ABS Vario 40 — Airbag Pack Review

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | March 14, 2013      

ABS Vario 40 with airbags deployed. Two bags instead of one provide redundancy in case of damage, along with other possible benefits.

ABS Vario 40 was the airbag pack of choice for me when I spent three weeks deep in the Tordrillo Range in Alaska. The 40 litre size was big enough to fit everything I needed for long days of touring.

The design of the airbags are my favorite feature of this pack. There are two individual airbags that inflate from each side of the pack. This is a huge plus due to the fact that if one gets damaged and deflates quickly there is still the other one that can save you. Another important safety aspect is the functionality of the handle. ABS has what they call a Pneumatic Pull Handle. A light pull on the handle activates the airbags to inflate at, they claim, the “speed of sound” (very fast). Conversely, this also makes it very easy to accidentally deploy the airbag. ABS remedies this with the option to remove the handle completely, making it impossible to trigger. Just as with remembering to turn your beacon on, you have to remember to put the handle on whenever you enter in avalanche terrain.


Testing grounds -- perfect bluebird, Tordrillo Range, Alaska.

The backpack compartment of the ABS Vario 40 has pluses and minuses. Big enough to carry everything for a long tour, a smaller pack can be zipped on the ABS base unit for shorter days when 40 liters is overkill. I only used the 40 liter size, so all my assessments of the pack itself are for that size only. Other sizes are essentially different packs with different features.

40 liter

ABS Vario 40, big enough for a long tour.

The 40 liter pack has some great features on it. Skis are easily strapped to the sides and don’t interfere with airbag deployment. I like having a daisy chain running down each side of the front. I was able to easily lash larger items to the outside if necessary. This makes doing a multi day trip with this pack possible while keeping the airbags free to inflate. This is only if you don’t mind looking like a gypsy wagon though.

The main downside of this pack for me was how it carried. I like packs that are slim against my back. I understand that an airbag pack is going to stand out a bit more than a normal pack, but this stuck out a lot. For me the best pack is the one that you forget you are wearing. I never forgot that I had the Vario on my back, even on days when I didn’t have a huge amount of weight in it.

Another feature I did not like was the placement of the shovel pocket. It is in between your back and the pack itself. I found this to be a huge waste of space. When I put on the load lifters from the shoulder straps to the main pack I realized that they went right over the zipper of the shovel pocket, essentially blocking the pocket completely. This is a big deal. If a partner of mine gets buried, I will have to spend precious time simply getting my shovel out of the pack. Once I realized the setup, I almost felt guilty going out with my shovel packed so deep in my pack. I really hope this is something ABS changes in future versions of the Vario 40. What I ended up doing was putting my shovel and probe in the main compartment of the bag and putting my extra layers in the shovel pocket. This way it was slightly easier to get to the shovel in case of an emergency.


Dessert -- AK ice cream for backcountry skiing.

An issue that many people have with airbag packs is air travel. When I flew with the ABS I had no trouble. I simply followed what ABS said on their website and I made it through with no problems. They also state on the website to call ahead to your airline to let them know you will be flying with an airbag pack. I did not do this but it couldn’t hurt.

For me the biggest selling aspects of this pack are the safety features. As far as airbag technology goes this is top of the line. The pack itself has pros and cons. The good features are great, and the poor ones can be worked around. With a few minor improvements, ABS could be making the best airbag packs out there.

Shop for ABS airbag systems here.


A film worth seeing, 'Vaya a la Cumbré'

(Guest blogger Anton Sponar spends winters enjoying the skiing ambiance of the Aspen area, while summers are taken up with slave labor doing snowcat powder guiding at Ski Arpa in Chile. Get a glimpse and catch Vaya a la Cumbré, a film about the backcountry experience at Ski Arpa.)


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


15 Responses to “ABS Vario 40 — Airbag Pack Review”

  1. Ben March 14th, 2013 3:12 pm

    Did you take your pack as a carry on or did you check it? I am heading to Europe next week and am leaning towards just taking the pack without any canisters/triggers to avoid the hassle and buying a new set there.

  2. Andy March 14th, 2013 9:20 pm

    Ben: I’ve been able to travel with canister/trigger as a check-in, when stored in the original ABS box.

  3. Anton March 14th, 2013 10:11 pm

    I checked the canister an trigger. And was able to bring the bag on as a carry on. Bedr way to go in my opinion.

  4. Boll March 15th, 2013 3:39 am

    As stated – no need to make a fuzz about this anymore. Wasn’t really an issue in the US even when these were rarely seen like five six years ago.

    Could add though that if you were to pull it – the canisters are of different standards in the US and yurp so you wouldn’t be able to refill your US one over here.

    But. This, as well as the majority stated in the (well written) article above, has been mentioned on this blog before. I like that they try to make the larger size packs more skiable.. Tried to take the 50l on a few week long tours but I’ve decided that
    1. Weight is too much of a concern (even in terms of safety) so the
    2. When having the skis on the pack, there’s almost no secure way to fasten the skis on the big pack (50l in my case. Yes I know how to fasten them, but the skis are so far behind your center of gravity they basically become an anchor in the wind). Love the fact though that these new ones have A-frame carry, but still, quite a few extra inches from your back.

    So. Iv’e really been giving these packs a shot and I’ve been trying to get along with it for all kinds of skiing for a while. But I really feel like I make wiser decisions when feeling “fresh”. And I feel a lot fresher when I have a nice comfy backpack that not only is lighter, but also carries and packs better.
    Heh. Sorry. Just letting the fingers dance a lil’ right here.

  5. Nick March 15th, 2013 7:08 am

    Great review Anton. I was frustrated with the shovel pocket situation as well and ended up just cutting out the fabric separating the two compartments to make one big compartment- then putting the shovel in with everything else. Not ideal, but works ok for me. I also like to cut out the fabric on the very back of the zip on so there is no fabric divider at all. Sad to say that next year’s ABS packs will have the same problem. But they’re hiring a new pack designer so maybe they’ll get it figured out the following winter.

    The large volume classic top loader style and A frame ski carry are what wins this pack over for me. You could drop some weight with next season’s ‘Silver’ base unit which is the same interface as the Vario, but a bit lighter.

    As for the airbag system, apart from the annoyance of installing the trigger handle, ABS seems to have the most redundant and thought-out system out there. No cable mechanism to freeze or break; two airbags and two venturi valves in case one fails or breaks (although it’s debatable if a single bag is enough, it would certainly be better than nothing); 170 liters of bag volume instead of 150; no worry about filling with moist air because ABS does the fill and uses nitrogen instead of air; and super bomber but light airbag material made by Zodiac. Only bummer is you can’t refill it yourself, but must exchange the cylinder and trigger.

    We’ve got more detail on this pack and the other ABS Vario zip ons here:

  6. Jeremy March 16th, 2013 3:54 am

    I agree with the shovel/probe pocket placement (I had the 15 and 25ltr). It is dificult to get at and wastes space, particular if you have a good sized deep blade metal shovel (Ortovox Kodiak). The situation is even worse if you use a camelback style bladder, as this is in the outer pocket, placing it far out from your back, which is bad for both weight distribution and a freezing risk.

    I gave up on the ABS zips ons in the end and bought the Dakine Altitude zip on. I have always found Dakine packs well designed, and these are no different, but some may find them too heavy. The 40ltr version supports both A frame and diagonal ski carrying, and the safety tool pocket is on the outside and not blocked by any straps.

    The safety tool pocket could be larger, but I can just get my Kodiak shovel and G3 300 speed tech probe in and close the zips. These are some of the larger tools, so most should fit without issue.

    I have now been on 8 flights within Europe and to Canada with my ABS (pack, cartridge and release checked in). I have always called ahead to notify the airline. In every case at bag drop, they have had to call to someone to verify, but there have not been any issues. This was with the European carbon cartridge.

  7. etto March 18th, 2013 4:45 am

    I have to disagree with Nick. I don’t think this review was particularly good. Why? WildSnow already has a comprehensive coverage of different avalanche airbag systems, and discussion about their pros and cons. This review does not take that into account at all. As a standalone review, fine, but the editors should have picked up on the this, as the author is a guest writer and cannot be expected to have the full history of this topic on WS. As such it would have been much more useful to have a review of the 40L zip-on only, and have it be more thorough.

    The argument about the loading straps going across the avy compartment zipper is bollocks. These straps are easily undone in seconds, even with mittens on. Using the main compartment for avy gear would in comparison have you open two buckles and two draw cords, way more time consuming and error prone. I do however agree with the this compartment wasting valuable space, and putting the main load of the pack further from your back.

    I have some additional experiences that are not touched upon in the review, but that might be of interest to somebody considering getting this zip-on:
    -the fabric is not waterproof at all
    -the buckles are very soft, and seem flimsy
    -the easy access zipper of the main compartment does not close all the way leaving a small opening in your pack
    -the top has no elastic, and the design of the straps is such that it covers the top loading opening badly when the pack is not full
    -compression straps only on the upper part of the pack

    Since this review does not only cover the zip-on, I’ll also include a major gripe I have with the ABS base unit. The buckles of the crotch strap very easily fill with snow/ice up, making it hard to properly attach the potentially life saving strap.

    Unlike the author I find the base unit to fit my back comfortably, and don’t mind the additional weight. The hip belt seems to be made for severly overweight people though…

  8. Lou Dawson March 18th, 2013 7:00 am

    Jeremy, what’s you’re fallback plan if the airline doesn’t want to check the filled cartridge? Skip the flight? Toss it in the trash? Let us know. Thanks, Lou

  9. Chris March 18th, 2013 8:55 am

    Hi Lou, and everybody else still mystified about airtravel and airbag packs.

    As stated by the IATA (International Air Transport Association) it is legal to carry an avalanche airbag cartridge on a plane. Either in your carry-on or in the checked piece.
    Extract from the IATA website:
    “Passengers may carry certain articles even though the article contains dangerous goods. Parachutes themselves are not restricted. Some parachutes are fitted with an automatic activation device (AAD), e.g Cypres, which contain small quantities of explosive material. Most of these are not classified as dangerous goods and are not restricted in passenger baggage.

    Avalanche rescue backpacks are authorized if they do not contain more than 200 mg net of explosives in Division 1.4S and / or not more than 250 milliliters of compressed gas in division 2.2.”

    Full text can be found here: http://www.iata.org/whatwedo/cargo/dgr/Pages/faq.aspx

    The nitrogen filled cartridges prevalent in Europe (ABS + Mammut/Snowpulse 300bar) are compliant with the above specifications.

    When I fly with my airbag pack (Mammut/Snowpulse), I always carry a copy of the IATA regulations (two pages) and the safety data sheet for the relevant cartridge.
    At check-in present these documents, the staff usually have to call someone to confirm that the information is correct, and they thank me for being professional about the documentation. I have traveled with the cartridge as carry-on and in the checked baggage. I have never had problems traveling with it. I have traveled with in Europe and in Canada.
    The documents I use can be seen and downloaded here:

    In the US the TSA might have a different view on things. Info from TSA on cartridges here: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/compressed-gas-cylinders

  10. Jeremy March 19th, 2013 3:11 pm

    Hi Lou,

    If the cartridge and release unit were refused. My first reaction would be to escalate to the check in manager, and point out that it is entirely legal. But the airline is within their rights to refuse to carry anything or any one. In theory they could have 150-200 skiers on a weekend flight who could all have airbags. I have seen late arrivals a check in have their skis or bikes refused, and the aircraft already filled the available space allocation.

    I was also recommend to never call the ABS cartridge and release unit, a gas canister and trigger.

    If it was refused, I would get a receipt from the check in manager, stating that they were refusing to carry a legal item, and then leave it for them to dispose of it. You could not exactly throw it in the trash, or one of the recycling bins. I would then rent in the resort. Once back home I would claim on my insurance, for the lost unit and the rental, making it clear that the airline was at fault.

    I have only flown with British Airways with my ABS pack, and only as checked hold baggage, to skiing destinations. Like Chris above, I pack IATA documentation in the ABS pack with the cartridge, and carry another set to present at check in. I have always called the airline in advance to notify them, stating the IATA regulation.

    I would not risk carrying it as hand baggage, because it then becomes your issue, not the airlines. It would then come down to what kind of day the security staff were having. You can imagine the conversation after it has been spotted on the x-ray machine……..”Well it is a 300psi gas cartridge, and this handle contains some explosive…………………….”.

  11. Lou Dawson March 19th, 2013 3:14 pm

    Thanks Jeremy!

  12. Andy March 26th, 2013 6:27 pm

    Leaving Jackson yesterday – was told no canister on check in. They confiscated it and put in hazmat. TSA said only can check in if verifiable that it’s empty.

  13. Lou Dawson March 26th, 2013 7:48 pm

    Andy, yeah, TSA did exactly what they say they’d do, not allow a filled and/or capped cylinder….

    “Compressed gas cylinders are allowed in checked baggage or as a carry-on ONLY if the regulator valve is completely disconnected from the cylinder and the cylinder is no longer sealed (i.e. the cylinder has an open end). The cylinder must have an opening to allow for a visual inspection inside.

    Our Security Officers will NOT remove the seal or regulator valve from the cylinder at the checkpoint. If the cylinder is sealed (i.e. the regulator valve is still attached), the cylinder is prohibited and not permitted through the security checkpoint, regardless of the reading on the pressure gauge indicator. Our Security Officers must visibly ensure that the cylinder is completely empty and that there are no prohibited items inside.

    Please note: Many of the seals/regulators used in paintball are not designed to be removed from their cylinder by the end user. The seal/regulator should only be removed and reinstalled by a factory trained technician.

    Passengers considering air travel with a compressed air or CO2 system would be advised to contact its manufacturer for guidance in locating a qualified technician, or to consider shipping the system to their destination via a parcel service.”

  14. Jim March 27th, 2013 7:01 pm

    Could I sew on my favorite (Cilogear 30L) ski bag on a Vario base unit? I could get Jim The shoemaker with the heavy sewing machine to sew it on, and cut and slash to fit. Is this possible, advisable?

  15. Lavinkotten April 24th, 2013 12:05 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Just wanted to make a remark regarding your comment on the IATA regulation. I am working as ABS representative in Sweden. Even though we are only 9 mill inhabitants we are frequent flyers so we have some experience. 🙂

    The IATA you are referring to is an exemption of “Dangerous Goods” art. 2.3.A. That is: The cartridge is still classified as dangerous goods, hence it is not our right (in a legal sense) to have it as hand luggage or check-in luggage. It is still an exemption. We have had incidents when the air line company refuses to allow you the cartridge on board. In some cases even the pilot has denied the cartage on board. In the end it is up to the captain to make a decision. He, or she, has the sole responsibility for the safety of the air craft. This is however not a big issue as in 99% of the cases everything is fine.

    By the way, this is a great blog and I it gives me really good input about my choice of equipment! Thanks to everybody that contributes!

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