The Ultimate Guide to Avalanche AirbagsPublished on 12/20/2021 · 9 min readVenturing into the backcountry? Ski Expert Hunter R. overviews why you need an avy pack, how they can help you, and how to choose the right one for your needs.
Looking to head out into the backcountry? It's probably a good idea to bring along an avy pack.
What is an avalanche airbag backpack?
An avalanche airbag pack may look like just a backpack to most, but it can be a lifesaving tool for backcountry travelers. Avalanche airbag packs are backpacks that contain a large, inflatable airbag and a built-in, super-fast inflation mechanism like a compressed air canister or high-speed electric fan. These features allow your backpack to transform into a large balloon-type structure with just the pull of a handle. When caught in an avalanche, this structure can increase your chance of survival.
You may be asking, but how?
Airbags help in a few ways; the first way is referred to as the “Brazil nut effect.” The idea is that when there's a large mass of moving objects—as there would be in an avalanche—the lightweight, larger objects will rise to the top while the heavy, smaller objects will sink to the bottom. By having the inflated airbag connected to your person as you are being carried by the avalanche, your chances of staying on top of the snow, or at least being buried more shallowly, are a bit better.
The second way airbags help is because inflated airbags are large and bright orange. If a partner or rescue team is looking for you, they have a higher likelihood of seeing you with your bag deployed. In the case that you are buried, your surface area would be larger so your rescuers would have a higher chance of finding you faster (they’ll know they found you if they hit your bag with their probes).
The last main way airbags help is through trauma protection to your head and neck. The airbag inflates on top of the pack, so a deployed airbag provides some stability and shelter to your head and neck as you are being jostled through a moving avalanche.
Do they actually work?
There is a lot of conversation around the effectiveness of avalanche airbags. A lot of factors come into play, but in short, when worn and used properly, avalanche airbags do work in increasing survival rates among people caught and carried in avalanches. It’s worth noting that around 80% of people who are caught and carried in avalanches survive. The statistics on airbags is that they increase your survival rate by about 10 to 15%, which to me, is a good reason to add the extra weight.
Avalanches range in severity, and the terrain you are traveling in plays a huge role when considering if these packs will help you or not. If it's high-consequence terrain, having an avalanche airbag increases your survival rate by very little. If it’s low-consequence terrain, having one increases your chances by quite a bit.
There’s a lot of debate in the numbers, mostly because avalanche research is difficult; there are so many factors and considerations and many avalanches go unreported. For more information about this, here’s an easy-to-understand post by the Utah Avalanche Center that breaks down some of the main factors of avalanche airbag efficacy.
The two types of airbag inflation systems:
Compressed Air / Gas Cylinder
This type of inflation mechanism utilizes a metal or carbon-fiber canister of pressurized air that fills up the airbag quickly when a handle on the shoulder strap of the pack is pulled. This system has been around much longer than electric fans and is a bit more reliable. The main issue is that the canister must be replaced or refilled after one use. This can get expensive and be a headache to figure out where to fill it. It also disincentivizes people from practicing with their airbag pack or pulling it in “maybe” situations. It is also a bit more of a hassle to travel with, as airports don’t love it when you bring pressurized air on board.
This is a newer technology that uses a battery-operated, high-speed fan to quickly fill up your airbag. You don’t need to purchase canisters and you can practice much more easily since the limiting factor of how many times you can deploy it isn't the number of canisters you have, but the charge on the battery (and you can deploy the airbag multiple times on the same battery). Electric fans are more expensive right off the bat, but the batteries are rechargeable which saves you some money in the long run. It’s also much easier to move through airports with this type of inflation system.
Other factors to consider…
Briefly touched on above, if you are someone who frequently travels by airplane to ski, avalanche airbags can add an extra layer of headache to air travel. Make sure you get something that is easy to travel with, such as a bag with an electric fan.
These can get heavy, so weight is definitely a consideration to take into account when shopping around.
Some packs are designed more for skis and require an add-on to be able to carry splitboards. If you are a splitboarder expecting to do some boot packing, make sure you get a pack that will work well for carrying your board. Some packs have a ski carry that is set up in a way that prevents the pack from inflating if you are carrying your skis. If you are a bootpacking skier, make sure you get something with a diagonal carry, as opposed to an A-frame carry, so it doesn't inhibit your airbag. To learn more about carrying your skis with an avy pack, check out this article.
Ability to Transfer Mechanism from Pack to Pack
Some packs allow their airbag mechanism to be removed from the pack and transferred to another pack. This could be helpful if you are stuck between wanting a smaller pack for day tours and something to take on week-long hut trips.
Most packs have this, but if you find yourself touring with a helmet strapped to your pack, this will make your tours more enjoyable.
Airbag Pack Options
Here are some of the most common airbag pack options you’ll see with a few features and specs to help you in your search for an avalanche airbag.
Black Diamond Jetforce Tour Pack
The Black Diamond Jetforce has won a few awards since it came out in 2020 for its electric fan mechanism called the Alpride E1 Airbag system. It is charged by supercapacitors that allow you to recharge using either a micro-USB in under an hour or two AA batteries if you are out in the field.
Another pack in this line is the Black Diamond Jetforce Pro, which uses a fan mechanism, has Bluetooth capabilities for some customization, automatically deflates after three minutes (if you are buried, this gives you a pocket of air), and is available in a few different sizes with attachments to add more storage or make it splitboard-friendly. The Jetforce Ultralight, which uses a two-canister system (not refillable canisters) and is a little over four pounds, is the lightest on the market.
- Special Features: One of the lightest on the market. Charges quickly and can be charged in the field.
- Cartridge or Fan: Fan with rechargeable battery
- Weight: 5 lb, 9 oz for the small/medium size and 5 lb, 13 oz for the medium/large size.
BCA Float 12 Avalanche Airbag
Backcountry Access makes a few different packs in its BCA Float line. The brand has multiple sizes in the classic Float airbag, a few Float packs that are specific for snowmobiling, and a Float Vest with enough pockets for all your gear. They all use refillable canisters, which can be refilled at scuba shops or paintball shops. These airbags are on the lower end when it comes to price and are really well made.
- Special Features: The canister is easily refillable which makes this more wallet-friendly than some other options.
- Cartridge or Fan: Refillable canister
- Weight: 6 lb
A bit newer on the market, Arc’teryx has the Voltair in a 20 and 30-liter size. It has a rechargeable battery and it’s a bit more waterproof than some of the other options on this list.
- Special Features: Entirely waterproof with taped seams on the zippers.
- Cartridge or Fan: Fan with rechargeable battery
- Weight: 7 lb, 7 oz
Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0
Mammut makes the Pro Protection airbag in a 35 or 45-liter size, so it’s nice for longer trips. It uses a gas canister inflation mechanism. The Pro Protection has won a few awards for being comfortable, mostly due to its aluminum frame design that helps with carrying heavier loads. It is pretty heavy-duty and has all the bells and whistles you could think of in a pack.
- Special Features: Small packing volume for the airbag, so more room in your pack. Canisters are easy to refill. Quite comfortable.
- Cartridge or Fan: Refillable canister
- Weight: 6.3 lb
How to take care of your airbag and when to replace it
When you get your airbag pack, it will come with a note from the manufacturer about how and how often to service or inspect your airbag pack to ensure it’s in tip-top condition in the unfortunate circumstance that you may need to use it. In general, the recommendation is to do a test deployment at the beginning of each season and a thorough inspection (looking for any rips, holes, or weak spots) after each backcountry deployment.
Most companies that manufacture airbag packs also offer a maintenance and inspection service where you can send your pack to them and they will do basic maintenance, an inspection, test the deployment capabilities, and then send it back to you. How often you want to do this will mostly depend on how often you use your pack, but once you decide on a bag, reach out to the manufacturer and ask, as this service varies across brands and bags!
And lastly, having an airbag back is no substitute for carrying an avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, and the knowledge of how to use them. You can have all the safety equipment in the world but if you don’t understand how to use it, it'll be useless when you need it! Take an avalanche class, get a group of friends together to practice beacon drills at the park, and use caution when traveling in avalanche terrain.
If you have any questions about avy packs or want to find the best one for your uses, reach out to a Winter Sports Expert here on Curated for help.