Zoleo versus Garmin inReach Mini

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Cell signal is unreliable in the backcountry. This isn’t new information, but it becomes important when you begin to think about emergency situations, checking in with folks at home to confirm you’re doing okay, and getting weather reports.  

Many people heading out of cell range carry a satellite communication device. While not foolproof, it’s an additional tool to have in your kit.  

For years Garmin inReach has been the industry norm. However, new startups have begun to enter the market and Zoleo has emerged towards the top of the newcomer list. I had the opportunity to test the Garmin inReach mini against the Zoleo on two recent trips and the results were interesting.  

Zoleo vs Garmin inReach Mini, which one is the best? They’re both solid devices, but which one you should choose depends on how you’ll use it.  

Garmin inReach Mini Overview 

Note: This comparison refers to the original Garmin inReach Mini (Mini 1). Garmin has recently released the Mini 2. While there are several improvements, the main differences include increased battery life, a USB-C interface, and compatibility with the Garmin Explore App instead of Earthmate.

The Garmin inReach mini couples with your phone via Bluetooth. However, you can use the device to send messages and call emergency services without the phone. It’s a bit complicated to type out a message using the screen, but it can be done with a little patience.  

The screen is small and it’s easier to use the free Earthmate app you download to the phone. Another thing to note is you must initiate communication from your device.  Once the contact receives the message from you, they can reply. This can be frustrating when you’re trying to reach out to someone with cold hands and you’re desperately working to type their info into the app to text them.  

Garmin also recently purchased GEOS which is the emergency service most satellite devices call. While this shouldn’t make a difference, it’s interesting that Garmin is working to become a one-stop company in outdoor safety.  

An additional benefit for Garmin is they offer evacuation insurance for a nominal yearly fee. This can be important as a helicopter evacuation isn’t going to come cheap. The insurance they offer is actually a pretty good deal compared to some other options out there.  

The device itself is solidly built and can get rained on. I’ve had mine for three years and it’s never had an issue powering up.  

Where to Purchase

Zoleo Overview 

The Zoleo differs itself from the competition by seamlessly integrating its satellite services with your phone’s cellular service. Like the Garmin, it links to your phone via Bluetooth and you can download the free app to access the functions. Unlike the Garmin, it doesn’t have a screen. The only features on the Zoleo that don’t require your phone are the SOS emergency notification and pre-programmed check-ins.  

If you’re in the Zoleo app and begin texting, as the device roves into a cellular or Wi-Fi area, it will use that service on your phone instead of the satellites.  This streamlines communication and saves time as satellite communication is notoriously slow.  

Another great feature of the Zoleo is you get an SMS number and an email address that you can give to anyone. They can initiate a conversation with you.  

The device is built through a joint venture between Beam Communication Pty. Ltd. and Roadpost Inc., both have extensive backgrounds in satellite technology.

Where to Purchase

Limitations of Satellite Devices 

Regardless of what device you choose, there are limitations to satellite devices. The device must be in range and be able to connect to the Iridium satellite network. This means you have to be clear of obstructions.  

If you’re in a densely wooded area, you may not be able to link to the satellites. I’ve had this happen in one location. The message went through the next day when we reached a ridgeline. I’ve also had the device not reach the satellite from inside my tent. 

Another consideration is speed. While the satellite network covers the entire planet, it can take time for your device to be in range of one. That, along with the time to get the message from the satellite to the provider and back, then to your device, can take time.  

In short, satellite messaging can be slow.  

I carry my device for emergencies. The SOS button is a tool I may be able to use in the event of an emergency. I don’t count on it 100%. 

Zoleo versus Garmin inReach Mini 

Signal 

Most people want a satellite device to stay in touch with others in the group, should you get separated, or with folks at home. This is where signal comes in.   

Both devices use the Iridium satellite network. While the number may change, as of 2022 Iridium had 66 working satellites in orbit and 9 spares. Their devices cover the planet pole to pole.  

Zoleo has the added benefit of using your cell phone’s Wi-Fi, and cellular data seamlessly with satellite. As long as you initiated the conversation via the Zoleo app, the conversation will remain streamlined. You may not even notice you just changed the signal source as you are actively using it.  

During my testing, which covered two different locations, I found that the Zoleo picked up the satellite signal faster than the inReach every time. It was also faster sending and receiving messages. 

In most instances, the inReach was 2 to 3 minutes slower, however, we did have one situation with a 10-minute lag between the two.  

Winner – Zoleo 

Weight/Size 

The Zoleo is heavier, weighing in at 5.3 ounces.  The inReach Mini is a lighter 3.5 ounces.  

Zoleo and inReach Mini attached to harness on backpack for size comparison

Also, while the Zoleo doesn’t have a visible antenna, it is a large rectangular box and is awkward to strap on your pack harness. The Garmin has a protruding antenna, but the design of the device fits better attached to your pack.  

Winner – Garmin inReach Mini 

Pricing 

Pricing is a bit complicated to compare since the companies offer different options. You can look through their sites for more details.   

There are a few things you should know when assessing plans. Both outgoing and incoming messages are subtracted from your total. If you message a friend and they reply, that’s 2 messages used.  

Checking the weather also uses a message.  

As you can see, it’s easy to eat through your plan.  

Here are some highlights comparing the plans.  

Winner – It depends on your usage  

Messaging 

While tied to signal, there is more to messaging.  

Zoleo provides you with an SMS number and an email address that can be used outside the Zoleo system. With the inReach, you are provided an email address that can only be used with other inReach devices. While you do have a text number, it can change and you must message a contact first, then they can reply.  

Keep in mind that while Zoleo allows for unlimited cellular and Wifi messages to come through to the app, it’s not really free. They’re using your phone’s cellular plan so these will count against your cellular plan data.  

With the Zoleo able to connect three separate ways, it offers more flexibility. It also keeps the message chain together regardless of the signal it is using as long as you’re in the Zoleo app. For example, as you’re driving, there’s no signal so you’re first texts go out via satellite, but then you enter an area within your cellular range, the Zoleo will send your messages via your cellular plan. Everything will remain in the same chain.  

With the inReach, you would initiate the conversation using satellite. Any messages back and forth would then continue to use satellite. In order to use your cellular signal, you would need to realize you have signal, then open your texting app and use that. The satellite messages and cellular messages would be in separate apps.  

The advantage of the Zoleo switching signals is that it helps make things faster. We had a hiker that got lost on the way to the trailhead. As we got closer to her location, the Zoleo seamlessly switched to cell allowing us to communicate with her more quickly.  

Winner – Zoleo 

Location Services and Check-Ins 

As backpackers heading out locally, we don’t usually use this feature.  I know kayakers and backcountry skiers find it useful. It’s difficult to test accurately, but we gave it a go.  

Zoleo 

Zoleo recently added location services for an additional $6/month. You can send your location to up to 5 people. Movements are tracked on a map as breadcrumbs at 6-minute intervals. You can set the interval up to 4 hours. The map is basic, but it shows you are moving and the direction, and has your GPS points.  

You can also send an unlimited number of check-in messages to up to 5 contacts. The message isn’t programmable, it just says, “I’m okay” and provides your location if you set it up to allow that. Before heading out, you can program in your contacts and how to send the check-in (SMS, email, etc.).  

The only catch is that the people receiving your location must have the free app loaded on their phones. 

Since the check-ins are included in the $6/month, it’s a nice bonus to just let folks know you’re doing okay. These messages can also be sent via a button on the device if you’re not able to use your phone.   

Garmin inReach Mini 

The Garmin inReach Mini can be set to log your location at set intervals. This will synch your location between your phone and device and is included in all plans. In this scenario, the data is only held in the device and not transmitted to the satellite.  

In order to send your location to another person, you may incur a cost. It’s $0.10 per request for Plan 1 and unlimited (free) on Plans 2 and 3.  

For someone to see your location, they’ll need access to your Garmin Explore Website. With access, and if you have location share turned on, they can request your location on their end with your coordinates overlayed on a map. Here again, with Plan 1, you will incur a fee of $0.10 per check. It’s unlimited for anyone on Plans 2 and 3.  

However, there’s a bit of a workaround with the inReach for anyone with Plan 1. Garmin allows 3 preset messages which are not counted in your message allotment. The caveat is the messages and the recipients must be programmed via the website and cannot be changed through the device. Also, any replies to your preset messages will count as a message.  

This is an easy way to stay in touch, and the messages send with your GPS location. Many people with a Garmin use this option to stay in touch rather than the tracking function.  

Winner – Garmin inReach Mini 

Weather 

Both devices offer a weather function, and we found the weather report was the same on both devices.  

The Garmin may have a bit of an edge here because it will deliver a premium report with hourly weather for an additional $1.  While there is a fee, if you’re questioning whether you can make it through a pass before something hits, it’s a nice option.   

Zoleo weather report

Winner – Garmin inReach Mini 

Maps 

Zoleo doesn’t have mapping software, whereas inReach has its Earthmate app. Honestly, I’ve never had any luck with Earthmate. It’s missed obvious trails that are right in front of me and can be difficult to manage.  

If you’re using the Earthmate app, you have to allow Bluetooth on your phone to connect to the device since that’s the GPS the map is using. While you can use the screen on the inReach, it’s small and clunky.  

inReach app map screen

I’m sure Earthmate is powerful if you learn how to use it, but I don’t have the time. inReach offers free training if you’d like to learn how to use it in the field. Personally, I find Gaia and Hiking Project more intuitive. The Hiking Project app has never let me down.  

I’m not sure which is the better option here: not offering mapping services because there are better apps out there or offering one that doesn’t work well.  

Winner – Tie 

SOS 

Both devices offer an SOS feature and both buttons are locked down so you can’t accidentally activate the emergency call.  

I did think the cover on the Zoleo was a bit flimsy.  While we didn’t have any issues or near misses, it still makes me nervous long term, especially if you’re hard on the device and toss it in your pack for some reason.  

The covering to the Garmin SOS isn’t going to open until you try to open it and even then, it’s going to take a few seconds of effort. 

Also, with the Zoleo, if your phone is not functioning for some reason, you can only activate the SOS. The Garmin allows you to activate the SOS and communicate with emergency personnel via the device directly if you need that option.  

This is important since not every emergency may require an evacuation. In one instance, a hiker with an inReach was caught near a forest fire. She was able to activate the SOS and communicate with local resources who assisted her in determining a safe route out.  

Both devices use GEOS as their SOS emergency facility, and while this shouldn’t matter, GEOS was recently purchased by Garmin.  

Another option I really like about Garmin is that they offer additional insurance for any Search and Rescue Costs you may incur if you need to be evacuated. From my research, it’s one of the best plans out there for the price. 

Winner – Garmin inReach Mini 

Use Without a Phone 

Both devices are synced to your phone via Bluetooth. While this is great, and almost everyone has a cell phone, things happen. 

The Zoleo doesn’t have a separate screen, however, if your phone isn’t functional, you can still send check-ins, activate SOS. You won’t be able to send custom messages or check the weather.  

The Garmin inReach has a small screen and you can access almost any function from the device itself. It’s a pain to send messages this way, but it does work.  

Winner – Garmin inReach Mini 

Battery Life 

Keep in mind, the more you use the device, the more battery you will drain. The numbers below are for comparison purposes only, your actual battery life may differ depending on your usage.  

The Zoleo is advertised as having 200 hours of battery life while checking for messages every 12 minutes. This is pretty good, especially for a weekend backpacking trip.  On a 72 hour trip, we messaged heavily and repeatedly checked the weather. On our second night, it was at 45% and would have made it the entire trip, but we opted to top it up.

Garmin inReach provides battery life based on tracking interval, which you can turn off. They also provide details on battery based on conditions such as clear sky, dense wood. In general, I find they’re on par with 50 hours of battery life at 10-minute tracking intervals. To extend the battery, you can change the tracking to 30 minutes or more, or deactivate it. 

I have always had to charge my inReach Mini on the second day of a weekend trip.

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 has better battery life than the Mini 1 used in this comparison. Specs state up to 14 days of battery life with 10-minute interval tracking.

Winner – Zoleo

Ease of Setup 

Both devices are easy to set up. We didn’t encounter any issues activated either. While some people have complained about activating their inReach, we didn’t have any issues.  

Winner – Tie 

Overall 

Both devices are solidly built and will do the job. Which device is better really depends on how you plan to use it.  

If you just want a device for limited messaging, weather, and SOS functionality then both will suffice. I would lean towards the Garmin inReach.  To determine if it’s less expensive to have the annual or monthly plan, determine how frequently you would deactivate the device. I calculate the monthly Freedom plan is less expensive if you plan to deactivate the device for four or more months a year.  

Anyone planning to message heavily during their trip should consider the Zoleo. The plans are less expensive per message and the fact that Zoleo picked up the satellites faster would both be appealing for keeping in touch.  

As an SOS device, they are both solid tools in your arsenal to improve your odds of getting help in an emergency.  

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