Touring up for another run in the Wasatch four years ago, my old Backcountry Access Float 32 flopped around my back like a rigid cardboard box. The pack was one of the first generation of BCA Float packs, from 2013. My partner, an observer for the Utah Avalanche Center noted on the skin track… I need to get one of those, but damn!… They are heavy. I agreed on that point, but treated the pack like another safety tool that I hoped I’d never have to use and that one day maybe they’d get lighter.
Fortunately, that bag—which weighed close to seven pounds empty—and the technology used in the early airbag systems have evolved significantly. Within the past two years, several canister airbag systems have come to market with reduced weight, better efficiencies, and more room in the pack for the gear you need to spend a day touring in the mountains.
The adoption of airbags have fortunately increased amongst backcountry skiers given the advances in technology with reduced weight. No one plans or wants to get in an avalanche–and wearing an airbag pack shouldn't change your decision-making, as there are many scenarios where they won't help, such as trauma.
Like most things in skiing, Europe was well ahead of North America in regards to the early airbag packs. The first ABS pack was shown in 1985 at ISPO (a European trade show where cigarettes outnumber flannels), receiving an award for innovation. "The Euros are always light year's ahead of us," comments Logan Cookler, a Utah-based Backcountry Access rep and forecaster/guide with Wasatch Powderbirds. "But, once the packs took hold here and there was competition on the market, things began to change."
The change Cookler refers to are the years of ABS packs on the market that saw modifications and slow adoption in user groups. While the technology slowly gained popularity amongst some freeskiers and the competition scene, it took an increase in backcountry users in the US, coupled with some devastating high profile accidents, for the packs to become more widespread.
Today, the product category is experiencing a similar revitalization in air canister airbag packs. Last season, BCA launched their Speed Float 2.0 bags. The 2.0 refers to the new system, which is now available in their regular Float bags this season. "We've achieved the weight reduction in our Float 2.0 system mainly by decreasing the size of the cylinder (and increasing the pressure to 3,000 psi), and by making the ejector (venturi) more efficient," says Bruce Edgerly, co-founder and VP of Marketing at BCA. The airbag and cylinder are now stashed entirely in the airbag compartment, which leaves much needed space in the main compartment in the pack. Previously, the canister rode down the entire length of the main compartment with the bag and canister taking up valuable room for stashing gear. The Float 32, with pack and cylinder, weighs less than five pounds. Retail is $549.95.
Similarly, Ortovox took a close look at their Avabags and retooled their entire line, launching the flagship model Ascent 30 Avabag (2.57 pounds; $720) last fall. The system dropped weight and now allows the user to practice deploying the trigger without having to refill your canister. "The number of components that make up our Avabag system has been reduced from 70 in our older ABS packs to 20 in the current units," notes Tom Mason, Ortovox US Brand Manager. The brand specifically highlighted a Canadian study involving 106 avalanches involving airbag users in which one in eight did not activate their airbag.
"Historical airbag use contains records of victims failing to deploy their avalanche packs when they needed them due to lack of practice and familiarity with the mechanism,” Mason says. “The Avabag system allows you to practice triggering the release mechanism without expending cartridges or deploying the bag. We should practice this critical function of our airbags like we practice the use of our other avalanche rescue equipment.”
Combined with the ease in practice, the Avabag's airbag is radio welded rather than stitched, which saves weight and allows the bag to pack down small—stashed on top of the main compartment, similarly to BCA's. Unfortunately, the cylinder runs down the main compartment, which wouldn't be an issue if the brand could effectively get the shorter and lighter carbon cylinders for sale in the US (currently widely available in Europe), but alas Europe is still ahead of the game.
While plane travel still remains a crux of using the air canister bags when compared to the battery powered fan systems, such as the Black Diamond Jetforce and Arc’teryx Voltair. Companies like Arva and Scott, along with BCA, are trying to bridge the gap. Scott's Alpride Airbag System 2.0 uses small and easily replaceable argon and CO₂ cartridges that are International Air Transport Association certified, allowing travel by plane. Similarly, Arva's sleek Reactor pack (the airbag is placed along the circumference of the zipper like Scott's to save space) uses micro canisters of argon gas that can be shipped to your destination or can fly with you via pre-approval.
Although BCA may have just nailed the travel conundrum with their new 2.0 systems, which can be pumped through a Benjamin Pump, more info about that is available here.
Fastening up my Arva Reactor 32 last winter (weighing at 4.65 pounds empty; $699.95), I much appreciated the lesser load. The adoption of airbags have fortunately increased amongst backcountry skiers given the advances in technology with reduced weight. No one plans or wants to get in an avalanche–and wearing an airbag pack shouldn't change your decision-making, as there are many scenarios where they won't help, such as trauma.
Bruce Tremper, former director of the Utah Avalanche Center, noted that airbag packs will probably save "a little more than half of those who would have otherwise have died in an avalanche. They will never save all of them because one out of four will likely die from trauma, and an additional one out of four will probably end up in a terrain trap, buried by a secondary avalanche or caught in an avalanche that does not travel far enough for the inverse segregation process to work." But, given how far airbags have dropped in weight (6-10,000-vertical-foot days are just fine with the new airbags), they are becoming another safety tool to have in your kit, just like a beacon, shovel, and probe.