One of the basic tenants of safe outdoor recreation is always taking a buddy with you. For multiple reasons, I have, over the years, ignored this advice and ventured into the wilderness by myself.
When I was younger and unattached, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal and I would leave for weeks on end with no way to ask for help if it was needed and no one to look for me if I didn’t come back.
As I have grown older, gotten married, and had kids, I still go out by myself but I have felt the need to narrow the safety margins.
One of the ways I have done that is to take a satellite communication device with me. Not only for my peace of mind but also for the peace of mind of my very patient and long-suffering wife.
I find the Zoleo to be an effective and lightweight communication device when there is no cell coverage. The device is easy to set up and use and provides peace of mind on trips into the wild.
I bought my Zoleo device about a year and a half ago, and I paid for the subscription. Since then, I have used the device on any trip that takes me out of cell coverage.
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The device is small and lightweight and comes with 3 buttons and 4 lights. The buttons include an on/off switch, a check-in button, and an SOS button.
The device is tough and I have seen no significant issues with it over the past year and a half, and I am pretty tough on gear.
Its shape is convenient for storage and there are no awkward antennas or other weird angles to get in the way.
I routinely put it in a small pocket of my running pack and forgot that it was there. In fact, one day I brought it to work in my front pocket and accidentally carried it there all day without realizing it.
Zoleo claims 200 hours of battery life and I have no evidence to contradict that. I have taken it on week-long trips, and it had plenty of battery life at the end. I don’t usually leave it on the whole time, which helps me conserve energy.
Several things will take away from the battery life. Using it to track your location every 6 minutes will drain the battery much faster. Another thing to note is that the more the device communicates with your phone, the faster your phone battery will run down.
Charging is simple and fast using a micro-USB cable.
The Zoleo uses the Iridium satellite constellation. It consists of 66 low-orbit satellites. Iridium is the most trusted communication satellite, and its website states that they cover the whole earth, including the poles.
While the satellites cover everywhere, it should be noted that there are certain places where they will not work due to U.S. embargos. So, if you are planning a backpacking trip to North Korea or Iran, you are out of luck.
In my experience, the satellite coverage has been good, and I have not had any problems connecting my device. For the most part, the signal has been strong, and I have not had any issues sending or receiving messages while in the field.
The app will tell you how strong the connection is, and there are several things you can do to improve the connection.
The device should be used face up. Even though I am sure that it doesn’t actually help, it always makes me feel better to hold it over my head.
In all seriousness, the device should have a clear view of the sky. Trees and tall cliffs can interfere with the signal. Also, it should go without saying that it works better clipped to the outside of the pack and not shoved in the bottom.
I will be honest, I don’t remember all of the details since it was a year and a half ago. I am not the most technically proficient person in the world, but the process was easy to do. It does require that you download the app and connect the app to the Zoleo device using Bluetooth.
While setting it up, you are prompted to input several emergency contacts. These are the contacts that will be notified in case of an emergency, receive check-ins, and can track the optional bread crumb trail.
The device will also be issued a phone number. You will get an e-mail address to use in conjunction with the device. The phone number can be given out like any other so that people can contact you through the device.
My only piece of advice is to send a practice message before a trip into the backcountry. It is also essential to put your phone into airplane mode to force the device to use the satellite.
My first attempt to send a message on a trip was unsuccessful, and I had to tweak some settings when I got back into service to make it work. Since then, I have not had any problems.
Messaging is where this device shines. The Zoleo PR team touts the seamless nature of the messaging experience, and in my experience, it’s not far off. To use the device as a messaging tool you must download the app. The functionality is very limited without it.
Once in the app, you can import all of your contacts, plus input any number or e-mail to message. Messages are limited to 160 characters for text messages and 200 for e-mails. If, however, you are messaging someone else with the Zoleo app, the number of characters allowed goes up significantly.
Now to the seamless part. You can send messages via cellular, Wi-Fi, and satellite through the app.
For example, say you are hiking or driving through an area that goes in and out of cellular coverage. You will send and receive messages from the most convenient source on the same app. The app prioritizes cellular and Wi-Fi only reverting to satellite when nothing else is available.
This is important because each message sent over satellite counts against you. Messages over Wi-Fi and cellular don’t count and are unlimited. This will make more sense later on when we talk about the subscription.
While this works pretty seamlessly, it is not quite the same as messaging on your phone. While in the backcountry using satellite coverage, the messaging has some lag time. This depends on how good of a satellite connection you have.
Also, the device itself has a window in which it will look for incoming messages. If you are expecting a message, you can force it to look, but otherwise it checks every 8 minutes for you.
Zoleo can send a check-in message. The message is canned and unchangeable. The check-in message will also send a GPS location to the recipient with a link to a map so that the person that receives the message can see where you are. The map feature can be turned off if you don’t want anyone to know your location.
This is one area of the experience that I think could be better. It would be nice to be able to customize the message beforehand. The other thing to remember is that the message goes to the preprogrammed contact that you already inputted. You cannot change these contacts once you are in the field and out of cell coverage.
Tracking is a new function for Zoleo. For an extra $6 per month, you can leave a bread crumb trail for someone to follow back home. This is a check-in that you can schedule to happen every hour, half hour, 12 minutes, or 6 minutes.
These come to the recipients as text messages where they can open the map, and your preset contacts can check to see where you are. Each check-in is labeled 1 through however many there are.
I turned on this feature for a run that I did, and it seemed to work ok but did have some problems. The terrain that I was moving through was flat with no tree cover. I ran for about 6 hours and started at 1-hour intervals, then moved down to 30 minutes, then 12, then 6 throughout the run.
As you can see, points 2 and 3 are right on top of each other even though I was moving consistently for that hour. This seems to have resolved itself, and the rest looks reasonable. It should be noted that I had the device inside my pack despite the advice that I gave in this article.
To receive messages and access the map, the contact that you are sending these to needs to have the Zoleo app loaded on their phone.
For the most part, I am not a big fan of this feature due to several bad experiences that I had with another device years ago, but it is nice that they added it for those who want it. I turned it back off after my test. It just isn’t worth $6 per month to me.
Being able to call for help in the field is a huge advantage for solo travelers and groups alike and is one of the core features of the Zoleo device. Luckily, I have not had to use this feature myself.
The feature does seem easy to use and can be accessed from the device itself or the app. A flap well covers the SOS button on the device. In the time that I have carried the device, I have never had the flap come open or had an accidental SOS button push.
Once the SOS button is pressed, a message is sent to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC). This center is open 24/7 and can coordinate rescues in any part of the world where Zoleo works. Once again, if you are in the Gaza Strip or Chechnya, you are on your own.
Using the app opens two-way communications with the IERCC and updates your position every 6 minutes. Additionally, texts sent or received from the IERCC do not count against your monthly allotment.
Being able to communicate the type of emergency and the condition of the group is a great way to speed up rescue and make sure that the appropriate resources are sent. This is a great advantage to have over a one-way communication device.
Additionally, according to Zoleo’s website, the IERCC will contact at least one of your emergency contacts, tell them what is going on, and try to get whatever information they can to help with the rescue.
It sounds like they call the contacts randomly until they get an answer. It would be nice if I could order the contacts myself or prioritize them somehow.
One interesting side note is that, through IERCC’s website, you can schedule a practice SOS if you want. I have not done this, but it is available.
I hope that you never have to use the SOS button, but it is nice to know that it is there. But if you do have to use it, don’t worry. The SOS instructions are written on the back of the device itself. This would be handy in an emergency.
The Zoleo device can download a weather report for the area that you are in. Dark Sky powers the forecast.
It gives current conditions, what to expect in the next 12 hours in 2-hour increments, and a 5-day forecast.
I often forget about this feature and have not used it much over the past year and a half. It should be noted that each time you download a weather forecast, it costs you a message.
No Phone No Problem (Kind Of)
The Zoleo Satellite device is best used with the cell phone app. However, if your cell phone battery dies prematurely, don’t worry. You can still use the device, kind of.
While the device has no screen, there are several buttons and lights that give it some functionality. There are, in fact, exactly 2 messages that can be sent without a phone.
The first message is a check-in and the second is an SOS. It is nice to be able to tell someone that you are safe or call for help if needed. However, without a phone, it becomes a one-way message device as there is no way to receive a message.
The lights and tones on the device help tell if the message went through. There are various combinations, so it might be helpful to keep the handy guide that comes in the box until you have it figured out.
This functionality was a big selling point for me after a long day in the Pine Valley Mountains of Southern Utah when my cell phone died. For several reasons, I was about 5 hours late coming back from a day trip. This left my mom worried and my dad sitting at the trailhead for 5 hours waiting to pick me up.
I was worried that I would run into search and rescue around every corner. This could have been fixed with a device that could send an all-good without my phone.
Price and Plans
Note: All pricing mentioned below was accurate at the time of writing, but may change.
The device itself retails for $199.00, making it relatively inexpensive. However, it does have a $20.00 setup fee and then a monthly subscription. The plans are fairly straightforward to understand, and it depends on how much you plan on using the device.
The first plan is the basic plan for $20.00 per month. It comes with 25 messages, with each additional message costing 50 cents. Messages sent over Wi-Fi and cellular do not count against your 25 messages and are free.
The next plan up is called the In Touch plan and is $35.00 per month. It is more or less the same, except you get 250 messages a month.
The last plan is Unlimited and costs $50.00 per month. As you might have guessed, you get unlimited messages per month.
You can also buy more messages in a month for a set fee if you feel like you need more. The tracking service is an add-on fee of $6.00 per month for all plans.
Which Plan is Right for You?
Two things to consider as you decide which plan is right for you.
First, everything that comes in or out over satellite counts as a message. Whether it’s reports, texts going in, texts going out, or check-ins, they all count as a message. This can add up pretty fast. The only thing that doesn’t count is SOS messages back and forth with IERCC.
The second thing is that you can suspend your account any time you want for $4 a month. This makes the device dormant and unusable even for an SOS. But it allows you to keep your phone number and e-mail address, and you don’t have to pay the $20.00 setup fee when you restart the service.
I have the basic service, and it works well for me. I try not to send too many messages, and I have yet to go over them.
One of the things that I think is missing from the app is a way to track the number of messages that you are using. There is no way to know that you are running out of messages until Zoleo sends you a message asking if you want to buy more. A countdown widget on the app would be useful.
There is nothing worse than needing help and not being able to communicate. It is also no fun to be the one waiting at home for someone who is late and has no idea what is going on and cannot communicate with them.
The Zoleo Satellite Communication device is a great way to fill gaps where there is no cellular coverage.
I tend to overestimate my ability and underestimate how long things will take me. As a result, I am constantly getting home late from trips.
Having the Zoleo has provided peace of mind not only to myself but also to my patient wife. It has worked consistently and effectively for me, and I never go anywhere with spotty cellular coverage without it.
I highly recommend the Zoleo Satellite Communication device to anyone who regularly heads off into the wild.