Ultimate Guide: Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travel

An emergency satellite transmitter is a must for  motorcycle travellers. You just don’t realise how important they are until you need one. So, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to help you figure them out, how they work, what they do and how to use one. They could save your life.

The Ultimate Guide on Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travellers

Contents

The Importance of Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travellers

Why you should consider taking an SOS device on your motorcycle trips

Back in 2020, Alissa had a serious motorcycle crash in Nepal breaking her leg in a nasty spiral fracture. Her foot was facing 180 degrees in the wrong direction. We were in the middle of nowhere, 13 hours from Kathmandu on a dusty track.

Luckily, there was a village close by and a bunch of people came out to see what the commotion was about. One of them called an ‘ambulance’, which turned out to be a kid in flip flops driving a jeep who just opened the back door, smiled and pointed at us to get in. A villager (who pointed at himself and said “medicine man”) and I had to turn Alissa’s leg back the right way round before we could get her in the truck.

We got to a hospital 40 minutes away, which turned out to be a complete joke. The doctor on call wasn’t interested and we decided to pay another ‘ambulance’ to drive us 13 hours to Kathmandu where Alissa eventually received help and an immediate operation.

I have been travelling on motorcycles since I was 17 years old. Riding to Albania at 19, to Iraq at 23, I worked full-time for MCN for six years going on some pretty crazy adventures too from the Himalayas to 24-hour off-road rallies through the Alps to riding over frozen lakes in Slovakia in the middle of the night. And we have been on this round the world trip since 2018 riding through extremely remote places. And I can honestly say in all that time, the thought of using an emergency SOS device never crossed my mind. What an incredible oversight.

I wish I had. We could have used it, called a helicopter, got professional help. Hindsight, ey? But it’s that hindsight that inspired me to write this article. We purchased a satellite messenger and will always have it with us on our motorcycle travels from now on. And we hope this guide helps steer you towards one for your adventures too.

The Ultimate Guide on Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travellers

Everything you need to know about emergency satellite devices for motorcycle trips

What is an emergency satellite device?

An SOS device is a small gadget capable of sending a signal and message to an emergency service centre via satellite. Once the signal has been sent, the emergency centre (which is manned 24/7, 365) will have your exact location and coordinates. They then immediately contact the first responders closest to your location and liaise with them to get you the help you need as quickly as possible.

What types of emergency devices are there?

When researching SOS devices, you’ll come across loads of different names and acronyms people use to refer to these gadgets including PLBs, satellite messengers, satellite transmitters, satellite phones, GPS units and so on. It can quickly get confusing, so before we go any further let’s sum up the different devices.

Satellite devices – Also known as satellite messengers, transmitters and communicators. These are the devices this article will concentrate on. They commonly offer two-way communication – meaning you can call for emergency help and communicate with the response centre. These devices need to be recharged, have a yearly subscription fee and usually have more functionality such as tracking, communication with friends and family in non-emergency situations, weather reporting, location sharing and so on. These send signals to private satellite networks and privately run rescue centres (hence the subscription) who you can often communicate with or even cancel the SOS.

Zoleo Satellite Communicator

Personal locator beacons – PLBs offer one-way communication and are purely for search and rescue operations as they have no other functionality. There’s no subscription, no recharging (batteries last several years and the entire device is returned to the manufacturer or dealer to replace the battery). These are used in high-risk regions and can only be used in an emergency situation. They send signals to government run satellites and search and rescue teams. Once the SOS button is pushed then help is on its way regardless of if you no longer need it as there is no option to cancel an SOS signal like there is with a satellite device.

PLB

Satellite phones – This is another option. Satellite phones are costly and you’ll need to know the emergency contact number for each country you travel through – as well as be able to communicate with them if they don’t speak your language. 

Satellite Phone

There are two other types of satellite devices that often pop up, but neither apply to motorcycle travel as they’re used for aircraft and boats. These are Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs are used in aircrafts) and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (PIRBs are used on boats).

Why this guide focuses on emergency satellite messengers instead of PLBs.

There are a few different types of emergency satellite devices to choose from. But this article only focuses on satellite messengers as we feel they are the best option for motorcycle travellers, long bike trips and adventure bike riders. This is because they offer additional functionality that is valuable for a motorcycle traveller, like the ability to keep friends and family informed about your route and if you’re safe.

Importantly, you’re able to check in with people and communicate in a two-way system with friends on a day-to-day basis and the emergency services to give more detailed information about your situation and needs. There is also extra functionality such as navigation, route planning, location sharing and weather reporting. Overall, they are more comprehensive and offer you so much more than a PLB.

How does an emergency SOS transmitter work?

The device is connected to a private satellite network (which network depends on the device you choose). Once you push the SOS button, a notification is immediately sent to the satellite and then onto GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Centre (IERCC), which is based in Texas, USA. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, where you bought your device from or where in the world you’re sending the SOS signal from – it’ll still go to this response centre.

What happens next is dependent on which device you have. For example, you may be able to communicate in more detail with the centre via messaging on your phone or on the device directly. In short, it’s an emergency beacon that uses satellites to communicate.  

Which satellite network do emergency devices use and where can they be used?

PLBs use government run and backed SARSAT satellites. But satellite messengers use private satellites and these are Iridium and Globalstar.

In short, Iridium has the strongest network and can be used pretty much anywhere in the world while Globalstar is good if you’re travelling solely in the US or Europe as its signal strength can be hit and miss elsewhere. For round the world travellers, we’d suggest Iridium.

Is there anywhere you can’t use a satellite communicator?

Yes, there are some countries where satellite communicators are treated as satellite phones and as such banned, illegal to use or must be registered. Here is a list of countries we currently believe have strict regulations against sat com devices. This list may change at any time, so it is your responsibility to do research on the country you are travelling to first.

Afghanistan, Crimea region of the Ukraine, Cuba, Georgia, India, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Russia.

When can I press the SOS button?

An emergency SOS device should only be used when you are in serious trouble and require immediate medical attention. An emergency response team will be coordinating with search and rescue teams to either call in a helicopter or ambulance to your exact location – does your injury or situation require that?

It can’t be used if you’re lost and don’t know whether to turn left or right or have run out of petrol. It can be used if you’re lost, out of food, fuel and water and on the brink of death though. They are only to be used in serious emergencies.  

Who pays in an emergency?

You do. Or, if you have personal travel insurance (which hopefully you do) then your insurance company should cover the costs of the search and rescue. Do check with your insurance provider first as this is not guaranteed. Purchasing an SOS device and a subscription plan to use it does not cover the costs involved in the actual search. Instead, you are only paying for the physical device, access to the satellite network and the 24/7 response team it will communicate with. All search and rescue costs will be billed to you or your insurance company.

Explaining insurance in an emergency

Motorcycle travel insurance is a tricky subject as there a lot of caveats. Quite often an insurance company will say you’re covered, but after reading the fine print you’re only covered to ride a 125cc bike or that you can ride any bike, but hidden in there somewhere it’ll say so long as you don’t use it as your main mode of transport. So firstly you must find a company that allows you to travel on your bike. 

Secondly, if you push the SOS button on your device and are not in a serious medical emergency, it is extremely unlikely your insurance company will pay a penny. However, if you are in a life or death situation or require serious medical attention and you push it, your insurance company should cover the costs under the medical expenses section of your policy. 

It is highly advisable to email your insurance company before travelling to ask exactly what would happen if you use your emergency device and call in a search and rescue. Do this via email so that you get a written reply your records. 

How much does an emergency satellite device cost?

It depends on which device you go for. But the way the costing works is that there’ll be a one-off fee to purchase the device. And then you’ll need to pay for a subscription plan (either yearly or monthly dependent on the device and plan). The subscription is what entitles you to the 24/7 emergency response centre. Device fees can range from £100-£300 and monthly subscriptions can range from roughly £12 – £50. Some devices may also require an activation fee (typically around £15 – £20).

Can I pause my subscription?

This again depends on the device and service you have opted for. Often, a company will offer a flexible plan, which allows you to suspend your service (some companies charge for this, some don’t). If not, and you want to suspend for a long period of time, then you can cancel your plan altogether and sign up again when it’s time for your next trip. 

Alternatively, you could opt for a device that allows free suspension or is pay as you go.

The best emergency satellite devices for adventure bike riders

Below we have listed the two best emergency transmitters and satellite devices on the market today. We have specifically selected these two as we feel they are the most well suited for motorcycle travellers. You will find considerations and what to look out for when choosing a device below this section. 

Zoleo

The Zoleo satellite device is perfect for motorcycle travellers who value easy to use two-way communication as well an an emergency SOS transmitter. This is done via a well thought out and seamless smartphone app where you can easily send messages to friends and family – and emergency services in case of an SOS situation. The app cleverly sends these messages via WiFi or your mobile network first to save you money, but if they can’t be used because you’re out of cellular tower range, then it’ll send the message via satellite. If you are in an emergency situation and your phone has broken or run out of battery, you can still use the Zoleo device to send your SOS message or check-in without your phone.

The Ultimate Guide on Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travellers

Garmin inReach Mini 2

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 has been the market leader for satellite messengers for some time until Zoleo came along. It’s a big name and packs a punch with a host of additional features and functionality that its competitors don’t have. But its main advantage is that it can be used as a standalone device without a smartphone for two-way messaging. This means that you can read and reply to incoming messages on the device itself.

Garmin inReach Mini 2 Satellite Communicator

How to choose an emergency SOS device for your motorcycle adventures

Emergency satellite devices do cost money and are an investment, so picking the right device is important. Here’s what to look out for and consider when picking your transmitter.

Two way messaging

Does the device have two-way messaging? This is an extremely important function. As mentioned earlier, with a PLB you can only send an SOS signal. The response team will not know any information about the severity of your condition, obstacles or how urgent the situation is. With a satellite messenger that has two-way communication, you can instantly get in touch with the response team after initiating your SOS and explain your situation. You’ll also be able to receive constant updates from the team on their ETA and valuable help.

When choosing a device, consider how easy it is to use two-way messaging and how good the app or method is for sending and receiving. 

What exactly you need it for / functionality

Some devices come with added functionality such as tracking, navigation and premium weather reporting but you may end up paying extra for these additional services. They also may not be necessary for motorcycle travellers as it’s highly unlikely you’ll be using an emergency satellite communicator to navigate over a smartphone or Sat Nav

The most important function is the SOS button, which all emergency satellite devices have. The second most important function is two-way communication as mentioned above, which both the Garmin and Zoleo have. The Zoleo excels in its two-way comms, it’s far easier to use via the app and will automatically switch between WiFi, cellular and satellite messages meaning you can keep in touch with friends and family easily and without spending a fortune. This is the one to go for if that’s important to you. Or, opt for the Garmin if you’d rather the extra functionality of tracking and navigation over messaging. It all comes down to what you’re using the device for and what you need from it. 

Battery life / weight / ruggedness

Battery life is an important factor and most devices nowadays last at least two weeks depending on what settings you apply. If you set tracking for your device to check for messages every 10 minutes then it’ll of course use up battery fast. We set our device to not check for incoming messages unless we manually ask it to and that means we recharge every 10 days (it takes two hours to recharge). 

Weight isn’t as important for motorcycle travellers as it is for backpackers and hikers. Size may be a consideration dependent on how light you pack. 

Check your device’s water resistance, dustproof and shock resistance rating. This may be a consideration if you are using it to navigate or riding hard enduro or off-road and want to keep your device within easy reach on a shoulder or rucksack strap – in which case, it would be constantly exposed to the elements and will need to be able to stand up to a crash.   

Price and subscription

The device price and monthly subscriptions are tricky to weigh up and compare because each company offers different features, options and plans. You will need to weigh up the pros and cons of each dependent on what you require. 

What satellite communicator we’re using for our round the world motorcycle trip

The Ultimate Guide on Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travellers

Zoleo Emergency Satellite Device

We decided to go with Zoleo for our round the world motorcycle trip. We made this decision because we don’t need the extra functionality of the Garmin inReach Mini 2. We use a smartphone to navigate and don’t require tracking either. 

When we researched emergency satellite communicators, we had only one function in mind and that’s the ability to send an SOS message anywhere in the world. 

The more we looked into it, the more we realised how important two-way messaging was and liked the idea of using a well developed phone app to quickly and easily send and receive messages with both the emergency services and friends and family. As we use an old phone for navigating, we always have our personal phones fully charged and safe in our pockets. So my phone can be used with the Zoleo device in an emergency. But either way, if the phone breaks, we can still use the Zoleo device’s SOS and check in functions.

The other important deciding factor was that we can use the app to check in with friends and family and easily message people to let them know we’re okay. We can do that anywhere in the world and even without phone signal. The Zoleo app automatically sends the messages over the cheapest network available – WiFi and cellular first (we always buy a local SIM card in the country we’re in, so this text would be free) and if there is no coverage then it sends via satellite. 

For more information on the Zoleo, check out our review. 

READ MORE: Zoleo Satellite Communicator Review

Read more on health and staying safe for motorcycle travellers 

Thanks for checking out this Ultimate Guide on Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travellers. We hope you found it helpful. Here’s a few more articles on health, safety, money and paperwork for motorcycle travellers that we recommend you read next. 

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Are you thinking of purchasing an emergency satellite device for your motorcycle trips and travels? If you have any questions or tips to share, please let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

18 thoughts on “Ultimate Guide: Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travel”

  1. Hi Andy & Alyssa,

    Thanks for the comprehensive explanation of these devices. I’ve always wondered exactly how they work work & what they actually do. Now I know!

    Cheers,

    Ray

    Reply
    • Hi Ray!
      Thanks for your comment. Really happy to hear this guide has helped! 🙂
      Has this article swayed you, are you thinking of getting one for your trip?
      Cheers,
      Andy

      Reply
      • Hi Andy,

        I was probably 75% going to get one but didn’t really understand how they worked until your article. Given that I’ll be riding solo I’m 100% going to get one now – just need to decide the level of service. I hope Alissa’s leg is 100%!

        Cheers,

        Ray

        Reply
        • Hi Ray, yeah that’s a good idea – especially if you’re going solo. It’s one of those better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it type things! Good luck with deciding which one to go with, and let us know back on here in the comments which one you choose and why, I’m sure other readers will find that interesting.

          And thank you! Alissa says it’s 80% – but she’s getting there!
          All the best,
          Andy

          Reply
  2. Hello Andy,

    First, thank you for this great article & all your research. I am in the northeast US and have planned a great 8 day trip. However, there are only a few folks left that I occasionally ride with and they feel the trip is too much for them. So I am hoping something like this might convince my wife that it’s alright for me to go solo. I have about 3 months before the trip so we will see how I do.
    There is one aspect that I feel is missing. Many years ago I met a couple traveling cross country on a touring bike. Since they were alone, they had an emergency satellite device that mounted to the handlebars and had a coiled “umbilical” cord that attached to the rider. This would automatically activate if the rider was thrown from the bike, and especially if they could not respond.
    Have you come across anything like this? I do not see any mention of it on either the Zoleo or the Garmin.
    Thanks, John

    Reply
    • Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment – and kind words. Great to hear you’re planning a trip and that’s a shame your mates aren’t up for it!
      Still, i’m sure you’ll have an adventure on your own either way.

      Very interesting question. I have never seen or heard of a tether for an emergency satellite device.
      I have heard of tethers used for the bike’s emergency kill switch, so if the rider falls off the bike switches off. The only other tether I know off is for an inflatable air bag.

      As for sending an automatic signal to emergency services, there are now mobile phone apps for this. If you type into Google: ‘motorcycle crash detection’ you can find a lot more info about it. You might find that more suited to what you’re after.

      I hope all this helps,
      Cheers and best of luck with your trip,
      Andy

      Reply
  3. Hi Andy
    I am a 66 yo woman who has ridden motorcycles since I was 17 yo – all on road riding but good distances within Australia (3,000kms across the Nullabour twice; up to Cairns 3,000kms and back; to Alice Springs etc). I usually travel with my brother who has also been riding for as long as me. I ride with a group once a month also for recreation.
    This year I am travelling up to Darwin then across to Western Australia then down to Perth and back to Melbourne. I will be on bitumen following the Highway No 1. It is about 11,000kms trip and I will be travelling solo but for my partner on the back of the bike from Darwin to Ningaloo (about 3,300kms).
    I was wondering if you have an opinion about what would be the best satellite phone for me given its within Australia. I really want it in case of an accident or breakdown so the SOS function is pretty important. I’ll also be without internet on some roads so the capacity to phone home is pretty important wherever I am.
    Thanks Andy
    Jackie

    Reply
    • Hi Jackie,
      Great to hear from you and about your adventures. Sounds like you have an awesome adventure planed for Australia.
      Definitely a good idea to carry an emergency device.
      We use the Zoleo device, which I believe is popular in Australia – here’s a link to the Oz version
      But, i’m not from Australia, we have ridden through the country on our round the world trip, but I don’t have specific knowledge of the best satellite phone for Australia I’m afraid.
      So, I suggest you join these two Australian motorcycle Facebook groups and post your question in there. The members are very helpful and i’m sure they’ll quickly provide good answers.
      FB – Motorcycle Camping Australia
      FB – Australian Adventure Bike Riders

      All the best with your planning and trip and please do let us know how you get on,
      Cheers,
      Andy

      Reply
  4. Hi Andy and Alissa,

    Great site – I have very much enjoyed spending time perusing the pages, you have provided readers with a lot of helpful and important information and BOY! Do I envy your travels and lifestyle!

    But the reason for this message is this; I’ve made 2 x 2 month solo tours around western Europe these past couple of years and will be heading off again in another few months. Previously, and now it would appear in ignorance, I’ve wrongly believed the SOS button on my GS would give me the support and help I would need in the event of a catestrophic situation. But looking more closely at this, I now realise this will only work if there is an active mobile phone network. I ride off the beaten track rather than main roads, nothing extreme or enduro, but nonetheless once off tarmac I am increasing the likelihood of a mishap. And, whilst I’m not riding in the outback or anything as far out as that, I am more often than not as high up in remote mountains as I can get, thus increasing the possibility of no ‘phone signal.

    So now I’m wondering if you think

    a) out of those devices you have researched, is there one that might be more suitable than another to sit alongside and compliment the SOS system, or

    b) whether realistically, I need to forget all about the BMW’s SOS feature which has lulled me into a false sense of security, and simply make a decision based upon my personal preference for a specific device.

    Great listening to you on Adventure Rider Radio btw 🙂

    Ali

    Reply
    • Hi Ali, thanks very much for your comment and kind words! Great to hear about your adventures too.
      Great questions… let’s get to it.
      So i’m not familiar with BMW’s SOS feature, but as you’ve rightly pointed out – what’s important here is that it works on mobile signal.
      And there may be occasions where you don’t have signal – and you don’t even need to be remote to not have signal. That can happen anywhere.
      So the point of this article and these devices is to highlight how important it is to have a satellite communicator – so you will receive help – no matter where you are, signal or not.

      A. I feel more comfortable with a satellite communicator than I would with a phone or PLB. Phone is way out of budget, requires more charge, maintenance and isn’t as practical as an SOS button. A PLB is too much of a “rip cord”. A communicator offers the best of all worlds. So I would opt for either the Zoleo or the Garmin. If you had one of these, I don’t know if it would be complimenting the SOS system, this would be the first port of call.

      B. I wouldn’t say it’s a false sense of security, because after reading up on it, it does look like a good add-on because it can automatically call for help, which is something your sat device can’t do.

      C. I would keep the BMW SOS function – assuming you don’t have to pay extra for it – and also purchase a satellite communicator based on your personal preferences. I would make this decision based upon satellite versus mobile coverage and the additional functionality you get from the sat. I’d also add that it sounds like you’re touring a lot, and are off the beaten track so this makes it more important. And finally, country coverage. If you were to go outside of Europe I don’t think the BMW SOS will cover you.

      On the BMW website it says: “The Intelligent Emergency Call can be used in the following countries: Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Czech Republic, Vatican City, United Kingdom. Over time, the intelligent emergency call will be expanded to other countries over time.” From bmw-motorrad.co.uk/ecall

      I hope this helps, let us know what you decide to go with!

      Cheers,
      Andy

      Reply
  5. Hi Andy,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to explore this with me, especially looking into the BMW system too, really kind of you.

    I don’t have to pay any extra for this, it was an option to have fitted/installed at the point of build so it’s part of the bike and, you’re quite right, the automatic aspect of assistance if the bike goes down is a big plus and yes, I can confirm it does work. But of course as we’ve said, it is dependant upon a phone signal.

    So I think I agree with your thoughts about investing in a satellite device too and having checked out the features of the two you suggest, am leaning towards purchasing the Zoleo which I think will better suit my needs.

    And, if I’ve understood correctly, although I need to take out the monthly subscription, it can be cancelled completely until next required. I say this because I usually only get the opportunity for one 2-3 month trip a year, so I wouldn’t really want to have to pay a monthly subscription unnecessarily.

    I really appreciate having had the opportunity to chat this through with you Andy, it’s been a great help and once again, many thanks for your time. All the best to you and Alissa with your onward travels and keep your fabulous blogs coming!

    Best regards,

    Ali 😊

    Reply
    • Hi Ali, thanks for your reply.
      Okay, in that case if it’s already added then that’s a great addition to keep. And, yes, I would also go for a Zoleo – which is what we use.
      Yes, you can deactivate and reactivate your account. We haven’t done this yet as we’re still travelling and have kept it on the entire time, so for more information on the exact procedure check their website or get in touch with them.
      And no problem at all! We’re always happy to help fellow motorcycle travellers.
      Thanks again for your kind words and all the best with your travels and adventures!
      Also, please do report back on here with your thoughts on the device if you decide to go for it. Would be interesting to hear how you get on.
      Cheers
      Andy

      Reply
  6. Hi Andy & Alyssa, I’ve purchased the Zoleo and as you know am about to hit the road! I haven’t activated a subscription yet and was wondering which of the 3 different subscriptions you used while travelling. All the best for the rest of the US. 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Ray, good to hear from you! Yes, not long now for you! We’re very excited to see you start your trip 🙂
      Great news to hear you got the Zoleo. We’re on the Basic plan, but may switch it up to In Touch if needed. But for now the Basic is more than enough as we don’t need to send that many satellite messages. Hope this helps!
      Cheers,
      Andy

      Reply
      • Thanks Andy.

        I was leaning toward the basic plan but just wanted to check i wasn’t being too tight! can’t wait to follow you & Alyssa through the US & South America!

        Cheers,

        Ray

        Reply
        • No worries Ray, yeah, start with the Basic if that suits your needs and you don’t need to send many messages with the device per month and see how you get on. You can always just switch your plan at a later date if needed. Best of luck on your adventures! And thank you very much!
          Andy

          Reply
  7. I’ll do that Andy, not withstanding any unforseen circumstances, I’m away June to August so will report back to you then. Bye for now! 🏍

    Ali

    Reply

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