ABS Vario Airbag Backpacks Review

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 24, 2011      

I’ve been using the ABS Vario avalanche airbag backpack system for the last month and am stoked on the versatility and safety it offers. Like other airbag backpacks, the Vario uses compressed gas (nitrogen) to inflate a pair of air bags to keep you from being buried in an avalanche (for more on how this works, see my airbag overview). What is so cool about the Vario line is that you buy one base unit which can have different sized packs zipped on to it. So, for a short foray out the backcountry gate of the resort, you can zip on the 15 liter; for a mellow backcountry tour- the 18; for a big day in the backcountry- the 30; and for overnights and hut trips with bags and bags of wine, bring out the 50 liter monster. The last few years I’ve been using an older ABS pack (the Escape 50), with a fixed size of 50 liters, which was way overkill for ninety percent of my skiing, but allowed me to have it on overnights. Now, with the Vario, you can be flexible and not have to buy multiple pricey packs.

For all those lusting to pull your partner's ABS handle, this is what happens. Instead of testing in the living room, Tyler opted for the backcountry.

The Vario lineup. Left to right: 15, 18, 30, and 50. Base Unit on the bottom.

The Vario base unit is comprised of the frame, back panel, airbag system (cartridge, packed airbags, hoses and whatnot, which sit right against your shoulder blades- the perfect place for the weight), shoulder straps, hip belt, and a wrap around zipper that is used to attach the various zip ons. It carries very comfortably and comes in two different back length sizes, small for up to 19.3″ and large for over 18.1″. I’m 6’0″ and the large sits comfortably and carries well. The pack is well made and as with all ABS packs, all the important parts are bar tacked and totally bomber so the pack performs and stays on you in an avalanche. The version we have uses the older, heavier air bag material, but next year the Vario will use the same new Zodiac made fabric as seen in the Powder 15, and which shaves off over 1/4 pound.

The zipper connecting the zip ons to the base unit is protected by an elasticized flap.

The different packs attach to the base unit via zipper, and are thus called “zipons.” In addition to the wrap around zipper, the zip ons have straps, two at top and two at bottom, which feed into plastic cinches on the base unit. In addition to backing up the zipper, these allow you to compress the pack a small amount and bring the load closer to your back. All the packs can carry skis diagonally or a snowboard both horizontally or vertically. Skis carry comfortably, but the strap system is less than ideal. At least it’s easy enough to modify it to your liking.

Attaching the 30L zip on. The zipper runs around the complete length. Note that the zip on has a fabric back that sits against the base unit. It might be unnecessary extra weight as the cartridge and airbags are already protected by the base unit's own fabric flaps. However, the extra fabric is nice when replacing a spent cartridge without exploding all contents as in this photo. Also, this makes it super convenient to swap zip ons that are already packed. You can keep different gear in each zip on, say a few basic slackcountry wants in the 15, while the 30 can be kept with the bigger day extras. Easy to switch from one to the other.

The base unit I’m using has the old style metal buckle, without the slot, but the newer packs should have them. The leg strap (for keeping the pack from being pulled above your head in an avy), is the same as the Powder line. Again, it would be much more elegant if the strap could be stowed in the pouch with one end already connected (as some of the other brands do), and if it didn’t use plastic buckles that pack with snow.

The cartridge is screwed into the puncture unit, all this sits behind a flap for protection and to keep it out of the way. I'm debating cutting it off, as the Powder base unit doesn't have one nor seem to need it.

15 L
The 15 liter zip on is a super small panel loader with a couple of external pockets. Like the Powder 15, it’s probably too small for true backcountry skiing, but could be perfect for dropping out the gate at the ski area. However, it’s heavier than the 18 liter, so I’m not sure why you would choose the 15. Perhaps if you want a pack with burlier fabric and extra features, such as an ice axe holder.

The main pocket has just a small horizontal zip opening which is hard to get into. Wish it were bigger and wrapped around down the sides. The front pocket is too small to fit even a small shovel or probe.

18 L Ultralight
Finally an airbag pack with a real attempt at saving weight. No extras, just a main compartment and a couple external zips. Yes, the base unit needs to be much lighter, but the zip on part is an example of the direction airbag packs need to go. The lightweight fabric may not be as durable as the other Vario zip ons, but that doesn’t matter for your average ski tour. Plus, it’s white which makes it easy to see inside it to find things and has a cool 10th Mountain camo feel. With a steel US cartridge (can we have a carbon cartridge in this country soon, please DOT?) and activation handle it weighs in at 7 pounds on my digital scale. Not the absolute lightest offering, but lighter than most of the airbag packs, and it has the interchangeable zip on feature. Of course, the zip on attachment system adds weight, but I think it’s more than worth it for the added utility.

Vario 18, not too small for a tour.

To add more space, there is a mesh helmet attachment and a mesh gear pouch. The pouch will hold a helmet as well, so it's the one to use, and is shown here. The 15 zipon uses the same system.

Diagonal ski carry with helmet attached with the mesh accessory. The skis carry comfortably, but the strap system is not ideal. A customized system would be easy to conjure up.

Not only is the 18 good for lightweight tours, but while in Telluride over the weekend, I found it to be the perfect ski area pack. It’s light enough that I can ski all day on the resort without taking it off, and if I drop out the gate from time to time during the day, I’m ready. Another thing I noticed while there was a relative abundance of these packs. In lower Bear Creek I ran into two different ABS pack users. Psyched to see people are beginning to use these things!

Inside the main compartment. The little black pouch is meant to hold the mesh helmet carrier, but I haven't bothered to use it.

I don't use a hydration system, but if you do, the 15 and 18 have a double zip system that allows you to run the hose out one side and unzip from the other side of the main compartment. Seems like an afterthought, but it works.

30 L
The 30 liter zip on has become my go to backcountry pack. It easily fits everything I care to bring, including more safety/emergency gear than I can fit in the 18 (bigger first aid kit, puffy pants, bivy sack, etc), and often with room to spare. It carries all this very comfortably and I hardly notice it compared to my older ABS Escape.

You can see the elastic running along the side edges of the lid, aggravating to use, but looks good closed.

It’s a toploader, and besides the main compartment, has an avy tool pocket up front and a lid with 2 zips (top and bottom). The top lid is sewed to the pack and the sides are elasticized, which can make it hard to flip the lid open off the top of the pack. However, it sits very snug when it is closed over the pack. I’d prefer a removable, floating lid and no elastic. Vertical zip access for the lid is unconventional and awkward to use. Perhaps it will train me from my habit of cramming too many things in the lid, as it’s frustrating to use when more than half full.

The front tool pocket will just fit a larger shovel such as this BD Bobcat, but I have to disassemble the handle into two parts. Regular sized shovels fit no problem.

If keeping yer tools in the main compartment is your thing, there is a velcroed sleeve against the back panel. A shovel blade in there wastes a lot of space though, so either put something else in there or get rid of it.

I'm convinced that I could get away with sewing ski straps on the reinforced black panels for A-frame ski carry. As you can see it doesn't appear to interfere with the air bags. Even though this pack carries skis diagonally well, I still hate diagonal ski carry.

50 L
The big one for overnights. This pack is basically the same as the 30, but everything is bigger, including the lid and pockets. The front tool pocket is so big that it could use organizer straps or cinches to keep things from clanging around. The Vario base unit is well padded and probably overkill for the lighter zip ons, but it pays off on the 50. ABS advertises two axe holders, but there is only one.

Fully loaded, except that I forgot to uncinch the lid (it can be shrunk down with a pair of straps).

The 50 can be compressed and with the lid removed isn't bad for a day pack while at your destination.

The Vario 50 is the only zip on with hip stabilizer straps, which attach to the base unit's hipbelt. These help pull the load to you body and onto your hips. Also, I should note that both the 50 and 30 have upper straps that are long enough to attach to the shoulder straps of the base unit to act as upper stabilizer straps.

Vario 50 (on left) has an expansion collar and floating/removable lid. The 30 does not.

In conclusion, the Vario system is an ingenious option for the air bag user who wants choices. In fact, if you don’t like any of the ABS zip ons, Rossignol, Dynastar, Arva, and Millet all offer their own zip on options that are compatible with the ABS base unit. And if you do like a particular zip on so much that you want to use it where there isn’t avalanche danger, such as in the summer, ABS sells a base unit without the airbag system. All this versatility comes at a small weight penalty. The current base unit and attachment system is beefy, so the bigger pack options (30 and 50) end up weighing in the 8 pound range with a filled steel cartridge, which is about average compared to the competition, but isn’t the lightest offering either. The 18 liter version is a pound lighter though, and with a carbon cartridge (due in the US anytime now) and next year’s lighter air bag material and workings, you could drop another pound. For a breakdown of the various options, see the airbag overview page, which has been updated with verified weights.

Oh, and if you’ve been wanting to see the footage from the first photo:

ABS Vario 30 Airbag Inflation from Nick Thompson on Vimeo.


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29 Responses to “ABS Vario Airbag Backpacks Review”

  1. naginalf February 24th, 2011 12:19 pm

    Have there been any reports of this helping anyone survive?

  2. naginalf February 24th, 2011 12:29 pm

    Sorry, dumb question, just checked the website. I’m new to the field.

  3. Tom Gos February 24th, 2011 4:16 pm

    Good review. The system of being able to switch between different size packs is a huge plus for this company. From my limited investigation this seems to be the best system available. It is also really cool that they allow other manufacturers to make packs that work with the base frame (BD should tanke a hint and license their Avalung system to others as well) Lets hope they keep making the whole package even lighter. I’m a safety concious guy, so I’m usually pretty conservative in my terrain choices when the hazard is at all elevated, thus I can’t quite justify shelling out $1200 for one of these yet. But as prices come down and I start to see more POV videos of survivors using these I’ll probably end up being convinced. I used to feel the same way about the Avalung, but after seeing a few videos of users being buried and breathing until being dug out I was convinced. It seems that only real design flaw is the uninsulated hydration tube, but I’ll bet they get that fixed quickly.

  4. Bruno February 24th, 2011 5:13 pm

    It carries very comfortably and comes in two different back length sizes, small for up to 19.3? and large for over 18.1?

    How does one measure their back length? Belt line to collar?

    Thanks for all the effort that has obviously gone into these write-ups. You have given information a lot of us have been looking for which will stimulate some buying. Me being one.

  5. NT February 24th, 2011 5:19 pm

    Tom, there are tons of reported statistics, find them on my overview page which I linked to in this post.
    For video, the famous one of Xavier de la Rue is a good one. Find it here:

    Don’t know of any POV footage off the top of my head, but I’ll bet it’s out there.

    As for the hydration tube, the one I have pictured is a 3rd party one (you supply your own bladder and tube). If you’re talking about an insulated sleeve on one of the shoulder straps, BCA’s Float 30 has that.

  6. aviator February 24th, 2011 7:14 pm

    thank you for all your work on this, I really appreciate the way you get the tiny details correct.
    the verified weights are PURE GOLD!

  7. John S February 24th, 2011 8:02 pm

    Great looking system! I have the Float 30, and chose it based on the fact that I have BCA pro-deal, but after a few trips I am pleased with it. It’s a heavy day-pack, but it carries comfortably and I don’t really notice the weight, even on long touring days. The insulated drinking tube on the shoulder strap is nice, through getting the tube through to the body of the pack is a total PITA.

    Anyway, I’m off topic, but I think we’ll be seeing more and more airbag packs in the field as prices come down and awareness goes up. The more manufacturers that are in the game, the better for skiers.

  8. Sean February 24th, 2011 8:12 pm

    All of them look very good. Great idea on the mesh helmet and gear pouches.

  9. Jim February 24th, 2011 9:54 pm

    Wish someone would figure a more elegant system to carry the skins. Shoving them in the jacket just seems awkward, tho effective.

  10. NT February 25th, 2011 9:35 am

    Bruno, measure back length between the point on your spine between your iliac crest (hip bones) and the 7th cervical vertebrae (most prominent bone sticking out as you run your finger along the back of your neck).

  11. Greg Moellmer February 27th, 2011 1:41 pm

    I’m on the verge of buying a pack and the snowpulse 30L still edges out the abs vario for me. When I come to a rest, I want my head out of the snow, which seems more likely with the snowpulse. This is especially important to me as I frequently ski alone. ABS’s whole deal with the reduction of dynamic forces within a moving avalanche just doesn’t quite pass the smell test for me. I’ll take “head-on-top”, thank you.

    Everything else about the vario seems really sweet. Love the option of changing shells. Weighs less. Nifty trigger. More experienced maker. Redundancy of airbags.

    I just can’t get over the “head-on-top”

    Opinions anyone?

  12. Mitch Frankel March 27th, 2011 9:31 pm

    I am interested in the vario 18L, but for this amount of $$ I want to be able to try the pack on first. I live in SLC and the BCA is sold locally in a couple stores making it easy to try on. But the ABS appears to only be sold by Snowbigdeal online. Any idea of physical stores in the rocky mountains that have ABS packs to try on?

  13. Lou March 28th, 2011 6:40 am

    Greg, thanks for bringing up the subject of airbag shape. My opinion is I want the lightest weight system I can put on my back, regardless of shape of the airbag. Reason being I’m finding it hard to carry all the weight I need to be safe, including airbag, during North American backcountry skiing in remote locations where we like to carry more stuff than they typically do in central/western Europe, where a rescue is frequently a quick cell phone call away.

    From what I’m seeing from all Nick’s great work with this subject, as well as my own networking at trade shows etc., the systems will be much lighter in a few years. Two reasons: carbon fiber cylinders and UHMwPE fiber bags. From what I’ve seen, such stuff plus some more care with component weight will reduce the weight of the airbag mechanicals by an easy 50 percent. Add some better pack design, and pretty soon the weight penalty of avy airbag backpacks will be easily compensated for by carrying a bit less food or taking more care with clothing layering systems.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is sure, look at bag shape but make sure you can carry the pack you choose — in real life!

  14. snowpulse-fan March 28th, 2011 8:44 am

    Lou and others,

    When your main concern about airbag-packs is weight, do you take the weight distribution over the pack into account? I do and that was the reason for me to pick the snowpulse airbag two years ago. By putting the actual airbag on the shoulder straps some weight from the heavy pack is transferred to your front and it feels more balanced because of this (compared to the abs vario 30 liter and older abs-packs).

  15. aviator March 28th, 2011 9:16 am

    @ greg
    Look at the ABS stats
    ABS survivors DO end up head up most of the time, and correct me if I’m wrong but II haven’t seen any numbers Snowpulse survivors actually do this more often? It’s more of a theory due to the shape of the airbag rather than a proven advantage?

    When ABS survivors don’t, they have been able to self rescue or been visible to enable quick partner rescue.

  16. Kelly April 8th, 2011 3:46 pm

    Great POV of ABS deployment in an avalanche accident in Engelberg.


  17. Brendan October 11th, 2011 4:55 am

    Does anyone know what the current status of flying with the carbon cartridges within the US and internationally is? (I am currently in Europe but might consider bringing one of these back with me.)

  18. Nick October 11th, 2011 9:20 am

    The carbon cartridge is not yet DOT certified, so you would not be able to fly into the US with it. If you were to succeed in getting a carbon cartridge into the US, you will not be able to get it refilled. ABS can’t until they get the DOT certification. Hopefully they get it soon!

  19. SN October 11th, 2011 10:18 am


    Interesting video, seems to show the skier near the top for all but a little bit of the time. I assume the darkness was after the big cliff…

    More interesting from a ‘why’ standpoint is when this guy is rehashing his mistakes he shows footage of the day before. He and his partner are both skiing and releasing sizable slabs around them, and they are skiing together. Either way that is a pretty cool video on a couple of levels.

  20. Maciek October 25th, 2011 9:05 am

    I just recently heard about ABS backpacks and I like the idea very much. My problem is my skitouring trips are usually a few days long and I tend to sleep in a tent. In temperatures as low as -30C that means quite a large sleeping bag, tent, clothes, food for 4-7 days, etc. And I can hardly imagine 50l backpack being enough. Do you know if there are any bigger backpack sizes (i.e. 80l)? Another solution (not a very comfortable one unfortunately) would be strapping as much stuff as possible outside backpack, but I’m afraid that could prevent the airbag from opening… Any thoughts on the matter?

  21. Nick Thompson October 25th, 2011 12:25 pm

    Maciek, sounds like you get on some good long adventures. The 50liter reviewed here is the largest airbag pack I’m aware of. This season, ABS’s largest offering will be a 40liter however. To get bigger than 50 liters, the best option might be to create your own zip on that is compatible with ABS’s Vario system. Check out this link to see an example of someone who made their own zip on: http://www.larsonweb.com/backcountryskigear/id1.html
    ABS claims that the base unit zipper and strap attachment is designed to carry 175lbs (overkill for everyone but you I suppose). You could of course just strap extra stuff on the outside, but as you mentioned, not ideal.

  22. Bro January 29th, 2013 1:50 pm

    Good news for all of you who have a Snowpulse model upto year 2011: You can zip on the ABS Vario bags, as the systems are compatible. You need to check wether you have the zipper all around, and maybe remove the sewn of the flap covering the zipper.

    Snowpulse used to have zip ons, but lost a patent suit to ABS. Only after 2012 did the re-design their backpacks. Before that, you can use the ABS Vario system.

    In short: ABS Vario zip on backpacks are compatible with (somewhat older) Snowpulse Lifebag systems.

  23. Nick January 29th, 2013 2:26 pm

    Bro, my understanding is that you are mostly correct. However this only applies to a select group of Snowpulse packs that were sold in Canada, and I believe it was from earlier than 2011. More like 2009 or 2010. Snowpulse lost the patent fight, so they sewed over the zippers.

  24. Grif February 15th, 2013 4:05 pm

    Can the Vario 18 Ultralight main compartment carry a small shovel & probe w/a small drink?

  25. Nick Thompson February 15th, 2013 4:52 pm

    Grif, the 18 can easily carry that and more. Small shovel, probe, liter of water, skins, extra layer should fit.

  26. Grif February 15th, 2013 6:57 pm

    Thank you for the response! In your opinion, which pack allows more storage? The vario18 or powder 05? Only looking to bring shovel, probe, skins & drink.

  27. Nick February 19th, 2013 6:48 am

    The vario 18 is roughly 18 liters in size, the powder 5 is roughly 5 liters in size.

  28. Ed! April 7th, 2013 6:09 am

    Hi Nick.

    I’ve just bought the backpack with the 18L ultralight sack and can’t figure out how to attach the skis to it. It seems more suitable for a snowboard than to a pair of skis.

    How do you achieve to tie them in diagonal position?


  29. Nick April 8th, 2013 8:33 am

    It’s not the most ideal set up, but you use the straps that should have come with the pack. Attach to the pack using the webbing loops at the top and bottom of the pack. Set it up diagonally or vertically.

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