Avalanche airbag packs are increasingly seen as a must-have piece of kit for off-piste skiers in addition to the standard essential items of a transceiver/beacon, shovel and probe. You can’t argue with the statistics: should you be caught in an avalanche, and if you manage to deploy your airbag, you’ll have an appreciably better chance of surviving. In recent years manufacturers have invested heavily in research and development and developed ingenious methods to deploy the airbag from the pack. As such, selecting the most suitable pack for yourself this winter might appear a little daunting given the plethora of airbag models now available. Fret not, however! This blog gives an oversight of the different types of device, explains how they function, and provides a detailed explanation of their respective pros and cons.
Bear in mind that airbag technology, as with ski gear as a whole, is constantly evolving and improving. However, it’s definitely the case that the major faults and glitches that plagued the early years of airbag sales, and led to many recalls by manufacturers, are behind us. Whilst it might be tempting to delay purchasing and see what newfangled development evolves in a year’s time, not having recourse to donning an airbag pack in the coming season of off-piste skiing would definitely be a handicap. Whilst one hopes to never have to deploy the bag in an emergency, and simply having the pack is never a replacement for smart decision-making in the backcountry, properly worn and deployed airbag units have been shown to improve survival chances when caught in an avalanche. Airbags then, as with other vital lifesaving and life-preserving kit such as transceivers and probes, are quite a different investment from skis, bindings and boots in the sense that hopefully you’ll never have to test and appreciate their true value — avoiding avalanche incidents in the first place will always be of paramount necessity.
Do bare in mind that the manufacturers vary in the way in which they measure volume — it’s a good idea to bring the items you’d usually carry while skiing to the store to check whether the pack you’re coveting will carry all your prized possessions!
Another good reason to visit your local ski shop (other than ogling all the new gear and get excited about your next trip) is to review the different handle types and check whether the pack you intend to purchase works well for you: consider that some models allow for you to switch the pulling cord from the left to the right side.
ABS is the longest established manufacturer of airbags and offers a two bag deployment system: this has the advantage of providing a backup bag in case one is punctured while being carried by an avalanche. An activation handle links to a small explosive charge that forces a needle into a compressed gas cartridge. ABS offers both built-in systems and a swappable Vario system based on a basis unit that can be transferred to different size packs. ABS has licensed its system to other pack manufacturers including Ortovox, The North Face, Arva, Dakine and Salomon.
Having purchased Snowpulse, Mammut has gone on to develop its lineup of airbags with two distinct systems. The swappable R.A.S. (Removable Airbag System) deploys a single overhead airbag and can be used in any of the R.A.S line of compatible packs. Mammut’s other offering, the ‘Protection’ system, uses Snowpulse’s specially formed neck and head protection airbag that offers extra upper body protection. Both systems use the Mammut cartridge (both aluminium and carbon bottles are available) that is user-refillable with the correct adaptor at many ski, scuba and paintball shops.
After being bought by K2 Sports, BCA has continued to development their line of airbag packs. The BCA packs have long been a favourite at Mountain Tracks - the well designed, reliable and affordable Float range has stood the test of time. The compressed air cylinders can be refilled at BCA stockists, scuba and paintball shops using an adaptor. It’s a good idea to check you’re happy with the BCA handle before purchasing one of the Float packs: it’s cone-shaped rather than a classic t-shape (it can be a bit tricky to grip and pull on if you’ve smaller hands, or are wearing mitts).
Black Diamond recently acquired the Austrian avalanche beacon and snow safety company PIEPS and both have been developing the innovative Jetforce technology that has proved a game changer in the world of airbags. Further collaboration between PIEPS and Black Diamond on their battery-operated, high speed fan-based unit to deploy the airbag has ironed out the initial problems which resulted in a few software problems requiring a product recall. Of course, reliability is of paramount importance with all airbag units. A great feature of the BD/PIEPS Jetforce system is that you can practice airbag deployment and check the operation of the unit with ease.
Arc’teryx are the newest entrant to the airbag market and produce lithium-ion polymer battery powered Voltair packs in two sizes 20L and 30L. It’s important to note that the battery and charger are sold separately from the backpack. As with everything Arc’teryx the packs are great quality — and the craftsmanship is reflected in the price!
Whichever airbag pack you purchase, practice pulling the handle before you have to use it on the slopes: with certain packs you definitely have to yank harder than others to activate the system. For a video demonstration see the deployment of BCA's Float 32 airbag system here. Don't forget to wear the crotch strap attached to the pack, or you could end up loosing the bag over your head should you be unfortunate enough to be caught in a snow slide. A critical point is to not lose sight of the importance of not getting avalanched in the first place. There is much to be said for reflecting and investing some of your expenditure on a decent avalanche course, such as those offered by Mountain Tracks with professional IFMGA Guides.
Learn more about Mountain Tracks Avalanche Training Foundation courses here.
IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV
The IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV symbol is the logo of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
The International Ski Instructors Association is the world body for professional ski instructors.
The ISIA was formed in 1971 and there are currently 39 member nations representing the very best in ski instruction around the world.