What did I learn from cycling 2500 km’s without GPS, paper maps or electronic navigation?


An excerpt from my diary: ” After I cycled into France my own drawn map stopped. Now I’m just going from village to village and I just hope there is a map of the area. I’m just cycling south until I find a roadmap. The feeling of doubt where I’m going really starts to grow now. It’s hard when you don’t know where you’re going, because how can I ask people for help? “Sorry monsieur, do you know how to get to the Mt Blanc? Or maybe to the south?” By the way, my French is totally “terrible”, so I’m not even able to ask such a question. Maybe I have to change my strategy and actively search for maps.”

Now why did I try to cycle from Maastricht to the Mt Blanc without GPS, maps or any type of electronic navigation? When I was looking at the most important possessions you have while traveling, a map is one of it. When I get to a town, the first thing I do is to get a map of the town. You can see where you are, and how to get to the place where you want to go. Nowadays it’s made easier by GPS, smartphones and navigation devices. These devices tell you where to go, or when to go left for example. So actually you don’t need to think at all anymore. Just follow the device and you’ll get to your endpoint. But isn’t part of an adventure finding your way in places you don’t know? For me it is. Also I got used to google maps when I have to find a place but I decided to ditch all maps and electronic navigation to see if I still knew how to navigate myself. The only things I allowed myself to use were a compass and drawings from locals or maps I found. Could I rely on my own skills to get to the Mt Blanc and back?

ik kaart2

Yes I could. I managed to cycle from Maastricht to the Mt Blanc and back on my own drawn maps, the compass and eventually I learned how to use the sun. But it was hard. Especially in the beginning, because my drawing skills kind of suck. I had no clue how to make a map, and the first couple of days my maps contained only lines, circles and names from cities. This was wrong, I had to make more detailled maps, with road names, crossroads and rivers. Next to the crappy maps I had to navigate on, there was the constant search for roadmaps. Every moment I had to be sharp and search for them. Every map I came across I had to stop at, have a look and maybe draw the missing piece on my own maps. I think this was the hardest of all. Constantly keeping your eyes open, and all this while it was 35C.


Almost all the maps I came across I drew in my little “Mapbook”. I would also ask people, but the locals wanted to send me on the easiest way. And the easiest way were the big roads. Full with trucks, busses and cars. I didn’t want to take these roads, but being as it was, I had no choice. A couple of times I ignored the advise and went my own way, but I mostly ended up going back or cycling 20 kilometers more then necessary. Sometimes advise is there to take and stubbornness is there to ignore.

kaart2 kaart3During these five weeks I learned how to navigate on the sun. I learned how to draw maps that are ok for me to use. But the most important thing is how I learned how to deal with frustration and to trust myself. On one day I cycled just 60 kilometers. Of this 60 kilometers 20 where a detour. So actually one third of the day I was just cycling for nothing. Going wrong ways, and going back. This leads to frustration; why can’t I find the right way I just drew!? Or the moment when I saw a little tiny road going trough forrest on a map. I wanted to take this road, so I did my best to find it. In the end I ended up at a big traffic road, again… This happened multiple times, and multiple times I scorned myself for this. But this just happens when you cycle without a map. It’s part of the journey. When I realized this, I was more relaxed about detours. I mean, they still suck but now I wasn’t so frustrated about them anymore. But also I had to trust myself. Roads in real life look different then roads in my mapbook. I had to trust the maps I’ve made, and stick to them.

In my opinion it’s a good idea to cycle without a map because it gives you a new way of looking at your environment. If you’d like to do this too, let me give you some tips:

  • Make your maps detailled; put road numbers in there (D64 for example), crossroads and villages or cities.
  • For camping you can also put forrest area’s in there, it helped me a couple of times.
  • Don’t forget to write down a lot of villages you find on the maps you will draw from. It happend to me more then once that I had no clue where I was because the name of the village was not in my drawing.
  • Learn how to use the sun.
  • Find rivers, mountains and other landmarks.
  • A compass doesn’t work as good in the mountains as on flat land.
  • Let locals make a drawing in stead of telling you where you should go.
  • Don’t put camembert in your bag when it’s +35C.
  • Trust your gut and yourself.

Did any of you make journeys without maps, GPS or electronic devices? Let me know in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “What did I learn from cycling 2500 km’s without GPS, paper maps or electronic navigation?

  1. I love your experiment 🙂 Thanks for sharing it with us.
    I’m going to Portugal for three months next March and I’ve been toying with the idea of ditching maps and just follow my compass. It’s en exhilirating idea to go without maps, to simply follow the lay of the land and let yourself be carried by your compass, the sun, and your fancy. But at the same time, maps are very comforting. I have to admit, the idea of not knowing where I am, where the next village will be is scary to me. So I might have maps with me to feel safe. But hopefully I’ll forget to check them and go without maps for a while 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m new to bicycle touring, and I’ve been looking at various cycling computers but I’ve been put off by the price. That got me wondering if GPS is even necessary. I did a ride last weekend with simply a photocopied page from a guidebook. I found my way just fine. While a computer can provide confidence that you won’t get lost, it does take away from the human element of finding your own way and trusting your instincts. I suppose it depends on what type of ride you’re doing and how efficient you need to be. If you’re riding in a city, streets are usually clearly labeled. However on a trail, it’s much easier to lose your direction. I don’t think I want to go completely map free like you did, but your experience inspired me to trust myself even more on a ride and hold off on buying a GPS device for now.

    • No worries! Going completely map free is also quite a hussle, but a paper map is handy to have. Most long distance cyclists I talk with swear by a paper map. It doesnt run low on batteries, has no technical malfunctions, its nice and big and in the end you have a nice present for yourself. I still have all the paper maps i used during journeys. For sure you will find your directions, especially in western Europe.

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