Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Navigation in an RV

Here is your Bible.  When all else fails, follow a trucker...

Nothing ignites a fire storm in a RV forum like "which GPS/navigation system do you use?"  The most common are Garmin, Rand McNally & Magellan.  Others claim only an atlas is reliable.  Many are stuck with what came installed in their RV.  A friend's recommendation was make sure it gives advance turn instructions & shows you WHICH LANE you should be in!  The best of course is a trucker's GPS (more expensive).  However, after doing research and not being able to decide, here's what we cobbled together in the beginning & it still works.  I haven't been able to justify spending more money.

DISCLAIMER:  As pilots and sailors, we can honestly tell you, NEVER TRUST YOUR GPS OVER YOUR EYEBALLS & YOUR GUT.  Stop.  Pull over.  Unhook the dinghy & drive ahead if you have to.  All the good stories start with the little voice saying, "I don't like it..."  There are plenty of stories about a GPS attempting to turn people off a snow-covered cliff.  Your only mistake will be trusting one source of information.

Start with preliminary planning:  zoom in on the route in Google Maps and consult an atlas.  Have two reliable GPS programs running while driving (we feel slightly more relaxed when they agree).  You can still get bad information.  (No one from Google Maps will come out to help you unhook, then back up that narrow road with no shoulders.  IT'S OUR HOUSE!).  I have found no one source of navigation info that is perfect.  Every forum is full of people giving examples why they'll never use "X" again.  Most importantly, you have to be comfortable with what you are using--load it up on days you don't need it so you're comfortable with the nuances (I prefer that Odin the Sailboat or Winnebago doesn't start moving until we both agree with what is entered, but $hit happens...)  Also, the GPS is primarily for navigation.  We use a variety of apps to find campgrounds, fuel stops & rest areas.  Don't even bother trying to find a GPS that does it all.  It doesn't exist.

The roads with orange highlight are trucker friendly

Truckers' Atlas:  We originally purchased the National Geographic Road Atlas from Camping World.  It’s helpful for an overview during longer trips, but mostly useless.  Buy the Rand McNally Deluxe Motor Carriers’ Road Atlas.  If the trucker’s can do it, you should be able to also.  (We love following a semi onto roads we’re unsure about).  It means there shouldn’t be any width, height or weight restrictions or turns we can’t handle.  Highways highlighted in amber are a “designated route for authorized dimensions".  The pages are laminated to withstand use & abuse.  Did you know the minimum width for highways changes from state to state?  (96'-108'). And height also?  (13'-15').  The truckers' atlas has a table in the front by state.  It's also handy for finding state parks & national forests we want to visit.  Our National Geographic Atlas gathers dust.  We pull out the Trucker's Atlas daily while on the move.  (Many Visitor's Centers still give our State Maps--handy to have in a pinch.  A State Atlas is also handy, much this can get expensive if you travel extensively)

Check for construction:  While doing your planning the night before, check each state’s DOT website or call 511.  A lot of times, there is nothing you can do about construction areas, except be aware of them (and make sure The Colonel is driving during the majority of them & not me!).  However, it may add more time or affect for lunch stop for the day.  Sometimes, you may be able to route around.  (The truckers' atlas has a list of the DOT websites.)


Marriage Saver (or driving solo):  I highly recommend an app or GPS that gives voice prompts.   I only have to load our destination, double check the routing matches the atlas, then monitor & give occasional “2 hours out”.  Don’t like your voice prompts?  That's between you and Bitching Betty!  

If you look closely at your dash stereo and see an tiny aux input (about the size for headphones) then I HIGHLY recommend getting a 3.5 mm male to male stereo audio cable.  This runs the audio from our primary navigation iPad, straight through the dash speakers so the driver can clearly hear the voice directions and control the volume.  When properly set up, it will also mute any music for the voice prompts.

Google Maps

Google Maps:  This is good for initial planning (& the primary in the car) BUT it has limitations for RV navigation:
  • It always takes the shortest route (sometimes it "appears" to give you options) but it will REROUTE from your original planned route if it sees a slow down ahead. 
  • It uses lot’s of secondary roads and doesn’t recognize height/width/weight restrictions.  
  • The travel time is based on speed limit (the speed limit in South Dakota is 80!) not our normal 62 for fuel mileage.  
  • If you lose cell service, it will quit working!  You can download small areas for offline use (check out the blog on how to do that here:  cheapskates-on-move-saving-data-offline.html) but it expires every 30 days and of course, you may not know you need it and then YOU CAN'T DOWNLOAD (good for driving through the Mt Rushmore area, for example.  Use Bad Elf for location when there’s no cell service—see below)
  • We use Google Maps satellite view during planning to zoom in and look at the route (is that a two-lane or 4-lane divided highway?)
  • As a backup in the RV (on one of our iPhones)
  • For searching for fuel stops or rest areas without disrupting our primary navigation app (type in “rest area” or “rest stop”).  
(A stand-alone GPS:  We don't use a stand-alone GPS.  They range in price from $300 on up and they get TERRIBLE reviews.  With aviation backgrounds, we'd normally lean towards Garmin.  However, with two iPads onboard with big beautiful screens, we have found they work just as well.  The initial intention was to have a screen where the driver could see it, but we quickly learned the voice prompts are most important for the driver.  The copilot monitors the on-screen map.  Also the stand-alones are not user-friendly when it comes to updating the database or downloading additional maps.)

Our primary navigation app

CoPilot RV USA:  This is an iPad app we originally purchased for $35 (I believe the price is slightly higher now). It is our Primary navigation because:
  • It has downloaded/offline maps 
  • Allows you to add your RV dimensions so it can check for for restrictions along your route (low bridges, narrow road construction, bridges with weight restrictions)
  • You can select preferred roads for routing (ie. interstate/highway are primary, then secondary roads, etc). 
  • When you are nearing an exit, it switches to a screen with a diagram of the exit lanes.   
  • You can adjust the route by “skip road” or adding a fuel stop. 
  • Easy to update the database & download additional maps.
  • It gives you more voice prompts than necessary.  ("Two miles ahead, continue straight when Highway 36 splits off...")  These are usually exits, so you wouldn't normally worry about being in the correct lane.  It doesn't bother me.  The Colonel doesn't like it.
  • It quits talking when it doesn’t know it's GPS location (even with maps downloaded), SO we are very careful to listen for voice prompts as we initially navigate out of the campground.
  • During your initial loading of route, you need to zoom in & out with the +/- arrows (it would be nice if you could confirm the route by zooming in & out with the touch screen)
  • You need a GPS capable iPhone/iPad OR other source of GPS location data--see Bad Elf below.  

Google Maps without GPS information
Google Maps with GPS information
Bad Elf Pro:  Wifi only iPads do not have an internal GPS chip (Pilots have been using Bad Elf in flight for over 5 years--here's a great explanation of iPad requirements you need to navigate an RV or airplane: https://www.foreflight.com/support/faqs/gps/).  Without a built-in GPS, Google Maps & CoPilot won't know your exact position.  We bought the Bad Elf Pro after I had a brain fart and bought a wifi only iPad.  Friends used the Bad Elf to navigate from the Bahamas to Grenada on their boat.  It's also handy when you are in a “No Service” areas like National parks that don’t have cell phone towers.  It also doesn’t use cellular data.  It is relatively simple to use if bluetooth doesn't scare you.  (Also good for remote hikes when my MapMyRide app doesn't have any cell service.)

Anker 12-v car charger.  One in the car & one in the RV

12v car charger: with 2 USB ports (for your primary & secondary navigation devices or Bad Elf because “house” outlets don’t work while driving unless you start the generator).  I like this Anker—without getting too technical, some chargers only trickle charge and will not provide enough juice to charge while you are using a navigation app (you need 2.1 amps/port or 4.2 amps minimum for the 2 port pictured above).  

Navigation in the Dinghy:  One disadvantage of being a full-time nomad is simple chores aren’t simple.  Buying groceries and doing laundry are good examples.  Where’s the grocery store?  Is there more than one?  Can we stop on the way in with the RV?  A laundromat at an RV park is preferred, occasionally a State Park will have a laundry room but usually it involves a run into town.  This means a second navigation source for the dinghy/tow car.

For solo laundry & grocery runs in a new town, I use Google Maps on my iPhone (download the area for offline use, if needed—McDonald’s or truck stop on the way in), with volume set to “Louder” (settings, Guidance Volume, LOUDER.  Also, “Play voice over Bluetooth” if you have that capability.). We have a dedicated 12 volt phone charger in the car (because after a couple errands, you may not be able to find the most direct route back!).  I also recommend an audio cable so you can hear the voice prompts through the dashboard speakers—see above, Marriage Saver).

Phew!  Did you get all that?  Of course all this tech changes every year.  Let me know your favorite way to navigate...


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