Mystery Ranch Blackjack 1.5 – 2011/12 – First Look at Avalanche Airbag Backpack

Post by blogger | September 15, 2011      
Mystery Ranch Blackjack airbag backpack for backcountry skiing.

Mystery Ranch Blackjack airbag backpack for backcountry skiing.

Progress has been made since last season’s Blackjack backpack review. The weight might still be a deal breaker for some of you (as with many airbag backpack brands and models), but Mystery Ranch’s rework of their Blackjack 43 liter avalanche airbag backpack now trims a full pound off last season’s version, for a chunky but better 7.8 pounds.

A bit of the weight savings is in an improved plumbing system that uses a smaller bottle, with most liposuction credit going to improvements in the body panel (frame) and a bit more minimalist approach to design.

Version 1. — airbag components 3.4 lbs, bag 5.4 lbs
Ver 1.5 — air bag components weigh 3.3 lbs, bag 4.5 lbs.

Blackjack airbag backpack from the side.

Blackjack airbag backpack from the side.

As many readers know, the airbag components for the Blackjack are sourced from Avi Vest, who makes airbag systems for snowmobilers (and are in the process of changing their name and re-branding). Last year’s focus for Mystery Ranch was on integrating those components into a rucksack suitable for everyone from ski patrol to weekend warriors. The original design was successful, but this year’s somewhat cleaner overall, with a few added features.

The Blackjack airbag is now sewn into the lid so if you’ve got the lid attached to the pack you can be certain you’ve packed the airbag. Inside the Blackjack body you’ll find a zippered pocket (easily sliced out for weight reduction) for goggles and doodads, as well as a tiny open top pocket for ski patroller’s tools. In a consumer version, these pockets are a good example of non-essential features that could be made with much lighter fabric, so we see potential here in terms of trimming mass. But they do add function to what would otherwise be a basic sack and zippered rear tool compartment.

Speaking of mass, it’s interesting to me that backcountry skiing consumers are asked to carry around stuff designed for ski patrollers who mostly get rides uphill. Considering that a lot more regular folk than ski patrollers die in avalanches, one wonders at the point here. Is the ski patrol market so huge the rest of us must bow to it? Apparently, so be it. Nonetheless, I’d suggest that the consumer market for airbag backpacks will be larger than the patrol market (it already must be so in Europe), and whomever has the lighter more elegant version of the airbag backpack will win the market in the human powered crowd. Digression, done.

Blackjack waist belt.

Blackjack backpack waist belt has an oddly padded double configuration. Really, overkill. The waist buckle is adjusted by pulling to the rear on the double looped straps, again, for a backpack of this size that seems like unnecessary webbing.

Diagonal ski carry on the Blackjack is provided for with a reinforced back panel, loop and strap. A-frame carry is possible as well by using side compression straps, but not recommended unless you have no need of the airbag safety feature. Strap system can also be configured to carry a snowboard.

What about the re-worked plumbing? According to the designer at Mystery Ranch, the new system uses a new feature called a “closed venturi.” Essentially, this means that the orifice that accepts air into the bag is attached with a sealed connection to the gas bottle (other types of venturi have openings). The closed venturi ensures the bag will fill if it’s pinned between the user’s body and the ground or snow surface (though it wouldn’t fill once buried by avalanche, it needs to do that before the slide stops moving.) The new venturi is also more efficient at filling the bag, thus reducing the required gas bottle size by about 20% in comparison to last year (and perhaps a bit smaller than other brands).

Blackjack airbag bottle.

Blackjack airbag gas bottle is 20 percent smaller than before.

The release cable (AKA lanyard) now uses a system that makes it stay in the right place despite how your pack is adjusted. Moreover, the clip that secures the cable to one of the grommets in the yoke sleeve is lighter and more secure than last years system. Deactivation (for heli riding, for example) is now accomplished by simply removing the girth hitched handle/trigger from the lanyard.

Blackjack viewed from rear.

Blackjack viewed from rear. Diagonal ski carry uses visible loop at bottom and buckle-strap to the side at top.

Of interest is the lack of a hydration system in the Blackjack. As weight is so critical with these packs, we’re not mourning this omission (though we do like hydration compatibility that some of the other airbag backpack brands offer). This especially in view of the fact you can still pack a hydration bladder, route a tube over your shoulder, and you’ll be fine if you know how to manage such systems in the cold. Likewise, the Blackjack comes with a small removable waistbelt pouch. Again, something you’ll probably want to shed if you intend to stay off the back muscle relaxants. For more detail about features, please check our Blackjack review from last year, as most remain the same.

MSRP is $975
Recreational lid accessory (allows using pack without airbag) $50
Waistbelt pocket accessory about $35

10 refills are included with each new pack, additional refill kit of 10 refills is $10

Spare/replacement cylinder and activator: $200

For more info, please see our Airbag Backpacks category.


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24 Responses to “Mystery Ranch Blackjack 1.5 – 2011/12 – First Look at Avalanche Airbag Backpack”

  1. paris September 15th, 2011 9:33 am

    Can a snowboard attatch to it? Aka. Does it work for knuckle staggers?

  2. Ben Nobel September 15th, 2011 9:49 am

    Yes a snowboard fits easily onto the front of the pack. The two side compression straps are asymmetrical , so they can either clip on the side, or come across the front for snowboards…

  3. Hojo September 15th, 2011 12:20 pm

    Does it deploy properly if a board or skis are attached to the carry system?

  4. shane September 15th, 2011 12:56 pm

    This is the first time I’ve checked out the cost for one of these packs. $1000. Wow. I think that is going to be a much bigger factor (compared to the weight) in keeping one of these off the backs of users.

    I know, I know, “it could save your life”! But the fact is that for that much coin (especially in this economy) a 4 digit price tag makes it awefully easy to say “well, I’ll just try harder not to get in trouble in the first place” despite what decisions are made during the subsequent tour.

  5. Lou September 15th, 2011 1:03 pm

    Shane, that’s most certainly a good point for any safety gear. Different brands and models do vary in price, and as demand increases sale prices will become more common. It’ll be personal, of course, but wait till the stories of saved lives start coming out more frequently in English. Once that happens, lots of folks will skip a new pair of skis and bindings for one of these. Or they’ll run that $$$$ mountain bike for an extra season or two.

  6. David September 15th, 2011 6:41 pm

    For human powered touring, the weight is a deal breaker. I understand this will come down over time, but for now I think packs like this only make sense for internal combustion powered turns or patrollers.

    I agree survival stories will have an impact, but I don’t think they will overcome the cost and weight barrier. When those barriers are reduced to a more negligible level, these types of bags will become commonplace.

  7. wcf3 September 15th, 2011 10:30 pm

    Cost? It is seldom that I’m out with a backcountry skier that isn’t carrying a couple grand worth of gear on him (and has another couple grand worth of ski gear at home) quite apart from all the other gear (MB’s, climbing gear, kayaks, etc) that they have in the garage. The differential cost of an airbag pack to a decent non-airbag pack is what $500-$600? The cost of a pair of skis or boots…

    Weight? Give me a break. If you aren’t already carrying an extra 3.5lbs of fat with you on a typical tour, then, even among backcountry skiers, you are an extremely rare bird. Drink one less beer per day and in a year you’ll probably be down that 3.5lbs and have the money for the pack.

    I’ll accept ‘calculated risk’ for the decision to use or not use any sort of safety gear, since no gear is going to make the risk of backcountry skiing go away completely, but arguing ‘weight’ or ‘cost’ as a deal breaker for 99.99% of all back country skiers is just lame…

  8. shane September 16th, 2011 9:48 am

    wcf3 “but arguing ‘weight’ or ‘cost’ as a deal breaker for 99.99% of all back country skiers is just lame…”

    Spoken like someone who’s lucky to not be paying the “mountain tax” or who isn’t living in fear of a lay-off (most of my skier friends are/were builders). I would wager that there are plenty of folks out there who ski the BC on old gear and and do so because it costs nothing other than gas to the trailhead.

    I think I paid $130 for an Osprey Kode pack a couple years ago so your math is quite a bit off on the price difference between an airbag and conventional pack.

    Not every BC user is college kid that can use a big chunk of the student loan refund to buy toys. Most of us aren’t sponsered either. That $1000 pack could just as easily be a mortgage payment for someone.

    I guess my point is that I agree with you that a couple pounds may not be the deal breaker for lots (maybe even the majority) of people. The fact that the weight difference is made up by lightening of the bank account may be a bigger factor for the majority of users.

  9. Andrew September 16th, 2011 10:20 am

    I have to agree with shane. When it comes to life support equipment, I’ll take the weight penalty. Unfortunately, I can’t afford it right this minute, as much as I really want too. So, while I’m saving up for one, I’ll cross my fingers and hope the price comes down.

  10. wcf3 September 16th, 2011 11:56 am

    I don’t doubt that there are people who don’t have the scratch on hand to get one of these things without significant sacrifice (if at all). My main point though is that backcountry skiing is already a very expensive sport (gear wise, at least). If you are doing it at all, at some point you were able to afford skis, boots, skins, touring bindings, a pack and (hopefully) beacon-probe-shovel as well as some kind of car to get to the mountains. Anyone who has been able to afford all this can probably get the money together for an air-bag pack at some point in time, if they made it a priority.

    And yes I know what it is like to live on a shoestring budget. I spent better than ten years living in a 12’x12′ room and couldn’t afford to own a car while working my way through college and grad school. I did a couple of different sports at the time, but I can assure you that backcountry skiing wasn’t one of them.

  11. Lou September 16th, 2011 12:04 pm

    Price of avalanche airbag backpacks is all over the place, BCA has best bang for buck, well under most others, and they work just as well as far as I can tell. BCA and Blackjack weigh about the same, with Blackjack having more volume for weight.

  12. Lou September 16th, 2011 12:07 pm

    Just discovered the word Blackjack was blacklisted here due to gam*ling spam. Fixed it. Wait till those spambots discover we allow one of their favorite words. It’ll be war, so much for my free time (grin). Lou

  13. Nick September 19th, 2011 11:44 am

    Thanks for the update Lou. Is there anyway the comparison chart Nick prepared could be updated to reflect the new model and weight? Would be interesting to see how the weight of this now compares to the BCA, ABS, Snowpulse, etc… In particular, just for bags of the same approxmiate size.

  14. Lou September 19th, 2011 11:51 am

    I’m pretty sure Nick is in the process of updating our Airbag overview, but I’ll ask him how it’s going.

  15. Nick September 19th, 2011 12:08 pm

    Thanks Lou.

  16. ty September 19th, 2011 9:28 pm

    i may trim the extra interior pockets and probe/saw sleeves from my blackjack…to save weight and to allow for more usable volume for mountaineering and overnight equipment.

  17. Lou September 20th, 2011 7:15 am

    Ty, according to Louie, who does a lot of trimming, there really isn’t all that much you can trim from BlackJack, but looking at the one I have here I can see that a few ounces could easily be removed. More, if you got the sewing machine going you could do some mods such as removing the outside one of the overkill double waist belt.

  18. ty September 20th, 2011 12:23 pm

    definitely! I may try to have them do that in the factory ….i would rather have an emergency tarp /shelter than the pockets or sleeves 🙂

  19. Patrick September 20th, 2011 3:06 pm

    I would just like to chime in a little bit about the waistbelt. Remember this is safety gear we are talking about. The waistbelt system has been tested and designed to withstand serious forces associated with an avalanche. What you are suggesting is akin to modifying a climbing harness- which is something very few would be comfortable with doing.

  20. ty gittins September 29th, 2011 8:49 am

    Patrick….the mod that i want done is to make it into a climbing harness…why not trim some excess padding and insert rated webbing and double back buckles all around?

  21. Lou September 29th, 2011 9:01 am

    Ty, you bring up a good point. I’ve seen plenty of rated climbing harnesses that are much more minimal than some of the stuff on these airbag backpacks. That demonstrates that the pack designers have a LOT of room for improvement, and that making the waist belts and leg loops on these packs work as a climbing TYPE of harness could work. I wouldn’t expect it to be a true climbing harness, however, as generally you wear the waist belt of backpack lower than you wear a climbing harness waist belt. BUT, if the pack straps were integrated into the system, what a rig that would be for glacier travel!

  22. John September 29th, 2011 9:12 am

    My 2 sons and I are 6’1″ to 6’4″, so we are intrested in the specs on long torso (21″-23″) models. I have talked to BCA and they say their Float 36 fits a longer torso then the Float 30, although I have not gotten any specs.
    The SnowPulse Life bag 2.0 looks intresting, but I haven’t been able to find many specs.

    We appreciate the info!

  23. otto October 11th, 2011 12:32 pm
  24. Michael FInger October 28th, 2011 1:06 pm

    Hmmm. So the one thing that’s kept me from saving up and buying a avybag is I don’t know if it would make much if a difference for the terrain I ski in. As I understand it, most of the saves with airbags have been above tree line, where as I spend most of my time skiing in places with lots of rocks and trees, i.e. blunt force trauma is more of a concern to me then suffocation. I know some of the makers compare these things to an airbag in a car, but someone pointed out to me that the pressures used in the bags are way low and aren’t going to make a difference in a major collision with a tree, etc.


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