that takes route planning to the highest level while remaining easy to use. There is so much to unpack when exploring Ride with GPS. My top three features are easy route editing, a great mobile app, and the best online help section that's packed with helpful instructions and video tutorials. Ride with GPS is a full circle application that goes beyond just discovering or creating routes. It also makes sharing them easy with cue sheets, turn-by-turn directions, elevation profiles, file sharing, and much more.
When you're out riding your new route, the Ride with GPS mobile app is a great companion. With the mobile app, you can get turn-by-turn navigation on your phone, add photos along the route, and even create new routes on the go. I also like that, before I go out for a ride, I can download routes to view offline, saving my phone battery.
No matter what type of ride or route you are planning, Ride with GPS is the one stand-alone application that does it all and makes sharing it easy. Ride with GPS has three subscription levels. The free subscription makes many of the best basic features available for entry-level users.
Strava was initially introduced as an application to connect athletes. The app provides tools for tracking activities and connecting with others on their social media-type platform. The app's popularity has produced a hidden benefit that has earned it a spot on my list of favorite route planning tools. Strava collects route data from the cyclists using the app. Over time, that data is compiled to create heatmaps. Heatmaps show which routes are the most popular with local cyclists. It's an easy way to see which roads on your route are popular with other cyclists, or more importantly, which roads aren't. You will have to open a Free Strava account to use the heatmap feature, but it's worth it, especially if you are new to the area.
Pro Tip: Toggle the map color to Red. The contrast works well for highlighting the most popular routes.
Google Maps is a popular favorite for many. It's a go-to resource when planning short, urban routes. The mapping app allows you to pick multiple locations and automatically create a map that includes them all. Click on the bicycle icon, and it will map the route using bicycle-friendly roads based on crowdsourced data. You can print out turn by turn directions or upload them to your phone. You can also create custom maps and share them with others easily.
Pro Tip: Use the street view feature to get a close-up view of areas along your route that are unfamiliar to you. It's a great way to see a busy intersection before you ride through it or to find a shortcut to a side path or alternate route.
If you live in Charlotte, you are in luck. Check out Charlotte Explorer and the Charlotte Cycling Guide map tools. The cycling guide map offers layers that are very bike specific. Layers like bike lanes, shared-use paths, greenways, and signed bike routes are the main ones. The Charlotte Explorer map offers all of these and more. For instance, you're planning a route and want to avoid speed humps? The speed hump layer will show you which roads have speed humps. I know, what a country, right?
For urban cycling, connectivity is critical for creating routes that use low speed, low volume streets. Using these maps can help you see the connectivity that we already have. From my old home in the South Charlotte area, I could ride to the center of the city using a combination of neighborhood streets, greenways, and bike lanes. Using just a few of the layers instantly highlights the most natural routes and connectivity.
Pro Tip: Urban cycling can be amazingly fun and rewarding. Use the information from these tools to build your favorite Tour de Breweries or Tour de Parks or Tour de Coffee Shops or, well, you get the idea.
Not all great cycling routes are on pavement. Gravel riding is a type of adventure cycling that has become extremely popular in the last few years. Because unpaved roads are typically further away from populated areas, mapping routes and connecting gravel road segments can be challenging. Check out two of my favorite gravel mapping tools. The first is the NC Unpaved Roads ArcGIS map. The second is a crowdsource map site called Gravel Map that covers the entire USA. Between the two tools, my preference is the NC ArcGIS map if your route is in NC.
Pro Tip: If using Ride with GPS to create your gravel route, you can change the color of the gravel segments, so when you share the map, others will know where the gravel segments are and how much of the route is gravel vs. pavement.
This one isn't a mapping tool, but it's my go-to ride day app. Epic Ride Weather is an application that shares with you the weather forecast for the route you plan to ride at the time that you plan to ride it. Just upload your route file and tell the app what time you are riding and how fast. In just seconds, it will share with you the temperature, % chance of rain, wind speed, and wind direction for the route. You get a limited number of forecasts for free. After that, a minimal $8.99 annual subscription will get you as many as 20,000 forecasts.
That's it, my list of favorite tools for route planning. You can find links for all of these resources on the Links page of WeeklyRides.com. Filter the links list by the Mapping category to see all the links we share. As I said in the beginning, there are many available options for route mapping. Sharing them all isn't practical, but if you find others, give them a try. Ultimately having the knowledge and skill to map your own routes, regardless of which tool you use, will make every ride more fun and exciting.