The Best Avalanche Airbag Pack Review

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Ryan O'Connell, Eric Dalzell, and Ian Nicholson testing airbag packs at Thompson Pass near Valdez, Alaska.
Credit: Seth Chanin
What is the best airbag pack for back-country travel? We tested 13 of the best and most popular models on the market and compared them in the following categories: airbag system, comfort, back-country utility, downhill performance, special features and weight. We flogged these packs side-by-side in the field and in our lab, researched the facts on current statistics, read tons of user reviews and polled guides on their experience. Also see our Avalanche Beacon Review. If you need an airbag, you probably should also be carrying a beacon.

Read the full review below >

Review by: Ian Nicholson ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab December 13, 2013

Top Ranked Avalanche Airbag Displaying 1 - 5 of 14 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
ABS Vario 30
ABS Vario 30
Read the Review
ABS Vario 40
ABS Vario 40
Read the Review
Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack
Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack
Read the Review
The North Face Patrol 24 ABS
The North Face Patrol 24 ABS
Read the Review
Mammut Pro Protection 35
Mammut Pro Protection 35
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award    Top Pick Award  Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $728 - $1,000
Compare at 2 sellers
$1300Varies $329 - $1,203
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $766 - $1,215
Compare at 3 sellers
Varies $630 - $950
Compare at 2 sellers
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Pros Very modular, awesome airbag system, do-everything pack.Most options for base unit, solid pack design, best airbag system.Very supportive, tons of features.Great pack design, comfortable, best airbag system.Awesome airbag system, tons of cool extra features, lots of volume.
Cons Expensive.Expensive, heavy.Heavy, maybe too many features.Expensive, small volumne.Heavy, snow safety gear pocket is super tall.
Best Uses Heli skiing, cat skiing, side-country skiing, day touring, snowmobiling.All-day, hut-to-hut or mutli-day backcountry skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling.All day, hut-to-hut or mutli-day backcountry skiing and snowboardingHeli, cat, and side-country skiing and snowboarding, lighter day touring.All-day, hut-to-hut or mutli-day backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
Date Reviewed Nov 04, 2013Jan 06, 2013Nov 11, 2013Dec 01, 2012Nov 08, 2013
Weighted Scores ABS Vario 30 ABS Vario 40 Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack The North Face Patrol 24 ABS Mammut Pro Protection 35
Airbag System - 20%
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Backcountry Utility - 20%
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Comfort - 15%
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Downhill Preformance - 15%
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Features - 15%
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Weight - 15%
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Product Specs ABS Vario 30 ABS Vario 40 Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack The North Face Patrol 24 ABS Mammut Pro Protection 35
Volume 30 useable space 40L minus system 32L +7L of useable space 24L minus system 35L minus system
Cost + Extra? $980 for Base, $180 for Cartridge, $120 for pack or $1300 $980 for Base, $180 for Cartridge, $120 for pack or $1300 $1200 includes cartridge $1180 includes cartridge 950+$200 for the cartridge
Weight with/WO 7lbs 10 oz 7lbs 7 lbs. 3 oz. 6lbs 9 oz 7lbs 3 oz
Airbag unit removable? No No Yes No Yes
Cartridge type Compressed Nitrogen Compressed Nitrogen Compressed Nitrogen Compressed Nitrogen Compressed Air
Cost to Refill $40-70 $40-70 $40-70 $40-70 $5-20
Volumne of Bag(s) 2x 85L (170L total) 2x 85L (170L total) 2x 85L (170L total) 2x 85L (170L total) 1x 150L
Frame sizes L and S L and S One size SM/ML One size
Can you fly with it? No No No No Yes
Helmet carrier? Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Carry Snowboard Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Carry skis A-frame or Diagonal Diagonal A-Frame and Diagonal X-Frame or Diagonal Diagonal Diagonal

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products
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ABS Vario 30
$1100
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Backcountry Access Float 32
$549
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The North Face Patrol 24 ABS
$1180 includes cartridge
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Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack
$1200
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Mammut Light Protection
$900
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Mammut Pro Protection 35
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ABS Vario 40
$1300
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Mammut Ride RAS 30L
$699
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Ortovox Free Rider 24 ABS
$330
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Backcountry Access Float 22
$500
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Mammut Ride Short RAS 28
$700
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ABS Powder 15
$1000
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Snowpulse Lifebag Lite 35
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The North Face ABS Powder Guide Vest
$1380
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Side-by-side testing during heavy snow.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
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Ian Nicholson hard at work on the airbag pack review around Thompson Pass, near Valdez Alaska.
Credit: Ryan O'Connell
How to Choose the Best Avalanche Airbag Pack
We picked our favorite 13 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 and Sierra and while working as part of Tailgate Alaska: A World Freeride Festival's Snow Safety Team in Alaska's Chugach Range. We also preformed a series of side-by-side tests to compare everything from how each back carried to how easily it was to attach a helmet. We heavily researched the most up to date statistics behind airbag packs and the current debates and report 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 airbag pack for shorter users, and the best overall value.

Check out our article How To Choose an Avalanche Airbag to get buying advice, learn key differences, see the stats and hear the arguments.

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BCA Float 22's and Float 32's everywhere while Ryan O'Connell gets ready to drop into the 50 degree entrance of the Gun Barrels while testing airbag packs in Valdez, AK.
Credit: Eric Dalzell
How Do Avalanche Airbag Packs Work?
Avalanche airbags work through a process called inverse segregation rather than by reducing your overall density. Inverse segregation is a law of physics where 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, if you prefer a visual example of how airbags work, check out the movie below:


A Note on Wearing an Avalanche Airbag Pack
In the back-country, wearing an airbag pack and not a beacon is unacceptable. Airbag packs help greatly reduce the chance you'll become buried in an avalanche, but if do get buried you have a next to zero percent survival chances without a beacon. Being caught in an avalanche can be 50 times worse than the gnarliest wave you've ever experienced. It's an incredibly violent experience, you'll have no control of your body and during the avalanche you won't even have an idea of which way is up. The leg harness strap is a must use. While dorky, it plays a large role in keeping your airbag pack actually on your body. It might seem like a pain at first, but once you get in the habit of putting it on it will be second nature, like putting on a seat belt. Lastly, when entering or simply approaching avalanche terrain, you should 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, ready to pull for deployment.
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Oh Snaps, Shooting cracks!!!
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Criteria for Evaluation
Below we describe the specific criteria by which we evaluated each contender.

Airbag Systems
This is probably the most important factor when considering an avalanche air backpack. With airbag systems it's not simply who has the biggest bag. We also considered each airbag's shape, the number of compartments, what mechanism is used for a trigger, if the system is modular and what gas is inside the canister.

Airbag Shapes and Sizes
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Comparing various packs that all use ABS technology, from left to right, The North Face Patrol ABS 24, The ABS Vario 30, and the Ortovox ABS Tour 32+7
Credit: Ian Nicholson
ABS System
ABS, Ortovox,and The North Face all use ABS technology, which is our top pick for an airbag systems. This technology uses compressed nitrogen instead of compressed air. ABS is also the only airbag system to feature two airbags to keep the wearer on the surface. These two 85L airbags total 170L of volume, greater than all the other non-ABS packs, which all feature a single 150L bag. Besides greater buoyancy, the two airbags also give you a level of redundancy in case one doesn't inflate or is punctured. Because the bags are independent, you at least have a single 85L bag. ABS also claims that by having the airbags on the sides, instead of near the head, this helps keep your body in a more horizontal position in the avalanche. They report this position is more effective in preventing you from sinking into the slide by spreading out your surface area. This claim was supported in a study at the University of Chicago, but like many things in the airbag world it is also sometimes disputed. When compared to the Mammut/Snowpulse PAS (Protection Airbag system), 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.

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Left, showing how the Snowpulse Life Bag/Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System) and how it wraps around the wearers head to help prevent trauma. On the right, an inflated PAS system and the the PAS unit with no pack.
Credit: Mammut
The Snowpulse "LifeBag"/Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System)
The Snowpulse "LifeBag"/Mammut PAS technology is our next favorite, barely edged out by the ABS system. It is a modular system that is interchangeable among Mammut "PAS Ready" packs and also has the ability, when inflated, to potentially reduce the risk of trauma. When the PAS unit inflates it wraps around the user's head to help prevent trauma. This is another piece of technology that is heavily debated as to whether it can actually help. Critics and competing manufacturers point to the fact that there are few proven cases where a wearer was protected when they otherwise would have been hurt. Mammut has done several non-real-world tests, showing there is potential to help protect the wearer. A disadvantage of the PAS unit is that if you deploy your airbag while still standing/skiing/snowboarding, because it blocks your field of vision it becomes much harder to get off the avalanche. All the PAS system airbags have adjustments in the length of the frame; not only does this make the pack feel better but it's more important to have a good fit so 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 there wearer isn't on the surface it could potentially allow for less airspace.

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Left A deployed RAS system on the Mammut Ride RAS 30L, Right, the RAS unit
Credit: Mammut
Mammut's RAS or Removable Airbag System
Mammut's RAS or Removable Airbag System is a solid design that is the least expensive modular airbag system. The airbag shape used in RAS system is becoming somewhat of a standard and is similar in size, shape, volume and location to airbags offered from other companies like BCA and Wary. While the RAS doesn't offer anything special as far as dual airbags or special head protection, it will perform its most fundamental task: to help keep you on top of a slide. There are a few claims that this shape could potentially help protect you from trauma, but this claim is even more disputed than that for the Mammut PAS system.

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Comparing the Backcountry Access (BCA) Float 32 (left) and the Float 22 (right) with both airbags deployed
Credit: BCA

Backcountry Access Float System
The Backcountry Access Float 22 and Backcountry Access Float 32 airbag packs use the same size and shape airbag/balloon as the Mammut Ride RAS. The airbag system used the Backcountry Access Float packs is removable and is therefore interchangeable, but at this writing there are no Float packs sold without an airbag system, limiting the usefulness of their interchangeability. We have been told that if you contact BCA directly there is a possibility that you could buy a Float pack without the airbag. Like the RAS, this airbag shape doesn't offer anything special as far as dual airbags or special head protection. But it will perform its most fundamental task: helping keep you on top of an avalanche. BCA claims this basic shape allows them to produce and sell their airbag packs for less money, thus increasing the number of people who buy them and in turn hopefully save more lives.

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Another day of airbag comparisons, and another day that Ryan O'Connell has a big smile on his face.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Triggers
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 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 Backcountry Access Float 22 and Float 32 and 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 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. After a lot of research and testing, our testers at OutdoorGearLab concluded that of all the things that should be compared when considering avalanche airbag systems, the trigger mechanism itself made the least difference. Our conclusion is that the reliability difference was infinitesimally small. But because we get asked about the differences of triggers and the mechanism used fairly regularly, here is a breakdown: With all the ABS technology packs there is an actually explosion once the wearer has pulled 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 fills the airbag. Compressed air canisters use a much more basic mechanical 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 every so slightly better, we don't think it's much of a factor. There are incredibly few cases where either system has failed.

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A previous avalanche pours down in front of Eric Dalzell and Ryan O'Connell on our way up the Odyssey.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Gas types: Nitrogen vs. Air
This is one of the most heavily talked about comparisons among airbag packs. The answer depends on the needs of the users. BCA, Mammut, Wary and other manufacturers that don't use compressed nitrogen are using compressed air, not compressed oxygen. Nitrogen is less affected by temperature and will perform better in colder temperatures compared with compressed air. You may have heard similar claims regarding these gases in regards to car tires a lot of people know that nitrogen is nearly exclusively 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 3000psi. While its 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? Because for a lot of people it's more hassle than it's worth.
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Comparing the sizes and shapes of the three main types of compressed gas canisters, from left to right, the BCA (air) $175, ABS (nitrogen) $185 and the Mammut/Snowpulse (air) $200
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Refilling
The cost and the ease of refilling compressed air cartridges versus compressed nitrogen is great. While compressed nitrogen has better performance characteristics it is significantly more costly and more difficult to refill. Compressed air cartridges all use a pretty standard fitting and can be refilled at most scuba shops, paint ball shops, some outdoor gear stores or anywhere else they have compressed air (which is more places than you think). If you own 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. With compressed nitrogen canisters that are used in all packs using ABS technology, refilling is more complex. In many major cities and outdoor and back-country hubs you can perform a canister swap where you pay $40-70 to turn in your used cartridge in exchange for a new one. Why can't they be refilled? It's because in ABS packs a piece of metal is fired at high speeds to puncture the cartridge, so not only do you need to refill it but you need to replace the part of the cartridge that has a hole and replace the trigger that has used up its explosive capability. While most major cities have a cartridge/trigger swap location, if you don't live near one your only option is to perform the swap with ABS themselves, which for us took four weeks.
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Often scuba and paintball shops are the least expensive and most readily available places to refill your airbag canister. Here an Underwater Sports employee re-fills a BCA compressed air canister for only $8 in North Seattle.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Air Transportation
A note on flying with avalanche airbag cartridges: This should be a big consideration for skiers and snowboarders who travel to ski a lot, especially heli skiers. You can fly with an empty compressed air canister as long as it's in your checked baggage. A good tip is to keep the box that your canister comes in. Then, when you fly, put the canister back in this box. It clearly defines what your canister is and helps make sure TSA doesn't take your canister away from you. I always go one extra step and put a note on mine, 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 empty. Because nitrogen is harder to find a location that will refill or do a cartridge swap with you, there is only one option: pay a hazards 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. With that in mind, even major back-country skiing destinations like Valdez, Alaska don't have a single location that will refill or swap nitrogen canisters, but there are several places to refill compressed air.
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A note written and attached to the box containing an empty airbag pack canister in hopes that TSA will not take it away. Some Float owners even take off the cap so that TSA can see inside and confirm that its empty.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Carrying Skis or a Snowboard on Your Airbag Pack
For most avalanche airbag packs it's better to carry your skis or split-board diagonally across or flat against the back of the pack. This way the skis don't interfere with airbag deployment. While it is unlikely that nearly 3000psi of gas plus the venturi valve pushing against your skis will have any negative effect on airbag deployment, it could happen. So why risk it? Nearly all airbag manufacturers don't recommend it. For people who are dead set on the A-Frame carry system because of habit or because they hike longer distances with their skis on their back, the Mammut Ride RAS, Pro Protection 35L and the Light Protection are the best options, with the ABS Vario 40 being an option as long as the skis aren't too wide. The Backcountry Access Float 22 or Float 32, The North Face Patrol 24 or the other ABS packs have side compression straps but they don't work well. All of these packs work best for diagonal ski carry. We liked the carrying function of the Backcountry Access Float 22, Float 32, Ortovox ABS Tour 32+7 and Ortovox Free Rider along with the North Face Patrol 24. 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. For snowboarders. the Mammut packs were the best, including Ride RAS 30L, Ride Short RAS, Pro Protection 35 and the Light Proction. The North Face Patrol ABS 24 was good but not as good. We liked the snowboard carrying system on the BCA packs, but it is an extra $35.
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Ryan O'Connell and Eric Dalzell booting it while comparing airbag pack ski carrying abilities near Thompson Pass, AK.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Back-Country Utility
While avalanche airbag packs are important life-saving tools, they also have to serve as a functional back-country pack. There are a few key features that all back-country 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 if an avalanche is the most violent wave you have ever been caught in, there is no way your shovel or probe will still be attached after an avalanche. Maybe you will be buried, maybe you won't, but if you are on top and your buddy isn't there is no way you will still have a shovel if it wasn't packed on the inside of your pack. Beside carrying your snow safety equipment, it's nice if this pocket is big enough to be able to fit anything wet (i.e. skins) inside that pocket 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 sun block. We liked packs that had soft, non-scratching fleece-lined goggle pockets. In the end, our favorite overall back-country packs were the Backcountry Access Float 32 and the ABS 30 and 40. All have large gear pockets that could easily hold almost any shovel and skins. The Ortovox Tour ABS was also right there with several features that made touring easier. We really liked the Mammut Ride RAS 30L, Mammut Ride Short RAS 28L and the Mammut Pro Protection. They had solid features and pockets that would fit most things, but were just a tad behind.
Our next favorites were the North Face Patrol ABS and Powder 15, but they were just a little harder to use and their features not quite as nice. The Float 22 looks very similar to our favorite Backcountry Access Float 32, but the avy pocket is very small and even average size probes and shovels won't fit.

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Eric Dalzell checking our his airbag pack's ride-ability while hop turning down his way down a tight couloir after a steep entrance. Note he is wearing an ABS Powder 15 in the photo
Credit: Ryan O'Connell
Performance on the Down
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 ABS Powder 15 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 ABS Vario 30, The North Face Patrol ABS 24 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 the ABS Powder 15.

Comfort
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 were the ABS Vario 30 and 40 as well as the Ortovox ABS Tour 32+7, Mammut Ride RAS and Mammut Pro Protection 35L. The Backcountry Access Float packs and the Mammut Light Protection packs performed almost the same. For overnight or hut-to-hut loads we liked the Vario 40 and the Ortovox 32+7, with the Mammut Light 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 side-country skiing, purchasing a modular pack with options that best fit your needs will be beneficial.
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ABS offers the greatest number and the widest range of packs compatible with their Base Unit. The Vario series includes a 8, 18, 30, 40 and 55L models, plus there are over a dozen options from third party manufacturers.
Credit: ABS

Let start with ABS. First the downside: their 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. Now the positive side for ABS, which not only produces the the greatest number of zip-ons but also the widest range of volumes, from 8-55L. Alhough they have the most expensive base unit, they charge the least for their zip-ons: $90-$140. There are 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 Ortovoxk, where each additional pack will run you around $260-$340.
Showing the removable MASS system and spine protector on the Ortovox F...
Showing the removable MASS system and spine protector on the Ortovox Free Rider ABS 24
Credit: Ortovox

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 offer 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.
While the Backcountry Access Float packs airbag systems are removable and therefore interchangeable, at this point because they are not available with out their airbag without contacting BCA directly they are necessarily super modular. However they are cheap enough that buying both model packs (Float 22 $500 and Float 32 $550) and one cartridge ($175) is around the same price as buying an ABS setup with two zip-ons.

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Eric Dalzell and Ryan O'Connell descend while testing airbag packs and helping with snow pack stability assessment for Tailgate Alaska: A World Freeride Festival.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

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 and if you find most airbag packs too big, then this is a pack you should check out. The North Face Patrol 24 and the ABS Vario, both available in two torso lengths, were also a top pick. However, the longer size still didn't fit tall people as well as the Float 32.

Weight
At 5 lbs 8 oz The Snowpulse Lite 35 is by far the lightest pack we tested, being nearly half a pound lighter than the next lightest airbag pack. The next closest packs where the Mammut Light Protection, which was our OutdoorGear Lab Top Pick for multi-day and hut-to-hut tours. It checkedin at 6 lbs. While the Light Protection was a little heavier, we thought it was more user friendly and more durable. The incredibly price pointed Backcountry Access Float 22 also checks in at 6 lbs. The ABS Powder 15 was 6 lbs 3 oz. The lightest modular packs were the Mammut Ride RAS 30L and Ride Short RAS 28L. After that most of the packs were around 7 lbs. What does the heavier weight give you? In the case of the ABS Vario 30, Vario 40 and Ortovox ABS packs, you get a modular system and the twin airbags. For the Mammut Pro Protection you get a super tough pack with a potentially trauma-protecting airbag.

Editors' Choice: ABS Vario 30
The ABS Vario 30 is our new OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice because it uses our Top Pick among airbag systems, has one of our favorite overall pack designs for back-country utility, was one of the best performers for how it carried and moved with us on both the up and the down. The Vario 30 excels at a wide range of uses and just barely replaces its bigger volume sibling the Vario 40, our Editors' Choice award winner from last year. It was a tough decision between the two. They are both excellent packs and it was only after rigorous testing and side-by-side comparisons that the 30L proved to offer greater versatility and excelled in the primary applications that more people use.
ABS Vario 30 avalanche airbag pack
ABS Vario 30 avalanche airbag pack
Credit: ABS

Best Buy Award: Backcountry Access Float 32
We gave our OutdoorGearLab Best Buy award to the Backcountry Access Float 32 pack. While the Float 32 is a little more expensive ($725 with the cartridge) that its smaller sibling, the Backcountry Access Float 22 ($675 with the cartridge), it was better at a wider range of uses. The biggest thing that kept the Float 22 from being our award winner was the fact that the snow safety gear pocket was a little too short and could only fit shorter than average probes and shovels, and we couldn't keep our skins in this pocket. The Backcountry Access Float 32 didn't have a very fancy airbag system, but it still had a functional and reliable one, plus it's $150 less than any other airbag pack, and along with the ABS Vario 30 had our overall favorite pack design.
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The Backcountry Access (BCA) Float 32
Credit: BCA

Top Pick Award for Multi-Day and Hut-to-Hut Trips: Mammut Light Protection
We had a tie for our Top Pick for multi-day trips. Depending on your priorities, you could easily go one of two ways. The Mammut Light Protection Airbag is one of our OutdoorGearLab Top Picks for multi-day and hut-to-hut ski and snowboarding because it's so light and its shape allows you to maximize its 30L volume. On the other hand you have the Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack. It carries wonderfully, has a ton of nice features and offers a little more room for those longer hut-to-hut or unsupported overnight adventures. Both feature an interchangable airbag system. Both had our top two overall airbag systems.
Click to enlarge
In the end our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick award for longer tours was a tie. Both the Ortovox Tour 32+7 ABS and the Mammut Light Protection are excellent packs, they just offer features that appeal to different people.
Credit: Ortovox and Mammut

Top Pick Award for Heli, Cat, and Side-Country Skiing: The North Face Patrol 24 ABS
The North Face Patrol 24 ABS wins our Top Pick award for combining a great and light pack with the ABS twin airbag system, our favorite among airbag system designs. The pack design is well thought out, easy to use and is one of the highest scoring packs in our review. It features a durable and effective tuck-away ski/snowboard carrying system, dual-zippered waist belt pockets and an awesome over-sized safety gear pocket that we could also squeeze our skins into. The Patrol 24 was one of the trimmer riding packs we tested, but this did cut down on the overall volume. A very close second was the ABS Powder 15, which was lighter and performed slightly better on the down but missed out because it was a little less versatile.

Top Pick Award for Short Users: Mammut Ride Short RAS
The Mammut Ride Short RAS was our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick for a shorter framed airbag pack that is designed to fit women, kids and shorter framed men. While we didn't include a few of the other women's specific airbag packs in our review, we checked them out. Both because of the fit and the overall backcountry utility, the Ride RAS Short 28L was our top pick.

Also check out our Ski and Snowboard Gear Dream List.

Ian Nicholson
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