GPS has been available to the public since the 1980s. Over the last few decades, it’s become an invaluable tool for choosing the best routes, finding lost or stolen property, and numerous other applications involving positioning, navigation, or timing (PNT).
If you want to use GPS tracking on a bike, it’s probably for one of two reasons:
- To record your mileage and other data about your routes
- To get directions to your destination
- To find your bike if it gets stolen
Either way, this guide has you covered. We’re going to dive into how GPS works, how that affects tracking your bike, what you need to look for in a GPS tracker, and tips for installing one on your bike.
How does GPS tracking work?
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of more than 30 satellites that constantly orbit the earth, transmitting their location and the time. When you buy a GPS-enabled device, that’s a “GPS receiver.”
These receivers pick up GPS satellite signals, and any time a receiver is in range of four or more satellites, the GPS uses some advanced geometry to estimate that receiver’s location, positioning, and even speed.
GPS receivers come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and styles. Your phone has one, and mobile apps like Google Maps use it to help you find the best route. Smartwatches use GPS receivers for things like measuring how far you ran, elevation changes, and where you went. And some receivers help you monitor the location of your personal property, such as a bike.
Whether you simply want to more information about how far you’re riding and where you’re going, or you want to quickly recover your bike if it’s ever stolen, here are some things you need to keep in mind about how GPS works.
Where your bike is will affect how well you can track it
In order for GPS to work, at least four satellites need a clear line of sight on your bike. The system uses the four known locations of the satellites and the time it takes for their signals to reach your receiver in order to estimate the “unknown” location of your receiver.
If something obstructs the path of one or more satellite signals, it throws off the whole equation, and you get an inaccurate location.
Buildings, mountains, tunnels, and even trees can interfere with GPS signals by delaying, blocking, or reflecting them. So while GPS works anywhere in the world, it’s going to be most reliable in wide-open areas where there’s nothing between your bike and the GPS satellites.
Under ideal conditions, GPS can accurately estimate your location within 7.8 meters. As your conditions become less than ideal, the location becomes less accurate.
What this means for tracking your bike rides
On a bike ride, you might not even notice gaps in location readings unless your whole route is in a tunnel. Your GPS receiver will still probably pick up enough signals throughout your route to give a good estimate of how far you went and—for the most part—where you were.
What this means for tracking a stolen bike
If you’re trying to track a stolen bicycle and it winds up in a building (like someone’s house) or in a vehicle in a parking garage, it might be hard to pin down exactly where it is. However, you’ll still see your GPS receiver’s last known location (just outside the building), and you’ll be able to get a more accurate location when your bike leaves the obstructed area. Additionally, GPS signals can still travel through some building materials, so you may still be able to track it inside the building.
Those are the basics of how GPS tracking works with your bike. But if you want a GPS device to protect your bike from getting stolen, you should also know about geofencing.
Geofencing: how to tell if your bike goes somewhere it shouldn’t
Geofencing lets you use GPS technology to create a “virtual fence” around a given location. This might be your house, your school or company campus, or even your regular route. When your bike leaves this predefined area, your GPS receiver sends you a notification—either through a text message, email, or mobile app—to let you know your bike is moving beyond the fence.
Pro tip: Some GPS devices can be set to notify the police when a device leaves a geofence. If you take the same route every day and have a fence set up around everywhere you regularly go, that might be worth having to ensure a fast police response to theft. But you’d want to be really confident you wouldn’t accidentally create false alarms.
Geofencing isn’t available with all GPS receivers, but it can make the difference between getting your bike back and losing it for good. Suppose, for instance, that you rode home as usual, and your bike was stolen 15 minutes after you got there. If you have a geofence set up around your property, you’d know the moment it was gone, and you’d be able to track it in real time. Without geofencing though, you might not know your bike was gone until the next day—and if you don’t ride daily, it could be even longer! In that time, someone could store your bike where it can’t be tracked or discover (and remove) your GPS device.
If you’re just using a GPS to track your bike route, you probably don’t need to worry about whether or not it has geofencing capabilities. But if the whole point of tracking your bike is theft prevention, geofencing is a must.
Passive vs. active GPS trackers
A lot of modern GPS receivers regularly transmit their location so that you can track them from another device like your smartphone or laptop. These are called active GPS trackers. But some only record their location-related information, so you have to physically access the device to see its data. These are called passive GPS trackers.
Passive GPS trackers can be useful for recording information about your bike route, but they’re useless for recovering a stolen bike. You wouldn’t be able to see where your bike was until you found it.
If you shop around for GPS trackers, you won’t find them neatly labeled “passive” or “active.” Instead, you’ll need to confirm if you can access your device’s location from another device. Just know that not every GPS tracker is designed for the same purpose, so you’ll need to pay attention to what you can actually do with the device you’re looking at.
What to look for in a GPS tracker for your bike
Since there’s such a wide variety of types of GPS devices, it’s important that you get one with the features and functionality you need. Most of the things we’re going to cover here apply to GPS trackers you’d use for recovering a stolen bike, but we’ll start with one that matters if you just want to track your bike rides.
GPS’s positioning, navigation, and timing data is freely available to the public, and every GPS receiver can use it. But not all of them take full advantage of its capabilities. If you want a GPS tracker to record and learn about your bike routes, you probably want one that:
- Manually starts and stops
- Tracks distance, speed, time, and elevation changes
- Connects to an app that lets you see previous ride history
When you’re trying to find your lost bike, this more nuanced data doesn’t matter, but you will want to pay attention to other features.
If your bike has a big, obvious GPS tracker on the frame, the first thing a bike thief will do is throw it in the garbage (or attach it to something else). You need a GPS tracker that’s either small enough to conceal or disguised as part of the bicycle itself.
At SpyTec, our best GPS tracker for bikes is the GL300MA. It’s 3 inches tall, 1.5 inches wide, and 1 inch thick—so it’s easy to hide beneath your seat, in a bag or rack, inside a water bottle holder, or other less-visible locations. (It also has more than 1,200 reviews, and 85 percent of them are five stars!)
Some GPS trackers made specifically for bikes can be disguised as LED lights, part of the seat, or other basic bike parts. A thief isn’t going to spot these, but make sure the tracker you choose has other important features—most importantly, email, text, or app alerts.
When manufacturers have to make something small, one of the first features they cut is battery life. Good GPS trackers will save battery by staying in “standby” mode until your bike is moving or the geofence is set off. They also don’t transmit constantly, which stretches the battery life further. (It also makes them harder to detect with counter-surveillance devices.)
As you look into specific devices, just keep in mind that you probably don’t want to charge the battery every day. (The GL300MA has a rechargeable battery that lasts 2.5 weeks.)
Some GPS trackers have accessories that can extend their battery life, but unfortunately, these will make the device bulkier and easier to detect. So you’re better off just choosing a device with a long-lasting built-in battery.
Obviously, if you’re trying to hunt down a stolen bike, you want to find out where it is right now. You need a GPS tracker you can access from another device, and you want to choose one that transmits location data frequently when it’s “active.”
GPS trackers generally transmit location data intermittently, which means if your bike is moving, the location you’re seeing is a little behind. Depending on how often your tracker transmits, the location could even be a few minutes old! That won’t be a big deal when the thief eventually stores your bike, but if they’re in a vehicle or going very far, those gaps could make a big difference in your ability to recover your bike.
Email, text, or app alerts
Not all GPS trackers have the functionality they need to notify you when your bike is moving. Some trackers are motion-activated, so you’ll know the moment someone starts moving your bike. Others, like the GL300MA, use geofencing to alert you when your bike leaves a specific area. Either way works, but geofencing will prevent you from getting notifications every time you move your bike from the side of your house to the garage or another room.
You’ll also want to pay attention to how your tracker sends alerts. Text alerts are probably most likely to get your attention, but if you don’t keep your phone on you at work, you’ll probably want email alerts so you can see them from your computer as well.
Can you track your bike with a smartphone?
As you explore your options for GPS trackers, you might be tempted to just download an app on your smartphone. That’s fine for mapping your rides and recording data about your workouts, but a mobile app would have some pretty significant limitations for tracking a stolen bike.
The first and most obvious problem is you have to keep your phone on your bike in order to track it. It’d be pretty tough to conceal a mobile device on your bike, and you don’t want your phone to get stolen, too!
The other big issue is battery life. Assuming you found a way to conceal a mobile device on your bike, the battery would only last a few hours. For the app to track your bike, it’d have to be on—using data and draining the battery—the entire time.
How to install a GPS tracker on a bike
How you install a GPS tracker on your bike depends on the type of device you’re using and what you intend to use it for. If you’re using a GPS tracker to record data about your rides, you don’t need to worry about it being discreet, and you probably want it somewhere you can easily access while sitting on your bike, such as the handlebars or the crossbar.
But if you’re using a GPS tracker for security, you don’t want it to be visible. Disguised GPS trackers can take various forms and have to be installed in specific locations, as they’re intended to replace your other bike parts.
We recommend using a small, inconspicuous GPS tracker. You may need accessories (like a magnetic case or other holster of some kind) or a little improvisation to get it exactly where you want it, but you could easily install your tracker under the bike seat, in a pouch of some kind, in a water bottle, or in a water bottle holder.
Secure your bike today
If your bike is stolen and you don’t have a GPS tracker, you might not ever get it back. Someone you know—or even you—may have lost a bike this way in the past. For $49.95, you can ensure that if your bike is ever stolen, you have a way to get it back, and you can tell police exactly where to find the thief.
Check out our most popular mini GPS tracker.