If you’re a regular reader of The Drive, you might already know that my family and I spend a lot of time exploring the national park that surrounds our home. Whether that’s with our ever-evolving Can-Am Maverick X3 Max or with the numerous adventure motorcycles I’ve tested, we’ve blitzed trails and revealed to our children the beauty of the natural world.
The woods can be a dangerous place. Side-by-sides regularly flip, motorcycles crash, hunters miss, and we’ve witnessed a number of people requiring an air lift to safety or to the hospital during snowmobile season. Utah’s backcountry rescue teams are excellent, but contacting them can be an issue since cell towers aren’t found deep in the woods.
Staying in contact with emergency services usually falls to two products recommended by the powersports, hunting, and hiking communities as well as search and rescue: Garmin’s InReach Mini 2 or Zoleo’s satellite communicators. Offering GPS location services, satellite communications that work with your smartphone, and SOS functionality, they can both also act as emergency beacons. They’re rugged and designed for abuse, so even in the event of a crash, they can save your butt. But can they actually stand up to my proprietary Beat the Ever-Loving Hell Out Of (Insert Product Here) test? Most important, would I recommend either or just get the new Apple iPhone 14, a phone that features many of the same functions as the dedicated Garmin and Zoleo units?
Here’s what I found.
The two are pretty different looking. Zoleo went for simple and rugged brick. There are only three buttons: On/Off, SOS, and Check-In. Garmin’s is the opposite, as the InReach Mini 2 features a full screen, up and down buttons for scrolling, a dedicated SOS button, and OK and back buttons for further on-screen selection. There’s also a carabiner to lock onto your gear, just like the Zoleo.
The two are shock resistant and waterproof, with Garmin featuring an IPX7 rating (can be submerged in three feet of water for 30 minutes) and Zoleo featuring an IP68 rating (can survive in five feet of water for 30 minutes).
Each also offers weather updates. With the Garmin, you can get that info directly onscreen, while the Zoleo requires opening up your phone. Location sharing with your loved ones is also available with both, while the InReach Mini 2 also offers a digital compass, way-point setting, and access to Garmin’s Earthmate navigational app.
Setting up the Garmin inReach Mini 2 and the Zoleo was quick and painless. The only difference from any other Bluetooth device setup is that you’ll have to take a walk outside for the Garmin and Zoleo to initially connect to the satellites above. You’re then clear to get the heck out of civilization.
Into the drink
Gettin’ Wet and Dirty
When thinking about how I’d test these two, a scene from Jurassic Park came to mind. As John Hammond talked about how Disney World also had teething issues when it first opened, Ian Malcolm snapped, “But, John, if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists.” These are potentially lifesaving devices. You can’t afford having them not work; the backcountry might eat you.
Such a device needs to survive not just normal use but hazardous situations. I came away with tests for water, mud, and impact. I also wanted to see how long it took to send an initial text to my wife and get one in return. Time matters when you need help.
I took the two into the backcountry a lot. I took multiple trips in our family’s Can-Am, on a Zero DSR/X motorcycle, through a few rivers with an Africa Twin, and on a particularly wet, muddy, and difficult enduro ride with Honda’s CRF300L Rally. During my motorcycle treks, the two were attached to the exterior of either my Velomacchi or Uswe backpack, while in the Can-Am they were attached to the rearview mirror for easy access. This also gave them the chance to bang on the roof and roll bars.
Long story short: They survived my abuse.
During one ride, I went about 45 miles into the forest. There wasn’t a soul within at least 10 miles. Clouds dominated the skies above. My first order of business was to chuck the two communicators into a burbling river for about three minutes. I then removed them and sent a message to my wife.
Both the Garmin and Zoleo took about a minute to send and another minute to receive a return message. Each continued to work, so no issue with water fouling. They were equal in terms of speed of picking up a satellite, sending, and receiving a message back. They also took abuse while attached to my backpack, as the trails getting to the river were rocky and bumpy and both flopped around on the pack.
Later in that ride, I toppled over heading up a wet and muddy grass hill. It was a low-speed fall, but I landed on my backpack. Both the Garmin and Zoleo were fine, but I wanted to test them further. After righting myself and the motorcycle, I took the two comms off and walked to a mud puddle nearby and pressed them into it with the heel of my boot. A few minutes later, I wiped them off and sent more texts. They worked.
One vulnerability concerned me. While handy, and the fact you don’t have to have your phone with you to use, it struck me as being a potential weak point in the design. “What happens if you’re in a hard wreck and you crack the screen? Will it still work? Can you still send an SOS?” A Garmin representative later told me the SOS would continue to work; you just wouldn’t be able to interact with its on-screen messaging unless you used your phone.
Garmin added that if your InReach Mini 2 is paired to one of the brand’s smartwatches, such as the Instinct 2 Solar or Fenix 7 Solar, you’d be able to access messages and more even if the InReach Mini’s screen was shattered. While that’s an extra cost, the two are bought together frequently, according to the company, because of that capability.
You don’t have those concerns with the Zoleo, but you also don’t have the option to message anyone without your smartphone. You can still check in and send an SOS with it, but it’s features are more limited.
Each also has more than enough battery life to keep you safe for days. Garmin offers 24 days of battery life using its 30-minute tracking when in power-save mode, while the Zoleo will give you eight days when fully charged. Compare that to Apple’s new iPhone 14 Pro with just a 10- to 12-hour battery life.
So what’s the best lifesaving move?
I enjoyed using both of these satellite communicators. They’re rugged, capable, and easy to use, even when you’re sucking wind at elevation and covered in mud. They’ll handle falls and water and Jonathon Kleins, the latter which is always a plus. They also provide what The Drive writer Robbie Bacon coined as "the confidence to just get lost." No matter where I went, no matter how far out I reached, I felt confident in my ability to be found even when I didn't know where I was. It let me properly explore the woods as I'd never been offered before.
Without comment pic.twitter.com/pGgZv0CCs8— Jonathon Klein (@jonathon_klein) October 6, 2022
The Zoleo is priced at $199 for the communicator, while the Garmin inReach Mini 2 starts at $349. You will need a subscription plan for each for them to be optimally useful. While Zoleo’s basic plan starts at $20 a month and offers unlimited SOS messaging and 25 text messages, its $56 a month for the company’s top-tier Unlimited subscription. Garmin’s subscription starts at $14.95 a month and includes 10 text messages and unlimited SOS messaging, with the top-tier Expedition subscription setting you back $64.95 a month.
Compare each to the base iPhone 14’s $799, which doesn’t include your monthly service plan. But the InReach Mini 2 and Zoleo are robust devices that can take a beating, which can’t be said of the iPhone 14.
Yes, the average consumer will likely end up with an iPhone. It’s already in your pocket, there’s no need for an extra device and subscription for a few hikes a year. For folks like myself who spend days to weeks outside and miles out of earshot, the Zoleo or the Garmin have more capability.
Either would be a sure benefit to any motorcyclist, hunter, off-roader, or hiker, but the Garmin InReach Mini 2 clinches the title. It may be more expensive than the Zoleo, but I want standalone performance, not something that requires my phone to use all the features.
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