Review of the Zoleo Satellite Communicator

A few months ago, I began planning a 3-day backpacking trip into the Dolly Sods Wilderness in Davis, WV, and I knew that cell phone coverage is extremely poor there. In fact, there’s only one area, in the upper northwest corner of that wilderness where you can actually hit a cellphone tower.

Now since I was traveling and hiking alone I thought it might be a good time to think about ways to communicate. I wanted a way to reach out to my wife and let her know that I was doing okay. And, I wanted a way to reach out if things went south for me and I needed help.  

There are a number of satellite communicators on the market and after doing some research on them I finally settled on the Zoleo. And today I want to talk about some of its pros and cons.   

The communicator itself is a very rugged, solid piece of equipment that feels like its coated in a rubbery covering of some sort. Itis of course waterproof.  It measures about 2 ½ inches wide by 3 ½ inches long. It comes with a small carabiner that you can strap on to your backpack or shoulder harness, because to use it, it needs a clear view of the sky. I’ll talk more about that later. 

The device has three hard buttons on it – a power button that turns it on and off – a check in button that allows you to send a pre-set message up to five people telling them that you’re okay – and if you lift the little door you will see a red SOS button, which if you hold and press for 3 seconds will send an SOS signal to your predetermined list of people as well as a distress message to local search and rescue. It’s kept under the little door so that the only way you can press it is by intention. Though, I do believe you can cancel the SOS by immediately holding it down for 5 seconds.  

The device also has a charging port for a micro USB connector. Now, why it doesn’t come with a USB-c port is a good question. Not only is the USB-c a faster charging connector, but it’s really the industry standard now. So, if you’re taking this in the back country you’ll need to carry with you a micro USB connector that you’re probably not going to be using for any other device.           

Let me talk about how this thing works.  You really have two options. You can carry this just as it is and use the hardware buttons on it, or you can download the Zoleo app on your phone, sync it to the communicator, and have access to a more robust list of features.   

Before you even use the device you would have to log into, set up an account, pick a subscription plan, and then set up your contacts. I’ll talk about the subscription plans here in a bit.  You can set up to 5 contacts as your check in contacts, which means when you hit the check in button on the device or app, that those five people will get a message saying that you’re okay and they will also get your location.       

So, lets say that you’re using the Zoleo communicator alone and it’s not synced to your phone. If you’re out in the backcountry and you want to send a message, letting your 5 contacts know that you’re okay, you just press the check-in button and the device will connect with the Iridium satellite network and send out your message.    

The preset message simply says, “I’m okay” and it gives your contacts your position on a map so they know where you are. And there’s no way to change that message. You can’t say, for example, “we’re okay,” or “I’m at camp.” It just says, “I’m okay.”      

If you get into trouble and you need to send a distress signal, you would just open the cover and press the SOS button and your SOS message will go out to your SOS contacts as well as local first responders.

Now, if you’re using the device alone you will have no way for anyone to reach you. The device does not allow you to read messages – only send them. So you can tell your contacts that you’re okay, and you can send an SOS, but no one can communicate with you.  However, if you sync it with your phone, you can do a lot more. 

By using the Zoleo app you can check in with your five contacts, and you can send custom text messages to anyone who has a phone number, not just your 5 check-in people. You can also use the app to check weather conditions in your area, and to send an SOS. And from what I understand, once you send an SOS, they will try to confirm via the app that you are in fact in distress, and they will try to communicate with you about what’s going on.  So, of course, I highly recommend syncing the device to your phone and using the app – but you don’t have to.      

Now, one of the selling points for me was that you can keep your phone in airplane mode to save battery while you’re out in the wilderness, and still use the app. That’s because airplane mode doesn’t necessarily turn off Bluetooth, and that’s how the device syncs with your phone.         

Now, let’s talk about pricing plans.  Zoleo offers three monthly subscription plans.  The Unlimited Plan is $50 per month and as the name suggests offers unlimited texting.  The In-Touch plans costs $35 per month and offers up to 250 messages, with each additional messages costing $.50 each, and the Basic plan costs $20 per month and allows up to 25 messages with each additional messages costing $.50 cents each.   

Also, to any of these plans you can add the Location Sharing feature for $6 per month. What that does is allow your check-in contacts to sort of track you on a map and watch your progress based on how often you’ve set the device to update. However, your contacts have to have the Zoleo app on their phones to do this. It only works if they have the app.     

Now, what’s really cool about the Zoelo, and this is what finally sold me –  is if you’re out in the backcountry and your device picks up a cell signal, it will send your message on the cell network and that message will not get counted toward your message plan. This happened to me just the other week I was camping in the woods in my rooftop tent and my phone was intermittently picking up one bar of cell service, and the Zoleo was sending and receiving text messages from that tower without charging me. Not all satellite communicators do that and so that’s a really cool feature.  On the app it will show you a little satellite icon, which tells you that it had to use the satellite. If the icon isn’t there, then that means it didn’t use the satellite network and that message wasn’t counted toward your total message plan.  I found that a really neat feature.  

Now, it has one more plan. Let’s say that you return from your trip and don’t plan on using the communicator for a few months. You can suspend your plan for $4 per month. That means your phone number is preserved and when you’re ready to use the device again you just pick a plan and you’re good to go.     

Okay, I want to talk about a few things with the Zoleo that either I didn’t like or I wish were different.

First, as I already said, I wished that it had a USB-c port instead of the micro USB.   Not a big issue, but I was a little surprised by that. 

Second, one of the things I noticed is that you really need a clear view of the sky. When I was at the Dolly Sods and reached camp, I was in the woods. And I tried to send a message to my wife and other contacts that I was back at camp. I noticed that the device really struggled to get a link with the satellites. In fact, I had to walk to a nearby stream to get a signal. Now, that might be a problem if you don’t plan your accidents in open territory. If you take a tumble deep in the woods and you can’t get a clear view of the sky, I suppose it’s possible that you can’t get the SOS signal out. But, I think it’s better to have it than not have it at all. You just have to realize that it’s not a device with unlimited capabilities.   

The third downside to it is the $4 per month suspension plan. When I got this I figured I’d use it for the first trip and then immediately suspend the device. You can’t do that. When you activate the device you have to keep it activated for three months before you suspend it. I didn’t know that going into it and was a little disappointed to find that out later in the game.

Now, you may be thinking, “Why not just deactivate the device? Why pay $4 per month just to keep the same phone number on it?” Well, here’s the problem – which again I didn’t realize until after I got it – When you first activate the device you pay a $20 activation fee in addition to the monthly plan that you’ve picked. If you deactivate the device and let’s say 6 months later you want to reactivate it, you will pay another $20 activation fee.

So, if you’re going to use it off and on during the year, you’ll probably want to pay the $4 suspend fee rather than turning it on and off. If you’re only planning on using it one month out of the year, then I’d probably deactivate it and pay the $20 activation fee when you power it back up.     

The fourth thing that I noticed is that the Bluetooth signal is not that strong. As I said, I kept it attached to my backpack and I noticed that when I walked just about 20 feet away from my backpack my phone lost the Bluetooth signal. I was a bit surprised by this as I have other Bluetooth devices that will stay connected for distances far beyond that. So, you need to keep in mind that you can’t stray too far from the Zoleo device while using your phone. 

Another downside is that you can’t send group text messages on it. Your check ins go to a group, but at this point in time you can’t create group texts in the app itself. You have to text one person at a time. I read in some forums that Zoleo is considering a change in this feature, but at this point it is still unavailable.      

Alright, so, let’s talk about bottom line pricing. The unit itself costs right around $200. I bought mine from REI and got an instant $20 rebate to be used on some gear; so that was pretty cool. But, everywhere else it is $200.  When you activate the device you are going to pay a onetime $20 activation fee in addition to the plan you choose. Then, you have to keep a plan in place for at least three months before you can suspend it.  The minimum plan is $20 per month. So that’s $200 for the device, a $20 activation fee, and at least $60 total for three months service, bringing a minimum total of $280.

Now, let me list a number of things that I really liked about it.

First and foremost, this device gave me the ability to communicate with my wife while in an area that I would have had absolutely no ability to do so. And you can do this anywhere in the world.  This will give your loved ones peace of mind knowing they can most likely reach you when you’re out in the backcountry, and you can communicate with them and let them know how you’re doing even when there’s no cell phone service. I’m planning on going on a mission trip to Costa Rica next year and I’m going to take this along to stay in contact with friends and family back home. 

Second, and I really love this, if the device is near a cell phone tower any message you send or receive will not be counted toward your message limit. My phone was showing only one bar at times, but that was enough for me to send and receive text messages on the device through the cellular network.       

Third, I was really impressed with the battery life. With the app you can set the device to check and receive messages at various intervals, from 12 minutes up to an hour. Obviously, the less frequent it connects the longer that battery is going to last. I hiked with this for three days, turning it off at night, and came back with well over half the battery life still remaining. That was very impressive.     

Fourth, I love that my preset contacts will get my location automatically when I check in. They’ll get a link to click and they can see you on a map. And, you can send your location to anyone via the app by clicking the little map icon near the message window. They’ll get a link to click to see where you are.      

And, lastly, I love knowing that if I get in trouble, I can call for help. I pray that I never have to use that but if I do I know have a way to reach out to someone even when there’s no cell phone coverage.        

So, those are my thoughts on the Zoleo. In spite of some downsides to it, I do like it and plan on using it on my upcoming trips.  If you have any questions please leave me a comment and ill do my best to answer. If you like another device better, please leave a message and let everyone know what you use.



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