In addition to being proficient with an avalanche beacon, how
about not being buried in the first place?
The only 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 accompanied
with a slight
in both price and weight. With Backcountry Access, the company that
makes the popular
transceivers, now in the airbag business, we are likely to see
many more airbags in North America.
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 pack simply makes you bigger, which helps keep you on the
surface. And unlike an automotive airbag, airbag packs are typically
not designed to provide protection from trauma.
So do they really work? Yes. How well? Only the original airbag
company, ABS, has an established track record and almost all of
the documented statistics (compiled by an independent Swiss government
institute) are from European incidents which tend to occur above
treeline. By comparison, a higher percentage of North American incidents
occur below treeline where trees and rocks lead to a higher rate
of death by trauma.
those caveats aside, the statistics do prove that many skiers and
riders are alive thanks to their airbag packs. Depending on how
you interpret the data, for every 100 skiers who have died in avalanches,
somewhere between 35 to 77 would have lived had they been equipped
with airbag packs. Click
here to see a detailed review of the data. (You can subscribe
to articles like this from the
American Avalanche Association.)
Offset against the increased survival rate is the high price
for an airbag pack ($500 for the least-expensive models) and, for
self-propelled skiers, the weight penalty of a least a few pounds
(varying widely by model). In America, snowmobilers seem to have
taken to the airbags more quickly than the backcountry ski and snowboard
community. Maybe that's because snowmobilers have already invested
serious dough into their sleds, maybe it's because the weight
isn't meaningful when you have a rocket taking you up the mountain,
or maybe it's because they're quicker to endorse new machinery.
The “engines” for airbag packs are currently made by the following
four companies who have also partnered with other companies who
make their own products:
ABS, with partners ARVA, Dakine, Dynastar, EVOC, Millet,
Ortovox, Rock Snake, Rossignol, Salewa, and The North Face
Snowpulse and Mammut (the latter having purchased the former,
with airbags marketed under both names) and partner Scott
Many dozens of different models are available, with many models
being introduced and discontinued each year, as would be expected
from a market in its relative infancy. The following sections highlight
some significant differences across brands.
Cylinder Refilling and Airline Transportation
Many of these companies prominently quote excerpts from the
relevant rules of the International Air Transport Association
which state that airbags can be transported on commercial airplanes
even if fully charged. The companies rarely reveal that the U.S.
Transportation Safety Administration and other national regulators
can devise their own rules.
The ABS gas cylinder uses compressed nitrogen, with an explosive
trigger, both of which raise more potential complications and prohibitions
for airline travel. Empty ABS cylinders can be exchanged for full
cylinders at ABS dealers. ABS is also unique in using two independent
airbags, on each side of the pack, whose
benefits ABS proposes.
By contrast, the other airbags use regular compressed air and
can be refilled at numerous types of facilities, including SCUBA
shops, paintball gun dealers, and fire stations. This allows you
to take an empty cylinder on a plane and refill it at your destination.
The various competitors also differ from ABS in deploying a single
bag, which is located behind the user’s head, except for Snowpulse
Lifebag packs whose bag has a more complicated wrap-around design
for possible trauma protection. (Snowpulse’s R.A.S. bags, also sold
in versions by its parent company Mammut, employ a rectangular style.)
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.
Do not assume anything unless you verify it on the particular pack
model and model year that you are considering.
Size and Versatility
Pack volumes tend to be clustered in a fairly narrow range, from
accommodating sidecountry essentials to supporting a multi-day hut-based
tour. However, recent innovations have increased the versatility
of airbag packs.
ABS line is primarily focused on a base unit that contains the airbag
mechanics plus the strap system to carry it all. Then a separate
pack zips on to carry whatever else you want bring along. This allows
ABS to have far more partners than the competition (since the partners
need to design only the zip-on component) and allows one base unit
to serve as the mechanics for multiple-sized packs in your pack
Packs designed by R.A.S. and sold by Mammut and Snowpulse allow
all of the airbag mechanics to be removed when not needed, which
frees up pack space and lowers the weight, and allows you to transfer
the airbag mechanics to another R.A.S.-compatible pack.
Ease of Deployment
A detailed analysis of Canadian avalanche incidents in which
at least one party member was knocked down or buried found that
only 63 percent of airbag users were able to deploy an airbag successfully.
There have also been many cases of airbags being accidentally deployed.
Your personal ease and comfort with the handle/trigger is perhaps
the most important attribute of an airbag pack. Trigger ergonomics
vary widely. Many designs allow the handle/trigger to be swapped
by the user between the left and right shoulder strap. And ABS is
unique is allowing a guide or other group leader to activate packs
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing
Engineering and Automation, in Germany, have been working with ABS
Peter Aschauer to create a wireless, remotely triggered airbag.
This causes all airbags to be deployed if any one airbag is deployed
as shown in this video.
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 first place.