Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: $1300
Pros: Many zip-on pack options for maximum versatility , best airbag system.
Cons: Expensive, pack design good but not great.
Best Uses: Backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
ABS is the oldest airbag pack manafacturer out there and has refined their airbag system over the last 20-plus years. The Vario 40 is our Editor's Choice because it uses the best airbag safety system. 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 loved that you could zip different packs onto the same base unit so people could only spend $125-$200 on a new "pack" and still have the same airbag. While we thought the actual design was only okay, there are many other packs from a wide range of manufactures that can zip on, including those from Mystery Ranch, Da Kine, and Arva. A plus or minus depending on how you look at it is the canister that uses nitrogen instead of the compressed air used by most manufacturers. Nitrogen is less effected by temperature and will result in better performance. We loved that part of it, but for traveling it is difficult to find a location to refill or trade in used canisters. These canisters are also 2-3 times more expensive to replace and if you didn't do a cartridge swap it took a disappointing four weeks to get it back from ABS. 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 is the best on the market. The ABS system is the only one we tested to use two airbags to keep the wearer on the surface. The two airbags also give you a certain level of redundancy in case one doesn't inflate one is punctured; at least you have a single 85L bag.
Comfort and Fit
The ABS packs are available 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 supportive frame. Of all the airbag packs we tested, this is the pack we would want for heavier loads on longer tours. It didn't necessarily move with us as nicely as some of the other packs such as The North Face Patrol 24 or the Backcountry Access Float 32, but it did all right.
One of the cooler things about the ABS Vario series is that it comes in several volumes. ABS makes 40, 25, 18, and 15-liter zip-on options, plus zip-on options are also available from other companies including Mystery kRanch, Arva, Evoc, Millet, Rossignolm and Da Kinem with more added every year. You can buy several zip-on volume packs and one base ABS unit. The Vario line from ABS are good but not great. They are very modular, which is awesome but they aren't quite as user friendly as many other packs we tested like the BCA Float 32. Despite ABS having made packs for 20 years and having the most researched airbag system on the market, their pack design could be a little better.
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. As a whole, the Vario stuck out a little farther than we would have liked but part of that is because it being such a big volume pack. The Vario features removable compression straps; 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. We liked the nice 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 diagonal carry skis with (A-frame). To make it even better, when you are A-framing your skis they sit far enough back that your airbags 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.
There is a carbon canister available in Europe that isn't allowed in the US but they are working on it. this would save around seven ounces from the overall weight.
At 7 pounds 10 ounces, it 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.
— Ian Nicholson
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Most recent review: January 6, 2013
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