New Airbag Pack for 2010/11

| November 12, 2010 | 21 Comments

I recently bought a Backcountry Access Float 30 airbag pack and got to take it out for the first time today.  Conditions were stable, so I didn’t get a chance to go for a ride and blow it off, but hopefully I will soon.  (kidding, okay… kidding).

This is the second airbag pack I’ve owned with the first one being an early ABS pack which, although it had an airbag, the rest of the pack was designed by Martians and was completely unusable for backcountry skiing.  The prohibitive price of airbags means that there is a large demand for used ones and I was able to sell the ABS pack for only a small loss, which was a major consideration with buying this new one. If for some reason I really hate it, I probably won’t be out the full price of the bag.  It takes some creative financial rationalization to talk yourself into buying one of these, even though you know deep down in your lungs you probably should.

Airbag packs are proven to be one of the best avalanche survival gadgets out there and if they were the price of a beacon (haaahaahaa) they would be ubiquitous in the backcountry.  As is now, they are up to fifteen times the price of a normal skiing backpack.  I was on the fence about getting one this year until I talked to Doug Workman who deployed one in a massive avalanche and described it as “the hand of God reaching down to save me.”  He was sure he would have died without it, and from my 5-10 avalanche incidents, I can only think of one where an airbag pack wouldn’t have made a difference and that was because the slide was large. Nothing is going to spare you from a Class 5 slide (destroying small towns) but from my experience, most backcountry avalanche accidents are probably in the Class 2-3 range where an airbag will definitely make a difference.

There are three major players in the airbag market – ABS, SnowPulse and BCA.  The ABS was out due to my prior experience with them and although the SnowPulse is a beautiful pack, it comes from $witzerland and is seemingly made by retired hedge fund managers to whom money is no object.  I tried to summon all my financial creativity, but just could not stomach the SnowPulse price tag.  My only hesitation with the BCA bag was that I had seen early crude prototypes of it for over a year and thought it had a long ways to go on the fit & finish.  But, 2010/11 production versions are very well made and detailed.

The BCA Float 30 in its element - the backcountry.

My first impression of skiing with it today was very positive. It works well as a BC day pack and for the most part I barely noticed any difference.  Weight is still a issue with this genre of packs and in an ideal world they could lose a few pounds.  Fully kitted out with water, snacks, a probe, shovel, jacket, spare gloves, etc it came in at about 19 pounds.  I’m not sure what my normal pack weighs, but as I carry different stuff all the time, it is more of a relative measurement.

I’ll need to spend more time with it to give a detailed, worthy review, but until then, I fear no avalanche.  (Kidding, again. Really.)

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Category: Gear Reviews

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (21)

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  1. jerimy says:

    What do they use to inflate the bag? Some pricey canister that you can only get from BCA, CO2 cartridges, or compressed air you can fill yourself?

  2. Clyde says:

    Did they fix the ski carry system, or the lack thereof? That was the major drawback from the first iteration. Plus the color…black is terrible for photographs.

  3. Dave Reed says:

    Jerimy- We use a standard air cylinder that can be refilled by replacing a small O-ring and bringing it to SCUBA or paintball shop. Details here: http://backcountryaccess.com/index.php?id=181

    Clyde- There are ski carry straps on this year’s model, and it only comes in black for now.

  4. Andrew says:

    Jerimy – it is a refillable air canister that can be recharged at scuba or paintball shops (so I’ve heard).

    Clyde – the ski carry system is diagonal. I’m not thrilled about this, but it seems like a small detail in the overall picture. And yes, it is still black and I was thinking the same thing – some color wouldn’t hurt, especially in the detailing so you can tell one panel/pocket from the other. Black is a light suck.

  5. mark says:

    So if you deploy the airbag, you just stuff it back in the pack and get the canister refilled at a scuba shop? Seems reasonable. Almost reasonable enough to deploy it just for grins.

  6. Peter Banta says:

    Doesn’t seem too bad a price, considering its sophistication-level, and effectiveness (you had me at Hand of God). Is the canister included in the pack/system? I see it listed separate on the site & unclear if you have to buy both (or if this is just a replacement part)… ?

  7. jerimy says:

    Refreshing to know that it won’t cost you that much to refill after the initial investment. How much for an extra cylinder? Might be nice to have a spare for longer trips out of a base camp.

  8. wall-ski says:

    I bought the new Float 30 last week and took it up LCC for a demo. I think it’s great and hope I never get in a situation where I need to pull the handle. Sure, at $700 it’s pricey, but so are micro brews and buy them all the time. I predict before long these will be a requisite part of a “sensible” backcountry rig, just like a beacon, shovel, probe are now and the mountains will be speckled with BLACK abs packs. Speaking of Swiss hedge fund managers, is BCA publicly traded…?

    The remaining question: to still wear an Avalung?

  9. goatroper says:

    I agree. a great tool to end up on top of smaller soft slab avalanches. It doesn’t overcome the physics of rapid stop trauma from trees and rocks, or crushing from a hard slab release. When you go from 60mph to zero, or through the hard slab sausage grinder, your soft and gushy internal organs are still vulnerable. No matter the technology, still can’t stress enough the value of good route finding, snow stability assessment, spot on beacon-probe-shoveling skills and good partners.

    If your weighing the cost, first spend the money on education and supporting your local avalanche center. The most useful, life saving tools have come from the guys digging pits everyday. (shovel compression, shear quality, ECT, ALPTRUTH, etc.) The rocky mountain west is the ivy league of avalanche education potential. But that’s just… like…my opinion maaan.

  10. glew gun says:

    Andew, I just got a BCA float bag as well. Maybe we can start a club for float baggers? Ski big lines with no regard. Just kidding. I am pretty psyched to have one though. I have been using the Avalung for four seasons and the one slide I got caught in I just fought like hell and didnt think of putting the Avalung in…..The fighting got me out of the slide. I am pretty pumped to ski with the BCA. I think it will be standardized as saftey equiptment in the future. Just like the car seatbelt….

  11. Andrew says:

    Float Baggers Anonymous? ;)

  12. Derek says:

    Next year……definitely buying one next year. Seems we can all justify new skis, bindings, etc, but spending money on the one object that is better than the current body recovery (beacon) is too much to swallow. Weird, isn’t it?

    We’ve joked about only skiing big, tree-less slopes after purchasing an airbag system. Stay out of the strainers………..(disclamer:mandatory).

  13. Andrew says:

    Yes, it is funny how the airbags seem sooooo expensive, but then again, they are about the same price as a full retail pair of skis or boots. For me, up to this point, airbags just didn’t seem dialed enough yet.

  14. glew gun says:

    i just tried a test run deploy of my bag,,,,,didnt work….hmmmm????glad i gave it a test run!!! gotta call BCA tomorrow! ~foat baggers annonymous haha

  15. glew gun says:

    i got 3 year old beat up skis, 8 yr old dynafits that barely work, beat out boots, but im dedicated to float baggers annonymous

  16. John S says:

    Thanks for the write up Andrew. How is the sizing on the belt? I’m 6′ and 155lbs, and with a 30″ waist, I find many packs don’t allow me to cinch the belt tight.

    This is the first bit of ski kit that my wife is actually encouraging me to buy! Nice to know she actually wants me to come home from ski trips…

  17. Jimmy says:

    Glew gun’s comment concerns me. I wonder how confident I can be that the bag will deploy? How long before B.D. combinds air bag technology into an avalung pack? It makes sense to invest in one but it seems there’s still room for improvement.

  18. Andrew says:

    Hi John – something to consider with these types of packs is that the waist belt and shoulder straps are really more like harnesses. I’ve found the waist belt on the Float 30 to be fine, but then again I am not super picky. I carry most of the weight on my shoulders and I’ve only adjusted the waist belt length once and then left it there. Usually it is a bit loose, but comfy.

  19. Andrew says:

    Hmmm – good point Jimmy. I want to blow mine off as a test, but haven’t found a quick and easy place to get it refilled yet. Supposedly any number of places can do it, but it is a matter of finding the time to track them down, then get down there and do it.

  20. Jack says:

    Somebody needs to design a bag that incorporates the avalung and the airbag in one pack. Pull the handle and stick the snorkle in your mouth. Aside from internal injuries you might ride one out pretty well. At least have a better chance of surviving. Cheers, Jack15T

  21. Dan says:

    I just got a bca float pack as well. I toured with it for the first time last weekend. It was a more nicer pack than I had anticipated. It was comfortable and easily fit everything I needed for a day of touring. If you love in the front range of colorado the canister is easily refilled at either BCA, Neptunes, or a scuba shop. I got mine at Neptunes and the ski buyer was awesome. He took the time to show me how to set the cannister and rip cord up and we even deployed the bag in the shop to make sure it worked right. Then we refilled the cannister and rest the pack so I knew how to do it myself. As a backcountry ski guide in the rockies for the last 6 seasons I have become increasingly aware of the lack of control we have in avalanche terrain and I truly believe that these airbag packs increase our margin of safety.

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