ABS’s latest airbag offerings for this season recently showed up on my doorstep – a big box required by how many different packs they make! The ABS airbag backpacks are unique in that they consist of a single base unit that can have several different types and sizes of packs zipped on to give the ultimate in versatility. New for this year everything has gotten lighter and has sharper looks. ABS has been in the airbag game for over 20 years, and although they seem to have found a winning formula with their airbag system, they are still making small changes to ever improve their backpacks.
New for this season, the ABS Vario series has 40, 25, 18, and 15 liter zip on options, plus a bonus cover. The Powder series has 5 and 15 liter zip ons. There’s not as much reduction in weight from last year as I’d hoped, but things have gotten lighter, and that’s great. If you have an older zip on from previous years, or have one of the many third party zip on packs, you can still use it on the new base units, as the zipper size standard has remained in place.
ABS Powder Line
The Powder series packs are small and lightweight, perfect for sidecountry and mechanized skiers. The Powder base unit is practically identical to last year’s, save for a new back panel material. The 15 liter zip on has been beefed up and has a two clamshell zip compartments that completely open up- a shovel and probe pocket in front, with the main compartment in back. Included are a hydration bladder pouch and hanger, but no hose port, so you’ll have to route it through the zipper. Gear loops are added to the front, but the diagonal ski and vertical snowboard carry system are the same as last year. Basically some webbing loops that come with some straps. Doesn’t interfere with airbag opening. See last year’s ABS Powder review, as not much has changed. It’s still geared towards mechanized skiing and freeriding as it has a short back so that the hip belt will ride high on most people. This works well for light loads, giving lots of mobility. My 5′ tall wife skinned with it and found that the length worked well for her, but the hip belt wouldn’t cinch tight enough around her skinny waist. In fact it only just gets tight enough for me. So, if you’re short and fat or like to free ride with a light load, this is the pack for you.
ABS Vario Line
The Vario pack system has been around for a few years, and was one of my favorites for the last couple seasons (see last year’s Vario Review). This year, ABS has dropped some weight from the base unit by using lighter, but stronger, airbag fabric like the Powder series and improved the hip belt buckle. The zip on size break down has changed; the 15 and 18 remain, but the 30 and 50 have been replaced by a 25 and 40. I’m a little sad to lose the 50 liter for big hut trips, but the 40 should actually be fine for that. Regardless or which one you order, your base unit will now come with a new fabric cover, which can actually be used as a pack in itself! I’ve been calling this the ‘Vario 0′.
The Vario 15 now has two full clamshell opening zips — main compartment in front and avy tool pocket in back. It actually has a bit more volume than the Powder 15, and comes with a hydration hose port, though the port runs the hose across both zips on the outside, making it seem like an afterthought. Ice axe carry and similar diagonal ski carry and vertical snowboard carry to the Powder 15.
Vario 18 Ultralight
The Vario 18 Ultralight zipon is unchanged this year, save for new colors and little bungies on the inside that hook in with buttons to organize your shovel and probe. I found them difficult to use, so pulled them out. The 18 was one of my favorites last year, a super light pack and just big enough for short tours or side country skiing (see my review of last year’s Vario 18).
The Vario 25 replaces the original 30, and instead of a top loader drawstring, it has a zippered main compartment and a clamshell zipper avy tool compartment in back. You also get a small goggle type pocket accessible from the outside, small zippered pouch inside the main, and a bladder pouch. Hydration hose port is between the main and avy tool zippers, so at least it will only interfere with the avy tool zip and not both. Ice axe loop and the standard ABS diagonal ski carry and vertical snowboard carry as well.
The ABS Vario 40 is superb. It offers a significant amount of space for it’s weight, making it ideal for long days, ski mountaineering, and overnights. It’s definitely bigger than Snowpulse’s Pro 35 and will hold more than BCA’s 42. It’s a top loader, making it easy to stuff full, yet has a side zip for easy access to the bottom. And for those of you waiting for an airbag pack that has A-frame carry which is actually compatible with the airbag, here it is at last, and well executed to boot. The lid (which is permanently attached, unfortunately), has two pockets, and there’s an ice axe loop. No snowboard carry, though it could easily be accomplished with some mods. This pack (and all the other Varios) comes with the ’0′ pack cover, so you get the versatility of a small side country pack and a full featured touring pack in one- well done ABS!
Quick weight breakdown, including zip on, base unit, filled US steel cartridge, and activation handle:
Vario 40: 7.65lbs
Vario 25: 7.29lbs
Vario 18: 6.95lbs
Vario 15: 7.17lbs
Vario ’0′: 6.44lbs
Both the Powder and Vario series packs use the same ABS non refillable cartridge which must be sent back in the mail to one of their many distribution centers, including several in the US and Canada now. They use a dual airbag system, which provides some extra safety through redundancy — if one malfunctions or rips, you still have another. Each bag is 85 liters, for a total of 170 liters, 20 more than other airbags. This system has been around for many years and has saved many skiers lives in Europe. See my ABS How To for more on how to set up and use ABS packs. For weight comparison and pricing on this and other airbag backpacks for backcountry skiing, see the Wildsnow airbag overview.