Progress has been made since last season’s Blackjack backpack review. The weight might still be a deal breaker for some of you (as with many airbag backpack brands and models), but Mystery Ranch’s rework of their Blackjack 43 liter avalanche airbag backpack now trims a full pound off last season’s version, for a chunky but better 7.8 pounds.
A bit of the weight savings is in an improved plumbing system that uses a smaller bottle, with most liposuction credit going to improvements in the body panel (frame) and a bit more minimalist approach to design.
Version 1. — airbag components 3.4 lbs, bag 5.4 lbs
Ver 1.5 — air bag components weigh 3.3 lbs, bag 4.5 lbs.
As many readers know, the airbag components for the Blackjack are sourced from Avi Vest, who makes airbag systems for snowmobilers (and are in the process of changing their name and re-branding). Last year’s focus for Mystery Ranch was on integrating those components into a rucksack suitable for everyone from ski patrol to weekend warriors. The original design was successful, but this year’s somewhat cleaner overall, with a few added features.
The Blackjack airbag is now sewn into the lid so if you’ve got the lid attached to the pack you can be certain you’ve packed the airbag. Inside the Blackjack body you’ll find a zippered pocket (easily sliced out for weight reduction) for goggles and doodads, as well as a tiny open top pocket for ski patroller’s tools. In a consumer version, these pockets are a good example of non-essential features that could be made with much lighter fabric, so we see potential here in terms of trimming mass. But they do add function to what would otherwise be a basic sack and zippered rear tool compartment.
Speaking of mass, it’s interesting to me that backcountry skiing consumers are asked to carry around stuff designed for ski patrollers who mostly get rides uphill. Considering that a lot more regular folk than ski patrollers die in avalanches, one wonders at the point here. Is the ski patrol market so huge the rest of us must bow to it? Apparently, so be it. Nonetheless, I’d suggest that the consumer market for airbag backpacks will be larger than the patrol market (it already must be so in Europe), and whomever has the lighter more elegant version of the airbag backpack will win the market in the human powered crowd. Digression, done.
Diagonal ski carry on the Blackjack is provided for with a reinforced back panel, loop and strap. A-frame carry is possible as well by using side compression straps, but not recommended unless you have no need of the airbag safety feature. Strap system can also be configured to carry a snowboard.
What about the re-worked plumbing? According to the designer at Mystery Ranch, the new system uses a new feature called a “closed venturi.” Essentially, this means that the orifice that accepts air into the bag is attached with a sealed connection to the gas bottle (other types of venturi have openings). The closed venturi ensures the bag will fill if it’s pinned between the user’s body and the ground or snow surface (though it wouldn’t fill once buried by avalanche, it needs to do that before the slide stops moving.) The new venturi is also more efficient at filling the bag, thus reducing the required gas bottle size by about 20% in comparison to last year (and perhaps a bit smaller than other brands).
The release cable (AKA lanyard) now uses a system that makes it stay in the right place despite how your pack is adjusted. Moreover, the clip that secures the cable to one of the grommets in the yoke sleeve is lighter and more secure than last years system. Deactivation (for heli riding, for example) is now accomplished by simply removing the girth hitched handle/trigger from the lanyard.
Of interest is the lack of a hydration system in the Blackjack. As weight is so critical with these packs, we’re not mourning this omission (though we do like hydration compatibility that some of the other airbag backpack brands offer). This especially in view of the fact you can still pack a hydration bladder, route a tube over your shoulder, and you’ll be fine if you know how to manage such systems in the cold. Likewise, the Blackjack comes with a small removable waistbelt pouch. Again, something you’ll probably want to shed if you intend to stay off the back muscle relaxants. For more detail about features, please check our Blackjack review from last year, as most remain the same.
MSRP is $975
Recreational lid accessory (allows using pack without airbag) $50
Waistbelt pocket accessory about $35
10 refills are included with each new pack, additional refill kit of 10 refills is $10
Spare/replacement cylinder and activator: $200
For more info, please see our Airbag Backpacks category.