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Hands-on Gear Review
Backcountry Access Float 32 Review
Cons: One size that doesn't fit many shorter people
The latest version of the BCA Float 32 is an improvement on an already awesome pack design and wins our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick award. While there aren't any huge changes between the previous version and the current one there are a number of subtle upgrades. These upgrades include, a complete "U" shaped snow safety pocket, dual zippered waistbelt pockets, improved ice carrying options, some adjustability in torso length, and the option to wear the trigger on either shoulder strap. This is one of the lighter packs in our review coupled with one of our favorite overall backcountry pack designs. Best of all it's near a review low price for its volume at $550.
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.
RELATED: Our complete review of avalanche airbag
Analysis and Hands-on Test Findings
This pack uses a single 150L airbag that deploys from the top 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 therefore 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 now modular on the newest Backcountry Access Float 32 and can be worn on either the right or left shoulder strap. You can customize it so that if you're touring you can grab the pull trigger with your dominate hand or if you are a snowmobiler you probably want to wear the trigger on your right side so you can keep your right hand on the throttle. BCA uses a very simple mechanical system that is very reliable but needs to be checked regularly to make sure the inner threads don't vibrate loose. You should inspect all airbag packs between backcountry outings and at least be checking the trigger on the Float series of packs which only takes about one minute.
A separate note for earlier versions of the older Float series of packs is that all triggers were recalled including BCA avalanche airbag models Float 8, 22, 30, 32 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 from BCA Website.
Traveling with a Backcountry Access Float 32 has a big advantage over the ABS Vario 30, or other packs using ABS technology. For domestic flights within the United States, TSA and the FAA allow you to fly with an empty compressed air canister as long as it's in your checked baggage. At this point it is okay to fly internationally with a full canister, but make sure to check up-to-date information. A good tip is to keep the the box that your canister came in. Then when you fly, put it back in this box. This clearly defines what your canister is and helps make sure TSA doesn't take it away from you. We recommend going one extra step and putting a note on it saying it's empty and for an avalanche airbag pack.
The new Float 32 features an adjustable waist belt that can slide up and down 2.5" to accommodate a wider range of users heights. It still tends to fit folks a little on the taller side but now has a slightly larger range. We think the new Float 32 fits most people between the heights of 5'5"- 6'6" with the sweet spot being around 5'7"- 6'4" tall. We still think if you're shorter than 5'6" you should check out the Backcountry Access Float 22 or a pack with a similar fitting length but with even narrower shoulder straps.
The Float 32 is comfortable and carries great while skiing and skinning. The only downside is that it only comes in one size, which limits the number of people it might fit. The shoulder straps are well articulated but they definitely fit slightly more broad shouldered folks compared with other airbag packs we tested.
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 provides a good blend of support and freedom of movement. It hugged our back well, but wasn't as nice as the ABS Powder 15 or the North Face Patrol 24, but moved with us as well or better than most packs with a similar volume.
Backcountry Pack Utility
The Backcountry Access Float 32 is one of our favorite packs for its overall usability and backcountry utility. One of our favorite features of the Float 32 is the huge dedicated safety gear pocket. We treated this like a "wet pocket" and it easily swallowed our shovel, probe, saw and skins. We liked not having to put our snowy shovel or damp skins into the main compartment with our puffy coat or extra gloves. The Float 22 has a similar layout, but it doesn't have as nice a snow safety gear pocket, is a little too short and we struggled to fit slightly larger than average length probes and shovels into it.
The permanently attached stowable and deployable helmet holder featured on this pack is straight up awesome. Not only does it hang onto your helmet nicely and keep most snow falling out of the sky out, it can also be offset to one side when carrying your skis diagonally on the back.
Probably the biggest thing that sets the Float 32 apart from most 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 the Float 32 felt about the same size as the ABS Vario 40 despite 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 and the The North Face Patrol 24.
Carrying Skis or a Snowboard
The new Float 32 unlike the older version of this pack, can carry skis A-frame style. This is great for long, low elevation approaches but BCA, like most airbag manufacturers doesn't recommend doing it in avalanche terrain. THe Float 32 does have 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 sloshed around less than nearly all the other packs we tested. For carrying a traditional snowboard the Float 32's compression straps can be flipped around and clipped across the back to carry a board vertically. This basic system was surprisingly practical and our single plank riders appreciated its functionality. Another option for boarders offered by BCA is that for $35 you can buy a snowboard carrier that carries the snowboard horizontally behind your back.
At 7 lbs 1 oz, the Float 32 pack is on the lighter side among packs we tested with more than 30L of useable space. It wasn't as light as the Mammut Light Protection (6lbs), or Mammut Ride RAS 30L (6 lbs 6 oz) but it was lighter than our Editors' Choice, The Black Diamond Halo 28 (7 lbs 8 oz), or other bigger packs in our review like the Mammut Pro Protection 35L (7 lbs 3 oz) or the Black Diamond Saga 40 (7 lbs 11 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. For $725 including the canister, the only more inexpensive pack was the similarly designed Backcountry Access Float 22 for $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 were all over $1000.
The Float 32 is best used by skiers and snowboarders looking for a solid backcountry touring pack. The Float 32 has a solid diagonal and vertical ski carry system and has our overall favorite pack design with all of our favorite features for backcountry skiing. It is a little big and bulky for side-country skiing. However if you like the design of the Backcountry Access Float 32 but don't like its volume, consider its smaller 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, paintball shops and some outdoor gear stores for around $5-$20. If your own a scuba tank or anything else that uses compressed air you can purchase an adapter from BCA and refill your own canisters.
Backcountry Access Float 22
BCA Float 42 Tech
Backcountry Access Tracker 2
— Ian Nicholson
OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: October 4, 2016
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