Your guide to Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety Gear
If you’ve ever asked yourself “How do avalanche airbags work, exactly?” then you have come to the right place.
This article explains the basics and then some. There are pros and cons to the different designs, and this will give you a good idea of which might be right for you. There are now quite a few options out there (Backcountry Access alone has more models than you can shake a pole at). Black Diamond, Arc’teryx, Mammut and others have airbag packs as well.
Knowing how each of them designed is key to getting the right airbag pack for your needs. Check out our article on the Best Avalanche Airbag Packs currently available to see what’s on the market.
What is an Avalanche Airbag?
Let’s start with the basics. An avalanche airbag is essentially a large, tough balloon that inflates when you pull a cord or handle. This handle is sometimes called the ‘trigger’. When you pull the cord, the balloon rapidly inflates.
This makes you a much larger object that will (likely) stay on top of the avalanche instead of getting sucked down into it. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘brazil nut effect’ – when you shake a can of nuts, the large brazil nuts will end up on top. Smaller objects get sucked down into small gaps between nuts.
An airbag pack is a backpack that has an airbag system integrated into it. You carry all of your regular touring gear as you normally do, but have the additional feature of an airbag in your pack.
An inflated/deployed BCA Airbag Pack
Over the last few years, avalanche airbag packs have become more and more common in the backcountry, and with good reason. They are proven to vastly increase your chance of survival if you get caught in an avalanche. Some sources say your chance of survival goes up by 50%!
This doesn’t mean that you can venture into more dangerous terrain. They are a last resort. You can still be very seriously injured in an avalanche if you deploy an airbag, so use caution.
If we’re wondering “How do avalanche airbags work,” what we probably mean is “how does that bag get inflated so fast. ”
There are two competing methods for deploying airbags: compressed air canisters and high-output fans.
In both cases, the avalanche airbag can be repacked after deployment. As long as it hasn’t been damaged, it can be used over and over again.
BCA Packs (like the BCA Float 32 in the photo above) and Ortovox (among others) packs use compressed air. When you pull the trigger, the compressed air is released and the airbag inflates rapidly.
Canisters are usually good for one deployment and then have to be refilled. This can be done at a filling station or, depending on the model, by hand with a high pressure pump.
A BCA refillable compressed air canister.
Another downside to compressed air canisters is that flying with them on commercial airlines is a bit difficult. As of right now, you have to completely decompress the cylinder and detach the head.
Check with your airline before flying, as this is subject to change. Fan-powered systems don’t have this limitation.
Both JetForce and Arc’teryx Voltaire avalanche packs use (different) rechargeable high powered fan systems.
Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce Avalanche Airbag Pack
JetForce is arguably the more popular of the two, possibly due to its slightly lower price point. Developed by Black Diamond, the battery-powered fan can inflate a 200 liter bag (the airbag) in 3.5 seconds.
In the event that the bag tears, the fan is smart enough to enter maintenance mode. It activates periodically to ensure that the bag stays inflated. This is true for both JetForce and Voltair systems.
Arc’teryx Voltair 30L Backpack
Obviously if the bag gets ripped in half, the fan won’t be able to keep up. The same problem exists with compressed air systems. That’s why they make the bags super tough.
The Voltair system claims to inflate to a higher pressure than other systems, but I haven’t seen any data to back this up.
Fans use a rechargeable battery, and most are good for 2-3 deployments before needing a charge. This is an advantage in that it’s less of a pain if you want to practice deployments.
An Avalanche Airbag in Action
This is a great video from the group at Ski School that takes a close look at a Scott avalanche airbag pack. The moment of truth is around 2 minutes into the video.
Are Avalanche Airbags Effective?
In short, yes, they are very effective in increasing your chance of survival in an avalanche. But you have to pull the cord, so practice is a good idea. You want pulling the handle to be instinctive in an emergency.
It’s tough to pin down exactly how effective they are in terms of reduced risk. This is one study that will give you some numbers. Here is an excellent write up by BCA on the subject.
The bottom line: the number one risk factor when caught in an avalanche is asphyxiation (suffocation). Airbags are proven to help you stay on top of sliding debris and prevent you from getting trapped below. So, the risk of suffocation is minimized.
Avalanche airbags also provide some head protection during an avalanche. Naturally, having a giant balloon up and around your head will provide a bit of collision prevention. Bonus.
The giant red or yellow balloon also makes you much more visible as you’re being carried by the avalanche. This (potentially) decreases search time if you do end up buried.
I have to reiterate, airbags are not a tool that allows you to venture out when avalanche danger is high. Use caution and make good decisions. They’re a tool to help you survive if you somehow end up in an avalanche.
Remember your avalanche safety training. Read the avalanche forecasts, refer back to my Avalanche Safety Tips for a refresher, and don’t push your luck!
The Downsides to Avalanche Airbags
There are some minor downsides to avalanche airbags that can’t be ignored.
First and foremost, they’re expensive. The cheapest is over USD$500 and the most expensive is in the realm of USD$1500.
Second, there is a bit of a weight penalty. On longer trips this could be significant, so you’ll have to weigh (wah wah) the benefits and risk versus traveling light.
Wrapping it Up
Owning an avalanche airbag pack is definitely a good idea if you venture into the backcountry. If you can afford one.
Shop around and you may find one for less than retail (there are amazon affiliate links in this post – sometimes you’ll find a deal there) .
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Avalanche backpacks for enhanced safety whilst touring
Voyaging through untouched snowy landscapes is an unforgettable experience. But when adventuring in alpine regions, avalanches always pose a threat. Avalanche backpacks are therefore a must-have whilst touring in such regions. These feature special mechanisms that can greatly improve your chances of survival, and they allow you to carry other avalanche safety equipment. In many cases, an avalanche backpack can save your life as well as the lives of your touring partners, so you should definitely have one as part of your freeriding and ski touring equipment.
Avalanche backpacks with airbag systems
Having an avalanche probe or shovel won’t help your touring partners if you’re the one buried under an avalanche. What can actually help you is having an avalanche backpack that includes a so-called avalanche airbag, which works somewhat like airbags in a car. The large airbag is inflated within a split second of being triggered and will help you float on top of an avalanche instead of letting you sink underneath it.
The airbag is activated by pulling a trigger on the shoulder strap. Some systems can even be activated by others via a remote control.
Some avalanche backpacks work in a different way by allowing a victim to make the best use of the residual air available to them. Snow can consist of more than 50% air, even in wet snow avalanches, so systems like the AvaLung System from Black Diamond make use of this air.
The system includes a breathing tube that creates an artificial air pocket. It recovers air from the snow when you inhale, and when you exhale, it releases it through a tube in the back. This significantly improves your chances of being recovered alive.
Any good avalanche backpack provides room for other types of rescue equipment. These include avalanche transceivers, avalanche probes and avalanche shovels. Additional features vary greatly depending on your needs and budget. For example, some backpacks feature additional back protectors that shield your back in the event of an impact. Some models also have well-insulated hydration systems that still work reliably after being out for several hours in the snow and ice.
Regardless of all their technical features, even the best avalanche backpack can’t replace careful planning and experience in assessing the terrain.
S kiing off piste comes with risk, not least being caught in an avalanche. But wearing a backpack that incorporates an avalanche airbag has been shown to save lives by preventing burial, so more and more people are wearing them, even though, buying one is a major investment.
Costing upwards of £400, they are certainly one of the most expensive items a skier or snowboarder will buy and hope never to use. Here we answer FAQs and round up latest models.
Why do I need an airbag?
In an avalanche, larger objects rise to the surface, while smaller objects sink to the bottom. An airbag system incorporated into a backpack, with a large balloon or balloons that inflates at the pull of a cord, is designed to make the person wearing it larger so that they naturally rise to the surface of the snow.
How effective are they?
Avalanche airbags are designed to prevent the wearer from being buried, which is key to survival in the event of an avalanche – suffocation is the main cause of death. And they have been shown to work effectively. The latest research is a 2014 study that looked retrospectively at avalanche data from around the world between 1994 and 2012, in which at least one person was wearing an airbag. It found that those wearing an inflated airbag had an 89 per cent chance of survival, compared to 78 per cent for those who were not.
This means that wearing an inflated airbag improved the chance of survival by 50 per cent. This is an impressive figure –however, the study also found that 20 per cent of people wearing airbags hadn’t deployed them, for reasons including simply not pulling the trigger or having an incorrectly set up system.
The study, which was conducted by experts from avalanche research organisations in Switzerland, France, Italy, America, Austria and Canada among others, also found that the effectiveness of wearing an airbag is reduced by outside factors – such as the size of an avalanche, and whereabouts in its path the victim is caught.
Can I practise using my airbag?
Most airbags’ balloons can only be deloyed once before the gas cylinder or cylinders that power them need replacing, however it may be possible to practice pulling the trigger without inflating the balloon, so a new gas cylinder isn’t needed. A couple of newer systems are powered by battery-powered electronic blower, which makes realistic practice easier. Practice is essential so that pulling the trigger will be instinctive in an emergency – reactions are often affected by distress. It’s also important to become familiar with the inflation process and the workings of the backpack – including set up and packing down – before hitting the slopes. The airbag system should also be tested regularly – at least once a year – to ensure it’s working correctly.
Does an airbag make an avalanche transceiver less necessary?
Anyone going off piste should wear an avalanche transceiver, and also carry a shovel and probe. In some ways this essential kit is more important than an airbag, because rescue teams can use the signal from the transceiver to find people if they are buried. It also means those in a group who aren’t buried can assist in finding others. As with the airbag, it’s important to practise using a transceiver so that it will be second nature in an emergency.
How do I replace my cylinders?
Most airbag systems use gas cylinders/canisters to inflate the balloons. These may not automatically be included in purchase of the system but come separately, with the option to buy steel or lighter carbon cylinders. These cost from around £90 each for steel, £100 for carbon. In general, once empty they need to be exchanged or refilled by an approved dealer (for around £20), although some can be filled at home or at other outlets.
Can I take it on a plane?
Probably is the short answer. The International Air Transport Association says that carrying an avalanche airbag backpack is allowed as long as it meets its guidelines and is packed in such a way that it won’t be accidentally triggered. To be sure, look at how the particular airbag can be made fly safe – they vary – and check with the airline at least two weeks before flying.
Here’s our pick of the latest models
All prices include backpack and airbag system, and gas cylinder if needed.
Best for ultra lightness
Ortovox Avabag Ascent 30L (£570)
The tiny Ortovox removable system is extremely light at 690g (1kg including carbon cylinder) // Can be pulled without cylinder for training // Balloon’s welded seams keep it compact // Avabag unit works with other Ortovox backpacks // Total weight including backpack 2,170g.
Best for relaxed flying
Scott Backcountry Guide Alpride 30L (£620)
Scott’s removable system uses two disposable, affordable cylinders (£35 a set) // These are similar to those in life jackets and allowed in hand baggage // System weighs 690g; 1,130g including cylinders // Works with other Alpride ready backpacks // Total weight including backpack 2,690g.
Best for travelling light
Mammut Ultralight 3.0 20L (£500)
The 3.0 removable system is Mammut’s smallest, lightest yet // Weighs 1,010g with carbon cylinder // Square balloon inflates behind head // Includes test trigger for training without inflating // Works with other Mammut backpacks // Total weight including backpack 1,510g.
Best for game-changing tech
Arc’teryx Voltair 30L (£1,315)
Six years in the making and launched in 2015, Arc’teryx’s system uses an electronic blower powered by a cold-resistant rechargeable battery to inflate the balloon // Can be used more than once in an outing // With no cylinders to refill, it’s easy to do realistic practice // Balloon shape allows good peripheral vision when inflated // Rather than tucking away, trigger handle twists 90 degrees to lock/unlock and feels different each way round // Battery easily disconnected for flying // Total weight including battery 4,290g.
Best for dual bag reassurance
Arva Reactor 32L (£565)
The balloon on Arva’s removable system inflates behind the head and around the pack // Its wide shape is designed to encourage upward movement // Balloon has two chambers to improve reliability in case of a puncture // This construction also improves shock absorbency // At 790g for the system – 1,100g including carbon cylinder – it weighs less than more traditional two-balloon systems // Can be transferred to different-sized Arva Reactor backpacks // Total weight 3,140g.
Electronic vs Canister Powered Airbags – Pros & Cons ⚡️
As you know, Avalanche Airbags Technology has moved on in the last 5 years and 90% of snowsafe customers now choose the supercapacitor Electonic airbags.
Electric and canister-powered Avalanche Airbags are now available on the market, both to protect you in the event of an avalanche and both working in fundamentally the same way.
Airbags are used for two simple reasons:
- To bring youto the top of the surface, when an avalanche breaks out your airbag will allow you to skip across the top of the snow rather then getting buried.
- To provide you with an air pocket under the snow if you do get buried. The more air, the lower the CO2 concentration around the mouth, and the longer the person can survive.
Types of Airbag Technology
Alpride – Alpride E1 is a fully electronic avalanche airbag, its supercapacitor technology replace the traditional Li-ion battery and results in the lightest electronical device on the market.
Airbags using Alpride:
Jetforce Technology – The Jetforce Avalanche Airbags system is a state-of-the-art technology that inflates your Airbag electronically, meaning you can store more than a single use and use it repeatedly by simply re-inserting the deflated airbag into your pack.
Airbags using Jetforce Technology:
Ortovox Avabag – Ortovox offer innovative airbag processing technology, the avabag systems are the lightest canister powered airbag system currently operative in the world, weighing in at only 640g. Ortovox offers a compact, effective and removable airbag unit system.
Airbags using Ortovox Avabag:
Mammut RAS – The Mammut RAS Removable Airbag System 3.0 is an avalanche airbag system based on a square, brightly-coloured airbag that deploys behind the wearer’s head within seconds.
The new system is safe and easy to use. It is even lighterand smaller than before and can be attached to all RAS Removable 3.0-compatible backpacks.
Airbags Using the RAS Airbag System:
What are the Pros and Cons of each airbag
Electrical and canister-powered airbags have both pros and cons, snowsafe breakdown below:
Rapid Inflations, not relying on canister.
No need to carry cartridges.
Each charge of the lithium-ion battery can provide enough energy for multiple inflations.
No Folding your airbag, simply stuff it back in the avy pack.
Easy to use.
Because they are fan-powered, they can be heavy.
Rapidly inflates and does not rely on a fan.
Low weight: some state-of-the-art canister-powered devices weigh around 2.6 kg.
The canister is not user refillable.
Not all ski resorts provide canister refilling facilities.
Folding your airbag to ensure that it inflates again.
What are the limitations of electronic airbags and canister powered airbags?
While you can inflate electronic airbags multiple times using the high-powered fans, they do not inflate as quickly as their canister-powered counterparts.
The high-powered fans work well, but it takes 1 second longer then canister powered airbags. If you suspect an avalanche, it’s best to pull to trigger immediately instead of waiting for confirmation.
While canister-powered airbags are light and fast to inflate, you can’t always replenish the canister. Some ski resorts have refill services, but many don’t, meaning that you’ll need to prepare in advance and take canisters with you.
If you get into an avalanche situation, your life depends on your airbag deploying. You would prefer it, therefore, if you could test whether it works ahead of time, just to make sure.
The advantage of electronic airbags is that you can test them as many times as you like to see whether they inflate or not, giving you peace of mind.
The same is not true for gas canisters unless you have more than one with you. Once you use a gas canister, it’s gone until you refill and refilling in resort is not easy.
Some canister powered units offer a test activation service, the Ortovox Avabags are supplied with rearming tools where you screw this into the canister unit and pull your trigger to test if this is working, a small pop noice will indicate that the unit is working.
Once your airbag is deployed deflating the air can sometimes be a pain, almost like wrestling with your bag. The electronic airbags offer a easy deflation mode where the air is removed automatically.
With Canister powered airbags you have to hold a deflation button and compress the air out of your bag until its ready to fold back into your bag, This can sometimes be time consuming.
Flying with Electronic vs canister powered
You can fly with both electronic and canister-powered airbags. However, because the canisters contain compressed gases, you can’t bring them with you in your hand luggage.
Traveling with electronic airbags is usually hassle-free, but canister-powered can be more of a pain because you have to put the canister in the hold.
Some countries like USA , Canada , Japan will not allow you to bring in Airbag Canisters in full stop .
Since season 18/19 we have seen a huge shift in the market with 90% of snowsafe customers choosing the new supercapacitor electronic Alpride Airbags.
Ortovox airbags , Jetforce airbags , and Scott airbags , are designed to keep you alive in the event of an avalanche.
Both canister-powered and electronic airbags have both advantages and disadvantages. The type you choose, therefore, depends on your personal preferences.
If you would prefer something lightweight, then canister-powered is the way to go. If, however, you want convenience when you travel and to be able to test your airbag before you head out on the piste, then electric is better.
It’s important to stay safe and have the correct training when skiing or snowboarding off-piste please check out further blogs below: