The Best Avalanche Airbag Pack Review

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BCA Float 22's and Float 32's are 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
What is the best airbag pack for backcountry travel? We tested 18 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 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: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Avalanche Airbag

Displaying 1 - 5 of 18 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce
Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce
Read the Review
Mammut Pro Protection 35
Mammut Pro Protection 35
Read the Review
Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce
Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce
Read the Review
BCA Float 27 Tech
BCA Float 27 Tech
Read the Review
Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack
Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award         
Street Price $1,275
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Varies $760 - $950
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$1300$450
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Varies $294 - $329
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Pros Easy to travel with, multiple deployments possible, easy to use and functional ski carry system, cool stealthy helmet holsterAwesome airbag system, tons of cool extra features, lots of volume.Functional top loading design allows you to maximize space, carries a load among the best in our review, great backcountry friendly features, hassle free travel and optional multiple deploymentsGood price, lots of sweet features, not too heavy, rides well while skiing or snowboardingVery supportive, tons of features.
Cons Expensive, heavy, back panel access works but isn't awesomeHeavy, snow safety gear pocket is a little on the small side.Heaviest airbag pack in our reivew, snow safety gear pocket isn't very big, one of the most expensive airbag packsHeavy, snow safety gear pocket is a little on the small sideHeavy, maybe too many features, Velcro flap holding the airbag can come open and gets worse with time
Best Uses Backcountry skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, slackcountry/sidecountry skiing, heli and cat skiing, lighter duty hut-to-hut toursAll-day, hut-to-hut or mutli-day backcountry skiing and snowboarding.Multi-day tours, hut-to-hut trips, or all day missions in complex terrain, great option for guides, ski patrollers and other avalanche professionalsExcells at day touring for skiers and snowboarders, also a solid option for climbers or mountaineers who may want an airbag for the approachAll day, hut-to-hut or mutli-day backcountry skiing and snowboarding
Date Reviewed Feb 09, 2015Nov 08, 2013Feb 09, 2015Feb 09, 2015Nov 11, 2013
Weighted Scores Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce Mammut Pro Protection 35 Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce BCA Float 27 Tech Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack
Airbag System - 20%
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Comfort - 15%
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Performance - 15%
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Product Specs Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce Mammut Pro Protection 35 Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce BCA Float 27 Tech Ortovox Tour 32 + 7 ABS Pack
Volume 28L 35L minus system 40L 27L useable Space 32L +7L of useable space
Cost + Extra? $1250 for everything 950+$200 for the cartridge $1300 for everything $600+$175 for cartridge $1200 includes cartridge
Weight with 7lbs 3 oz 7lbs 3 oz 7lbs 10 oz 6lbs 13 oz 7 lbs. 3 oz.
Airbag units or packs can be purchased sepratley No Yes No No Yes
Cartridge type Electric fan Compressed Air Electric fan Compressed Air Compressed Nitrogen
Cost to Refill Not Applicable $5-20 Not Applicable $5-20 $40-70
Volumne of Bag(s) 1x 200L 1x 150L 1x 200L 1x 150L 2x 85L (170L total)
Frame sizes SM/ML One size SM/ML One size One size
Can you fly with it? Yes, no cartridge Yes Yes, no cartridge Yes No
Helmet carrier? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Carry Snowboard No Yes Yes With extra attachement No
Carry skis A-frame or Diagonal Diagonal Diagonal Diagonal Diagonal X-Frame or Diagonal

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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review



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Real world tests during one of our side-by-side comparisons days to bring you the best avalanche airbag pack review.
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 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 Sierra and while working as part of Tailgate Alaska's World Freeride Festival's Snow Safety Team in the Alaskan Chugach Range. We also preformed 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 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 product for shorter users, and the best overall value.
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Ryan O'Connell, Eric Dalzell, and Ian Nicholson testing airbag packs at Thompson Pass near Valdez, Alaska.
Credit: Seth Chanin
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 like the airbag in your car because it doesn't guarantee safety (see statistics below). While we are all for this movement, the reality is 99% of people still call them airbag packs and as a result that's what we call them here 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.

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BCA Float 22's and Float 32's are 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 law of physics and a process called inverse segregation which simply put 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. If that seems too complicated, think of a bag of chips, when you have a bag of chips, all the small chips work there 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:


Statistics


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 backcountry travelers wearing an avalanche airbag would likely have been saved 35 to 81 users out of every 100 who would have otherwise died, with the average of the these five studies being 64. What this really means is: in real world experience, 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
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These statistics are gathered from Jonathan Shefftz compilation of information from five mostly European studies on the survival rate differential with, and without airbag packs originally published in the April 2012 issue of the Avalanche Review. As more data is gathered these numbers continue to shift slightly and thus the percentage ranges on the pie-graph.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
To take statistics one step further lets look at the total number of people caught in avalanches, not just human related fatal avalanches. The exact statistic on survival rate/fatality rate is difficult to obtain because there are an unknown amount of unreported avalanches. We can start to draw some conclusions among reported avalanches involving humans in North America where around 15-20% are fatal, meaning backcountry travelers survive avalanches around 80-85% of the time. The exact break down of why the person survived is not known, referring to what percentage are saved by beacons, caught but not buried, were able to escape the slab, or they just simply got lucky and hopefully learned a lesson. Of that 15-20% of people that are killed, among all reported avalanches, airbags save roughly 40-60% of those 15-20% thus an overall theoretical 10% increased chance of survival if you are caught in an avalanche.

Our view at OutdoorGearLab, is that saving roughly half of those who die in avalanches who otherwise might be killed 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. With that said, does that mean you should ski, snowboard and snowmobile in terrain, under conditions you normally wouldn't go without an airbag pack. No, because you could still easily die. Airbag packs are also still not as important as avalanche beacons and wearing an airbag pack and not a beacon is not a good idea.

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Oh Snap! Shooting cracks!!! While wearing an airbag pack does increase your chance of survival in an avalanche, it doesn't mean you don't still need to wear a beacon or should travel in terrain you otherwise shouldn't.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

A Note on Wearing an Avalanche Airbag Pack


In the backcountry, 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 you do get buried you have a next to zero percent survival chance without a beacon. Being caught in an avalanche can be fifty times worse than the gnarliest wave you've ever experienced. It's an incredibly violent experience, where 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. 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. Still the number one reason backcountry travelers still die using airbag packs is trauma and not actually being buried while wearing one.

Criteria for Evaluation


Below we describe the specific criteria by which we evaluated each contender.
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Chris Marshall gathering valuable feedback for our tests with the Matier glacier in the background. He's wearing a Mammut Pro Protection airbag pack, while skiing in Pemberton, BC.
Credit: Joshua Cole

Airbag Systems


This is probably the first or second most important factor when considering an avalanche airbag 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 or if it is electrically powered.

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 offers a few big advantages as well as a few big disadvantages. This technology uses compressed nitrogen instead 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 total 170L of volume, greater than all the other non-ABS packs, which all feature a single 150L bag. It still isn't quite as big as Black Diamond's JetForce system which uses a single 200L bag. Besides solid "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, if one is compromised, you at least have a single 85L bag. ABS also claims that by having the airbags on the sides, instead of near the head, helps keep your body in a more horizontal position during 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 conducted 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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The Black Diamond JetForce electric fan airbag system.
Credit: Black Diamond
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 4+ 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 off at the car and there is the obvious advantage that the user will be less likely to hesitate if they know they have more deployments, nor is it a straight-up pain to preform 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 canisters there is no limit as to how much air you have to work with (obviously you can only fit so much air in a canister), but with the JetForce fan pulling air from the atmosphere there is a much, much larger unlimited source to draw from. Basically Black Diamond opted for a larger airbag because they could and it has no downsides and only potential benefits. Inverse segregation works by moving the largest particles to the surface so a larger airbag has obvious advantages and no disadvantages that we have found.

Once deployed the bag deflates after 3 minutes to help increase the size of the victims air pocket and thus hopefully increasing their chance of survival (Mammut's system deflates as well). The JetForce system is also by far the easiest to travel with. While not a big deal for most backcountry users, it is a factor for some. Because the JetForce uses no canister that needs refilling, just fly with your JetForce pack and charge it up upon arrival to your destination.
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Black Diamond JetForce system being charged (left) and trigger with operational display lights (right).
Credit: Ian Nicholson
The JetForce features a systems check of self diagnostics every time you turn it on. Once powered up it quickly runs 100% in reverse (So it doesn't inflate your airbag) to make sure the your pack is functioning. At the end of the diagnostics the JetFroce flashes a green light letting the user know that everything is okay and ready to go. The green light will continue to pulse throughout the day to continue confirming that the pack is operating as it's supposed to. During deployment once the trigger is pulled, the fan runs at 100% for nine seconds, which provides more than enough air to inflate the airbag even with the pressure of moving snow during an avalanche. Once nine seconds has passed the fan cycles between running at 50% and then 100% in order to keep the bag inflated for the next full minute. According to Black Diamond these continuous 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 at a rate to keep the airbag inflated but less than the first minute. This is partially to meet the CE specification requiring airbags to stay inflated for three minutes, but also to help safe-guard the wearer from a secondary avalanche. With the JetForce System, the user has some control of the process and can press a button at any time to stop it completely or you can pull the trigger again to fire it from the beginning.
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Left shows how the Snowpulse Life Bag/Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System) wraps around the wearers head to help prevent trauma. On the right, an inflated PAS system and 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 and we ranked it the same as ABS, as it offers its own set of unique advantages. 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, it blocks your field of vision making it much harder to get off the avalanche. All the PAS system airbags have adjustments in the length of the frame which not only make the pack feel better but more importantly, insure a good fit so 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 there wearer isn't on the surface it could potentially allow for less airspace. Similar to the Black Diamond System, the Mammut airbag packs deflate after a few minutes so that if the user was buried their air pocket would be larger and thus potentially increasing their survival time under the snow.

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On the left, a deployed RAS system on the Mammut Ride RAS 30L. On the 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. What we love is the price, easier than ABS travel, and the wide array of packs offered that a single unit can interchange among.

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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 (150L) and shape airbag/balloon as the Mammut Ride RAS and the Wary. The airbag system used in the Backcountry Access Float packs is removable and is therefore interchangeable, but at the time of 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. The primary advantage is you could use the pack without the weight of the airbag for spring or summer time tours. 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 saving 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 actually an 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 ever 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 vs. Electric Fan


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 to 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 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? 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
This is where the Black Diamond JetForce packs have an obvious advantage, while they are much more expensive than many models to begin with, refilling is totally hassle free, just plug it into your wall and go. Among gas cylinders 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 backcountry 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 refills 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. Think about how much you might travel with your backcountry pack and determine if it's worth it. We notice a lot of folks think buying a pack that's easier to travel with is a good idea, but the three or four times they fly with it isn't worth the extra $400.

Similar to refilling, this is where Black Diamond's JetForce electric fan systems rocks. There are no restrictions on flying with their lithium ion battery and it's as easy as it gets to "recharge" on the other side. TSA does want you to fly with the battery discharged so there is no chance of an accidental deployment.

As far as gas cylinders goes, 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 they are 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 backcountry 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 splitboard 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 or an incredibly powerful van pushing against your skis will have any negative effect on airbag deployment, it could happen. So why risk it? 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, possibly at lower elevations, the BCA Float 42 Tech, Mammut Light Removable Airbag, Mammut Ride RAS, Pro Protection 35 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, Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce, Ortovox ABS Tour 32 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 pure non-splitboard snowboarders, the Mammut packs and the Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce, were the best including Ride RAS 30L, Ride Short RAS, Pro Protection 35 and the Light Protection. The North Face Patrol ABS 24 was good, but not as good. We liked the snowboard carrying system available for all of 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

Backcountry Utility


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 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 sunblock. We liked packs that had soft, non-scratching fleece lined goggle pockets. In the end, our favorite overall backcountry 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, Black Diamond Halo 28, BCA Float 27 and Saga 40 are all 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 and the Black Diamond Pilot 11 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 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 his way down a tight couloir after a steep entrance. He is wearing an ABS Powder 15.
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 run away winner and some of the best riding packs were also the smallest. The ABS Powder 15, 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 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. The larger packs like the Float 42 Tech, Mammut Pro Protection 35 and Saga 40 JetForce just because of their volume didn't move with us as nicely on the down while skiing or snowboarding.
Click to enlarge
Ian Nicholson testing airbag packs for this review in the Duffy Lakes Region of British Columbia.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

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 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.
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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: 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. Now the positive side for ABS, which not only produces the greatest number of zip-ons but also the widest range of volumes, from 8-55L. Although 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 Ortovox, 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 airbag systems are removable and therefore interchangeable, at this point because they are not available without 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.

Click to enlarge
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, and Black Diamond Saga 40 and Halo 28 are all available in two torso lengths. We break down how we thought each pack fit in our individual reviews.

Weight


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 airbag pack. The next closest packs where the Mammut Light Protection, which checked in at 6 lbs. The incredibly price pointed Backcountry Access Float 22 also checks in at 6 lbs. What's even more incredible is that the Light Removable Airbag is modular and the others are not. That's a pound and a half lighter than our Editors' Choice the Black Diamond Halo 28 Jet Force.


OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice


The Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce is our new
Click to enlarge
Black Diamond Halo 28 Jetforce pack
Credit: Black Diamond
OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice because of its solid, near-the-top-of-the-review backcountry utility, rad overall pack design, fit, comfort while riding, and sate-of-the-art airbag technology. While the ability to blow off your airbag four times during the day isn't game changing, we do like that it will make users less trigger shy. The lithium ion battery makes air travel a breeze, and the fact that the fan can still inflate the airbag during an avalanche even with a 6" gash is awesome. The only downfall of the Halo 28 is the back accessed zippered compartment can be hard to pack and utilize space effectively and the $1250 price tag. The Halo 28's cost is near the most expensive in our review and almost twice the price of some of our other award winners. Also because consumers aren't able to buy packs separate from the system, they have to invest another $1200-$1300 every time they want to buy another JetForce pack.

Best Buy Award: Backcountry Access Float 32


We gave our OutdoorGearLab Best Buy award
Click to enlarge
The Backcountry Access (BCA) Float 32
Credit: BCA
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 best of all it is one of our favorite overall pack designs.

Top Pick for Light Weight


The Mammut Light Removable Airbag is the
Click to enlarge
The Mammut Light Removeable Airbag
Credit: Mammut
lightest airbag pack in a mid sized volume on the market, the lightest airbag pack in our review and its airbag unit is interchangeable!!! At 5lbs 10 ounces its over a pound and a half lighter than our Editors' Choice the BD Halo 28 and nearly half a pound lighter than the next closest airbag pack. The Light Removable Airbag carries heavy loads and rides surprisingly well and we thought it was comparable to our other top scorers and thought this was a pretty sweet pack. As you would imagine the Light Removable Airbag doesn't have a ton of features, but it has all the basics and features both diagonal, and A-frame style carrying ability and our testers found it to be a super functional pack and think that most backcountry tourers will appreciate its weight.

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
Click to enlarge
Black Diamond Saga 40 Jetforce avalanche airbag pack
Credit: Black Diamond
is the best airbag pack for mutli-day and hut-to-hut tours. We gave it our Top Pick award because it carries a load fantastically with its rock solid suspension and comfortable shoulder straps. We love its top loading design that let us maximize every inch of its 40L volume. We liked its overall design and our testers thought it had nearly all the right features without a lot of extras. Besides the price the biggest downfall of the Saga 40 is the weight; at 7lbs 11 ounces its the heaviest airbag pack in our review. Still half a pound heavier than the similarly volumed 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 Heli, Cat, and Side Country Skiing:


The North Face Patrol 24 ABS


The North Face Patrol 24 ABS is a great,
Click to enlarge
The North Face Patrol 24 ABS
Credit: The North Face
extremely functional light pack, that rides on the down fantastically with the solid ABS twin airbag system. 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 oversized 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. With that said, it was a very close pick, with the Black Diamond Pilot 11 JetForce also being a strong contender and for some users a few of its advantages could be the difference. The Pilot 11 also rides fantastically and is far easier to travel with because of its electric powered fan. We would like to note that many heli operations are often set up for compressed nitrogen and compressed gas airbag packs so depending on your destination, the amount of advantage changes (or you drive to your heli/cat or especially side country destination. The reason the Pilot 11 didn't win out? It's just a pretty darn small pack we think for a true heli or cat ski only pack and for a lot of side country skiers having a little more space is nice (like 15-20L).

Best for Short Users: Mammut Ride Short Removable


The Mammut Ride Short RAS 28
Click to enlarge
Ride short Removable Airbag
Credit: Mammut
was best 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 Removable Short 28L was our Top Pick mainly because it just straight up fits smaller folks better. The Mammut Pro Short Protection should also be considered and it stands a great 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 $1250 on our
Click to enlarge
Editors' Choice the Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce? We think the BCA Float 27 Tech is nearly as good of a pack that rides on the down just as well, with its only downsides being no multiple deployment options and refilling and traveling are marginally more difficult.

Runner Up: Pro Protection 35


The Mammut Pro Protection 35
Click to enlarge
Mammut Pro 35 Avalanche Airbag pack
Credit: Mammut
gets special notice because it combines a super useful touring pack; that is one of our top overall favorites for pack-functionality with one of the top airbag systems. The Pro Protection also moved with us wonderfully while we skied steep couloirs and managed tricky entrances. What we really like about Mammut's PAS (Protection Airbag System) is both the fact that it's interchangeable and the variety of pack options Mammut has to choose from. We like the the that the PAS system is built into the shoulder straps, so when deployed it inflates around your head and neck in an effort to further reduce the chance of trauma. Critics point out that there is little evidence or proof of a real world case were someone was saved where they otherwise would have been hurt. We understand that is hard to prove, and we like the airbag system as an airbag system and think the horse shoe shape can't hurt. We like the ease of filling of the oxygen canister and while the Pro Protection a little on the heavier side, its still nearly a half pound lighter than the ABS Vario 30.

Also check out our Ski and Snowboard Gear Dream List.

Ian Nicholson
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