Zoleo attached to bike and sitting on top of full-length top tube bag with ultralight accessory case.

Zoleo satellite communications:

January 30, 2022

I’m not someone who typically provides breathless reviews on new offerings. Based on my previous ~6 years of Iridium satellite network usage and with a couple months of Zoleo usage I feel comfortable saying “an excellent product!!!”

Preliminary Summary: An outstanding hardware and software product offering, for individuals that want to communicate with loved ones, access local weather information, and when their own planning and preparation has failed… contact emergency services. Excellent battery life, and an antenna system that is very effective. Zoleo device purchase cost and monthly charges are significantly lower than Garmin InReach. Zoleo and joint venture partner Roadpost Canada appear to be focused on and capable of continually supporting and improving on an already excellent service!

Background: Communication with my wonderful and supportive partner (who does not share my passion for bikepacking) was the primary driver for acquiring a satellite communicator. I’ve been using an InReach Explorer continuously since 2016 with about 5,000 tracking points sent (predominantly on one-hour or longer frequencies), and approximately 1,000 messages exchanged. Garmin appears to have been steadily degrading the performance and impairing functionality in “older” devices for some time. My device was deemed by Garmin to be “end of life” and they would introduce software changes that causes malfunctions such as old messages being resent (sometimes dozens of times), wildly incorrect location information (different hemispheres…), weather forecast request issues, new Earthmate app bugs, etc, etc. In order to continue using the device the new “upgraded” software/firmware & EULA must be accepted. Concurrently, monthly subscription costs increased by about 30%. Garmin’s “solution” for this was for me to purchase a new InReach Explorer + for almost $600 and accept the current $600/year of subscription fees, and so on.

I’ve been aware of the Zoleo communicator and smartphone app since early 2021 and used the app to communicate with another bikepacker during his challenging and remote trip in June and July. Initial experiences were very favourable, particularly the ability to communicate using ~1,000 character messages rather than the ~150 character limit with InReach. After a bit more checking and review I purchased the Zoleo device in November 2021 for a promotional price of about C$200 delivered. I was apprehensive about the lack of a screen and navigation functionality. To date, all my apprehensions were unfounded. The folks at Zoleo have developed and are capably supporting a very sophisticated communications, tracking, and weather forecasting device; that is constantly available for emergency support purposes.

Worth noting that some of the Zoleo user impressions available on the web (You Tube, etc) are quite dated and do not reflect available Zoleo functionality and capabilities. Perhaps Zoleo will provide updated content with current information. I will only comment on my experiences using the device and software.

Listing of Observations, Pros, and Cons from about two months of relatively light usage. I plan on updating this post periodically based on material changes in my experiences.

Observations:

  • As an initial product this is a VERY capable and robust device and software offering!!!
  • Folks at Roadpost Canada, and Zoleo, are responsive to questions and concerns!
  • The lack of navigation functionality (ability to load and use a GPX file) represents a good trade-off for greatly increased battery life. Wahoo Elemnt Bolt running RWGPS generated routes and detailed mapping is my primary navigation tool, with a smartphone (or two) for backup(s).
  • There appear to be attempts being made by Zoleo to provide user-requested information (GPS data) to qualified third-parties. For example, race-tracking. See Cons below. (This observation is based on recent technical questions posed and answered by Zoleo.)

Pros:

  • Utilizes the extremely reliable global coverage of the Iridium satellite network
  • Dedicated global email address and SMS number. No need for a person to go to the Garmin web portal to communicate with you.
  • Independent app that can be installed by folks that you want to communicate and share location tracking with
  • Robust device construction
  • Charming* LED’s and tones to signal various events. *Charming is not a word that I typically use to describe a product or service. The programmed combination of lights and tones provides the user with a significant amount of very useful information, without needing to look at the Zoleo device or app.
  • Sophisticated and user configurable smartphone application to both interface with the Zoleo device, and other Zoleo users
  • Excellent interface for other Zoleo users to track your location and movement.
  • Sensitive antennas with very quick satellite acquisition and communications, compared to InReach. I’ve now used the Zoleo in numerous locations where the InReach would not function at all.
  • Automatically selects the least-cost option for sending and receiving information. wi-fi, cellular, satellite
  • Ability to copy and paste exact location data into other applications. For example, Gaia GPS. I’ve been using it for new route development documentation while off the grid.
  • Excellent Superb battery performance. Zoleo states it as 200 hours/charge which doesn’t seem to be unreasonable, so far.

Cons:

  • Currently lacks the functionality to select alternative weather forecast locations, beyond the current location of the device.
  • Documentation of finer details of the device and software varies. I.e. low temperature alarm and warnings. For example during a recent ~-35 ride there were red lights flashing on the Zeleo, my initial thought was how I’d triggered the Emergency alarm. A review of the Zoleo App indicated that the lights were just a low temperature alarm. I moved the Zeleo from my bike frame to an inside jacket pocket and the alarm cleared in a few minutes.
  • Zoleo tracking information cannot be accessed by Trackleaders.com (TL) and integrated into the TL tracking platform. I’ve not checked yet on other race tracking platforms.
  • Inability to significantly expand the area of map tiles that can be downloaded and displayed, for off-line access and usage. There are three different map tile size settings that can be selected for downloading.

The supplied non-locking carabiner and webbing strap was not secure enough for my use so it was replaced with the pictured cord loop.

Zoleo (in small heather-grey bag) double-secured to the bike. When flashing, the four LED indicator lights are visible through the DIY case of Light Skin 07 fabric. the left XL StraddleBag contains a tripod, bear spray, water treatment system, and 4 heavy nitryl gloves. The right StraddleBag is a prototype sized to hold a ZipLoc large freezer bag and is pictured with >4,000 calories of eat-on-bike “stuff”. The front section of the 3 inch custom full-length top tube bag is also visible. This bag now has over 3,000 kilometers of four-season use and for me is indispensable for securely carrying water and other constant access items.