How to Choose the Best Avalanche Airbag

If you are a skier, snowboarder, or climber, the risk of getting caught in an avalanche is always a concern. These deadly forces of nature can prove to be fatal for anyone caught in them. If you are hoping to improve your chances of survival, then you are going to need an avalanche airbag.

Picture Brand Rating
Picture Brand Rating
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Now, you may not be all that familiar with this type of packs so we decided to create an article just for you. Here you will find everything you need to know about avalanche airbags, including how to choose one for yourself.

A Comprehensive Guide to Avalanche Airbags (Buyers Guide)

Avalanches are actually a lot more deadly than many people think. In fact, it is estimated that around 150 people are victims of this natural disaster every year. Avalanches have a number of causes and triggers which can make it a little difficult to predict when they are going to occur. For the longest time, skiers, snowboarders, and climbers didn’t have any protection from these colossal forces of nature. More recently, however, there have been proven ways to help you survive such a disaster – an avalanche airbag. Here, we look at the mechanisms behind the functioning of this type of pack and how to choose one for yourself:

Why Do You Need an Avalanche Airbag?

As mentioned, avalanches have a rather high casualty rate. The most common reasons for these fatalities are suffocation due to being buried under the snow and trauma from being thrown around. Avalanche airbags aim to address the issue of being asphyxiated by a pile of snow.

These bags work of the principle of inverse segregation which is also referred to as the Brazilian Nut effect. This theory states that in a situation such as an avalanche, the bigger particles will rise to the top while the small particles settle on the bottom. The bigger particles make their way upwards since they have a greater volume.

In an avalanche, there are snow granules of varying sizes. Therefore, by having the greatest volume possible, you have a better chance of finding yourself at the top of the pile, when the avalanche finally stops. This is precisely what deploying an avalanche airbag does for you. It helps to increase your volume, thus making you a big particle and pushing you to the top. Since you will find yourself closer to the surface, you are less likely to suffocate from being buried under a ton of snow.

Of course, the question that you are most interested in is whether or not these airbags are actually effective at protecting you in an avalanche. The answer is actually a resounding yes. It is estimated that up to 89 percent of the people wearing an avalanche airbag will be able to survive a natural disaster.

Types of Avalanche Airbags

Avalanche airbags can be categorized by the air system that they use. While some options have common designs, some airbags are specific to their manufacturer. They can be differentiated accordingly:

Integrated Airbag

With this type of pack, the airbag is integrated into the backpack. This means that the bag, the harness, and the airbag are all dependent on each other. In doing so, the pack compartment volume is predetermined and cannot be increased or decreased.

Removable Airbag

As the name suggests, the airbag can be removed from this type of pack. The accompany hose and inflation system can be detached as well. This means that you can use the pack by itself, without the airbag. This pack also gives you the ability to remove the airbag and its associated components and add it to another compatible pack.

Best Avalanche Airbags

Number of Airbags

You can choose the number of airbags that you want to be deployed when you activate your pack. You have the option of a mono bag system or a dual bag system. Each of the packs have their own advantages and benefits during an avalanche.

In a mono bag system, the airbag will either deploy from the top of the pack or from the shoulder straps. This has the advantage of protecting the back of your head as well as making sure that you remain in an upright position. Also, if you are buried during an avalanche, this type of system will create a small air pocket for you.

With a dual bag system, the airbag is deployed from the sides. As a result, it will ensure that you are kept on the surface of the snow and in as flat a position as possible. In this scenario, you are provided with a much better field of vision. Also, if one of the airbags do happen to fail, you can rest easy knowing that there is another one that will prevent you from being completely buried.

Types of Activation

There are two main mechanisms for inflating your airbag. You can either decide on a canister or cartridge activation or you can opt for an electric fan activation:

Cartridge and Canister

The canisters and cartridges hold pressurized air between 2700 and 3000 psi. This pressurized air is used to inflate the airbags when they are deployed. The containers are cylindrical and are often made from either metal or carbon fiber. Now, there are two types of canisters – refillable and non-refillable.

The refillable cartridges contain compressed air which has one main benefit – ease. These canisters can be refilled at most ski and scuba stores, making it easier for individuals who travel. Not to mention, many airlines insist that you travel with empty canisters so you will need to fill them up when you arrive at your destination.

The non-refillable cartridges are quite specific to the manufacturer. Due to this, they cannot be replaced all that easily. These canisters tend to be more expensive and aren’t readily available. The advantage of these cartridges, however, is that they contain compressed nitrogen. This type of compressed gas is much more suitable for colder temperatures and can also help to save space.

Electric Fan Packs

The electric fan packs rely on a fan that is powered by a rechargeable battery. The fan is quite high powered and uses this action to inflate the airbags. This makes canisters and cartridges redundant. The plus point with this mechanism is that you can reuse the same pack numerous times with a single charge. There is also less hassle involved in traveling, particularly via airplane.

Choosing Your Pack Size

There are a few pack sizes to choose from when deciding on avalanche airbags. Due to the design of the airbag, these packs tend to stay are often medium-sized to large packs. Here is how to make your decision:

  • 15 – 20 liters: this is a good size for heli and cat skiers and snowboarders. This is because it is the perfect balance between size and capacity. This type of pack will allow you to carry the bare minimum but this is fine since you will not need much more space in this type of situation.
  • 20 – 30 liters: this is an ideal capacity for anyone who is going backcountry touring. Since these type of skiers or snowboarders are often out for the entire day, a pack of this size will let them carry everything that they need. Unless you are really cutting down on weight, it is unwise to look for a pack smaller than this.
  • 30 – 40 liters: a pack of this size is a good fit for anyone planning a multiday trip. As you will need to carry more supplies and a greater amount of equipment, a pack of this size will allow you to accommodate all of these needs.

Deciding the Right Fit for You

An avalanche airbag will only truly be useful to you if it fits you properly. Most importantly, the bag must fit you around the torso properly. The first, of course, is the volume and the size of your pack. This needs to be in proportion with your torso length and your body size. You need to make sure that the shoulders straps are adjustable enough for your particular height. When deployed, the airbags should sit in a position around your torso to provide you with the greatest amount of protection.

The chest strap should sit a little below your clavicle so that it comfortably fits around your chest and will prevent the pack from moving around. The hip belt is also quite important in helping distribute the weight of the bag properly. If you are wearing a small airbag and aren’t carrying a lot of weight the hip belt doesn’t need to be padded. However, if you are planning on carrying a greater load, a padded hip belt will prove to be more comfortable. Also, this belt should rest just above your hip bones for maximum impact.

Many avalanche airbags have an additional feature – a strap that goes between your legs. This is what creates a harness and makes sure that the bag doesn’t fly off during an avalanche. It is important to check that these straps are appropriate to your height. You should also double check the straps once you have added weights to the backpack.

Testing the Avalanche Airbag

Wearing your avalanche airbag alone is no guarantee that you will survive an avalanche. You should be well versed on how to deploy the bag at precisely the right moment. This is what will really help to save your life. This is why you should make it a habit of getting used to the activation mechanism of your pack before you actually hit the slopes. In the event of a disaster, you will rely on muscle memory to react instantaneously.

Even if you don’t ski frequently, you should make it a point of checking the state of the airbag at least once a year, particularly before a ski trip. This is to make sure that everything is still in working order and will respond efficiently in a disaster.

This is what you need to know about avalanche airbags and how to decide on a model that is right for you. Remember, with these type of packs, you are equipping yourself with something that could potentially save your life.


Last updated on November 14, 2017

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