We show you four off-road capable GPS devices and how to get the most out of each
An off-road GPS is essential for those of who like to explore new terrain. In this article we look at four popular options and show how to get the most out of them.
Do you remember the day when handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) units were solely used for tracking your routes and identifying your position easier than a compass could? The first handheld GPS was unveiled in 1989 by Magellan, and it wasn’t until later in the following decade that prices came down for personal products and the Clinton Administration opened up the full capability of GPS to everyone. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, off-road GPS units essentially took a compass and turned it into a digital display that allowed you to more easily find your bearings and understand where you needed to go. It’s only been about 20 years since those times, but GPS technology has moved so far from those early instruments to now being a full mobile guidance system that allows you to plot routes of your own, mark waypoints and points of interest with great detail and more accuracy than ever, and still perform basic functions, like navigating to different locations. In addition to all of that, how about the latest off-road GPS units that are built into tablets and mobile devices (i.e. your smartphone), which allow you to double dip as a navigator – you get to still use your GPS system, and you get to use your mobile device just as you would normally by taking photos and performing all of the functions that you expect.
To properly look at the latest technology in GPS, along with showing you several of the latest systems that will help you navigate yourself to the next off-road destination, we are going to dive deep into each of these GPS systems, explain to you how they operate in a general sense, and give you recommendations on the pros & cons of each. Some are truly mobile, and some are built into many of your favorite ATVs and UTVs on the market today. Personally, I’ve spent months with these off-road GPS systems and used them on several long-distance adventure rides, including a 710-mile off-road adventure where mapping the route and preparation was key. Navigation was also key on the trail during that ride. My notes and experiences are included in this article.
GPS, which again stands for Global Positioning System, operates off of satellites that constantly orbit our planet. The satellites are able to give you reference to your exact position, navigation, and timing (PNT) as you navigate anywhere on the globe. There are three segments of the global GPS system, including the Space segment, the Control segment, and the User segment. Space and Control segments are both regulated by the U.S. Air Force. The former segment consists of 24 satellites that orbit the Earth, and the latter segment (Control) is the Air Force’s USA-based control of the satellites. The third segment, User, refers to people like you and I, and we are constantly accessing the GPS signals to identify our real-time position on earth. Your phone is the most apparent handheld device that does this constantly, and there are also new wearable devices, such as smart watches, portable GPS systems, and more, that help you identify your position anywhere on earth. Pretty nifty, right?!
Each GPS-enabled device has the ability to locate and transmit your position. It’s the reason you can literally track your children on their phone as they walk to school every day. Moreover, you can use an off-road GPS device for planning your next route. Like the units in your smartphone, GPS systems can now calculate your fastest route to a destination and so much more.
In the off-road world, new GPS systems are sprouting up all the time, and the latest crop are based around the 7” hi-res display that can easily be seen in bright sunlight or the dark of night. Having a large display helps you navigate in real time, and most of the GPS systems on the market have pre-loaded off-road trails that help you determine where trails lead and where you should go next. This is a huge help when you’re navigating in real-time off-road. Plus, many systems go even further by offering the navigator the opportunity to plot their own routes for your next trip. In addition to stand alone portable GPS units (think Yamaha Adventure Pro and Garmin Overlander), there are multiple GPS apps that allow you to utilize your smartphone or tablet for navigation, should you already have one of these devices, like LeadNav. There are also built-in systems that come pre-wired for your new ATV or UTV. Yamaha’s Adventure Pro is one of these systems, and it doubles down as a portable unit, too. The other navigational system is Polaris’ Ride Command, which is truly a part of the vehicle when you purchase it. Ride Command isn’t portable like the Adventure Pro, and both systems have their pros and cons. Again, more on these individual systems in just a bit…
Using an Off-Road GPS For Planning a Route
Besides the obvious – using a GPS for navigation when you’re on the trail – you can also use a modern GPS device (or system) for planning a route before you actually leave your house. If you’re into exploring new areas and finding new terrain, this functionality is extremely useful. By using this functionality, you are also able to understand the terrain you are going to tackle before you actually get out there. Allow me to explain a bit…
The Yamaha Adventure Pro system, Garmin Overlander, and LeadNav mobile application (more on all of these later…) all include this functionality to pre-determine and layout your routes before you leave the house. Yamaha’s system utilizes Magellan software that you access over at their website, then sync your device with the route you made. One of the best parts about this Magellan-based system is that you can see the 160,000+ trails that Magellan already has loaded onto its system, which helps you make routes with open, accessible trails. Seeing that people have completed these trails (these are all user-uploaded) also gives you the confidence to explore more when you’re planning routes. Again, once you finish your route and mark it out on your computer, make sure your Adventure Pro tablet is connected to a Wi-Fi network so it can sync with your online account. Once synced, your route that you made will be on your tablet and ready to follow.
Similar to the Adventure Pro system, the Garmin Overlander has many similar preloaded trails and dedicated online software, which allows you to access all of your tracked routes from your Overlander device, and it allows you to make new routes that you can follow out on the trail. Again, albeit a bit different, but Garmin has so many pre-loaded tracks in their system that you can use trails already ridden by other off-roaders to use in your own route making. Once you’re done making routes for your next ride, sync your device and you’re ready to put it in your vehicle for exploration.
There is one off-road GPS navigational system that takes route planning to the next level, and that system is LeadNav. The only drawback to this system, which could be a deal breaker for some of you, is that there aren’t any pre-loaded tracks in this system. Garmin and Magellan have a huge advantage with this, but if you want to truly make routes on your iPad/iPhone at night and explore unknown terrain on the weekends, then this system is for you. LeadNav uses satellite-based navigation and makes it easy to plot routes on the system using their satellite view, which allows you to see two-track trails with ease, for the most part (except for trails that are buried in the trees, something riders on the east coast might find to be an issue). The more you explore with LeadNav, the more you get used to the system and understand what trails go through and what you want to explore. If you have no desire to truly get into the deep end of navigational route planning, this really isn’t the system for you. The Adventure Pro (Magellan-based) and Garmin make it much easier. However, being able to more easily make your own routes, share them with friends in a streamlined fashion, and keep track of all of your collections in an easy place, LeadNav is an incredible system.
Using an Off-Road GPS On the Trail
No matter which system you have, using an off-road GPS on the trail allows you to perform several important navigational functions, including: tracking your route as you move down the trail (so you can easily return down the same path, along with saving it for next time), placing markers at locations or obstacles that you want to remember at specific points along the trail (also known as Waypoints), and follow route guidance of a predetermined route that you put together before your ride.
If you’re a person who isn’t completely confident with your navigational abilities (it’s OK!), you should first get a GPS to have with you on any off-road adventure. Second, you need to mark your camp site each time you get to a riding area on your GPS. It sounds tedious, but you’ll appreciate that you did this… Third, before you leave camp for each ride, use your off-road GPS for what it was made to do – record your track as you go down the trail. If you do this, you will have no issues getting back to camp. It seems simple, and it is!
The other reason to record a track every time you leave camp is in case of emergencies. We don’t like to think of “emergencies” as a reason to track your route, but you’ll be so happy you did if you do have an issue on the trail and need to get back to camp quickly from your location.
The other thing that all off-road GPS systems allow you to do is pinpoint your coordinates while out on the trail. Again, we don’t like to think that there will be emergencies out there, but things happen, whether it is someone in your group or someone in another group of riders. You could save a life and not even have that intention before you leave camp! All of the off-road GPS systems in this article allow you to pinpoint your location and give GPS coordinates to authorities. This will allow them to get to you faster and more effectively than if you just tell them, “we’re somewhere in the middle of the forest.” Trust me, it happens, and GPS systems help save people.
Sharing Your Experiences
One of the best innovations in GPS device technology is that you can instantly share your routes with friends and family. After putting routes and tracks on their own GPS systems, your buddies will be able to share the experience that you just had on the trail. It’s great for everyone!
The exporting process for sharing tracks/routes is a bit different for each system. Again, LeadNav has the easiest export process that allows you to easily share out of the app on your mobile device. The .gpx file that the system creates can easily go to all off-road GPS systems, no matter if you have an Overlander, Adventure Pro, or Ride Command. LeadNav isn’t the only one with this functionality – the Adventure Pro (Magellan system), Garmin, and Ride Command (with the most recent software in the Polaris system) can also export .gpx files that can be used by any supported GPS devices. So, what I’m saying here is, don’t feel limited if you have different GPS systems in your group. As long as you look up the way to export the files, you’ll be able to share.
Systems like the Yamaha Adventure Pro allow you to take the experience a step further by publishing your route to social media accounts. If you’re into that kind of thing, this is a neat feature. The Magellan system that provides the underpinning of the Yamaha Adventure Pro also has a camera on the tablet, allowing you to attach pictures to particular markers, along with sharing photos to social media platforms. Just login once and you’ll be able to do this.
GPS Systems and Software For You
In order to properly test an off-road GPS system, you have to use it to plan a trip, and then actually use it on the trail. We did just this by taking all of these systems on a 710-mile ride (seriously!) through the deserts of western Arizona. Needless to say, we had a ton of seat time with these not only on the trip, but also in the route planning and prep before we actually fueled up to leave.
Systems that we tested:
- Yamaha’s Adventure Pro, which uses Magellan’s TRX7 as a base unit
- Garmin Overlander
- LeadNav – mobile application for iOS system only, available for an iPad or iPhone user
- Ride Command – Polaris’ built-in vehicle informational and navigational system (also available as an app on your smartphone or tablet)
Yamaha Adventure Pro – $749
(Available as an accessory on select Yamaha ATVs and side-by-sides)
The Yamaha Adventure Pro system is an accessory that seamlessly integrates into the vehicle. It is a tablet-based system that uses the Magellan TRX7 as the base device. Magellan and Yamaha have developed specific software that integrates the navigational capabilities of the TRX7 with the Yamaha vehicle. So, in other words, you can’t just purchase a TRX7 from Magellan and get the integration that you would with the Adventure Pro accessory from Yamaha. The software includes the ability to access all of your vehicle’s vitals on the screen, plus diagnostics, and of course navigational abilities. Best of all, the Adventure Pro has a sturdy docking system that allows you to easily take in and out of the vehicle. Lean more about the system here.
Key features of the Yamaha Adventure Pro:
- Waterproof and Dustproof for all of your adventures on the trail
- 7” LCD display
- Android operating system with turn-by-turn directions for off-road or on-road navigation
- Built-in 5MP rear-facing trail camera, front facing camera, too
- Pre-loaded with over 160,000 OHV trails, Yamaha dealers, Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, expandable memory system with microSD card (up to 64GB)
- Lifetime free updates on the hi-res 2D Topo and 3D Basemaps of the USA and Canada
- Diagnostics are also available on the device
- Available on the following Yamaha vehicles: Wolverine X2, Wolverine X4, YXZ1000R, and Grizzly ATVs
The Yamaha Adventure Pro has specific screens that allow you to choose between seeing the machine’s vitals on the large 7” hi-res screen, or the navigational component on the big screen. Better yet, you can see both the vitals and your navigation on the main home screen so you have everything in one place. Plus, if you choose to use this Android-powered tablet outside of the Yamaha, you can easily do so by disconnecting it from the sturdy dock inside your Yamaha and mounting it to one of the many holster accessories for your truck, trailer, or whatever else.
The really nice thing about using the Yamaha Adventure Pro on the trail is that the system has a hefty amount of pre-loaded trails and tracks from other Magellan GPS users around the world. This helps you navigate when you’re out on the trail, and it helps you get back in one piece!
Like the other Magellan off-road GPS systems on the market, the Yamaha Adventure Pro allows you to perform basic functions like tracking routes and putting in waypoints for future reference. By utilizing the online or app-based Magellan software, you can map out your routes before you leave home (or the campsite), then utilize those pre-made routes to navigate on your rides. Again, you just have to remember to sync your device before you leave when it’s hooked up to a WiFi network.
Want to know another cool feature of the Yamaha Adventure Pro?! It has a Timing Mode! This allows you to set a track or course and then time yourself on your set track. With an automatic lap timer, the device records your laps and you can better your driving/riding capabilities by understanding what lines are better and driving techniques are faster.
In practice, I found the Yamaha Adventure Pro to be fast to update and very user friendly. The Yamaha-specific software operates seamlessly with the mapping software from Magellan, and I really like how it is all easy to use from in the vehicle. If you’re a route planner like me, you’ll appreciate how you can make a route on your computer with the pre-loaded trail systems and then sync it to your device. I did find that importing and exporting pre-made routes from LeadNav wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but pre-made routes that I actually made in the Magellan software worked seamlessly. As long as you stick to one software, which you’ll probably do anyway, you’ll be good to go.
In our YXZ1000R SS, the Yamaha Adventure Pro off-road GPS is mounted in a great spot for both driver and passenger to use on the trail. Seeing the machine’s vitals is a great feature, too, allowing your passenger to watch the speedometer or to warn you if something isn’t quite right. The ability to utilize the Adventure Pro in your truck/tow vehicle is a great feature, too!
When you put this system and the Garmin Overlander side by side, the Overlander is a bit faster on the backend and easier to use when you’re plotting routes on the computer to send to your device. Garmin’s computer-based navigation is just easier to use when you’re planning and plotting routes, but the Magellan software is still very adequate for doing the job. I just wish it was a little easier to use. However, you can’t plug the Garmin into your Yamaha and get machine vitals, diagnostics, and more displayed right on your home screen. So, this is what makes the Yamaha Adventure Pro a must-have accessory on your next Yamaha ATV or UTV purchase.
The only other thing that holds the Adventure Pro back is the UI (user interface) – it is looking a bit dated compared to the other options on the market. Luckily, the software engineers can upgrade this via a simple over-the-air update because this is an Android system. All of the bones are there for this system, and it does perform really well.
At the end of the day, Yamaha’s Adventure Pro is absolutely worth the money if you add it on to your Yamaha ATV or side-by-side vehicle. At $749, it is much cheaper than other factory-developed navigation options on the market, and it is right in line price-wise with the non-integrated Garmin Overlander. However, the Overlander doesn’t integrate with your vehicle like the Adventure Pro does. Needless to say, we would highly recommend purchasing the Yamaha Adventure Pro off-road GPS on any new Yamaha that you purchase – it is absolutely worth it!
Garmin Overlander – $699.99
The surprise of this off-road GPS evaluation was definitely the Garmin Overlander. For starters, the tablet itself has some serious firepower on the back end, meaning it is very fast to use in the field. I love how the magnetic mount gives you the easy option to put this in your off-road vehicle, then just pull it off your off-road mount and put it in your on-road vehicle without any screws or things to mess with. The magnetic mount is also very solid, and I never had any issues with it falling off the mount when we were bouncing down the ruttiest of trails.
The 7” hi-res display on the Garmin Overlander is the real star of the show. Again, it is very easy to use with pinch-to-zoom capability, incredible graphics for an off-road worthy portable display, and easy to use controls. The Tracking software is very easy to use while you’re on the trail with the dedicated application that gives you a bunch of helpful statistics of your ride. I tracked a 7-day route in the back end and had no issues with this device keeping track of our trip every step of the way. I didn’t turn the tracker off once! Leaving the tracker on overnight in cold temperatures (and even in some light rain dousing the device) didn’t drain the long lasting battery, either. Being that this device isn’t built into your off-road vehicle, you have to use a 12V charge port for this device to stay charged on longer rides, but that is a small price to pay for having this kind of portability.
The Garmin Overlander comes with all of the basic functionality that the other off-road GPS systems here do – tracking routes, route planning (via a dedicated URL on your computer, then syncing your device), putting Waypoints in, etc. When it comes to planning or sharing routes on the Garmin Overlander, you have to do that via an online application (again, Garmin Explore), which makes it easy to keep track of your entire route, track, and marker collection. If you have other Garmin devices, you can share all of these items to specific devices and keep your collections all together via your one Garmin account. Syncing occurs automatically once your devices are logged in to your account and connected to a wifi network. Another thing that separates the Garmin Overlander off-road GPS is that it has camping areas built into the device, so you can search camping areas along your route and go for a “let’s wing it” trip if you want.
Yes, the Garmin Overlander is the most portable device of this bunch and the easiest to use both for on-road and off-road excursions. With both on-road and off-road mapping software built in, the Garmin is just plain user friendly. And that “user friendly”-ness goes even further with the actual device just being easy to use. If you have an older vehicle that you want to put a navigation system in, and you don’t have a Yamaha that is compatible with the Adventure Pro, then the Garmin Overlander is an off-road GPS system that ticks all of the boxes for ease of use, portability, and great functionality. When on the trail, I really appreciate the hi-res graphics of this system, bright screen, and easy menu system. The Garmin Overlander is truly a slick unit.
Polaris Ride Command
(Available from the factory in specific Polaris UTVs)
Polaris’ proprietary in-vehicle navigational and diagnostic system, also known as Ride Command, is available on a select variety of RZR vehicles from the factory. It is the only built-in, non-portable navigational system in off-road at the time this article is published, and Polaris has refined this system many times over its existence.
Key Features of Polaris Ride Command:
- 7” glove-touch display that is weatherproof and seamlessly built right into select Polaris off-road vehicles
- Pre-loaded tracks and trails in the Ride Command system, just like the Garmin and Magellan systems in this article. Allows you to see where other Polaris-based riders have driven on trails in the past
- Group ride feature that allows you to track other Ride Command users in your group
- Automatic tracking in the latest Ride Command editions, and the ability to export your tracks
- Vehicle gauges, backup camera, and diagnostics are built in
- Pair wireless headsets (such as SENA systems) to talk to everyone in the vehicle, listen to your playlists, and take calls (should you want to do that on the trail…)
- Pair your phone to see call and text alerts
- No ability to create your own routes outside of the vehicle
When we look at vehicle integration and how the system is built into the vehicle, there is no doubt that the Polaris Ride Command is the best factory option in the off-road market for a clean installation and vehicle integration. The 7” glove touch display is excellent, with a bright and brilliant display that is easy to see at any time of the day, or night. The versatility of this system is also top notch – you can pair your phone to it, you can pair it to your GoPro cameras on the vehicle, and you can pair it to Bluetooth headsets. Heck, when equipped, you can also listen to the factory stereo with the Polaris Ride Command setup. It is mounted in the vehicle so clean, especially in the new RZR PRO XP lineup. While the price is steep to upgrade to the models with the Ride Command system, it is so worth it to spend the extra money up front and then use this technology for many years to come. The system can be upgraded with Polaris’ new OS releases over time, too. I like how you can still record your ride as you go through the trail, and you can put markers on your route that can be used for future destinations or points of interest/caution along the trail.
So, Ride Command has seamless integration with the vehicle, provides some really cool features that are industry leading, and even has a factory stereo in some models. What is it missing?
The main thing that Ride Command is lacking is an easy way to export .gpx files that you can share with other off-road GPS systems and users. The animations are cool, don’t get me wrong, but they aren’t effective when you’re route plotting or trying to share your rides with someone who doesn’t use Ride Command as their navigational device. In fact, there is no route plotting function on this system, so you must not want to create your own rides before leaving the house.
At the end of the day, no system is perfect, and the fact that this Polaris Ride Command system is literally built into the vehicle makes it worth the entry price. If you’re looking at buying a Polaris, seriously look into getting Ride Command if you’re going to be doing a lot of trail riding and want the convenience of having pre-loaded trails right on your dashboard. But, if you’re truly going to want to navigate with all of the capabilities that an external off-road GPS brings to the world, then you’re going to have to still have an external GPS system.
LeadNav iOS App – $20
Did we save the best navigational-based system for last?! LeadNav isn’t the best all-in-one solution for your navigational needs because it is just software, but if you have an iOS device already (aka an Apple product – iPad or iPhone), then the $20 LeadNav app is extremely hard to beat. In fact, it is the best navigational product when we are solely looking at the capabilities of each of these systems. Why? It’s simple – LeadNav’s system makes it extremely easy for you to create your own routes that you can then go ride in the future. Creating your own routes is really where LeadNav excels in this marketplace, and this is where I have personalized used it the most. It just works. In addition, LeadNav makes it easy to track rides, keep everything organized in collections (like the other devices in this list, and better than all of them), share your rides with other off-road GPS users in your group, and look at your rides from a bird’s eye view.
With all of that being said, the glaring omission from LeadNav’s software compared to the other three in this list is pre-loaded trails. With LeadNav, you are on your own when finding trails because users can’t upload their rides from their device to a central database like Magellan (Yamaha Adventure Pro), Garmin, and Ride Command have in their arsenal. The only way to keep track is if you have pre-loaded trails or tracks that you have created or imported. For those of you who don’t care about routing your adventures, or doing it very often since this feature is available on the Garmin, Magellan, and Ride Command systems, then you’re best bet is to spend the extra money for the actual device up front with either Adventure Pro or the Garmin Overlander (for those non-Yamaha owners). If you’re into route planning and finding your own trails, LeadNav should be in your arsenal of programs.
What about Lowrance?
Lowrance has been a staple in off-road desert racing for many years, but they have strayed away from off-roading and gone full tilt into the fishing market. That doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt their devices to still navigating off-road. In fact, they still have some of the best navigational devices on the planet that can be adapted for off-road use. However, we wanted to profile the best off-road GPS options for off-road recreation in this article, so that’s what we have here.
At the end of the day, we hope that you read this article and realize that you should always have an off-road GPS on the trail with you for navigational purposes, but also for safety. Modern GPS units do so much more than just navigate – they can help you get out of a sticky situation and assist you in getting help for injuries while you’re out (we hope this never happens to you!).
These factory and aftermarket off-road GPS options are some of the best in the market, and we encourage you to look into these. Happy shopping and Happy riding after that!
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