Ortovox and Arc’teryx have co-designed the new LiTRIC electric airbag system. It’s a solid fusion of elegance and function. The system is user friendly, relatively minimalist, and provides multiple deployments off a single charge.
We’ll have more on this: Ortovox has posted a “Voluntary Recall of Avabag LITRIC Models.” This update is dated 12/11/22.
There’s no evident middle ground regarding lightness and certain types of gear. But like most toys we toss about and beat down in the backcountry, there’s a limit to lightness when considering function. Most backcountry skiers focused on descending want a ski with more heft, while uphillers will covet sub-1000g wafers. Ponder a mythical 1000g 110mm underfoot powder ski, and it will likely satisfy some Lycra-wearers and nauseate AK spine riders.
Every so often, the fusion of light and functional in avalanche airbags, which remains in the crosshairs of engineers and designers, makes a small leap forward for humankind. Arc’teryx and Ortovox splashed down this spring by announcing the LiTRIC, an electric airbag joint venture from the Canadian and German brands. The folks at Alpride are upgrading to their new E2 system this fall.
These electric systems differ by roughly 100g: the LiTRIC system weighs 1100g, while the E2 arrives at 1190g, which includes two AA batteries. And both systems are reduced in overall volume compared to electric predecessors. For example, with either system, a 30L pack has more usable space to stash the backcountry goods.
Among WildSnow commenters and the social media scrum, potential avalanche airbag users dispel heavy units, the difficulty flying with non-electric systems, problems with field testing (the need to refill air canisters), and the high cost as deterrents to using the packs habitually. And electric systems are the most expensive of the lot.
I had my hands on the Ortovox LiTRIC Freeride 28 pack this spring, and it falls on the pricier side of pricey at approximately $1300 retail. Although I tested a pre-production model of the pack, from my understanding, the LiTRIC system was set to role. The intent here is to focus on the LiTRIC system itself with a brief nod to the pack design as the aperitif.
Arc’teryx and Ortovox will sell unique branded packs, although both use LiTRIC. Ortovox offers a modular system where the pack’s back panel (which houses the battery/fan/airbag, shoulder straps, trigger, and hip belt) integrates with all but one of the LiTRIC airbag packs. (The LiTRIC ZERO, a 27 L pack, does not have a removable back panel.) If you purchase a single LiTRIC pack, say the Freeride 28, the back panel is removable and will interface with larger and smaller volume pack options. For example, the back panel from the Freeride 28 also interfaces with a 40-liter zip on Tour 40. The pack without the back panel retails for $160.00.
Arc’teryx offers three LiTRIC backpacks; there’s a 16L, 32L, and 42L model. It is not a modular system. The back panel housing the battery/fan/airbag is not removable.
Charging the LiTRIC System: An Overview
LiTRIC employs a lithium-ion battery charged via a USB C port (cable included) and nine supercapacitors. For external charging, use the USB-C cord, and plug it into something like an iPhone charge block and an electric outlet. This method will fully recharge the system and might take a few hours, depending on how depleted the system is. If you have a new unit, fully charge the unit before initial use.
The battery/fan unit includes a visible flashing light sequence as it recharges. The charge sequence runs red-yellow-green and switches to static green (when powered off) at full capacity. A blinking green light, when powered on, means the unit possesses enough stored energy for deployment. After a single deployment, the system usually should recharge via an electrical outlet in roughly 25 minutes.
Supercapacitors are part of electronic systems due to their ability to deliver what Patrick Wesch, Ortovox’s Product Manager for Safety gear, calls “fast energy.” Supercapacitors are also relatively light and are less affected by temperature extremes. Still, supercapacitors also need backup energy to recharge as they leak energy. In the case of the LiTRIC system, absent an external power source like an outlet, the charged lithium-ion batteries recharge and top off the supercapacitors during long and short term-storage scenarios. In the case of the Alpride E2 system, two AA batteries top off that system’s rechargeable battery/supercapacitors.
Terminology: An external charge/recharge uses a wall socket and USB-C cord to charge the system. An internal charge/recharge uses the lithium-ion battery to recharge the supercapacitor.
LiTRIC Charging Basics
— Once fully charged and switched off, the system should remain primed for a single airbag inflation for 30 days. After the bag sat for 20 days, I turned the unit on and received a single full inflation.
— To check the charge status of the unit, turn the unit on, which includes an autotest of the motor engaging briefly. Look to see if the green light is illuminated and blinking after the start sequence. If the supercapacitors are low on energy, it may take some time for the lithium-ion battery (LIB) to top them off; when they are topped off, the green light blinks. You’re ready for a full inflation.
Many of us live in a charge, deplete, and recharge cycle. An airbag is not my social media scrolling tool; an airbag is a potentially life-saving device. In the case of an electric airbag, I tend to be cautious with charge depletion; while using the LiTRIC Freeride 28 regularly this spring, I often topped off the charge after each outing.
One issue raised about using lithium-ion batteries is reliability in cold temperatures. With the LiTRIC system, let’s assume you’re entering a frigid environment with a fully charged system. Wesch says the European standards for certifying LIBs for safety gear in cold environments are rigorous. He also explained that the design team tested the LiTRIC system at temperatures down to -30 celsius. Wesch also said Arc’teryx measured a lower limit of -16 degrees celsius inside the pack while skiing in Arctic temperatures. The ambient air was more frigid in that instance, but the pack’s internals must have been warmed slightly due to body heat. Further, Wesch explained the battery is not an off-the-shelf unit; it is developed for cold weather use and has a life cycle of up to a decade. Arc’Terx also brings battery know-how to the table after several years of designing their Voltaire airbag packs which use lithium-polymer batteries.
I’ve had the LiTRIC unit function and trigger in “normal” winter temps, at around 20°F. As a supercapacitor LIB system, claimed temperature ranges for charging are -4°F to 113°F (-20° to 45° C). More importantly, the claimed operating temperatures are -22°F to 113°F ( -20° to 45° C). Absent trips to Antarctica, a cold spell in the Alaska Range, or an equatorial cruise, you should be set with this temperature range.
Like any new safety system new to the marketplace, get to know the system and check it frequently to ensure proper function — in particular, routinely check the charge status.
LiTRIC: Pulling the Trigger and a Secondary Deployment
LiTRIC Multiple Inflations with no External Charge: Relying on the LIB for a Supercapacitor Top Off.
Ok, so you pull the trigger and receive a full inflation. After that initial inflation, the lithium-ion battery recharges the supercapacitors for the next deployment. This process takes approximately 20 minutes. Once the supercapacitors are topped off, the green charge indicator light blinks, and the system is primed for a second deployment. Again, this is somewhat similar to the Alpride E2 system. Yet, the E2 system relies on two AA batteries to replenish or “top off” the supercapacitors, while the LiTRIC uses the already charged lithium-ion battery. These are two solutions to the same problem of supercapacitor recharge.
Scenario One: Allowing the fully charged system to sit for 48 hours
LiTRIC documentation states a full charge allows two full inflations within 60 hours. I’ve had the bag sit powered off for 48 hours and can confirm two full inflations in this time frame. Most often, I was charging the Freeride 28 overnight, as I might do at a backcountry hut; again, I’m getting a minimum of two full inflations per external charge.
I receive two full inflations using the E2 system and a full recharge and fresh alkaline AAs. As noted below, using the LiTRIC, I receive four full inflations off a single full external charge.
Scenario Two: Maxing Out Inflations with a fully charged LiTRIC system.
I received two full inflations roughly 30-minutes apart using an internal recharge via the LIB for the second trigger/inflation. I then allowed the system to sit overnight while powered on. While sitting overnight, the LIB tops off the supercapacitors. (I repeat, I did not plug the unit into a wall socket.)
The following day, the green charge indicator light was blinking — I triggered the third inflation successfully. I then let the system sit for another 30-minutes, and the green-yellow sequence of lights flashed. According to the LiTRIC manual, this light sequence indicates, “charging required. The LiTRIC system will hold enough charge for one deployment for at least 8 hours.”
Practice happy folks rejoice: I soon received another full inflation, the fourth overall, from a single full external charge. To simplify the above: in my experience, at temperatures between 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit (not wintertime ski temperatures), one external charge to full capacity equates to four full inflations without reconnecting the unit to a wall outlet.
After the fourth inflation, I repacked the bag, and the sequence of lights progressed red-yellow-green and was accompanied twice by a beeping sequence indicating it might be time for a recharge. Here’s what the manual states. “3-second continuous beep: LiTRIC System needs to be charged. The LiTRIC System could switch off at any time. Deployment is no longer assured.”
I waited another ten minutes for the LIB to do its thing, and the light sequence switched to a single red blinking flash, meaning, “Charging required. The LiTRIC System could switch off at any time. Deployment is no longer assured.”
Overall, four successful deployments off a single full external charge—I’ll call that good. I powered the unit down.
Readying the LiTRIC System for a Secondary Deployment
From my experience, the steps to set the bag up for a secondary deployment are easy. Once the airbag inflates, the LIB begins recharging the supercapacitors as it prepares for a subsequent trigger.
Continue to deflate the bag, secure the airbag safety latch (more on these steps in a separate section below), repack the bag, and zip the airbag compartment, so the zipper sliders are at the bottom. Switch the system back on if you have turned it off. Repack the airbag and check for the green blinking light. The system should soon be primed for another inflation — this is where it takes roughly 25 minutes for the supercapacitors to recharge.
Triggering and Discharging the LiTRIC
Although perhaps a minor detail for some, the LiTRIC system trigger is a design highlight. The trigger height is easily adjusted and is fixed on the left shoulder strap. To lock out the trigger and prevent an accidental pull, twist the trigger handle 180 degrees until the gray side faces outward. Yank the trigger in this orientation, and the system will not engage. It is locked out and disarmed.
To “arm” the system, ensure you’ve turned the unit on and the system is charged, then twist the trigger 180 degrees until the orange face of the handle orients outward.
The trigger is treated with a rubber compound to make it easy to grip. It is designed to be grasped by the whole hand, rather than clutching and pulling down with only the index and middle fingers like a traditional trigger. I’ve had no issues finding and engaging the LiTRIC trigger in my tests using OR Alti Mitts (which are big and bulky but so warm) or more minimalist gloves.
The trigger handle was simple and effective on the BCA FLOAT E2 25 pack I tested this past winter/spring. That trigger cannot be locked out but can be zipped up and housed in the shoulder strap to prevent an accidental pull. Conversely, the LiTRIC trigger can not be recessed in the shoulder strap. That’s not, in fact, a downside, as the trigger is low profile. Both systems are well designed, and I’ve got no data on which design is more or less effective in a real-life slide.
For those familiar with Arc’teryx’s older Voltaire packs, the LiTRIC handle shares some Voltaire DNA— the new look and feel is decidedly evolved. Like the Voltaire handle, the LiTRIC trigger can be grabbed easily and twisted into the “on” position while skiing, even in steeper terrain. That’s not precisely the remedy for failing to expose the airbag handle/trigger using other systems if you accidentally stash the trigger in the zipper pocket; that process would be more complex. (As a rule, no matter your pack’s design, leave the trigger out and available for a pull once you hit the trailhead. And if you use an electronic airbag pack, turn the system on at the trailhead (or once you get into the car heading to the trailhead).
Ortovox’s Wesch also spoke about some cable refinements in the LiTRIC design. The LiTRIC unit uses Bowden cables which is a new development for Ortovox. Bowden cables transmit force when the trigger is pulled like a traditional cable. However, the inner cable in a Bowden cable is housed in a sheath and is more flexible, creating less friction when engaged. The LiTRIC cable runs from the trigger handle and through the plastic latch that closes the airbag compartment— pull the trigger, and the cable tension separates the plastic latch, and the airbag inflates.
The lower friction with a Bowden cable, says Wesch, also prevents accidental inflations. He explained that in older Ortovox airbags with traditional cables (read more friction), a sudden impulse on heavily loaded packs sometimes caused false inflations.
Pulling the trigger and engaging the cable is easy with the type of resistance we might expect in a well-designed airbag system: you need to pull firmly and with intent, but by no means is the force required to deploy the airbag excessive.
The system’s fan runs for roughly four seconds as the 150 L airbag vigorously inflates with a sound similar to a Dyson vacuum. Despite its elegance, there’s nothing wallflower-like about the system: pull the trigger, hear the high-pitched motor and fan engagement, and roughly three seconds later, the balloon fully inflates.
After a minute, the system will top off the volume with a quick power pulse. This process repeats itself a minute later and then ceases.
LiTRIC Latch Syetem (No Burst Zipper)
Most airbags use a burst zipper. This burt zipper design includes two zippers that meet in the middle. At the middle point and running for a few inches in each direction, the zipper teeth do not latch together; they remain open. Pulling the zippers down to each side closes each side zipper and presumably the airbag compartment. Ideally, once the trigger is pulled and the airbag inflates, the zipper “bursts” open, freeing the inflating airbag. I’m not alone in having burst zippers open accidentally, only to have an airbag begin to creep and dangle out of the airbag compartment. I’m also not alone in being frustrated by tough-to-zip up and down burst zippers. It’s a basic technology, but one that, to me, remains unrefined.
LiTRIC presents a new twist on the burst zipper. Mentioned above is the airbag compartment safety latch. A solid plastic orange piece, the safety latch, clicks into place, effectively closing the airbag compartment. (This latch replaces the zipper portion where the teeth do not clasp.) Two weatherproof zippers run up the sides of the airbag compartment and stop before sealing off the safety latch; considering how delicately I’ve had to handle burst zippers in the past, these zippers function smoothly. Pull the zippers up towards the latch and back down to seal the airbag compartment.
Pull the trigger, and the Bowden cable not only initiates inflation, it opens the safety latch, allowing the side zippers to open easily. Although I’ve had no issues, one thing to watch out for is pinching the airbag in the latch system. I can see this happening with a hasty repack and relatch process.
The LiTRIC Leg Strap
Once you understand the physics of avalanches, the leg strap takes on greater importance. The principle of inverse segregation states that larger objects rise to the top as an avalanche flows. The airbag balloon makes the skier a larger and more buoyant object. Ideally, with a deployed and inflated airbag, you’ll rise to the surface of the avalanche and remain at the surface. The deployed airbag will ideally cause the skier to rise in the flow; without the leg strap, which runs between the legs from a rear attachment point to a front attachment point on the waistbelt, the buoyant force will likely pull the pack off the skier. With no balloon attached, the skier becomes a smaller and less buoyant object, making them more likely to sink below the surface.
Many airbag packs rely on a metal waist buckle that fixes through a loop at the leg strap’s end. If you’ve used this system, you know it works, but it’s clunky and inelegant, and for some, like me, it often requires taking mittens or gloves off to fasten correctly. With the LiTRIC, the waistbelt secures with a typical plastic buckle; there’s no metal buckle fiddling required. Also, securing the leg strap does not involve the waist buckle. Meaning that backpack removal at transitions or rests is easy too.
LiTRIC piggybacks off Arc’teryx’s experience with its leg strap carabiner system. Like any leg strap, the non-carabiner end of the adjustable leg strap is fixed to the pack. The loose end is attached to a carabiner explicitly designed for easy handling. It is rectangular, easy to use wearing a mitt or glove, and clips into place with a reassuring and audible click to a loop sewn onto the waistbelt.
That loop is one end of another section of 1″ orange webbing that is sewn and bar tacked from the left side of the pack’s back panel to the waist belt. With the airbag deployed in an avalanche, the skier’s load is directed to the main backpack and not entirely to the waistbelt.
A common mistake of airbag users is failing to attach the leg strap due to forgetfulness or choice. To address this, LiTRIC designers decided not to incorporate a small pouch to organize the leg strap when not in use.
With the LiTRIC system, without clipping the leg strap carabiner to the waistbelt, you’re left with a several-foot length of orange webbing dangling in the snow. Several times, I’ve made the mistake of forgetting to secure my leg strap. So I like the designer’s intentions here. The hi-vis orange is easy to see, and either a partner or the LiTRIC user will likely note the unattached leg strap and remedy the problem. With a stash-away pocket, it is easier for mistakes to happen; the leg strap remains stashed away, and there’s no dangling reminder of a potentially critical error.
Deflating and Repacking the LiTRIC
If you fear accidental deflation once the airbag deploys, barring no tears and the seals hold up (the bag fabric and seals are robust on the LiTRIC bags) you’re in good hands. The airbag fabric’s face is durable nylon. According to the designers, this is a more pliable and packable airbag due to two separate layers of material; there’s an inner bladder holding the air and a “high tenacity outer shell,” for more durability.
To deflate the airbag, insert a plastic key into the battery unit, and deflation ensues. Gently pressing on the bag helps expedite the deflation process. Without the key inserted, the system will not deflate. Warning: do not lose the key in the field. The Ortovox bags include an orange cord/tether that should be tied to the key and secured to the pack. The tether is long enough to tie off in a pack pocket and insert the key into the battery/fan unit to deflate.
Remember this: REMOVE THE DEFLATION KEY ONCE THE AIRBAG IS DEFLATED and REPACKED; otherwise, THE AIRBAG WILL NOT DEPLOY!!
For laundry-folding-challenged people like myself, LiTRIC airbag repacking is easy. The manual states, “evenly stuff” the airbag into the airbag compartment, squeeze excess air out (the deflation key must remain in the battery/fan unit to deflate), close the airbag latch, and zip it up.
However, I wanted to test the system and inflation reliability with a poorly packed airbag. I shoved and stuffed the airbag like balling up flannel shirts and t-shirts in my dresser. As a reluctant laundry folder, I applied my remedial skills while airbag repacking. Despite my best efforts to short-circuit the repacking, each time I pulled the trigger, the latch opened, and the bag inflated perfectly. Again, this allowed me to test limits on hasty packing. Take the time to be fastidious on ski days, but know it is a simple repacking process.
LiTRIC Off-Season Storage
The LiTric manual recommends a straightforward process for off-season storage. The system has a “storage mode,” which the user must set. According to the manual, “storage mode” helps the LIB maintain the claimed ten-year lifespan.
This is a new product. With that in mind, there’s no product history, long-term field reports, or anecdotal evidence to draw from. The maximum life of the system is 10 years from the original manufacture date, or 50 deployments, according to both Ortovox and Arc’teryx. Further, the LiTRIC documentation states, “The service life cannot be accurately determined because it depends on various factors, such as how frequently it is used, how it is handled, climatic conditions, etc.”
In any event, the LiTRIC calls for a full recharge after 10 months of storage.
It’s important to remember that European safety standards are rigorous. And they have to set a limit somewhere. That upper limit is 50 deployments. The disclaimer is this, we are not the arbiters of 50 deployments or more. By the time I’m done with this review, I’ll have something like 25 deployments into the total count on this LiTRIC unit. Ortovox and Arc’teryx ask that you send the units in for an inspection after 50 deployments or after five years post-manufacture date to determine its viability.
After 50 deployments, the red-yellow-green lights will blink in unison at 10-second intervals. Ortovox and Arc’teryx suggest the unit be sent in at this point for an inspection which will likely cost an unspecified fee. If you end up owning a LiTRIC unit for five years or 50 pulls, which makes sense to get some return on investment on this costly piece, send it in.
The LiTRIC Buzz
I’ll get out in front of any perceived bias. I own a single piece of Arc’teryx clothing; the new Procline pants, which I’m pretty smitten with after I altered the leg lengths. But, in my eyes, they are masters of refinement and fit. I’ve coveted their hardshell jackets for years. But, like much of the Dead Bird’s clothing line, I’ve felt priced out. I’m hard-pressed, however, to find an outdoor company with such high standards for detail. I also know Ortovox has decades of experience designing personal protective equipment for winter backcountry travel. What we see and receive in the manifestation of the LiTRIC system and an Ortovox and Arc’teryx marriage is a clean and reasonably minimalist system. The fan and battery unit are about the size of a small grapefruit. A single window houses a power button that sits adjacent to the USB port; the window comes with a rubber cover to help with waterproofness. You can travel with the LiTRIC system according to the current TSA and international flying protocols. For the jet-set among us, this might come in handy.
This all begs the question and circles back to the thread I began at the start, how small can these systems become and still maintain enough charge and power to fill an airbag when it counts? The industry has made incremental steps toward minimalism. And as far as airbag systems go, we’re approaching the 1kg boundary. Batteries are hefty. And I’m not intimate enough with the rechargeable battery world to know if there’s an equivalent to Moore’s Law; the idea that computer chips and their transistor density double roughly every two years, rendering faster computing speeds.
Where I’m going is this; we are likely to see a reduction in battery size and weight as well as reduced size and weight for the fan and motor in coming years. These units will get smaller. Will they get cheaper? I’ll let the commenters weigh in on that. This segment of the backcountry industry is certain to evolve soon.
The LiTRIC system does seem like an advance. For those with fat enough bank accounts, I’d say we are at a place where reliability, size, and weight are refined enough to invest in an electric airbag. The LiTRIC system leaves enough usable volume in the pack to serve the basic yet essential need to carry your stuff comfortably. For those other moments when the cosmos goes dark, and you’re in an avalanche and are tumbling and pulling the trigger, the LiTRIC should deliver.
We are hoping to have a production pack on hand in the fall to offer up a detailed review.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.