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In Depth Zoleo Satellite Communicator Review Guide

In-Depth ZOLEO Satellite Communicator Review & Guide

In This Guide
  • My Experience Using the ZOLEO in the Field
  • How the ZOLEO Works
  • Is the ZOLEO the Right Satellite Communicator for You?
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If you primarily use your smartphone as your outdoor navigation device, and are looking for satellite messaging and SOS when out of cell phone service (like with InReach), the ZOLEO is a great option. It’s a small box that you pair with your phone to send and receive messages over the Iridium satellite network. And the ZOLEO will automatically send over your phone’s data networks if they are available, saving you the cost of a satellite message. If your phone (or Bluetooth connection) dies, the ZOLEO will still function (SOS, check-ins, location sharing) by using buttons on the unit. It’s well thought out, rugged, and an effective tool.

If you find this guide helpful, you can help keep this site independent and ad-free by buying your ZOLEO using the links below (at no extra cost to you):
Latest Prices: Amazon | REI

A big thank you to ZOLEO, who sent me this unit to test. When I finished the test, I sent the unit back. This review isn’t sponsored or paid for in any way.

What is the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator?

Zoleo Comms Diagram
The ZOLEO can use the Iridium Satellite network to communicate when you dont have a cellular signal.

The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator is a small device that allows you to communicate worldwide (including in the backcountry) with no cellular service. Specifically you can:

Unlike the Garmin InReach devices, the ZOLEO does not have a screen, and is mainly designed to work when paired with your smartphone. It does have buttons on the unit to trigger an SOS, send an “I’m OK” message, and turn location sharing on and off. Also, unlike the InReach devices, the ZOLEO is designed to use your phone’s WiFi or cellular connections to send/receive when they are available, only using the (cost incurring) satellite network when there is no cellular data connection. That means that you’re potentially saving usage / money when your phone has a normal connection. I’ll talk more about the differences with InReach later in the guide.

Who is ZOLEO?

Zoleo Roadpost
ZOLEO is backed by a couple of solid satellite communications companies that normally operate in the B2B world, like Roadpost.

Given that you might have to use a ZOLEO to save your life, you might be wondering who’s backing the device and whether they are reputable. In this day and age, it’s easy enough to have a shiny new startup, spin a product up, and be gone tomorrow. You want to feel good about the service and those behind it.

The actual hardware is made by an Australian company founded in 2002 called Beam Communications. They build a wide range of satellite-based communications devices for consumers and professionals. Having used the unit in the backcountry, I can say that it’s solidly built and feels like professional-grade.

Roadpost Inc. is the other half of the equation. They’re the one’s who actually manage the devices and services. They’re Canadian, with offices there and in the USA. They’ve been around since 1991 and were one of the original partners on the DeLorme inReach, the first satellite communicator (which Garmin acquired). Today they manage not only the ZOLEO service but also satellite services for government and enterprise customers. Overall I’ve found the customer experience to be smooth, well thought out, and solid.

ZOLEO Satellite Communicator Video

Unit Walkthrough

Zoleo Size Comparison
The unit is roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes, and weighs 5oz, similar to the weight of a smartphone.
Zoleo Unit
On the top is the check-in button, which provides haptic feedback. On the left, the SOS button is covered. And the LEDs around the corners. I appreciate that the LED lights have the function they are indicating next to them. The general idea is that a green blink is good, amber is a problem, and red is an emergency.
Zoleo Tones Settings
In addition to the LEDs, the device has audible tones that you can configure or shut off. You can also change the brightness of the LED lights. Successful operations produce happy sounds; problems produce sad sounds.

If you are using a phone paired with the ZOLEO, you don’t need to decode the LEDs and tones, you can see all the statuses in plain English in the app.

Zoleo Power Button
There is a power button on the top of the unit, which you need to hold in for 3 seconds to power on and off. It also provides haptic feedback.
Zoleo Sos Button
The SOS button is located underneath a hard plastic cover that snaps shut. If you wanted some extra insurance against accidentally triggering it, you could easily put a small piece of electrical tape on it to hold the lid down.
Zoleo Usb Port
The unit charges with a Micro-USB port located under a rubberized flap. The flap is easy to lift and seals nicely into place when closed. The unit is IP68 rated, which means that it’s protected from water and dust. It’s fine to get rained on, and probably even fine in your pocket if submerged during a quick water crossing.
Zoleo Back
I appreciate that the back has instructions for setting and canceling an SOS call. That could be very helpful when in the field if using the phone isn’t practical.
Zoleo Attachment
On one end is a buckle that you can clip an included carabiner into. There is also a universal mounting kit, available at an extra cost,including a belt clip. I’ll show that in the unboxing later in the guide.

Your Phone: The Biggest Strength and Weakness

Zoleo Bluetooth Connection
The ZOLEO app, available for iOS and Android, is the key to getting the most out of the device. It connects to the phone using Bluetooth LE 4.1, which theoretically has a range of up to 50 m (164 ft), but is generally most effective within a much closer range.

A major plus is that you can use the ZOLEO in the field without a phone. The unit has buttons for SOS and “I’m Okay” right on the device, and you simply initiate either by the push of a button. But to set the phone up, see the weather report, and send and receive messages, you’ll have to use your smartphone. And that’s great, since most everyone has a smartphone these days anyway. So why build those systems into the device when they are already available on a device that’s probably already being used for photos, navigation, etc.?

Zoleo App Screens
Overall the app is clean, simple, and easy to use. In the time that I tested the ZOLEO I didn’t experience any random crashes or problems. The main screens are: messages, weather, SOS, and settings. The little icons in the upper right are buttons for location sharing settings, check-in, and compose a new message.

Now for the weakness. Most phones aren’t outdoor instruments. They’re designed to go to the beach, but not to necessarily fall and smash onto hard granite. And good luck using a touchscreen in heavy rain or with winter gloves on. That said, the majority of hikers probably don’t encounter these extreme conditions. I use my phone as a multi-tool in the outdoors all the time, and it is definitely much more durable than the models were even 2-3 years ago.

I think, for most people, using a smartphone in the outdoors will be fine, but just understand the implications of having your phone die. And know that using Bluetooth on will drain your phone battery about 1-4% extra per day (that’s a general statement that depends on your phone and app usage). Learn how to use airplane mode so that you don’t drain your battery. And consider getting a rugged case or rugged phone for your outdoor adventures. Most importantly for me, the ZOLEO was designed to allow SOS, location sharing, and check-in without a phone. So if your phone does die, you can still use the most important functions without a problem.

You can also use the ZOLEO with a tablet or any device that can download the ZOLEO app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.

ZOLEO Messaging

Zoleo With Phone
To send a message, you have to have your phone and ZOLEO on and connected via Bluetooth. I didn’t have any Bluetooth connection problems when firing up the app to send a message. It just worked. Photo ZOLEO

To leverage messaging on the ZOLEO, you have to have the unit paired with your phone, and you have to be inside the ZOLEO app. A big selling point of the ZOLEO is the seamless messaging between satellite, WiFi, and cellular, and it’s important to note that this seamless aspect only works when you are in the ZOLEO app. For example, you can’t text someone using your normal text app and have it go through the ZOLEO satellite. So it’s seamless within the app, which for most people, will only be something you use when you’re out in the field with the unit. It’s a good solution for someone out in the backcountry for a long time, like a thru-hiker. For them using one app for all communications for the duration of the trip makes a lot of sense. But for the casual backcountry hiker who just wants to let their family know that they are okay, it’s not a big advantage.

Here’s a nice table from ZOLEO that gives you the where’s and when’s of how each type of message is sent. Note that “internet” is the connection type when your phone has a WiFi and/or cellular data (LTE, 5G, 4G, etc.) connection.

Zoleo Comms Table

Another strong point of the ZOLEO is that you get a dedicated email address and cellular number. On the Garmin InReach, others can respond to your InReach if you text or email, but the number that they respond to changes periodically. With the ZOLEO, the number and email address always stay the same.

Sending a Message

Zoleo Messaging 9
To get access to all the features on the app, you’ll need to give the app permissions for notifications, contacts, and location. Not allowing access will disable some features.
Zoleo Message Send 1
Send a message by hitting this icon in the upper right on the messaging screen.
Zoleo Message Send 2
Choose the platform that you want to message to on the top, then select your contact. The app will ask for permissions to your contacts, which automatically gives it access to everyone in your contacts list. If you don’t give the app permission to access your contacts, you can only type in SMS numbers or email addresses to send to ad-hoc.

You can only send to one recipient at a time. Sending to multiple recipients is on the roadmap for the ZOLEO.

Zoleo Message Send 3
The message will automatically stop accepting characters when the character limit is reached.

The character limit for messages varies: 160 for SMS (text), 200+ for email (the length of the email address is a factor), and 1047 to another user on the ZOLEO app. Given those numbers, it makes sense to ask the people who you will regularly messaging to download the app. They do not need a ZOLEO communicator to use the app, they can just install the (free) app and communicate with you. And like other similar satellite communicators, you can’t send images along with your text messages. You can only send and receive text (which includes some emojis).

Zoleo Message Send 4
When you hit send, a status tray on the bottom of the screen appears. The tray tells you which medium (satellite or mobile data) is being used to send the message and it tries to send it immediately.
Zoleo Message Send 5
The recipient gets the message just like any other. Thye can reply to the message to respond. This is an example of what getting a text message from the ZOLEO looks like.
Zoleo Messaging 10
An email message is just basic text.

The ZOLEO will try to send your message for 5 days. If you can’t send via satellite and then you go back into internet range, it will fall back to that. If your message does not go through after 5 days, you will get a fail message.

Sharing Your Location With Messaging

Zoleo Message Send 6
Unlike InReach devices, the location is not automatically sent with a message. You need to tap the small location icon next to the message box, which instantly sends your location. The location message is separate from any text and counts as its own message.
Zoleo Message Send 7
Clicking on the message link from outside the ZOLEO app sends you to a Google Maps page for the location.
Zoleo Message Send 8
Clicking on a location link from within the app gives you a Mapbox map (inside the app).

Receiving Messages

Zoleo Messaging 11
You can tweak the message check settings to save your battery life. Always On keeps an active connection open; you should receive messages quickly and drain your battery quickly. It could be handy when in an emergency situation.
Zoleo Messaging 13
You can also manually check for messages by hitting the button on the bottom status tray in the app.
Zoleo Messaging 12
When your ZOLEO gets a new message, you will get an alert on your phone, an audible beep on the ZOLEO, and an LED status indicator.
Zoleo Messaging 14
Once you get a message, you can respond from the messages tab in the app. Chatting back and forth is the same as it is in any messaging app.

Check-In Messages

The check-in messages on the ZOLEO are basic but do the trick. They’re similar to SPOT’s “I’m Okay” check-in from the first days of satellite communicators. You can’t customize the message, but for practical use it really doesn’t matter. If you need to communicate something specific, you just use the ZOLEO messaging functionality with your phone. You can send a check-in every 90 seconds, which is more than adequate.

Zoleo Check In 1
You must set up your check-in recipients on the account page of the website. It doesn’t use the same contacts list as the messaging function. And you must set up the contacts and sync with the phone and device before going out. You can access a mobile-friendly version of this on your phone (when it has a data connection) and update it.
Zoleo Check In 2
Unlike regular messaging, which takes a separate message to send your location, check-ins can embed your location within the check-in. You can also disable the embedded location share.
Zoleo Check In 3
To send a check-in message, just hit the checkmark button on the messaging screen of the app. When you do, it will turn into a spinner (right) until the message is sent.
Zoleo Check In 4
You can also press the check-in button on the device to send one.
Zoleo Check In 5
When you get a check-in with location-enabled, there’s also a link to Google Maps embedded.
Zoleo Check In 6
The check-in message via email is a little more elaborate, and for some reason includes the device IMEI number.

Messaging Performance

The ZOLEO uses the Iridium satellite network, which is the same one that InReach and other services use (except SPOT, which uses Globalstar). I can say from using it for many years, the coverage is generally great and it works everywhere. I have friends who have used the Iridium (via InReach) in Antarctica and it’s solid. Here’s the real-time coverage map.

Zoleo Message Performance 1
The unit is designed to work best face-up, although it will work on its side.
Zoleo Message Performance 2
I found that if I placed it face-up in the brain (top pocket) of my pack, it worked great.

I tested the ZOLEO and InReach (on a GPSMAP 66i) side-by-side in a variety of environments, including rainforests and canyons, and the messages came through at pretty much the same time. That makes sense given they both use the Iridium network. The ZOLEO has a maximum transmit power of 1.5 watts, and the InReach has 1.6 watts. The majority of the time messages went through in 2-5 minutes, but sometimes up to 20 minutes later.

Have you heard of a PLB? It’s similar to a two-way communicator like the ZOLEO, but it’s only one-way and is set up exclusively for rescue. There is no subscription cost and they have a much higher transmit power of 5 watts. You can read about them here.

Weather Reports

Zoleo Weather
There’s an app tab on the bottom for weather. You get one screen of weather information. You get current conditions, 4 day forecast, and 10 hour forecast. You can’t click into any of the icons to drill down.

I appreciate the fact that the ZOLEO includes weather. The weather is powered by Dark Sky, which I found is fairly accurate in developed areas but less so in the mountains and micro-climates of the backcountry, where the standard NOAA forecasts seem to be better (that’s all purely anecdotal). The basic InReach forecast takes a different approach and offers a 48-Hour forecast reported 2-6 hour intervals. ZOLEO doesn’t offer any equivelent of the InReach premium (7 day) or marine forecast.

Like Garmin, ZOLEO will have to switch weather providers when the Dark Sky API closes down at the end of 2022.

SOS

Zoleo Sos
You can trigger an SOS from the app, as seen here, or by hitting the SOS button on the unit.

For me, having the included SOS capability in a satellite communicator is what it’s all about. Accidents happen, even to the most prepared people, so having a way to trigger the SOS on the device or through the app is great. If your phone is connected and you are managing the SOS through it, you will be able to have a two-way (text) conversation with the rescue coordinators at International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC). If your phone is not available and you just hit the SOS button on the unit, it will be more of a one-way exercise. The ZOLEO sends your current position (using the built-in GPS/GLONASS) with the SOS signal so that rescuers know exactly where you are. You can cancel the SOS at any time. And the SOS works worldwide.

For more about the SOS workflow and when to hit the SOS button, I highly recommend reading my article on when to hit SOS, which is based on recommendations from actual search and rescue organizations.

Even though Garmin acquired GEOS, who runs the IERCC, third-party communicators like ZOLEO are still able to use the service.

Zoleo Sos Contacts
Interestingly, before you can even use your ZOLEO, you must enter two SOS contacts into your online account page (which then gets synced to the device through the app). These two contacts will be notified by GEOS in case of an emergency and will be kept in the loop as events progress. Garmin InReach also requires two emergency contacts.

One of the neat things that I found on the ZOLEO website was the ability to test the SOS function with the IERCC. You have to fill out a form, schedule a time, and then test it out with them. You can see all the details here.

Location Sharing / Tracking

Location Sharing, called Location Share+ in the ZOLEO world, is a new feature that lets up to 5 contacts with the ZOLEO app follow your track when using the ZOLEO. The recipients must use the (free) ZOLEO app to view your location. Location Share+ is an add-on to your normal plan (more later), and you need to enable it to use this feature. It’s simple enough to set up and get going, and is a good value as a $6 add-on.

Zoleo Location Share 1
You can specify how often you want to location share. Unlike the InReach plans, you can pick any interval as long as you have the add-on.
Zoleo Location Share 2
You can also set the default share interval from the online dashboard. There’s also an option to lock the interval.
Zoleo Location Share 3
To start location sharing, tap this icon on the messaging tab.

You can also enable location sharing on the device by long pressing the check-in button for 3 seconds. Do the same thing to turn it off.

Zoleo Location Share 4
Then toggle location sharing on, along with any other settings that you’d like.
Zoleo Location Share 5
You can also download offline maps onto your phone if you’d like to see your location points on a map when out of cellphone range. The maps are from Mapbox Outdoors, which sources data from the Open Street Maps project. The trail coverage was decent for established trails in National Forests and Parks.
Zoleo Location Share 6
When a contact gets a location check-in, it’s in a list of lat/lon positions in the message thread (left). Clicking on a message brings up the map with the breadcrumb trail (right).

Interestingly enough, I had some times in which the ZOLEO couldn’t get my position from the onboard GPS & GLONASS positioning chip. When that was the case, a message was sent saying that the “location could not be determined.” It would be nice if the ZOLEO would have some logic to pull the position from the connected phone if the ZOLEO GPS fails. At the points when the ZOLEO could not get a position, my Garmin GPS units (Fenix 6x and GPSMAP 66i) both had a GPS fix.

ZOLEO Subscription Plans

Zoelo Plans
There are three tiers of plans, and the only thing you really pay for are satellite messages, which is simple enough.

Picking a subscription plan is simply a function of figuring out how many text messages that you want to send. For example, if you get the basic plan without the Location Share+ option, you can send 25 messages or check-ins. That means you could hike 5 times a month, and send 5 messages or check-ins each hike. I think for most folks that’s more than enough. If you hiked every weekend day, 8 times a month, you could send 3 messages or check-ins each hike, which again, seems reasonable. And if you add on the Location Share+ option, where check-ins are unlimited and included, you could easily get by with a basic plan.

Some notes on the plans:

So how does it stack up to an InReach plan? Well, they’re different and there’s a lot of ways to slice and dice it. I’ll compare the two in a section below, but in general I’d say that if you want to just send preset messages and allow for tracking, the basic InReach plan wins. If you like to write custom texts, the ZOLEO is the clear winner. And if you want to text a lot, the $35 ZOLEO plan for 250 messages is great. Another $15 ($50/month) gets you unlimited everything. For those in the backcountry a lot who just want to text without thinking about usage, I think it’s a good deal.

Battery Performance

Zoleo Charging
The ZOLEO charges with a standard Micro USB cable. It takes about 2 hours to completely charge it from zero. And you can leave it on when charging, which is handy if you want to charge it with a USB charger in your pack.

The battery performs well. It’s advertised at 200+ hours with message checks every 12 minutes. However, sending messages and check-ins will drain the battery more. The nice thing is that you can configure the settings to check less often and conserve battery.

Zoleo Check Intervals
Using the settings in the app you can customize how often the ZOLEO checks for new messages, and how often it will send out a location share.

Here’s what I saw during my testing:

I think these numbers are respectable and should do well on backpacking trips and thru-hikes. And if you want to get more out of it, you can always increase the check intervals and turn off location sharing.

Zoleo Power Check
Tapping the power button for a second will give you a battery status on the LEDs. Each LED is 25%. So when all 4 are lit like here, you’re between 75-100%.

ZOLEO Satellite Communicator vs InReach

Alright, so here’s the million-dollar question that everyone is probably asking: should I get a ZOLEO or InReach? Here’s what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of each. And since there a few flavors of InReach, I’ll use the InReach Mini as a comparison.

AreaZOLEOInReach
MessagingGoodGood
AppBestOkay
Location TrackingOkayWinner
Cost$200$350
PlansBest for TextingBetter Overall
NavigationNo Nav FunctionsWinner
Battery LifeWinnerOkay
Weight5oz3.5oz

I’d say for most day hikers or short-trip backpackers, having an InReach makes more sense. But for those who text often, use their phone as a primary navigation device, or those out for extended trips in the backcountry (like thru-hikers), the ZOLEO would be my pick.

ZOLEO vs the Others

Who Should Get the ZOLEO?

I think the ZOLEO is a great fit for:

I’d say go with a Garmin inReach if

If you find this guide helpful, you can help keep this site independent and ad-free by buying your ZOLEO using the links below (at no extra cost to you):
Latest Prices: Amazon | REI

ZOLEO Set Up Guide

Overall setting up the ZOLEO is much easier than the Garmin inReach units, which suffer set up hiccups more often than they should. Here’s how to se up your ZOLEO.

ZOLEO Unboxing

Zoleo Unboxing 1

Zoleo Unboxing 2

Zoleo Unboxing 3

ZOLEO Universal Mount Kit

Zoleo Unboxing 4

Zoleo Unboxing 5

ZOLEO Resources

Have an idea on how to make these guides better? Leave me your thoughts here..

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