Avalanche backpacks and airbag systems: Buyer's Guide
- Why use an avalanche backpack with an Airbag System
- The "Brazil Nut Effect": how an avalanche backpack works
- The different Airbag Systems available
- Activation handles also for left-handed people
- Models for women: adjustability and shorter backs
- The weight: the deciding factor on your tour
- Operating the Airbag Systems
- Which is the best airbag system for me?
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.
Xavier de le RueProfessional Snowboarder
The brazil nut effect: How an avalanche backpack works
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
Franz WörndlCustomer Service Agent at Blue Tomato in Schladming
Black Diamond: keeping you safe since 1957
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
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.
- 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
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 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
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.
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
- 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
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
Based in Annecy, France ARVA know a thing or two about snow safety. As slang for
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.
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.
The weight: An important consideration
For ski touring or
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.
From Mammut the P.A.S and R.A.S systems weight 850
The Float 22 from BCA weighs approximately 2.6
The indication by the manufacturer may differ slightly from the actual weight.
Operating the airbag systems
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?
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
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.