Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: Varies from $580 - $1,000 | Compare prices at 3 resellers
Pros: Very modular, awesome airbag system, do-everything pack.
Best Uses: Heli skiing, cat skiing, side-country skiing, day touring, snowmobiling.
The ABS Vario 30 is our new OutdoorGearLab Editor's Choice because it uses our top pick among airbag systems, has one of our favorite overall pack designs for backcountry utility and it excels at a wide range of uses. The Vario 30 just barely replaces its bigger volume sibling the ABS Vario 40, which was our Editors' Choice award winner last year. It was a tough decision between the two. It was only after rigorous testing and side-by-side comparisons that the 30L proved to offer greater versatility and excel in the primary applications that more people use. The Vario 40 is good at day touring and excels at multi-day and hut-to-hut tours but the Vario 30 is also excellent at day touring and performed better where a smaller pack is more ideal, like heli, cat and side-country skiing and snowboarding. We love the airbag system that ABS uses and thought it was the best on the market, with air travel problems being the only major downside. We loved the zip-on pack versatility of the Vario line of packs. If dropping $1100 is just not in your budget, we recommend checking out the best buy winner, the Backcountry Access Float 32 which is half the price. See our complete Avalanche Airbag Review to see this pack in side-by-side tests with the competition.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
The ABS airbag technology is our top pick of those available on the market. The ABS system is the only system we tested to use two airbags instead a single bag to keep the wearer on the surface. The twin bag system gives you 170L of volume, the greatest volume among all airbag system available. ABS claims that by having the airbags on the sides of the pack, instead of near the head, it helps keep your body in a more horizontal position, spreading your body surface out to further reduce the amount you'll sink into the snow. This information was based on a study from the University of Chicago as well as ABS's own studies. But like lots of other stats and theories in the avalanche airbag world, this claim is sometimes disputed. Using compressed nitrogen instead of compressed air allows ABS to use a smaller canister and thus save more space that you can use in your pack. An another advantage of the ABS system over our second favorite system, the Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System), is that with the PAS once you pull the trigger it can be hard to see whether you still have an opportunity to to get off the slide, but the ABS system doesn't block your field of vision.
The trigger handle on the ABS Vario 30 is modular so you can wear it on either the right or left shoulder strap. There isn't much evidence of less reliable trigger mechanisms among airbag packs but if you were to make an argument for the most reliable mechanism, the winner would be the ABS system. When you pull the trigger on an ABS pack it creates a small exposition, which travels down the line and fires a piece of copper that in turn punctures a hole in the gas canister.
ABS uses compressed nitrogen, which is significantly more costly and more difficult to refill compared with compressed air. Air cartridges use a pretty standard fitting and can be refilled at most scuba shops, paint ball shops and some outdoor gear stores. In many major cities and outdoor and back-country hubs you can perform a canister swap. You pay $40-70 to turn in your old used cartridge and trigger in exchange for new ones. Why they can't you get them refilled? It's because when the trigger is fired it no longer has its explosive mechanism and must be replaced. We had a bad experience when mailing one back to ABS, who took over four weeks to send us a replacement.
This is where the ABS suffers the biggest downfall. TSA doesn't allow you to bring a nitrogen filled canister empty or full onto a commercial aircraft even in your checked luggage. So the only option if there isn't a location at your destination to perform a cartridge and trigger swap for you is to pay a hazards material fee that can range from $25-70 depending on locations to ship your canister ahead of time to your destination. At least when you pay this fee you can ship the canister full.
The Vario 30 was one of our top picks for backcountry utility. We really like the huge snow safety gear pocket that fits almost any shovel or probe even longer than average sized ones. On top of snow safety gear we could easily fit skins in this pocket, helping to keep puffy layers and extra gloves dry in the main compartment. The main compartment is accessed via a zippered "lid", so the Vario 30 packs like a top loader. That gives you the option to jam as much stuff as possible and still be able to easily zip it closed, compared with a clam-shell type closure which can be difficult to close when full. On the zippered "lid" there are too sizeable zippered pockets for smaller items like sun glasses, ski wax, etc. The Vario 30 feels smaller than the BCA 32, more than the 2L of difference might imply, but because of the top loading "feel" of the Vario 30 we could pack an equal amount of stuff in it.
Carrying Skis or Snowboard
The ABS Vario 30 can carry skis diagonally or a snowboard vertically. Its ski carrying system is average and not as quick or as easy to use as some other packs we tested like the Float 22 and Float 32. For carrying a snowboard you utilize the same two straps you would for diagonal ski carry plus the help of two daisy chains. Snowboarders who carry their board on a regular basis should consider the Mammut Ride RAS 30L or The North Face Patrol ABS 24.
Comfort and Fit
The ABS Base unit, which the Vario series of packs zip onto, comes in two sizes (large and small), which helps them to fit a greater range of people. Their packs were near the top of our review for comfort and we liked their supportive frame. Of all the airbag packs we tested, this along with the Ortovox Tour ABS 32+7 is the pack we would want for heavier loads on longer tours. It didn't move with us as nicely as some of the other packs such as The North Face Patrol 24 or the ABS Powder 15, but it was still above average compared to most of the airbags we tested.
Performance on the Down
Performance on the down is how well each pack handled and moved with us while skiing and snowboarded on the descent. The Vario 30 was above average; it rode better than the Backcountry Access Float 22 or the Ortovox Tour ABS 32+7, but not quite as well as the ABS Powder 15 or Ortovox Free Rider ABS 24L. Despite its volume and how burly the base unit is, the Vario 30 moved with use nicely and offered great freedom of movement.
At 7 lbs the Vario 30 is on the heavier side. If weight is a big factor, then consider the Backcountry Access Float 22 (6 lbs), the Mammut Light Protection(6 lbs) or the Mammut Ride RAS 30L (6 lbs 6 oz), which all have around the same volume. It is lighter than some of the more heavily featured packs like the Mammut Pro Protection 35L (7 lbs 3 oz), or the Ortovox Tour ABS 32+7 (7 lbs 3 oz).
There is a carbon fiber canister currently available in Europe but isn't yet allowed in the US; ABS is working hard to get it approved. The carbon canister would save around seven ounces from the overall weight, which would bring the the Vario 30 on the lighter side of average.
Overall Cost Breakdown
The cost of airbag packs can be confusing because some manufacturers include the cartridge in the price and some don't. Some companies sell options without the airbag system or base unit, so make sure you know what you are buying. For the ABS Vario 30 it's $980 for the Base Unit, $180 for the cartridge and trigger and $100 for the zip-on pack; the whole set often retails for $1100.
ABS Vario Pack Zip-on Packs Versus Other Modular Airbag Packs
ABS makes the Vario line of modular zip-on packs offering the greatest number and the widest range of volumes from 5 to 55 liters. The other primary modular airbag companies are Ortovox, which uses its MASS (Modular Airbag Safety System) unit and Mammut's RAS (Removable Airbag System) and PAS (Protection Airbag System) interchangeable systems. Both the MASS and the PASS airbag systems cost around $700 and that does not include the compressed gas canister. The RAS is $100 less at $600. All of those are less than the ABS Base unit that retails for around $980. But on the flip side, once you have a base unit and cartridge/trigger, each additional zip-on pack is much less expensive, with most models running between $80-$140 per zip-on. That compares with Mammut and Ortovox, where each additional pack will run you around $300-$320. None of the base units includes a cartridge.
The ABS Vario 30 is a bit of a do-it-all size. The Vario 30 is big enough for someone to go backcountry touring all day and even a hut-to-hut overnight trip if they packed light enough. But also it wasn't so big and rode with us well enough to make a fantastic heli, cat or side-country skiing pack.
Vario 30 vs. Vario 40
A lot of people considering ABS packs will consider both the Vario 30 and the Vario 40. The Vario 30 is big enough for almost any day trip but is still small enough that we would recommend it for heli, cat or side-country skiing or snowboarding. The Vario 40 is big enough that it can work as an overnight or hut-to-hut pack as well as a daypack. The Vario 40 is a top loader, which is easier to pack tightly, but the Vario 30 feels like a top loader with its design. Both are solid pack designs that we though offered some of the best backcountry utility of any pack in our review.
The Vario 30 was our OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice because it had one of the most backcountry user friendly packs, the best airbag system and was a top performer in comfort and ride-ability/performance on the down. If you want a little it bigger pack for hut-to-hut or overnight tours, thenthe Vario 40 was better. It just wasn't as good for short trips or mechanized skiing or snowboarding.
— Ian Nicholson
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OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: December 3, 2013
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