Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route: Dirt Road Version

  • Distance

    858 Mi.

    (1,381 KM)
  • Days

    23

  • % Unpaved

    75%

  • % Singletrack

    0%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    8

  • % Rideable (time)

    99%

  • Total Ascent

    115,795'

    (35,294 M)
  • High Point

    14,780'

    (4,505 M)
The Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route - the Dirt Road Version - runs the length of the country's volcanic corridor, following jeep tracks and tertiary, low traffic sealed roads. Meandering a remote course through the Ecuadorian Andes, it connects vibrant, colourful market towns with small mountain settlements. Amongst many highlights, its itinerary includes the volcanic trio of Cotopaxi, Quilatoa and Chimborazo, as well as the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca.
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TEMBR Dirt is the mellower hermano to the unremittingly challenging TEMBR Singletrack. It strives to encourage bicycle tourists to escape the hectic traffic of the Panamerican Highway and delve deep into Ecuador’s backcountry, without missing some of the country’s classic sights. Staying high in the Andes for much of the time, it’s a showcase for Ecuador’s remarkable mountain diversity; patchwork fields in its rural settlements, the technicoloured frenzy of its markets, its quiet and ethereal páramo, the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, and of course, the majestic volcanic backdrop for which Ecuador is known. In tackling this route, it’s hoped riders will spend their time and money in small communities along the way, helping encourage low impact, positive tourism across these often overlooked regions.

Unlike its hike-a-bike obsessed sibling, the TEMBR Dirt is almost completely rideable, bar the odd push and shove, depending on the vagaries of Ecuador’s tempestuous weather and its impact on road conditions. Although the mid-fat platform suits the country especially well, this is a ride that will appeal to anyone with a standard mountain bike, a relatively light load, a respectable level of fitness, and the desire to experience the Ecuadorian Andes.

The cruz of this route runs from the Colombian border to Cuenca, effectively the country’s volcanic corridor. Cuenca also provides a wonderful finale and easy logistics for returning to Quito. But for those continuing their journeys southwards, the route also suggests an additional, predominantly low-traffic connection to Vilcamaba, near the Peruvian border. See Trail Notes for details.

  • img_5907
  • 150308_pinanride_81
  • Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), Dirt Road Version
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  • Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), Dirt Road Version

Route Development

Piecing this route together has been a collaborative effort. Enormous thanks are due to the Dammer Brothers for sharing their unparalleled knowledge of the country and to Nick Gault, for his extensive beta testing and feedback. TEMBR Dirt is still being fine-tuned and is subject to modifications. For the latest updates, be sure to download the gpx from Ride With GPS and take note of the waypoints. Please let us know if you run into any issues or inconsistencies. Thanks!

Reflecting Ecuador’s beauty and diversity, TEMBR strikes a balance between revealing remote backcountry riding and visiting points of touristic interest. As such, it opens with a fascinating meander through groves of otherworldly frailejon, by way of the El Angel Ecological Preserve, followed by a herculean climb to the equally beautiful páramo near Piñan. Descending back down to the Inter Andean valley, R&R takes the form of a stopover in Otovalo, home to Ecuador’s biggest textile and handicraft market. A classic, Ecuador-style cobbled climb leads onwards to windswept Lago Mojanda, from where an unconventional dirt and sandy descent funnels riders to Guayllabamba, home to delicious the cherimoya fruit. Then, it’s a relatively flat stint (at last!) as the route picks up a bikepath along the old railway line to Tumbaco.

Onwards, a network of unpaved, sometimes grassy backroads sees riders gaining altitude once more in search of the perfectly conical Cotopaxi volcano, its National Park speckled with delicate, mossy flora, particular to Ecuador’s tundra. Striking into the fertile highlands around Quilotoa, the landscape here is completely different; steep-sided hills are home to shepherds herding sheep and llamas, as well as patchwork quilts of quinoa and potato fields, staples of the Quechuan diet. A popular backpacking destination, Quilatoa and its surrounding villages are home to a number of excellent choices in accommodation, details of which you’ll find on the GPX file. Beyond the rustic market town of Zumbahua, the riding becomes remote once again, en route to forlorn Angamarca and rugged Simiatug. Nearby Salinas de las Montanas is home to a thriving, grassroots tourism and local business infrastructure – amongst its many projects, this small settlement even boasts a chocolate factory.

No visit to Ecuador would be complete without taking in the grandeur of Volcan Chimborazo – assuming the weather gods are on your side – connected via a series of paved and unpaved backroads to Guamote and its colourful Thursday market. Ahead lies the push to Cuenca, reached via Ecuador’s most noted Incan ruins, Ingapirca. Cuenca itself is the country’s most appealing city, where you’ll find a rich display of colonial architecture, as well as a strong artistic and musical vibe. For those headed onto Peru, Loja marks the last sizeable settlement before the border, from where dirt roads will lead you to Vilcabamba, a quirky town known for the longevity of its local inhabitants – and the expats who have now usurped the area.

  • Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), Dirt Road VersionTrans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), Dirt Road Version
  • Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), Dirt Road Version
  • Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), Dirt Road Version

TEMBR can be completed in its entirety, or section ridden. Public transportation between segments is easy, cheap and omnipresent – see Trail Notes for more details on how to break it down. Help is often at hand if you need a ride up one of the route’s many long climbs; a number of pickup trucks and local buses ply the highlands and will take you and your bike, generally at the cost of just a dollar or two. This means sections of the route can become a feasible undertaking for adventurous families too, the section around Quilotoa being an example.

Should you prefer to crank up the challenge level, consider mixing up your own blend of TEMBR Dirt, TEMBR Singletrack, and Los Tres Volcanes, ideas for which also be be found in Trail Notes.

Just be warned. Ecuador is an extremely rugged country, rippled with arduous climbs. When locals tell you the road ahead is plano – flat – they are talking ‘Ecuadorian flat’. Altitudes along the whole of TEMBR fluctuate wildly, from the hot and steamy lowlands, where coffee and sugar cane grow in abundance, to extended stretches at 4000m and more. Embrace the climbs, savour the dirt… and enjoy!

  • 150308_pinanride_98
  • Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), Dirt Road Version
  • Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), Dirt Road Version

Dificulty

Ecuador being Ecuador, TEMBR Dirt is a very challenging undertaking: you’ll need grit, determination, acclimatised lungs and mountain legs to complete it successfully. Although there’s no technical singletrack or hike-a-bikes to contend with, we’ve awarded this route a solid 8 in difficulty due to its prolonged climbs, extended stints at high elevation, linguistic hurdles, and its overall length. Grades can be steep and surfaces very mixed. Even during the summer, weather can be extremely variable; during the rainy season, conditions can become particularly challenging in places. Check out the route profile below to see what you’re letting yourself in for.

  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • Trail Notes

  • Discovering the real Ecuadorian backcountry, away from the frenzy of the Panamerican Highway.
  • Experiencing the vibrancy – and culinary delicacies – of Ecuador’s market towns.
  • Meandering across the beautiful, enigmatic páramo, Ecuador’s high altitude, treeless tundra.
  • Sleeping in a community owned ‘choza’, the traditional huts that dot the country’s highlands.
  • Riding through Cotopaxi National Park and around Chimborazo – the latter’s peak marks the closest point to the sun.
  • Treating yourself to comfortable, eco-friendly accommodation on the Quilatoa Loop.
  • Getting fit – with the amount of climbing on this ride, you have no choice!
  • June to mid September is the high season in the Ecuadorian Andes. By Ecuadorian standards, this is the driest time of the year. Outside of this, be prepared for extended bouts of very heavy rain, which will effect road/trail conditions. Traditionally, there is also a ‘mini dry season’ in December and January. Hour to hour temperatures can be extremely variable, depending on altitude and weather, though they don’t change much throughout the year. I carry a 0-degree centigrade bag and wear extras layers if needed.  Ambient dampness can make nighttimes feel cooler than they are.
  • Always expect mixed weather in the highlands, whatever the season. Be prepared for persistent rain at times, and/or four seasons in one day! Bring a quality, reliable waterproof jacket, rather than the kind that pack up tiny but wet out quickly.
  • For the same reason, waterproof footware or shoes that dry out quickly are recommended.
  • This is a high altitude route, so allow time to acclimatise first.
  • High quality topographic maps can be obtained in Quito but following this gpx with a general country map (eg ITMB or Reise Know How) is all you’ll need. Ideally, I’d recommend the Gaia App on a smartphone and/or a GPS for the handlebars. Make sure your smartphone is store in a watertight sleeve.
  • Ecuador is well suited to ‘plus’ bikes, given the cobbled backroads and the sometimes swampy nature of the páramo. Otherwise, we recommend 2.25in tires, ideally with front suspension though lightly laden, fully rigid touring bikes will be fine too (I’ve used a rigid Surly Troll and a rigid Surly Krampus in the past – the latter being more enjoyable). For the most part, it’s definitely not a route that lends itself well to a gravel or cyclocross bike, though there are intermittent sections where skinnier tires are advantageous.
  • There are high-end bike shops in Ibarra (off route), Quito (off route), Tumbaco (on route), Riobamba (off route), Cuenca (on route) and Loja (on route. Euadorian shops stock, or should be able to order, all the latest gear, even 27.5+ tire sizes.
  • With its strong tradition in climbing, Ecuador is well stocked with quality camping gear. The Ecuadorian chain Tatoo has an REI-like selection of high-end gear – they have stores in Cuenca and Quito. Pressurised cannister bottles are available in big cities. Denatured alcohol is easier to find in smaller locales.
  • If you spot an empty choza – the community owned, traditional straw huts used by shepherds – make yourself at home. Just be sure to leave it in a better state than you found it.
  • A grasp of Spanish will certainly come in useful. A few words of Quechua will be especially welcome by indigenous locals.
  • The route passes through isolated areas, some of which can be communally owned. Whenever you encounter anyone, please ask for permission to ride, by saying “Preste pasito, por favor”. Where necessary, be sure to reassure anyone you meet that you will close all gates behind you (“Yo cierro las puertas”).
  • A general note on buses. Most have room for a bike or two in the trunk , depending on the bus, wheels may need to be removed and an extra charge may be levied. Although buses can often be hailed down from the roadside, it’s often to find one that starts in a particular town, so there’s time/room to fit the bike.
  • Getting there: TEMBR isn’t routed through Ecuador’s capital, Quito. If you’re arriving by plane, you can ride/catch a taxi from the airport to the town of Pifo, and catch a direct bus to Tulcan (on the Colombian border) from there. If you want to decompress for a couple of days, consider catching a ride to Tumbaco and heading out from there.
  • Most towns have ATMs – but carry extra cash in case any don’t work.
  • South America’s village dogs very vocal… expect to be chased at times!
  • Every town will be able to offer cheap accommodation; $5 per person and upwards. A few recommended options are marked as POIs on the Ride With GPS page.
  • There’s no shortage of camping spots/abandoned buildings/chozas (traditional straw shelters) along this route. Generally speaking the Ecuadorian Andes is a safe place to travel; we’ve never had any safety concerns outside Quito.
  • Streams and rivers abound. To save weight, a couple of water bottles is generally all you’ll need to carry in the highlands of Ecuador, plus a means to purify anything you find en route. Steripens are great for this.
  • Every town can serve up a belly-filling set lunch (almuerzo) and dinner (cena) menu.  ‘Completos’ costs just a few dollars and includes a soup, main course and juice. They offer the best bang for the buck.
  • Carry a minimal camping stove setup for cold/damp nights in the mountains and supplement this with cheap local eats along the way.
  • Don’t expect to find much more than the odd, poorly stocked village shop in between towns. Carry food for 2-3 days at all times.
  • Ecuador has an abundance of exotic fruit. Be sure to sample chirimoya when you’re passing through Guayllabamba. Better still, track down the locally made Chirimoya ice cream.
  • Other treats to look out for include tostadas – toasted corn – and mote – soaked corn. At the weekend, these are often served with hornada – delicious crispy, roasted pork . If you’re not squeamish, there’s roasted guinea pigs – cuy – to tuck into as well, an Ecuadorian speciality.
  • Locro de Papa is a hearty soup that will keep you fueled. It’s loaded with potatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, achiote, milk, cheese and cilantro, garnished with avocado and spicy aji (Ecuadorian hot sauce).
  • Always keep your eyes out for local produce. We suggest supporting small businesses when you can. For example, fresh cheese is commonly available. Just add bread, a pinch of salt and a dollop of aji.
  • Market towns abound – we’ve listed the days of those that are more established in Trail Notes. They’re great for resuppling on fresh and local produce, as well as experiencing an important part of Ecuadorian life.

At over 1300km in length, TEMBR Dirt can be tackled in its entirety, or broken up into six parts that can be section ridden. Listed below is a suggested breakdown, splitting the ride into five digestible portions. Although the segments vary in length, each offers a suitable locale to spend a rest day or two off the bike.

Note that TEMBR Dirt is still being fine-tuned and is subject to modifications. For the latest updates, be sure to download the gpx from Ride With GPS and take note of the waypoints. Please let us know if you run into any issues or inconsistencies. Thanks!

Tulcan to Otovalo: 235km (5 days)

Otovalo to Tumbaco (possible side trip to Quito): 121km (2-3 days)

Tumbaco to Salinas de Guaranda: 325km (6 days)

Salinas de Guaranda to Cuenca: 390km (5 days)

Cuenca to Vilcabamba: 309km (5 days)

Short on time? The crux of the ride – and the Avenue of the Volcanoes – is from Tulcan to Cuenca, both of which are well served by buses to Quito. These sections included the very best of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route. The last segment, Cuenca to Vilcabamba, provides a useful link for those headed south into Peru.

Mix and Match

Note that TEMBR Dirt, TEMBR Singletrack, and the Tres Volcanes route can all be woven together. For those running a lightweight, bikepacking-style setup and who are game for relatively short but sometimes very challenging hike-a-bikes and paramo/singletrack yomps, consider the following:

After Pifo, use TEMBR Singletrack as a way to enter Cotopaxi National Park. Once in the park, hop on the Tres Volcanes route for a fun but challenging hike-a-bike over Cotopaxi. Later, plug in TEMBR Singletrack/Tres Volcanes’ route to circle around Chimborazo (note that this option is only recommended in a southerly direction and means missing out on wonderful Salinas de Guanranda and its chocolates!). From then on, stick to TEMBR Dirt, to avoid the infamous hike-a-bike challenges of Ecuador’s mini Inca Trail, unless you seek an extremely challenging ‘shortcut’ to Ingaparca.

Market Life

Market remain the lifeblood of Ecuador. They tend to occur on Thursday and at the weekend. Here’s a few of the more colourful indigenous markets to bear in mind when planning your trip.

  • Otovalo: Daily, largest on Saturday morning (touristy but well worth visiting for textiles).
  • Saquisili (off route): Thursday morning (touristy but still maintains local vibe)
  • Zumbahua: Saturday morning (recommended).
  • Simiatug: Wednesday morning (very local).
  • Guamote: Thursday morning (recommended).

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • curtisinterruptus

    Oh man my wife and I are going after this route starting mid June! So psyched! Any recommendations on background reading to prep for the trip?

  • Cass Gilbert

    The weather should be picking up by then!

    I’d suggest just grabbing a guidebook. Lonely Planet books are available in phone-friendly format.

    Before you head out check back for updates, as I hope to reride the route in May.

    Enjoy!

  • tony

    That looks like a fantastic trip. Is there a best time of year to do it?

  • Cass Gilbert

    All the weather details are in the Must Know section. My advice? Bring a rainproof, any time of the year (-;

  • Peter

    Will be doing the route from Tulcan to Cuenca in June – so looking forward to it! Just have to get my legs ready :) Thanks for the inspiration, and the great info and pictures!

  • Cass Gilbert

    That’s the best section! Hope you enjoy it (-:

  • Brian Mulder

    Thanks for formalizing this Cass. This stitches together the bulk of Ecuador’s natural and cultural highlights along a fantastic route. And, combined with the Peru Divide and Pike’s route’s through Bolivia it’s a healthy supply of dirt for those doing a longer South American tour!

  • Dabadau Tabaluga

    Wow, great work. Maybe next year. Is there a gpx file for download?

  • Davin Spridgen

    the photography on this post is breathtaking. Wow great job!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks! You can download it via RWGPS.

  • Added to the page now… sorry about that; it takes a couple manual steps to do that and I missed it. Done now though.

  • Bikepackers.dk

    Hi guys
    We will be coming from the south to Ecuador, probably in september.
    I guess it wouldnt be a problem to do the route from south to north? Will it give us any tricky parts?
    It sounds like the perfect route for us. We ride 29+ rigid with around 15kg without food and water. Are there any sectiond of the singletrack version you would recommend to mix in?
    Looking very much forward to Ecuador when I see your pictures.
    But first we have to finish Argentina and Chile. And then Bolivia. Oh – and Peru as well. What a nice life.
    Best
    Kenneth and Marie

  • Cass Gilbert

    I think it will be great heading north too! Check out Trail Notes for ideas on working in singletrack options. Some ideas are outlined there.

  • Sarah Wragge-Morley

    Great looking route, shame we missed it as we have just left Ecuador. I can vouch for the steepness of Ecuador hills, we spent a day pushing one bike at a time up a hill and only made 6 km after 5 hours.

  • Dabadau Tabaluga

    No problem, thanks :)
    Next time I will look at rwgps, didn’t know that.

  • Great one. Put it already to my bikepacking bucket list.
    Cass, question to you, as you had a chance to ride a lot on Surly Troll. Im planning to buy Troll for extended bikepacking adventure – Tour Divide in US, than jump to South America, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. You think Troll is up to the task for roads similar to Dirt version of Trans Ecuador?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Definitely. I first rode across Ecuador on my trusty Troll with a pared down, classic touring setup (4 small panniers and a framebag). Given that it was before days of large volume tires/midfat platform, I’d definitely recommend a ‘plus’ wheelset if I was doing it again, to help take the bite out of Ecuador’s cobbles and open up some off route excursions. Otherwise, fit some 2.4s or more, and you’ll be just fine.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thank you!

  • Colt Fetters

    Phenomenal set of images as always Cass.

    It appears you were using a Krampus with a basket. Did you find a Krampus fork with brazeons, or did you find an alternative method for mounting?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks!

    Hm, I’ve run so many setups recently… but don’t think I’ve run a Krampus with a basket! Should work fine with the aftermarket Krampus fork though, the one with all the eyelets.

  • Elliot Gough

    Absolutely stunning photography on an amazing tour! I noticed in one of the pics you’re using micro panniers on a rear rack. I’m aiming for this kind of set-up myself and I was wondering what rack did you use? I ‘m looking for one as small and compact as possible on a 27.5+ bike.

  • Karl

    Hi Peter, I’m thinking of doing the same part of the route around the same time. I’d love to chat.
    -Karl
    karlpeterschmidt@gmail.com

  • Jonathan Black

    I have a Troll and rode the Divide. Best bike ever. Wheelset is everything. I built my wheelset using Kris Holm 47mm rims, and DT Swiss Alpine III spokes — absolutely bombproof. For rubber, I run a Surly Knard in front and a Surly Dirt wizard in the rear.

  • Thanks Jonathan! gonna certainly look up to these wheels you mentioned.
    btw. did you change fork in your troll or rode the entire way on the fixed one?

  • Jonathan Black

    I rode with firm fork. I found the 3 inch tires to be plenty of cushion for me. BTW, the Kris Holm rim is one of the only “mid-fat” rims that I am aware of that comes in 36 spokes, which I prefer. I have seen others with broken spokes on the Divide, and I am not one of them. :) The Kris Holm Freeride rims are actually made for Freeride Unicycles, so they are very strong.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I was using a Tubus Vega. Although it’s a really nice, lightweight rack, clearances are on the tight side with a 3in tire.

  • Arctos

    Cass:
    Your photos and route reminds me of a similar mountain bike trip through Ecuador in December and January of 1986 into 1987. Small front panniers and a medium backpack on rear rack on a 64cm Ritchey Team Comp with 26X 2.0 tires which were marginally adequate in some soft pumice, mud and sand at points.

    Started at the Columbia border on rough tracks reaching Otovalo for the Saturday Market. Invited into locals thatched mud huts on back trails. Unfortunately I knew no Quechua for communication. Some serious bike-n-hike at times finally reaching Mt.Pinchincha and Quito.

    Continuing South on dirt West of the Pan Am Hwy climbed West col of Chimborazo and stayed at the Edward Whymper Hut at 5000 meters/16400 feet. My 20F down bag was not good enough that night with zero F temps and high winds.

    After a long pumice surfaced descent crossed over the Pan An Hwy to enter Cotapaxi NP to camp in twig structure hut. After reaching Quayaquil took the one car ferrocarril train back to Quito for the flight home. Another unique experience.
    Nothing but fine memories of the people, the food and the challenging scenery. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Rik Adriaans

    Hi Cass,

    This route and description made us come to Ecuador… with the bike.
    Coming from the real flat Netherlands we are in Palugo now to get used to the height and getting the good vibes of Ecuador at the farm at the same time.
    Also visited the casa cyclista of Santiago in Tumbaco when we were getting groceries. He named you as well… with a smile.
    Probably starting next Monday/Tuesday in Tulcan, looking forward to it!

    Thnx for this route and site!

    Cheers,
    Evelien&Rik.

  • gerwyn

    hi cass thanks for your great trip report im hoping to do this trip as part of a SA backpacking trip would have a gear list you took and what time of year did do it thanks gerwyn

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Gerwyn,

    I’m afraid I don’t have my gear list handy but it’s all pretty standard stuff – I take pretty much the same things on every trip, maybe more in the way of waterproof gear for Ecuador. Have a look at the Need to Know section, there’s details on the best time of the year to ride it there. Enjoy!

  • gerwyn

    thanks for your help gerwyn

  • Raúl Rodríguez Herranz

    hey guys,
    we are in Ecuador trying to download this TEMBR track in a garmin GPS but can´t find the the full file, just the first setion from Tulcan to Otavalo.
    Somebody could help us?
    My email is Rulxmaster@gmail.com.It will be great if someone could send me the file.
    Thanks a lot,
    Raul Rodriguez

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Raul, go to the map, click on ‘view full route’ and download the track from there – it’s free to sign up to Ride With GPS if you haven’t an account already. You can export it any whatever file format works best for you.

    Enjoy!

  • Josh Buchsbaum

    Hi Cass/Raul,

    I started the route and noticed the same issue and have tried downloading again. Route ends around Otavalo. Using a Garmin Etrex 20 which I believe is good for 10k pts. Was this resolved? Any help much appreciated.

    Thanks!
    Josh

  • Cass Gilbert

    Because it’s a long route (some parts recorded, some drawn into RWGPS), I believe for older Garmin units you need to chop it up into a few sections.

  • Peter

    In June, I followed the route from Tulcan to Riobama. It is MAGICAL!! It was also quite tough (for me at least) as I struggled quite a bit with the altitude. The landscape is amazing and varied: almost every day provides a “take your breath away” moment as well as a challenge that keeps you on your toes :)

  • Josh Buchsbaum

    Thanks for the quick reply. Ended up just loading the kml onto maps.me. Thanks for the awesome route.