The Best Avalanche Airbag Pack Review
What is the best airbag pack for backcountry travel? We tested 16 of the best and most popular models on the market and compared them in the following categories: airbag system, comfort, backcountry utility, downhill performance, special features and weight. We flogged these packs side-by-side in the field and in our lab, researched current statistics, read tons of user reviews and polled guides on their experience. Also see our Avalanche Beacon Review. If you need an airbag because you travel in avalanche terrain, you also need to carry a beacon. Avalanche airbag packs are NOT A SUBSTITUTE for a beacon. There are too many stories of people getting buried with an airbag pack on; either due to the size of the avalanche, the shape of the terrain, or failure to deploy due to human or mechanical error (which is a surprising 20 percent of the time).
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Packs For Specific Applications
Best for Multi-Day and Hut-to-Hut Trips:
Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce
The Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce BCA Float 42 Tech and Ortovox Tour 32+7. We do still like these packs and the Mammut Light Protection for overnight tours, they just didn't quite score as high.
Best for Short Users: Mammut Ride Short Removable
The Mammut Ride Short RAS 28 Mammut Pro Short Protection should also be considered. It stands a chance to be our Top Pick for shorter users but we haven't gotten the chance to try one out yet.
Best for Day Touring
Don't want to throw down on $1450 on our BCA Float 27 Tech is nearly as good, It rides on the down just as well, offers one of our favorite pack design and has easier access. The Float 27 Tech's downsides compared to the Halo 28 JetForce are no multiple deployment options and that refilling and traveling are marginally more difficult.
Runner Up: Pro Protection 35
The Mammut Pro Protection 35
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Analysis and Test Results
We picked our favorite 18 avalanche airbag packs and pitted them head-to-head over the last three seasons. We compared them in both real world testing in the Wasatch, Cascades, Canadian Coast Range and Sierras and while working as part of Tailgate Alaska's World Freeride Festival's Snow Safety Team in the Alaskan Chugach Range. We also performed a series of side-by-side tests to compare everything from how each pack carried to how easily it was to attach a helmet. We heavily researched the most up-to-date statistics and current debates on airbag packs and reported them here in a more digestible manner. We identified the best overall airbag pack as well as the best airbag pack for heli and cat skiing, multi-day tours, the best product for shorter users and the best overall value.
It is worth noting that there is a movement to change the name of avalanche airbag packs to avalanche balloon bags or balloon packs. The idea behind the name change is that some professional organizations don't want people to think of an airbag pack as like the airbag in your car because it doesn't guarantee safety (see statistics below). While we are all for this movement, in reality 99 percent of people still call them airbag packs and as a result that's what we call them in this review.
Check out our article How To Choose an Avalanche Airbag to get buying advice, learn key differences, see the stats and hear the arguments.
How Do Avalanche Airbag Packs Work?
Avalanche airbags work through a law of physics and a process called inverse segregation. Simply put, this means that bigger particles end up on the surface and smaller particles end up on the bottom. If you shake a box full of sand and pebbles, the pebbles will rise to the surface and the sand will work its way down. The pebbles work their way up because they have more volume than the sand grains. Or think of a bag of chips: the small chips work their way down through the bigger chips, and the bigger chips work their way up; this is inverse segregation at work.
Or, if you prefer a visual example of how airbags work, check out the movie below:
Jonathan Shefftz did a great compilation of information of five separate studies and published them in the April 2012 issue of The Avalanche Review. While these studies are mostly older primarily European study sets, where people typically ski less between trees than we do in North America, he found fairly similar numbers. These studies show that wearing an avalanche airbag will possibly save a little more than half of those who would have otherwise died. Here is a excellent video of Bruce Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Center discussing avalanche airbag statistics. Bruce Tremper
Our view at OutdoorGearLab is that saving roughly half of those who die in avalanches is pretty dang good. We also think that generally speaking, costs aside, wearing one is a good idea in the backcountry while traveling around avalanche terrain. Does that mean that if wearing an airbag pack you should ski, snowboard and snowmobile in terrain where you normally wouldn't go without one? No, because you could still easily die.
The overall non-inflation rate within an in-depth study recently completed by Pascal Haegeli with Simon Fraser University in British Columbia was an astounding 20 percent – 61 of 307 people who were seriously involved in an avalanche had their airbag pack fail to deploy. This percentage is very close to the rate reported by Brugger in a similar 2007 study. What are the causes for these non-inflations? Haegeli's data gives these likely reasons:
60% deployment failures by users
12% maintenance errors (e.g., canister not attached properly)
17% device failures (i.e., performance issues, faulty design)
12% destruction of airbag during involvements
A Note on Wearing an Avalanche Airbag Pack
In the backcountry, wearing an airbag pack and not a beacon is unacceptable. Airbag packs greatly reduce the chance you will become buried in an avalanche, but if you do get buried you have next to zero percent chance of survival without a beacon. Being caught in an avalanche can be 50 times worse than being hit by the gnarliest ocean wave you have ever experienced. It's an incredibly violent experience; you'll have no control of your body and won't have any idea of which way is up. When you do wear an airbag pack, the leg harness strap is a must. While dorky, it plays a large role in keeping your pack on your body. Lastly, when entering or approaching avalanche terrain, have the trigger out and ready to use. There have been several high profile accidents where the victim had an airbag pack on but didn't have the trigger out and ready to pull for deployment. Still, the number one reason backcountry travelers still die while wearing airbag packs is trauma, not being buried while wearing one.
Criteria for Evaluation
Below we describe the specific criteria by which we evaluated each contender.
While all avalanche airbag packs work, understanding which individual system and model best suits your specific needs is important. It's not simply who has the best, the biggest or the most bags. Below we break down the fundamental differences, advantages and disadvantages of each system currently available. We explain differences in the shape of each airbag, where and how it's deployed, what mechanism is used for a trigger, if the system is modular, what gas is inside the canister and whether it is electrically powered.
Airbag Shapes and Sizes
Black Diamond JetForce System
Black Diamond developed a truly unique airbag pack in that it doesn't use a compressed gas canister. Instead it uses a lithium ion battery-powered fan that will deploy up to four times on a single charge. This is our new favorite airbag system. We don't think that most people need 4+ airbag deployments, but we've seen people accidentally fire their airbag packs at trailheads. Another advantage is that the user will be less likely to hesitate if they know they have more than one deployment. Also, it is just a pain to perform a cartridge swap.
The JetForce packs use a 200L airbag, the biggest of any airbag pack in our review. Is bigger better? We have yet to see studies that show that 30-50 extra liters is more likely to keep a wearer on top, but we don't think it could hurt. Unlike compressed air canister systems, with the JetForce fan pulling air from the atmosphere there is an unlimited source to draw from. Other than higher cost, JetForce has no downsides, only potential benefits.
Once deployed the bag deflates after three minutes. This helps increase the size of the victim's air pocket and thus hopefully increases their chance of survival (Mammut's system deflates as well). The JetForce system is also by far the easiest to travel with because JetForce uses no canisters that need refilling.
The JetForce runs self-diagnostics every time you turn it on, quickly running 100 percent in reverse to make sure the pack is functioning. At the end of the diagnostics the JetForce flashes a green light that will continue to pulse throughout the day to confirm that the pack is operating as it should. Once the trigger is pulled the fan runs at 100 percent for nine seconds, providing more than enough air to inflate the airbag even while pressured by moving snow during an avalanche. Once nine seconds have passed the fan cycles between running at 50 percent and 100 percent to keep the bag inflated for the next full minute. According to Black Diamond, these pulses of air will keep the airbag inflated even with a six-inch gash. After this, at minutes two and three, the fan will continue to alternate from running to pausing to keep the airbag inflated but at less volume than during the first minute. This is both to meet the CE specification requiring airbags to stay inflated for three minutes, and also to help safeguard the wearer from a secondary avalanche. The user can press a button at any time to stop the process or can pull the trigger again to fire it from the beginning.
The Snowpulse "LifeBag"/Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System)
The Snowpulse "LifeBag"/Mammut PAS technology is our second favorite system. We ranked it the same as packs of the ABS system and it offers its own set of advantages. It is a modular system that is interchangeable among Mammut "PAS Ready" packs and also can potentially reduce the risk of trauma by wrapping around the user's head when inflated.
The PAS technology is heavily debated as to whether it can actually help. Critics and competing manufacturers say there are few proven, if any, cases where a wearer was protected when they otherwise would have been hurt. Mammut has done its own non-real-world tests showing there is a potential to help protect the wearer. A disadvantage of the PAS unit is that if you deploy your airbag while still standing/skiing/snowboarding, it blocks your field of vision, making it more difficult to get off the avalanche. All PAS system airbags have adjustments in the length of their frame. This not only makes the pack fit more comfortably, but also insures that the airbag lines up properly around the wearer's head and neck. There are cases where this horseshoe shaped airbag can collect snow, so if the wearer isn't on the surface it could potentially allow for less airspace. To combat this problem, the Mammut, like the JetForce, deflates after a few minutes so that if the user is buried the air pocket wall be larger and thus potentially increase their survival time.
ABS, Deuter, Ortovox, Da Kine, Osprey and The North Face all use ABS technology, which offers both advantages and disadvantages. This technology uses compressed nitrogen instead of the compressed air found in all other canister-oriented airbags. ABS is also the only airbag system to feature two airbags to keep the wearer on the surface. These two 85L airbags, totaling 170L of volume, aren't quite as big as the Black Diamond Jet Force, which features a single 200L bag. But they are still larger than the rest of the bags that feature a single 150L bag. The two-airbag design gives you a level of redundancy because the bags are independent; if one doesn't work for some reason, you at least still have a single 85L bag.
ABS also claims that having the airbags on the sides, instead of near the head, helps keep your body in a more horizontal position, thus preventing you from sinking into the slide by spreading out your surface area. This claim was supported in a study conducted at the University of Chicago, but like many things in the airbag world, it is also often disputed. Due to the violent nature of an avalanche you rarely have the opportunity to be "horizontal." When compared to the Mammut/Snowpulse PAS bags, an advantage of the ABS system after deployment is that you can still see around you, offering the potential ability to ski or snowboard off the slide.
Mammut's RAS or Removable Airbag System
Mammut's RAS is a solid design that is the least expensive modular airbag system. Its airbag shape is somewhat the new "standard" and the RAS is similar in size, shape, volume and location to airbags offered from other companies like BCA, K2 and Wary. While the RAS doesn't offer anything special as far as dual airbags or potential head protection, it will perform its most fundamental task: to help keep the wearer on top of a slide. Advantages of the RAS system are price, easier travel and refilling options than ABS, and the large array of similar packs that makes swapping units possible.
Backcountry Access Float System
All Backcountry Access packs and their parent company K2 use BCA's Float airbag system in their packs. The Float system airbag uses the same size (150L) and shape airbag/balloon as the Mammut Ride RAS and the Wary packs. The airbag system used in the Backcountry Access Float packs is removable and therefore interchangeable, but at the time of this writing there are no Float packs sold without an airbag system, nor are they sold separately, limiting the usefulness of their interchangeability.
There are reports that if you contact BCA directly you can possibly buy a Float pack without the airbag. The advantage would be that you could use the pack without the weight of the airbag for spring or summer tours. Like the RAS, this airbag shape doesn't offer anything special. But it will perform its most fundamental task: helping keep you on top of an avalanche. This system only features one bag but we can attest that it took A LOT of effort to puncture the bag with an ice axe. Even then, the bag inflated just fine and stayed inflated for enough time. In the event of a real avalanche the wearer would probably come to a rest before the bag began to deflate. BCA claims their basic shape allows them to produce and sell their airbag packs for less, thus increasing the number of people who buy them and hopefully saving more lives.
The location of the trigger is optional on some models of airbag packs, so that it can be worn on your right or left shoulder strap. Most right-handed skiers and snowboarders prefer to use their right hand to pull on their left shoulder strap. Snowmobilers, who represent at least half of the market for airbag packs, usually prefer to pull with their left hand so they can keep their right hand on the throttle. Trigger location is worth considering when comparing airbag packs. With the Mammut RAS and PAS series of packs, the trigger is not modular and cannot be moved from one side to the other. The ability to switch sides is an option for BCA's newer packs and most, but not all, packs using ABS technology.
A lot of companies make a big deal about their trigger system and why it is better than that of other manufacturers. Our testers at OutdoorGearLab concluded that of all the things that should be compared when considering avalanche airbag systems, the trigger mechanism was least significant because the reliability difference was infinitesimally small. But because we get asked about triggers fairly regularly, here is the breakdown: With all the ABS technology packs there is actually an explosion when the wearer pulls the trigger handle. The force from this explosion travels through a tube, firing a copper disk to puncture a hole in the nitrogen canister that in turns releases the gas and fills the airbag. Nearly all compressed air canisters use a much more basic mechanism to release the compressed air. When you pull on the trigger it pulls a cable that directly releases the air from the canister. While we think the ABS system is ever so slightly better, we don't think it's much of a factor. There are a few cases where both systems have failed, and we don't have evidence that one is far better than the other.
Gas Types: Nitrogen vs. Air vs. Electric Fan
What's Best? The answer depends largely on the needs of the user. BCA, Mammut, Wary and most other manufacturers that don't use compressed nitrogen are using compressed air, not compressed oxygen. Nitrogen's advantage is it is less affected by temperature and will perform marginally better in colder temperatures. You may have heard similar claims regarding these gases in car tires – nitrogen is nearly always used in race car tires. People think, wow, if it matters in race car tires it must make an even bigger difference in a canister pressurized to almost 3000 psi. While it's true nitrogen does perform better, it isn't way better. But if it is even a little bit better why don't all airbag packs use nitrogen? The answer is that for a lot of people it's more hassle than it's worth.
This is where the Black Diamond JetForce packs have an obvious advantage. While they are much more expensive to begin with, refilling is totally hassle free with no additional costs.
Among gas cylinders, compressed nitrogen has better performance characteristics, but it is significantly more costly and more difficult to refill. Compressed air cartridges all use a pretty standard fitting and can be refilled for between $5-20 at most scuba shops, paintball shops, a large percentage of fire stations, some outdoor gear stores or anywhere else people use and deal with high pressure compressed air (which is more places than you might think). Also, if you or a buddy owns a scuba tank, have a glass blowing setup or anything else that uses compressed air, you can buy an adapter from BCA or Mammut and refill your own canisters.
For the compressed nitrogen canisters in all packs using ABS technology, refilling is more complex. The primary reason is it's not really a refill, it's a cartridge swap. Why can't they be refilled? Because with the ABS design, when the trigger is pulled a piece of metal is fired to puncture the cartridge, releasing the nitrogen. When you get your ABS cartridge "refilled," you actually swap it with a cartridge that doesn't have a hole in it and is filled with gas. Also, you must replace the trigger that has used up its explosive capability. In many major cities and outdoor and backcountry hubs, performing a canister/trigger swap isn't a big deal and will run you around $40-80. But if you don't live near or are flying somewhere that doesn't offer this service, your only option is to perform the swap with ABS themselves, which for us took a disappointing four weeks.
A note on flying with avalanche airbag cartridges: This should be a consideration for skiers and snowboarders who travel to ski or snowboard a lot. But be realistic about how much you will travel; we have noticed that a lot of folks think buying a pack that's easier to travel with is a good idea, but then only travel three or four times with it. So it might not be worth the hassle or the extra $400-$500 expense.
Ease of travel is where Black Diamond's JetForce electric fan systems crushes all others. There are no restrictions on flying with their lithium-ion battery and it's plenty easy to "recharge" on the other end of your flight. Currently TSA does want you to fly with the battery discharged so there is no chance of an accidental deployment.
With compressed air cylinders, you can fly domestically with an empty canister as long as it's in your checked baggage. For international trips, at time of this writing; it's okay to fly with a full canister. Regardless, keep the box that your canister comes in. Then, when you fly, put the canister back in its box. It clearly defines what your canister is and helps make sure TSA doesn't take your canister away from you. We always go one extra step and put a note on ours when flying domestically, saying it's empty and that it's for an avalanche airbag pack.
With compressed nitrogen canisters, TSA does not allow them to be checked in your bags even if they are empty. Because locations that will swap/refill ABS nitrogen canisters are harder to find, if there isn't an option at your destination there is only one choice: pay a hazardous material fee of $25-70 to ship your canister ahead of time to your destination. The one bright side: you can ship the canister full. Keep that in mind for major backcountry skiing destinations like Valdez, Alaska that don't have a single location that will refill or swap nitrogen canisters. Conversely, there are almost always several places to refill compressed air and it's typically only $5-20.
Carrying Skis or a Snowboard on Your Airbag Pack
For most avalanche airbag packs when traveling in or around avalanche terrain where deployment is a possibility it's better to carry your skis or splitboard diagonally across, or flat against, the back of the pack. This way the skis or board won't potentially interfere with airbag deployment. It is unlikely that nearly 3000 psi of gas (plus the venturi valve sucking even more air in) pushing against your skis will have any negative effect on airbag deployment, but it could happen so why risk it?
All the packs we tested offer an ability to carry skis diagonally. For people who are dead set on the A-frame carry system because they find themselves hiking longer distances at lower elevations where a diagonally carry set up is marginally less comfortable, the BCA Float 42 Tech, BCA Float 32, Mammut Light Removable Airbag, Mammut Ride RAS, Pro Protection 35 and the Light Protection are the best options.
For the best diagonal carrying system for both ease-of-use (easy to attach and remove) and a nice snug fit: our testers really liked the Backcountry Access Float 22, Backcountry Access Float 32, Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce, Ortovox ABS Tour 32, BCA Float 27 Tech, K2 Backside Float 30 and the Ortovox Free Rider. The Mammut Ride RAS, Mammut Pro Protection, ABS Vario 30 and 40 are not too far behind. We thought the ABS Vario, Mammut Ride RAS and Pro Protection systems were floppier and moved around more than we would like. Most split-boarders will use these same systems with the board still "split". For pure non-split-board snowboarders, the Mammut packs, K2 Backside Float 30 and BCA Float 32, were the best because they featured two straps to hold the board vertically. For snowmobile access boarding our testers really liked the diagonal across-the-back carrying system compatible with all BCA packs, for an extra $35.
While avalanche airbag packs are important life saving tools, they also have to serve as a functional backcountry pack. There are a few key features that all backcountry ski and snowboard packs should have. The first is a big zippered snow safety gear pocket. Gone are the days of yesteryear when people carried their shovel and probe on the outside of their pack. Why, you might ask? Because an avalanche is the more violent than any wave in the ocean you have ever been caught in and there is no way your shovel or probe will still be attached if it's on the outside during an avalanche. Besides carrying your snow safety equipment, it's nice if this pocket is big enough to be able to fit anything wet (i.e. skins) to keep it away from your warm (and hopefully dry) stuff in the main compartment.
We gave higher scores to packs with easy-to-use helmet attachments. A hip pocket was nice for cameras, Gu or sunblock. We liked packs that had soft, non-scratching fleece-lined goggle pockets. Our favorite packs were the Backcountry Access Float 32 and Black Diamond Saga 40. Both have large gear pockets that could easily hold almost any size shovel, 300 cm probe and skins. Our next round of favorites included Ortovox Tour ABS, BCA Float 22, Black Diamond Halo 28, Mammut Pro Protection, BCA Float 27 and Mammut Ride RAS. These packs are comparable to the aforementioned options, offering several features that made our day of touring easier, but could only fit mid-sized shovels and probes and their ease-of access was not as good.
Performance on the Down
This scoring metric rates how each pack felt and moved with us while skiing and snowboarding on the descent – we gave higher scores to packs that made us feel like we were hardly wearing them. We didn't have a runaway winner and some of the best riding packs were also the smallest. The Black Diamond Pilot 11 JetForce and the the North Face ABS Powder Guide Vest performed best. With The North Face Powder Guide ABS Vest, if you loaded it down with too much stuff it felt cumbersome.
For more medium sized packs, our Top Picks were the BCA Float 27 Tech, Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce, The North Face Patrol ABS 24, BCA Float 22, and the Ortovox Free Rider ABS 24. The Ortovox Free Rider ABS 24 latched onto us almost like no other pack, but because it's a bigger pack we noticed it more than some others. The larger packs like the Float 42 Tech, Mammut Pro Protection 35 and Saga 40 JetForce because of their volume didn't move with us as nicely on the down while skiing or snowboarding.
For our comfort category we compared how well each pack carried loads on the way up, as well as how comfortable and articulated the back panel and shoulder straps were. We gave higher scores to packs that used nicer feeling material on the inside of their shoulder straps. Our top overall picks for comfort on the up and while skiing with heavier loads were the Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce with its sturdy frame and comfortable shoulder straps. Near as nice was well were the Ortovox ABS Tour 32+7, Mammut Ride RAS, Mammut Light Removable Airbag and Mammut Pro Protection 35L. The Backcountry Access Float packs and the Mammut Light Protection packs were close, but maybe just a step behind. For overnight or hut-to-hut loads we liked the Saga 40 JetForce and the Ortovox 32+7, with the BCA Float 42 Tech, Mammut Light Protection, Mammut Light Removable Protection, or the Mammut Pro Protection barely behind.
Comparing Modular Airbag Systems
There are several airbag packs on the market that offer a modular system, so you only have to buy one system to use in multiple avalanche airbag packs. The costs of each part varies wildly between manufacturers. In the end the price of owning two airbag packs is still costly, but if you know you want to own two airbag packs, say one bigger for long day, hut-to-hut or multi-day tours, and one smaller for heli, cat or sidecountry skiing, purchasing a modular pack with options that best fit your needs will be beneficial.
Let start with ABS. First the downside: the base unit is the most expensive on the market at $980. Compare that to Mammut's RAS (Removable Airbag System) $450 and PAS (Protection Airbag System) $600. Ortovox uses an ABS system in their MASS (Moveable Airbag Safety System) that retails for $700. The positive side of ABS is that it not only produces the greatest number of zip-ons but also the widest range of volumes (from 8-55L). Though they have the most expensive base unit, they charge the least for their zip-ons ($90-$140). There is also over a half dozen third party manufacturers (including Da Kine, ARVA, and Evoc) who also make zip-on packs compatible with ABS's base unit. Compare that with Mammut and Ortovox, where each additional pack will run you around $260-$340.
Ortovox currently has three options for men (24L, 26L and 32 + 7L) and two for women (24L and 32 + 7L). Mammut currently offers 11 models for their two systems that are not interchangeable and their airbag line continues to multiply dramatically each year. Mammut, despite their large number of pack offerings, only offers packs that range in volume from 5-40L, but they do include some really lightweight options. None of these prices for base unit airbag systems or packs includes a cartridge, which will run you another $180-$200 per pack.
The Backcountry Access Float airbag systems are removable and therefore interchangeable. However, at this point they are not available without their airbag without contacting BCA directly. But keep in mind that they are inexpensive enough that buying both model packs (Float 22 $500 and Float 32 $550) and one cartridge ($175) is around the same cost as buying an ABS setup with two zip-ons.
Sizing and Fit
Most medium and taller testers like the Backcountry Access Float 32. Smaller women and shorter and narrower-shouldered guys may favor the Mammut Ride Short RAS 28. This fits the smallest of any airbag pack we tested so if you find most airbag packs too big, this is a pack you should check out. The newest version of the Backcountry Access Float 22 works well but not quite as well as the Ride Short RAS. The Black Diamond Saga 40 and Halo 28 are both available in two torso lengths.
At 5 lbs 10 oz Mammut Light Removable Airbag is by far the lightest pack we tested, being nearly half a pound lighter than the next lightest pack. The next closest packs where the Mammut Light Protection, at 6 lbs, followed by two more Mammut packs, the Ride RAS 30 and its shorter counterpart the Mammut Ride Short Removable Airbag, both 6 lbs 6 ounces. The price pointed Backcountry Access Float 22 also checks in at 6 lbs 8 ounces. That's a pound to a pound and a half lighter than our Editor's Choice award winner, the Black Diamond Halo 28 Jet Force at 7 lbs 8 ounces.
Also check out our Ski and Snowboard Gear Dream List.
Knowing what avalanche airbag to purchase depends on your specific backcountry needs. This review is intended to highlight the differences, advantages and disadvantages of the options that are available today. Head over to our Buying Advice article for tips on what key features to look for before buying.
— Ian Nicholson
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