Orientation and planning of mountain bike tours

Let’s tackle a topic that is usually not covered on the web:

Tools for orientation and planning mountain bike tours.

Several times it happened to me during my laps in the mountains to find people who ask me “Is this the way to the Rif. Xxx” or “How much is missing to reach this Fork / Refuge / crossroads / trivium / etc …” .

I also admit that the first laps made in the mountains went with only a topographic map without knowing what a curvimeter or an ABC clock was. In this article I will explain how I plan and find out about a mountain bike tour starting from the equipment that I think is necessary.

Topographic map

a tool for planning and orientation that has existed for a very long time, also used in the aeronautical and nautical fields. It has a huge advantage over all the existing portable GPS on the market, it allows an overview of the territory in which you are going to run not comparable to the reduced size of the displays. Another advantage, even if fairly obvious, does not go to batteries and is therefore always available. The disadvantage in my opinion in the case of mountain bike use is the bulk that it has when open, not very comfortable to open whenever there is a doubt. Honestly, I prefer to use the map for the first part of planning a tour, a nice map spread out on a table and a hand-held curvimeter, all distance measurements and level curves are taken. Obviously there are various scales of maps for hiking, starting from 1: 50,000 to get to 1: 25,000 (the lower the scale the more details increase but the portion of land reproduced is reduced)

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with GPS we now indicate all the devices equipped with a satellite receiver. They range from smartphones to watches through devices designed for outdoor use. Remaining in the mountain bike field, the best GPS device must be easy to read, positioned on the handlebars of our bike, of long autonomy, small footprint (to avoid damage in falling) and waterproof. I would therefore exclude smartphones for the limited battery life combined with a certain fragility of the structure, except for the rugged versions. I would also exclude clocks, comfortable for pre-planned hiking, for running as a recorder of routes but not readable instantly during a descent in the saddle. GPS for outdoor use remain available with the appropriate handlebar adapters and multi-function cycle computers.

ABC clock, with ABC indicates Altimeter-Barometer-Compass.

I know, for many it is considered an expensive toy but some features (although not very precise) can help in some cases. An example may be the barometer, if you remove the watch from your wrist when stationary, so as not to be affected by our body heat and wait 10/15 minutes you can check the change in atmospheric pressure. In this spannometric way you can know if the weather is changing for better or worse. The slow and gradual increase in pressure indicates a stabilization at the beauty of the atmospheric situation while a sudden drop in pressure reduction is a sign of rapidly deteriorating time. The altimeter is useful to know how much unevenness separates us from the goal but also to identify more quickly our position on the topographic map thanks to the comparison with the level curves (imaginary lines connecting points of the same altitude) present on the map. Like the barometer, even this tool can give us important indications about weather forecasts, especially if we are still for a while in the same place (an example could be the classic overnight stay in a refuge). Such as? First of all you need to calibrate the altimeter according to the altitude shown on the map and then check the altitude changes after a few hours. Rising variations in the altitude indicate a drop in pressure with consequent bad weather arriving, vice versa if the altitude drops it is an indication of possible fine weather on the way. The digital compass present in the watch is certainly less precise than the traditional analogue one but it is still useful for orientation purposes.


I think the curvimeter is now a rather rare instrument but I would not do without it. The operation is similar to a white roller. Place the wheel on a point on the map lying on a table and start following the path. You will see that the hand inside the dial starts to move forward like a watch. The measure is finished

look at the dial and you will notice more than one circumference indicating various scales, look for the correspondence with that of your map and you can read the distance in kilometers. For the lazy, there is the digital curvimeter (practically like the clock).

Grass or wire

advanced technology tool available at no cost! Seriously, think about it, you are on a route and want to evaluate a detour because the weather gets worse and you want to know the distance to make a calculation of how long it takes you to cover it, how to do it? You realize that you don’t have any tool that allows you to take a measurement. No problem! If you have a piece of nylon wire (or other material) 4 cm long at your fingertips, you have everything you need. Don’t you have a nylon thread? Look for a blade of grass. Why 4cm? In the widespread hiking maps on a scale of 1: 25,000 4cm correspond to one kilometer. Ok, how can I measure 4cm right? At the bottom of the legend is the scale with the division every 250m. The blade of grass also allows you to lie down / bend along the most inaccessible paths so that you can always use a kilometer as a unit of measurement. In case you break it in half so as to have half a kilometer or if you break it again so as to have a measurement of 250m.

This is the equipment that I consider necessary to plan a mountain bike tour. Obviously there may be areas that are perfectly indicated even with travel times, I am reminded of the Alpe di Siusi, in which I have not even used GPS given the abundance of trail signs …

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Altimeter GPS free for iPhone