How to Choose an Avalanche Airbag Pack
Avalanche airbag packs are fast becoming popular as more and more skiers and snowboarders are taking to the backcountry to explore untouched terrain. In the event of a slide, you simply pull the handle attached to the shoulder strap and a pressurized cartridge or electric fan inflates the airbag, helping to keep you near the surface of the avalanche and more visible to rescuers.
You may also see the term APT or Avalanche Protection Technology.
All airbag systems work on the same basic principle; a compressed gas container is internally attached to the system, and upon activation, the system releases the airbag(s) filling it with air from the canister.
To do this manufactures use different methods; ABS® systems use a small pneumatic pyrotechnic charge to puncture the canister, releasing the gas into the airbags. BCA use a cable system to release canister pins, in turn releasing the gas to inflate the airbag. In both cases, once activated, the system will inflates within 3-5 seconds, providing additional volume to help you stay out of the depths of the avalanche.
Contrary to popular belief it is not the air in the airbag that keeps you afloat in the snow. Airbag systems work on the principle of inverse segregation; the concept that an item of a higher volume will rise to the surface when agitated in a granular medium. Snow behaves differently to water in its granular state, and 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.
In the event of an avalanche, inflating an airbag increases the victim’s volume, helping keep them as high as possible in the snowpack. Properly worn and deployed, airbag packs have been shown to be effective in increasing your chances of survival if you’re caught in an avalanche. Always remember that wearing an avalanche airbag does not guarantee survival.
As with any backpack fit is important. Not all manufacturers offer a choice of torso lengths, so if you’re very tall or very short, look at brands that offer different pack volumes and sizing.
Before buying your new pack, load it with roughly the weight you intend to carry and see how the straps, back, and hip belt feel. Avalanche airbag packs have a harness strap that fastens between your legs to ensure that the pack doesn’t get torn off your body in a slide. Make sure you fasten the harness when you try it on as well.
Avalanche airbag packs can also restrict how you carry your skis or snowboard. You don’t want to block the path of the inflating airbag when travelling on avalanche risk terrain so make sure you understand the different carry options.
Think about whether you’re more comfortable pulling the cord with your right or left hand as some models offer the option of switching sides, but others do not.
The base unit design is unique to ABS®; a specific pack and harness with a built in airbag system. It does not usually come with a compartment bag attached.
The base unit system allows compartment bags of different litre sizes to be zipped on giving you completely versatility to suit your needs. 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 or those who don’t wish to carry more than the essentials. The Vario Base Unit has a larger pack size footprint and the flexibility to accommodate zip on compartment packs from various other brands aside from ABS®. The Vario is intended for riders who need larger volume zip on pack versatility.
With the Vario system, a small back size is ideal for anyone with a back length of around 18 inches (46cm) from hip to shoulder, and a large back size for anyone with a back length of around 19 inches (49cm) from hip to shoulder.
The mechanical inflation system, hoses, and airbag can all be removed from this bag. This means that the airbag system can be installed in different compatible certified packs giving you the versatility to change your pack as well as the option to use your pack out of season, without the airbag. Be aware that while it may be handy to remove the inflation system from the bag in the off season, 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.
One bag or two
Mono bags will inflate from either the top of the bag or the shoulder straps whereas a dual airbag will inflate from the sides.
A mono bag system will provide better protection to the back of your head, keeping you in an upright position. It also has the added benefit of creating a partial air pocket in the event of a burial.
A dual airbag system will hold you parallel to the surface of the snow keeping you high and flat in the debris as the avalanche occurs. This will help keep your field of vision clear to the front and sides as you are propelled forward. Another key benefit in having two bags is that if one is damaged or fails to deploy then the remaining bag should provide sufficient lift to avoid complete burial.
There are two main types of canister airbag system which incorporate two different types of compressed gas canister; one can be refilled by the consumer, the other must be refilled by the manufacturer.
The canister or cartridge is a metal or carbon fibre cylinder that holds highly pressurised gas and is used to inflate the airbag.
The BCA float system uses compressed air canisters that can be refilled multiple times. Canisters are available and can be refilled at various places including scuba and dive stores, paintball outfitters, or at Snow and Rock stores. This style of canister has a pressure gauge to help you to identify the internal pressure and whether it needs an air top up before use. There are additional parts and tools required for users who want to refill their own canisters.
ABS® have a two 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 will need to be replaced. These elements cannot be serviced by the consumer and must be returned to the manufacturer who is able to recharge the system through an industrial process.
Snow and Rock carries a large stock of activation units and we are happy to exchange used activation units provided you surrender both the handle and cylinder.
New airbag packs from Black Diamond and Arc’Teryx use battery operated fan systems to inflate the airbag and eliminate the need for cartridges. The airbag is inflated by a high speed fan, and can be reused multiple times on a single charge. This system makes air travel with your airbag much easier and gives you the ability to practice inflation of your airbag at home or on snow knowing you have more than one activation per battery charge.
Bags can vary in volume from 5 litres to 32 and can vary in size depending on the back length of the user. As you will be wearing the pack for prolonged periods of time, and primarily for safety, it is essential that the pack fits your frame size.
To find the ideal size think about the type of riding you’ll be doing, where, and often how often you’ll be using your pack. If you’re sticking to lift-served backcountry or heli-assisted lines then you’ll probably only need a little bit of food and water and possibly extra layers. 18-20 litre packs would suffice or even something smaller such as the 5 litre. Don’t forget you will need space for your shovel and probe too.
Day touring usually requires a bigger pack, around 25-35 litres. You’ll be able to fit your emergency equipment as well as extra layers, food, and any accessories. Longer trips or multi-day touring would benefit from a 40-50 litre pack.
Always remember that the airbag canister and mechanism will take up some space.
ABS® has the longest history of development and success in the avalanche airbag business, and has kept the most complete set of survival statistics. Its systems offer a double twinbag system for inflation redundancy in case one bag is punctured, and the activation handle uses a small explosive charge to drive the needle that punctures the compressed gas cartridge. Used cartridges may be recycled, but can only be refilled by ABS® and should be exchanged at an ABS® dealer. ABS® offers both “built-in” ABS® inside systems and its swappable Vario system, which allows you to zip different packs onto a Vario Base Unit. The list of ABS® partner companies is large and growing steadily and includes Dakine, Ortovox, The North Face, Quiksilver, Mountain Hardwear, and Salomon.
Mammut, purchased airbag pioneer Snowpulse® and offers two styles of airbag packs. The ‘protection’ style developed by Snowpulse® and wraps around your head and upper torso providing additional head, neck, and upper body protection. The R.A.S. (removable airbag system) uses a single overhead airbag and is swappable between any R.A.S. compatible packs. In 2014 Mammut released P.A.S. (protection airbag system); also swappable between P.A.S. compatible packs.
The Mammut cartridge is user-refillable.
Backcountry Access (BCA), offers the Float™ avalanche airbag packs in a variety of volumes. Float™ compressed air cylinders are user-with a proper adapter.
Black Diamond's Pilot, Halo, and Saga Jetforce packs use a battery-operated high speed fan to inflate the airbag, eliminating the need for cartridges. The airbag can be deployed as many as 4 times before requiring a recharge, and eliminate the common air travel issues of cartridge style packs.
Shop avalanche airbag packs.
It’s important to consider where you’ll be travelling with your airbag pack. Airlines often have different rules and regulations regarding packs and cartridges so always check with your airline beforehand.
It’s often easier to travel to and within Europe than to North America. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) have jurisdiction over all aircrafts, passengers, and freight to and from, and within, the United States, and currently do not allow any passengers to travel with pressurised canisters either in hand luggage or in hold luggage. Any international Canadian airports that are within 100miles of the US border also fall under TSA regulations.
In Europe, it’s best to contact your airline at the time of booking to notify them that you’ll be travelling with an airbag system. The increase in travellers taking airbags has created greater awareness of the systems amongst airlines and staff however be aware that if you fail to notify the 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 unregistered canisters on board.
If you need to travel with an empty cartridge and refill or replace it upon arrival always check the availability of both filled cartridges and qualified refilling stations. If you have a refillable model, it is a good idea to travel with the extra gaskets, grease, and seals you will need for the refill.
The TSA also requires travellers to demonstrate that the gas cartridge is empty. If you have an ABS® airbag pack you must also show that the activation handle is not live as there is an explosive charge in a live activation mechanism that punctures the cartridge. You will have to exchange the ABS® activation handle along with the cartridge after deployment.
As with all personal safety equipment, it is important to make sure that it is cared for, maintained, and always performing as it should. Your airbag system should be stored in a cool, dry place. If your bag are caught in wet weather, it is worthwhile to unpack the airbag to allow it to dry before repacking. Any moisture within the bag could potentially freeze whilst on the mountain locking or delaying the inflation process in an emergency.
We always recommend that you take the time to activate your system at least once a year to make sure it is still working correctly. Inspect your airbag and handle for signs of wear and tear.
It should also be 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 APS Pro dealer Snow and Rock are able to offer an ABS® approved inspection service which adheres to the recommended 3 year inspection laid out by ABS®. 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 one week for transportation and servicing.
Inspection service: £45.00
We are also able to exchange ABS® activation units should you need a new or refilled canister. To complete this exchange customers must bring in both the activation handle and the canister (full or empty).
BCA canister refill