As always, we’re getting excellent support from the ski touring airbag industry. Lots of samps kicking around WildSnow HQ. Here is something for you balloon wonks. We’ll keep this updated as new product comes our way (e.g., we didn’t cover ABS yet). We’ll also do a few first-looks at the packs, but frankly, I’m more motivated to do “real” reviews provided by myself and our esteemed cadre of guest bloggers.
In terms of shopping recommendations, you now have a clear division between the electronic and gas operated rucksacks. As it stands, fan packs are heavier and costly, but much easier to practice and travel with. Gas packs are efficient and what we tend to use simply because they’re lighter. But due to annoying inconsistencies and vagueness in airline regulations regarding gas cylinders, I would generally not attempt to fly with a filled cylinder. Instead, I’d arrange to obtain or fill at destination — or use an electronic pack. I’m not that worried that a cylinder could be confiscated (and sometimes flying with filled cylinders does work out), of more concern is additional hassles and delays when flying these days is already fraught with such problems. Life with United Hairlines is already hard enough.
Essentially, the compressed gas you carry with your airbag is a “power system” that not only directly inflates the balloon, but also provides energy that sucks ambient air into the bag via a valve system (usually a “venturi”). Thus, it could be said that the gas is a form of “battery” though it’s not electrical. With that in mind, for the purpose of mentation I included battery weights for Black Diamond and Arcteryx.
Bear in mind that weights for filled cylinders will vary by a few grams due to variations in final gas fill pressure, more, we usually weigh without protective caps that can be as heavy as 8 grams, but weights you obtain elsewhere may include the caps. Thus, when comparing filled cylinder weights always consider the big picture and don’t obsess on a few grams either way.
A word on terminology: While you could call these “tanks,” doing so implies larger quantities of highly compressed gas. Or, perhaps call them “cartridges?” But that alludes to firearms. “Canister” works as well, but is it a beer can? Terminology can lead to overwrought concerns about safety; especially regarding air travel. Overheard at TSA baggage check: “I knew I had a cartridge in my luggage, but ignore the gunpowder residue on my hands, I was at the firing range yesterday, and the “cartridge” in my baggage doesn’t have anything to do with my hands…” Thus,in our opinion the term “cylinder” is best — less threatening.
Regarding the fan packs, Black Diamond appears to be ok with enough reserve power for about 4 inflations, while Arcteryx felt they needed a much bigger battery that can go 14 rounds or more (both at room temperature). Main idea here is these batteries have less available power as they get colder, so you need the reserve to make sure you get one good inflation if you happen to be skiing Vinson at 30 below zero fahrenheit. Such a huge discrepancy in the two designs causes one to wonder. Stranger still, with a lighter battery the BD pack has only slightly less mass than the Arcteryx (see spreadsheet below)! Are we still in the sophomore stage with electronic airbag design engineering? Such things indicate we probably are.
Now, before everyone gets their balloons in a bunch, yes indeed, how much the airbag and associated plumbing-mechanicals weigh is of course just as important as the cylinders and batteries. Everything goes together. Weighing those components is somewhat tricky as some do not easily divorce from the backpack, but we’ll work on it. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy this overview of what is what in energy storage.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.