Open main menu

Outdoor Retailer: Avalanche airbags


The chance to pull the cord on an avalanche airbag doesn't come along every day (one hopes it never happens). So, when Pierre from Snowpulse asked if I'd like to try on one of their ProRiders and deploy it, I jumped at the opportunity to set one off in a safe environment.



Filling a Snowpulse compressed air cartridge.

Pierre told me that when the Swiss company started three years ago only one other company (see ABS below) was making avalanche airbags. Snowpulse started working extensively with mountain guides to develop a lighter airbag-backpack combination than the original offerings.

In addition to acting like a life vest to keep your head up and out of the snow, Snowpulse airbags provide head, neck, and chest trauma protection (10-20% of avalanche deaths are due to trauma).

Snowpulse packs come in 10- to 45-liter sizes and the airbag is 150 liters. The company claims more interior space in their packs and better weight distribution for guides. The compressed air cartridges are refillable by the user at paintball and scuba shops (with the right equipment and know-how).

I'll note that it was morning four of Outdoor Retailer and the tank of compressed air was starting to run low, so my pack's cartridge was not as fully charged as it would be normally. A full charge would cause the ProRider to deploy in about three seconds. Still, it made an impression. The Snowpulse airbags retial for around



Backcountry Access

Next I visited Backcountry Access which introduced its first airbag, the Float 30, earlier this winter. The BCA rep told me, they can't even keep the Float in stock due to a huge response. They also offered me the same opportunity to try one out.


The Float 30 integrates a 150–liter airbag into a 30-liter pack. The total Float 30 system weighs 7.4 pounds (3,357 grams), while the Snowpulse Life Bag 30 weighs about 3,000 grams, for comparison. Like Snowpulse, the oxygen cartridge is refillable at paintball and scuba shops.

The Float's airbag was not as fully encompassing and supportive as the Snowpulse airbag, but is supposed to help protect the head, neck and upper body, while maintaining the user's peripheral vision and ability to escape the avalanche before it picks up speed. The Float retails for around $700.



Since 1985 ABS has been the original (and until recently the only) maker of avalanche airbags. Their airbags have a few key differences from those offered by Snowpulse and Backcountry Access.

The ABS airbag is actually a double airbag (total volume 170 liters). Two airbags attach to either side of the backpack. The company says the configuration allows a user to hold a horizontal and upwards moving position in an avalanche. The airbags are supposed to fully inflate in two to three seconds.

The most noteworthy feature from ABS is a remote activation option. In addition to the original activation handle, ABS offers the world's first wireless activation of an avalanche airbag, particularly useful for guided tours and other groups. The remove activation allows everybody in a group to active anybody else's airbag (including his or her own) within 300 meters, with each wireless handle acting as a relay station. All of ABS's airbags can be retrofitted with the new wireless activation.

ABS's line of Vario backpacks allow you to zip the airbag system onto different packs for versatility. ABS offers the choice of a steel (filled weight 515 grams) or carbon cartridge (filled weight 280 grams). Both are refillable with compressed gas [Argon or N² (nitrogen)] by ABS. If you're comparing weights, the 30-liter Escape weighs approximately 3.1 kg (6.8 lbs).


If you decide an avalanche airbag is for you (and you can find the one you want in stock), it will cost you around $600-$1,000, depending on the brand and model.


Somehow, these devices worry me more than locator beacons. "Gee, if I have one of these, then I can go into severe avalanche terrain and conditions, and I will just float to the top." I just get this vision of people feeling that they can go to more risky places and disregard serious avalanche hazards than they otherwise would.

Also looks like these could enable a whole new category of high-risk sport: avalanche riding.

Now if the use of helium could be implemented....oh the possibilities are endless.

Rick: I thought the same thing. First your helium-filled bag takes you to a proper altitude, then you BASE jump down.

And of course there would be the practical jokers who would cause prank items to inflate instead -- it'd be great fun to have a Godzilla inflate when the rip cord got pulled.

(OK, only serious and on-topic appraisals of these devices from here on in).

Sorry Tom, I was just letting loose a bit. Anywho. I agree someone out there is gonna use this for something other than its intended use(avalanche riding.) Its bound to happen(x-games.)

I am sure there are pros and cons to this design as there are with any. My biggest concern is the way the way it is close to the neck in the 1 photo.

If there was to be any pressure on either side of the bag it could possibly put pressure on the Carotid Artery cutting off blood flow to the brain. Which can cause a vast array of problems(brain damage, death) or restrict breathing(same outcome.) In either case it could quite possibly be more harmful than not wearing it at all. Just an observation from what I see.

The 2 models that are mounted to your back could leave ya face down under the white stuff that could be a problem as well(if the theory of rising to the top holds true.)

It may work well, it may not. I hope it does. It would make a great product and save many lives. I like the idea.

Regardless of what product hits the market I don't think there is anything out there that can take the place of common sense/proper training. Ive snowboarded for years all over the place and I can see the benefit of such an item.

Have these been tested in actual real life situations? I understand the theory but have a problem with the whole rising to the top logic. If it was in water? Yes, snow....I have substantial doubt.

ABS has been making these for decades. The company says:

Twenty-five years of experience and continuous development are the reasons that 98% of all avalanche victims, who activated their ABS avalanche airbag, have survived while 90% of this group were completely uninjured!*

* Source: Swiss Federal Institute for Snow Science and Avalanche Research Davos/Switzerland

There are numerous studies and reports about how and why the devices work. If anyone knows of independent studies done, please feel free to post them below. (Anecdotally, my avalanche course instructor confirmed they work and were a good choice for certain users.)

The companies that manufacture them clearly state that prevention is the best and most essential skill for avalanche safety and urge proper training first and foremost. So, I think everyone is in agreement about that standard advice.

As for injury risks, you don't pull the trigger on any airbag until/unless you're in an avalanche. And if you're in an avalanche you're facing immediate restricted breathing, trauma, and death. So, having an avalanche airbag device that makes you larger and more bouyant so you stay on top and not buried (or buried not as deeply) greatly increases your odds of surivival.

The Snowpulse airbag actually is designed to withstand head, neck, and chest injury, specifically neck injuries. ABS and BCA claim an element of protection too.

I suppose some idiot might try another use for one, but I'm not sure why. They're not cheap; you need to get the cartridge refilled after it's used; the pack is heavier than a regular pack. Even if someone does use one recklessly, that shouldn't negate their proper use by properly trained people; otherwise you could make that argument about any piece of gear.

While I'd be pretty happy to have one on if I found myself in an avalanche, I can't imagine skiing around with a deployed one on just for fun either. I'm not a candidate for one at this time, but I can see where it is an appealing piece of extra safety gear for certain backcountry skiers and riders.

Hey Alicia, can you enlighten me on what you mean by certain users? I also have a problem with its protection from the design.

I can possibly see it the benefit of it keeping you afloat but it is the benefit of protection/ trama that I question.

1- from the design the abdominal area is exposed. No need to go into the vital organ aspect of this but being that the majority of this area is soft tissue wouldn't it make sense that this area and the rib cage be protected?(if ya puncture a lung from a broken rib you don't have to worry about breathing much.)

2-the 2 models that are more on the back... what would they protect other than your spinal cord to an extent and your shoulder blades? I just don't see it, but maybe I am missing something.

For the cost I don't know if I could justify purchasing 1. I think after a lil more fine tuning it would be great. Like I said I just don't see it at the moment but I am open to it.

I dunno. I also don't have alot of trust in manufacturers. Companies will tell ya it rains from the ground up if they can make $ from it.

The whole "safety devices encourage unsafe behavior" is a fascinating phenomenon. Take football: clearly players inflict far more powerful hits because of padding and helmets than they ever would without it -- the result today being that many pros have serious long-term brain damage. Some people have argued for a return to bare-knuckle boxing for much the same reason.

Of course one logical extension of this logic says seatbelts and airbags encourage drivers to take unwarranted risks, but we know seatbelts and airbags save thousands of lives.

I would hope there is little chance of "avalanche surfing" becoming a real sport. Most seemingly high-risk activities are not very high-risk at all if all the life-threatening risks are sufficiently reduced. Given that the behavior of an avalanche is so impossible to predict, a person could not do it with a reasonable expectation of survival.

Very good point Tom. Funny ya mention football. I quit being a fan just because of how the game is played. Ditka said take off the face masks. I agree. Thats a whole other subject though.

If they develop an inflatable sumo suit(full body protection) that has full face protection and bottled O2 email me. I will be the 1st inline to do it....maybe.

Hey Alicia, can you enlighten me on what you mean by certain users?

Poor and unclear choice of words on my part, Rick. As you also noted, I don't ski in backcountry avalanche terrain enough to justify such an expenditure. If I was a very regular backcountry skier it might be different. Even though I should be using good judgment to avoid avalanche conditions, we all know that you can make good choices and get bad results and make bad choices and get good results (i.e. people who get away with it over and over).

So, personally, if I went out very frequently in that type of terrain (say I was a guide), even if I was the exceptional (and unreal) human being who only made good choices, I'd consider having one anyway, because there is always some risk.

I'm not personally getting an avalanche airbag or saying anyone and everyone should either. But, I think, like most proven gear, it has an application for certain individuals, though not the majority of skiers and riders, in my opinion. Just because something exists, does not mean it is the right gear for you, even if it is for someone else. For a ski guide though? Worth some consideration.

As for the injuries, of course you can come up with an injury it wouldn't prevent, but they're designed to prevent, or attempt to prevent, the most common types of injuries in those conditions for survival. Nothing can prevent everything (even staying home). In avalanches you do not want to get buried. If you are buried you want to be unburied in a matter of minutes. Hence certain safety gear. The ABS system has been around for more than 25 years, with improvements along the way.

They have a number of expert reviews from groups like the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research and the International Commission for Mountain Emergency Medicine. Yeah, I know that's on their site and it would be better to have some independent sources, but I have yet to see a report (and I've been looking) that shows that if you're in an avalanche you're better off without an airbag on (though if anyone knows of a report, please tell us).

From ABS's FAQ:

Have skiers already been saved with the ABS?
Since 1990, the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in Davos has been documenting those accidents involving the use of ABS avalanche backpacks. Of the 106 documented cases with inflated airbag use 105 people survived. One person was buried by a subsequent avalanche, a situation the avalanche airbag is not equiped for. 90% of the 105 people were not at all or only partially buried. About 10% were completely buried, meaning their head was submerged. However, these 10% were so close to the surface that at least the airbag was visible. They could be quickly located and rescued.

Tom, while one can't predict avalanches with certainty, there are a number of clues you can use to judge whether or not there is a danger. It requires some education, but also some level-headed judgment.

Anyway, like most things discussed around here, it comes down to personal choices, as well as safety and common sense.

I'll close by saying two things. First, anyone who goes out in avalanche terrain should take an avalanche safety course.

And second, even if some experts think wearing a helmet makes skiers riskier, I'm going to keep wearing mine.

RE the "over the back" model: I, too, thought this looked like it would put the skier face-down in the snow, but it occurred to me that loose falling snow probably flows much like water, and the airbag adds buoyancy that keeps you very near the top of the flow. Also, we assume that the avalanche would hit the skier from behind and cause a face-plant, when in reality (I suspect), you'd get tossed ever which way, same as if you were in the water, so you might have just as much chance of landing face-up as face-down.

If I were a big-time backcountry skier, I'd be very tempted to get one because experience has proved time and again that you can do everything right and still perish from the unforseen.

Think of them as flotation device or life vest for the snow. Just as a lifejacket keeps your head out of and above the water, the avalanche airbag is designed to keep your head on top and out of the snow, with you on your back.

Also, anyone who's used one should write a review.

I understand. Thanks for the responses. Like I said I think the idea is great just not very sure the design has been optimized to its full potential... Then again what has? There is room for improvement with anything right(leaves room for the expansion of the product line, lol.) I also wondered what backlash the extra weight of the system itself would produce. What item or items would one have to sacrifice to compensate for the difference in weight as opposed to what one normally carries. I am in total support of helmets at least for me. I like to play on rocks and occasionally float off a ledge. My brain-bucket has saved me a few times(especially in Colorado.) I look forward to anymore info on this product. I am pretty interested in it. Thanks Tom & Alicia....

The SnowPulse would be my 1st choice.

The BCA Float needs more volume.

The Austrian ABS original is OK and has the best volume, plus it protects your spine.


Avy I course (minimum), check

Avalung, check

probe, check

snow study kit, saw & inclinometer , check

shovel, check

beacon, check

and now... air bag!

Safety is gettin' heavier each decade.

But hey, it beats the alternative.


This post has been locked and is not accepting new comments