Airbag Buying Guide
Airbags have developed over the past number of years and so too has their popularity.
With more people trying touring and exploring off-Piste, there has been a rise in interest with regards to avalanche safety equipment. Here at Snow+Rock we are passionate about avalanche safety and have worked extensively with manufacturers to improve our product knowledge and educate our staff.
The ABS airbag system has gained notoriety as a market leader by pioneering innovative, high quality products. In the Autumn of 2012, Snow+Rock were awarded the distinction of ABS Pro Dealer as a result of our product knowledge, our desire to educate our customers and our historical working relationship with ABS. Snow+Rock are one of only a few dealers outside mainland Europe to hold this title and are one of the only companies that can now offer inspection services for ABS bags.
We are equally proud of our other main brand, BCA, as their Float system provides an option for users who want an alternative to ABS with a refillable cylinder.
We encourage you to purchase these products is in-store where you can speak to one of our knowledgeable staff in order to select the best airbag system to suit your needs. It is vital that you take your time when selecting an Airbag system. The system needs to be easy to operate, it needs to be suitable for the type of terrain that you will be exploring and the pack size needs to suit the needs of the wearer.
Bags can vary in volume from 5Litres to 32Litres and there are various sizes of pack harness that depend on the back length of the user. As you will be wearing the pack for prolonged periods of time, it is essential that you find the most suitable back length pack for your frame size.
How do they work?
Whichever Airbag system you choose, they work on similar basic principles. They all have a compressed gas container (some are refillable at a consumer level, others must be refilled by the manufacturer), which is internally attached to the system. To activate the system and release the airbag(s) the compressed gas needs to be released from the container by pulling the activation handle on the chest plate of the bag.
To do this manufactures employ different methods; ABS systems use a small Pneumatic pyrotechnic charge to puncture the canister, releasing the gas into the airbags. BCA use a Bowden Cable system to release canister pins, which in turn release the gas to inflate the airbag. In both cases, once activated, the system will inflate in a matter of 3 to 5 seconds providing additional volume to help victims stay out of the depths of the avalanche.
Contrary to popular belief it is not the air in the airbags that make you "Float" in the snow. Snow does not behave in the same way as water. Airbag systems work on the principle of inverse segregation - where items of a higher volume will rise to the surface when agitated in a granular medium. In the case of an avalanche the varying size of the snow granules means the smaller items sink while larger ones stay aloft. This effect can be seen when looking at a box of Muesli - when shaken the raisins and nuts rise to the surface while the smaller dust particles sink to the bottom.
With the inflation of the airbag, an avalanche victim’s volume increases as the volume of the airbags is added to that of their body. It is this increased volume that helps to keep the victim as high as possible within the snow structure through the decent and halting phase of the avalanche.
Mono Bag or Dual Airbag
The two main styles of airbag see the bags inflated from either the top of the bag / shoulder straps as a Monobag or from sides of the pack as a dual airbag; both styles have benefits related to the bag position.
The dual airbag system tends to hold the victim parallel to the surface of the snow keeping them high and flat in the debris as the avalanche occurs. This will help to keep the users’ field of vision clear to the front and sides as they move forward. A further benefit of the dual airbag system is having 2 bags, should one be damaged then the remaining bag should provide sufficient lift to avoid complete burial.
The Monobag system provides protection for the back of the head and keeps victims in an upright position. In the event that it is deployed, the Monobag system can help to provide a partial air pocket should there be any partial burial.
There is no conclusive "best system" but historically, ABS have been able to document many lives saved thanks to their years of work in the industry, which is why many consider them to be the market leader.
Integrated, Base unit, removable
There are 3 main styles of airbag system on the market: Integrated, Base Units and Removable. All three have different advantages depending on the needs of the user.
With an integrated system, the airbag is incorporated directly into the backpack and the pack compartment itself has a set volume, for example the Northface Patrol 24 (Litre) or the BCA 32 (Litre). These packs combine the harness, bag and airbag system meaning that the compartment pack cannot be increased or decreased in size.
The base unit design is unique to ABS. They have created a pack and harnesses with the airbag system built in, however it does not specifically come with a compartment bag attached. The base unit system allows compartment bags of different litre sizes to be zipped on, meaning that the user doesn’t have to purchase a variety of different Airbag systems to suit different activities. For example, users can attach a 5litre compartment bag if they know that they are only going to be skiing in the resort, but they can also attach a 25litre bag if they need a larger size for longer periods off Piste.
There are currently 2 main styles of base unit - the Powder Base unit and the Vario Base unit. The Powder Base unit is aimed at freeriders and those who don’t want to carry more than the essentials.
The Vario has a larger pack size footprint and the flexibility to accommodate zip on compartment packs from various other brands aside from ABS. This can be useful if there are certain pack sizes, features, pockets, colours or styles that appeal to the user which are now out in the marketplace. The Vario is intended for more users who need larger volume zip on pack versatility.
The Vario suggests a back size of Small for persons with a back length of 18 inches (46cm) from Hip to shoulder, and Large for persons with a back length of 19 inches (49cm) hip to shoulder.
This style of airbag system is one of the newest on the market and has generated mixed opinion.
The mechanical inflation system, hoses and airbag can be removed from bag in which it is installed. The benefits of this are that the airbag system can be installed in compatible certified packs. This gives the user the option of being able to change the pack that they carry the airbag system in and also allows them to use of the pack itself out of season without the airbag.
Whilst it may be beneficial to remove the inflation system from the bag to allow out of season use, there are concerns that using the pack alone may add excessive wear to the materials and straps, compared to a dedicated winter sport avalanche pack.
In order to choose the correct compartment size to suit your needs, it is important to consider where you'll be using the bag, how much you need to carry and what the pack will contain.
A compartment pack that has a volume in the region of 5 litres will tend to suit people who are free riding and want the benefits of an airbag system without carrying much extra, or skiers that are travelling close to lift access areas but are still off piste. A pack size of this nature will normally be able to hold the essentials such as a shovel, probe and perhaps a light mid layer of clothing.
Pack compartments that are over 12 litres provide the added benefit of being able to hold your emergency equipment plus extra layers, food and small accessories.
Packs that are beyond the 20 to 25litre mark are ideal for people who are planning a ski tour, or who have the need for extra equipment and supplies such as ski guides and tour leaders.
There is a compartment option out there to suit you, whatever your budget and requirements. The zip on compartment pack makes your air bag system more versatile, however integrated packs with a set compartment size can often be cinched smaller when not in use.
Canisters & Activation units
The two main designs of airbag system currently in use incorporate two different types of compressed gas canister; one can be refilled by the consumer whilst the other must be refilled by the manufacturer.
The BCA Float System uses compressed air canisters that can be refilled multiple times. You can get the canisters refilled at locations such as Scuba/ dive stores, paint ball outfitters or by returning it to Snow + Rock where we can get it refilled. This style of canister has a useful pressure gauge to help you to identify the internal pressure and see if it needs an additional air top up before use. There are additional parts and tools required for users who want to pursue inflation at these other sources - please speak to a member of staff for more information.
ABS have a 2 part unit, which is referred to as the activation unit. The activation unit consists of a pyrotechnic handle and a compressed steel gas cylinder. Both of these items are single use and once activated need to be replaced. These elements cannot be serviced by the consumer and will need to be returned to the manufacturer where they can be recharged through an industrial process.
Snow+Rock has a large stock of activation units and can exchange used activation units with customers once they surrender both the handle and cylinder.
In an Emergency
It is extremely important that you make yourself familiar with your airbag system and are confident with its use and operation so that activation can take place quickly should the worst happen. It is for this reason that Snow + Rock recommends doing an in-store induction when you purchase any Avalanche Airbag system.
The induction process gives you the opportunity to understand the function of the airbag system, activate it and learn how to pack it so that you can confidently use it in an emergency. Activating the airbag in a controlled environment allows you to understand the forces involved when pulling the handle as well as the sounds and feeling generated by the inflation. It also allows the staff to inspect the bag to make sure that everything is operating, as it should.
Snow+Rock recommend activating your air bag system at least once a year to re-familiarise yourself with it and ensure that it is working as it should.
It is important to remember that an airbag system is a piece of emergency equipment, which under certain conditions can prevent a total avalanche burial if activated. It cannot prevent an avalanche and there is still an element of deadly risk. Every avalanche is absolutely life threatening regardless of any equipment. The purchase of an airbag system should not encourage you to take greater risks.
Air Travel with Airbag systems
It is easier to travel to Europe with an airbag system than it is to travel to North America and Canada. There are possible restrictions that you may encounter when travelling by air due to the presence of the compressed gas canisters needed to inflate the airbags.
Airbag system are covered in the IATA TABLE 2.3.A Provisions for Dangerous Goods Carried by Passengers or Crew (Subsection 2.3)
It is important to remember a few key points with regards to this.
- IATA is not law, and only a set of guidelines set out by the International Air Travel Association, which the majority of airlines adhere to.
- The decision as to whether a compressed gas canister will be allowed on board an aircraft is at the discretion of the airline and of the pilot.
- The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have jurisdiction over all aircraft, passengers and freight to, from, and within the United States; their regulations supersede the IATA guidelines.
- TSA regulations do not allow passengers to travel with pressurised canisters on aircraft either in hand luggage or in hold luggage.
- Canadian International Airports that are within 100 miles of the US boarder will also fall under TSA regulations.
When travelling to the United States or Canada, it is wise to pack the airbag system in your luggage and rent an activation handle and canister in the resort that you are travelling to, or get your canister refilled locally.
If you are travelling in Europe it is important to contact you airline to notify them that you will be bringing an airbag system; this should ideally be done at the time of booking or at the very least 14 days prior to travelling. It is recommended that you print out 2 copies of the IATA table, enclosing 1 copy with the cylinder and keeping the second copy on your person.
The increase in travellers taking airbags on flights to and from Europe has created greater awareness of the systems amongst airlines and staff. However, be aware that if you fail to notify the airline that you will be bringing an airbag system in advance, it will not be marked on your ticket before arrival at the airport. It is extremely unlikely that check-in staff will allow un-registered canisters on board on the day even with the IATA table print out.
Care and Maintenance
As with all personal safety equipment, it is important to make sure that it is well looked after and performing as it should.
It is important that you keep you airbag system completely dry. Should you & your bag be caught in substantially wet weather, it is worthwhile unpacking the airbag itself and drying it out before repacking it. Any moisture within the bag could potentially freeze whilst on the mountain, which could hinder the inflation process in an emergency.
We recommend that at least once a year (ideally in the Autumn) you take the time to activate the system to ensure that it is working correctly. We also recommend that your system is inspected and serviced every 3 years. The inspection will check all of the straps, hoses, cables, puncture units, and will inflate the bags to check for signs of damage or leaks. As an ABS Pro Dealer Snow + Rock are able to offer an ABS approved inspection service which would adhere to the recommended 3 year inspection laid out by ABS.
ABS PRO Dealer - Service
Snow+Rock are proud to be able to offer users of ABS systems here in the UK an interim inspection service. The service will examine the key components of the ABS system to ensure that they are functioning as they should and highlight any problems. It includes an inspection of all hoses, the puncture unit and straps as well as a full activation and inflation of the system to check for leaks and bag damage. Once complete, customers are issued with a full report. If any problems arise during the inspection process, customers will be contacted to discuss what options are available with regards to repairing their ABS system.
If you have an unused activation unit and handle, please include this with the ABS bag that you are having serviced. These will be used to perform the test activation and a new ABS Activation unit will be returned with the serviced bag.
If you do not include an activation unit with the bag at the time of inspection, you will not receive a new unit upon return of the serviced bag.
ABS servicing takes place at our Covent Garden and Port Solent locations. Your ABS bag will be transferred to and from one of these locations for its inspection. Please allow at least 1 week for transportation and servicing. Feel free to contact one of our stores for more information on this service.
Inspection Service: £45.00
ABS Activation Unit Exchange
Snow+Rock can facilitate the exchange of ABS Activation units should you need a new or refilled canister. To complete this exchange customers must bring in and surrender BOTH the activation handle and the canister (full or empty), which will then allow them to purchase a full and current activation unit for £20.00.
If customers are unable to surrender an activation handle and canister, then a new Activation unit will need to be purchased for £79.99
BCA Canister Refill
Snow+Rock can facilitate the return and refill of used BCA Float canisters. We will work with customers to either ship and return their cylinder or exchange it with one that is in stock.
The refill service for BCA canisters is in the region of £25.00