ABS Powder 15 Airbag Pack – First Look

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Myself, Lou and a few other WildSnow associates have been testing the new ABS Powder 15 backpack which has just been released in the US. It is super light for an airbag pack (6.33 lbs) and is ideal for slackcountry days and perhaps short tours. Avalanche airbags save lives — that is proven — but the weight they add to your kit is discouraging. With only a few days skiing with the Powder 15, we are psyched to see how the ABS packs are evolving to get lighter and lighter (stay tuned for reviews of other, larger airbag packs).

Tyler carries his heavy weight skis to put the pack carry to the test.


Like other ABS packs, the Vario and Escape series, the Powder series uses a dual airbag system that is powered by a nitrogen cartridge (for more on how this works, see my airbag overview). Also, like the Vario series, it utilizes a “zip on” system where one can attach different sized bags to the frame of the pack (called the “base unit”). Currently, only 5 and 15 liter options exist. Improved features over the Vario line include a new airbag fabric made by Zodiac that is over 1/4 pound lighter (nice!), overall reduction of mass for lighter weight, lighter weight fabric, and an easier to use metal hipbelt buckle with a slot.

Top left is the green zip on bag. Notice the buttons which allow for customization of the internal straps. On the right is the base unit, with diagonal ski carry straps attached and dangling. Below are more straps, mesh pouch, and mesh helmet carrier. Click to enlarge.

Base unit showing cartridge and one of the air bags pulled out of it's sleeve. Note the new airbag fabric. Also, you can see the bomber attachment point to the pack. Click to enlarge

Powder 15 is a zippered panel style pack with interior sleeves intended to help separate avy tools and other items. Given the tiny 15 liter pack volume, I’m not sure any separation is really necessary, but some users may like having this, and parts of the partition system would be easy to remove to reduce weight. There is also a very small pocket on the top that will fit a couple snacks or extra straps. Again, this pack is super light by current airbag pack standards, weighing 6.33 lbs with the US steel cartridge. That’s 0.6 lbs lighter than the Vario 15 and over one and half pounds lighter than much of the competition. Throw a carbon cartridge in there (once the US Dept of Transportation approves it) and shave off a further 2/3 of a pound. We are very excited about all this, and ABS appears to be leading the way.

Front tool pocket separates from main compartment with velcro. An 18 1/2 inch shovel handle doesn't fit as shown. Put it in the main compartment, diagonally and it barely fits.

The rear tool pocket, which lies against the back. Organizer straps can be customized with buttons that fit into different slots. Again, too small for this small shovel handle. You could also put a drinking bladder in there, which will hang from an included velcro strap. Also note the small gray flap on the right, that's the mini accessory pocket, accessed from the exterior.

Unfortunately, for all these weight savings, you don’t get much in volume; 15 liters is too small for full day of backcountry ski touring with a normal kit. The included accessory pouch adds an extra 6 liters or so, but even then, you’ll feel cramped. On the other hand, Powder 15 is brilliant for anyone who drops out the gate at the ski area or does short front country laps at their local pass. If I still lived in Telluride (*cough*and the upper Bear Creek gates were still open *cough*), I’d bring this pack nearly every day. Another item worth mentioning is that the 15 has a much shorter back panel than the Vario or Escape series, which can make it awkward to carry heavy loads for taller people (I’m 6’0″). To transfer the load to your hips, you have to run the shoulder straps quite slack, so that the pack rides low. Tighten everything up and you feel a little cramped. Thus, no doubt this rucksack is tailored to ‘free riders’ who don’t carry big loads, fair enough; when only carrying minimal gear, Powder 15 is a joy to ski with.

Lou took the 15 out for a ‘real’ ski tour and managed to fit in the essentials, but agreed that “along with the lack of volume, the biggest problem is the 15 (and thus other sizes in the ABS “Powder” series) is too short to spread the weight between shoulders and hips for an average height or taller person — and when you pack your backcountry gear in any airbag pack, you’re going to have some mass you need to transfer to your hips. Packed with minimal water supply and the least backcountry gear as possible, it weighed 16 pounds when I went for my tour.” Yes, it wasn’t too hard to guess that the 15 was probably just too small for true backcountry days (despite our forcing the issue). At the risk of being redundant, we should again emphasize that this is a beautiful pack, but this being WildSnow.com, we had to push it to the limit in terms of true backcountry skiing.

Get extra room by attaching the mesh helmet holder (shown). Or even better, use the mesh pouch, which will hold a helmet while carrying an extra layer inside it.

Skis are carried diagonally on the 15 (obviously, carrying them A-frame would block the airbags), using simple webbing straps that can be run through various loops on the base unit. A little tedious to setup, but once your planks are cinched down, they carry well. When not in use, you can either let the straps flap about in the wind or take them off and stow inside. I’d like to see something more dedicated and easier to use, but it’s not that hard to make your own.

The Powder 15 uses a hip belt made of neoprene that wraps completely around you and attaches with hook&loop. The actual safety harness strap goes over this and attaches with a metal buckle. The double hip belt system was in my opinion overkill — something to consider cutting off. The new metal hipbelt buckle is, however, much easier to use than the old style with the addition of a slot to feed it through. (The beefy metal buckle is necessary to keep the pack from being ripped from you in an avalanche.)

Also to prevent removal of your backpack by an avalanche, the Powder 15 provides a leg strap. The leg strap stows in a pocket on the hipbelt (where the activation handle is also kept when not in use), and when needed, is clipped to two plastic buckles on the left side of the hip belt and goes around your left leg. This can be awkward as the farther clip is hard to see and reach while the pack is on, and the buckles easily become packed with snow. A more elegant solution could involve keeping the strap clipped into one side always, and then have a nearby pocket or velcro which the rest of the strap could live in. Unfortunately, the included pocket is on the opposite side of the belt. All that said, leaving the strap buckled around your leg works fine, as it doesn’t have to be tight.

(Seeing and using the leg strap and beefy buckles on an airbag backpack does beg one question: Why are we not using similar rigging on our Avalung backpacks? More, Lou mentioned that if you’re going to have leg straps and a metal buckle on a backpack, why not design it so it doubles as a climbing harness? Wearing the ABS waist belts and leg strap, along with a climbing harness, would be rather bulky, heavy and redundant.)

Overall, the Powder 15 appears to be a well made rucksack. The base unit is solid, with lots of bar tacking. ABS uses a lighter fabric for the zip on part, which we applaud for weight savings, but you’ve got to be careful as it could tear if you’re too rough with it (I already have a small tear, but I’m not too concerned). The obvious improvement concerning the fabric of airbag packs: Use something like Dyneema so the pack can remain light but be strong. Let us hope that happens soon.

In summary: Given its small volume and short waist to shoulder length, the Powder 15 is definitely a pack to consider if you focus primarily on slackcountry and frontcountry skiing. It’s not as versatile as the ABS Vario series, which have a longer torso length and zip on bags for all sizes from 15 to 50 litres, but certainly lighter. Overall, we liked it. What’s terrific is that ABS, once you dig into their system of base units with zip ons, provides a size and type of pack for nearly everything. More, let’s say you slack country and do major backcountry, all as a lifestyle (perhaps you’re a guide, or a ski patroller, or just a 100+ days a year backcountry skier). You could have a larger zip-on loaded for big backcountry days, and a tiny one loaded for slackcountry. Depending on your day, you’d just zip your pre-loaded sack to the base unit, and you are out the door.

The Powder 15 comes with:
-CD and instruction manual
-2 skinny straps (ski or snowboard attachment)
-2 fatter straps (ditto)
-1 helmet carry mesh attachment
-1 mesh pouch attachment that also works as a helmet holder
-2 nitrogen cartridges and activation handles (one set for a test fire)

Comments

32 Responses to “ABS Powder 15 Airbag Pack – First Look”

  1. Matt Kinney February 1st, 2011 9:55 am

    Would carrying skis on the pack interfere with deployment of the airbag on any of these systems?

  2. Lou February 1st, 2011 9:57 am

    Matt, yes, you have to be careful how you carry the skis. Also, it would be pretty brutal to be caught in a slide with airbag deployed by a pair of skis strapped on there whipping you around. I’d be hoping the skis would get ripped off as soon as possible…

  3. Ryan February 1st, 2011 10:54 am

    You don’t have to add a leg loop to Avalung packs because they don’t have an airbag. Not saying it’s not a good idea, it’s just the airbag sticking out from you on these packs is what causes the violent attempt at removing the pack from you by the avalanche. Without the bag deployed it wouldn’t have the same leverage to neccessitate the loop and might be more likely to stay on.

    Obviously avys can be very violent and any effort at keeping you attached to your pack, leg loop or not, may be thwarted.

  4. Lou February 1st, 2011 11:14 am

    Ryan, that is indeed the reasoning. If that’s the case, why not just carry the beacon in the backpack? Rhetorical question. Answer of course is that backpacks of any sort can get ripped of in an avy. Hence, I’m still wondering if perhaps Avalung pack needs stronger buckles and a leg loop. I guess time will tell.

  5. Lou February 1st, 2011 11:45 am

    All, we’re going to keep covering avalanche airbag backpacks to the best of our ability. To that end, I added a dedicated category for airbag backpacks:

    http://www.wildsnow.com/category/airbag-backpacks-skiing/

    I attempted to add all airbag related posts to the category.

    Lou

  6. trevor h February 1st, 2011 12:24 pm

    Obviously Dyneema is a great solution for lightening the airbags and pack. But anybody who had to pay for their Cilogear pack :D knows that the fabric is incredibly expensive. With all Dyneema fabric, maybe this pack would clock in at over $1500??

    Sort of a taboo topic, but I’m a frequent soloist in the backcountry. One of the joys of soloing is traveling light (ie. no avy gear). So a 15L pack becomes more spacious without a probe or shovel.

    Lou, your harness / pack integration idea is genius.

  7. JakeG February 1st, 2011 12:28 pm

    Slightly off topic, but anyone know how to deflate the airbag? I was on a train from le Puet back to Chamonix last week, which is a common finish to ski tours from the Aiguilles Rouges, and a womans airbag went off. Many chuckles on the train, but we couldn’t figure out a way to deflate it. I really can’t see this happening again and certainly it was not an emergency situation, but just curious.

  8. Ryan February 1st, 2011 12:38 pm

    Lou
    I agree with you on the strap thing. Having rode a small slide with an Avalung bite valve in my mouth having some more assurance that it wasn’t going to come out would be nice. Obviously nothing is going to guarantee it but a strap would probably go a long ways.

    I personally have the bandolier and wear some non-BD packs so I feel pretty confident my Avalung isn’t going to come off but if I had it on the pack I’d think twice.

    Thanks for taking a close look at all these avy packs. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

  9. Nick February 1st, 2011 1:45 pm

    To deflate, find the valve (1 for each bag) and just lift up the red valve cover and push in the red button. See #10 on this page:
    http://www.abs-airbag.com/anleitung.php?chid=1167&m=18&lang=us&sid=559b1dcaffe2c5ca0b399b6112d296fe

    One can certainly tour with this pack, but it’s a little cramped for what most people seem to take. If you’re solo, or skiing in Europe where all you seem to need is a cell phone, then this pack could be perfect. I think I spent too much time harping on the small size of the pack, sort of a waste of breath as as the pack isn’t intended for carrying all the crap I take on longer tours.

  10. Lou February 1st, 2011 1:56 pm

    Yeah, we might have harped too much on the size. On the other hand, that was the whole idea, try to use the lightest thing they make and see what it works for. Thus, we’ve sorted it out and any of you out there who might consider such a small pack to save airbag weight now have the take. And, it works great for slackcountry.

  11. Lou February 1st, 2011 1:57 pm

    Nick, to verify, Vario line doesn’ t have the lighter weight bag fabric? That seems strange. Perhaps they have to sell out their back stock?

  12. Nick February 1st, 2011 2:16 pm

    Only the Vario 18 Ultralight uses the same fabric. The 15, 30, and 50 use a burly but heavier material.

  13. Lou February 1st, 2011 2:19 pm

    OK, Verio 18 Ultralight with a carbon cylinder. That’s my choice (grin).

  14. Eric February 1st, 2011 4:38 pm

    The zip on bag is a nice idea, but how much weight does that zipper add? I’m surprised the 15L isn’t lighter. According to your Airbag pack summary, the Snowpulse 30L weighs basically the same (6.4 lbs) and is quite a bit larger.

  15. Nick February 1st, 2011 5:07 pm

    Eric, thanks for pointing that out. I think that might be a typo. I’m going to verify the weight when I get home tonight.

  16. Nick February 1st, 2011 7:52 pm

    Ok, I just weighed my fiancé’s Snowpulse Lifebag 30L (size M) with a filled cylinder: 6.8 lbs, still very light but not the 6.4 I have in the overview chart (which is entirely based on manufacturer weights, think I should start compiling a real world weights chart). The Lifebag 30 has an advertised volume of twice that of the Powder 15, for only about a 1/2 pound extra weight. However, in reality, I estimate that there is only perhaps 50% more space in the Lifebag 30 than in the Powder 15, so it’s more like a 22 liter. Perhaps the size large is a true 30 liters?

  17. Feldy February 1st, 2011 9:57 pm

    Lou,

    I don’t quite understand why you think having a pair of skis on your back would necessarily be worse. While I can see that an airbag is soft and an airbag is hard, I would think skis would just add to your surface area and help with the whole Brazil-nut effect of keeping you up. I’ve thought about this question with respect to skis releasing from your feet (or not with the case of most tele bindings) as well. However, in this latter case, I suppose if your skis did help you float, it would likely be by bringing your feet up and thus your head lower down.

    I guess maybe (likely) there’s something I’m missing here?

    ‘nother question: it seems a beacon/shove/probe is more or less “mandatory” in the minds of most backcountry users. This is despite a setup costing, maybe $400 and weighing a few pounds. How long (if ever) ’till you think airbag packs reach this status?

  18. Lou February 2nd, 2011 9:40 am

    Feldy, what you’re missing is that being caught in anything more than the smallest avy is like being in a washing machine times 10. The skis would do something unpleasant. Probably get ripped off the backpack but perhaps tear the backpack apart if it wasn’t strong enough. Add strainer trees to the mix, and you’ve got subject matter for a horror film.

    Not sure you’re falling prey to the myth, but way too many people envision snow avalanches as something like being carried down a fast moving river. A better analogy would be a mud slide full of boulders, moving at 90 mph.

  19. Steve February 2nd, 2011 10:27 am

    Retail cost?

  20. Nick February 2nd, 2011 10:32 am

    There’s a few available online in the US for $1,159.99.

  21. Lou February 2nd, 2011 11:25 am

    Interesting point about airbags being mandatory in terms of the culture. Beacons are different, of course, since it takes two to tango. Still, who wants to dig out a dead friend? So I think airbags could become culturally mandatory. Time will tell. One thing is for sure, that won’t happen till they get lighter. Meanwhile, we can chatter about cost, but really, so long as your backpack costs less than your mountain bike, I don’t see it as an issue.

  22. Feldy February 3rd, 2011 10:26 am

    Thanks for the reply, Lou.

    I’ve thought of an avy being similar to wiping out while surfing, which sounds more or less like what your describing. I guess your point in that having your skis attached to you is like a terrain trap you’re carrying with you (maybe not the best analogy).

    I think the confusion comes in with my sentence “While I can see that an airbag is soft and an airbag is hard…” which should’ve read “While I can see that an airbag is soft and skis are hard…”

  23. Matt Kinney February 3rd, 2011 11:27 am

    Air bag….Does anyone have a picture or video with an airbag deployed with skiis on pack?

    FWIW an AK BC skier in Turnigan Pass, last weekend, survived a slide with an airbag and was able to dig out his partner.

  24. Nick February 3rd, 2011 11:53 am

    I don’t think the zipper adds much weight, it’s pretty small (but appears plenty strong enough to carry the load you’d put in this pack), but considering that at the moment only 5 and 15 liter packs are available, I’d just as soon have something that is fixed and a little lighter.

    More detail on how to deflate the bags (and how to repack) can be seen in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYmxdts1lgc

    And another thought concerning the weight difference between the Snowpulse and the ABS Powder is that the Snowpulse has only one air bag (and smaller total volume of 150L compared to ABS’s 170L), one valve, and therefore also less tubing and such. So, ABS is at a weight disadvantage with a slightly heavier system, but this is made up for in safety by having more volume in the air bags and the redundancy of 2 bags. Of course, Snowpulse also deploys their airbag in a very different manner (around the head and chest), so there are debates over safety in that respect. More discussion on this can be found in the airbag overview and in the Mystery Ranch announcement:
    http://www.wildsnow.com/3956/airbag-avalanche-mystery-blackjack/

  25. Nick February 3rd, 2011 12:16 pm

    I haven’t seen a video of deployment with skis on pack. With the skis mounted diagonally, I doubt it would be any different than w/o skis, but it would be interesting to see…

  26. graham February 3rd, 2011 1:01 pm

    @trevor: I own cilogear and have lots of crazy expensive fabric around. But even our regular packs are generally pounds lighter than the competition due to judicious elimination of crap…that said,

    I can’t say anything for sure yet, but I’d bet that next winter you’ll find that the incremental cost of getting a crazy light strong durable special cilogear fabric variant won’t be an extreme additional expense…it seems that the retail on these packs is already a pretty penny.

  27. Zak February 7th, 2011 12:32 pm

    I and several of my friends have the ABS Vario 18 Ultralight with the carbon can (ordered from Germany). I was previously using a BD Outlaw Avalung. I love it so far – plenty of room for standard Wasatch tours, carries it’s extra weight close in, etc. I’ll probably pick up the 30 or 50L pack that zips on for bigger trips. I’m seeing a lot more of them lately, I think they’ll become pretty standard soon. Hell, it cost less than the fork on my DH bike, seems cheap in the grand scheme of things.

    Just heard from my mom in AK that her friend’s husband was in a big slide recently – broken leg and ribs, but not buried due to his ABS.

  28. Eric Blumensaadt February 7th, 2011 8:26 pm

    Someday we may see small. light ABS “pack add-ons” that attatch to the top of a daypack or larger backpack. This would permit a choice of main packs and still give us airbags to protect our C-spine and head with the remaining bag volume coming down each side of our chest.

    With an airbag, a good beacon and an Avalung winter mountain travellers may have a far better chance of survival, given no physical trauma, of course.

  29. Nick February 7th, 2011 9:11 pm

    That would be pretty neat Eric, but the average pack isn’t built like an airbag pack to withstand the forces of an avalanche. The ABS Vario pack is essentially what you’re talking about, just limited to ABS and a few other manufacturer zip ons of different sizes. I’m working on a review of the Vario, stay tuned.

  30. Jeff February 23rd, 2012 8:40 am

    Can you speak more to the fit of the pack on a taller person? I’m 6’1” and am a little worried it might be uncomfortably short on my torso. I ski with a small Dakine pack now that sits pretty high on my back, but with the added weight of the airbag pack I’m thinking it might not feel as secure. Thanks!

  31. Nick Thompson February 23rd, 2012 8:46 am

    Jeff,
    If you’re used to a smaller pack it might be fine. You can’t really fit all that much in it to make it very heavy. That said, I found it too uncomfortable (I’m 6′) and will only use it for sidecountry, but even then would rather just use the Vario 18 or 15. I like to have a hipbelt that sits on my hips, not my waist.

  32. Jeff February 23rd, 2012 10:45 am

    I understand. I found a great deal on one (~$700) so I’m considering getting it for sledding and sidecountry and then getting a larger system (ABS Vario or Snowpulse) once there’s further development of the products.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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