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Hands-on Gear Review
Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce Review
Cons: Heaviest airbag pack in our review, snow safety gear pocket isn't very big, one of the most expensive airbag packs
Bottom line: Easily our favorite airbag pack for multi-day trips or anytime we need to stuff a lot in our pack.
The Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce has loads of sweet features, packs easily, is super comfortable, and is one of the better larger volume airbag packs on the market. As a result, it is the winner of our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick for best airbag pack for multi-day trips and hut-to-hut adventures. The Saga 40 is nearly the best, if not the best, at handling heavier loads on both the up and the down, and is surprisingly comfortable for long periods of time.
Its top loading design means it's easy to make the most of its 40L capacity (AKA cramming stuff inside) and the back panel access means it's not a nightmare to find specific items. Overall the Saga is a very feature rich and backcountry friendly pack, with an array of useable zippered pockets, a quick ski carrying system, and a stealthy helmet holster. There are the obvious advantages of the electric fan over compressed air, allowing the user multiple deployments, hassle free refills, and easy travel. The Saga's only downside, at $1150, it's the second most expensive airbag pack in our review, after the Editors' Choice Arc'teryx Voltair 30, $1300. It's also around half a pound heavier than similarly volume packs, and its snow safety gear pocket is a little tight; in fact, we couldn't fit our skins in it, and it wasn't easy to pack away a saw and shovel back into the safety gear compartment after completing a midday stability test.
You may want to also read our How to Choose an Avalanche Airbag article and our complete Avalanche Airbag Review.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Avalanche Airbag Pack Review
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Black Diamond Saga 40 along with the rest of Black Diamonds JetForce series is the first airbag to use a battery powered fan to inflate a 200L airbag rather than some form of compressed gas. 200L is currently the biggest airbag "bag" currently available. Of course the question becomes is bigger better? Currently, there aren't any studies showing that 200L is vastly superior to the much more common sizes of between 150L to 170L.
The base of the argument is in the fundamentals of how air bags work: inverse segregation. Inverse segregation moves the largest particles to the surface and the smaller partials lower (like a much more complex version of a bag of chips) so a larger airbag can only offer more advantages and few, if any disadvantages that we have found. While compressed air and nitrogen canisters have a capacity limit on the bag or balloon they can fill, a battery powered fan has a much higher limit, which Black Diamond takes advantage of this with few if any, downsides.
Once the fan in the Saga 40 is fired it takes around three seconds to inflates the bag. This time is extremely similar time to all other compressed gas style airbags. Once deployed, the bag stays inflated for three full minutes before deflating. The idea behind deflating after three minutes is to potentially create a larger air pocket for users. Black Diamond states the Saga's rechargeable lithium-ion battery will provide four or more deployments per charge, allowing the user to repack the airbag in the event of a close call or a misfire and continue to use the airbag function for the duration of their trip, or a sketchy to return to the trailhead.
Lastly, because a computerized system is more complex and harder to visually inspect than a compressed air system, the JetForce has self-checking diagnostics and briefly fires the fan at 100% in reverse to make sure your airbag pack is still ready to go. Once all of this is complete the pack gives you a green light for a visual confirmation. The green led continues to flash occasionally throughout the day to continue to confirm everything is operating okay.
If you pull the trigger, the fan runs for nine seconds which is more than enough to inflate the bag even with the pressure of being caught in an avalanche. After these nine seconds, the fan switches cycles between running at 50% and then 100%, keeping the bag inflated for the next full minute. According to Black Diamond, this continuous pulse of air will keep the bag inflated even with a six inch tear. After this first minute, during minutes two and three the fan will alternate from running to pausing at a rate intended to keep the airbag inflated. This is partially to meet the CE specification but also to help protect the wearer from a secondary slide. With the JetForce System you can press a button at any time to stop the process or you can pull it again to start it from the beginning. At three minutes the bag sucks the air out to create an air pocket for the user. When you turn the airbag off, the trigger handle has a light that flashes red and gives you three beeps to let the user know that it is off.
Refilling Options and Travel considerations
The JetForces battery powered system can be charged at home or in a hotel so there is no need to refill a canister or get one replaced if you fire it in the field or for travel. This makes traveling with Black Diamond's JetForce system hands down the easiest. There is no hazmat to deal with and no canister to refill; simply check your pack and recharge it on the other side of your flight.
The Saga 40 is a very well-designed pack, especially for the user group it's aimed for. Its only small downfall is its snow safety gear pocket, as it is harder to put your gear back into when your pack is full, say during a midday stability test. The pocket will also fit some larger (300 cm) probes, but not all, and many more average sized shovels, but few larger ones. This pocket is tight enough that we wouldn't plan on shoving your skins in there.
The main compartment is bigger and has been created with more gear in mind. Its top loading design makes it easy to cram equipment tightly into the main compartment, but its back panel access means you don't have to take everything out to find an item you're looking for.
Carrying Skis or a Snowboard
The Saga 40 is set up to easily carry skis, a split-board, snowshoes, or a traditional snowboard. Its sleekly deploying diagonal ski carry system was solid and quick to load up during our tests. In fact along with the BCA Float packs was among the straight-up easiest and quickest to use in our review. It is still possible to carry skis and a helmet at the same time but takes a little re-clipping but we didn't find this to be a super big deal. Our only concern was the upper plastic buckle used to secure the skis on the upper strap. While we never had a problem we took care to make sure this buckle wasn't being tensioned while pressed against the skis, instead we offset it so it wasn't being loaded an awkward angles.
One of our favorite features of this pack is its slick, easy to use, and easily stowed helmet holster. The helmet holster hides under a Velcro compartment and easily deploys over anything from a climbing helmet to an XXL ski helmet. Top scorers in this metric include the Arc'teryx Voltair 30, Black Diamond Halo 28, and Black Diamond Pilot 11 Jetforce. All contenders mentioned, including the Saga 40, scored 10 out of 10s.
The Saga 40 features a few nice extra zippered pockets in both the top and bottom of the lid. The top zippered pocket is quite tall and fits most items you want easily accessible in your lid, while the underside pocket is great for keys, wallets or other smaller items. The zippered waist belt pocket is big enough for a GPS, a compass, or your phone and a small snack - this was an additional feature most of our testers really liked.
The Saga 40 is likely the most comfortable airbag pack with an overnight load of any airbag we tested. The only airbag pack that can come close for heavier loads is the Black Diamond Halo 28. The Saga is available in two sizes; S/M and L/XL, which fit a solid range of people. For folks shorter than around 5'3" or 5'4", especially if they have narrow shoulders, we would recommend the Mammut Ride Removable 3.0. The Arc'teryx Voltair 30, Black Diamond Halo 28, and Mammut Light Removable, along with the Sage 40, all scored 9 out of 10s in terms of comfort.
Performance on the down is how well each pack moved with us and handled while skiing and snowboarding on the descent. The Saga 40 compared very closely to many of the other 35+ liter bags and was similar in performance to the Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0 and Backcountry Access Float 32. Similar with larger packs, we've found that the downhill performance isn't an awesome as say, the Black Diamond Pilot 11 Jetforce, as bigger packs don't ride with the user quite as well as smaller packs. However, the Saga holds its own, and anyone comparing it to similarly sized (volume) packs will likely be satisfied. The Saga is awesome as far as its comfort and ability to handle a heavier load and it's able to transfer the weight wonderfully while skiing and skinning.
The Saga 40 tips the scales at 7 pounds 11 ounces, making it one of the heaviest airbags in our review. In the Saga's defense, it isn't much heavier than the similar sized packs, like the Backcountry Access Float 42 (7 pounds 3 ounces). If you compare the Saga to our OutdoorGearLab Best Buy the Backcountry Access Float 32, it checks in a little over a pound lighter at 6 pounds 8 ounces.
Due to the Saga 40's overall volume and design, we've found that it's at home with backcountry professionals, like ski guides, patrollers, and avalanche technicians. It is also a great choice for multi-day tours and hut-to-hut trips. Its top loading design lets the user pack it tightly with gear and it offers one of the most comfortable suspensions in our review and will let you go as far as your legs will carry you.
The Saga 40 checks in at a review high of $1150 for the whole system. Unlike many compressed air canister systems, this amount of money covers everything and there is no additional items to buy, but still, the fact remains at $1150 the Saga, similar to the rest of the Black Diamond JetForce pack is one of the most expensive packs in our fleet. You wouldn't buy the Saga because it's the best deal on an airbag, you would buy it because you like the JetForce airbag system and the Saga's features. One small flip side, with the Saga you never need to pay $5-$10 to get your cartridge refilled or $40 to swap your nitrogen canister, but it will take a long time to make up the $400 price difference.
The Bottom Line
Without considering price, the Saga would be our Top Pick for a larger airbag pack for lightweight overnights or hut-to-hut trips. We like how easily we can stuff items into its top loading design and we found its suspension handled heavier loads wonderfully. We also found it to have one of the better pack designs as far as features go. With that said, we don't think it's leaps and bounds better than the Backcountry Access Float 42, which is a half pound lighter and over $400 less expensive. If you could get away with a smaller volume pack for your hut-to-hut trips, we really like the Mammut Light Removable (30L) which checks in a full pound and a half lighter at six lbs - it also features an easy-to-cram top loading design. With that in mind, the Mammut Light Removable doesn't offer as many of the extra features that we found in the Saga 40.
— Ian Nicholson
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