I don’t mess around when it comes to my safety or preservation of life. X-raying trauma victims for a living has shown me exactly how fragile the human body is. Conversations with my patients demonstrate how quickly injuries happen. My coworker once stepped on a pinecone in the parking lot on her way into work, and she broke her ankle in two places.
My job has also taught me how mindbogglingly resilient we can be. The things bodies endure are almost incomprehensible. It is the speed at which help arrives that makes all the difference.
The paranoia my job has given me means I will never hike without an emergency locator beacon of some kind, to call for help if self-evacuation becomes impossible. Carrying a device that allows me to communicate with rescuers so they can arrive prepared for the particulars of my circumstances is something I deem essential.
In the past I’ve carried personal locator beacons (PLBs), so at the very least I knew I had an “oh shit” button if things got really bad. However, the simplicity of rescue beacons means that I had one button to hit and I’d have to sit and pray the device was working properly. No way to know for sure the message has been received, no way to communicate. Just sit and wait.
That was fine for a time. But now I have a wife who wouldn’t sleep soundly without knowing I’ve made it safely to my campsite for the night. So, as much as I cherish leaving the internet far behind when I walk in the woods, a check-in button that lets my loved ones know that all is well is a piece of technology that’s earned a place in my pack.
For the added weight and extra expense of yet another monthly service plan, on top of the cost of the device itself, I want a satellite messenger that’s disaster proof. If shit ever really does hit the fan, the Zoleo Satellite Communicator is the device I would trust most.
I tested my Zoleo in the Zigzag and Hood Mountains in Oregon; deep into the Columbia River Gorge in Washington; the Granite Dells of Arizona; remote backcountry areas of Maui and Kauai; offshore near Lanai; plus numerous remote off grid roads and campsites throughout the Pacific Northwest.
How Zoleo Works
The Zoleo is a satellite communication device that offers 3 different subscription plans. For either $20, $35, or $50 a month you can send and receive messages through an iridium satellite network from anywhere with a clear view of the sky. Meaning, places that don’t get cell reception are not a problem.
They assign you a Zoleo specific phone number to use with the device. You have to commit for at least 3 months up front, but after that you can change, suspend, or cancel plans online as needed.
Location share options will send your exact coordinates at the time of check-in to predetermined contacts, along with an “I’m OK” message. Location share services can be added to any plan for an extra $6 a month.
Most importantly, the device includes a SOS feature that will summon search and rescue at the push of a button.*
Messaging is done through a phone app that connects to a Zoleo via Bluetooth. Incoming messages won’t automatically come through. Tapping the check messages option in the app accesses the satellite network to populate new incoming messages. Sending a message will also link to the satellites and allow incoming messages through.
When cell service is available the Zoleo app will automatically default to it, thereby minimizing the amount of communication that counts toward a plan’s satellite usage. Perfect for thru-hikers.
There is a Medical Assist option included that provides advice and support for non-emergency situations. You can get first aid advice from medical professionals or find the nearest clinic, hospital, or dental provider while traveling. All 24/7 and included with any service plan.
* The SOS button on emergency devices should only be used once ALL methods of self-rescue have been exhausted. Rescue teams put their own lives on the line to help us. Let’s respect the precious service they provide by always carrying the 10 essentials, staying within our limits, and not activating search and rescue for a sprained ankle.
Dimensions: 3.58" L x 2.6" W x 1.06" D
Power: Battery: rechargeable internal lithium ion
Battery life: 200+ hours
Charging time: 2 hours using 1.5A charge
Satellite network: Iridium
Connects via Bluetooth LE 4.1 (one connection at a time; range of up to 50m/164ft)
GPS accuracy: 2.5m/8.2ft under ideal conditions — Global Navigation Satellite System (GPS, GLONASS)
Ingress protection: IP68; dust- and water-resistant (to 1.5m/4.9ft for 30 min)
Shock resistant: MIL-STD 810G
Power input: Micro-USB Type B connector
Covered SOS button prevents false alarms (also cancellable inputs)
Audible alerts for messages (user-selected tone)
LEDs for messages, SOS, check-in, and power
- FCC, CE, ISED, ITU, RCM, GITECKI, REACH ROHS, Iridium approved
EN 60945 maritime navigation and radio communication equipment (EMC) emissions & immunity tested
What I Absolutely Love About the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator
Low Upfront Cost: The biggest cost for emergency communication devices that use satellite networks is usually the device itself. The competitors range from $400 to $700 just for the device alone. A Zoleo is only $200 upfront, making it much more accessible to a wider range of people.
Rugged: For the sake of this review, my Zoleo has been thrown into water, dropped from eye level multiple times, buried in snow, stood upon, haphazardly packed among camping gear, and roasted on a hot dashboard. I don’t recommend treating your satellite messenger this way, but Zoleo is built like a tank. No tiny buttons to break. No antenna to bend. No screen to shatter. Zoleo is the solid brick every emergency communication device ought to be.
Cell Phone Interface: I love that the Zoleo app uses my phone for the interfacing. I didn’t have to learn to navigate a whole separate screen on the device. I’ll never have to use a tiny, unfamiliar keyboard in an emergency when adrenaline is high and cognitive function might be impaired. Yet, if my phone ever gets lost or my batteries die — because I broke my phone charging cable the literal second I got to the Grand Canyon floor (true story) — I can still send “I’m OK” messages. Same with location sharing and calling for help with the SOS button, both of which are on the Zoleo device itself. A phone is only required for typing and receiving text messages, not for acquiring aid or checking-in.
User Friendly: There is no guesswork with a Zoleo. A cute celebratory noise lets you know a message has been sent successfully. A sad little sound notifies you if it fails. A different noise lets you know if you lose bluetooth connection. If you aren’t into sound effects, you can silence them all. It works in airplane mode as long as bluetooth is enabled, which helps maximize a phone’s battery life. It’s waterproof enough to withstand rain, puddles, creeks and waterfall spray. It doesn’t need to be babied. The SOS cover is spring loaded and snaps back into place quickly to prevent accidental SOSs.
Long Battery Life: When not used for messaging, the battery lasts a long time. I spent 5 days and 4 nights with it powered on in “ready to use” mode, but never sending messages, and the battery only got down to 85%. Plus, the app tells you exactly how much battery life is left. It’s foolproof.
Endless Uses: Zoleo is not just for hiking. I take mine anytime I might leave the grid. I carry it to remote campgrounds and fishing spots. I take it with me on road trips and flights. Anywhere that has the potential to lack cell service, I’m bringing it — river trips, paddle boarding, horseback riding, traveling abroad.
If you think I’m paranoid, consider the elderly woman who slid off the road and wrecked her car on an embankment in a blizzard in Nevada five minutes before I passed by. I stopped to help and assess her. It was clear she had dislocated her kneecap and needed medical attention. Neither of us had cell reception and her internal heat wasn’t going to last very long. I was ready to power on the Zoleo I had with me to coordinate a rescue when thankfully a local EMT passed by who had the ability to reach the nearest ambulance service.
If I was stranded alone on a remote road in a blizzard, I wouldn’t have to cross my fingers for help. Same goes for needing assistance in an earthquake, hurricane, fire or any other natural disaster. It's a valuable addition to any emergency kit.
Everything Has its Cons
Requires View of the Sky / Limited Bluetooth Range: one of my trips on Mt Hood was nearly too forested to get messages through the thick canopy. The signal was flawless next to a lake with a clear shot to the sky, but under tightly packed trees messages could take 2 or 3 tries to go through.
Luckily my campsite had a small window of sky through the branches. I could leave the Zoleo directly under the opening and get information in/out. I used my phone's bluetooth to connect to the Zoleo and the Zoleo to connect to the satellites. It worked great for about a 30-foot radius in these less-than-ideal conditions. The device beeped every time the Bluetooth connection was lost, so I was made aware when it happened. However, the limited range could be a problem if I suffered a fall that dropped me 30 feet or more from the device.
Keeping it on my person instead of attached to a pack that I might take off and set down is my best practice now. The carabiner clip makes it easy to take the Zoleo off my pack’s shoulder strap and quickly hook it to a belt loop when exploring or taking bathroom breaks.
Bounce: The single-sided attachment point lets the device swing and bounce when hooked to a shoulder strap or belt loop. It goes from mildly annoying on day hikes to maddening over the course of a week long journey. I now use a hair tie to secure the lower half of my Zoleo. But I would like to see an additional attachment point on the opposite end of the device, or an attachment system that runs lengthwise to diminish bounce.
Offshore Location: While boating between islands in Hawaii, my Zoleo connected to the satellite network without issue for messaging, but it was unable to discern my location offshore. I don’t boat often but I do fly with an emergency beacon in my carryon … because I’d rather not have to resort to cannibalism after crashing in the Andes. I’m that person who would be able to signal for help with a precise location in the event of a plane crash unless we crashed in the ocean. There are PLB devices that work anywhere in the world so they would be more suited for avid sailors or pilots. I would love to see that same ability to location share while at sea added to the Zoleo repertoire.
So, is the extra weight and monthly cost worth it? What would you pay/ carry to be able to tell the fire department to bring extra doses of antivenom when they extract you because the rattlesnake that bit your thigh hit a major vessel accelerating symptoms? Would you pay $20 a month to be able to tell them you won’t have time to make it to a hospital without more than the standard dose?
Communication with an emergency team is invaluable for so many reasons. The ability to communicate drastically improves outcomes. The backcountry is no place to rely solely on luck or invincibility. Loved ones deserve peace of mind instead of wondering if you’ve made it to camp safely.
Regular check-ins narrow the search field when a head injury is sustained and you are unable to activate a device’s SOS button yourself. You might survive that head injury because someone has been following your progress and will immediately know your status has changed when you stop checking in. Nature holds endless possibilities. Come prepared.