Anyone who loved being in the great outdoors and enjoys winter sports like snowmobiling, skiing, and snowboarding knows that with all the beauty also comes a deadly power- the avalanche.
It is known that it is important to prepare for your time in the great outdoors and this is especially true of preparing for worst-case scenarios like being caught in an avalanche.
Thankfully there are some simple things you can do to protect yourself while you are out in the snow; one of them is to invest in a good quality avalanche airbag.This site contains some affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I’ll earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.
Make Up of an Avalanche
To understand how an avalanche airbag works and how it can protect you, we must first understand what an avalanche is and how one occurs.
An avalanche is a mass of snow that comes loose from its surroundings and slides at very high speeds down an inclined slope, such as a mountainside.
Avalanches are triggered by either natural forces such as rain and snowfall or weight shifts of the snow load, or they can be triggered by human activity such as entering areas with undisturbed snow that can suddenly break free.
In mountainous terrain, they are among the most serious hazards to human life and property and can also be known as snowslides.
An avalanche occurs when stress from the pull of gravity, or the added weight of an animal or person, exceeds the strength of the snow cover.
Strength is derived from bonds between snow grains and when these bonds are broken the ice and snowpack cracks and breaks apart and begins to slide apart.
This is the start of an avalanche and once it starts there is nothing that can be done to stop it.
“Most avalanches occur in the backcountry, outside the boundaries of developed ski areas. About 90% of all avalanches begin on slopes of 30-45 degrees, and about 98% occur on slopes of 25-50 degrees. Avalanches strike most often on slopes above timberline that face away from prevailing winds (leeward slopes tend to collect snow blowing from the windward sides of ridges)” (Gibbons Whistler).
However, avalanches can still occur in lower altitudes and have been reported in areas under the timberline such as in gullies and valleys, roads and manmade cuts into the terrain, and small natural openings in the trees.
Very dense trees generally help lock the snowpack in place so it can’t start to shift and crack; however, avalanches higher up can travel through a sparser forested area and can even knock down smaller trees with their power and force.
Hundreds of hikers and sports enthusiasts are hurt or killed every year by being caught up in a raging avalanche.
This is why it is important to be prepared, to know the area you are going to traveling and exploring, and to be alert at all times to any signs that of a potential avalanche.
Investing in a high-quality avalanche airbag is also a smart move that can help to protect you and give you better odds of surviving an encounter with this powerful force of nature.
Purpose of an Avalanche Airbag
There are many statistics showing that avalanche airbag packs have been helpful in many cases of avalanche accidents and burials.
“An avalanche airbag is the only piece of equipment that limits burial depth. This is due to a phenomenon called “inverse segregation”. During an avalanche, the most voluminous elements rise to the surface, while the smaller ones are attracted to the bottom. The inflated airbag will increase the skier’s volume, allowing him to “float” on the surface and limiting burial depth. If buried, inflated airbags can stay on the surface and allow for faster localization. The avalanche beacon, the shovel, and the probe also aid in this process” (Explore-Share).
While they do not guarantee your safety or survival in the event you are swept up by an avalanche, an airbag can help you have a better chance of being found or freeing yourself if you are unlucky enough to be buried under the snow.
How To Choose an Avalanche Airbag
At the very minimum, you need to consider the bag’s weight, size, and deploy system when choosing the avalanche airbag, you are going to use.
Generally, sizes range from very compact and portable 18 liters to professional grade heavy duty 45 liters.
However, it is necessary to pay close attention to the indicated volume of the bag, as it may be including the entire bag and system as a whole or just the deployment bag.
It is also important to remember that weight and volume are calculated on their own and are not necessarily tied to each other.
With the use of thinner materials, some brands offer bags with a large volume but a reasonable weight. So, it is important to shop around and consider your options carefully.
System-wise for your avalanche airbags, there are several options to choose from:
- ABS system: an explosive release system that is designed to inflate two flasks on the sides of the bag. Additional bags can also be attached to provide additional buoyancy and protection when deployed. Cartridges and handles are good for a single-use. Once used, this system needs to be replaced before the pack can be used again.
- Snowpulse system: this setup is triggered by a pull-cable that inflates a 150-liter, U-shaped balloon that is located around the individual’s head. The shape has been designed so as to make the skier float with his head up. This helps prevent landing head down in the snow and also better protects the head from impact injury during a wipeout.
- JetForce Technology: Highly innovative, this is the most modern and current system that has been introduced in the market. The airbags don’t rely on cartridges to inflate the bags but instead extracts air from the atmosphere and fill the airbags. The bag deflates after 3 minutes, creating a pocket around the user’s head to give them breathable air.
There is no right or wrong option when it comes to what airbag you use as factors such as your own experience and skills, the location you will be in, and other influences will also come into play as you make your decision.
Best Avalanche Airbag Backpacks
Here’s a quick look at the best avalanche airbags for your winter sport activities – from snowmobiling to snowboarding.
Ideal for backcountry skiing
- Features an easy to use on/off switch to activate the bag.
- The system also includes blinking status indicator lights that can be seen easily for fast locating and rescue.
- Pack’s mechanical deploy trigger can be easily adjusted, and 2 AA batteries will recharge the capacitors out in the field in under and hour for on-demand use.
- The 26-liter capacity gives you rooms for extra clothes, food, water, and emergency gear and makes it easy to stash other necessities so it easily accessible.
- This pack features a dedicated avalanche safety pocket, which stows a shovel handle, probe and shovel blade with ease for dig-out in the event of an emergency.
- The comfortable hip-belt comes with a standard leg loop to secure the pack and keep it from being pulled overhead in the event of an avalanche wipeout.
Takeaway: Head out into the backcountry prepared for an avalanche with the Black Diamond JetForce Tour 26 pack, featuring the electronic Alpride E1 airbag system powered by cutting-edge supercapacitors.
Ideal for snowboarding
- This lightweight airbag pack lets you carry your tools, extra gear, water, food, and other supplies in a convenient and easy-to-reach place.
- Next-generation Float 2.0 cylinder which can be used with the pack is nearly 30% smaller and 15% lighter than the previous model for greater mobility.
- Features BC Link™ radio hookups, water revisor bag access pockets, dual-zippered shoulder straps, and molded back panel for maximum comfort.
- After deployment, the cylinder must be refilled at an authorized retail location and will need to be replaced or topped off before it can be used again.
- Durable materials are perfect for the wear and tear of the outdoors and can be used for any outdoor hiking or sporting activities with confidence.
Takeaway: For off-piste and free-ride skiing and snowboarding, the Backcountry Access Float 22 Avalanche Airbag pack adds buoyancy and decreases burial depth while helping protect your head, neck and upper body.
Ideal for snowmobiling
- Creating buoyancy and helping you float to the surface of an avalanche, this 150-liter bag is durable and easy to use and works for a wide range of situations.
- The overall low volume and low profile design of the pack provides maximum comfort; it is optimized for small to medium-sized individuals.
- Made with a nylon with polyurethane coating shields your gear from the elements; the nylon with polyurethane coating offers durability in high-wear areas
- Adjustable waist and the molded back panel provides for a great fit and is designed to fit snugly and is ready for use anytime for added peace of mind.
- Additional bags and float air cylinders sold separately that can be used with the pack to provide added protection when desired.
Takeaway: Designed for snowmobiling, heli-skiing and out-of-bounds riding, the Backcountry Access Float 12 Avalanche Airbag 2.0 pack adds an edge of avalanche protection while hauling your gear in comfort.
While they are beneficial and can greatly increase your odds of survival, these devices are not meant to be used as a magic tool and are not to be relied upon as the only line of defense.
Avalanche airbag cannot substitute extensive knowledge of wilderness survival, base personal safety, understanding of the terrain, snow and weather condition monitoring, or the help of your well-trained friends.
They are a tool that can be used in conjunction with everything else that you have at your disposal so it is important to not neglect everything else you can use to keep yourself safe.
If you are not sure about the equipment you should have with you, it is important to read up and take some training classes so you can make sure that you know what you should do to prepare and that you have all your needed supplies and gear on hand and ready in case of emergency.
An avalanche airbag is a valuable tool and is an important part of your safety and emergency gear so it is well worth your consideration and worth a second look.