Even if you are riding with a buddy and not on a solo adventure, carrying an emergency transmitter during your rides through remote territory can mean the difference between life and death. If something should go wrong and you’re not within range of a cell tower, well you just better hope the route is popular enough that someone comes along in the next few hours (or days).
There is another option though, carrying an emergency transmitter and this guide aims to help you chose the right one for you, covering the following topics:
- What’s wrong with just using my phone?
- What are emergency transmitters and how do they work?
- When to set off a distress signal and what happens next?
- Choosing an Emergency Transmitter
- Best Emergency Transmitters for ADV Riding
- Best Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
- Best Satellite Messengers
- Best Satellite Phones
Our pick of the bunch for ADV riding is the Garmin Inreach SE.
So what’s wrong with my phone?
Phones are extremely handy for both navigation and communication on ADV rides, but they are fragile, chew up battery and the nature of the riding we do means we tend to often be outside of phone reception. Your phone should be your primary communication device, but even though they are a decent investment, you should really always carry an emergency transmitter (ideally one each, but at least one per group).
What are they and how do they work?
Instead of relying on cell towers, which can be few and far between outside of urban areas and major highways, emergency transmitters utilise a network of satellites hovering above the Earth – much like the GPS locator on your phone. Having an emergency transmitter adds an extra margin of safety, allowing you to send a distress call to emergency services, text a friend to help out with non-life threatening problems, and letting family members know you’re okay so they don’t spend the whole ride worrying. The functionality of them varies, depending on the model, but the critical thing is that they send a distress signal out that can be received by emergency services to help com to your aid.
Before we get into choosing a emergency transmitter, it helps to understand the different types and how they work. There are three categories of transmitters that we will look at in this guide; Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), satellite messengers and satellite phones.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
PLBs are smaller land-based cousins of Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) used by boaters. Essentially the biggest differences between the two are size, flotation, battery life and transmission periods. Because of the vastness of the oceans, EPIRBs are a bit more heavy duty than PLBs, but they both essentially operate in the same way.
When you activate a PLB, it transmits a powerful distress signal that’s received by a global system of satellites. In the U.S., those distress signals are monitored by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
After receiving your transmission, the satellite system relays your distress call to a network of response agencies, which ultimately results in your plea for assistance reaching a local search and rescue organisation. PLBs also utilise another satellite network to get a location fix. In addition, most PLBs today can provide rescuers with GPS-provided coordinates to pinpoint your location even more precisely. A PLB with a strobe light can further aid rescuers when they search.
PLBs generally do not require a subscription, like satellite messengers, but they are required to be registered with local authorities, so that they have your details (medical, emergency contact, etc). They will technically work without this, but it’s not recommended and can only slow the response.
Also be careful buying PLBs from a merchant outside of your country of residence as while the devices work worldwide they are programmed specifically to each country and if you get one from a store overseas you will need to get it reprogrammed (which will cost you).
Key attributes of PLBs:
- Works in remote areas worldwide*
- Multiyear battery life (replacement requires sending it in)
- No subscription fees
- No ability to send messages home or cancel an SOS call
- Stronger signal than a satellite messenger (unobstructed view of sky works best)
- PLBs are the best choice if you want to avoid subscription fees and/or you’re solely interested in being able to send an SOS in an emergency
Satellite messengers are similar to PLBs in that they also allow you to send SOS distress signals from remote areas where phone coverage is sketchy or nonexistent. They’ve surpassed PLBs in popularity, though, because of additional features like the ability to exchange texts from home and to do GPS navigation.
Satellite messengers are devices that rely on GPS satellites for location information and commercial satellite networks for communication. Emergency distress signals are routed to the privately run GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center headquartered near Houston. The centre coordinates with local search and rescue agencies and can communicate with you via text as your emergency response progresses.
Key attributes of satellite messengers:
- Works worldwide, though coverage varies by brand (see note on
- Rechargeable batteries
- Requires a subscription (plans/fees vary widely)
- Can also send/receive non-emergency messages home (some only send them)
- Some models allow two-way texting to coordinate with rescuers after SOS calls; this also allows you to cancel an SOS call
- Unobstructed view of sky is needed for a good signal
- Offers a range of GPS navigation features, varying by model
- Choose a satellite messenger if you also want to be able to send messages to loved ones and/or are interested in additional features like navigation.
No technically an emergency transmitter like the the rest, but they are an alternative to raising a distress signal and more. All of the previous devices could send out SOS signals and text messages, but none allowed for voice conversation; that’s when we step into satellite phone territory.
Having a satellite phone can be useful in an emergency as you’ll be able to better explain the situation to responders. A quick conversation to let your loved ones know that you’re safe will make long tours much more pleasant too.
This all comes a cost though and satellite phones tend to be the most expensive option in terms of purchasing the device as well as the usage fees.
Key attributes of satellite phones:
- Can make voice calls, texts and SOS signal
- Works worldwide, though coverage varies by brand (see note on
- Rechargeable batteries
- Requires a subscription (plans/fees vary widely)
- Unobstructed view of sky is needed for a good signal
- Tend to be larger than satellite messengers and PLBs
- Offers a range of GPS navigation features, varying by model
- Choose a satellite phone if you need to be in regular communication with the outside world or need to make arrangements on the go, when you are travelling to remote areas.
When to set off a distress signal and what happens next?
Just like an 999/911/000 emergency call, a distress signal should only be sent when you’re in imminent danger of loss of life or limb, and when no means of self-rescue can get you to safety.
When you set off the SOS distress signal on a PLB or satellite messenger, the process varies slightly, but the end response is essentially the same.
Firstly, the message is received by the agency/company responsible for monitoring that device. They then pass on the details of your location and the person registered to the device to the local search and rescue service.
There are two very important points to note here:
- Responses will come from the local authorities in the country you are travelling in and the level of response will vary depending on the resources they have available.
- YOU are fully responsible for the cost of the rescue and this can get quickly get into the tens of thousands of $$££, depending on where you are. Find out how to reduce rescue costs.
Choosing an Emergency Transmitter
Choosing an emergency transmitter for ADV riding is a big decision and takes a bit of research. Emergency transmitters are complicated and expensive electronic devices that often also require relatively expensive data plans to function. Additionally, a lot of riders aren’t using one, so you may find that your buddies don’t know much about them. These are some of the most important factors to consider when buying an emergency transmitter for motorcycle touring.
The first question you need to ask yourself when choosing a transmitter is what do you need it to do? In its simplest (and cheapest) form, an emergency transmitter does nothing more than send out an SOS message, which can be attached to a set of coordinates using GPS satellites. Some PLBs fall into this category, including the ACR ResQLink+ below.
Using one of these bare-bones devices should give you just as much chance of rescue in dire circumstances, but it won’t give you the chance to explain the problem and you won’t know emergency personnel are on their way until they actually arrive.
If your need to notify family/friends of non-emergency situations that they could help with (minor accident, ran out of fuel, got a flat, etc) or send confirmation messages to let them know you’re safe, you will need to look at more sophisticated PLBs or satellite messengers and phones.
If you frequently need to communicate with the outside world from remote locations you will need to look at satellite phones, which allow you to have an actual conversation with family and emergency personnel. This can be incredibly useful for communicating the details of your emergency to rescuers who might come better prepared as a result.
Basic Personal Locator Beacons, like the the ACR ResQLink+ are the cheapest option for emergency transmitters, both in terms of the device cost and the cost to run. As they do not have a messaging functionality they do not require data plans, which all of the other options require.
Satellite messenger devices are generally more expensive to purchase and running them requires a subscription/account with the relevant service. These devices cost money to use and it’s a lot more than the calls and texts on your cell phone plan. The cheapest plans let you send out simple SMS messages (160 characters) for around ten cents each. If this is only used in an emergency or to let family members know that you’re okay each night, it should cost no more than a few dollars each trip. However, these plans are sold by the month and usually have some activation charges associated with them that can run between twenty and a hundred dollars, making them less economical for riders that don’t hit the back roads very often.
Satellite phones that permit voice calls and have access to the internet cost considerably more (both in device cost and ongoing use) as these functions use more of the very limited bandwidth on the satellites. Expect to pay some high upfront charges just to get the service and then a few dollars a minute to make calls or check GoogleMaps (one reason it pays to have offline maps stored on your phone or printed out).
Cost of Rescue
On extra thing to take into consideration is the cost of rescue. One of the benefits of the satellite messengers and phones in this list is that you can also add on what is essentially search and rescue insurance with GEOS Search and Rescue (SAR) Membership. PLBs are not compatable with this service.
Membership starts at around $18p/a to cover up to $50,000 USD in rescue costs and then prices go up depending on the level you would like to be covered for. This is cheap piece of mind. GEOS also offer MEDEVAC cover at reasonable rates too.
Emergency transmitters rely on satellites being within the device’s line of sight, so the most important consideration for any transmitter is simply having a view of the open sky. However, different manufacturers use different satellite networks to receive your messages and distress signal; some are better than others, depending on where you’re riding.
The three major satellite networks used by emergency transmitters are Globalstar, Inmarsat, Iridium, and COSPAS/SARSAT. Globalstar and Inmarsat are great if you’re riding in the U.S., but have poor functionality in more remote areas and at higher latitudes. However, if you’re using a transmitter with voice or data capability in North America, these networks are more reliable than the other two thanks to a more consistent orbit around the Earth. Iridium and COSPAS/SARSAT are much better for global adventures, with the latter one being a partnership between North America, Europa, and Russian using a network of 47 satellites.
While space can come at a premium on your bike, it’s usually not so scarce that something the size of a cell phone is going to be a problem. However, in a life-threatening emergency, a transmitter is only useful if you can reach it. It needs to remain accessible, so it’s best to get something that will fit in your jacket/pants pocket or attach to your person. Size varies across all of the devices, but satellite phones tend to be the bulkiest.
Ease of Use
Transmitters should be as simple as possible to operate, as your mind and body may not be in the best state in an emergency situation. Almost all of them have a one button SOS function that could be activated in seconds, but some of the more complicated ones have greater functionality that requires the user to scroll through various menus, type on a keyboard, and link the device with their smartphone to gain full use of the device. In the case of smartphone pairing, like the Bivystick or the SPOT Trace, you’ll need to make sure that you are practiced in paring the device and the both the transmitter and your phone are fully charged every time you ride.
Speaking of charging, it’s also important to look at the battery life of the transmitter. If your ride doesn’t have you returning to civilisation and electrical outlets, be sure that your device has enough juice to get you through the entire ride.
PLBs have internal batteries that last around 5 years (without use) and run for around 30 hours after being set off, so battery life is not much of an issue. If you do set them off (accidentally or on purpose) you will need to send the unit back to the manufacturer to get the battery replaced.
Satellite messengers burn through more energy and battery life depend on the device and the functionality. Many of the transmitters out there let you set shorter or longer intervals for tracking your location, with longer periods resulting in better battery life. Frequent texting will also drain the battery; so keep your check-ins to a minimum if you need the transmitter to last all week.
Satellite phones use the most amount of juice, but last around 30 hours on standby.
Best Emergency Transmitters for Adventure Motorcycle Touring
Best Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
ACR Electronics ResQLink PLB
The ACR ResQLink is the most affordable emergency transmitter in this this and is recommended as the bare minimum for an remote ADV ride.
It is small, hardy and one of the only PLBs on the market that you can set off with one hand, making it simple to use in the case of an accident. After you have registered the unit, when you need to activate it you simply extend the antenna and press the ON button. The battery should last around 5 years (without activation) and lasts around 30 hours once activated.
There are no subscription or ongoing fees and they are easy to register in North America, Australia and Europe.
There is also a buoyant version of this PLB, the ACR ResQLink +, which is the same price, but is bulkier than the non-buoyant (but still waterproof version), making it less appealing for ADV riding, but still an option if you also want to use it on your boat.
Best Satellite Messengers
Garmin InReach Explorer+ and InReach SE+
If you have a standalone GPS unit for ADV riding, there’s a good chance it’s made by Garmin, so it should come as no surprise that they’re also one of the leading manufacturers of emergency transmitters. The Garmin InReach SE+ and Explorer+ are two of the most reliable and well-functioning emergency transmitters on the market right now. Garmin also offer an InReach Mini, which we will review at a later date.
Let’s start off with the basics: the Garmin inReach SE and Explorer+ have all the same functionality that comes with the previously mentioned emergency transmitters (SOS and two-way messaging) but has a number of other great add-ons. They use the Iridium satellite network, which provides unparalleled coverage in remote areas. The SOS function automatically sends out your coordinates every ten minutes to emergency responders, which can be really useful if your initial position isn’t safe to remain in. They also have an on-screen keyboard that can be used to type out messages to responders or family members so it can be used without a smartphone, but if you have one available, both of these devices will link to is and it’s much faster to type on there.
The difference between the Garmin inReach SE+ and the inReach Explorer+ is that the latter includes topo maps and the waypoint marking features you would expect from any handheld GPS.
So what’s bad about the InReach SE+ and Explorer+? They’re all relatively expensive, costing a little more than the Bivystick. It’s not the most portable emergency transmitter on the market, which is to be expected for something that has a screen that you can plot a route on. All that extra functionality can burn through some battery too – it lasts a fraction of the time that Spot’s devices do, but still much longer than your cell phone.
Subscription plans are also not that cheap (£15 -£75 a month depending on usage), but where they different from SPOT is that you are able to pay for individual monthly blocks (£15 -£95 a month depending on usage), but more expensive per month than annual plans), meaning you only need to pay for the time you are using it, if you only need it for a certain trip.
If you already own a GPS unit or would prefer to keep your emergency transmitter just for emergency and communications (our preference) then the inReach SE+ is the way to go and our favoured device of the whole lot. If you would prefer a backup GPS and don’t mind forking out the extra cash, then the inReach Expolorer+, this combines everything you need for navigating and staying safe in remote areas.
SPOT has been one of the biggest players in the emergency transmitters market for years and it’s mostly due to them hitting a sweet spot between providing enough services and not being too expensive. It’s SOS mode alerts SPOT that you need rescuing, which they relay onto emergency services wherever you are.
The Gen3 also has a “Spot Assist” function, which notifies a friend or family member that you are in a non-emergency situation (flat tire, ran out of gas, keys fell down a ravine). Because it has no two-way functionality, you’ll need to settle on what the assist call will mean and an action plan for it before setting off on your adventure. A third function notifies your contacts back home that you’re okay, so they don’t worry that something happened to you and you were unable to reach your transmitter.
To use the SPOT Gen3 you’ll need a data package that costs around $200/year, which isn’t cheap if you’re only riding part of the year. That package provides tracking at set intervals (5-30min) that helps friends and family keep track of your adventure and includes “okay” message to let them know things are going well. You can also buy add on data packages that tracks your movements down to two and half minute intervals (useful for compiling a more accurate map of your adventure) and connects to vehicle services (similar to On-Star). The one downside to the Gen3’s data setup is that it uses the Globalstar satellite network, which just isn’t as reliable as Iridium or COSPAS/SARSAT.
At four ounces, the Gen3 is one of the smallest and most lightweight transmitters out there; you should have no trouble slipping its slender frame into a jacket or pants pocket. It also has a fantastic battery life of close to 150 hours, making it an excellent choice when electricity is hard to come by on your adventure. If you’re looking for a basic emergency transmitter that’s highly effective and won’t break the bank, the Gen3 is a fantastic option.
Spot’s X is a step up from the Gen3, building upon its relatively low-cost counterpart and adding two-way texting to its communication arsenal. Like the Gen3 it also offers SOS signaling, non-emergency assist messages, and “I’m okay” updates. However, the X has data plans for between twelve and fifteen dollars a month that come with 20 custom text messages, unlimited check-ins, SOS’s, and predefined messages. Plans with even more messages can be purchased for a bit more and are great for riders that like to stay in contact with several friends and family members during their tour.
While the Gen3 doesn’t have a screen, adding one was a necessity for sending and receiving texts, and it makes the X considerably bulkier. The X weighs 50% more than the Gen3 and looks like an old Blackberry cellphone complete with mini-keyboard. The larger screen and keyboard makes this one of the most intuitive devices to use, but it won’t effortlessly fit in your pockets. That’s the price to be paid for increased functionality though.
Like the Gen3, the Spot X relies on the Globalstar network to send out texts and alerts, which is great if you’re riding in North America where their satellites provide superior coverage, but not so good if you’re going abroad. As such, the Spot X serves a relatively small market: North American users that want an emergency transmitter that is capable of texting, but not calling.
Buy from USD$349
The Bivystick is a completely different take on the emergency transmitter concept, acting as a modem between your smartphone and the Iridium satellite network. Looking like an oversized and rather heavy (7 ounces) Pez dispenser, the Bivystick pairs with the Bivy app on your phone to provide SOS’s, two-way texting, and weather forecasts.
One of the first advantages for the Bivystick is the Iridium satellite network, which provides better coverage in remote territory, especially at high latitudes, compared to the Globalstar network that’s used by Spot. Bivystick’s biggest advantage comes in its data plan though; no contract is required and you can pick up a month of location shares and text messages for when you actually need them. If your rides don’t regularly take you out of cell range, this is one of the most affordable emergency transmitters you could get for motorcycle touring.
However, the biggest complaint you’ll probably find with the Bivystick is that it can be challenging to use. Not only do you need to go through a setup process (preferably at home, not at the beginning of the ride) to link the transmitter with your phone, but you also have to worry about keeping both the Bivystick and your smartphone in good working condition. The transmitters’ battery can last almost three weeks, so no worries about charging this one on the road. However, your phone’s battery comes nowhere close to that, so bring a power bank or map out some recharge points on your route.
Ultimately, the Bivystick is a relatively inexpensive option (though still more than the Spot Gen3 or X) that provides reliable functionality for riders wanting two-way texting in addition to an SOS transmitter. The rather flexible data plan makes it one of the better options for riders that don’t do too much remote travel but want to stay safe when they do. It does require a powered up cell phone to work, but most of us have one on all of our rides anyways.
Best Satellite Phones
Inmarsat Isatphone 2
As far as satellite phones go, the Isatphone 2 is a solid choice. While it’s pretty bulky compared to most emergency transmitters (it’s won’t easily fit in a jacket pocket), it’s slim as far as phones go. The Isatphone is also quite rugged, being mostly drop-proof and somewhat waterproof (don’t submerge it, but it will resist rain and splashes). It’s also very intuitive to use, working just like a non-smartphone, albeit with a button to send an SOS. However, typing out a message is just as difficult as it was in the T9 age of texting, but this should keep your texts short and sweet. Data plans for the satellite phone are quite a bit more expensive than the packages used for standard emergency transmitters, but you should be able to find one for around $100/month.
As with the transmitters using the Globalstar network, Inmarsat devices have excellent functionality when used in the United States, Canada, and more equatorial countries but can be less useful if you’re riding in remote locations overseas. All three of their satellites are located over the equator in a geosynchronous orbit (they don’t move in relation to the Earth). It’s a bit harder to get a lock on them, and above 70 degrees latitude they’re completely useless. That’s not a problem for most people, but it highlights Inmarsat’s geography difficulties. However, once a call is established, Inmarsat actually outperforms Iridium, as the satellites won’t be moving out of your line of sight as long as you remain still.
While the Isatphone 2 is a bit more expensive than the Garmin or Bivystick, it provides considerably more functionality as long as you’re willing to pay the extra cost for voice plans. Don’t expect it to have all the apps and data functions of a smartphone though; it only does calls and texts.
Iridium 9575 Extreme
If you need all the functionality of your smartphone when you’re riding through remote territory there’s no better option than the 9575 Extreme from Iridium. The 9575 can do just about everything your smartphone can: make calls, send text messages and emails, even look up your location and plan a route on GoogleMaps. All that functionality doesn’t come cheap though; Iridium’s data plans have a flat fee that is then supplemented with per kilobyte charges (yes, kilobytes!) of a dollar or more. Fortunately, text messages are only about 0.1 kilobyte in size. Voice calls are equally expensive costing a couple dollars per minute plus monthly access charges of $50 or more. None of that is to say that using an Iridium phone isn’t worth it though. Being able to call a friend to fix a malfunctioning bike costs less than towing would and having the ability to communicate with emergency responders is pretty much priceless.
All the functionality comes with some bulk though, so this device will probably need to go in a tank bag or maybe even a pannier. If you’ve been hurt or separated from your bike, this could be a problem. However, the 9575 Extreme is an excellent choice for riders that have a little more cash to spend and are frequently traveling in very remote areas. Other emergency transmitters will get the job done, but none provide the peace of mind that Iridium can.
You Can’t Afford to Not Have One
Many riders forgo an emergency transmitter on their ADV rides as they’re seen as expensive gadgets that never get any use. If you think about all the money you’ve spent on a bike, upgrades for it, and an assortment of riding gear though, they’re actually pretty cheap for something that could literally save your life. Having one with you should also cut down on the stress friends and family members feel when you’re out of communication for possibly days at a time.