Properly worn and deployed airbag packs have been shown to be effective in increasing your chances of survival if you are caught in an avalanche. They work on the principle of “Inverse Segregation,” sometimes known as the Brazil Nut Effect. This principle holds that in a moving aggregate of objects large and small (like an avalanche), the larger objects will rise to the top. You can demonstrate this with a bowl of unshelled mixed nuts by shaking it – the larger Brazil nuts will tend to rise to the top, while smaller varieties will sink to the bottom. Deploying an avalanche airbag during a slide effectively turns you into a larger object and greatly increases the chance of you ending up on top of the debris pile when the avalanche stops moving.
Keep in mind that wearing an avalanche airbag is no guarantee of survival and the first thing to remember is to make smart decisions so you avoid the avalanche in the first place. That said, your chances of coming to rest near the surface after an avalanche and being found faster are greatly enhanced by using an airbag pack.
There are a number of companies involved in the manufacturing of avalanche airbag packs. Each company offers differences in design, versatility, and price, which we’ll try to summarize in this article.
Start by determining where you’ll be using this airbag pack and what sort of riding you’ll be doing with it. If you plan on doing mostly lift-served backcountry with an occasional heli or cat trip, and only need to carry a bit of food and water plus maybe a thin puffy coat, an 18 to 20 liter pack, or even smaller, may be perfectly adequate. Day touring typically requires a pack with a capacity of between 25 and 35 liters. For longer trips, or multi-day hut touring, look for something in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 liters. Keep in mind that not all manufacturers calculate their pack volumes in the same way, and the airbag canister and mechanism takes up space. If in doubt, bring the items you normally put in your pack to the shop and try to fit them in the pack you’re considering.
Many manufacturers offer the option of swapping the airbag and its mechanism between multiple packs – this allows you to choose the size that is most appropriate for each trip without buying an entirely new pack with a second airbag mechanism (it’s the expensive part). ABS’s Vario system, for instance, lets you move its airbag “Base Unit” back and forth between several sizes of its own or other manufacturers’ bags. Mammut also has two removable systems called R.A.S. (Removable Airbag System) and P.A.S. (Protection Airbag System), which can be used with either the R.A.S. or P.A.S. compatible packs or simply removed during the summer. Similarly, BCA lets you move the airbag and internals of its Float™ Series packs between its 22 liter and 32 liter models.
As with any pack, it’s important to try an avalanche airbag pack on to make sure it fits. Not all manufacturers offer a choice of torso lengths, so if you are very tall or very short, you may find it necessary to look at a certain make or volume of pack. Load the pack with roughly the weight you intend to carry and see how the straps, back and hip belt feel. Avalanche airbag packs have a harness strap that fastens between your legs to ensure that the pack doesn’t get torn off your body in a slide – make sure you fasten this when you try it on as well.
Airbag devices place some restrictions on how you carry your skis or snowboard, since you won’t want to block the path of the inflating airbag while traveling in avalanche terrain. Make sure you understand the carry options for the pack you’re interested in and are okay with how they will work with your skis or board. Think through the process of wearing and using the pack from start to finish. As with a ski or binding system, you are the one who’ll be wearing and using it and your preferences are important.
The differences between brands and models may be significant and don’t necessarily relate to price. For instance, the dual airbag ABS® TwinBag system could be considered an advantage, but so could the Mammut/Snowpulse® wrap-around Protection Airbag. Some people consider the bell-shaped pull handle on the BCA Float™ packs to be easier to grab from any angle; some people are fine with a T-handle. You’ll have to make up your mind on your own, but do some research and look at the options first. Think about whether you’re more comfortable pulling the cord with your right or left hand, as well. Some models offer the option of switching sides, others do not. Right-handed people and most skiers and snowboarders often prefer to pull with their right hand; snowmobilers (a huge market for airbag packs) usually prefer to pull with their left hand so they can keep their right hand on the throttle.
All manufacturers recommend periodic inspection of the airbag and trigger mechanism, as well as annual test deployment. Inspect your airbag and handle for signs of wear or weak spots after any deployment. Test your airbag to see that everything works before the start of each season (this is a huge crowd pleaser in ski town bars) and have the entire system inspected as the manufacturer recommends. Good luck in your search for an avalanche airbag pack, and may you shred safely and happily without ever needing to use it.
*Wearing an avalanche airbag pack is not a guarantee of survival if you are caught in an avalanche. The best way to avoid death or injury by avalanche burial is to avoid being caught in the first place.
We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or equivalent and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. Here are some great resources for avalanche safety education:
— American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
— American Avalanche Association
— Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center
You should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them.
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