Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Inexpensive, big well-designed pack, second lightest airbag pack in our review.
Cons: One size that doesn't fit many shorter or taller people.
Best Uses: Side-country skiing and snowboarding, day touring, light hut-to-hut trips.
This wins our Best Buy award because it is super well-designed, light and $150-$500 less than the competition. It is also one of the bigger volume packs we tested and is great for guides, outdoor professionals or for skiers and snowboarders who want a bigger pack for all-day tours or light overnight adventures. It has an excellent design and comes with rad features like a ski carrying system (the best we tested), fleece-lined goggle pocket, mesh helmet carrier and twin ice axe holders. The only down side is that it only comes in one frame size. It best fits broader shouldered folks between 5'7" and 6'4", depending on torso length. See our complete Avalanche Airbag Review to see how this compared to the competition. We also have a How to Choose an Avalanche Airbag article.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
This uses a single 150L airbag that deploys from the top of the pack and inflates above your head through a breakaway zippered pocket. This size and shape is the most common and is very similar to the airbags used in the Wary and Mammut RAS series. On top of increasing the odds of keeping the wearer on top of an avalanche, it also increases the chances that the wearer will come to a stop head up, hopefully reducing the time it takes for rescuers to get to the victim's airway. While the Backcountry Access Float airbags don't offer anything special, like two bags for redundancy or a head/neck wrap shape like the Mammut Protection Airbags, they are still incredibly effective at keeping the wearer on the surface. There are exceptionally few cases of one bag failing. The Airbag system is removable and there-for interchangeable but at this point you have to contact BCA directly for the option of buying a Float pack without the airbag in it.
The pull trigger is not modular on the Backcountry Access Float 32 and is fixed on the left shoulder strap. If you are a snowmobiler and want to wear the trigger on your right side so you can keep your right hand on the throttle, BCA makes the appropriately named Float Throttle, which is essentially the same pack as the Float 22 but with the trigger pull on the left side. The actual trigger mechanisms themselves are not an important a factor to consider when buying an airbag pack because they are all so reliable. A separate note is all triggers were recalled and includes BCA avalanche airbags, models Float 18, 22, 30, 32, 36 and Throttle. Owners of these packs can contact BCA for a free replacement trigger assembly by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting ordering one from BCA Website.
Traveling with a Backcountry Access Float 32 has an advantage over our Editors' Choice, the ABS VArio 30, or other packs using ABS technology. TSA and the FAA allow you to fly with an empty compressed air canister as long as it's in your checked baggage. Tip: keep the the box that your canister came in. Then when you fly, put it back in this bock. This clearly defines what your canister is and helps make sure TSA doesn't take it 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
Comfort and Fit
The Float 32 is comfortable and carries great while skiing and skinning. The only down side is that it only comes in one size, limiting the number of people it might fit. Its shoulder straps are well articulated but they definitely fit more broad-shouldered folks compared with other airbag packs we tested. Look at the smaller size Mammut Ride RAS 30L and Ride Short RAS 28L for narrower fitting shoulders. We liked the foam BCA used in the shoulder straps but we thought the Ortovox packs, ABS Vario packs and the Mammut airbag packs were a little more comfortable. The Float 32 will work best for folks who are around 5'7"-6'4" and won't work for most shorter folks.
Performance on the Down
Performance on the down is how well each pack handled and moved with us while skiing and snowboarding on the descent. The Float 32 provided a good blend of support and freedom of movement. It hugged our back well, but wasn't as nice as the ABS Powder 15, our award winner the ABS Vario 30, or the North Face Patrol 24.
Backcountry Pack Utility
The Backcountry Access Float 32 and the ABS Vario 40 and Vario 30 were our two favorite packs for usability. They narrowly edged out The North Face Patrol 24 and Mammut Ride RAS 30 and were far better than the Snowpulse Lite 35. One of our favorite features of the Float 32 is the huge dedicated safety gear pocket. We treated this like a "wet pocket"; it easily swallowed our shovel, probe, saw and skins. We didn't have to put our snowy shovel or damp skins into the main compartment with our puffy coat or extra gloves. While the Float 22 had a similar layout, it didn't have as nice a snow safety gear pocket, it was a little too short and we struggled to fit most avergae length probes and shovel in it. The Float 32 features one really large zippered hip-belt pocket that was great for ski straps, a couple (yes a couple) Snickers bars, a inclimiter or some GU at the ready. There were also a lot of other small fantastic features that made the Float 32 even more back-country friendly, like like a fleece-lined goggle pocket, mesh helmet carrier and twin ice axe holders.
Probably the biggest thing that sets the Float 32 apart from most of the other packs we tested is volume. The Float 32 has 32 liters of useable volume where all the other packs we reviewed have about five to 10 liters of their claimed volume taken up by the airbag system. For example, we thought that the Float 32 felt about the same size as the ABS Vario 40 despite the Vario's claim of being eight liters bigger. The Ortovox Tour ABS 32+7 felt bigger but not by lots. The Float 32 also feels much bigger than the Mammut Ride RAS 30 or the The North Face Patrol 24.
The Float 32 isn't really set up to carry skis A-frame style, but has an easy-to-use diagonal carry system that was our favorite of all the airbag packs on our review. BCA's system was quick and easy to set up and the skis slopped around less than on other packs we tested. For $35 you can buy a snowboard carrier that carries the snowboard horizontally behind your back.
At 6 lbs 8 oz, the Float 32 pack is the lightest pack we tested with more than 30L of useable space. It wasn't as light as the Mammut Light Protection (6lbs, Mammut Ride RAS 30L (6 lbs 6 oz) or the Float 22 (6 lbs) but it was lighter than our OutdoorGearLab Editor's Choice, the Vario 30 (7 lbs) or other bigger packs in our review like the Ortovox Tour ABS 32+7 (7 lbs 3 oz), Mammut Pro Protection 35L (7 lbs 3 oz) or the ABS Vario 40 (7 lbs 10 oz).
Overall Cost Breakdown
The cost of airbag packs can be confusing because some manufacturers include the cartridge in the price. Some companies sell options without the airbag system or base unit, so make sure you know what you are buying. With the Backcountry Access Float 32 the pack itself is $550 and the canister is sold separately for $175. Occasionally you see the two packaged together for $725 offering no discount.
We gave the Backcountry Access Float 32 our OutdoorGearLab Best Buy award because it offers a solid airbag system and a fantastically designed pack that was one of our overall favorites for backcountry utility. At $725 including the canister the only cheaper pack was the similarly designed Backcountry Access Float 22 at $675 including the canister. It is $150 less than the next least expensive non-BCA Airbag pack, the Mammut Ride RAS 30L and the Ride Short RAS at $875 ($700 for the pack, $175 for the cartridge). The Float 32 is significantly less expensive than any of the packs using ABS technology, which all were over $1000.
The Float 32 is best used by skiers and snowboarders looking for a solid back-country touring pack. The Float 32 has a solid diagonal ski carry system and had our overall favorite pack design with all of our favorite features for back-country skiing. It is a little big and bulky for side-country skiing. If you like the design of the Backcountry Access Float 32 but don't like the size or bulk, consider its small cousin, the Backcountry Access Float 22, which is better for side-country, heli and cat skiing.
Both Backcountry Access Float packs use compressed air canisters for their airbag system. Compressed air, while slightly lower in performance compared with compressed nitrogen, is much less of a hassle and is easier and less expensive to refill. BCA's cartridges use a pretty standard fitting and can be refilled at most scuba shops, paint ball shops and some outdoor gear stores for around $5-$20. If your own a scuba tank, have a glass blowing setup or anything else that uses compressed air you can buy an adapter from BCA and refill your own canisters.
The Backcountry Access Float 22, was nearly our OutdoorGearLab Best Buy award winner, nearly taking the title from its bigger cousin, the Access Float 32, reviewed here. Both Floats have the same basic pack design and layout, one of our favorites among all the airbag we tested. The main difference: the Float 22 has a much smaller avy gear pocket that will only fit shorter than average probes and shovels. Besides that, the Float 22 excels at both mechanized (heli, side-country, etc.) skiing and snowboarding and day touring, where the Float 32 is primarily a touring and light hut-to-hut pack. The Float 22 was one of the lightest airbag packs on the market and is within a few ounces of our lightest packs. Best of all, the Float 22 is the best priced airbag pack in our review.
The Access Float 42 retails for $700; according to Backcountry Access, this Float is great for pros, ski patrollers, guides, and those prepared for long days–or overnights. It comes with many extras, including a tool compartment, helmet carry system, space for two ice axes, a daisy chain, and a hydration sleeve. You can also purchase an optional snowboard carry kit.
If you need a new cylinder or you are are not able to refill the canister yourself, you can purchase a new one for $175, the Access Float Cylinder.
The Backcountry Access Tracker 2, $300, is an avalanche beacon that has three antennae offerings; it wins our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick for ease of use, best combination of intuitiveness, simplicity, and featuring what is possibly the fastest processor among all of the contenders we tested. The Tracker 2 is a good option for any type of backcountry user from expert to beginner, because of its speed and ease of use.
— Ian Nicholson
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Most recent review: December 22, 2013
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