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Buyer's guide avalanche backpacks

Why use an avalanche backpack with an airbag system?

First of all: The avalanche backpack with an airbag system cannot replace common sense and avalanche risk management training. It increases the chances of survival, but only in combination with the essential equipment.

This gear used with the backpack forms a strong foundation for survival. If an avalanche buries part of your group, the airbag pack will increase the likelihood of a shallow burial or of being visible from the surface, improving the chance of a rescue. Remember that you first have to learn how to use the essential equipment so that in an emergency you do not hesitate on using them. The backpack with an airbag can considerably lower the risk to yourself when an avalanche is triggered.

Xavier de le Rue

Professional Snowboarder 
I think it’s like driving with or without a seat belt. It feels better without, but after a while, you don’t feel it anymore. At the end of the day when it has saved your life, you don’t even understand the fact of not having one.“

The brazil nut effect: How an avalanche backpack works

The brazil nut effect in an avalanche

In a moving snow, the larger particles will rise to the top, and the smaller particles sink to the bottom. An avalanche airbag will increase your volume and will give you more buoyancy. The chance of a shallow burial or visibility from the surface increases. In science, this is called inverse segregation or the “Brazil Nut Effect”.

The different airbag systems available

Blue Tomato sells the following systems:

  • Mammut, with P.A.S. or R.A.S.
  • Backcountry Access with the BCA Float series
  • Black Diamond and Pieps with JetForce
  • Ortovox with AVABAG
  • Scott Alpride

Overview to avalanche backpacks and the systems available

Franz Wörndl

Customer Service Agent at Blue Tomato in Schladming
„I don’t go splitboarding without my avalanche backpack. I see it as a kind of insurance for the worst case scenario. Various tests and statistics have proven that the chance of survival in an avalanche is higher with an Airbag. However, an avalanche backpack should not be seen as a practical extension of the safety equipment, but only as emergency equipment. Which means an avalanche backpack cannot replace avalanche knowledge, the behaviour in the case of emergency and the correct handling of a probe, shovel and avalanche transceiver.

Black Diamond: keeping you safe since 1957

Pieps Jetforce Avalanche backpack for Men and Women

For the production of the Jetforce System, the American climbing and mountaineering brand Black Diamond has teamed up with the Austrian manufacturer of avalanche transceivers Pieps. Through this collaboration, in 2014 a new system, without the use of gas cartridges – came on to the market.

Jetforce: The innovative battery system

The Jetforce system works with a Lithium Ion Battery, which allows with one battery charge, up to four deployments. The jet fan blows up the 200-litre airbag in 3,5 seconds. To ensure buoyancy even with damage to the bag the fan blows air constantly into the balloon. After three minutes, the fan sucks the air out again and provides an air pocket underneath the snow. Jetforce is amongst the most expensive systems to buy but is the easiest and cheapest to test as the airbag inflates electronically. Training deployments costs are minimal, especially in comparison to other manufacturers, where a new cartridge is required after every deployment.

Advantages:

  • Training activation
  • Automatic re-inflation and deflation
  • Large volume airbag
  • Simple packing of the airbag
  • Perfect for air travel
  • Multiple deployments available

Mammut Sports Group: Swiss Quality, protection and versatility

The Swiss Outdoor Specialists Mammut uses the Snowpulse system, an already established airbag manufacturer. Since 2011, Mammut has continued to develop Snowpulse’s technology, and integrate them with their excellent mountain backpacks.

P.A.S.: The Protection Airbag System

Mammut Protection Airbag Avalanche backpack for women and men

The Protection Airbag System by Mammut is the evolution of the original Snowpulse® Lifebag Systems. The airbag itself extends around the head and neck area to protect and against trauma from snow and ice during an avalanche. The special construction also increases the chance that the victim of an avalanche will face towards the surface of the snow and keep their airways free. The Bright colour of the airbag material also ensures that rescuers have a greater chance of seeing the victim in the case of a partial burial.

Advantages of P.A.S:

  • Removable Airbag System
  • Large selection of backpack models
  • Protection of head, neck, shoulders and chest
  • Keeps airways free
  • Lightweight carbon cartridge or a refillable aluminium cartridge available

R.A.S.: The Removable Airbag System

Mammut Removable Airbag System for women and men

Mammut gives licences for the smaller R.A.S. system to other manufacturers such as Dakine who use this technology. The special protection of the chest and head area are not available here, but the Swiss specialist offers a broad selection and a lightweight instead. The little brother of the P.A.S. also inflates within three seconds through the activation handle at the left side. The storage of the balloon is easy and takes only a few seconds.

Advantages of Mammut R.A:S:

  • Removable Airbag System
  • Large selection of backpack models
  • Easy storage of the Airbag
  • At approximately 850 grams, one of the lightest systems available
  • Lightweight carbon cartridge or refillable aluminium cartridge available

Simple and effective survival from BCA

BCA Avalanche backpack

The North American manufacturer Backcountry Access from Boulder, Colorado designs products - from Freeriders for Freeriders. The focus of BCA accessible safety in the mountains. The Float series of backpacks offers just this.

BCA Float

The Airbag system by BCA focuses on easy usage at an affordable price. For the Float series, BCA uses a single 150-litre airbag deployed with a Bowden cable. The airbag floats thanks to its volume and is visible because of its bright yellow colour. A refillable aluminium cartridge provides the pressure for the deployment. The backpacks are available in different sizes, from 22 up to 42 litres. BCA Float Backpacks have carrying straps for boards, skis and other equipment and the activation handle is available for both left and right-handed users.

Advantages of BCA Float:

  • Affordable price
  • Simple storage of the airbag
  • Lightweight
  • Refillable cartridge
  • Left or right-sided activation handle

Ortovox and Scott: the new kids on the block

Although both Scott and Ortovox are respected companies with rich heritages in mountain sports, Winter 2017 signified both companies first forays into manufacturing avalanche airbags. Ortovox has this winter released their AVABAG system, and Scott has brought their Alpride system to the market. Both companies have innovated with considerable weight saving and high-volume airbags.

The minimalist AVABAG system utilises a compact, removable gas powered airbag, which due to their innovative welding of the airbag is sturdy, lightweight and packable. This is combined with the ergonomic 360-degree non-slip handle, usable for both left and right-handers, and the ability to test the Airbag without triggering the canister. AVABAG represents a bold statement from Ortovox with uncompromising minimalism and performance.

Advantages of Ortovox AVABAG:

  • Extremely lightweight airbag system
  • Compact and removable airbag
  • Testing with the pre-tension tool
  • Minimal design
  • High volume, durable, tough ballistic nylon airbag in bright visible orange
  • Left and right-sided activation
Scott has also made a strong entry into the airbag market with their Alpride system. Scott has followed a similar philosophy to Ortovox developing their system. A crucial difference is the activation, with Scott preferring two canisters, one Co2 and one Argon to inflate the 150-litre airbag. These canisters are already well established technology as they are the same as are used for life jackets so are crucially light and considerably cheaper than other brands. Scott avalanche packs also include a TüV certified back protector.

Advantages of Scott Alpride:
  • Lightweight airbag system
  • Compact and removable airbag
  • TüV certified back protector included
  • Cheaper Co2 and argon gas

ARVA Snow Safety Equipment – Reactor Series

ARVA Reactor
Reactor airbag from ARVA

Based in Annecy, France ARVA know a thing or two about snow safety. As slang for an avalanche transceiver in French, Italian and Spanish, ARVA is literally synonymous with snow safety. The French company entered the Avalanche Airbag scene for the first time in 2016, with their Reactor series of packs.

The Reactor Series of avalanche backpacks differentiates itself through a set of unique features. Firstly, the system is both very light and fully removable, allowing for versatility. The Air Intake is also unique. ARVA has multiple air intakes for the airbag, which has the highest inflating power of any system available. The massive capacity airbag has a unique shape, which protects the head first. The bag works even with a puncture! The two sides of the 150-Litre airbag inflate independently. So if one fails or is punctured, the other will still function.

If you thought there was no more ways which ARVA could impress us, think again. The clever 3D fit is fully adjustable for any body type. The handle locks away when not in use and the system automatically reloads after deployment. So if you want to test the system without a cartridge or are not sure about the readiness of the system – it’s always good to go.

Advantages of ARVA Reactor

  • Lightest Airbag system available
  • Split air intake
  • Locking handle, accessible from both shoulders
  • Highest inflating power
  • 3D adjustable fit
  • Extreme capacity 2 x 75 L
  • Smart head protection
  • Double chamber inflation
  • Lightest dual airbag system
  • Very compact
  • Automatic reload system

Activation handles for left-handed people

Typically the activation handle of an avalanche backpack is located on the left-hand side, for use with the right hand. This handle caters for the majority of users who are right handed. If you are left handed, it is important to use an activation handle which is located on the right-hand side because triggering the airbag needs to be as easy and natural as possible. Thankfully the manufacturers of airbag backpacks are catering increasingly towards left-handers, with Mammut, BCA and Ortovox offering right hand sided deployment handles.

Models for women: adjustability and shorter backs

As with activation handles it is important to tailor your backpack to your personal needs, for women or even smaller men there are options. Ortovox, in particular, offers their packs with the ‘S’ variants which are adapted to women with shorter backs and straps which are more suited to women’s body shapes. Mammut also offers the ‘short’ versions of their P.A.S and R.A.S backpacks. Pieps’ Jetforce backpack also comes in two sizes with ‘SM’ size for shorter backs

The weight: An important consideration

Touring with avalanche backpacks from BCA, Mammut, Black Diamond and ABS

For ski touring or splitboarding weight is an important factor. Ideally, an airbag backpack should be as light as possible. However, considering the different components which are necessary to perform, an avalanche backpack will be a little heavier than a hiking equivalent.

The components of a gas powered avalanche backpack include:

  • The Backpack itself
  • The gas cartridge for inflation
  • And a trigger handle and Bowden cable
  • in combination with the Airbag, inflation system and storage apparatus.
The exception is the Jetforce system, with a battery powered fan, which is an integral part of the backpack. The 24 litre Pieps Jetforce weighs 3.4 kilograms but no further equipment is needed.

From Mammut the P.A.S and R.A.S systems weight 850 grams and 870 respectively and with a fully equipped system weighing between 2.5 to kilograms. Mammut also supplies non-refillable carbon cartridge which can further reduce the weight.

The Float 22 from BCA weighs approximately 2.6 kilograms fully equipped, however, the refillable aluminium cartridge accounts for 600 grams of this weight.

The indication by the manufacturer may differ slightly from the actual weight.

Operating the airbag systems

Refillable cartridges from BCA and Mammut
Refillable cartridges: BCA bottle and Mammut aluminium cartridge

The gas cartridges can be divided between refillable (aluminium cartridges from Mammut and BCA) and non-refillable (Mammut carbon, Scott dual cartridges and AVABAG carbon).

Mammut has refillable as well as non-refillable gas cartridges in its range which can be used between temperatures of -30 and +40 degrees Celsius. It is possible to fill the refillable cartridges yourself or in paintball and dive shops.

Jetforce
uses a battery-powered fan which has multiple charges even down to - 30 degrees Celcius.

Which is the best airbag system for me?

Avalanche backpack Float 22 from BCA

The short answer is that any airbag system which you buy is going to increase your chance of survival significantly. There are however different considerations to take depending on your needs. Each brand claims that their technology is the safest, so it is worth looking into the different tech which the brands use.

Jetforce
has numerous safety features which are unique to the battery system. The ability to system check and do a live self-test without the need to use cartridges are vitally important and can make the user comfortable in using the system. Also, the Jetforce Airbag has a volume of 200 L which ensures excellent buoyancy. However, it is not just the large airbag which is unique to the Jetforce system. When deployed the Jetforce fan will continually blow air into the Airbag in the case of punctures, after 3 minutes the airbag will deflate to create a potentially lifesaving air hole of oxygen for the victim.

The Protection Airbag System from Mammut is unique in its protective shape. The shape of the Airbag is so that the head, neck and chest area have protection and the airways remain free from snow. The construction of the Mammut P.A.S also increases the likelihood that the victim will be buried facing towards the surface, which in the case of a partial burial can make the difference.

If money is a factor and you still want safety at a more affordable price, BCA Float backpacks represent excellent value for money. The Removable Airbag System from Mammut also is also slightly cheaper.

An important consideration is the backpack itself if you would like to use the bag for everyday use some options will be better than others. Any of the systems which have fully removable airbag systems will be much more suitable for summer and non-skiing activities; these include both systems from Mammut, BCA float, Scott and Ortovox. The airbag system from Jetforce is both integral to the backpack.

There are also normal considerations you would make when searching for a backpack, covered previously such as size and weight which are subject to your requirements. A larger pack will be better for longer tours whereas a smaller more streamlined pack will be better for day trips, heli-skiing and side country riding.

Avalanche backpacks at Blue Tomato

Once you consider your personal requirements, you can look for the perfect model. At Blue Tomato, you not only find a wide range of avalanche backpacks, but also a variety of touring equipment for your next trip to the backcountry.