Avalanche Airbag Waistbelt Mods

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 12, 2016      
First iteration. I simply looped a carabiner through the slot in the waist belt. I've seen a few people do this, and it is a quick and easy solution. This helps with the ease of use of the leg loop, but the waist belt is still as hard as ever to take off and put back on. Also, the carabiner is a bit uncomfortable.

First iteration. I simply looped a carabiner through the slot in the waist belt. I’ve seen a few people do this, and it is a quick and easy solution. This helps with the ease of use of the leg loop, but the waist belt is still as hard as ever to take off and put back on. Also, the carabiner is a bit uncomfortable.

I’ve been using a variety of airbag rucksacks for some time now. They’ve all had advantages and disadvantages, but one consistent annoyance is the waist belt buckles and leg (crotch) straps.

Almost all packs use a metal waist buckle that seems designed to invoke profanity, especially with gloves on. Also, nearly all packs use a simple webbing loop that the waistbelt is passed through to provide a leg loop for the harness system. The main issues are that the leg loop falls off or tangles nearly every time the waist belt is undone, and it’s time consuming and sometimes frustrating to be threading the waist belt back through the loop when you need to take your pack completely on and off.

I’m not the only one who has these gripes, we’ve noticed quite a few airbag users clip a carabiner to the end of the leg loop and use the ‘biner to attach to the waist belt. A bit kludgy but better than the downright weird “loop threading” that’s somehow become a design standard for most of these things. (Perhaps most importantly, the hassle of threading the crotch strap instead of easily clipping it on and off causes users to leave it off, more about that below.)

After seeing Acteryx’s awesome new airbag pack at the ISPO, I was inspired to do some mods to try to improve the waistbelt of my current pack. The Arcteryx pack uses a strong “carabiner” system to attach the leg loop, so that the waist belt can use a standard plastic side-release buckle.

(Note the Arcteryx leg strap attachment looks simple at first, but besides using a small carabiner it also has a clever system of anchoring the leg-loop attachment from the waist belt to the airbag structure. My mods detailed in this blog post don’t change the anchoring system so a strong waistbelt buckle is still necessary. Perhaps my next stage is to create the Arcteryx anchor in my test pack.)

I’ve used BCA’s Float 32 for the past few years. I like the pack for the most part, but the waist belt has all the problems mentioned above. In order for the pack to function safely in an avalanche, it’s MANDATORY to wear the leg loop, however I’ll admit I often don’t use the loop because it’s a hassle. If the waist belt system was easier and faster to use, I’d definitely use it more. (Note, there is a least one documented instance of an airbag user being strangled by their balloon pack because they were not using their leg loop.)

I also thought about using a simple ladder lock in place of the stock metal buckle. With the carabiner leg loop, the waist buckle strength theoretically doesn't matter. The carabiner is through a slot in the webbing, so if the plastic buckle fails, it will still stay attached, and keep the pack attached, in an avalanche. However, there isn't any redundancy in this system. If the non-locking carabiner came undone, and the plastic buckle broke (a fairly likely scenario), then the pack would be easily lost in a slide.

I also thought about using a simple ladder lock in place of the stock metal waist belt buckle. With the carabiner leg loop, the waist buckle strength theoretically doesn’t matter. The carabiner is through a slot in the webbing, so if the plastic buckle fails, it will still stay attached, and keep the pack attached, in an avalanche. But unlike the Arcteryx pack the BCA waist belt has no direct attachment to the airbag anchor structure, who knows if it’s strong enough if depended on to work without being buckled, in the violence of an avalanche? More, if all the plastic buckles failed, then the only thing holding the pack on would be the single leg loop, on a single non-locking carabiner. Not ideal.

This is the final solution I came up with. I sewed the waist belt webbing with a slot for the carabiner. This holds the carabiner tightly, and makes it not dig into my waist while the belt is cinched down (the stitching to the left of the carabiner is hidden). For the waist buckle, I used a metal

This is the final solution I came up with. I sewed the waist belt webbing with a slot for the carabiner (the stitching to the left of the carabiner is hidden). This holds the carabiner tightly, it’s easy to snap the loop in and out and it doesn’t dig into my waist while the belt is cinched down. For the waist buckle I used a metal “Cobra” buckle. These are used in military and industrial applications, and are super strong (rated to 8kn). The buckle is very easy to undo, even with gloves. The carabiner leg loop system is very easy as well. The way I sewed it in should be super strong, and even if the carabiner rips through the stitching, the carabiner still positioned behind the strap, so the strong waist buckle will keep everything attached (as long as all my overkill stitching doesn’t fail). It’s not 100% redundant, but better than other options.

I’ve used the modded waist belt on a few recent trips. I’m mostly happy with how it has worked. It’s much easier to use than the old system. Having the leg loop attached separately is awesome. I can leave the leg loop clipped in if I’m swinging the pack around on a chairlift, or setting it down in front of me to get something. A nice side benefit is having a carabiner on my waist belt to clip things like hats and gloves while skinning.

Concerns: The Cobra buckle, while strong, doesn’t lock closed, so it’s definitely not as safe as the stock buckle. However, with the carabiner solidly attached the waistbelt buckle is only a backup if the belt is strongly attached to the pack, so I’m mostly fine with the compromise. I do observe, however, that the Arcteryx includes a chunk of webbing going from the crotch strap anchor on the waist belt to the upper pack and airbag structure. Presumably this stabilizes and strengthens things even if the waist belt buckle comes undone. Perhaps I need to add that to my mod. The Cobra buckle apparently is designed so that it “locks” when under load, and can’t be released. Even so, I can definitely see it coming undone in a violent avalanche. The buckle isn’t designed for winter use, but I haven’t had any icing issues so far. It is sometimes slightly difficult to release with big gloves, but still is much easier than the stock buckle. The major disadvantage is its weight (fully several added ounces!), and the price ($30 for a buckle!). Also, the current carabiner is bulky, I’ll probably replace it with something smaller. I’ve considered getting a small locking carabiner to make it a bit safer. Anyone have any ideas on the smallest locker that’s out there right now?

Cobra buckles come in a variety of styles. I used the one I had on hand, the 1.75” single-adjust version. I think the dual-adjust might be a bit better, here it is on Amazon.

Also, Backcountry has the older model BCA Float 32 packs on sale right now, get em here.

(Guest blogger Louie Dawson is Wildsnow progeny who works as an industrial designer in the PNW, where he skis and climbs, a bunch.)


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37 Responses to “Avalanche Airbag Waistbelt Mods”

  1. Jason Killgore February 12th, 2016 9:39 am

    For a locker, you might try an edelrid slider. Fast, easy, small but still safer than a non-locker

  2. Brian February 12th, 2016 9:52 am

    The elder Dawson would never approve of adding a heavy ass carabiner to your pack! Can’t you get that in HDPE or Grilamid or something?;)

  3. Lou Dawson 2 February 12th, 2016 9:58 am

    No problem with the ‘biner, but the buckle!? I kinda like the buckle, actually (other than weight), but I think the full Arcteryx solution, with tweaks, is where this might go. Louie?

  4. wyomingowen February 12th, 2016 10:45 am

    ..been doing the carabiner the last 3 years on an ABS, it’s great except when the tooth of biner snags, last spring switched to Petzl Ange S…problem solved


  5. Louie Dawson February 12th, 2016 11:07 am

    Yeah, I’m using a BD hood wire, which keeps snagging to a minimum. Unfortunately there aren’t many tiny wiregate carabiners out there that are keylocks or hoodwires or something similar.

    Another interesting option might be this:

    The buckles a bit heavy. They do make smaller sizes, I’ve been thinking of getting one of those, and changing the waistbelt webbing to 25mm. Lots of hassle for a marginal weight loss though.

    I might experiment with sewing webbing to the pack to make it as robust as the Arcteryx system. However, I like the redundancy of the strong waist belt buckle. I’m still not convinced it would be very nice to have the pack whipping around in an avalanche only attached to one leg.

  6. Lou Dawson 2 February 12th, 2016 12:48 pm

    Louie, I totally agree, if the waist buckle comes undone on the Arcteryx you’re going to have that thing whipping all over the place, same with any. I think Gord told me that the buckle they used on the Arcteryx waist is super strong, just not totally failsafe like the pass-through keylock buckles most airbags use.

    One thing people tend to forget about avalanches is how violent all but the small ones are. Result is this tendency to do things like wear airbag pack without crotch strap… there is also the concern that airbag packs can make you tumble more in the avy than you would otherwise.


  7. Ed February 12th, 2016 1:07 pm

    I can second the Petzl Ange S cause it doesn’t have the lip to snag when taking off. However for life support I still feel that this is a lot like 8-ish mm climbing ropes – wow that stuff is spaghetti compared to the old days of ship hawser sized lines . . .
    Maybe consider self locking biners – there’s lots at:
    Super folks. I love the Rock-O’s and weight is nada, esp. when it’s also useful for attaching to other bits of tat and locks positively every time. WesSpur (and to be fair TreeStuff.com) both have pages and pages of climby bits including some new very inventive stuff.

  8. justin February 12th, 2016 1:59 pm

    Funny, I’ve been trying to find someone to sew something similar on my Float pack, Im guessing you have access to some type of industrial sewing equipment. You’re probably aware of this, but there is a plastic version of the Cobra Buckle ( http://milspecmonkey.com/store/hardware-diy/372-itw-gt-cobra-buckle.html ). Its rated to 500 pounds, yes, that is a strength compromise. If I remember correctly, Mystery Ranch always used just run of the mill plastic fastex type buckles on their packs, I wonder if any plastic buckles have ever broken in airbag testing.

  9. Chris Auld February 12th, 2016 2:07 pm

    Here’s my config. Two rappel rings on the waist strap and a biner on the crotch strap that holds it all together. Benefit of the biner on the crotch strap is it gives a little more momentum to the pendulum to swing it between your legs. My primary driver was fast on/off and a bit of a forcing function to ensure I did actually use the crotch strap.
    Yes, no locker. Yes, single point of failure. But, at the end of the day I’d sooner have a biner that might unclip over a crotch strap that never even gets done up because it’s too much of a pain in the arse.

  10. Andrew February 12th, 2016 2:11 pm

    Why not use something along the lines of an S double gated crab with one locking gate to secure everything at once?

  11. Louie III February 12th, 2016 4:21 pm

    Hmm, interesting ideas. Cool to see everyone’s solutions.

    I also considered using a military grade plastic buckle. The military Duraflex buckles are made in the US, and are noticeably beefier and stiffer than normal plastic buckles. However, they still aren’t super strong, and they are much harder to release than a normal plastic buckle.

    I did use an industrial sewing machine to do the stitching. Super nice, it goes through multiple layers of webbing with ease and can use thick, strong thread.

    Andrew, do they make S double gate carabiners that are rated?

  12. Ryan February 12th, 2016 5:27 pm

    The lightest clean nose biner I know of is the DMM chimera at 28 but it’s a bit pricey and harder to find than the new version of the BD Oz clean nosed biners.

  13. RobinB February 12th, 2016 9:44 pm

    Something like the CRUX plate listed on this page might be a good option if you are going the Cobra buckle route:


    Would make it mandatory to use the crotch strap, which might be less ideal.

  14. Jo Ramsey February 12th, 2016 10:25 pm

    I really want to try these type of activites but I am African American and in my culture it’s not typical or really acepted. Any advice on how I can defy my culture and do something different.

  15. See February 12th, 2016 10:59 pm

    Go skiing. I suspect your culture will be fine with that. Why do you think otherwise?

  16. Lou 2 February 13th, 2016 7:03 am

    Interesting comment Jo, it is well known that especially in the US skiing in general and ski touring in particular are very white anglo. Much of that is probably simply due to the roots and history of skiing in general but economics is of course a factor as is basic demographics. There are black ski clubs, check those out. Or do you live in or fairly close to skiing? Let us know, I’ve always been interested in the demographics and cultural aspects of all outdoor recreation. This gets into some deeper philosophical discussion of the value of outdoor recreation in general, and even the value of things like legal Wilderness land or public land managed for conservation rather than development. For example, if we have a culture such as Latino for home outdoor recreation is not necessarily part of a popular value system, how valuable are non-developed lands to that demographic, and if that demographic is becoming as large as we expect, what will public land management look like just a few decades from now? And where does African American culture fit into all that? Lou

  17. Nick February 13th, 2016 8:31 am


    you are three way loading that karibiner – and the waistbelt loop will probably load right on the nose of the gate. Although you won’t get the big shock loading of a climbing fall, it probably isn’t a good thing.

  18. Jeremy C February 13th, 2016 10:06 am

    An alternative method is to wear a lightweight touring harness, such as the Black Diamond Couloir, or Mammut Zephir, which weigh in the low 225g range. No need to have a crotch strap, just do the waist belt up through the belay loop.

    It works for me, and there is no way it will ever come undone, and nothing left dangling. Probably not an option for the ultra light tourer, but highly practical.

  19. See February 13th, 2016 10:32 am

    The lack of diversity that characterizes many forms of outdoor recreation limits both the political constituency and the market for equipment. REI (among others) offers quite a variety of classes.

  20. Lou Dawson 2 February 13th, 2016 10:47 am

    See, I’d agree, but I think the most important thing in these discussions is we need to realize that just because we think ski touring is the best sport on the planet, other folks have other things they like to do, and get just as much value from. Sometimes I get tired of the common take that everything we do has to be “diverse.” I mean, if a certain ethnic or racial (or both) group likes to do a certain kind of (just a random example) fishing, does that mean everyone else has to join in and do that same kind of fishing? Really, the whole construct breaks down when it comes to recreation. In terms of jobs and politics, different story of course — diversity being ultra important in those cases. Around here, our major ethnic change is our town is now about 50% Latino. Last thing I’m going to worry about is how many white guys go to Latino gatherings, or how many Latinos backcountry ski. We all get along pretty well and I’m proud of that, no matter what we do to cash our fun tickets. And things will evolve and change in due time.

    I’d add that sure, as I’ve stated before, there are advantages to more people doing our sport. I know many of you don’t like the increase in numbers but more political clout and buying power do make positive differences. So See does have a point in my opinion, can’t deny that.


  21. See February 13th, 2016 11:34 am

    On one level, I was just stating a fact— there is a lack of diversity, as you (Lou) noted. And I’m not saying everybody has to do everything. If someone doesn’t like bc skiing, that’s fine. However, if someone wants to try skiing but is made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, through no fault of their own, just because of their ethnicity, then I have a problem with that. And that does happen. Take my word for it.

  22. Lou Dawson 2 February 13th, 2016 12:21 pm

    See, I totally agree. Lou

  23. See February 13th, 2016 1:30 pm

    And Jo: I’m not black, but I do ski with African Americans from time to time. As far as I can tell, they have not abandoned their cultural identities. They’re just African American people who ski.

  24. Lou Dawson 2 February 13th, 2016 1:35 pm

    Well, now that we’ve taken an airbag post all the way to race and ethnicity, where do we go from here, religion (grin)?

  25. etto February 13th, 2016 4:51 pm

    I think the lightest locking biner with keylock or similar is: Wild Country Neon Keylock. 41g. If you want to combine it with a really lightweight harness there is the Camp Alp racing at 92g. (I’ve used this combo just with an older lwt Camp harness.)

    I know you guys for some reason don’t particularly like ABS, but they used to have both plastic buckle leg loop independent of the waist belt, and a metal buckle that is easy to use with gloves on. Seems now they also have the threading leg loop.

    But seriously, you can’t be bothered to put on the leg loop that might save your life? Why not just leave the airbag at home, the weight you’d save!

  26. See February 13th, 2016 7:00 pm

    How about cultural appropriation of indigenous people’s art in ski graphics (says the guy with the Huascarans)?

    But slightly less off topic: I wonder if the standard plastic buckle could be improved. My thumb ligaments are mostly shot and I don’t ski every day so I don’t have calluses. After a week of skiing my hands are usually wrecked from all the buckling and unbuckling.

  27. Jeremy C February 14th, 2016 3:58 am

    @etto, I originally considered Camp Alp Harness, but it does not have a easy to use belay loop (to get your belt through), and the leg straps are not quick release or adjustable.

    @See, I guess the majority of manufactures of equipment, just buy whatever generic plastic buckle they can get in the required size/color. Probably the best plastic buckles I have used, are on my Berghaus Leviathan luggage. They have an extra set of ‘wings’ which depress the normal clips. They have a very light action, can be used with gloves or mittens, yet are as secure as normal plastic buckles.

    If tried to find a good picture, but this one from Amazon shows the buckle clearly if you hover the mouse over the auto-zoomed picture.


  28. See February 14th, 2016 7:55 am

    Thanks, Jeremy. Those look good. I may have to try some sort of mod…

  29. Matt Kinney February 14th, 2016 9:30 am

    I just wear my BD airbag crotch strap as designed. That way I don’t over think it. It may be a pain, but it’s actually pretty simple right out of the box. The more I wear my pack, the less I obsess about the crotch strap and just go through the motions of putting it on and taking it off. It takes two extra seconds to rig the crotch strap as designed.

    It’s another piece of gear to deal with at transitions, but it works good enough. Kudo’s to innovators anyway as I suspect the next generation of airbags will have something else.

    Actually it’s more a tethering device than a harness, meant to keep the pack in place during the violence of an avalanche which is different compared to the functions and requirements of an actual climbing harness.

  30. Tom Bennett February 14th, 2016 10:49 am

    I shall make a comment here that goes against orthodoxy: Unfortunately, two years ago I had the poor judgement to get caught in a class 4 in Alaska. I had a Mammut airbag pack, which undoubtedly saved my life, and I walked away with nothing more than a concussion. I was not wearing a crotch strap, and didn’t need one. My ribs were a little sore for a day or two from the waistbelt being violently pulled up, but that’s it. The chest strap broke (failed) during the avalanche.

    Perhaps it’s my body type, where broader shoulders make it impossible for the waist strap to ride up, but I don’t think that the crotch straps are necessary. I’ve removed mine. They are a hassle, and they pose risks. Over the years I’ve seen them get caught on several chairlifts, where you’re lucky when it’s only embarrassing when you go around the bull wheel.

  31. Jim Milstein February 14th, 2016 11:02 am

    Leaping into the religion breach, I think Jains are a natural fit for backcountry skiing, since the chances of harming sentient life-forms (other than oneself) while sliding on snow are minimal. Not zero, but minimal.

    It’s true that some ‘bilers are offended by BC skiers, but that doesn’t count as harming a sentient life form.

  32. Pablo February 15th, 2016 12:45 am

    Isn’t it BC Skiing a religion? 😉

  33. Jim Milstein February 15th, 2016 6:50 am

    It is mine, Pablo. But don’t you think we should reach out to other religions which might find BC skiing fun?

  34. Lou Dawson 2 February 15th, 2016 7:11 am

    Tom, while I’d agree that with certain body types and certain types of avalanche rides, and a tight waist belt, one could perhaps have an airbag function correctly without leg loop. Your experience proves that out. However, a huge amount of testing as well as common sense says yes use it religiously. It’s like a helmet, sure you can use it without the chin strap and it’ll still work some of the time…

    I think the main point here is that leg loops should be super easy to work with. Anything that helps with that is worth pursuing. My biggest gripe is the ones that are hard to take _off_ in that they don’t slide easily over the big waist buckle when removing. The clip-on clip-off eliminates that hassle, and also makes a way to stow it. Another big factor is indeed it getting caught on lift chairs. Leaving the strap dangling is just asking for that, no matter what type of attachment system. Lou

  35. Wicknasty February 15th, 2016 8:32 pm

    What about using a dynafit leash clip? I use the BD phone cords, so have some laying around. Light and compact, but maybe not strong enough?

  36. cam February 16th, 2016 1:13 am
  37. Louie III February 18th, 2016 11:44 am

    Cam – those look pretty sweet. I might have to get one of those double wire gate biners.

    Yeah I don’t think I would trust something like the dynafit leash clip or any other non-certified clips.

    Whatever it is doesn’t need to be super strong. If I remember correctly, the certification for airbags only require a static load of 300 kg. That’s not very much, only about 3 kn (carabiners are rated to about 20 kn).

    That’s just what I remember from a conversation a while back. Anyone know what the certification testing is like for airbags?

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