When ABS debuted the first ever avalanche airbag in 1985, the ski industry met the new technology with skepticism and general disinterest. But Peter Aschauer, who patented the idea in 1980, and led the development of the airbag system, kept pushing the technology until it slowly gained momentum in the ’90s.
Within the last decade, airbag packs have become a key piece of backcountry safety equipment. For some, an airbag has now become as standard as a beacon, shovel, and probe. Others don’t feel the extra weight and bulk is worth the increase in survival rate, and some critics say that skiing with an airbag might give skiers a false sense of security when skiing in consequential terrain, thus posing its own set of risks.
Mark Smiley, IFMGA guide and professional ski mountaineer, says that two of the biggest hurdles to more widespread use of avalanche airbag packs is weight and cost. “It’s two pounds versus seven pounds,” he says. “I think if all things were equal and you had a two-pound pack that cost $190, everyone would be wearing them.”
That being said, airbag technology has come a long way in the last decade, with streamlined designs and innovative solutions to save space. “They’re definitely getting lighter and more efficient,” says Smiley. “As the demand for [airbags] continues to rise, brands will keep progressing.”
There are generally three types of airbag technologies on the market today, including the removable airbag system; the cartridge system; and the electric fan system. Here is our top pick for each category.
Removable Airbag System
Mammut’s response to the bulky nature of airbag systems? Take it out when you don’t want it. Packs like the Mammut Pro X Removable Airbag System 3.0 allow you to remove the entire airbag system from the backpack, so you can lighten it up while skiing inbounds or add it to a smaller compatible pack. This could be a great option if you like to ski with an airbag midwinter, but don’t want to carry it in the spring when the snowpack is significantly more stable.
The removable system also lends itself to more versatility. Skiing into the sidecountry, you might only need a 10- to 15-liter pack, while a 35-liter pack is better for a full day tour. With Mammut’s removable design, you only need to own one system that you can swap between packs to avoid having to buy two airbags.
The Removable System 3.0 uses a traditional canister set up, which you’ll need to empty and get refilled if you plan to travel by air with it. Aside from that, the Pro X pack is a really solid touring pack, with thoughtful features like an extra large goggle pocket, helmet and ice axe carry, convenient waist belt pocket, and easy access through the padded back panel. With a full canister, the pack weighs 5 pounds, 11 ounces.
Alpride 2.0 Cartridge System
The Alpride 2.0 Cartridge System, as seen with the Black Diamond Jetforce UL and the Scott Backcountry Guide AP, is one of the lightest options (1.5 pounds for the whole system) and takes up significantly less space inside the pack. It uses two small cartridges, which are sealed and therefore permitted to fly with, that use just 1.7 liters of volume.
Although revolutionary because of the low size and weight, the downside to the Alpride 2.0 system is that once you deploy it, you have to buy a whole new set of cartridges—unlike compressed air that you can refill in most ski and dive shops—and a set runs about $50. It’s definitely an upgrade in terms of space and weight compared to standard compressed air cylinder systems, plus easy travel is a total bonus.
Using the Alpride 2.0 system, Black Diamond’s Jetforce UL is one of the lightest airbag packs you’ll find, ringing in at just over 4 pounds. With 26 liters of capacity, it’s the perfect size for a day tour, with space for the essentials and not much else. Compared to the rest of the airbag packs on the market, the Jetforce UL is easily the most svelte, streamlined design. A helmet net, dedicated safety pocket, and diagonal ski carry make it easy to keep your gear organized, and the retractable leg strap tucks away cleanly when you’re not using it.
Electric Fan System
The electric fan airbag system has notoriously held the highest price tag among airbags, but for those who travel internationally or spend long periods of time off the grid, it can be a worthy investment. “There’s been a big jump from canister to battery,” says Smiley. “One of the main benefits being that you can actually practice with it. You can pull it and re-pack it without having to go find a shop to refill it.”
A battery powered fan (instead of a canister) deploys the air chamber and can be repacked and deployed multiple times per charge. Weight is comparable to compressed air systems like Mammut’s Pro X or BCA’s Float systems—full, Black Diamond’s 35-liter Jetforce Pro weighs 6.5 pounds—but offers flexibility for travel and the opportunity for multiple practice deploys from the safety of your living room.
The Jetforce Pro is a big innovator in the airbag world, with a battery-powered fan that offers 10 deploys with each charge. The Pro comes in a 10-, 25-, and 35-liter capacities, and you can purchase any of the different sized packs on their own to swap out the airbag system between.
You can’t remove the whole system like with Mammut’s pack, but you can switch up the capacity which is a huge bonus if you’re doing a mix of sidecountry laps and touring. Other safety features include Bluetooth capabilities that automatically updates the software via the Pieps app on your smartphone as well as running its own diagnostics, and three minutes after it’s deployed, the chamber deflates to give you an air pocket in the event you are caught and buried.