Small Avalanche Airbag Review – Part 1

| March 30, 2011 | 8 Comments

After seeing this year’s offerings, I started out the season all hell-fired up about avalanche airbag packs and bought a BCA Float 30. Statistically, avalanche airbags are the most effective product available for surviving an avalanche (more than beacons), and I like the idea that you can do something to protect yourself, versus relying on partners and their beacons/shovels. I trust my partners, but if they get taken out as well or have a malfunctioning beacon, they won’t be much help. With an airbag, you feel like you have a bit more control over your own destiny.

My love affair with the BCA Float 30 was short lived. She had a fine personality, was well built and sleek, but put on too much weight. I used it about five times before deciding the entire package was just too heavy and sold it at a slight lost. The clincher for me was when I switched over to a superlight pack during a stable spell and then had a hard time getting motivated to take the Float 30 back out. An airbag system adds about 4-6 lbs to a backpack and when coupled with the Law of Luggage (the amount of stuff you carry will expand to fit all available pack space), it became a spirit crushing load that had me thinking about an exit strategy for the day on the first climb.

This led to a slash & burn weight reduction program which I’m still working on, but didn’t diminish my belief in the virtues of airbag packs. Fortunately, the three major players in the market all have 15-18 liter packs which will work for touring.

Left to right: ABS Powder 15, BCA Float 18, SnowPulse ProRider 15. These are all on loan, which is good as they represent almost $3,000 worth of packs.

These small(er) packs can be used for touring, but are mainly intended for mechanized skiing (heli, cat, car shuttle, etc.), sidecountry or snowmobiling.  I’m not sure if the manufacturers include the airbag system in the sizing, but in general, the majority of the volume in these packs is taken up by the ballon(s), cylinder and regulator, and they have very little room to carry anything, which is just the way I like it.

All I carry (or can fit) for a day of backcountry skiing with a 15-18 liter pack. K2 shovel, 1 liter of water, 1st aid/repair kit (red), food (yellow) puffy down jacket (blue).

To get a reliable comparison between the packs I carried the same kit (above) in all of them.  Some of the packs had slightly more room than others, but for the most part, things like jackets or skins had to be strapped to the outside if you wanted to carry them on the pack and there was no room for thermos, extra gloves, donuts, etc..  All of these packs came with a removable way to carry a helmet which I immediately took off as I’m not a helmet guy for general BC skiing.

Getting mulched in an avalanche is surprisingly violent, and as such the waist-belts on airbag packs are more like a climbing harness with a secure metal buckle and heavily reinforced construction.  They also come with crotch loops which might be alright if you never take your pack off, but for general BC skiing, I found the crotch straps to be a pain in the ass (or that general area) and never used them.  In all three cases, the crotch strap can be fully removed and stored in the pack.

The business end of avalanche airbag packs - ABS Powder 15 (left), BCA Float 18 (middle) and the SnowPulse ProRider (right).

The trigger handle design for airbag packs is trickier than meets the eye.  It has to work with gloves or mittens, be easy to find & grab without having to actually look at and have a secure mode for travel,  yet at the same time not be prone to snagging when skiing trees or being handed in/out of a car or helicopter and triggering an accidental inflation.  All three packs use different designs.

Three different trigger designs.

To hit critical mass as a consumer item, I think airbag packs need to be light enough that you don’t really notice them while skiing and be affordable.  All three of these packs meet the lightness criteria, but as a friend commented when I told him how much they cost, “Do you get a free Porsche with that?”  They are not cheap, but the money spent will be irrelevant when/if you go for The Big Ride.

Speaking of Big Rides, I freely admit that I ski slightly more avalanche exposed slopes with an airbag than without.  This is not so much huge slopes with monstrous consequences, but more  on smaller slopes or in questionable avalanche conditions.  I have yet to deploy one in a slide and a common scenario might be to skip a cautious ski-cut, center-punch a slope that I might otherwise nibble around the edges on first, or offer to go first “because I have an airbag.”  I know… I know.  At least I’m conscious of it. It is hard not to feel safer when wearing an airbag pack.

Next: The ABS Powder 15 in detail.

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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 (8)

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  1. mc says:

    And this superlight pack is?

  2. goatroper says:

    statistically, your brain is the most effective product available to avoid being injured in an avalanche. even more effective than triple antennae gps/altimeter equipped beacons, avalungs, airbags, big shovels with d-grips, carbon probes,ground penetrating radar, hovercraft or jetpack.
    (ok, i will relent, a triple antennae jetpack with an airbag might really do the trick)

  3. Derek says:

    You’re brain is the most effective at avoiding dangerous situations, but how many times did you get out of bed to take a piss, a little drunk, wondering why you didn’t wear a condom?

  4. Rey Paglinawan says:

    Hi,

    wondering where your Small Avalanche Airbag Review – Part 2 is?

    This has been the best head to head so far online, and i am eager to check out your assessment, since I also think these things should get lighter. I have the ABS Vario, but still find it too heavy. Hence, i am looking into the ABS Powderline, the New Mammut RIDE RAS system or the Snowpulse 15L.

    Cheers

    Rey

  5. Andrew says:

    My airbag review has stalled a bit as I’ve been really happy with the ABS 15. More than any of the features, etc., it just fits my needs for a small, light airbag day pack.

  6. Will says:

    You wear an avy airbag in the backcountry but you don’t wear a helmet?

  7. Karl says:

    I found it ironic that you said you’re not a helmet guy, then proceeded in the next sentence to describe how violent avalanches can be. Also, you should read this article about your leg strap: (http://snowbrains.com/one-airbag-feature-dont-know-will-save-life/) Without it you might be doing more harm than good.

  8. Karl – I’m full of irony, which is perhaps the beauty of this blog. I’m the last person on earth to say “Do as I say, not as I do.” Helmets are a mix. I grew up without them, as did a few billion people before me. Helmets, airbags, beacons, shovels and probes will not save you from yourself. It all depends on the run and the situation.

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