Published in the November 2012 issue

On February 19, 2012, avalanche airbags went from being an obscure safety device for professionals to the next measure for anyone traveling in uncontrolled terrain. On that day, pro skier Elyse Saugstad was caught in a massive avalanche outside the resort boundary of Stevens Pass, Washington, tumbled 3,000 vertical feet without getting fully buried, and was the sole survivor of those caught. She says the only reason she’s alive today is because she deployed her ABS avalanche airbag, whose flotation is designed to keep a skier at or near the snow surface during an avalanche.

The reality is that airbags have been around since at least 1985, most widely used in Europe and by ski patrols and guides. But coinciding with the increase in backcountry use, as well as more cases of inbounds avalanches, manufacturers have scaled the airbag packs down in size and price. Avalanche experts predict airbags will be as commonplace as beacons within the next decade.

The one argument against airbags is that they might compromise a skier’s judgment by creating a false sense of security. Though an airbag will help you float, which certainly increases your chance of survival, it won’t save you from getting pummeled by rocks and trees.

In other words, just like your beacon, an airbag is no substitute for a brain.