BCA Airback Backpack, Tony’s Take

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Tony Nitti

The best triggering test is done in the field. Tony finds the pull easy and the results gratifying.

The best airbag triggering test is done in the field. Tony finds the pull fairly easy and the results gratifying. Click image to enlarge.

April in Colorado’s Elk Mountains had the winter persisting — with lingering instabilities in the snowpack. Thus, an opportune time to research airbag packs, as I’ve been considering purchasing one for next year’s backcountry skiing adventures. To that end, I spent the past few weeks touring with a WildSnow.com demo BCA Float 30, kicking the tires to see if this would be my choice. (Please note, especially anyone who is particularity interested in this father’s personal safety, I did NOT test the Float 30 in any avalanches. Sorry about that to those of you who expect the ultimate in WildSnow hands-on gear reviews.)

Overview
Before you even slip the Float 30 on your back, it offers one clear advantage over its competitors: price. The Float 30 retails for $699, making it between $350 – $450 less expensive than similarly sized offerings from other companies. Needless to say, a 30% savings in a tight economy makes the Float 30 an appealing option.

Aside from the price tag, the lingering concern keeping many from committing to an airbag pack is the weight penalty. And while at around 8 lbs the Float 30 is twice as heavy as my other ski touring pack, it is within a few ounces of most other airbag backpacks. In other words, if you want the added security of an airbag, you’re going to have to sacrifice a few pounds. But as with the cyclist who pines for the latest carbon frameset, you can either agonize over the additional weight, or pass on supersizing your Value Meal #4 and make up the difference elsewhere.

Alias Avalung and Float 30

Covert Avalung backpack (left) and Float 30. One question: should one strap an Avalung to their airbag backpack? I doubt that's necessary.

The best way to describe the carrying weight of the Float 30 is this: it looks heavier than it feels. It appears cumbersome at first glance, with a boxy shape that appears inspired by air travel luggage, and I assume will improve in later iterations as the ergonomics are dialed in. More, it is obvious that by using lighter weight materials, weight of this pack could easily be reduced by a few ounces. Where it counts most, however–on your back while backcountry skiing–the Float 30 does not feel appreciably heavier than my other touring packs, even when fully stocked with all the necessities for a day tour, and even after 4,000 vertical feet of climbing.

Setup
Prior to touring, you’ll have to install the compressed air canister. The process is simple, requiring you to make two quick connections: attaching the trigger nut to the trigger pin and a quick connect fitting to the body of the air cylinder.

All Float 30 packs come with a filled air canister. Getting your canister refilled after testing or use, however, could prove to be a hurdle. While some have had success using local fire departments or scuba shops for refills, if you plan to go through the formal channels and send the canister back to BCA, it will cost you $10 for the refill and an additional minimum of $30 for the hazmat shipping. Since BCA recommends every owner deploy their pack at least once a year, be aware that you’ll have a recurring annual cost of $40-$70 unless you find a cheaper local option. (Deploying at least once a year is important, not only to keep yourself comfortable with pulling the ripcord, but also to make sure everything really does work as designed.) More about refilling BCA Float 30 backpack.

The layout of the Float 30 is straightforward. On the exterior of the pack, a zippered pocket accepts your shovel blade. If you’ve got a particularly long blade or ferrule, you’ll have to flip the blade upside down and insert the ferrule through a hole at the bottom of the pack. There’s also a mesh divider within the shovel pocket, leaving room to store any smaller objects you’d like to keep out of the main pocket.

Float 30 shovel holder.

Float 30 shovel holder.

Your shovel handle and probe fit into sleeves on either side of the pack, giving you quick access in the event of an emergency, a feature I prefer over the zippered probe compartments of my other packs.

A nice bonus feature offered by the Float 30 is a lined goggle pocket on the top of the pack. Segregating eye wear from other items is always a good idea, and while a soft case may prevent scratched or snowy goggles, it’s not going to stop cracking or breaking should the heavier contents of your pack shift during a tour. Some may question whether the extra zipper or fabric necessary to build the pocked is worth the added weight, but I simply leave the soft goggle case at home and call it even.

An outstanding Float 30 feature is the mesh helmet carrier, which attaches to the rear exterior of the pack and can be easily removed. It will accommodate a helmet of any size, and is unnoticeable while touring, with no jostling or slipping. It should be noted, since the design of the Float 30 air bag is such that it inflates only behind the head when deployed (thereby preserving your peripheral vision), a helmet should be viewed as essential on any tour where you’re concerned enough about avalanche danger to tote along the pack.

The main body of the pack is comprised of one large pocket. The plumbing of the air bag system is encased behind this pocket, accessible via a zipper as seen below.

Float 30 plumbing partition.

Float 30 plumbing partition.

Float 30 plumbing for backcountry skiing.

Float 30 plumbing is located behind a zipper partition, close to your back.

One of the chief complaints I’d heard concerning the Float 30 is the lack of available space in this main pocket. I find this difficult to address, as desired volume is a function of so many things: the duration of your tour, the weather, your need to carry snow science or other additional gear, etc… That being said, it would be difficult to use the Float 30 on a multi-day tour.

While you could create additional gear space within the pocket containing the plumbing, I would prefer to avoid having any gear come into contact with the essentials of the inflation process. If you agree, you’ll be left with the main pocket of the pack and whatever you can attach to the exterior, leaving you scarce room for anything longer than a day tour. For those shorter tours, however, I found the size of the Float 30 perfectly adequate, easily accommodating food, water, additional layers, and first aid equipment.

The 2010-2011 version of the Float 30 was updated to be hydration compatible, mainly by adding the sip tube sleeve in the shoulder strap. When I use a bladder, I prefer to have it isolated from the other items of my pack, similar to the sleeve offered on other packs I’ve used. The Float 30, however, merely provides a chord you can use to hook onto your bladder, suspending it in the main pocket of the pack and thus more susceptible to damage and allowing a leak to have higher consequences.

Touring
As mentioned earlier, the Float 30 tours well despite its unwieldy appearance. Several observers have asked if I found the metal waist strap buckle or the leg harnesses uncomfortable, but truthfully, I never noticed either while climbing or descending. Of course, even if I did, both are necessities to keep the pack in it’s necessary position in the event of an avalanche, so I’d just have to grin and bear it. A leg loop system and beefy buckles are essential for any airbag backpack that will actually save you in an avalanche, so that’s something we simply have to get used to. That said, the type of leg loops provided is a factor. One simple loop around one leg would be adaquate. Yet a lightweight but complete “climbing rated” harness system is probably more logical as such would provide everything from a clip-in for a long line heli rescue, to being very nice for glacier travel.

Float buckle, backcountry skiing airbag backpack.

Waist buckle on airbag backpacks mush be strong and secure, hence they can be a bit fiddly. We expect noticeable improvements in this during coming years.

You won’t find much in the way of additional amenities on the Float 30. There are no ice axe loops or crampon pouches, and the pack only provides for a diagonal ski carry system, with no A frame straps or snowboard carry. Considering BCA had to wrestle with the logistics of accommodating a 150 liter bag and a compressed air canister while keeping weight down, you can understand why they chose to forgo some of these other accouterments. Such can be added if necessary by attaching straps to existing anchor points.

Triggering the Air Bag
The most important piece of the Float 30, the trigger handle, is located in the right shoulder strap. When traveling in avalanche terrain, the handle is removed from the zippered pocket and left accessible.

Float 30 trigger.

Float 30 trigger looks fine, but could perhaps be better designed to grab with gloves on in a panic situation.

Recently, we put the Float 30 through its paces and deployed the airbag while backcountry skiing during an official Wildsnow.com field trip(albeit in a controlled environment, not an avalanche). The process left me with a couple of thoughts:

* Even when skiing down a gently slope at moderate speeds, I was unable to grab the trigger handle cleanly on my first and second attempt. While touring, the handle seems nicely sized and easy to manage, so I was a bit surprised at how much difficulty I had grabbing and engaging it with a gloved hand while skiing. Perhaps it should be slightly larger yet less bulky, so it’s even more ergonomic?
* While many skiers already eschew pole straps in the backcountry, I would think such would be a necessity when skiing with an airbag pack. The last thing you would want is your pole being caught in the spin cycle and pulling your hand away from the trigger.

Despite compelling evidence, backcountry skiers are still split on the usefulness of airbag packs. Some view these packs as mandatory backcountry gear; no different than a beacon, shovel and probe. Others, however, disregard the airbag pack as an unnecessary insurance policy for experience and good judgment, and question whether these packs will be as effective in the U.S. — where heavily treed, rocky terrain is commonplace, often resulting in death by trauma rather than asphyxiation — as they have been in Europe. There’s no correct opinion, and where you fall within this spectrum will largely be a result of your personal risk tolerance.

As the father of a two-year old boy, however, I find it necessary to look for any advantage I can get in the event of the unthinkable. If an airbag pack, despite its cost and weight, can shift the odds ever so slightly in my favor when traveling in avalanche terrain, then it is a product I simply can’t ignore.

For more information, please see our avalanche airbags overview, as well as our airbag backpack category listing.

Shop for the BCA Float 30 here.

(Guest blogger Tony Nitti is in the financial trade. He skis with his body reinforced by a titanium plate, but likes wearing a helmet anyway. Tony is married, with a 2-year-old boy who’s already enjoying the climbing holds bolted on to the side of their backyard deck.)

Comments

36 Responses to “BCA Airback Backpack, Tony’s Take”

  1. KR May 5th, 2011 6:43 pm

    I am having trouble getting beyond how poorly this thing wears. I have a young son who I want to see grow up, so I am not underestimating the survival margin the Float 30 provides. And I don’t care about cost or weight. But does it have to carry like a washing machine on my back?

  2. Lou May 5th, 2011 6:50 pm

    I just don’t know… It can be improved no doubt, but I’m not quite sure how… perhaps slightly narrower and a bit taller? Or actually, located some of the weight lower? Mystery…

  3. brian h May 5th, 2011 7:33 pm

    KR-”Washing machine” like it throws you off balance?

  4. Lou May 5th, 2011 8:15 pm

    Just tested website on iPhone, working!!!!!!! And our cool mobile browser template loads fast!

  5. Nick May 5th, 2011 9:06 pm

    Nice review Tony. I agree with you on the handle being difficult to grab- it tends to spin out of the way.

    KR- Next year BCA will have two new packs that are taller and slimmer, making them carry much nicer!

  6. Kevin May 6th, 2011 7:38 am

    The airbag concept is good in theory but how were the “live” tests that show it actually works in a large/big chunk avalanche? From a design standpoint, why not create an actuator with say 3or4 MTB CO2 cartridges in series to generate the same rapid deployment?

    On a less serious note, why not a jet pack with deployable wings?

  7. Nick May 6th, 2011 8:55 am

    Kevin, check out the studies and data section in this link for tests and accident reports: http://www.wildsnow.com/3736/airbag-overview/

    The problem with CO2 is that having that kind of gas around your head if you are buried with it could asphyxiate you. Granted, most of the air in the filled 150 liter air bag is actually ambient air drawn in by the venturi valve.

  8. naginalf May 6th, 2011 9:14 am

    Sorry for the off topic comment, but I didn’t really know where else to post this and thought you guys might find it interesting. I just found this video on BBC news where a Kenton Cool is speaking to them from the summit of Everest where he is getting a 3G signal on his cell phone. “Can you hear me now?… good.” Too cool.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13304748

  9. Combiner May 6th, 2011 10:19 pm

    > should one strap an Avalung to their airbag backpack? I doubt that’s necessary.

    think of tree well, head first.

  10. Kevin May 7th, 2011 9:32 am

    > should one strap an Avalung to their airbag backpack? I doubt that’s necessary.

    There was a TR on TGR about a gentleman who felt snow going down his throat before he got his airbag to release. So he used his avalung to protect his airway and then was able to deploy his airbag. I would find the link but I’m at work and TGR is blocked.

    The video from the TR:
    http://vimeo.com/22462953

  11. Lou May 7th, 2011 12:59 pm

    Kevin, I saw that. Feeling like you need it is different than really needing it… but sure, strap on the Avalung if you think you need it… personally, I’m just not seeing it as necessary if you’re rocking an airbag backpack. Keep in mind that folks are not always getting the Avalung to their mouth and keeping it there, just like airbags don’t always work perfectly either…

  12. John S May 7th, 2011 5:32 pm

    I think the carry comments are subjective. I used my Float30 for every day trip this winter, and found it surprisingly comfortable. Looking at it, I thought “oh, damn, this thing is going to be a burden” but I barely notice it going up or down. I find the size just, and I mean just, big enough for a long day tour in the winter. I can fit my big coat, lunch, drink and gear in it, and nothing else. That’s fine. When I’m out on multi-days in the C-Rockies, I need a 75L pack anyway, so the extra weight of an airbag system would not be welcome.

  13. Lou May 7th, 2011 6:11 pm

    John, yeah, how a pack carries is very personal. Everyone, please keep the feedback coming!

  14. See May 8th, 2011 2:25 pm

    The only airbag pack I ever used didn’t even have leg loops. I can see how they could be very useful, but why are they”necessary?” Aren’t they just another piece of gear that probably provides an incremental improvement in some cases, like an Avalung (which I used with the airbag pack and found quite easy to deal with, probably less hassle than a crotch strap)?

    Also, I’d be interested in pictures of the helmet holder– a useful feature I haven’t seen well implemented.

    Thanks for the interesting and helpful information.

  15. See May 8th, 2011 2:41 pm

    Sorry, just spotted the helmet holder in the photos.

    Looks good, but reminds me that I think it would be helpful for pack reviews to show pictures of the packs loaded.

    For example, I notice that the Alias has an improved ice ax carry system, something that was a bit awkward on the last one.

  16. achey ankles May 8th, 2011 3:29 pm

    Airbag manufacturers could start making ski pants with a built-in integrated harness to avoid the whole crotch-strap issue or having to use a climbing harness. Might not even need a waistbelt on the pack itself since the harness/pant would have one already.
    Next big thing?!
    Damn, I shoulda been a gear-engineer.

  17. See May 8th, 2011 4:08 pm

    Actually, come to think of it, an Avalung could be a lot more than an incremental improvement, if one were buried, and managed to get the tube in one’s mouth, and had competent companions, and escaped serious trauma, in a burial situation.

    Are airbags that reliable in keeping one’s face unburied?

  18. Lou May 8th, 2011 5:20 pm

    Apparently the airbags do incredibly well. But. I think it’s a question of just how much safety stuff do you want to lug around and deal with. Good example is do you wear a helmet while driving? Doing so would probably be statistically appropriate…

  19. Jon Moceri May 8th, 2011 8:33 pm

    Achey Ankles: Rossignol already makes ski pants with a built in harness. It has the ingenious name of “Harness Pant”.

    http://bit.ly/76gQx9

  20. tony May 8th, 2011 8:51 pm

    Nick, thank you.

    John S., that is exactly how I felt about the Float 30. At first glance, I thought it was going to carry very heavy, but I never noticed it. For what it’s worth, I am much more senitive to additional weight on my back than on my feet, and I still found it easily maneagble for a 5 hour tour with 5K of climbing.

  21. Lou May 9th, 2011 6:22 am

    Yep, harness pants have been made by various folks over the years. Those Rossi ones look really nice. Thanks for the link Jon.

  22. Joe May 9th, 2011 6:39 am

    This is a very interesting backpack. I would like to know more about how these backpacks protect you in an avalanche. I wish that would have been included in the article and not located elsewhere. Joe from Backpack and Gear

  23. See May 9th, 2011 7:28 am

    “(I)t’s a question of just how much safety stuff do you want to lug around and deal with.”

    That’s why I’m wondering if dispensing with the leg loops would be no more unreasonable than choosing to leave the helmet or avalung at home, or if not using them renders the whole airbag system somehow ineffective or dangerous?

  24. Lou May 9th, 2011 7:56 am

    See, yes, I’d say from my own experience in avalanches that at least one leg loop is essential if you want to keep a backpack located on your back, especially one with an airbag! In other words, in my opinion the leg loop is as important as the airbag itself. Sure, in a small slide with tightly buckled backpack, perhaps the airbag pack would stay located, but in anything approaching an average “washing machine tumble” you need a leg loop to keep the pack from riding up to the point where the chest strap is caught under your chin, possibly even strangling you.

    I’d offer that overall, too many people view snow avalanches as this gentle river of puffy powder that you swim your way down like being at the water park. We really need to get away from that POV. Most slides are more violent than anything most people have ever experienced in their lives, and quickly get to the point where you don’t have any body control due to speed and g forces. If you’re lucky, you ride a small gentle one, but in that case you probably don’t need an airbag anyway…

    Lou

  25. KR May 9th, 2011 8:47 pm

    Brian – More like it felt squat and didn’t really move with me. I’m a pack nerd and have skied them all, but I thought it skied like garbage. ABS packs from 5 years ago skied better and the padding on the yoke feels like it was designed to stop a knife attack.

    I have a slightly long torso, perhaps if I was Herve Villacheze?

  26. brian h May 10th, 2011 10:14 am

    KR-I too have a string bean physique. Ultimately, the money involved in an airbag pack is more of a barrier than the fit. Although, if your dropping that kind of coin may as well get the right fit and features. But if you were Herve-would that make Wild Snow Fantasy Island? Would that make Lou Mr Rourke? :D

  27. Jason May 10th, 2011 11:56 am

    The airbag is what I want for sure, but like was said above… that pack looks terrible. I’d love it on my small nice fitting DaKine or BDel Pack I’ve had forever. I like the airbag more than the avalung for sure. Avalungs a great idea, but the airbag isn’t going to get ripped out of my mouth.

  28. Pete May 11th, 2011 1:06 pm

    Splitting hairs here, but that’s a Black Diamond Covert Avalnug, not an Alias. http://www.backcountry.com/black-diamond-covert-with-avalung-winter-pack-1343-1953-cu-in-bld0947

  29. Lou May 11th, 2011 1:10 pm

    Thanks Pete, always good to strive for accuracy. I should have caught that! Tony gets scolded, or was it my editing? :D

  30. Dave October 22nd, 2011 12:01 pm

    Have they finnally addressed the gloves/pull handle issue and are there any changes to the float 36 for 2012?

  31. Nick Thompson October 24th, 2011 7:37 am

    Hi Dave,
    BCA has a new handle for this season’s packs. It’s now a small disc, but is easier to pull than the old one as it doesn’t flop around. We’ve got the new packs here and will be testing them out shortly. Stay tuned.

  32. Dejra November 13th, 2011 10:42 am

    As a mother of 2 sons who insist the Back Country is the best place for snowboarding I have made sure to buy 2 of the BCA Bags to give them every opportunity of survival. after a near tragedy a couple years ago. My oldest almost got buried just was on the edge. Just wear them! Make a mom happy!
    Dejra
    I even started a website on avys and transceivers.
    http://avalanchetransceiverbeacon.com

  33. Mark November 20th, 2011 10:27 pm

    I wonder whether the 2012 avy trigger can be retrofitted onto a 2011 float 30? Sounds much safer and would like to have it but not so much i feel like buying a whole new bag.
    Good to see bca improving the design but hard not to grimace when i read that the float 30′s now meant for sledders not skiers.

  34. Jerry November 28th, 2012 3:07 am

    Hi all!

    I was wondering about this question and haven’t found the answer yet:
    Let’s say you inflate the airbag in time during an avalanche, however, you get buried in snow/debris anyway. Will the airbag stay inflated after burial, or will it eventually create some ‘back/headspace’ after a few minutes because of deflation…? Thus giving some space for movement / more space under the snow and so more oxygen/time left to survive?

  35. Nick November 28th, 2012 6:51 am

    Jerry, the BCA airbag will stay inflated. Only the Snowpulse LIfebag series of bags will deflate to create an airpocket.
    Here’s one:
    http://www.wildsnow.com/6643/snowpulse-guide-30-review/

  36. Jerry November 28th, 2012 9:26 am

    Thanks Nick!

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