How to Buy Airbag Packs: Stay on top this winter
Airbag systems are based on the simple principle of inverse segregation: a flow of particles under gravity (an avalanche) will deposit larger particles on top and smaller particles on the bottom. Going through an avalanche is like shaking a can of nuts in that the big ones always end up on top. If you’re caught in an avalanche, you want to be the biggest nut you can be. It’s science.
Design, Trigger & Propellant
Airbag systems essentially consist of three pieces: a trigger handle on the shoulder strap, a container of compressed air or nitrogen and the airbag or airbags tucked inside your backpack underneath a Velcro opening or breakaway zipper.
They are available in two prevalent designs—a single chamber bag that inflates behind or around the head and two separate airbags that flank the backside, making you look like an extremely safe hot dog. Most airbags have a 150-170 liter capacity. The airbag around the head is good for trauma protection while the redundancy of twin bags means that if one fails, you still have the other. Some critics argue that one, half-size airbag wouldn’t be enough but it’s certainly better than nothing. The positioning of the dual bag system is also more centered on your back, giving you a horizontal swimming position on the surface of the avalanche.
When it comes to propellant, compressed air systems, such as BCA’s, score points in the cost and convenience category as the cylinder uses a valve that can be filled at most SCUBA or paintball shops for a minimal price. Nitrogen cartridges, such as the ones used by ABS, employ a small pyrotechnic charge to pierce the canister and must be returned to ABS along with the spent handle for refilling. In the US, turnaround time is three days at the minimum and $40 plus shipping. The upside to a nitrogen system is that it can be used under very high pressure (4500 PSI vs. 3000 PSI) for quicker inflation.
Air travel with an airbag is a bit of a hassle but can be done with proper planning. Outside the US, the IATA (International Air Travel Association) states that you can travel with an airbag system as long as it is dismantled and can’t be accidentally activated. Within the US, all cylinders and cartridges must be emptied, with the head unscrewed for inspection purposes. In addition, only spent pyrotechnic trigger handles, such as the ones used in ABS packs, are allowed through security. This means you’ll want to plan out where you can either fill, rent or exchange cylinders at your destination. Always contact your airline at least two weeks prior to travel to make arrangements and remember to download pertinent documents from the manufacturer’s website to be included with your hardware.
It’s exciting to see airbags gain traction among skiers, and while the price tags are a little high, they are declining as additional companies get in the game. If you haven’t yet done it, go out and try a few packs on to see how they feel. They will add a few pounds to your setup, but most people find them to be lighter than expected, and the added weight is well worth the extra safety. Just be careful not to develop a false sense of security. Airbags are not a license to be reckless in the backcountry and are certainly no replacement for the beacon, shovel, probe trifecta. In the end, education and smart decision-making is what will keep you safe.