In addition to being proficient with an avalanche beacon, how about not being buried in the first place?
assured approach for that goal is, quite obviously, to not get caught in an avalanche. Failing that, the
selection of airbag backpacks in North America has increased rapidly in recent years, accompanied with a
slight decrease in both price and weight for some models.
In contrast to your likely first impressions, airbag packs work not through enhanced buoyancy but instead
through the principle of inverse segregation: whether in a box of cereal, a can of mixed nuts, or a moving
mass of avalanche debris with entrained objects, bigger objects are more likely to stay higher in the mix.
A deployed airbag simply makes you bigger, which helps keep you on the surface. And unlike an automotive
airbag, even the airbag packs that are designed to wrap around the wearer still leave most of your body
exposed to trauma.
So do they really work? Yes. How well? A 2014 peer-reviewed study by an international team of researchers
analyzed databases from several nations, including the U.S., Canada, and many European alpine countries.
analysis was restricted to incidents in which both airbag pack wearers and non-wearers were seriously
researchers developed a sophisticated model to control for various factors in order to isolate the effect
of airbag packs. Perhaps the most salient single statistic is that out of every 100 skiers who have died
in avalanches, 36 would have lived had they been equipped with airbag packs. (Read
a more accessible version of the peer-reviewed study as published by The Avalanche Review.)
Why weren’t more lives saved? First, as previously noted, airbags can do little to mitigate the human
body’s traumatic exposure to the multiple impacts from trees and rocks in an avalanche path runout: somewhere
around one-fourth to one-third of all avalanche victims die from trauma, not asphyxiation. Second, some
airbag users do manage to stay on top of one debris flow only to be simultaneously buried by an another
debris flow—this often occurs in larger avalanches. Third, airbag packs were successfully deployed
in only about 80% of the incidents in the study’s database. In more than half of the failed deployments
the victim never managed to pull the trigger.
Saving more than one out of every three avalanche fatalities is still an impressive safety record. Offset
against the increased survival rate though is the cost and, for self-propelled skiers, the weight penalty
of about three to five pounds.
Four different types of systems are available for the 2014-15 season—with widely varying costs and inconveniences
for both resetting the system and for air travel.
Summary of Different Systems for Practice and Air Travel
4+ deployments per charge then plug in to recharge
Like a laptop or any other rechargeable Li battery
If commercial air travel within or from the
United States is an important concern, ignore the citations by the International Air Transport
Association whose so-called regulations are merely suggestions from an industry council with no direct
implications for the actual rules followed by the Transportation Security Administration.
If you are particular about pack features, don’t take anything for granted. Some common backpack features,
such as a ski carrying system and hydration bladder, are not found on all airbag packs, because some portion
of the pack must split apart for airbag deployment. Also, specified weights may not include a charged cylinder
and specified capacities may not exclude the space occupied by the airbag system. In sum, do not assume
anything unless you verify it on the particular pack model and model year that you are considering. It's
also important to check out the trigger system in person: you don’t want to be the one out of every ten airbags
users who were unable to pull the trigger!
This is a backpack-like device that contains a non-inflated, internally supported ball (like a "Chinese
lantern"). When an avalanche strikes, you pull a rip-cord to deploy the ball which is tethered to the
end of a 12-meter cord. The ball remains above the snow—or so you hope. Rescuers follow the cord to the
victim. It sounds like a lot of shoveling... The avalanche ball is essentially an update to the original
avalanche cords from days of old. Neither the original nor this more modern reincarnation have any documented
saves. Don't confuse this with an avalanche air bag, above, which prevents you from being buried in the