Finding your way around with SatNav and maps

There are many forums on the internet where people are keen to offer help and advice to others. Sadly many of those are judgemental and insulting if your way does not suit their’s. The issue of SatNav Vs paper maps crops up frequently. My view is pretty simple really: use whatever method works best for you but make sure you try them all.

Using maps

A typical modern map
A typical modern map

I’m no stranger to paper maps. As a keen hiker I’ve long used a compass and maps and a bit of knowledge to find my way around unfamiliar mountains etc. Finding your way around unfamiliar cities is no different except in a city you can’t stay lost long as there’s always signs and people to point you in the right direction. The people who find city maps of no use are generally those who simply aren’t used to them. 

The first thing to do is establish north. Once you have north both on the ground and on the map you can always orientate yourself. Cheap compasses can be got anywhere and are useful, but if you get really stuck just remember in the northern hemisphere the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So you’re always looking at the sun facing south-ish. However if you have a watch on it will be easier. Take your watch off and point the hour hand to the sun. Now imagine a line going from the middle of the dial to halfway between the hour hand and the 12. That’s south. Also, most people travel at roughly 2.5 miles per hour when waking. In a city that may be less because you are taking in the sites, but it’s good to know because knowing where north is and knowing how fast you travel, and of course if there are road signs! then you should never get lost with a map. 

Leaving the city is much easier in a way because there are far fewer roads. Check every intersection as you travel and ensure it’s the correct one that matches the map. If you check each one then you will quickly know if you made a mistake and can turn around. If you have a good memory you can simply recall the junction changes you have to make. I have an appalling memory so I tend to jot the directions down in a simple way: A1 to J42, then A46 to 3rd roundabout and take 2nd exit to A463. Travel for 1 mile and you’re there. 
If you plan a long journey you’ll find its really not that difficult and most people become lost when they don’t stick to their plan, or when they reach complicated cities, which is when SatNavs come into their own.

Using SatNavs

My SatNav, the Garmin Nuvi 58
My SatNav, the Garmin Nuvi 58

SatNavs are often the work of the devil mostly because they are designed by techies and companies take little notice of users who complain of their un-intuitive controls. I’ve owned several SatNav’s all of them TomTom but the most recent a Garmin. The most common complaint about them is that they offer barmy routes. Well that’s true, they all sometimes do. However only one time over the last decade have I followed a barmy route and gone significantly out of my way. General speaking the barmy routes the SatNav come up with make little real difference to your overall journey, so it’s just not worth complaining about. However I have taken very many wrong turns with TomTom because the mapping isn’t that good, especially in complicated cities.

There are two main features of SatNavs: 1 is finding your way around.
If you have a large vehicle though it’s pointless expecting a standard SatNav to always route you the best way. Many truckers have SatNavs meant for cars so obviously they will find themselves down roads which are too narrow, with height barriers and sharp turns that they can’t get past. This happens constantly but it’s not the SatNav’s fault. It’s the fault of the driver for not buying a unit that will accept your height and width and direct you accordingly. Many motorhomers have units like this for that exact purpose. 

Once you have an appropriate unit it really is simple: tell it which city you wish to go to, or what postcode, or co-ordinates if you use those. I use a mix of all of them. If you simply type in ‘Bruge’ they will attempt to take you to what is considered the central part of that city. More recent models will inform you if there is a toll road on the route and ask if you wish to avoid it, or if there is a congestion zone or emission zone on your route and again, ask if you wish to reroute to avoid that. It couldn’t get any simpler and after a few seconds of generating a route you’re ready to go. 

I use my SatNav in portrait mode and the reason I do that is mostly that when driving you don’t need a wide view of what’s in front of you, you need a long view so you know what’s coming up. I especially like portrait mode so I can check what lane I need to be in. The SatNav may say take the 3rd exit but that could easily still be a right turn in relation to your direction of travel, or it might mean going almost all the way around the roundabout. I must say in general the Garmin is far superior in mapping to the TomTom so taking wrong turns is almost a thing of the past for me now.
Also if you need fuel it gives you longer to plan when you see fuel stations coming up in the distance on the screen. 

There are a few caveats to using one. Firstly if yours is a basic model or if you have an awful lot of items in the display, it may update slowly so you think it is pointing you off a roundabout, but it simply hasn’t updated the screen yet. It’s wise to listen to spoken instructions as well as reading the display. 
Also, at complicated motorway junctions it’s easy to get confused as the SatNav considers the exit from the motorway not to be the point you access the slip road, but to be the point at which you are almost on the motorway junction itself. If there are many junctions together it can be indistinct which one it is referring to. Sometimes, rarely, you have no choice than to guess and hope you get it right. TomTom is really bad for this but the Garmin is better as their mapping is clearer. 

You can also use the SatNav when not in the car. It will route you for walking and cycling as well as driving. I used to use my TomTom for walking routes but the battery life was appalling and for other reasons I stopped. I’ll discuss that later in Navigating with a Mobile Phone.

Also it’s very important that you use any SatNav as a guide only. There are many occasions when it has instructed me to u-turn when a u-turn is not allowed. Or tried to route me the wrong way down a one way street, take me down a dead end or make a right turn where there simply isn’t one. The mapping is not bang up to date no matter what they say and of course nothing can be that precise when it relies on so many factors for accurate details. You must use your own driving skills and be aware of what you’re doing despite what the SatNav is saying.
Very generally now I use maps for an overall view of where I am aiming to be, and the SatNav to navigate me through unfamiliar cities once I arrive there. The numerous twists and turns are almost impossible to plan for and my Garmin even takes into account live roadworks and live traffic reports.

The other thing SatNavs are excellent for is POIs, or Points Of Interest. These are simply shortcuts and you often get thousands of them with a new unit, 90% of which you probably won’t use. Banks and ATM machines are often listed, restaurants and pubs, hospitals, vets and fuel stations. SatNavs used to allow you to set your own category and add POI’s to it. For whatever reason they stopped doing that last year and it’s been the biggest miss. I can’t for the life of me figure out why they would do it, for me in my motorhome it was the primary reason for using one. I had categories such as where to find water taps, where to park up for the night, friends addresses etc. 

TomTom demand you update your maps frequently however at a certain age of device they will say it is too old to update now so you must buy a new device. This is when I found out when choosing a new device that they don’t support custom POI’s. Garmin do, but it’s very clunky and demands the use of a computer and some specialist software. Pretty stupid if you’re on the road lol You can save some favourites as they’re called but these are limited in number. 
A little hint for those who travel far and frequently. If you’re like me it’s not unusual to end up somewhere new and especially when rural forget or not even know where you are. There is a command on the Garmin screen which is “Where am I?” This instantly tells you your co-ordinates and the city or region you’re in. On forgetful days it’s very handy 🙂

Nevertheless grumbles aside, SatNavs are an excellent tool for finding your way around but it is unwise to rely on them 100%. For one thing they do make mistakes and also you don’t memorise a journey well if you are simply following instructions. Consider them as a helpful aid rather than as a necessary tool. You can live without one, but if you travel far and frequently they do make life that much easier.

Mobile Phones and Google Maps

Mobile phones make great route navigators too and in some ways are far superior to dedicated SatNavs but in other ways they have their limitations.

On Android phones Google maps comes as standard. It’s free and it’s very accurate and it’s been enhanced on phones for route finding including multi stop routes. It can also give you routes via trains, buses, cycles, walking and a vehicle. As most people take their phones everywhere they go the use of them for navigating unfamiliar -and especially large- cities is second to none. 

Mobile phones use a GPS chip for GPS signals but they also use a triangulation from mobile phone masts to find out where you are and to route you to where you’re going. I used mine to find the seat in Amsterdam that was made famous in the film The Fault in our Stars. The phone took me unerringly to the exact spot. Many websites such as garages, pubs, hotels and motorhome accessory shops have links on their page too so that at a click of a button you leave the website and go to Google maps and the directions are there for you. 

The only downside to these is that you must have a data connection for them to work. In this day and age almost everyone does have some data on their phone, and google maps uses very little. Apparently you can download the maps for a route while at home on WiFi, and store them on your phone for up to a month. I have an excellent data package so I don’t do that, but the option is there. 

There are numerous apps for phones to use too, many which are offline meaning you don’t need a live data connection to use them, you store the maps on your phone. One of the popular ones is a massive 12 gig if you want all of Europe covered. However it doesn’t do postcode mapping and does not have many of the functions of a dedicated SatNav unit.

Using a phone and Google maps to navigate a city when driving takes a little getting used to, but once you’re used to it it’s easily as good as a dedicated SatNav. Where the SatNav wins is rerouting quickly if you go the wrong way, using live traffic info to avoid congestion and roadworks, better junction assist and a better display of map features. However you never need to plug your phone into the computer to do long map updates and the battery life on my MotoG phone is far superior to any SatNav. I can see a time when SatNavs will be defunct completely.

In a nutshell? Use a map if it suits you partly because you never know when your SatNav will break, as mine did last year. Pay for a decent map with secondary roads as well as main routes. You can get some inexpensive SatNavs such as the Nova which can take your measurements to help you avoid low bridges, narrow roads etc, but don’t rely on them 100%. They’re great for finding your way through strange cities but you must still use your driving sense and take note of local signs etc. Learn how to use your phones mapping software because when push comes to shove it may be all you have left to rely on. Don’t let people dictate what method you use. Try them all and stick with what suits you best. 

Pass problems

I was going to say you may not believe it but, you might…my brakes burned out on a pass in Austria lol

It was a 16% hill and in 2nd gear the rev counter was going over 5,000 so I went into 3rd but then had to continually brake on and off most of the way down. The brakes got so hot that by the half way mark there was smoke coming from the wheels and the stench was awful. I pulled into a restaurant car park that offered itself and noticed a camper about the same size as mine but about 10 years older pull in after me. They didn’t have problems 🙁  Here’s the car park: MK3_2601

So, I decided to sit here and have some lunch. It’s blazing hot and I have no idea how much of the hill is left, I suspect a lot. I may not even reach Italy tonight grrr

*Update: I had to stop once more on the way down but from then on it was flattish so no problem. It’s concerned me though so I’m getting the brakes checked out when I return to UK.

**Update 2: I was chatting on a motorhome forum and a guy gave me this link It’s an article that basically says brake fade is due to old and poor condition brake fluid and not pads. Bad pads cause brakes simply not to work. I am dubious as to the authenticity of this but I’ll be checking it out.

I decided that as it was over 2 hours quicker using the toll roads through the Brenner Pass, I’d pay the fee. It was €19.80 to get through the first few miles of the pass, but the next 150 miles or so of Autostrade into Veneto was only €5.60. Total tolls paid since leaving Calais including the French ones is a wallet busting €71.90 Thanks in part to my SatNav which although I told it NOT to use toll roads, it did. So after the second time it did it in France I bought a map and stopped using the TomTom. I’m heartily fed up with TomTom’s unreliable mapping so that’s my finish with it. It’s useful for marking POI’s and that’s about it.

Total mileage covered from Dover is 1006, which equates to about 156 litres of diesel which at the average price is just less than £250 or so.

Anyway, I got into Mestre and headed for Punta Sabbatini as I’d been told there was a sosta there. I found a free car park and parked up and went to bed shattered.

Oh update on the money card. I rang them and they said the last transaction had not worked as he had not sent it through as the correct transaction type. It needs to go as chip and pin and not a swipeable card. Well he managed to do my Visa card OK…anyway, the stop before that she said did not work as the Money Card does not work at automated fuel pumps and it says this clearly in the terms and conditions. What about the previous time near Strasbourg? Oh wait, it doesn’t matter, just put all the money back on my bank card as this has cost me dearly in time and stress so far and failed to work so I don’t want it any more. Yes Sir, that’ll be up to 5 working days to go into your account, or £21 if you want it immediately. I wish I could say “You useless, greedy robbing bastards!” but it wasn’t her fault she simply works there.

I can find my way anywhere now

I’m off down to Luton to meet some friends, so I’ve been into Halfords in Penrith and bought a TomTom Go satnav.

TomTom One SatnavIt was quite funny that Halfords have big signs up everywhere saying free fitting. But when the lad came out he couldn’t figure out how it went together lol I’ve got quite good spatial ability so I could see clearly, but he obviously wasn’t going to get it.

I debated to myself playing dumb and letting him muddle his way through. But I knew I’d get bored and I wanted to be off anyway, so I showed him how it went together and stuck on the windscreen. Of course then he wanted to show me it’s basic operation. That was good, that’s what he’s trained to do. But I lied and said I’d had one before and knew how it worked. I really just wanted to be off and I knew I’d suss it anyway.

I stuck my mates address in and it said…4 hours and 20 minutes! Best get cracking then!