Avalanche Airbag Backpacks – Things to Know re Use and Shopping

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | June 25, 2018      
Float 27 airbag pack. A minimalist clam-shell pack.

Float 27 airbag pack. A minimalist clam-shell pack.

Shop for airbag backpacks — after you memorize below.

Yes, it’s summer time and the ski’en is, well, more about shopping for most WildSnowers. While the new Scott capacitor based airbag backpack might be worth the wait until this fall when it begins retailing (provided you’re an early adopter), deals can be had on existing product. A few things to think about regarding use and shopping.

— In the case of buying pre owned electronic packs, they may have been inflated numerous times. While the high speed “fans” used by these rucksacks are amazingly durable considering how minimalist they are, lifespan is finite. If you’re looking to buy a used electric pack, get some idea of how much it’s been cycled. For example, we have both an Arcteryx and a Scott electronic, both were media demos. While I’m ok with using these and lending them out, they’ll eventually go back to the company of origin for disposal as I wouldn’t want them out in the wild forever.

— Most likely, your airbag shopping is looking at a compressed gas rig. As doing multiple cycles with these involves a recharged or new gas cylinder for each round, issues of heavy multiple use would normally not be a concern when buying a pre owned. The trigger mechanism would be where you’d want to direct your attention. Be sure to dry fire if possible, and at some point do a full inflation with a charged gas cylinder. In the case of any used airbag backpack, you’d of course inspect the balloon for damage as well as being sure the pack itself wasn’t missing essentials such as the leg strap.

— If you’re a first timer for an airbag ruck, be realistic about the smaller cargo volume and additional weight due to the airbag components, both being tradeoffs. I’ve spoken with a number of people who spent money on an airbag rig and ended up with too small a pack, or weight that exceeded what they’re comfortable with.

— Likewise, be realistic about how much you expect in added safety. Airbag backpacks do save lives, but the likelihood of this applying to you specifically does vary. For example, if you’re careful about skiing moderate terrain with reliable snowpack conditions, lugging around a thousand dollar backpack could be much less important than simple safety considerations such as good communication options and competent partners.

— And third point about “need,” avoid the myth of snow avalanches being floaty rides in a puffy cloud of powder crystals. Balloon or not, any slide larger than small is going to hurt you, avoidance is key — protective gear is a horribly last resort.

— Yes, the zipper that opens up for the inflating balloon is called the “birthing zipper.” The birthing zipper may appear to be missing teeth or have odd looking teeth in one area, that’s as intended and is where the birthing begins.

— Do not hesitate. For one reason or another, a significant percentage of people who should pull their airbag trigger do not do so. If you have the slightest perception you may be involved in an avalanche, pull. A slide may soon become so violent you can not grab the trigger handle. Likewise, it’s important to know an airbag does not guarantee 100% protection from avalanche injury or death. In some situations it’s clearly ineffective enough to be useless, for example if you are swept through dense trees.

— Corollary to above is the electronic packs all have multiple inflations per battery charge, thus lessening concerns about using up your one chance at a deployment if you do choose to yank.

— The lightest packs are at this time the compressed gas powered type, using carbon tank-cylinders available in Europe.

— The most affordable packs are most often the Backcountry Access Float flavors.

— In my opinion the future of airbag backpacks is in the electronic “fan” versions, but compressed gas models using well designed plumbing and downsized cylinders (don’t call them “tanks”) remain viable for now.

— All airbag backpacks have a leg (crotch) strap, if you don’t use this you can die from strangulation as the pack with inflated balloon will tend to move above your head, pulling the sternum strap up under your chin — or entirely separating the backpack from your torso. So, use the strap. Always. All the time.

— Airbag backpacks are similar to beacons in that they should be “armed” 100% of the time you are in avalanche terrain. Playing a mental game of when to arm it and when not to is silly tomfoolery — similar to bicycle riders with their helmet dangling from their handlebars.

— The airbag backpack industry tends to compete on weight, price and pack features, performance is dictated by strict European Union directives that cause all packs to operate virtually the same in terms of what they’ll do for you in an avalanche. Base shopping choices on weight, volume, comfort and things of that nature. This leading to following thoughts.

— One pack, the Black Diamond Jetforce, has a timed deflation cycle powered by its electric fan. Some hopeful individuals are of the opinion that this could save lives by creating an air space for buried avalanche victims. This theory is entirely untested and unsubstantiated, and is most definitely a peripheral issue to a device that’s supposed to keep you from getting buried in the first place. Nonetheless, it’s a viable theory and perhaps something to consider if you need a deal breaker when choosing between two packs.

Some of our esteemed WildSnow readers have extensive experience with airbag backpacks. Please comment, your insights are gold.

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10 Responses to “Avalanche Airbag Backpacks – Things to Know re Use and Shopping”

  1. XXX_er June 25th, 2018 11:51 am

    ” The trigger mechanism would be where you’d want to direct your attention. Be sure to dry fire if possible, and at some point do a full inflation with a charged gas cylinder ”

    I’m not sure of the brand but during a cat ski trip last spring a buddy (a big guy) double ejected going at a good clip and hit hard enough for the bag to inflate even tho the handle was not pulled

    Which has made me curious about the trigger system or systems, so how does it work, are all brands similar, ever hear of a bag inflating without the handle being pulled ??

  2. Lou Dawson 2 June 25th, 2018 1:10 pm

    Most are similar, in they use a spring loaded firing pin that pokes a burst disk on the cylinder. Variations on that theme with different brands. ABS uses what they call a ” pressurized capsule” in the activation handle (trigger), which is single use thus requiring replacement after each activation. I don’t recommend ABS because of that, as it’s enough of a hassle dealing with compressed gas bottles.

    Note the use of PC verbiage with all this. It’s not a firing, it’s an activation, it’s not a gas tank it’s a cylinder, it’s not a trigger it’s an activation handle. Amusing. Lou

  3. See June 25th, 2018 6:38 pm

    “(A)ny slide larger than small is going to hurt you.” And even a small one can hurt you in ways an air bag is unlikely to prevent. Last spring I was in a small slide above a couple of trees. I managed to keep my feet below me and was able to use them to deflect myself off the outermost tree, but the force of the impact could have caused serious damage if I took it on a more fragile part of my anatomy. (Also, how is it more pc to say “cylinder” instead of “tank,” and maybe “tie breaker” not “deal breaker?”)

  4. bruno schull June 25th, 2018 11:42 pm

    I would say that some good advice is to try on the pack, and see where the handle is, and how it feels. Last winter I rented a pack here in Switzerland. The pack itself was so small that it sat up between my shoulders like a basketball. The handle was so high on the pack strap that trying to grab it was like trying to reach up behind my shoulder to scratch my neck. And last, the handle was so small that it felt like I was intended to grab it with two fingers. I’m exaggerating, but only a little. Honestly, it felt like the handle would be difficult to grab and pull in an emergency. I would definitely modify with a piece of larger outside diameter PVC pipe, and I would do what I could to get that handle lower in a more accessible position. Try before you buy.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 June 26th, 2018 11:01 am

    I think they like the word “cylinder” because it has no specific meaning in terms of gear components, a tank implies something contained within, for example a paintball gas tank… and yes “tie breaker” is probably a term I should be using more often. Thanks! Lou

  6. XXX_er June 26th, 2018 5:18 pm

    It was a Snowpulse my buddy was using when he double ejected, hit the snow and the bag inflated without the handle being pulled … there were lots of giggles

  7. Lou Dawson 2 June 26th, 2018 7:01 pm

    Bruno, indeed, ergonomics seems to be the last frontier of these things, I’m of the opinion for example that most of the trigger handles are incredibly lame, generally too small for panic situation. Which leads to the fact that electronic units with multiple activation are more forgiving of accidents as you have another chance. Lou

  8. atfred June 26th, 2018 8:34 pm

    I believe there is a distinct difference between “tie breaker” and “deal breaker”, the former being an element that determines the “winner” between two closely matched entities (e.g., A was $20 cheaper than B) , and the latter being an element that would independently rule out an entity (e.g., jacket A has no handwarmer pockets – a deal breaker).

    Yes, things get a little slow in the summer.

  9. Jernej July 5th, 2018 1:49 am

    For some reason my BCA float cylinder partially discharged this winter. It was firmly in the green zone at the start of the season, then dropped about a quarter and just sat there. Note it had nothing to do with temperature variation. I didn’t refill it as I took it as an interesting experiment of when it will empty completely but it never did. And I figured there’s still plenty enough air in there in case I’d actually need it. Not that I skied anything risky anyway.

    Which reminds me I should do a test release and refill.

  10. Wookie1974 July 26th, 2018 1:37 am

    I’ve seen multiple airbag deployments that were caused only by the force of a crash. I would guess that the nature of the trigger system, which is mechanical in nature, was the cause of this. Any force great enough to puncture or unseat the seal will cause the airbag to inflate.
    I have even heard this touted as a safety feature, but I think this is likely trying to make a positive out of a negative.
    In any case – the crashes I saw which resulted in an accidental release were big. In one case the person was injured, in the others, the enthusiasm for continued skiing that day was replaced by beers at the hut.
    What I’m saying is – the accidental inflation of the airbag was not an issue anyone cared about. If it happens – my guess is, you’ve got other, bigger problems.

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