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’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.)