To really track my mountain biking improvement, I made the decision to break down and buy a mountain biking GPS unit. My search for the BEST Mountain Bike GPS ended when I discovered this gem:
The Garmin Edge 520 with Heart Rate Monitor, Cadence and Speed. This unit packed the most value into an MTB GPS. The Edge 520, tracks all the essential information in an easy to digest format and is compatible with the most popular riding apps.
The good old days?
I started riding a while ago when GPS was not widely available for woods riding. I can’t say I had more fun back then, but it was less complicated. Now, with modern tech, you can download trail directions and get performance data at your fingertips. It opens up new adventures unlike ever before. Because of these things I really recommend the GARMIN EDGE 520 Plus Speed and Cadence Bundle. (Link to Amazon for a price check and great reviews)
Why use a mountain bike GPS?
Besides not getting lost in the woods, these gadgets give you a ton of other information that can make you a better rider. You can focus and plan your training and track your progress.
Most models have plenty of memory to see how your performance changes over time. Plus, online MTB workout apps can store your data for easy visualization. The tiny GPS screen isn’t the best for looking at long range trends, so it’s better to sync to an app (more on this later).
The interactive nature of the best devices allows you to make riding more social. For instance, the Garmin Edge 520 lets you send and receive riding courses digitally. How cool is that? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start back with the basics.
Basic mountain bike GPS features to look for
There are some basic features that you’ll look at on nearly every ride, such as ride time and distance. Built upon those parameters, these amazing devices can now do so much more. Still, even before we dig into some of the software features, a few physical items should be checked first.
For me, these were key factors that influenced my choice:
- Battery life – The 520 has a 15+ hour battery life (maybe more like 8-9 hrs in real life with the screen lit up mid to high). That’s plenty of time to get in and out of the woods.
- Water resistant – It has a IPX7 rating, which means this unit can resist immersion of up to 1m of water. Just in case I take a creek bath. I even read one review that said the device lasted through a cycle in the washing machine.
Now these specs have nothing to do with the software inside. But if the battery bonks or if it sparks out in the wet, no amount of jazzy software will do me any good. So the Garmin Edge 520 passes here with flying colors.
Garmin Edge 520 size, layout and basic functions
The 520 is just the right size. The screen size lets me see key data at a glance, but the device doesn’t overwhelm the cockpit.
The data I look at the most boils down to these three:
- Cadence – RPMs that I’m pedalling
- Speed/time – I’ve learned how hard it is to get faster
- Heart rate – Detected by a chest strap monitor
I also like looking at climb data which is available thanks to the built in altimeter. You can even trace out how fast you climb your “favorite” long grinding climb.
How good is the GPS plotting?
Now if you’re looking for a device that has super detailed maps and tells you exactly where you are at all times, this is not your device. If you go off course, the 520 just tells you that you’re off course. It’s what they call a bread crumb navigation, and it’s not designed to give you turn-by-turn directions.
However, if you connect with the RIDE With GPS app, you can download tons of ride routes that give you turn-by-turn directions. Another awesome app you can try is Strava, which has many built in mapping and tracking features. Strava lets you analyze performance stats and even share ride routes on social networks. Another cool feature is Beacon which gives your real time location at all times.
This connectivity even lets you compete with other riders for the best lap times for a given course. If you’re into racing, that is.
Does it have a touchscreen? Does it need one?
This particular model does not have a touch screen. I’m not sure if it’s needed though. I mean, if you’re spending all your time adjusting your GPS, then how much are you riding? Plus, no touch screen works when you’re using full finger gloves.
The buttons on the 520 are nice and beefy. Once you get the hang of the navigation, it’s all pretty easy to manage. The initial learning curve is a bit steep though. Garmin does offer a touchscreen GPS version though, the Edge 1000.
How does the Edge 520 mount to the bike?
The GPS mount is very solid. I’ve never had a problem with it so far. The actual device locks onto the mounts with a quarter turn rotating lockdown. Very secure. The overall design is sleek and doesn’t get in the way at all. All the mounting hardware is included.
The 520 is made for offroad use. Granted, for any bike with suspension, the shock to the GPS will be dampened thankfully. Still, you can tell by the casing that this device is rugged enough. I’ve read many online reviews, and I haven’t seen any reporting about it being too fragile.
Can you sync it to your cell phone?
Yes. The Garmin Edge 520 can link via Bluetooth to your smartphone. This allows for uploads/downloads and call alerts. You can also see your text messages. Plus, all your app and social media activity get accomplished by this connection. You can even get weather updates this way.
These features mean I don’t miss anything important. Plus, it minimizes how often I have to pull out my cell phone during a ride.
Online community makes it even better
Let’s dive a bit more into this aspect. Maybe your not into going to a bike race, but a little bit of online competition can be fun. Most people wonder how fast they are compared to other riders. I know I do. Plus, when you couple the device to your phone, you can have the results uploaded automatically.
Trail sharing is another amazing gift from the tech world. It’s so sweet to have info about new trails you never even knew existed. If you take a bike vacation, this information is invaluable. And you don’t even need a trail guide.
How much does the Edge 520 weigh?
Did you think I would strap something onto my bike and not know the weight? The Garmin Edge 520 weighs 2.08 ounces (just under 590 grams).
Does it come with a warranty?
Garmin provides a 1 year warranty. That means if the device fails for an unknown reason it will be repaired or replaced at no cost. If you crash and crush the thing, it’s your bad.
Is it worth it?
The last time I checked, the Edge 520 costs about $280. This is not cheap. But I don’t want cheap, I want value. And for all the features packed into this little cycling buddy, I think it’s worth it.
Now even though I love tech and gadgets, that’s not what got me into mountain biking. The idea of diving deep into the woods on a bike brought me back to my childhood. So even though we have a digital web all around us, I try not to get too absorbed with data. Every now and then I’ll just go for a casual ride. No connection, no hurry, no screens. Just me and the trail.
Again after owning, using and tracking my Mountain Bike travels, I’ve really fallen for this GPS unit – Feel Confident in this recommendation that this unit will deliver. Garmin Edge 520 Plus Speed and Cadence Bundle – link to Amazon to read more and check the current price.
Soon I’ll have a video of this exact unit on my bike, but until then check out this video from GARMIN.
The Wahoo Elemnt – another great mountain bike GPS choice
When I was shopping around for a mountain bike GPS, I almost bought the Wahoo Elemnt instead of Garmin. From all the research I’ve done, the Wahoo was designed from the ground up as a great mountain biking GPS unit. Bikers definitely had a say in the build and design. I don’t own this unit but have friends that highly recommend it. To read more and check this price on Amazon here’s a link – WAHOO ELEMNT GPS Bike Computer.
Packed with features
The Elemnt is a very cool and sleek device. It has a ton of features including:
- Dual band tech – can connect to devices and sensors via Bluetooth and ANT+ (the Garmin Edge 520 can do this too)
- Many preloaded bike route maps
- Screen options – you can pick from workout, climb (altitude), map views and more
- Battery – as per the company, it lasts 17 hrs. I’m not sure what real world times are.
- Built in tracking – they call it Live Track and it basically shows your real-time location to those who care.
- On-screen text, email and phone alerts. I don’t know why I would need to check my email on a ride, but who knows?
Take me there feature almost sold me
This feature almost made me buy the Elemnt. It’s the Take Me Anywhere Route Generation. You just enter a destination, and the device picks a bike specific route to get there with turn-by-turn instructions. The Garmin Edge 520 does not have this feature. There’s also a draw breadcrumbs on the map function that gets you home no matter what.
Bike navigation app compatible
First, you sync the Elemnt with your favorite compatible accounts (Strava, Ride With GPS, Best Bike Split, Komoot, etc.). Then, any saved routes will be downloaded to the Elemnt. Plus, after any ride, you can beam your data from the device to your account. You end up having a library of rides to share and choose from. Gotta love that.
Weight and Warranty
The Elemnt weighs 3.5 ounces (just under 100 grams), and it comes with a one year warranty. It’s also IPX7 waterproof like the Garmin 520.
The Wahoo Elemnt does WiFi too
One really cool funcion is the WiFi hookup built into the Elemnt. This is one thing the Garmin does not have. The WiFi connectivity of the Wahoo lets you download maps directly to the device. Nice.
What’s it cost?
The Wahoo Elemnt costs around $324. But to check the lastest pricing use this link to AMAZON – Wahoo Elemnt GPS Bike Computer
Why did I pick Garmin over Wahoo?
I had to admit, the Wahoo Elemnt is super slick. The display is easy to read, and the design is very cutting edge. But… you knew there was a but, right? The Garmin is smaller and lighter. Not by much, but my MTB cockpit has to be as lean as possible. Plus, the Edge 520 costs less.
You see, I’m not out in the thick of it to watch TV, so Garmin wins by being more minimalist. I’m out there to ride. Sure, I like having the data on hand, but it’s just data, not the essence. But I’m sure I would have been happy with the Wahoo too.