Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: $1300
Pros: Most options for base unit, solid pack design, best airbag system.
Cons: Expensive, heavy.
Best Uses: All-day, hut-to-hut or mutli-day backcountry skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling.
ABS is the oldest airbag pack manufacturer and and has refined their airbag system over the last 20-plus years. The Vario 40 is still a top pick and was our OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice last year because it uses our top pick for airbag systems and has one of our favorite backpack designs. We like the ABS system because instead of using one 150L bag like most airbag packs we tested, it uses two airbags totaling 170L. This offers some redundancy and greater "buoyancy." We also love that you can zip different packs onto the same base unit so once you own the base unit, it is "only" another $100-$200 for each new "pack." If you don't like the Vario pack zip-on designs, there are many other packs from a wide range of manufacturers that offer zip-on options, including those from Mystery Ranch, Da Kine (DaKine Altitude ABS is a favorite among OGL friends) and Arva. ABS and packs using ABS technology are the only ones using compressed nitrogen instead of compressed air. Nitrogen is better performing in colder temperatures and allows you to use a smaller canister, but it is more difficult to travel with and more costly to refill. The other disadvantage was the price; at nearly $1300 for a full unit it is one of the most expensive airbag packs in our review.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
The ABS airbag technology was our favorite. The ABS system is the only one we tested to use two airbags instead of the more common single bag to keep the wearer on the surface. Even though airbags are burly and are made of the same material used in you car's airbags, its still nice that the two airbags give you redundancy in case one doesn't inflate or is punctured – then you would at least have a single 85L bag. The twin bag system also gives you 170L of volume, the most of any system available. With compressed nitrogen you can use a smaller canister than with compressed air, leaving more room in your pack to be used for other things. ABS claims that by having the airbags on the sides instead of near the head it helps keep your body horizontal when the avalanche hits you, thus helping prevent you from sinking back into the snow. This claim was based on a study at the University of Chicago and their own studies, but is also sometimes disputed. When compared to the Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System) an advantage of the ABS is you can still see all around you, giving you the ability to deploy your airbag and still be able to ski or snowboard in a possible attempt to get off of the avalanche.
The trigger handle on the ABS Vario 40 is modular so you can wear it on the right or left shoulder strap. While we didn't think there was much evidence of less reliable trigger mechanisms, if you were to make an argument for the most reliable the winner would be the ABS. When you pull the trigger on an ABS pack it creates a small exposition which then travels down the line and forces a piece of metal 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 cartridges that all 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 and you turn in your used cartridge and trigger in exchange for new ones. Why can't you get them refilled? In the trigger mechanism of an ABS pack a piece of metal is fired at high speed to puncture the cartridge and the trigger no longer has its explosive mechanism. If you don't live near some place that can preform a cartridge swap it can take up to four weeks one back from ABS.
This is the biggest disadvantage to the ABS system. TSA doesn't allow you to bring a nitrogen canister, empty or full, checked or carried-on, onto a commercial flight. If there isn't a location at your destination where you can perform a cartridge and trigger swap, the only option is to pay a hazardous material fee (ranges from $25-70 depending on locations) to ship your canister ahead of time to your destination. At least when you mail it with a hazardous material fee you can ship the canister full.
Comfort and Fit
The ABS packs are available in two sizes (large and small) which helps them fit a greater range of people. Their packs were near the top of our review for comfort and we liked their supportive supportive frame. Of all the airbag packs we tested, this is the pack we would want for heavier loads on longer tours.
Performance on the Down
Performance on the down is how well each pack handled and moved us while skiing and snowboarding on the descent. Overall the Vario was pretty average in this department. It didn't move with us as nicely as some of the other packs such as the The North Face Patrol 24 or the ABS Powder 15 pack. But it did perform about the same as the Backcountry Access Float 32 and the Mammut Ride RAS.
Overall we really liked the pack design of the Vario 40. The top-loading Vario 40 is big enough for all-day and multi-day tours. The lid is permanently attached but relatively over-sized and can fit a a bunch of stuff in its two pockets. The Vario features removable compression straps and daisy chains up the sides of the pack allow for lashing versatility. There is no perfect way to carry a snowboard but you could pretty easily rig something up with the daisy chains. We liked the detachable helmet holder.
The Vario features a small side-access zipper in the lower part of the pack. We didn't use it but it could be nice for getting items at the bottom of your pack. The Vario is one of the few airbag packs that you can diagonally carry skis with (A-frame). To make it even better, when you are A-framing your skis they sit far enough back that your airbag could still inflate. The safety gear pocket is big enough to comfortably hold shovel, saw, avalanche probe and skins. It is a separate compartment from the main compartment so you can use it as a "wet pocket" so your damp skins and snowy shovel don't get your puffy coat wet.
One of the cooler things about the ABS Vario series is that it comes in several volumes. ABS makes 55, 40, 30, 18, and 15-liter zip-on options, plus zip-on options are also available from other companies, including Mystery kRanch, Arva, Evoc, Millet, Rossignol and Da Kine (DaKine Altitude ABS is a favorite among OGL friends) with more added every year. You can buy several zip-on volume packs and one base ABS unit. The Vario line from ABS are some of our favorite packs, but we liked a few features from other companies a little bit better, like the ski carrying system from Backcountry Access Floats or the Snowboard carrying system of the Mammut Ride RAS 30L or The North Face Patrol ABS 24.
At 7 pounds 10 ounces, this is the heaviest airbag pack in our review. This is partly because The Vario is super tough and built to last and partly because of its versatile system that lets you zip on different volume airbag packs. Is this versatility and durability worth the weight? That's up to you.
There is a carbon canister available in Europe that isn't allowed in the US but they are working on it. The carbon canister would save around seven ounces from the overall weight.
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 40, it's $980 for the base unit, $180 for the cartridge and trigger and $120 for the zip-on pack, or the whole set often retails for $1250.
The ABS Vario 40 along with the ABS Vario 30 are among the most expensive avalanche airbag packs on the market. The ABS Vario 40 is comparable in price and generally within $100 of other packs using ABS technology like The North Face Patrol 24 ABS ($1180) or the Ortovox 32 + 7 ABS ($1200), and less expensive than The North Face ABS Powder Guide Vest ($1380). However ABS airbag packs tend to run around $200-$450 more than several models using compressed air like the Mammut Ride RAS 30L and the Backcountry Access Float 32 and 22.
There are several reasons to choose the ABS packs, but being the best deal isn't one of them. If you are looking to own two airbag packs, say one bigger for all-day or overnight touring and one smaller one for heli, cat or side-country skiing, then ABS still a little more expensive.
The ABS Vario pack is best for back-country skiers and snowboarders who are looking for a pack they can tour with and like the idea of being able to zip on multiple packs. Its a great pack for short, all-day or mutli-day tours ski tours that you hopefully don't have to fly to. It will work fine for skiers and 'boarders looking for an airbag pack for heli and cat skiing. But it is bigger, heavier and didn't ride as well as other packs we tested like the ABS powder 15, The North Face Patrol 24 or The North Face ABS Powder Guide Vest.
The Bottom Line
We gave Our OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice to the ABS Vario 40L because it is a well designed, functional and extremely versatile ski pack that uses the best airbag system on the market. Beyond the Vario 40 is the ability to easily and quickly interchange other zip on models from ABS or a half dozen other companies. Compared with other modular airbags, ABS offered the greatest number of sizes in the widest range of volumes. The downsides? Really only that compressed nitrogen is a hassle to travel with and refill and the Vario is a good but not fantastic pack design.
— Ian Nicholson
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Most recent review: January 6, 2013
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