Avalanche Airbag Packs at Outdoor Retailer Trade Show 2013

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 4, 2013      

Tons of packs this year! Left to right: Mountain Hardware, Dakine, Ortovox, The North Face pack and vest, and Arva. Just a sampling of the new ABS system options coming next season. Apologies for the blurry iphone photos.

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.

ABS system:
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…

This new mesh fabric has been added to cover the venturi valves of ABS airbags: an extra layer of redundancy to keep snow from clogging the valve. ABS has been finding ways to decrease the margin of error for decades, which has led their system to be so different from others.

The new ABS zip ons get a proper diagonal ski carry system!

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.

The Dakine ABS Signal 25 L integrates the ABS system into a completely Dakine pack. These guys know how to design a diagonal ski carry system.

Ortovox Tour 32+7 uses the ABS 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.

Ortovox's unique take on the ABS system permits it to be completely removed from the pack. Just unhook the metal tabs from the bartacked webbing loops. We tried this at show, impressively quick and easy.

The removed ABS airbag system then slips into the permanently attached stuff sack (cut it off and save a bit of weight).

Ortovox redesigned the interface for the trigger handle. Seems a bit contrived and bulky compared to the current ABS velcro system. It also allows one to rotate the handle and set it at a different angle (Is this really necessary?).

A woman's airbag pack! And not just a girly color: the backlength and hipbelt have shorter women's frames in mind. This one is the Tour 30+7.

Snowpulse System:
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 new Mammut Light Protection. Very similar to the current Light RAS, just with the wraparound Protection airbag

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.

All Mammut Protection packs will have an adjustable backlength to ensure the wraparound airbag is in proper position and for greater carrying comfort.

The Snowpulse Lifebag airbags were usually the most intimidatingly complicated to repack. Mammut has solved this by adding color-coded tabs. Just match green to green, yellow to yellow, etc.

Those same color-coded tabs can be unhooked for complete removal of the Protection airbag system.

Finally! They listened! The Light pack now has the drawstring coming out of the opposite side from the zipper. Now they don't need to have two drawstrings, one on each side. Simple, elegant, love it.

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.

Jones Snowboards has a 30 liter pack using the Snowpulse RAS system. Apart from a very small shovel pocket, it seemed to be a very well thought out pack. It carries a snowboard vertically and it's not just for snowboarders as it will carry skis A frame (although this would interfere with airbag deployment). They also make some sweet looking splitboards.

BCA system:
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!

A new color choice for the Float 32, and the Float 22 gets two new colors (around the corner to the right).

WARY system:
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.

New WARY AviPack 23. Nice backpanel access and a reported 5.75 lbs with cylinder. Some extra straps can be removed to drop the weight further.

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!

Mystery Ranch Zeppelin, Blackjack, and another Zeppelin with the helmet carry mesh deployed (tucks away conveniently). These packs feel bombproof.

Mystery Ranch Zeppelin, Blackjack, and another Zeppelin with the helmet carry mesh deployed (tucks away conveniently). These packs feel bombproof.

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.


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23 Responses to “Avalanche Airbag Packs at Outdoor Retailer Trade Show 2013”

  1. Andy February 4th, 2013 11:05 am

    Just be careful on the lift!

  2. Lou Dawson February 4th, 2013 11:13 am

    Andy, accidental deploys of airbags are a pretty serious matter. Driving, riding lift, in helicopter… best practice is to stow that trigger unless needed. Requires good habits and forethought. In my view, this is one area where airbags are primitive technology. For example, if they used a microprocessor and such, logic could be programmed that could prevent accidental deployments. For example, a brand could sell a radio signal unit for guides to use that not only could remote deploy, but could be used to disable airbags when clients were on heli or ski lift… and so on. In fact, these things are really so primitive that the sky is the limit for what we’ll be seeing just a few years from now. Or so my crystal ball says.

  3. Matt Kinney February 4th, 2013 11:17 am

    Super review and why I like worldwide wildsnow…thanks Nick and appreciate your comments about weights near the bottom of your write-up. I miss all the to-die-for gear shows stuck skiing in Valdez, thus some questions about balloon pack as usual.

    What about interference of balloon deployment while toting skis and other stuff on the outside of a back say, while booting….any thoughts as I see some attempt to address that issues with newly placed loops and ski slings. I don’t see a pic of a balloon deployed with skis on a pack.

    Does the material thickness of the balloon vary between packs? Does the material fatigue after multiple testings? it it rated? Can you replace just the balloon? I ask about material hardiness, as much of the avalanche terrain people ski is treed.

    Gonna get one, just the right one.

  4. Lou Dawson February 4th, 2013 11:20 am

    P.S, regarding the pack being stuck on the lift, perhaps a crotch strap would have helped that guy? It looks like he almost was a victim of compression suffocation.

  5. joshg February 4th, 2013 11:24 am

    Looks like the linked airbag didn’t deploy just some sort of strap catch. Would the crotch strap have helped because you think it been better for more support for his entire body weight? Guess I’ll remove my pack whenever I get on the lift…..that was just a little two easy to imagine.

  6. Lou Dawson February 4th, 2013 11:33 am

    Yeah, I got that. Yeah, if he’d had the crotch strap on the airbag pack would have suspended him in a way where he wasn’t at a risk of dying from compression suffocation. BTW, you can die real fast from that. As soon as you don’t get enough air you go into cardiac arrest, then you’ve only got minutes before there is no hope. He’s lucky to be alive.

    Also shows you why it’s 100% NECESSARY to always use the airbag crotch strap when wearing an airbag backpack in avy terrain. It would be pretty ironic to get suffocated by your own airbag if you deployed it in an avalanche and it got hung up on something.


  7. Andy February 4th, 2013 12:01 pm

    Maybe there needs to be a better system for arming the airbags too. I can see how it would get annoying to zip the trigger away each time you get on a chairlift. That could become a problem as more and more in bounds and lift-served out of bounds skiers start using airbag packs. The description of the video mentions that the ski area had signs up warning about airbags on the lift. Regarding electronics, it might be easy to put in some sort of RFID chip on helicopters and chairlifts and the like, but then all the airbag packs would need them along with all the vehicles. It sounds promising, but could also be a regulatory nightmare.

    I wonder if there are any stories of accidental deployment from triggers getting stuck on trees?

  8. Woody February 4th, 2013 12:09 pm

    Sadly still no simple 40-50L lightweight top loading airbag packs. I don’t understand the obsession with panel loading packs?

    5lb, 40L airbag pack with a good shoulder strap/waist belt system is possible. Why won’t anyone make it?

  9. Lou Dawson February 4th, 2013 12:58 pm

    Because the designers are a bunch of lamers and the public likes stuff the looks the same as their airline luggage? BTW, Snowpulse Light 35 is essentially a light toploader. It has a zipper I didn’t like, but the zipper helps with swapping cylinders. It’s mostly probably a matter of style. Seems that the toploader look has given way to the “zippered muffin” look, and people want the look they think is current and what they see their video heroes using.


  10. Nick February 4th, 2013 2:08 pm

    I’ll agree that panel loaders drive me crazy and I just want a simple top loader. The new ABS 40 and 55 look like they will be essentially that once you remove all the extra crap. Probably won’t get to 5lbs even then though. I didn’t get a chance to see Salewa’s 38 liter pack but the brochure shows it looking sort of like a top loader.

    As for ski carry vs airbag: Diagonal carry and Vertical carry are compatible with all airbag deployments with all bags that have those features that I’ve seen. Aframe only works on the ABS Vario 40 (and perhaps other new ABS packs).

    Most bags seem to use a similar fabric, except ABS which uses a really cool fabric made by Zodiac that is very light and supple. You can send your pack back in to get the airbag evaluated and replaced. There isn’t yet a standard for airbags. The industry is working on it, but as Lou alluded to above, that may not necessarily be a good thing.

  11. Dan February 4th, 2013 3:58 pm

    It probably would not be a bad idea to have a crotch strap even with no air bag. I like to clip my sternum strap, but if caught in an avalanche I could imagine the pack being pulled over my head and choking me…sort of like a double whammy. So, I don’t generally use the sternum strap…have to stop thinking about this stuff.

  12. RobinB February 4th, 2013 6:44 pm

    Few points on that video…

    Take your pack off when you ride the chair. Our lifties won’t load you with a pack.
    That ski area might want to place ladders at their load stations, we have them for exactly that type of scenario. They all have a pair of scissors attached to them also.

  13. Lou Dawson February 4th, 2013 6:55 pm

    One of those blunt river rescue knives would be good attached to the ladder as well. I keep one in my Jeep, for example. Much safer than scissors around a thrashing person or when teetering on a ladder.

  14. Paul Austin February 5th, 2013 8:57 am

    Does anyone else feel that a lot of the airbags on offer are way to small for anything other than short tours where you take the bare minimum

    We tried the Mammut Ride R.A.S. 30L (I’d call it a 24L by the time you loose space for the mechanism) and found that we could not take all the usual stuff we take with us (Probe, Shovel, Snow Study kit, Down Jacket, Food, Water, Thermos, First Aid kit, GPS, Spot satellite transmitter, spare gloves, Skins). Let alone then putting your outer layers inside when skinning up.

    I hate having stuff strapped on the outside of the pack as I’d like to hang on to it if there was an avalanche and I’d be concerned with it affecting the deployment of the bag.

    A lot of the retailers in the Whistler area didn’t have the 45L Mammut pack in stock and given the design of some of the packs I didn’t want to buy it sight unseen off the internet.

    Also what is with the small shovel pouches. I’d like to be able to get my larger size shovel, probe, Snow saw and study kit in there. I’d also like a top entry pack with a compartment on the top to put food, camera etc.

  15. Nick February 6th, 2013 8:08 am

    The market seems to be driving for small ‘sidecountry’ packs with nifty zippered pockets for everything including little shovels.

    Mystery Ranch, ABS, WARY (33 liter is more like a 38 when comparing to other airbag packs since they only measure usable volume, not counting the space taken up by the airbag), Salewa, and Mammut all have larger packs, but you’re not likely to find them in shops that can’t stock multiple varieties.

    For large shovels, look at Mystery Ranch, WARY, and the larger ABS packs. I can’t speak about shovel size and Mammut’s 45 and Salewa’s 38.

  16. Lou Dawson February 6th, 2013 8:28 am

    Muffin packs, they’re best left in the bakery (grin). The tool pocket thing is pretty funny as well. I ski with hundreds of different people now, in so many different places, and hardly anyone ever takes their shovel out of their pack. That’s neither good nor bad, it just depends on the situation. But the point is that the pack makers going to all this effort and weight to do “tool compartments” and such are looking sort of dumb. I mean, it’s like buying a car and having an elaborate special compartment built in, adding cost and complexity, for storage of your ice scraper and box of facial tissues. Only you probably use your ice scraper more than you use your avy shovel. My crystal ball says we’re going to be laughing pretty hard in a few years, looking back on some of these creations. They should be sold with a razor blade for junk removal.

  17. Brian W February 7th, 2013 11:11 am

    This is interesting. Are there any statistics on survival with or without an airbag? Seems like a good idea, but how likely are they to make a difference.

  18. Jordan D February 7th, 2013 11:32 am

    Is the helmet carry on the new Mystery Ranch bag a separate component, or is permanently fixed to the pack? I have a Blackjack that would definitely benefit from a helmet carry – just wondering if I could order that part from MR separately.

  19. justin February 9th, 2013 2:09 pm

    Is the Mystery Ranch Blackjack changed for next year? You say they got the weight under 8 pounds, but I think the current model is already under 8 pounds so its unclear to me if they are changing anything. Thanks

  20. R2 February 20th, 2013 8:52 pm

    Thoreau said ~ “Beware of sports that require the purchase of special clothing.” In the Tunnel Creek avalanche Elyse was wearing an av-airbag and still was immobilized under the snow, though closer to the surface than her non-bagged companions, who ended up spindled and dead from being pounded around on the bottom of the slide perhaps.

    We need larger airbags to keep us on top, so has anyone tried making a dual-use pack, one that functions as a life-raft as well? Would be nice if the avalanche sweeps you off a cliff into a river, eh? 😉

  21. Nathan Ballard July 27th, 2013 1:53 pm

    Great write-up Nick…thanks!

    I am very interested in a larger airbag pack. Does anyone know of one that is upcoming with a 65+ L capacity? This would be great to have for long multi-day tours. If not, does anyone know the largest size that is available? I know of some that are 40-45 L, but this is not big enough for my two-man single wall tent, sleeping bag, cookwear, food, and night time camp clothes.


  22. chuck November 30th, 2013 8:59 pm

    Interesting in the mammut Protection av system (PAS) but would like the larger 45L pack. Can the PAS system fit into the older RAS pack, specifically the 45L? Im guessing not since the bag comes out from more surface area on top of pack…?


  23. Chris December 1st, 2013 10:33 am

    @chuck – no, the PAS won’t fit in the RAS packs. The PAS has zippers that come down the shoulder straps to containt the airbag. I just received my PAS Pro 35 pack and it looks very nice. Shoulder straps feel a bit stiff due to the airbag in them, but I’m told they soften with use and I doubt it will be an issue.

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