Avalanche Airbag Pack Basics
The sound is unmistakable. A loud rumble accompanied by the sensation of having the rug pulled out from under you. In seconds you’re rushing downslope, tumbling, caught in a washing machine of snow, rock, and wood. The sky fades in and out and you gasp for air as you’re force-fed thick, suffocating snow. Moving at 60 miles an hour, you’re helpless to stop the cascade.
You reach for the small handle located on your shoulder, and a sudden “whoosh” fills your ears. Large sacs of air deploy around you and you start to rise to the surface. After a minute, the deluge begins to slow and you find yourself on top of the massive debris pile. You have a severely broken leg, and you scream for your partners. Fortunately, you’re visible and able to be reached quickly. A traumatic ride, but at least you’re alive.
The idea behind an avalanche airbag, or ‘balloon’ pack, is that it will ultimately save your life by preventing you from becoming buried. But an airbag only works if it has a chance to do its job. If you’ve wandered into unforgiving terrain, chances are no piece of mitigation equipment is going to save you. An airbag is not a reason to travel into dangerous territory, it is simply a tool to supplement good decision-making.
The following is a breakdown of airbag technology and manufacturers.
The avalanche airbag was invented in Europe during the 1980s as a supplement to already proven equipment such as the beacon, shovel, and probe. Based on the principle of inverse segregation, which states that larger objects generally rise to the surface, the airbag promised to be the single most important invention in avalanche safety. The original packs, designed by ABS, were a simple design of one inflatable bag and a cable-pull trigger system. As the designs were tweaked and the idea caught on, companies like ABS began innovating better materials and deployment systems for use by the general public. It wasn’t long before the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research began testing the packs in a scientific manner in order to quantify the effectiveness of avalanche airbags.
The Present Scene
Several decades have gone by, and the landscape of airbag packs has dramatically changed. Several manufacturers are now in full production of some sort of flotation system, and the number continues to grow. Sorting through the long list of options can be overwhelming, but essentially they all offer the same lifesaving technology in slightly different packaging.
The O.G. airbag company, ABS, keeps its roots in German engineering by providing innovative designs and proven results. The current incarnation utilizes a dual bag system based around a compressed gas (nitrogen) cylinder.
A small explosive trigger charge similar to a shotgun primer is imbedded in the handle, which activates a pin that punctures the gas cylinder. Air from the cylinder then rushes into the bags and allows the Venturi valves to initiate. Ambient air rushes through the valves and fully inflates the bags. The giant red butterfly wings provide flotation and mechanical protection from objects like trees and rocks. Since there are two independent bags, if one gets shredded, the other will remain inflated. Pack manufacturers like The North Face, Dakine, and Burton offer models that either have the base unit integrated or are compatible zip-on options. The North Face also offers an avy vest for those looking for a more compact package. Dakine’s Altitude zip-on series is based on the ABS Vario Platform and provides ample storage space and efficient designs. I use the Altitude 40L as my ski patrol and mountain guide pack. Right: Backcountry.com athlete Andrew McLean with his ABS pack. Photo: Re Wikstrom
Snowpulse / Mammut
A slightly different system, these packs use a single “life bag” that either pillows behind your head or wraps around the upper torso, shoulders, neck, and head for better protection. This system uses compressed air, much like a SCUBA tank, and therefore you can refill the canister yourself after deployment. However, this requires special equipment, patience, and skill. The trigger is a mechanical pull cord that can be reused, unlike the ABS, which requires you to purchase a new activation unit after each deployment. The mechanical ripcord is also less susceptible to accidental inflation. Snowpulse has partnered with Mammut to offer a wide variety of bags; like the ABS Vario system, the base airbag component can be paired with packs of different sizes and designs, including vests. Left: A patroller from Snowbird Resort packing his Snowpulse pack. Photo: Re Wikstrom
Backcountry Access (BCA)
The Float series from Backcountry Access is compact and uses refillable compressed air and a mechanical trigger. Various pack sizes are available and this is one of the most affordable systems on the market. K2 has recently acquired BCA, so you’ll also see some K2 packs out there that utilize the BCA technology.
The Black Diamond and Pieps Jetforce system uses a completely new, different inflation technology combined with Black Diamond’s award-winning pack designs. Instead of a trigger/canister combo, these packs use a powerful rechargeable fan to inflate the airbag in seconds. Once the snow has settled, it automatically deflates after 3 minutes, providing the wearer with an air pocket in case he or she is buried. Unlike the canister systems, you can inflate/deflate as much as you like; the battery charge is usually good for multiple inflations, and the hassle of dealing with refilling is a thing of the past. Plus, since it uses an electric fan, there are no air travel issues with a Jetforce airbag backpack.
Traveling with an Airbag Pack
An additional caveat of airbags at this point includes difficulty traveling on airplanes. TSA is not too keen on carrying compressed air cylinders and explosive triggers aboard aircraft in the U.S. In Europe it’s less of an issue and hence more prevalent in the Alps. If you purchase an airbag in your home state and then travel to AK or abroad, you will likely have to leave the activation units at home and rent or buy one at your destination. Most heli-ski operators allow airbags, and companies like Chugach Powder Guides provide every client with a Mammut airbag pack while in the field. Read more about how to fly with an airbag pack.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to realize that an airbag is not the silver bullet of avalanche safety. There is no substitute for education, and the best means of survival is not getting caught in the first place. I’d also encourage people contemplating investing in an airbag to read this article by Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center. Take care out there, and come home safely.