Open main menu

Airbags for avalanche really work

Here is a video of one of the airbags that were introduced at the OR Show a few years back in an actual avalanche. Several companies make them (the one in the video looks to be a BCA), in several different configurations. I have seen them being inflated in demos at the OR Show. However, my personal preference is to not go into avalanche terrain in the first place. But I suppose if I were to go into the back country and got caught in a sudden storm, I would want one for a bit of backup so I wouldn't have to stay too long in the backcountry before exiting.

I've seen these for a few years. As far as I'm concerned, they should be mandatory for anyone skiing, snowboarding, or snowmobiling in the backcountry where there is a risk of avalanches. - Just like life jackets are mandatory when boating. Anyone who's died in an avalanche since these were invented, probably wouldn't have died if they'd had an airbag on them. And since most of the airbag systems are part of a decent sized pack, then there's no reason for anyone to feel "put out" by having to carry "extra" gear. IMHO.


this is most definitly not my area of expertise or even any kind of experience or knowledge but, wasnt there somebody just recently in the news that was saved by one of these packs? I seem to remember them saying it was the cost of the airbag that stopped most people from buying them. I think they said about $800. I could be wrong about that.

Would make sense to me to have one no matter the cost if your going to be playing in avalanche territory.

Here's the raw footage without the annoying announcer.

Here is a more up close and personal video.  The guy who got caught in this avalanche was wearing a helmet cam.   

Some where on youtube is a different video containing footage from people on top of the hill watching and the skier's helmet cam.   The interesting thing about it was you saw the guy get completely buried then saw the orange airbag rise to the top. 

This is a different device by Black Diamond called the AVALung. I could see this being integrated into an air bag pack.


This has potential as a lifesaver for those who find themselves in bad conditions.

However, I also think that it will increase risk taking by some people because of the perceived safety net.

That's awesome.  I suppose having an Avalung wouldn't hurt either, just in case.

Here I go again as the skeptic.

Backgound:  Avid backcountry skier for over forty years.  Guts and common sense used to define my limits, while declining physical ability now factors in with advancing age.  I know of three people who perished in avalanches.  All three were not in conditions that would compel one to feel in jeopardy and deploy such safety gear.  Two died of traumatic injuries sustained while being swept away.  I know of others who also were swept by avalanches, and survived unharmed, most of which occurred under questionable conditions (read they had no business being there).

Safe mountaineering is a trade off in speed afforded by packing light, bringing along equipment that facilitates coping with contingencies, and strategies that minimize exposure to objective risks.  (Avalanches are considered an objective risk.)  The question beckons, which is safer: traversing a risky slope quickly, lacking such gear; or plodding at a slower pace, leaden down with all manner of contingency gear: a big first aid kit, floatation devices, EPIRBs, life boats, fire arms, MREs and all manner of survival gear.  At some point too much safety gear actually becomes a liability.  Do note all of the examples shown in the videos on this thread were small avalanches.  What if these dudes got caught in slides with cornice chunks the size of a small bus, or included mixed debris of trees and boulders?  What if they were swept over a precipice or dashed upon a rampart?  My money is on quick passage through a shooting gallery with such potential fire power, versus relying on air bags and snorkels to snatch one from the jaws of danger.  As Bill alludes, proper route finding and wisdom mitigates most avalanche danger.  Note all of the videos shown in this forum thread feature skiers on slopes one should not ski down in the back country, except under the best of conditions.  In any case these crash test dummies should have reduced their exposure by keeping close to the perimeters of the slopes instead of skiing down the middle of every snow field.  Late afternoon bombing down a high aspect slope following a fresh dusting of powder fails to meet any safety criteria.

The floatation pillow seems to have some merit, but I think it is more suited for heli skiing than for winter trekking.  The avalung is a nice concept, but my research on the device identifies several flaws in the concept.  In order for the avalung to work you must have the mouth piece in place.  This does not seem like a tall order until you take into consideration the skier is not inclined to ski with the mouth piece inserted, no more so than a hiker is likely to walk around with the sippy tube of his camelback permanently inserted into his mouth.  Once an avalanche starts he will be preoccupied trying to keep his wits on task and body above snow.  The last thing he’ll consider is taking time to insert the snorkel into his pie hole.  Even if his chose to go around “scuba style” on the slope, there is a good chance the snorkel will get spit or pulled out as the ride gets physical.  Anyone who has fallen on a double black diamond slope or got thrown off a cycle at speed can attest attending to what your mouth is doing in the midst of such chaos is unlikely.  And once the tumbling stops it will become impossible to insert the tube as the snow instantly sets up like concrete, freezing you immobile, in place.   Thus I conclude the floatation pillow is good for downhill front country ski activities, but not worth the weight on back country wilderness ski trips.  And the avalung?  It is nice in theory, but like the Swiss Army Knife with knife, fork, and spoon all on the same handle, it is a flawed concept of little practical use.  But it makes for a good conversation piece among gadget freaks.


I agree with Ed that gear should never replace skills and that reliance on gear might actually increase incidents.  Still though, at what point is gear too much?  Someone years ago might have said that plastic boots ruined the sport or that helicopters did it or that skins on skis make it too easy etc. etc.  If you can afford a $500 avalung/airbag equipped pack (or rent one) more power to you.  Most avy death seem to be from suffocation so its deffinately a lifesaver, barring the bus-sized cornice chunk you mentioned.


My gear answer is always: if you want to buy and carry it, who am I to argue?




Actually, most avalanche deaths are from trauma - hitting trees or rocks during the slide. A few years ago, a skier on one of my favorite day tours (Castle Valley out to Peter Grubb Hut) triggered an avalanche by skiing over a cornice on the ridge leading from Castle Pass up to Castle Peak. His buddy couldn't locate him, and the rescue team searched for two days before locating his body, only a hundred feet below the ridge, wrapped around a tree. The coroner's report was that the impact with the tree was the immediate cause of death.

On one of my climbing trips to Chamonix, I took a shortcut back from the Plan d'Aiguille on what had been an easy trail a few years earlier. But the previous winter, there had been a big avalanche, which knocked down hundred-year-old trees, turning the "easy" trail into a difficult series of climbing over tree trunks - anyone caught in that avalanche would have been churned into hamburger.

Skins for skis have been around apparently since the time of Ullr (the legendary Scandinavian "First Skier" and God of the Snow). Archaeologists have found primitive skis with attached skins dating back a couple thousand years. Sealskins were in common use in the 19th century (Snowshoe Thompson used them on his huge ski/snowshoes to deliver mail in the mid-19th century in the Sierra Nevada).

When I first started skiing, there was still a debate about whether mohair was better or worse than seal skins. Even into the 1970s, some backcountry skiers swore by their genuine seal skins, but then the photos of the baby seals being slaughtered put a stop to that.

This 21 year study lists 75% of avy deaths as asphyxia.

Just sayin.


I checked several sources of statistics and find a disagreement among studies, with the range being almost inverse. The one you link says 75% suffocation, 24% blunt trauma, though this one partly differs from the one you linked. A Montana and a Colorado study give almost the reverse, while another gave 56% trauma, 40% suffocation. Hypothermia accounts for a much smaller percentage in all the studies I looked at.

One thing all the studies I looked at agree on was that the vast majority (more than 89% in all the studies) were men ages 20-29, and 3/4 or more were experienced backcountry recreationists. As Hans Solo said to Luke, "Don't get cocky!"

One thing to note, though, is that the majority of avalanches occur on surprisingly shallow slopes, with the median being 38deg. This happens to be close to the typical "diamond" slope. Steeper slopes tend to slough off the snow when it is falling, though a steep slope may be topped by large cornices and/or have wind slab built up (contrary to what you might think, wind slab builds on the lee side of the hill - the blowing snow gets dropped on the lee side after having been carried over the windward side).

Bottom line is stay out of avalanche terrain.

the footage of those avalanches give me the chills.

a bunch of good basic information about avalanches from the National Snow & Ice Data Center:  This underscores what a number of us already said, that education and awareness are the first and best way to deal with avalanche risk.  take a class and start learning what to look for. 

The 21 year BC study seems to say that asphyxia is still the greatest risk, but that trauma may be a more significant risk than some studies suggest.  that is how i read it, anyway.  a study by the University of Utah's division of emergency medicine concluded that 87% of the avalanche fatalities they see are caused by asphyxiation.  a study conducted in Austria drew similar conclusions.


Arguing over the cause of death among avalanche victims may be futile, since such debate seems to imply generalizations are possible, but there is no typical avalanche or typical terrain, thus no typical cause of death.  That X percent die of trauma or Y percent of other causes is probably more indicative of the snow enthusiast’s predisposition to travel through certain terrain.  For example the statistics probably would skew if the typical sportsman was drawn to steep, craggy, narrow, couloirs, versus wide open powder bowls or expansive meadows.  Likewise the risks inherent in avalanches below tree line are different than those higher up.  Since these studies do not break events down into such categories they are of little use to the individual attempting to judge if this type of gear will add to their safety.  Even if they did report fatalities by event characteristics, the sample size of avalanche victims in such studies probably is too small to draw statistically significant conclusions broken out into these categories.

In any case I don’t think this debate revolves around purity of the sport, or what gear one can afford to purchase.  Simply, we posit does such gear contribute to safety, or is it just additional baggage that slows you down?  As I mentioned earlier, I would prefer to leave this type of gear behind as I like to get my travel through slide terrain over with before noon, and avoid the risk posed by a sun soften snow pack.  This means I need to move with some speed if I wish to get anywhere.  Sometimes we’ll even strategically cut a day’s travel short (or extend it) in order to place us in position to get a section of potentially hazardous trekking out of the way at first light of the next day, while the snow pack is still frozen solid and least likely to heave.  In any case, if I though I was in the path of a slide the first thing I would do is jettison my pack so I could add speed to my attempt to flank the slide before it overruns me.  So much for the flotation pillow.  (And another reason why your survival kit should be worn on your person, not in your pack.) 


Over here I see a lot of off piste/sidecountry skiers using back protectors and sometimes full face helmets, including my daughters boyfriend who does flips and cliff drops on tele skis -- but I don't think he has a pillow or Avalung. I think all this kind of stuff is for people who are pushing the risk limit. After all, the best deep powder skiing is on 30 degree plus slopes... If I was doing that kind of thing regularly  I would definitely be looking at all that kind of gear. But as Ed argues, it all gets less practical the longer and more human-powered you get. I don't see people using that kind of hardware on backcountry peaks and multiday tours. But experienced skiers always have a shovel, beeper, and avalanche probe, and hopefully some avalanche knowledge/training/awareness. Gear is no substitute for brains.

BigRed said:

Over here I see a lot of off piste/sidecountry skiers using back protectors...

What is a back protector?

..experienced skiers always have a shovel, beeper, and avalanche probe...

Snow probes (usually ski or trekking poles), a snow saw, magnifying glass, snow card, weather station radio, and blue foam pad are good additions to this list.


Here's one, with sort of a mutant ninja turtle look. I guess they're supposed to prevent your spine from bending the wrong way. In looking for a link I saw one comment on a discussion group that they may not work as advertised, and to some extent here in affluent Scandinavia some people may get them because they can afford them and want the latest and best of EVERYTHING. But there they are. Obviously not something you want to wear or even carry while skinning up, never mind on longer tours.

Speaking of which, a guy that works here at NTNU was out night skiing at the local liftserv about a month ago, went off into the shadows to cop some powder, and didn't see the ditch until it was too late. Broke two skis and a vertebra, but had the good sense (or maybe no choice) to lie still until help arrived, so his spinal cord was OK and he was walking, with a couple of pins in his back, in a few days. Maybe a back protector would have prevented injury in his case, but I don't really know.

March 6, 2021
Quick Reply

Please sign in to reply