Airbags were exploding at OR, and not just by being triggered (BCA planned to do 100 test fires during the convention). The ubiquitous balloons seemed to be everywhere you turned. Big name manufacturers have jumped on board, which will lend another level of exposure and legitimacy to the market. There are even a couple of women’s specific models this season.
Many of the current airbag manufacturers have already run out of stock this season and are ramping up production for next year. I think it’s safe to say that next season will be the year of the airbag. This especially true considering rumors of new technology that could make obsolete all the current (and somewhat dated) compressed gas systems (see Lou’s sidebar at end of post). (For information beyond this blog post please see our backcountry skiing airbag backpacks overview.
Minor changes for ABS include a new mesh fabric over the valves for additional snow filtration and more space for packing the airbags into their pockets (not that this was ever a problem as ABS remains one of the easiest airbags to repack) A new Vario base unit, called the Vario Silver, will reduce weight a small amount but remain compatible with all Vario zipons. It will have more ergonomic shoulder straps, a wrap around velcro hipbelt like the Powder, and a smaller buckle. The Vario zip on line retains the same designs and stylings, but in new volumes: 15, 30, 40, and 55 liters (along with Ultralight 8 and 18). The Ultralight zip ons will finally have a decent diagonal ski carry system. The massive 55 liter zip on will be a welcome size for those doing overnight trips and the uber prepared. The Powder line will return unchanged. Sadly, I have to report that the ridiculous ‘shovel against the back’ pocket remains. I argued about it at length and am just going to have to chalk it up to cultural differences. However, word is that ABS is looking for a new pack designer…
The Vario interface will not be going away anytime soon as the following companies will be making zipons: Arva (28L), Atomic (20L), Dakine (15L), Evoc, Head, Mountain Hardwear (20L & 30L), Quiksilver, and Salomon (20L). And for those who want the ABS system but don’t like the ABS base unit backpack design, the following big names are making their own packs with integrated (not zip on) ABS: Dakine (25L), Ortovox, Salewa (26L & 38L), The North Face (24L & Vest), Haglofs (18L & 30L), and Bergans (15L). It’s great to see companies that have more experience in making packs combining their expertise with an airbag system.
Ortovox has taken the ABS integration a step further by making the ABS system removable. Instead of the zip on system, it is more like Snowpulse’s RAS, which allows one to pull just the airbag, hoses, trigger, and valves out of the pack, freeing the pack for use in summer or to be able to own one airbag system but multiple compatible packs. It all comes out and goes in its own stuff sack. To accomplish this, there’s a lot of fabric and bulk, but no more than your standard ABS zip on. Ortovox has four models, including men’s and women’s Freerider packs with removable back protection (which can also be used by itself under a jacket) at 24 and 26 liters respectively, and men’s and women’s Tour packs that feature a zipper that expands the volume by an additional 7 liters (30+7 and 32+7). I know my wife will be very excited about having a woman’s pack that will comfortably fit her 5 foot frame.
Snowpulse will be focusing on the snowmobile market going forward (with packs featuring motocross imagery, loads of plastic molding, and triggers fixed on the right hand shoulder strap), but you will see their system used in many other packs.
Mammut (which owns Snowpulse) will be focusing on the skiing crowd and have a large variety of packs for next year. They’ve already sold out of all their packs and cylinders, so they’ll be doubling production for next year. Mammut will keep the existing RAS packs, including the Ride 30 and 22, Light 30, and Pro 35 and 45, while making small adjustments to the Rocker 18 and the Backbone 18 (formerly known as the Protection, it includes a spine protector).
The real news is that Mammut has revised the Snowpulse Lifebag system, which features a horseshoe shaped airbag that wraps around one’s head and chest. They will now call it the Protection system and have made it removable and interchangeable between other Mammut Protection packs. As a bonus, they’ve trimmed the fat from the bag material to make it lighter and less bulky, making the pack shoulder straps (where the airbag resides) much more comfortable and hopefully easier to repack after a deploy. The packs will also have adjustable hip belts to accommodate different back lengths and to ensure that the wraparound airbag is aligned correctly. Protection packs include the Pro 35, Light 30, Ride 22, and Rocker 15.
Other backpacks incorporating the Snowpulse RAS system are Scott, Jones (30L), and Oakley. No one besides Mammut and Snowpulse will have the Protection/lifebag wraparound system though.
BCA will not change their line for next year other than offering more color choices for both the Float 32 and 22. They are instead focusing on expanding their massive refill network and improving product delivery. They’ve already run out of cylinders this year; in future BCA will be moving cylinder production to their facility in Boulder, Colorado. In other news, they’re working on a new iphone app, which apart from having access to avy forecasts, loads of useful avalanche information and tools, includes the ability to find the nearest refill center. We checked out a demo of the app and it looked terrific. A couple taps of the finger and you have contact info and driving directions to the nearest refill centers. There are six in the Salt Lake valley!
WARY has a new pack, the AviPack 23L, and has made some minor adjustments to the AviPack 33. One thing to note about WARY’s packs is that unlike most other manufacturers, they only include the usable space in the pack for their volume measurements (in many other packs, you must subtract the airbag from the stated volume to get the actual), so the packs are a bit larger than other packs in the same category.
Mystery Ranch continues to use the WARY system and have reduced the weight of their Blackjack pack (43L plus additional volume with expansion collar) to under 8 pounds. They also have a new pack, which still needed a name when I met with Patrick and Ben at OR. After tossing around a few options, we settled on The Zeppelin. There is currently no weight or volume for it, but it’s around 20 liters and is certainly not a ‘Lead’ Zeppelin (probably under 7 lbs as a guess). It is essentially the Saddle Peak pack, which has a slim sidecountry friendly profile and diagonal ski carry, but with an airbag. The airbag is removable from both the Blackjack and the Zeppelin.
It’s wonderful to see that both WARY and Mystery Ranch have designed their packs to be capable of fitting large shovels. The MR packs were actually designed to fit a BCA Chugach Pro shovel!
Overall, weights don’t seem to be going down much more. In fact, many packs still have so many compartments and doodads that I’d bet we’re still solidly in the 6 to 7 lb zone, with a few exceptions. In our view, this is tragic, as carrying some of these packs with a full load of “wilderness” style backcountry gear results in a fairly absurd pack weight for a day trip. Along those lines, don’t hold your breath for a carbon cylinder; ABS has one in Europe, but I got the impression that they have practically given up on getting it approved by an uninterested US Department of Transportation.
Due to ever increasing offerings, shopping for an avalanche airbag backpack might have gotten even more confusing. On the other hand, practice your best consumer shopping skills, study the options, and it’s easier than ever to find a pack that’s just right for you.
Sidebar: by Lou Dawson
So, what about the rumored Arc’teryx and Black Diamond airbag packs, perhaps ones using different technology such as the Arc’ patent we blogged about a while back? Sorry to disappoint, but nothing to show or see yet. Word is that select individuals have actually used working protos of the new stuff, and report some fairly impressive observations. We won’t go into that type of “second hand rumor about prototypes,” except to say that if you’re planning an airbag purchase and you’re the type of person who really does expose yourself to avalanche danger on a frequent basis, then do not delay your purchase due to rumors.
Also, be aware that these new technologies may not be in retail till late next winter at the earliest, with possible announcements at next winter’s Outdoor Retailer. Not only do design and performance challenges loom, but possible patent disputes as well as the funky European certification process (CE) are challenges.
For example, the CE system is politicized and companies with existing technologies can fight and manipulate the system so that disruptive technologies have trouble getting certified. This could easily delay new airbag technologies that are actually better than existing, but threaten powers that be. Huge problem, no easy solution.
When we hear insider stories about CE, TUV and the like, exasperation is not too strong a word describing our reaction. Our impression is that the European Union and the CE process need to be challenged. How about companies such as BCA make two versions of their packs, one that’s better designed without the constraints of CE specs, then sell those mail order and retail wherever CE is not required? Those better packs would be so desirable, perhaps a huge black market system of Europeans buying them would develop, and totally obviate the CE garbage. Meanwhile, they could sell CE version for European retailers to import. One more nail in the coffin of retailing, yep, but them’s the breaks when you have a broken system. (Um, commenters discuss?)
In summary, considering Nick’s overview above we should all keep in mind that competition in the airbag arena is fierce. No matter what the technology, prices will drop, and it’ll be easier to find a pack that blends nicely with your style.
For more information please see our backcountry skiing airbag backpacks overview.