Review: ZOLEO Satellite Communicator || Seamless messaging

The satellite messaging market only has two players: SPOT and Garmin, with the latter getting most of the market share. For a product that’s now so ubiquitous and high-dollar (largely because of the subscription revenue), I’d like to see more brands competing and innovating in this space.

Here’s a new one that’s worth consideration: the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator ($200, 5.3 oz), which debuted in January. It’s well priced, constructed, and engineered; and it offers a significantly improved messaging experience for both the owner and their contacts.

Review: ZOLEO Satellite Communicator

When the Garmin inReach Mini ($300, 3.5 oz) was released two years ago, it seemed like the holy grail: reliable two-way messaging, location-based weather forecasting, and functional GPS navigation in a palm-sized package. Sweet!

The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator is forty percent heavier and lacks any navigation features (which is fine — just use Gaia GPS), but outperforms the inReach in its core function: messaging.

The ZOLEO platform — comprised of the device and the app — offers seamless messaging across all connection methods. From the ZOLEO app, texts and emails can be sent using:

  • Cellular service, using a normal carrier like AT&T;
  • WiFi, like at home or a coffee shop; and,
  • Satellite, using the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator.

In comparison, an inReach owner uses at least two messaging apps (personally, Google Voice and Garmin Earthmate), often resulting in disjointed conversations and missed messages, especially for those who bounce regularly between the frontcountry and backcountry like thru-hikers, avid weekend warriors, international travelers, and residents of very rural areas.

Like the inReach devices, ZOLEO relies on the Iridium network, which offers true global coverage. While testing the ZOLEO, messages cleared the device within minutes.

The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator debuted in January. It’s a 5.5-ounce two-way satellite messenger that — when paired with the ZOLEO app — offers a more seamless messaging experience than other satellite messengers.

Key product specs

  • Two-way satellite messaging
  • Global coverage with the Iridium satellite network
  • 5.2 oz (150 g), with +0.3 oz for optional carabiner
  • $200 MSRP
  • Monthly service required ($20-$50 per month; or $4/month hold)

Device activation

Before taking ZOLEO into the field:

  • Register the device,
  • Select a service plan,
  • Download the ZOLEO app, and
  • Sync the device with your smartphone.

The ZOLEO website is well designed, in terms of both its aesthetics and intuitiveness, and I successfully sent my first message about thirty minutes after unboxing the device.

How to send messages

Messages can be sent directly with the ZOLEO unit, or using the ZOLEO smartphone app (which connects to the unit via Bluetooth).

From the device, two messages can be sent:

  • SOS, and
  • Check-in/Okay.

Notably, the unit does allow for location tracking, like on a 5- or 10-minute basis.

From the ZOLEO app, three types of messages can be sent:

  • SOS,
  • Check-in/Okay, and
  • Custom texts and emails.

SMS is capped at 160 characters; email, at 200. However, when the recipient also uses the ZOLEO app (which is free even without purchase), the cap is increased to 950 characters, or the equivalent of about six text messages.

How to receive messages

Each ZOLEO owner is given a dedicated phone number and email address. For example, the number for my demo unit was 804-616-35XX, and my email was [email protected].

I could give this information to my contacts, who could then send me messages through any device or platform — phone, desktop computer, inReach, or another ZOLEO.

This configuration is much simpler than the relatively complicated directions for sending messages to an inReach unit.

Seamless messaging

The ZOLEO app can be used to send texts and emails with a cellular, Wifi, or satellite connection, and is therefore equally functional in the frontcountry and backcountry. This prevents: having to “move” conversations to a different app, and missing messages that were sent to the wrong platform.

As an example, here is a seamless conversation I had with Dave, sent over both Wifi and satellite:

A quick conversation with friend Dave. The first three messages were sent using the Communicator; and the forth was over Wifi. I received his last message on Wifi, too.

The hardware

The 5.2-oz devices shares similar dimensions as a Canon ELPH camera (3.58 x 2.6 x 1.06 in), and lacks an awkwardly protruding antenna. It’s powered with a lithium-ion battery, and will last 200+ hours while checking for messages every 12 minutes. Operating temperature range is -4°F to 131°F.

The exterior is made of a rubberized plastic, and seems to offer a good balance of weight, durability, and grip. It’s shock-resistant, and dust- and water-resistant (IP68, MIL-STD 810G).

The unit does not have a screen. To convey activity, it instead relies on cheery beeps and four LED lights, which can blink or stay solid in green, amber, blue, and red. The beeps and lights are mostly intuitive, but until you have them memorized, pack the Quick Start Guide (or use the app).

The SOS button is well guarded by a hinged door. An accidental depressing of the SOS button is unlikely, though I’d be comforted if its snap closure required more force to open.

ZOLEO versus the competition

ZOLEO enters a market with just two other brands: SPOT and Garmin. SPOT offers the SPOT X (my review), which I wouldn’t recommend. Garmin’s inReach service is available in four devices, with my favorite being the inReach Mini (my preview) because it’s the lightest and least expensive option while still having all the functionality as the other units (assuming it’s paired to a smartphone).

How does the ZOLEO stack up against the Garmin inReach Mini?

Messaging: ZOLEO wins

The messaging reliability seems about the same between my inReach and the ZOLEO. Since they both use the Iridium network, this is what you’d expect.

Otherwise, the ZOLEO messaging experience is better in every way. For owners, the messaging is centralized (in the ZOLEO app), rather than being split between conventional messaging apps (when using cell service or Wifi) and the Garmin Earthmate app (when using the inReach). So conversations can be continuous, and no incoming messages are missed because they were sent to the app not use in use.

As an added perk, if your contacts send and recieve messages from you through the ZOLEO app (which is free), messages can contain up to 950 characters.

Extra functionality: inReach wins, maybe

The inReach devices offers GPS navigation, through the device itself (sometimes limited) and also in the Earthmate app. The ZOLEO completely omits this functionality. I think that’s fine, since I use Gaia GPS anyway.

ZOLEO also omits location tracking, whereas with Garmin it can be set to a specific frequently like every 10 minutes. As a hiker, I don’t particularly see the value in this service (as opposed to, say, a pilot or sea kayaker), but I know that some backpackers do use it.

Both devices have location-specific weather forecasting. Here is the screenshot from the ZOLEO app:

The device: inReach Mini wins

The inReach Mini has two advantages over ZOLEO. First, it’s 33 percent lighter, at just 3.5 ounces (versus 5.3 for ZOLEO).

Second, and more importantly, the Mini has a small screen that:

  • More clearly displays its status and any received messages; and,
  • Can be used to send messages, using its painfully slow virtual keyboard.

This latter use is probably rare, since the Mini will most often be tethered to a smartphone, but it’s a nice option to have “just in case.”

The single advantage of the ZOLEO is its $200 price, which is $100 less than the Mini. I tend not to put too much stock in the retail price of these units, however, since its lifetime cost is largely determined by the monthly service fees.

For size comparison: the DeLorme inReach Explorer (left), ZOLEO (center), and SPOT Gen3 (right).

Service plans: Toss up

Garmin currently offers three plans:

  • Safety: $144 per year, or $15 per month plus $25 annual fee;
  • Recreation: $300 pear year, or $35 per month plus $25 annual fee;
  • Expedition: $600 per year, or $65 per month plus $25 annual fee.

The Safety plan includes unlimited preset messages but only 10 custom messages ($0.50 per overage); tracking, location requests, weather forecasts are available but are charged a la carte. With the Expedition Plan, everything is essentially unlimited. Recreation is in between.

ZOLEO also has three plans:

  • Basic: $240 per year, or $20 per month;
  • In Touch: $420 per year, or $35 per month;
  • Unlimited: $600 per year, or $50 per month;
  • Month-to-month plans are charged a $4 per month hold fee, which is similar to Garmin’s $25 annual fee for its Freedom plans.

The Basic plan includes 25 messages total, including both standard check-in/Okay and custom. For anything beyond “just in case” use, the In Touch plan is more realistic — it includes 250 messages, or eight times more than Garmin’s mid-tier Recreation plan. Unlimited is the final option, and fairly named.

Leave a comment

  • What are your first impressions of ZOLEO?
  • What questions do you have about it?
  • How do you think it compares to existing satellite communicators like the inReach devices and SPOT X?

Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content

This website is supported by affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors like Amazon or REI, at no cost to the reader. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Posted in , on May 18, 2020


  1. Home Office desk guy on May 18, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    Thank you for researching.
    Solid review and quick to the point.

    • Bryan on October 8, 2020 at 7:11 am

      Andrew, you may have mentioned before but what are you using to recharge your phone and other electronic devices while on trail?

      • Andrew Skurka on October 12, 2020 at 11:51 pm

        Anker 10k portable battery bank

  2. langleybackcountry on May 18, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    A question:
    Did you get to compare battery life between the Garmins and this unit?

    A musing: Tethering
    Since it requires tethering to function at all beyond check-in and SOS, if you get in trouble you have to use the phone, whereas the InReach units have the ability to function independently. That is potentially extra demand on your phone battery and makes it more complicated to share the device (e.g., give it to someone else to cummunicate if your own phone is inacapacitated).

    • Andrew Skurka on May 18, 2020 at 1:56 pm

      On battery life, I think you’ll just have go on specs.

      Correct, the lack of device-level control creates some risks for unlikely but possible scenarios.

  3. seanranney on May 18, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    Thanks for the review, sounds great. Does the Zoleo offer tracking or is it just a messaging service?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 18, 2020 at 2:37 pm

      No tracking.

      Accidentally omitted that from the review, as it’s never a feature I use and wasn’t on my mind.

  4. Douche Packer on May 18, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    For those that aren’t interested in texting in the backcountry, check out the ACR resqlink PLB. I’ve never understood why people want to text so much while backpacking, that’s one of the things I enjoy leaving behind. Anyhow….
    Contrary to popular belief and the lack of their own advertising, it is capable of one-way texts and emails. The texts are pre-composed however, you can’t write on the fly. You can operate it without service fees, or if you want there is an option to pay a fee to be able to send as many texts and email as you like.
    The SOS signal is superior from what I’ve heard.

    • John Brown on May 18, 2020 at 10:41 pm

      Using a Personal Locator Beacon for SOS instead of a device with 2-way communication like the the inReach is borderline anti-social. If you trigger an SOS with a PLB, you are asking first responders to put themselves in harm’s way with zero information about the situation. With a 2-way communication device, you can provide first responders with additional details about the situation, so they know what they are getting into and what kind of response is required.

      • Douche P on August 25, 2020 at 8:58 am

        “anti-social” is a lil over the top, but rest assured John I’ll only use a PLB in a life or death situation when I can’t self rescue

    • James Johnston on May 19, 2020 at 5:36 am

      From what I have read online from many SAR people, I get the impression that 2 way messaging is a game changer. They can find out from you what the exact problem and urgency is, and mobilize a more appropriate response. In my mind, I imagine that “rattlesnake bite in the middle of nowhere and puking guts out” and “injured myself and can’t walk, but have shelter and food for a few days” might cause two very different responses.

  5. Bret on May 18, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    When you push the sos button does it have the same function as the inReach? Does it send out your location and have a service to start to talk to you, etc.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 18, 2020 at 3:19 pm

      Yes, you can communicate with emergency responders through the zoleo app.

  6. Michael Gillenwater on May 18, 2020 at 6:08 pm

    And there is already one other on the market. The Somewhere.

    The device is more expensive, but the basic plan appears a better deal (which is what I use). I got it as an early kick start stage, so was a good deal.

  7. James Johnston on May 19, 2020 at 5:31 am

    One thing I wonder: is the performance identical to Garmin for acquiring satellite signals? The inReach is painfully slow to acquire a GPS fix even with relatively clear skies, and takes forever in tree cover, near cliffs/hills, etc. Easy to dismiss and say “well, you just need line of sight.” Yet somehow, my phone invariably manages to get a position faster. Why is that? Can another device like this one do better?

    • Christopher on April 2, 2021 at 11:42 am

      There’s a recent video by the Blazin Bakers on their AT thru-hike in which they are standing on top of Max Patch under a perfectly clear sky and their Garmin Mini is telling them no signal move to somewhere with more open sky. Hilarious (unless of course they were having a real emergency).

  8. Phillip Ferrier on May 19, 2020 at 11:35 am

    Something we’ve been testing in my workplace is Everywhere Communications. They utilize the Garmin hardware, but update it with their software creating a more seamless messaging system and the ability to track multiple units. Might be something worth checking out for your guiding, etc:

  9. Dan Wayne on June 7, 2020 at 8:17 am

    I have both, inreach and Zoleo.
    Prefer the Zoleo and like to share why.
    The messages always work, even when unit is off.
    I can give a cell number that only family knows, and it will get messages to my phone, even when Zoleo is off.
    I see the Zoleo notification on my phone, I know it’s family, not some Chinese phone hacker trying to scam me, or a survey, etc 🙂

    • langleybackcountry on June 8, 2020 at 12:08 pm

      Can you explain what you mean by “when the Zoleo is off”? Unless I am really missing something, that is how it connects to a satellite, so your phone would not be able to receive messages from the satellite without it turned on.

      If you are in range for standard data you would continue to receive messages even if the Zoleo is turned off if you are not in airplane mode or have data turned off.

      • Andrew Skurka on June 8, 2020 at 1:03 pm

        Well the unit will not grab messages from satellites when it’s off, your messages will continue to come through the app delivered by Wi-Fi or cell service. And that’s the single biggest advantage of this platform, that the messaging experience is seamless whether you are in the backcountry or in the front country.

    • Padraic Hughes on September 15, 2020 at 12:15 pm

      HeyDan: I was wondering if you could provided a little more insight into the Zoleo.

      My partners and I are (among other things) first responders for SAR and EMS for a National Park. We are frequently out of cell service. We had hoped to use our InReach Mini’s to communicate with each other when Missions spooled up. So far this has not worked out well with the InReach. I was wondering how you thought the Zoleo would perform in the following context: SAR Member 1 is off-duty hiking out of cell range. SAR member 2 is on duty with radio and receives a Mission alert through the radio. SAR member 2 wants to use his Zoleo to contact SAR member 1 to alert them of the incident and where to respond.
      In essence, we are looking for Satellite paging and texting that actually works, which the InReach never seems to do.
      Thanks in advance for your time,

      • Andrew Skurka on September 15, 2020 at 2:20 pm

        Curious why the inreach has not worked for you. Inreach to unreach messaging is possible, and our guide teams use it regularly to communicate about what is happening in the field.

        The one major advantage of the zoleo is messaging happens seamlessly regardless of whether you’re in the front country or the back country. In the front country, the messages are coming through via cell or Wi-Fi; in that country, they’re coming through the zoleo. The person sending the message doesn’t need to know where the recipient is to get the message through. In contrast, if the recipient has it in reach, they’re probably not walking around town with it on, some messages sent to the inreach aren’t received.

      • Padraic Hughes on September 15, 2020 at 8:48 pm

        Thanks Andrew! I don’t know why the InReach does not work more reliably. None of us want to lug around Motorola 5000’s when we’re off duty, plus if we are out of the Park that doesn’t work either. We have had a busy season so we need a reliable solution. Thanks for all your excellent research and reviews.

  10. Jordan Tatar on June 13, 2020 at 10:07 pm

    I know you said you can not use it as a tracker and mentioned using Gaia Maps App in the review as the Zoleo does not have any navigation functions, but can you clarify on this? Looking for a product to take into the back country and use with the Gaia Map app but need a more reliable GPS receiver than the one in my phone. In addition I was hoping to use the product off shore/crossing the Atlantic while out of reception to keep in touch with loved ones while away for work. Would this suffice or could you or any others suggest another option that may be more advantageous?

    • Andrew Skurka on June 14, 2020 at 8:43 am

      If you want integrated messenger and GPS functionality, then you should look at Garmin inReach Explorer.

      If you want a messenger that can feed GPS information to your phone, then you could use the inReach Mini and your phone (with Earthmate app).

      If you’re okay with standalone messaging and GPS, then you could separately use the Zoleo or any inReach device (Mini recommended) and your phone (with Gaia).

  11. Bruce on July 12, 2020 at 7:24 am

    Thinking of getting Zoleo. With a mapping and tracking app like AllTrails on my phone, which is much easier to use than InReach/Earthmate, Zoleo seems a much better messaging device. Other than phone battery life, is there any disadvantage to this solution?

    • Andrew Skurka on July 13, 2020 at 12:48 am

      In addition to the extra demands on your phone (which is really not a big deal), you are also paying for a separate GPS nav app.

      Otherwise, I can’t see much downside.

  12. Tim C on July 21, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks for the well-structured and objective review Andrew. The Zoleo is intriguing, but there’s such a large community and eco-system around Garmin devices it’s tough to go with a newcomer. Do you have any feel for the timing of Garmin’s product cycles and if we might expect an updated mini any time soon? I think it’s been on the market two years now?

    • Andrew Skurka on July 24, 2020 at 10:12 pm

      I’m not aware of anything new from Garmin. Rumor is that we’ll see an updated SPOT before that.

    • Tim C on July 28, 2020 at 11:28 am

      So much for the Garmin ecosystem :-0

  13. Jeff Winkler on July 22, 2020 at 1:29 pm

    In you review you write “Notably, the unit does allow for location tracking, like on a 5- or 10-minute basis.” I can’t find any information in the user manual or online on this feature. The “check-in” feature includes GPS coordinates, so it’s bizarre to me that I can’t view my GPS coordinates through the app without using the “check-in” (and using up one of my paid satellite messages) nor use the GPS functionality in concert with a mapping app. Can you please elaborate? Thanks much.

  14. S on August 26, 2020 at 7:52 pm

    I found one issue that affects both InReach and Zoleo:

    Currently both use DarkSky for weather reports. DarkSky was recently acquired by Apple, and they immediately stopped supporting Android.

    At the moment it is not clear what will happen in the future, but InReach and Zoleo might have to switch to another weather provider.

    That weather provider might be worse than DarkSky.

    Personally, I do not trust DarkSky for weather reports. They seem to work ok in cities, but I have seen a few times that their model was way off in the mountains.

    Others have noticed this as well:

    Their models change all of the time, and maybe DarkSky fixed their issues, but how would we know?
    All the other weather models are permanently benchmarked against each other, but DarkSky’s models are opaque. I would not trust them with my life.

    I very much prefer Windy and Meteoblue. The ECMWF weather forecast is the best for mountain weather and tends to be superior to the NWS GFS weather model.

    If you haven’t checked out the Windy and Meteoblue apps, they are great. One of the best features are comparing multiple models (Windy) and the ensemble forecast (Meteoblue).
    For outdoor activities the ensemble forcast is a game changer as it allows to get an idea for the worst case.

    It’s a bit of a disappointment that Garmin and Zoleo cheaped out with a ‘hyperlocal’ city-weather provider, and not with a service that is trusted by mountaineers.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 31, 2020 at 7:53 am

      The timing of your comment is excellent. I just returned from two 7-day trips in the San Juan’s in southwestern Colorado, and the weather forecasts that clients were pulling on their inReach devices were utterly useless and inaccurate. On the second trip, it rained on us for four of the seven days, sometimes very hard, and I don’t think the forecast ever reported more than 20% chance of precip.

      Thankfully we had checked NWS point forecasts before we left, so we knew moisture was coming our way and were prepared for it.

      Also, I have been using inReach long enough to remember when weather forecasts were not part of their subscription packages, which prompted the creation of a workaround, WX2InReach, This handy little script pulls US forecast data provided by the NWS National Digital Forecast Database web service.

  15. Paul Van Camp on September 16, 2020 at 11:59 am

    Do messages sent from the Zoleo include embedded GPS location info so that the recipient can click on it and see on a map service (gogle maps or something comparable to Earthmate) where it was sent from exactly?

  16. slo on October 23, 2020 at 10:45 pm

    In my opinion, as far as pricing goes, the price of the device is irrelevant. There is such a difference in plan costs that when looking at total cost of ownership, the plan cost is the biggest if not only factor. I build a spreadsheet comparing costs of all platforms. I even have a formula that allows you to input how many months of use you estimate per year (or having the plan paused) and how many years you want to calculate out to. In almost every case (for the basic plans) the Zoleo is the most expensive and continues getting more expensive year after year.

    • Eric Carlson on October 26, 2020 at 4:27 am

      How many years do you expect to get out of these SLO (Mustang?)? In my estimation, the $100 savings does go away after year 5 or so, but communication ease via SMS and/or email with Zoleo sounds to be far superior. My engineering take, minus my XLS, is that Zoleo will come
      around to tracking via this device and for no more $.

    • Andy Farquhar on January 12, 2023 at 4:09 pm

      You can get an add-on subscription service (for $6/month) for “Location Share” which allows friends and family to locate and track you on their app.

  17. Freddy on November 23, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Hi Andrew, I noticed you said the zoleo has no navigation , but you are able to navigate using the Gaia gps app. Likewise, can someone use the Google maps app to gauge their location on a map with Zoleo?

  18. john on January 23, 2021 at 10:37 am

    Hi Andrew,

    Are you planning, at any point, to review the somewear or the bivystick?

    thank for all the good stuff,


    • Andrew Skurka on January 23, 2021 at 10:45 am

      I have the Somewear, and don’t find it as compelling as the Zoleo or the inReach Mini.

      Versus the Zoleo, the device is even less capable and intuitive. Specifically, it does not have an on-board OK button, and it has just one white LED light (versus the multiple lights and colors of the Zoleo, which give you some sense of what’s going on, not as good as a screen but better than just one LED white light). Also, the messaging app and setup is not as good. No dedicated number or email address, and no option of 900 characters per text if the recipient also has the app.

      Versus the inReach Mini, the Somewear is larger and heavier, does not have a screen, and has no standalone functionality (like sending OK messages or very slowly typing out msgs on the virtual keyboard).

  19. Neal on February 5, 2021 at 11:56 am

    Do you like or use any solar power units to charge on longer trips?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 7, 2021 at 10:14 am

      Absolutely not. Portable battery banks like those from Anker and other brands are much more time-efficient and reliable. I’ve been using the Anker PowerCore 10000 for a few years now, and I’ve never depleted it on up to 7-day trips for recharging my phone, satellite communicator, and GPS watch.

      YMMV, but overall you’re better off reducing your power needs first before you decide that you need to pack in more power. For example, I can get 4-5 days of life out of my phone by putting it in airplane mode, using the GPS only for approved apps and only when they’re in use, and mostly relying on paper maps for navigation.

  20. Anthony Harlow on March 4, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    Hey Andrew! Any updates on this device in the back country and Do you still use it? I use and love Gaia GPS and CalTopo maps so I’m really leaning toward this device for ease of use and simplicity. Any new thoughts on it after using it more? Thanks

    • Andrew Skurka on March 4, 2021 at 12:38 pm

      My use period ended after writing the review, so I don’t have any long-term thoughts on it, sorry.

  21. Christopher on April 2, 2021 at 11:58 am

    My thought without owning a Zoleo is that as far as new AT thru-hikers are concerned more are carrying the Garmin Mini but would actually be happier with the Zoleo for what they are using the devices for. Both use the exact same satellite networks for SOS. More new hikers have the Garmin mainly because their impression from blogs and YouTube is its what everyone else uses so it must be best. However, since they are almost all using Guthooks for navigation anyway, and cell service is more available than you might think most places on trail (depending on your carrier), the seamless messaging with folks back home and other hikers would be a win. Garmin fans counter that Zoleo doesn’t have continuous tracking but seriously that’s a game changer? Not really for the vast majority, especially with (I believe) the Zoleo you can send a message to anyone at anytime with your GPS coordinates.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 2, 2021 at 2:30 pm

      Agreed. I think for anyone who is regularly back-and-forth between frontncountry and backcountry (thru-hikers being a textbook example), the seamless messaging of the Zoleo is a huge advantage.

      • Christopher on April 2, 2021 at 2:35 pm

        I plan on carrying a Zoleo on my upcoming NOBO Flip Flop thru hike and I’ll report back with my experience. 🙂

  22. Greg Janée on May 1, 2021 at 10:37 pm

    Hello Andrew, I recently tried out the inReach Mini on your Utah 1B trip, and I noticed that the guides were using inReach Minis, too. I’m curious how reliable you’ve found the message sending and receiving to be.

    On my trip I sent a dozen messages (the device confirmed that they had been sent), but none were actually delivered. Had I been backpacking alone my family would have been completely freaked. Mind you, I successfully sent multiple messages from this device before the trip. Oddly, when I returned I sent another message as a test, and it was successfully received… along with all the other unsent messages, as though there had been a blockage in the system somewhere.

    What’s particularly frustrating is Garmin’s unwillingness to investigate the problem. Their first response was that I wasn’t running the latest firmware, end of story. When I twisted their arm, they said the device wasn’t properly synced, ergo user error, end of story. Neither of those explanations accounts for why messages were successfully sent and received both before and after the trip, but not during the trip.

    Was I just unlucky here? Or is this a common occurrence?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 3, 2021 at 9:56 am

      Funny you mention this.

      During the Utah trips I was testing the Somewear Global Hotspot, which like the inReach Mini and the Zoleo uses the Iridium network. I was using it side-by-side against the inReach Mini, because that’s how the guide teams communicate in the field.

      The difference in message reliability was stark, leading me to thin that Garmin’s system is very flaky. With the Somewear, my experience was almost akin to a normal text conversation over cell or wifi — within seconds often, messages were going in and coming back. Meanwhile, messages sent by guides over inReach were taking hours to arrive, and sometimes would show up on the device but not sync to the app. Dave Eitemiller reported a similar issue without me even sharing my experience with him.

      • Anthony on May 3, 2021 at 10:19 am

        This is my main concern with Garmin…. reliability. I’ve had my Zoleo for about a month now and it has been flawless. The messaging couldn’t be easier and the app is pretty much idiot proof. I will do a more “Backcountry” test when I go to WV for the Dolly Sods trip with the Skurka crew. So excited for that trip! Will see how it holds up but so far I love it.

  23. Ryan K on May 31, 2021 at 8:38 pm

    Zoleo just added Location Sharing+. For an additional $6/month to whichever monthly plan you are using, you get unlimited check-in messages and pin drops every 6 minutes to 4 hours, with a map in the app that shows your up to 5 recipients a map tracking all your coordinates and time stamps.

    I had been planning to get an Inreach Mini for the past year, on the run up to hopefully a busy fully-vaxed summer 2021 hiking schedule, but the Zoleo’s dedicate number, fluid cell-to-satellite connection (I can often get a weak cell signal in the NH Whites where I hike), and ease with which my wife could track my movement on the Zoleo app, made me go ahead and purchase it today, last day of the $150 sale and free annual subscription to Gaia GPS. I think I would have needed the Recreation plan ($35) on Garmin minimum for the volume of location sharing I want, whereas I can use the Basic + Location Share plan ($26) on Zoleo, it will be cheaper over time as well.

    I tend to turn my phone off completely when I hike (I like a paper map and compass for nav) and only use GPS nav on the phone if I’m bushwacking or night hiking, so mainly I wanted a device and plan with unlimited automatic tracking for recipients, good battery life, and unlimited one-click “Still ok” messaging, for a good price. Hopefully Zoleo will be the right fit for me.

  24. Marcus on July 19, 2021 at 8:19 am

    I just have a comment on the Zoleo plan pricing. Your review seemed a bit lacking for details on it. Obviously it’s easy enough to go the Zoleo website to get details, but also the last bullet point is confusing. None of the 3 messaging plans have a $4 fee. The $4 fee is for suspending the plan. After the first 3 months of service, the subscription goes on a month to month plan. Users can switch between plans anytime (prorated fees apply), suspend the plan (this is the $4 fee option and no messages can be sent or received, but it keeps your number and email) or they can cancel their subscription and lose their number and email. Re-subscribing after this would change their number. Also a question about the Garmin. My friend has the In Reach mini and says that his number changes if he switches plans. It seems unlikely to me but is that true? I have the Zoleo and like it. It seems like his messaging was a little faster in the back country though. It takes about 1 minute for mine to send/check messages.

  25. Ray in Oregon on February 23, 2022 at 5:53 pm

    A couple of comments:
    1) Tracking is important. With Garmin tracking is useful for my family. They want to know where I am and if I’m unable to respond they can ping the location of my unit. Also this is good for parents of youth trips to follow along and see our progress. Does Zeleo’s pin drop have the same capability as Garmin’s tracking?
    2) Durability. Garmin units are ruggedly built and can probably withstand a drop or two. Any comment on the Zoleo unit’s durability? Also my Zeleo relies on my phone being functioning to deliver custom messages. My phone is way less rugged than the Garmin InReach which can send custom messages (slow but doable).
    3) Single point of failure.. if the phones goes (dead battery, breaks, etc.) then all custom messages stop with Zoleo. Communicating a change in plan, having to cut short a trip, and coordinating pick up couldn’t happen. Which was my first use case for Garmin in 2017 – it worked great to coordinate with our ride.

    I like the idea of seamless messaging but will hold out until Zoleo isn’t dependent on a separate phone.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 26, 2022 at 2:07 pm

      1. I’d disagree that tracking is important if you are on a backpacking trip. If you are flying a small airplane, packrafting across a fjord, or maybe even mountain biking, I can definitely see the value — because those activities are higher risk and have greater velocities. But walking on trails? I’m sure you can find a few reports of hikers who would have benefitted from having their messenger in tracking mode because something happened to them suddenly, but I can bet I can find *more* reports of hikers getting struck by lightning, so I think this is just such a low-odds use case that shouldn’t really drive the conversation.

      As far as sharing tracks with client families: Our program intentionally does NOT share our locations, because these devices (or the related systems) fail and I don’t want a family calling SAR on us because they don’t understand that. If we have an emergency, I inform the families that we’ll let them them known about it, and I’ve never received pushback on this.

      2. Specs on the Zoleo: IP68, dust- and water-resistant (to 1.5 m (4.9 ft) for 30 min); and shock-resistant, MIL-STD 810G. Specs on inReach: IPX7, no mention of shock resistance. I don’t know what these various ratings mean. I keep my messenger in a stuff sack inside my backpack, which is lined with a waterproof trash compactor bag.

      3. Phones can die, yes, and they’re the weak link in custom messages. But I’ve not experienced failure myself or had a client experience it, which adds up to about 2000 days with phones in the field. So, realistically, how big of a concern is this? I’d say not much. We create some redundancy in our systems by packing battery chargers and having more than one unit in the group (in our program, we run 2 guides with 8 or 10 clients, and each guide has a sat messenger so that they can split up). If the phone and backup systems all die, then just use the device itself to send Okay messages. Hopefully the emergency contact has been told about the limitations of the device and that they can deduce that you might not be getting any custom messages.


  26. Darin Jensen on February 27, 2022 at 6:47 pm

    I’ve had a Zoleo since it came out. I’ve also been an InReach user for many years and the Zoleo beats it hands down for my use cases. I haven’t touched the InReach since I started using the Zoleo. Before picking up my Zoleo I took an InReach mini to Antarctica and it worked about 70% of the time. Battery drained much faster than I expected and tracking (I was on a ship) seemed to inexplicably die every night around 2a. Much of my voyage is unfortunately undocumented as a result. The Zoleo is fast. I’ve never had it not send a message within 1-2 minutes. InReach is slow. A high percentage of messages for me took 10-15 minutes or longer to send. Zoleo is bigger for sure. But not too big. I take it everywhere. In the truck, on the trail, on planes, every trip overseas. I won’t leave home without it. The biggest problem for me with the InReach devices (besides the slow texting and intermittent battery life) is lack of dedicated mobile number for the device. I’m on call for work, and can now be reached as necessary via the device’s dedicated number. I don’t use the email functionality of the Zoleo but I have tested it and it works fine. I toy with the idea of moving all my work messaging to the Zoleo but until Zoleo will allow me to port my number to the device (currently not supported because Zoleo management chooses not to implement the functionality as advised to my by customer support). If I could port one of my business numbers to the Zoleo device I would do it in a heartbeat. I would even pay to do it. Also, Zoleo now offers tracking for an extra $6/month. I haven’t used it yet but will on my upcoming trips to Netherlands and Chile. Overall the device is amazing. As mentioned it must be used in conjunction with a mobile phone but find me anyone who goes anywhere these days without one. I never go anywhere without multiple charging units so worrying about the battery going dead on the Zoleo or my mobile isn’t really a concern. My wife took the Zoleo backpacking for 5 days and only turned it on to send me “I’m okay messages” and it came back with more than 75% charge. The device is solid and reliable. I highly recommend it to anyone, especially current InReach users.

    • Joe Risser on March 3, 2022 at 1:18 pm

      Darin, I just want to thank you for your thorough, very thoughtful post. I’m a physician researcher and wannabe nomad (gawd do I have to work hard to live like a vagabond for a week!) so have to be available 24/7 even off the grid.

      Your post gave me all the info I needed to choose between devices–special thanks for including while flying. Zoleo needs to hire you for marketing. You’re a great writer. I hope to read more from you.

      Thanks again,


  27. Dane Coffey on May 27, 2022 at 11:50 am

    Does messaging through the app allow you to send to more than one recipient at once (group messaging)? If so, how does that count toward your monthly message plan?

  28. Ray in Oregon on May 27, 2022 at 12:15 pm

    Section Hiker (Phil Werner) will be doing a review of the Zoleo in the near future. He’s much more of skeptic than most gear reviewers and I think less influenced by sponsorships.
    There is a love fest going on for Zoleo (fueled by Garmin’s’ poor performance in some areas). Garmin is big enough that they can and should fix the current issues with some of their equipment. I’m hoping they are getting the wake-up call by the emerging competition.
    I see can see Zoleo being a good option if you want/need to send lots of messages. However, its not a stand alone two way communication device. Take the phone out of the equation for any reason (lost, broken, dead battery and so on) then in the event of an emergency can only push the emergency button or send “checking in all is okay”. There is no means providing or receiving any additional instructions (nature of the incident, directions for care, etc.).
    I know that I’m posting on a backpacking forum and don’t have the trail miles that most people posting here do. I do have over 30 decades of military service, a couple decades of volunteering with the Boy Scouts and have seen things go wrong even in the best of circumstances.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 27, 2022 at 12:40 pm

      Are you saying that I’m being “influenced by sponsorships”? I hope you’re not.

      Also, your statement would suggest that you don’t really understand how most gear reviews work. Review sites make their money off of traffic and clicks, not positive reviews, hence the excessive use of “best” in many reviews, which is a popular search phrase. Section Hiker epitomizes this tactic.

      “Garmin’s poor performance in some areas” is not the reason I prefer the Zoleo. I prefer the Zoleo because it offers a better messaging experience. Specifically, (1) using its app, I can send messages over wifi, cell, and the Zoleo messenger, so my conversations are seamless when I’m going back and forth between frontcountry and backcountry; and (2) I can share a dedicated phone number and email address for people to contact me, which is far more intuitive than Garmin’s system.

      As with all devices, they are subject to failure, and it’s the user’s responsibility to educate their emergency contacts on the types of things that can go wrong. In my case, I’ve told my contacts that if they’re only getting “Okay” messages from my Zoleo, that likely means something has happened to my phone. Knock on wood, that’s not happened yet, as I’ve been able to successfully mitigate the risk by buying dirt- and water-resistant phones, using a protective phone case, and carrying a backup battery. And if/when it does, the odds are very small that I will have absolutely needed to read messages that were sent before I exited as scheduled. This scenario just strikes me as being both low odds and low consequence, and that type of risk tends not to bother me.

      Furthermore, if you are traveling with a group, you can connect multiple phones to the same Zoleo, per This would eliminate concerns about a phone breaking or being lost.

      • Tre on February 27, 2023 at 7:28 am

        Hey Andrew,
        Thank you for the great review. Now that the InReach Mini 2 is out, do you still prefer the Zoleo? I’m hiking the AT in 2024 and looking for a PLB. I want basic messaging functionality with low monthly service cost. Thanks, love that your reviews come from extensive real world experience.

        • Andrew Skurka on February 27, 2023 at 9:01 am

          Unless you are planning to do some backpacking this year, too, you seem a little ahead of yourself in already purchasing this type of device. If I didn’t need one of these until 2024, I’d wait to see what else might come out. Now that Garmin has invaded Zoleo’s space with seamless messaging, it seems like Zoleo will have to respond. Or maybe another company like Bivy Stick or Somewear.

          If you need a device now, your best options are the Zoleo or inReach Mini 2. Both offer seamless messaging across satellite, wifi, and cell, which will be extremely convenient on something like an AT thru-hike where you’re constantly in-and-out of coverage. The Zoleo strikes me as the more thought-out package; Garmin had to react to Zoleo, and unfortunately did that my releasing a THIRD app for its Mini line (as if two apps wasn’t bad enough). But the Mini is smaller and lighter, and is more functional as a standalone device (in the extremely rare instance that your phone goes down, you can still read messages and respond very slowly by using its virtual keyboard).

          • Tre on February 27, 2023 at 9:11 am

            Thank you for the quick reply. I am planning on hiking this year, but it’s a relatively short hike (96 mile Lone Star Trail). I’d like to have it then, but it’s not imperative. I think I will go ahead and wait per your advice. One or both of them may go on sale and that would be a plus as well. 👌

          • CHRISTOPHER MARSHBURN on February 27, 2023 at 11:54 am

            This new device from Motorola looks very compelling. Half the weight and half the price of the Zoleo, service plan of $5 a month. Weatherproof. Coming April of this year.

          • James Johnston on February 27, 2023 at 10:48 pm

            I wouldn’t be _at all surprised_ if in another year or two, there are a number of different phones on the market with built-in satellite capability of some type, as well as seamless integration with multiple existing phone carriers (i.e. SMS texting using your existing cell phone number). T-mobile is already working on it:

            TL;DR cheap reusable SpaceX rocket launches and cheap mass-produced LEO satellites are an underestimated game changer in launching orders of magnitude more bandwidth into orbit. Forget merely having texting capability: I’d predict that we’ll very soon be having conversations about the merits of people routinely carrying on phone conversations & streaming music in the middle of the wilderness, which will no longer be a giant “dead zone” of coverage.

            Products like Garmin inReach at this point have a short shelf life IMHO; they’ll be completely obsolete very quickly.

          • Tre on February 28, 2023 at 6:55 am

            Looks like you’re right. I just saw that ad on the new Motorola device that’s coming out soon. Might be worth a look at that!

  29. Fast Eddy on June 28, 2022 at 10:18 am

    I’m a Whitewater Expedition Rafter, nearing 65, and an overall satisfied Zoleo user for 2+ years. There are several items listed below that need improving and for those considering might be important in their decision on which devices; IMO.

    With being older comes hearing loss for a lot of older boaters. Zoleo uses high-pitched tones, can’t hear them without holding it to my ear. This means I (and most of my older guy friends) don’t hear alerts without a phone connected with the alert ringer set high. this is annoying when in a remote peaceful area. This results in charging the phone 1-2 times in a 7-day trip. Would prefer to turn my phone on only when Zoleo alerts me. I’ve asked Zoleo to consider lower and louder tones. Not sure about the InReach available tones.

    InReach Mini. found that if my InReach mini friends don’t sign you up they cant receive my texts. This has to be done when the internet is available. It was critical on a recent trip where my InReach friends were meeting us halfway down the river. Had to text his wife who then relay texted his InReach unit. Zoleo allows anyone with a cell phone to text or email to your Zoleo account. Non-Zoleo app users are limited to 160 characters If you download the Zoleo App (no charge) you can message up to 1047 characters.

    Zoleo Group Msg is not available. Would be convenient. We were trying to get river levels when an unexpected rise hit. We sent three different contacts requests on the levels. If it had been in a group message everyone could see that 1 or all responded. Instead, sent three out, three back and three thank you’s for a total of nine messages that add up quickly on the basic plan.

    Zoleo has several icons with no legend. Have asked them to include on their Settings (where other functions are accessible). If you are new to Zoleo it takes time to understand all the icons and when remote you cant simply google them. Asked Zoleo to consider it in future releases. I am building my own legend. It will require using my phone for the definitions.
    Weather reports are unreliable like most others have said. It’ll say 45% chance of Rain yet not list by the hour when that can occur. and the hourly can read well below that. Wind predictions have the same issue. This is important for next day planning to determine to leave early to avoid the rains or hang in camp later or layover a day. Heard Dark Sky is going away at the end of 2022. Hoping they go with Windy.

    Like the GPS location. it’s been helpful on a river we run that has multiple campsites along the way but is difficult to locate on the BLM maps. We’ve been verifying all the camps and pinning them with Zoleo. This has been very helpful on future trips as I mark them on the BLM charts with my notations. in order to transfer to a device at home, you have to send each location one at a time. Slow, but valuable.

    Appreciate this forum. It was good to read all the reviews and responses.

  30. Bigboy57 on July 2, 2022 at 8:37 am

    Is it possible to place an receive Phone calls with the Zoleo app, too? Or is it only possible to communicate by SMS and e-Mail?

    • Andrew Skurka on July 10, 2022 at 3:13 pm

      Only SMS and email.

  31. Wanderin Jack on July 15, 2022 at 7:02 pm

    So far I like the Zoleo over the in-reach and Zoleo could do a LOT of work on the instructions for setting up location share. This is a multi-step process and the instructions are not clear at all on their website.

  32. Gerrit Holl on August 17, 2022 at 3:42 pm

    Important restriction from the smallprint on the ZOLEO website at :

    ZOLEO will only accept credit cards with a billing address in the following countries: Canada, United States and its territories, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom

    Therefore, for most of the world, as of August 2022, ZOLEO is sadly not an option.

    This restriction would seem important enough that it could be more prominently stressed when comparing ZOLEO and InReach. I don’t know exactly where InReach has availability, but much more than ZOLEO for sure.

    • langleybackcountry on November 1, 2022 at 11:28 pm

      This isn’t a limit on where it can be used. It is a limit on where they will accept payment from.

  33. Jim Staters MD on October 28, 2022 at 12:00 pm

    Andrew thanks for your excellent reviews;

    Zoleo app does not work in horizontal [aligned w keyboard] on Ipad Pro. Maybe Not an issue for backpacker, climber or sailor that don’t carry ipad.

    But it is an issue in S&R & disaster management. Having 950 character messages is awesome feature, limited by lack of rotation on Ipad Pro that could be used at a Casualty Collection Point [CCP] in a disaster. During a disaster [victims outnumber rescuers] [rapid evaluation and triage is essential] Gathering lots of data while patients are conscious, like allergies, meds, is critical during transfer to facilities outside of disaster area. If pt deteriorates and is less alert during transfer the data collected prior is essential. I don’t understand Zoleo’s reluctance to bring their app up to standards where all the rest of apps rotate to facilitate alignment w ipad pro keyboard. Zoleo is wasting their 950 character asset-otherwise its good system.

    • langleybackcountry on November 1, 2022 at 11:23 pm

      I don’t think it is intended as a disaster management tool. It is intended for hikers as a personal communication device. SAR will have their own tools.

      • Jim States on November 2, 2022 at 4:33 pm

        I’ve been involved in both S&R and now Disaster Management. Zoleo has already being implemented as one of the layers of communication in Disaster Management, as well as in EMS in some areas of W WA. It does not replace HAM or other comms. Its been tested for the last year by our local wild land fire team & when they get resources they will purchase more.

        Also S&R for a few individuals is different than disaster w many victims – that is different from a catastrophe w loss of many victims & major loss of infrastructure [communications-water-sewer-power] as predicted for both Wa & Or -during the Cascadia Subduction zone EQ. The market tends to decide what innovation in intended for what. In any event Zoleo has tremendous potential in disaster management as well as emergency management & S&R, w the one drawback mentioned previously. Zoleo has minimal Power requirements, size, cost, need for local infrastructure. It even has some advantages to sat phones during disaster management – [another topic]. We will also be using Zoleo texts messaging data, from field to Incident command [many to one] to assess disaster damage & pair needs w resources. the text data will be used to simplify early FEMA billing

        • James Johnston on November 6, 2022 at 8:12 pm

          One question I would have for any of these consumer-grade products being used for disaster management is prioritization: will first responders using these products get crowded out by all the consumers who suddenly start using these devices?

          (Personally, as one of those normal consumers, I own an inReach and while I hope it will be useful during a disaster, I do not have full confidence it will be highly functional and responsive due to network congestion.)

      • Jim States on November 2, 2022 at 4:35 pm

        Zoleo has already being implemented as one of the layers of communication in Disaster Management, as well as in EMS in some areas of W WA. It does not replace HAM or other comms.

  34. Ryan K on February 28, 2023 at 7:49 am

    I got the Zoleo 2 years ago and it has already paid for itself in my wife’s peace of mind being able to track my breadcrumb route on the app during my various summer trips the last 2 summers. And being able to have one text thread with her on my phone, as I go in and out of cell service. I know lighter, fancier stuff like Motorola is going to come out every year, but I will stick with what I have for a while (maybe Zoleo will have to reduce their monthly charge to be more competitive? Although I think $26/mo in-season and $4/mo off-season is not bad). But I don’t need to be an early adopter. Maybe when I next have to replace my phone which won’t be for a while, that they will have built-in satellite connections at that point – here’s hoping.

  35. Darin on February 28, 2023 at 7:50 am

    The Motorola Defy looks cool. But, one website said everyone must download the app to be able to message (senders AND receivers). With ZOLEO I can simply text people and they can reply without having to download an app. This is huge. Also, the initial descriptions I read about this device don’t mention having a dedicated device number. For my use case I need a dedicated number where clients can reach me. This is what originally lead me away from the InReach devices.

  36. Langleybackcountry on February 28, 2023 at 8:09 am

    I would also like to learn more about the
    “SOS emergency service, provided by FocusPoint International.”

  37. Jim States MD on February 28, 2023 at 10:17 am

    During an emergency (usually more rescuers than victims) Zoleo will work well as others said & having dedicated Zoleo number & email makes it easier for sender & receiver.
    During disaster (more victims than resources) yes there will be more sat traffic, & individual calls for standard S&R will not take precedence as focus will be on helping most victims ASAP. Resources will be focused on communities, w sat text like zoleo, many of us think text will get thru when voice via any method will be problematic. We have 70 zoleos in one county for leadership (EMS, LE, PHealth, Medical. Incident command ‘s & even our WA DOT. I’m volunteer in Disaster Prep helping roll this out also to the two adjacent areas so will deploy many more & practice w them, we are working w Zoleo & Ocens to put a S&R layer on top of Zoleo to enable “many to one” & resources tracking now in early test stages)
    But this is an A Skurks site & I do not want to derail thread, just know what Andrew S teaches about trekking is the absolute best training for Disaster Prep, wish more individual hikers & communities could get the essence of what he teaches- Andrew thank you

  38. Jim States MD on February 28, 2023 at 10:19 am

    We have 70 zoleos in one county for leadership (EMS, LE, PHealth, Medical. Incident command ‘s & even our WA DOT. we are working w Zoleo & Ocens to put a S&R layer on top of Zoleo to enable “many to one” & resources tracking now in early test stages)
    But this is an A Skurks site & I do not want to derail thread, just know what Andrew S teaches about trekking is the absolute best training for Disaster Prep, wish more individual hikers & communities could get the essence of what he teaches- Andrew thank you

  39. DK on March 10, 2023 at 12:31 pm

    I am looking for a satellite Messenger device for an upcoming backpacking trip. Was set on the zoleo until I heard the new garmin inreach Messenger. Supposedly this device is quite comparable to the zoleo and includes some significant improvements when compared to previous garmin inreach models. For example, garmin claims the inreach Messenger comes with a new and improved messaging app, 3 allowed pre-set check in messages, and 28 days of battery life. Have you had a chance to see, use, or compare this device? Here is the link to garmin website

    I would also like to thank you for sharing your knowledge and recommendations.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 20, 2023 at 2:41 pm

      I’ve not used the Mini 2 or the new Messenger app.

      That I’m not inclined to test the Mini says something: I’m pretty happy with my Zoleo.

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