Shop for airbag backpacks — after you memorize below.
Yes, it’s summer time and the ski’en is, well, more about shopping for most WildSnowers. While the new Scott capacitor based airbag backpack might be worth the wait until this fall when it begins retailing (provided you’re an early adopter), deals can be had on existing product. A few things to think about regarding use and shopping.
— In the case of buying pre owned electronic packs, they may have been inflated numerous times. While the high speed “fans” used by these rucksacks are amazingly durable considering how minimalist they are, lifespan is finite. If you’re looking to buy a used electric pack, get some idea of how much it’s been cycled. For example, we have both an Arcteryx and a Scott electronic, both were media demos. While I’m ok with using these and lending them out, they’ll eventually go back to the company of origin for disposal as I wouldn’t want them out in the wild forever.
— Most likely, your airbag shopping is looking at a compressed gas rig. As doing multiple cycles with these involves a recharged or new gas cylinder for each round, issues of heavy multiple use would normally not be a concern when buying a pre owned. The trigger mechanism would be where you’d want to direct your attention. Be sure to dry fire if possible, and at some point do a full inflation with a charged gas cylinder. In the case of any used airbag backpack, you’d of course inspect the balloon for damage as well as being sure the pack itself wasn’t missing essentials such as the leg strap.
— If you’re a first timer for an airbag ruck, be realistic about the smaller cargo volume and additional weight due to the airbag components, both being tradeoffs. I’ve spoken with a number of people who spent money on an airbag rig and ended up with too small a pack, or weight that exceeded what they’re comfortable with.
— Likewise, be realistic about how much you expect in added safety. Airbag backpacks do save lives, but the likelihood of this applying to you specifically does vary. For example, if you’re careful about skiing moderate terrain with reliable snowpack conditions, lugging around a thousand dollar backpack could be much less important than simple safety considerations such as good communication options and competent partners.
— And third point about “need,” avoid the myth of snow avalanches being floaty rides in a puffy cloud of powder crystals. Balloon or not, any slide larger than small is going to hurt you, avoidance is key — protective gear is a horribly last resort.
— Yes, the zipper that opens up for the inflating balloon is called the “birthing zipper.” The birthing zipper may appear to be missing teeth or have odd looking teeth in one area, that’s as intended and is where the birthing begins.
— Do not hesitate. For one reason or another, a significant percentage of people who should pull their airbag trigger do not do so. If you have the slightest perception you may be involved in an avalanche, pull. A slide may soon become so violent you can not grab the trigger handle. Likewise, it’s important to know an airbag does not guarantee 100% protection from avalanche injury or death. In some situations it’s clearly ineffective enough to be useless, for example if you are swept through dense trees.
— Corollary to above is the electronic packs all have multiple inflations per battery charge, thus lessening concerns about using up your one chance at a deployment if you do choose to yank.
— The lightest packs are at this time the compressed gas powered type, using carbon tank-cylinders available in Europe.
— The most affordable packs are most often the Backcountry Access Float flavors.
— In my opinion the future of airbag backpacks is in the electronic “fan” versions, but compressed gas models using well designed plumbing and downsized cylinders (don’t call them “tanks”) remain viable for now.
— All airbag backpacks have a leg (crotch) strap, if you don’t use this you can die from strangulation as the pack with inflated balloon will tend to move above your head, pulling the sternum strap up under your chin — or entirely separating the backpack from your torso. So, use the strap. Always. All the time.
— Airbag backpacks are similar to beacons in that they should be “armed” 100% of the time you are in avalanche terrain. Playing a mental game of when to arm it and when not to is silly tomfoolery — similar to bicycle riders with their helmet dangling from their handlebars.
— The airbag backpack industry tends to compete on weight, price and pack features, performance is dictated by strict European Union directives that cause all packs to operate virtually the same in terms of what they’ll do for you in an avalanche. Base shopping choices on weight, volume, comfort and things of that nature. This leading to following thoughts.
— One pack, the Black Diamond Jetforce, has a timed deflation cycle powered by its electric fan. Some hopeful individuals are of the opinion that this could save lives by creating an air space for buried avalanche victims. This theory is entirely untested and unsubstantiated, and is most definitely a peripheral issue to a device that’s supposed to keep you from getting buried in the first place. Nonetheless, it’s a viable theory and perhaps something to consider if you need a deal breaker when choosing between two packs.
Some of our esteemed WildSnow readers have extensive experience with airbag backpacks. Please comment, your insights are gold.
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.