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.
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.
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.
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.Ski Arpa in Chile. Get a glimpse and catch Vaya a la Cumbré, a film about the backcountry experience at Ski Arpa.)