Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: $1380
Pros: Lightweight, rides well, durable.
Cons: Does this really replace a pack for touring?
Best Uses: Heli skiing, cat skiing, side-country skiing.
The North Face ABS Powder Guide Vest is a unique and well thought out piece of backcountry gear. When we compared it to avalanche airbag packs it scored poorly. However, it did excel in certain areas and for the right application it's a good choice. The ABS Powder Guide Vest has sleeves and compartments for standard snow safety equipment plus eight zippered pockets for extra odds and ends. It also features straps to carry skis or a snowboard that were functional for short boot packs, but suffered for extended missions. Plus the Vest has the ABS system, our top pick among airbag systems. We have heard of people doing short tours with the Vest but we wouldn't recommend it. We do think it's perfect for heli, cat and side-country skiing and snowboarding where you need the essentials but not much more. Other than its lack of versatility the primary drawback to the Vest is its price: at $1380 it's the straight up most expensive airbag "pack" in our review.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
The North Face ABS Powder Guide Vest uses technology licensed from ABS, our favorite. The North Face/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. The two airbags not only give you redundancy in case one bag doesn't inflate one is punctured (you would have a single 85L bag), with both bags inflated you have 170L of volume, the most of any airbag available.
The trigger handle on The North Face ABS Powder Guide Vest is modular so you can wear it on the right or left side. 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 to puncture a hole in the gas canister.
Credit: The North Face
The Vest uses compressed nitrogen, which is significantly more costly and more difficult to refill compared with compressed air cartridges, which all use a pretty standard fitting and can be refilled at most scuba shops, paint ball shops and some outdoor gear stores. With nitrogen it's a different story. In many major cities and outdoor and back-country hubs you can perform a canister swap, where for $40-70 you exchange your used cartridge and trigger for new ones. You can't reuse a nitrogen canister and trigger because the explosion in the device is a one-time event.
This is where the ABS technology suffers its biggest downfall. TSA doesn't allow you to bring a nitrogen canister empty or full onto commercial aircraft, even in your checked luggage. So if there isn't a location at your destination to perform a cartridge and trigger swap you must pay a hazards material fee of $25-70 to ship your canister to your destination. When you pay this fee you can ship the canister full.
Comfort and Fit
The Vest comes in three sizes and has well designed pockets and some nice adjustable side panel cinch straps to tighten up around you. Even when you are carrying all of your snow safety gear plus some extras it rides and carries pretty well. Because there isn't room to put any real weight in it, it's unlikely that you'll overload it. But if you do carry too much water or stuff this vest quickly goes from a nice tight package to cumbersome and bulky.
Back-country Pack Utility
Considering your are wearing a vest and not a pack, it does better than you might think. The Vest has 8 zippered pockets and sleeves and pockets to enable you to can carry all the typical snow safety gear. You can comfortable carry that plus goggles, snacks and a little bit of water and still do okay. Once you get beyond these most basic necessities, The Vest becomes way less practical. The Vest is best suited for heli, cat and side-country skiing and not really meant for touring. Beyond the basic gear there isn't really room for an extra jacket, very much water or other things.
This is one of the strong points of the Vest. It doesn't it feel like you have a pack on because you don't. As long as you don't put too much stuff in, the abundance of pockets and compartments in the Vest moves with you surprisingly well and picked up one of the best overall scores in this category. The only other pack that was close was the ABS Powder 15.
Carrying Skis or Snowboard
There are straps to carry skis or a snowboard on the Vest. They work great for shorter booters but you wouldn't want to carry your equipment for too long because it will dig in and get quite uncomfortable.
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. With the Vest the cost breakdown is relatively simple because it comes as one package and the $1380 includes the canister, which most companies don't include in their price.
At $1380 it is the most expensive airbag "pack" in our review. It's more expensive than The North Face Patrol 24 ABS ($1180) or our Editors' Choice the ABS Vario 40 ($1250), and more than twice as much as the Backcountry Access Float 22 ($675 with the canister). The Vest is a specialized piece of backcountry equipment that is less versatile than a pack, but can be a good choice for the right applications.
The North Face makes the Powder Guide Vest without the ABS system but all the other features for $250. Another airbag vest, one that uses only one airbag and compressed air but we didn't review, is the Wary Avi Vest.
There is a carbon canister available in Europe that isn't allowed in the U.S. but they are working on it. The carbon canister would save around seven ounces from the overall weight.
The ABS Powder Guide vest isn't really practical for all-day touring or hut-to-hut skiing. We have heard of a few people who do use it for shorter tours, keeping food, water and their skins in the pockets of the vest. But we won't recommend it for most touring applications. The ABS Powder Guide Vest is a great option for heli, cat and side-country skiing and snowboarding where you need your essential avalanche safety gear but not much else.
— Ian Nicholson
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Most recent review: November 4, 2013
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