Avalanche airbags

Here's a brief rundown on what's available Avalanche Airbag wise for the 2014/15 season - it’s not exhaustive by any means, but covers the major manufacturers in Europe. 

Avalanche airbag packs are quickly becoming the fourth piece of must-have gear for backcountry travelers, along with transceiver, shovel and probe. If you are caught in a slide, you pull a handle attached to the shoulder strap of your pack and a pressurized cartridge inflates the airbag, which helps to keep you near the surface of the avalanche and more visible to rescuers.

Properly worn and deployed airbag packs have been shown to be effective in increasing your chances of survival if you are caught in an avalanche. They work on the principle of “Inverse Segregation,” sometimes known as the Brazil Nut Effect. This principle holds that in a moving aggregate of objects large and small (like an avalanche), the larger objects will rise to the top. You can demonstrate this with a bowl of unshelled mixed nuts by shaking it – the larger Brazil nuts will tend to rise to the top, while smaller varieties will sink to the bottom. Deploying an avalanche airbag during a slide effectively turns you into a larger object and greatly increases the chance of you ending up on top of the debris pile when the avalanche stops moving.

 

Up until recently I hadn’t purchased one - partly it was the financial outlay - mainly the weight and comfort on top of an already heavy amount of gear to carry, but also that I wanted to consciously rely on my judgement. However, I'm aware that I'm having to make rational decisions in a very grey area a lot of the time and as a professional, I'm more likely to end up in an avalanche at some point in my career. I have mainly been using the BCA Float 32L since last season and this is the sac I currently favour and took to Gulmarg, India this winter. I have tried all the systems described below and although I am not going to be definitive and say this is the one to get, as much as I like the BCA Float 32L, I am pretty impressed with the Black Diamond JetForce.

Despite my reservations about people’s attitudes to wearing them (they should always be seen as an addition to smart, knowledge-based avalanche risk assessment and NOT a substitute), you can’t argue with the statistics that IF you manage to deploy your airbag you have an appreciably better chance of survival.

ABS 

ABS started it all off in 1985 and most of the airbag statistics come from ABS tests. They are of the twin (85L each) bag type to provide a large surface area to float you to the top with the backup of 2 bags just in case one doesn't deploy/gets punctured. ABS argues that the wing design puts the victim in an horizontal position and thus exposed to less dynamic forces of the avalanche. The SLF (Swiss Avalanche Institute) in Davos found inconclusive evidence for this as opposed to 'single pillow' bags.

The lighter ABS Powder line (8L to 26L options) is complemented by the ABS Vario line (8L to 45+5L options). Weights were slightly reduced across the board last season with a thermoform back system and more adjustability. The ABS system differs from other packs in that it is filled with Nitrogen and a sealed CO2 cartridge trigger unit. There no valves cables or filling gauges to deal with as in all the compressed air packs. The trigger comes in the form of a removable handle with explosive charge. This sends a shockwave down the line to pierce the cartridge and inflating the two airbags. The airbags' side deployment prevents carrying your skis as an A frame but does allow for rear mounted diagonal sling. Pulling the trigger is very easy which can be embarrassing on the lift - you should detach or stow away all airbag triggers when on lifts. The trigger is easy to attach/detach but beware it can fall off if iced up and not attached properly. It is also easily lost from the stow pocket so most people attach it with cord to the strap to prevent this.

 

   ABS Vario 15L

ABS Vario 15L

There are plenty of shops in Europe that exchange the ABS cartridges. The ABS system is fully certified for air travel but I think having an explosive charge creates problems when travelling to more exotic destinations. Be prepared to argue your case and I always carry a copy of the IATA regulations with the paragraph on avalanche airbags highlighted in addition to attaching one round the detached cylinder in my hold luggage.

The packs are well made and come in an array of colours and sizes but on the whole tend to be more expensive and heavier than their competitors. The Vario system allows you to zip on and off different sized packs from various partner manufacturers from the base ABS unit.

Mammut/Snowpulse

Snowpulse was the second company to enter the market and was recently acquired by Mammut. They have revised the 1.0 cylinder system, the new 2.0 being easier to fill and uses the same thread as the ABS units. It's therefore now compatible with their carbon cylinder which saves a load of weight.  I found the old V1.0 rather uncomfortable due to the wide shoulder straps and my bony shoulders.

The Protection system (formally Snowpulse Protection Airbag System (PAS)/Lifebag)  is unique in the deployment of the airbag from the zipped shoulder compartment creating a 150L cushion round your head and protecting your vital organs. Again, whilst some tests showed that it helped float the victim upright, SLF showed that their results were inconclusive overall. There are various sac options in the 2014/15 range starting with a Protection vest 4L through the Rocker 15L, Ride 22L, Light 30L and Pro 35L.

   Mammut Pro Protection Airbag

Mammut Pro Protection Airbag

The RAS line developed by Mammut have a single 150L pillow like the BCA packs. It allows you to detach all your airbag internals and use it as a stand-alone rucksack. The old 1.0 system had a webbing loop pull handle, which wasn't the easiest to grab and a 'pin release' cylinder. The new 2.0 system has a plastic handle that folds neatly out of a zipped pocket. The handle is attached to a mechanical cable, which punctures the copper 'burst disc' on the cylinder and releasing compressed air into the bags. They are all refillable at most European stockists and are covered for air travel under the IATA regulations. These quality made bags are available in Rocker 15L, Light 30L Ride 22L and 30L and Pro 45L.

 

   Mammut Ride Removable Airbag

Mammut Ride Removable Airbag

BackCountry Access (BCA)

BCA entered the market a few years ago and they have developed a range of sacs over the past seasons and now have the Float 22L, 25L, 27L, 32L and 42L aimed at different users from heliskiers to snowmobilers to mountain professionals. This system is activated by a handle and mechanical cable line similar to others. The airbag inflates a 150L pillow behind your head and floats you head up. The beauty of this system is its simplicity, the cylinders can be filled from any compressed air source that can pump out 3000psi e.g dive shops, paintball shops (not sure where you find one of those in a ski resort) and of course, participating ski shops. The system is covered by the IATA regulations and has now gained TUV approval for sale in Europe.

The sacs are well made and very reasonable in price. The pull handle works well and is easy to grab with gloves on. It’s also one of the lightest packs on the market due to the simple and straightforward design. BCA have an online guide outlining where you can get your cylinder refilled in Europe. In Chamonix, you can see the range and get refilled at Concept Pro Shop. Overall, the BCA refill method has got to be the most straightforward and hassle-free.

   BCA Float 22

BCA Float 22

JetForce

JetForce is the first Avalanche Airbag Technology to use jet-fan inflation, a breakthrough system that draws air from an unlimited source: the atmosphere. Testable, re-deployable and travel friendly, JetForce is the result of a multiyear collaboration between Black Diamond and PIEPS, two leaders in avalanche safety equipment. Using Black Diamond’s expertise in engineering and backcountry travel, JetForce features numerous developments over existing airbag technologies, from an intuitive deployment trigger to a proprietary tear-resistant and easily repackable airbag fabric. To design JetForce’s electronics, Black Diamond turned to PIEPS to apply their knowledge of digital engineering from their transceiver products for JetForce’s electrical systems, from the ‘good-to-go’ self-diagnosis on startup to the system-status LED monitors mounted in the trigger. It uses a single pillow style 200L bag to keep you afloat, which is one of the largest volumes in any system - bigger is better!

 

   Black Diamond Halo 28L

Black Diamond Halo 28L

Having had a chance to get my hands on one, they do look well designed and constructed with the usual Black Diamond quality. Available as a Pilot 11L, Halo 28L and Saga 40L option retailing for around $1200+. Sister companies, PIEPS do a Pro 34L version and POC do a Thorax 11L version. Having spoken to folks who have used them, despite a few 'turning themselves off' and battery issues they have been happy with their choice. The Halo 28L carries really nicely and I appreciated the central. low positioning of the battery to balance out the sac.

 

   POC Thorax 11L

POC Thorax 11L

Some of the 'marketing hype’ benefits over the existing systems:

  • Easy air travel, little to no restrictions on the batteries as they’re no different than laptop batteries. NO hassle with canisters.
  • As many practice deployments as you desire, battery good for 1 to 6 full inflations depending on temperature and age, Battery is rechargeable.
  • Slightly lighter in weight than compressed gas offerings.
  •  Automatic deflation cycle can possibly create airspace around head in the event of burial.
  • Airbag stuff-stows loosely after use, pack it in minutes, no folding or other tangled origami.
  • Fan is set to cycle on periodically during 3 minute inflation period per CE standards, this can overcome up to 6 inch tear in the fabric.

Click here to see a video on the JetForce system from the Winter Outdoor Retail Expo in Salt Lake City

Black Diamond wanted to get this product launched for the 2014/15 season and according to my sources there, they already have version 2 in the testing programme... "On the JetForce front...it's gonna be late to launch.  It passed all testing requirements but got held up on the Lithium batteries.  Not sure of the official release date.  It's an awesome product.  Skied with one last winter and loved it.  The next generation will be better as we lighten the air bag itself and create a smaller battery pack.”

All these airbags work really well, having the same basic function. I have tried at least one of the currently available models from each manufacturer and for me it would boil down to cost, weight, comfort and after sales service. I'm not keen on the ABS systems due to the explosive charge and relatively complicated system. They also feel quite heavy compared to other airbags of a similar size. I have skied with a Snowpulse 1.0 and liked the idea of the round-the-head protection but the sac was uncomfortable for me, and the trigger awkward to deploy. Note that if you've one of the older Snowpulse systems you should check the cylinder: the Snowpulse cartridges for the “Inflation System 1.0” have a defective pressure gauge and must be replaced. For more information check here.

In conclusion, as of last season (2013/14), I was recommending either the Mammut RAS or the BCA Float systems. I would need the larger sizes to accommodate all the extra gear I need to carry for daily use and I would just be able to squeeze in everything for a multi-day excursion. The 20L and below bags are more for lift access day use, rather than multi-day.

There are pros and cons with each system - there is no "This is the one to buy" - the decision is rather "Do I want/need an Airbag" and once you have made that decision it is a case of choosing the one that best fits your needs:

  • What type of riding will you be doing when you use this pack? Heli-accessed lines call for a smaller, more streamlined pack than multi-day hut touring, for example.
  • Where will you be traveling with this pack? Different airlines have different rules and regulations regarding traveling with airbag packs and cartridges, so be sure to check with your airline before you fly. In some cases, you may need to travel with an empty cartridge and refill or replace it upon arrival. The availability of filled cartridges and qualified refilling stations also varies by location.
  • Do you want the potential to transfer the airbag and inflation mechanism from one pack to another? Some makes and models offer this option, which makes it possible to use the same airbag interior features with multiple sizes and styles of packs.
  • Does the pack fit you torso length and body type? Some models are available in more than one length.
  • What is your budget? Avalanche airbag packs come in a wide variety of price points.
  • Will the ski or snowboard carry system for this pack work for you? Some avalanche airbag packs limit the ways you can attach items without blocking the airbag apparatus.
  • Is the pack comfortable when weighted for your typical use? 
  • Think about whether you’re more comfortable pulling the cord with your right or left hand. Some models offer the option of switching sides. This is mainly aimed at the snowmobile market where you have the throttle in your right hand and will want to pull with your left, but has a spin-off for the left handed out there.

Whichever one you buy, practice pulling the handle before you have to use it. You definitely have to pull harder with some packs than others. Don't forget to wear the crotch strap or you could end up losing the bag over your head (not a good idea). The most important thing is to not lose sight of the importance of not getting avalanched in the first place. There is value in investing some of your time and money on a well constructed avalanche course to increase your knowledge and adopting a risk reduction methodology to your backcountry decision making.

Finally, here is a link to download the Dangerous Goods Regulations, 56th edition effective from 1st Jan 2015 that is worth taking with you on any IATA regulated flight (i.e. outside of the U.S.A.) and produce it when needed. I flew with my full canister to Srinagar, India via Geneva, Brussels, Dehli and Srinagar in my hand luggage (which was my BCA Float 32L sac with the cabling disconnected from the canister) and had to show the certificate at each airport but had no problem. However, on the return flight, I had to put the canister in my hold luggage at Srinagar. As a military airport they didn't want me to have it in my hand luggage.

For a really comprehensive test of all the currently available Avalanche Airbags, take a look at this recent article from Outdoor Gear Lab

Check out the KLIFRA online store - European stockists of BCA 22L and 27L airbags and for 2015/16 season, the Black Diamond Jetforce range as well. In my opinion, If you decide that you would like an airbag, these are currently the 2 best options on the market.