On days like this in particular, avalanche backpacks with air bag systems are an investment in your own safety. We’ve taken a look at what’s around on the market right now.
Avalanche backpacks with airbag systems have been part of the standard equipment for ski touring and freeriding for some years now. They’re not a magic bullet, of course: they don’t replace an avalanche victim search device, a probe, a helmet or a shovel. Because even if you have an airbag around you, you’re still stuck in an avalanche and have to be found, first of all, and then dug out. But apart from that, avalanche backpacks increase the chance of not being buried so deeply, or maybe even staying partly on the surface, so you can be found more quickly or in rare cases even free yourself. This is because, technically speaking, the airbag creates a cushion of air around the skier, so if they end up in an avalanche, it can hold them up further, a bit like armbands in the swimming pool (but it might not be the case).
This is a challenge in general, and so over the past few years different manufacturers have developed different systems for how the airbags should be inflated (most work with gas cartridges), or how they should be released (directly on the body or with a remote release for whole groups of skiers). The market leader here is the ABS system, which is used by ABS itself and also by Ortovox, Dakine or Vaude under licence. Scott and Mammut, on the other hand, have developed systems which are very light and where you can take out the airbags from the backpack completely if you’re not going on a ski tour for once and still want to use a good rucksack. Some backpacks can be released more than once, which is useful with multiple avalanche waves. A few air bags use batteries rather than gas cartridges, with a system called Jetforce. This does make the backpack heavier, but it’s also cheaper to operate – because even if a gas cartridge is only used for test purposes, it still ends up empty and has to be renewed, which can can cost up to 140 euros from some suppliers. The BCA Float avalanche backpack, on the other hand, is very light and based on cartridges which the user can refill themselves, the disadvantage being that the head and neck protection is very limited.