Avalanche Airbag Backpacks - REVIEW

 

Photo courtesy of ABS

Avalanche Airbags - REVIEW

By Vince Shuley

The tools and skills available to survive the backcountry
have improved in recent years, but the number of people skiing in avalanche
terrain is always increasing.  With more and
more people in the backcountry it’s only a matter of time before we read about another
avalanche fatality.

People will keep putting themselves in danger no matter how
many people die or how much education is available. So how can we equip these
reckless (and in fairness, occasionally unlucky) souls to survive in the
backcountry?

The device we are looking for to increase the odds is the
avalanche airbag. A compressed gas cylinder is rigged to an expandable airbag
and packaged within a backpack. A trigger is pulled on the shoulder strap to
deploy the airbag once the victim is caught in the slide.

Avalanche airbags work on the principle of inverse
segregation. A flowing granular fluid under gravity (such as moving snow) will
deposit the larger particles on top and the smaller particles on the
bottom.  The idea of the airbag is to
suddenly increase the volume of the victim, thereby floating them to the top layer
of the avalanche before the moving snow stops  and solidifies. Provided the airbag is properly
deployed in time,
the chances of a complete burial are significantly
reduced.

So now that we’ve looked how avalanche airbags work, let’s
look at the different units available. There are currently three different companies
marketing airbags on the market in North America: Snowpulse, ABS and
Backcountry Access.

All airbag models in this review are advertised as being approved by Department of
Transport (DOT) and Transport Canada (TC) for airline travel, though it is
advised that you contact your carrier  prior to travel to obtain the
necessary documents for taking your compressed air cylinder on board.

 

SNOWPULSE LIFEBAG 30L

RRP - $1198 (Lifebag frame and 30L attachment, pictured)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos courtesy of Snowpulse

The Snowpulse is the most readily available airbag in BC and
can be found at retailers throughout the province. The deployed lifebag is a
single 150L airbag that wraps around the head and neck. This design (dubbed
‘Head on Top’ technology) is meant to float the victim on their back while
protecting the head and neck from trauma. Out of all airbags on the market, the
single airbag design from Snowpulse felt the most secure for the head and neck.
Snowpulse claim that trauma injuries account for 10-20% of avalanche fatalities
and even more in heavily forested areas.

Deployment: Pulling the trigger felt smooth and the
ergonomic handle was easy to grab wearing gloves. The pressure from the
inflated bag firmly and evenly cradled the head and neck, effectively
immobilising them.  The upper body felt a
little constricted as a result.

PROS

  • Best head and neck
    protection
  • Readily available
  • Interchangeable packs on
    Lifebag model

 

CONS

  • Expensive
  • Restricted upper body
    movement once deployed

Website – snowpulse.com

 

ABS Vario 30L

RRP -  $1384 (ABS back frame and 30L Vario attachment, pictured) 

Photos courtesy of ABS

ABS has the most experience in the field of avalanche airbag
safety having continuously evolved their design over the last 25 years. They
are also the only company that use dual airbags. The two inflated bags have a
combined volume of 170L and are sealed from one another, meaning if one gets
damaged the other will stay inflated. The principle ABS use is to avoid both
burial and trauma at the same time by increasing both the buoyancy and the
volume of the victim. By floating the victim horizontally onto their stomach, injuries
from the turbulent lower layers of the avalanche are avoided.

Deployment: The activation handle felt easier to engage on
the ABS than the Snowpulse, as the pyrotechnic trigger felt more like breaking
a seal rather than stretching a cable. The inflated bags were positioned away
from the head and neck, not bracing them at all but allowing free movement of
the upper body . 

Note: After deployment you must refill the cylinder and
replace the spent cartridge in the activation handle

ABS offers a number of innovations to complement their
airbag system. These include:

  • pyrotechnic trigger system - shorter pull
    distance for deployment
  • OPTIONAL  group specific remote wireless trigger.
    Members of the party can trigger each other’s airbags up to 300m away
  • OPTIONAL Carbon
    air cartridge. Half the weight of a regular steel cylinder. Ideal for backcountry
    skiers

PROS

  • Dual airbags with highest
    capacity (170L)
  • Interchangeable packs on
    Vario model
  • Great list of optional
    extras
  • Unhindered upper body
    movement once deployed

CONS

  • Most expensive airbag
  • Little trauma protection
  • Trigger handle requires replacement
    cartridge after each use

Website – www.abs-airbag.com

 

Backcountry Access Float 30 

RRP -  $569 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of BCA

Backcountry Access is a company based in Boulder, Colorado
that strives to provide the products and knowledge to save lives in the
backcountry. BCA believes that affordability is key to people wearing the
avalanche airbags in the first place, as well as providing a competitive
product. The Float 30 sells for $499USD, about half the price of the ABS or
Snowpulse. How are BCA able to price so competitively? By distributing the
product themselves there is no middleman between manufacturer and retailer, effectively
minimizing the price mark up. The bag itself is a slightly simplified design
with no way of carrying skis or a snowboard.

Deployment: This
airbag was unavailable for deployment at the time of review.

The Float uses a single 150L airbag which inflates out of
the top of the pack much like an oversized pillow. The canister is triggered
with a cable and once inflated there is minimal protection of the head and
neck. The Float 30L doesn’t have the advanced features of the other packs (i.e.
trauma protection on the Snowpulse, dual airbags from ABS) but it does offer a
very affordable alternative that works under the same principle of increasing
the volume of the victim. 

PROS

  • Most affordable airbag on
    market
  • Can refill canister
    yourself with the access to the right equipment

CONS

  • Little trauma protection
  • Fixed capacity pack (30L)
  • Can’t carry skis or
    snowboard

BCA have stated that the Float 30 will be available in Canada around the end of March.



Here's a video of Bruce Edgerly from BCA deomostrating the Float 30

 

Summary

For many consumers the price will be the deciding factor and
the Float 30 is by far the best value product. 
If price is no object the Snowpulse would offer the best protection for  North America’s heavily treed slopes. The ABS has the most innovative design
and would be the best choice for high alpine (above tree line) skiing.

NOTE: Avalanche
Airbags will increase chances of survival in an avalanche but DO NOT guarantee
your safety. Do not take any additional risks because you are wearing an
airbag.

 

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