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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Two way messaging via smartphone app.
- Dedicated personal Zoleo SMS number and email means others can initiate first contact with you (unlike some other devices which require you to message them first).
- SOS and check-in button on the device.
- Long battery life.
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.
- Two way messaging via the device.
- Can be used with or without a smartphone.
- Tracking, compass, weather reporting, navigation features.
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
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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7 thoughts on “Ultimate Guide: Emergency Satellite Devices for Motorcycle Travel”
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!
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?
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%!
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,
Sorry… Alissa! I’ve been spelling it wrong all these months. My apologies.
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 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,