Avalanche Airbags, AvaLungs, and Other Avalanche Devices
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—not to be
entrained in an avalanche in the first place. 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
Tracker avalanche transceivers,
now in the airbag business, we are likely to see many more airbags in North
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. Also, 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 more above treeline. By comparison, a higher percentage of North American incidents
occur at 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 (almost
$700 for even 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 to 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), with 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
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 an ABS dealer or refilled at an
ABS facility (with only one thus far in all of North America). 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
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 compatibility,
are not found on all airbag packs, because some section 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
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.
The 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 quiver.
Packs designed by R.A.S. and sold by Mammut and Snowpulse allow all of the airbag
mechanics to be removed when not needed, thereby freeing up pack space and lowering
the weight, and allows you to transfer the airbag mechanics to another R.A.S.-compatible
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
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 remotely.
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.
The AvaLung is a snorkel-like device that you put in your mouth. You then breath
in oxygen-rich air from the front of your body and exhale the CO2 saturated air near
your back. (The excessive CO2, not the lack of O2, is what asphyxiates you.) The challenge
might be getting and keeping the mouthpiece in your mouth, with several documented cases
where this was a problem,
but there are also several
cases of survival due to the AvaLung.
On December 14, 2010, Black Diamond announced a recall of some AvaLung packs that
were manufactured during 2010, because the intake tubing on certain 2010 AvaLung packs
may crack under extremely cold temperatures. You can determine if your AvaLung pack
has been recalled by checking the PO number on the tag within your pack.
Learn more here.
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. Visit the manufacture's