Our backcountry experts have spent the last seven years testing nearly 30 of the best avalanche airbag packs, and recently purchased 11 of today's top models for an updated head-to-head comparison. Our testing team includes avalanche forecasters, safety course instructors, and certified ski and mountain guides who shouldered these packs on some hair-raising ascents and descents around the world from the Alaskan Chugach Range, to the Sierra Nevada, to the French and Swiss Alps. After our exhaustive side-by-side analysis, we'll show you the intricacies that make each airbag system different, which packs provide the best comfort and support, and which models balance features and performance with the lightest weight.
The Best Avalanche Airbag Pack Review
|Price||$1,300.00 at Backcountry||$1,200 List||$799.90 at Amazon||$1,249.95 at Amazon||$549.95 at REI|
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|Pros||Best airbag system currently out there, one of the best fitting airback packs, killer pack design, functional, extremely water resistant, lots of small and rad features, easy to travel with||Easy to travel with, multiple deployments possible, easy to use and functional ski carry system, cool stealthy helmet holster||Awesome airbag system for its potential for trauma reduction and being modular, tons of extra well-designed and useful features, lots of volume, comfortable shoulder straps and back-panel||Functional top loading design allows you to maximize space, carries a load among the best in our review, great backcountry friendly features, hassle free travel and optional multiple deployments||Inexpensive, well-designed pack, lightweight|
|Cons||One of the heavier airbag packs, expensive||Expensive, heavy, back panel access works but isn't awesome||Average weight, snow safety gear pocket is a little on the small side||Heaviest airbag pack in our review, snow safety gear pocket isn't very big, one of the most expensive airbag packs||One size that doesn't fit many shorter people|
|Bottom Line||If we could only own one airbag pack for everything from day tours to hut-to-hut skiing, this would be it.||One of the best airbag systems that sports a solid design that is good for most day trips - as long as you don't need extra gear for colder temps or technical descents.||A top-notch pack design ready for any day trip; it can pull double duty for shorter or supported overnight adventures.||Easily our favorite airbag pack for multi-day trips or anytime we need to stuff a lot in our pack.||One of our favorite overall pack designs coupled with BCA's basic but extremely functional and reliable airbag pack; all at a respectable weight and a good price.|
|Rating Categories||Arc'teryx Voltair 30||Halo 28 JetForce||Mammut Pro Protection 3.0||Saga 40 JetForce||Backcountry Access Float 32|
|Airbag System (20%)|
|Backcountry Utility (22%)|
|Downhill Performance (13%)|
|Specs||Arc'teryx Voltair 30||Halo 28 JetForce||Mammut Pro...||Saga 40 JetForce||Backcountry Access...|
|Volume||30L useable space||28L||35L minus system||40L||32L useable space|
|Weight with Cartridge||7.6 lbs||7.5 lbs||7.19 lbs||7.69 lbs||7.06 lbs|
|Airbag unit or packs can be purchased separately/independently||No||No||Yes||No||Yes (but only 1 8L model)|
|Cartridge type||Electric fan||Electric fan||Compressed Air||Electric fan||Compressed Air|
|Cost to Refill||Not Applicable||Not Applicable||$5-20||Not Applicable||$5-20|
|Volumne of Bag(s)||1x 150L||1x 200L||1x 150L||1x 200L||1x 150L|
|Frame sizes||One size||SM/ML||One size||SM/ML||One size|
|Can you fly with it?||Yes, no cartridge||Yes, no cartridge||Yes, empty domestically in the US, Full internationally.||Yes, no cartridge||Yes, empty domestically in the US, Full internationally.|
|Carry Snowboard||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||With extra attachement|
|Carry skis A-frame or Diagonal||Diagonal/vertical carry on back||Diagonal||Diagonal||Diagonal||Diagonal|
Best Overall Avalanche Airbag Pack
Arc'teryx Voltair 30
The Arc'teryx Voltair 30 is OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice because of its overall pack design, including easy-to-use leg strap, top-of-the-review backcountry utility, awesome fit, and state of the art technology. There are many decent airbag packs, but cost aside, if we could only have one airbag for day-touring, side-country, or occasional (well-supported) hut trips, the Voltair would be it. It features what we consider to be the best avalanche airbag system, barely edging the Black Diamond JetForce (which still remains a solid choice). The Voltair's battery-powered fan is reliable, easy to travel with, and offers multiple deployments in an effort to minimize hesitation when pulling the trigger. The Voltair's airbag shape, slightly wrapping around the wearer's head, has a small potential to reduce trauma and offers a thought-out and reliable trigger. Not only did this pack have our favorite airbag system but it is easily a best-in-backcountry pack design for functionality, fit, and how nicely it moves with you. The Voltair brings top-tier pack design, made-in-Canada quality, and unique features, making it worth the extra coin you'll drop.
Read review: Arc'teryx Voltair 30
Best Bang for the Buck
Backcountry Access Float 32
The new Backcountry Access Float 32 is OutdoorGearLab's Best Buy winner because it features one of our testers' favorite pack designs and a reasonable weight (considering its volume) at a fantastic price. The Float 32 works for most folks for day tours or light-duty hut trips. It has all the right features for a touring pack, like zippered waistbelt pockets, a mesh helmet holder (that can be offset when carrying diagonally), a low profile (and tram-friendly) ice axe lashing system, and a huge, easy-to-access snow safety pocket. While the Voltair was a nicer pack overall, the Float 32 is nearly as nice and is only half the price! Its only downside is that it doesn't fit shorter folks as well as other models.
Read review: Backcountry Access Float 32
Best for Comfort
Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce
The Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce is a former Editors' Choice and remains a solid pack, receiving OutdoorGearLab's Top Pick for its solid design, fantastic fit, comfort, performance on the descent, and state-of-the-art technology. While the ability to blow your airbag four times a day shouldn't be a deciding factor, we like that it will hopefully make users less reluctant to pull the trigger. The Halo's lithium-ion battery makes air travel and refilling low hassle, and the fact that the fan can still inflate the airbag even with a 6-inch gash is awesome. The only downfalls of the Halo 28 are its zippered back panel access design that makes it hard to pack effectively. Overall, the Halo's design is decent but not amazing. Additionally, the Halo is among the heaviest packs reviewed, at 7 lbs 8 ounces, (still 1.5 ounces lighter than the Arc'teryx Voltair 30). Lastly, likely the biggest turnoff to many, the Halo is $1450. This is among the most expensive packs reviewed (though less expensive than the Voltair 30). Also, because consumers aren't able to buy a modular part of this system, they have to invest another $1400-$1450 when they want to buy another JetForce pack. Bottom line: The Halo has among the best airbag systems in a good but not exceptional pack.
Read review: Black Diamond Halo 28 Jetforce
Best for Lightweight Pack
Mammut Light Removable 3.0
Mammut implements a revamped airbag system in the new Light Removable Airbag 3.0, which is the next generation of their Light Removable avalanche airbag pack. The airbag system is significantly lighter and packs down smaller than its predecessor.
Read review: Mammut Light Removable 3.0
Best for Side-Country and Heli Travel
Backcountry Access Float 22
The updated Backcountry Access Float 22 is our Top Pick for side-country skiing or heli/cat skiing. Its fantastic pack design was among our testers' favorites, and it was low-profile enough for riding chairs, but we could still squeeze a day tour's worth of gear into it. Our entire review team was impressed by the Float 22's comfort and performance on the descent.
Read review: Backcountry Access Float 22
Best for Multi-Day and Hut-to-Hut Trips
Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce
The Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce is the best airbag for multi-day tours and hut trips. We gave it a notable mention due to its ability to carries loads fantastically, with rock-solid suspension and comfortable shoulder straps. We love the top loading design that maximizes every inch of its 40L volume. We liked the overall design, and our testers thought it had nearly all the right features without a lot of extras. Besides the steep price, the biggest downside of the Saga 40 is its weight; at 7 lbs 11 ounces it's the heaviest pack reviewed, half a pound heavier than the BCA Float 42 Tech in similar volumes. We still like these packs for overnight tours, but if we wanted a bigger volume airbag pack for full days or multi-day trips, there is no question the Saga is our favorite, as it packed easier. We also preferred its pack design.
Read review: Black Diamond Saga 40 Jetforce
Best for Women and Shorter Users
Mammut Ride Short Removable 3.0
The Mammut Ride short Removable Airbag 3.0 was the best option for a shorter framed airbag pack that is designed to fit women, kids, and shorter framed men. While we didn't include women's-specific airbag packs in this review, the fit and backcountry utility of the Ride Short Removable Airbag 3.0 made it a notable mention for this category. It is worth noting that the Backcountry Access Float 22 fits shorter torsoed folks well (WAY better than the Float 32), even if they have narrower shoulders, but the slightly higher volume of the Ride short helped push it over the top as our Top Pick for Shorter Users. The Float 22 is doable for day tours but certainly a little on the small side. Besides fitting most smaller folks well, this is a very solidly-designed and comfortable pack that can carry skis either A-framed or diagonally, has a nice hip belt pocket, and has a nice, albeit slightly smaller dedicated snow safety gear pocket.
Read review: Mammut Ride Short Removable Airbag 3.0
Best for Technical Adventures
Mammut Pro Protection 3.0
The Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0 combines a solid touring pack that was a favorite for design and functionality among our review staff with one of the better airbag systems. The Pro Removable also performed on the down very nicely and moved with its wearer nicely while we skied couloirs and managed technical entrances. We really like Mammut's Protection Airbag System (PAS) because not only is the system interchangeable, but Mammut has a variety of pack models to choose from in which the PAS can be used. Best of all we like how it has a chance to reduce trauma as the PAS system is built into the shoulder straps, so when deployed, inflates around your head. While the Pro Removable is on the heavier side, it's still nearly a half pound lighter than the Arc'teryx Voltair 30 and Black Diamond Halo 28. Some of the other features we really liked about this packs design was how nicely the back panel and shoulder straps felt, the nice sized hip-belt pocket, and how this pack could carry skis either diagonally or A-frame.
Read review: Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0
Analysis and Test Results
We picked 11 of the top avalanche airbag packs and put them head-to-head. We compared them in real-world testing in the Chugach, the French and Swiss Alps, the Wasatch, Cascades, Canadian Coast Range, and the Sierras. We tested them on both day and multi-day trips, guiding a huge range of terrain—from mellow bowls to technical descents—and while working for the Northwest Avalanche Center.
We also performed side-by-side tests to compare everything from how each pack carried to how easily it was to attach a helmet. We researched the most up-to-date statistics and current debates on airbag packs and reported them here in a more digestible manner. We identified the best overall airbag pack as well as the best airbag pack for heli and cat skiing, multi-day tours, the best product for shorter users, and the best overall value.
It is worth noting that there is a movement to change the name of avalanche airbag packs to avalanche balloon bags or balloon packs. This movement comes from the misconception that can occur when people think of an airbag pack as being like the airbag in your car. Airbag packs don't guarantee safety (see statistics below). While we are all for this movement, in reality, 99 percent of people still call them airbag packs, and as a result, that's what we continue to call them in this review.
With price tags in this review alone ranging from $500 to $1300, choosing the right avalanche airbag and gauging its value can be a daunting task. We compared overall performance of all the airbags we tested to their corresponding price points. Items that edge ahead in performance yet still maintain modest price tags, such as the Backcountry Access Float 32, are the best values.
Criteria for Evaluation
Below we describe the specific criteria by which we evaluated each contender.
While all avalanche airbag packs make it more likely their wearer will end up on the surface, understanding which individual system and model will best suit your specific needs is important. It's not simply who has the best, the biggest, or the most bags. Below, we break down the advantages and disadvantages of each system currently available.
We explain differences in the shape of each airbag, where and how it's deployed, what mechanism is used for a trigger, if the system is modular, what gas is inside the canister, or whether it is electrically powered, as well as other model-specific features.
Airbag Shapes and Sizes
The Arc'teryx Voltair comes in both a 20L and 30L volumes. After a close comparison to the Black Diamond JetForce, the Voltair is our new favorite airbag system and takes home a perfect 10 out of 10 in the airbag system metric. TheBlack Diamond Jetforce also scored a perfect 10 out of 10; overall, the two systems are similar in design in that they both feature a battery-powered fan instead of the more common compressed air system, but we feel Arc'teryx improved upon BD's JetForce system in a handful of ways. Scoring the same score, the Black Diamond Halo 28 was also a top scorer, followed closely by the Mammut Pro Protection 3.0, which scored a 9 out of 10.
Arc'teryx's Voltair system sports a 22.2 Volt lithium-ion battery (sold separately) that is capable of inflating the bag as many as 15 times in 14F. The model we tested, which wasn't 100% charged, was able to deploy 18 times at room temperature (70F) and when completely charged, the Voltair will still fire four times at -22F . While no one needs to be able to pull the trigger 10+ times, this much potential energy means that if you forget to charge the Voltair or you leave the pack in your car during a cold night, it will still likely fire the next day.
Beyond this, the hope is that the wearer won't think twice about pulling the trigger, even if the user hasn't charged the battery as often as they should. A recent study compiling avalanche incidents involving skiers, snowmobilers, and snowboarders who were caught in avalanches found that slightly more than 20 percent of backcountry travelers caught while wearing an airbag pack did not deploy their airbag (the most common reason was that the user didn't think the avalanche was going to be big, so they opted not to pull it or the trigger was still in the stowed position) and several of these incidents resulted in fatalities.
The Voltair system inflates a single 150L bag articulated to potentially protect someone's head from trauma. While this shape hardly guarantees trauma protection, we appreciate that it has the potential to help. In several cases there have been folks who have bounced off of trees and the airbag took most of the force (including the author), though to a large extent this is a matter of luck.
Another sweet feature of the Voltair is the extent to which Arc'teryx stands behind their products. The packs have a lifetime warranty and Arc'teryx also wants to inspect the pack every 50 pulls to make sure everything is working properly. Arc'teryx will pay for shipping and the diagnostics check. The pack will indicate to its user when it's time to send it in (it will keep functioning if it is an inconvenient time).
The leg strap design featured on the Voltair is THE BOMB and is by far the most convenient of any airbag pack currently available. Many airbag users get lazy about using the leg strap (which is required to maximize the airbag's effectiveness), often because people find it inconvenient. The Voltair solves this problem by featuring a mini carabiner (much like an ice-clipper) built directly into the waist-belt that makes it easy to clip and unclip with one hand. We found it was inspiring to all users (even the laziest of them all) to use the leg strap.Black Diamond JetForce System
The Black Diamond JetForce was the first battery-powered airbag pack available and it remains a good system that was nearly our favorite overall and still offers a handful of advantages. Like the Voltair, the JetForce doesn't use a compressed gas canister and instead uses a lithium-ion battery powered fan that will deploy up to four times on a single charge. While we don't think that most people need 4+ airbag deployments, we've seen people accidentally fire their airbag packs at trailheads and multiple deployments could make the user less likely to pull the trigger.
The JetForce packs use a 200L airbag, the biggest of any airbag pack reviewed, including the Arc'teryx Voltair system. Is bigger better? We have yet to see studies that show that 30-50 extra liters will keep you on top, but we also don't think it could hurt. Unlike compressed air canister systems, the JetForce fan pulls air from the atmosphere, an unlimited source to draw from. Other than higher cost, JetForce has no downsides. This large volume bag is one of the JetForce's two minor advantages over the Voltair.
Once deployed, the bag deflates after three minutes. This helps increase the size of the victim's air pocket and hopefully increases their chance of survival (Mammut's system deflates as well). This is another feature that the Voltair doesn't have. The JetForce system is by far the easiest to travel with because JetForce does not use canisters that need to be refilled.
The JetForce runs self-diagnostics every time you turn it on, quickly running 100 percent in reverse to make sure the pack is functioning. At the end of the diagnostics, the JetForce flashes a green light that will continue to pulse throughout the day to confirm that the pack is operating as it should. Once the trigger is pulled, the fan runs at 100 percent for nine seconds, providing air to inflate the airbag even when pressured by moving snow during an avalanche.
Once nine seconds have passed, the fan cycles between running at 50 percent and 100 percent to keep the bag inflated for the next minute. According to Black Diamond, these pulses of air will keep the airbag inflated even with a six-inch gash. At minutes two and three, the fan continues to alternate between running and pausing to keep the airbag inflated - but at a lower volume than during the first minute. This is both to meet the CE specification requiring airbags to stay inflated for three minutes, and also to help safeguard the wearer from a secondary avalanche. The user can press a button at any time to stop the process or they can pull the trigger again to fire it from the beginning.
The Snowpulse "LifeBag"/Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System)
The Snowpulse "LifeBag"/Mammut PAS technology is our second favorite system. We ranked it the same as packs of the ABS system and it offers its own set of advantages. It is a modular system that is interchangeable among Mammut "PAS Ready" packs and can potentially reduce the risk of trauma by wrapping around the user's head when inflated.
The PAS technology is debated. Critics and competing manufacturers say there are few proven, if any, cases where a wearer was protected when they otherwise would have been hurt. Mammut has done its own non-real-world tests showing there is a potential to help protect the wearer. A disadvantage of the PAS unit is that if you deploy your airbag while still standing/skiing/snowboarding, it blocks your field of vision, making it more difficult to get off the avalanche. All PAS system airbags have adjustments in the length of their frame. This makes the pack fit more comfortably and also ensures that the airbag lines up properly around the wearer's head and neck. There are cases where this horseshoe-shaped airbag can collect snow, so if the wearer isn't on the surface it could potentially allow for less airspace. To combat this problem, the Mammut, like the JetForce, deflates after a few minutes so that if the user is buried, the air pocket wall be larger and potentially increase their survival.ABS System
ABS and Ospreyall use ABS technology, which offers advantages and disadvantages. This technology uses compressed nitrogen instead of the compressed air found in all other canister-oriented airbags. ABS is also the only airbag system to feature two airbags to keep the wearer on the surface. These two 85L airbags, totaling 170L of volume, aren't quite as big as the Black Diamond JetForce, which features a single 200L bag. But they are still larger than the rest of the bags that feature a single 150L bag. The two-airbag design gives you a level of redundancy because the bags are independent; if one doesn't work, you still have a single 85L bag.
ABS claims that having the airbags on the sides, instead of near the head, helps keep your body in a more horizontal position, preventing you from sinking into the slide by spreading out your surface area. This claim was supported in a study conducted at the University of Chicago, but like many things in the airbag world, it is also disputed. Due to the violent nature of an avalanche, you rarely have the opportunity to be "horizontal." When compared to the Mammut/Snowpulse PAS bags, an advantage of the ABS system after deployment is that you can still see around you, offering the potential ability to get off the slide.
Mammut's RAS or Removable Airbag System
Mammut's RAS is a solid design that is the least expensive modular airbag system. Its airbag shape is somewhat the new "standard" and the RAS is similar in size, shape, volume and location to airbags offered from other companies like BCA. While the RAS doesn't offer anything special as far as dual airbags or potential head protection, it performs the most fundamental task: to help keep the wearer on top of a slide. Advantages of the RAS system are price, easier travel and more refilling options than ABS, and an array of similar packs that makes swapping units possible.
Backcountry Access Float System
All Backcountry Access packs and their parent company K2 use BCA's Float airbag system. The Float system airbag uses the same size (150L) and shape airbag/balloon as the Mammut Ride RAS and the Wary packs. The airbag system used in the Backcountry Access Float packs is removable and interchangeable, but at the time of this writing there is only one Float pack sold without an airbag system (the BCA Float 8), but none of the other volumes are currently sold separately, nor can you buy a separate "Float System", limiting their interchangeability.
There are reports that if you contact BCA directly you can possibly buy a Float pack without the airbag. The advantage would be that you could use the pack without the weight of the airbag for spring or summer tours. Like the RAS, this airbag shape doesn't offer anything special. But it will perform its most fundamental task: helping keep you on top of an avalanche. This system only features one bag, but it took us A LOT of effort to puncture the bag with an ice axe. Even then, the bag inflated just fine and stayed inflated for enough time. In the event of an avalanche, the wearer would probably come to a rest before the bag began to deflate. BCA claims their basic shape allows them to produce and sell their airbag packs for less, thus increasing the number of people who buy them and hopefully saving more lives.
Trigger location is optional on some models of airbag packs so that it can be worn on your right or left shoulder strap. Most right-handed skiers and snowboarders prefer to use their right hand to pull on their left shoulder strap. Snowmobilers, who represent at least half of the market for airbag packs, usually prefer to pull with their left hand so they can keep their right hand on the throttle. Trigger location is worth considering when comparing airbag packs. With the Mammut RAS and PAS series of packs, the trigger is not modular and cannot be moved from one side to the other. The ability to switch sides is an option for BCA's newer packs and most, but not all, packs using ABS technology.
A lot of companies make a big deal about their trigger system. Our testers concluded that of all the things that should be compared when considering avalanche airbag systems, the trigger mechanism was least significant because the reliability difference was small. But because we get asked about triggers regularly, here is the breakdown: with all the ABS technology packs there is an explosion when the wearer pulls the trigger. The force from this explosion travels through a tube, firing a copper disk to puncture a hole in the nitrogen canister that in turns releases the gas and fills the airbag. Nearly all compressed air canisters use a more basic mechanism to release the compressed air. When you pull the trigger, it pulls a cable that directly releases the air from the canister. While we think the ABS system is slightly better, we don't think it's much of a factor. There are a few cases where both systems have failed, and we don't have evidence that one is better than the other.
Gas Types: Nitrogen vs. Air vs. Electric Fan
What's best? The answer depends largely on the needs of the user. BCA, Mammut, Wary and most other manufacturers that don't use compressed nitrogen are using compressed air, not compressed oxygen. Nitrogen is less affected by temperature and will perform marginally better in colder temperatures. You may have heard similar claims regarding these gases in car tires — nitrogen is nearly always used in race car tires. People think, "Wow, if it matters in race tires it must make an even bigger difference in a canister pressurized to almost 3000 psi." While nitrogen does perform better, it isn't way better. But if it is even a little bit better why don't all airbag packs use nitrogen? The answer is that for a lot of people it's more hassle than it's worth.
This is where the Black Diamond JetForce and Arc'teryx Voltair battery-powered fan packs have an advantage. While they are more expensive than some to begin with, refilling is nearly hassle-free, with no additional costs so long as you have a place to plug them in.
Among gas cylinders, compressed nitrogen has ever-so-slightly better performance characteristics, but it is significantly more costly and difficult to refill. Compressed air cartridges (like BCA and Mammut) all use a standard fitting and can be refilled for between $5-20 at most scuba shops, paint ball shops, a large percentage of fire stations, some outdoor gear stores or anywhere else people use and deal with high pressure compressed air (which is more places than you might think). Also, if you or a buddy owns a scuba tank, has a glass blowing setup or anything else that uses compressed air, you can buy an adapter from BCA or Mammut and refill your own canisters. You can also manually fill your compressed air canisters with a specific bike pump similar to the Benjamin High-Pressure Pump.
For the compressed nitrogen canisters in all packs using ABS technology, refilling is more complex. The primary reason is it's not really a refill, it's a cartridge swap. Why can't they be refilled? Because with the ABS design, when the trigger is pulled, a piece of metal is fired to puncture the cartridge, releasing the nitrogen. When you get your ABS cartridge "refilled," you actually swap it with a cartridge that doesn't have a hole in it and is filled with gas. Also, you must replace the trigger that has used up its explosive capability. In many major cities and outdoor and backcountry hubs, performing a canister/trigger swap isn't a big deal and will run you around $40-80. But if you aren't near somewhere that offers this service, your only option is to perform the swap with ABS themselves, which for us, took four weeks.
A note on flying with avalanche airbag cartridges: This should be a consideration for skiers and snowboarders who travel to ski or snowboard a lot. Be realistic about how much you will travel; we have noticed that a lot of folks think buying a pack that's easier to travel with is a good idea, but then only travel three or four times with it. It might not be worth the hassle or the extra $400-$500 in expense if you tend to tour in your own backyard.
Ease of travel is where Black Diamond's JetForce and the Arc'teryx Voltair electric fan systems crush all competition. There are some restrictions on flying with their lithium-ion battery but so long as you disconnect the battery and considering bringing some supporting paperwork describing what you are doing with a large battery, once you arrive at your destination it's easy to "recharge". Currently, TSA requires you to fly with the battery discharged and disconnected so there is no chance of an accidental deployment.
With compressed air cylinders, you can fly domestically with an empty canister as long as it's in your checked baggage. For international trips, at the time of this writing; it's okay to fly with a full canister. However, we recommend keeping the box that your canister comes in. Then, when you fly, put the canister back in its box. It clearly defines what your canister is and helps make sure TSA doesn't take your canister away. We always go one extra step and put a note on ours when flying domestically, saying it's empty and that it's for an avalanche pack. We have flown with full canisters to Europe several times and have never had an issue, but domestic travel is more of a hassle.
TSA does not allow compressed nitrogen canisters to be checked in your bags - even if they are empty. Because locations that will swap/refill ABS nitrogen canisters are harder to find, if there isn't an option at your destination there is only one choice: pay a hazardous material fee of $25-70 to ship your canister ahead of time. The one bright side: You can ship the canister full. Keep that in mind for major backcountry skiing destinations, like Valdez, Alaska, that don't have a location that will refill or swap nitrogen canisters. Conversely, there are almost always several places to refill compressed air and it's inexpensive.
While avalanche airbag packs are important life-saving tools, they also have to serve as a functional pack. There are a few features that all backcountry ski and snowboard packs should have. The first is a zippered snow safety gear pocket. Gone are the days of yesteryear when people carried their shovel and probe on the outside of their pack. Why, you might ask? Because an avalanche is more violent than any wave in the ocean you have ever been caught in and there is no way your shovel or probe will stay attached if they're on the outside during an avalanche.
Besides carrying your snow safety equipment, it's nice if this pocket is big enough to be able to fit anything wet (i.e. skins) to keep it away from your warm (and hopefully dry) contents in the main compartment. We gave higher scores to packs whose snow safety gear pockets were easily accessible even when the pack is full, were relatively easy to pack (despite having an airbag taking up a significant amount of volume at the top of the pack, as well as an easy and functional way to carry skis. Lastly we straight-up compared how easily each model was to pack and retrieve items from. Models that we could cram-full and completely utilize the space and/or had better access received higher scores.
Our favorite packs were the Backcountry Access Float 32, Backcountry Access Float 42, and Arc'teryx Voltair 30, which all scored 10 out of 10s. The Black Diamond Saga 40 was close behind in performance and scored a 9 out of 10. All three have large gear pockets that could hold almost any size shovel, 300 cm probe, and skins. Our next round of favorites included the Mammut Ride Removable Airbag 3.0 and the Black Diamond Halo 28, which scored 8 out of 10s, along with the Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0, which scored a 9 out of 10. These packs are comparable to the aforementioned options, offering several features that made our day of touring easier, but could only fit mid-sized shovels and probes, and their ease of access was not as good.
Carrying Skis or a Snowboard on Your Airbag Pack
The ability for a pack to carry skis or a snowboard is an essential part of a models Backcountry utility . Though it's worth noting that when traveling in or around avalanche terrain where deployment is a possibility, it's better to carry your skis or splitboard diagonally or flat against the back of the pack rather than A-framed on the sides. This way the skis or board won't interfere with airbag deployment. It is unlikely that nearly 3000 psi of gas (plus the venturi valve, sucking even more air in) pushing against your skis will have any negative effect on airbag deployment, but it could happen… so why risk it?
All the packs we tested offer an ability to carry skis diagonally. For people who are dead set on the A-frame carry system, because they find themselves hiking longer distances at lower elevations where a diagonal carry is less comfortable, the Backcountry Access Float 42, BCA Float 32, Mammut Light Removable Airbag, Mammut Ride Removable Airbag 3.0, and the Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0 are the best options which all feature a diagonally carry system but also compression straps for A-framing.
For the best diagonal carrying system in regards to ease of use (easy to attach and remove) and a snug fit, our testers preferred the Backcountry Access Float 22, Backcountry Access Float 32, Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce and BCA Float 27 Tech. The Mammut Ride Removable Airbag 3.0, Arc'teryx Voltair 30, and Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0 are not far behind. We thought the Mammut Ride and Pro Protection systems were floppier and moved around more than we would like. Most splitboarders will use these same systems with the board still "split". For non-split-board snowboarders, the Mammut packs and BCA Float 32, were the best, because they featured two straps to hold the board vertically. For snowmobile access boarding, our testers liked the diagonal across-the-back carrying system compatible with all BCA packs, for an extra $35.
We also compared additional features and perks that made a pack easier to use, but weren't necessarily the typical essentials of a backcountry pack (for the essentials, see our Backcountry Utility category above). We gave higher scores to packs with features like easy-to-use and stowable helmet attachments as well as features like hip pockets, which are nice for cameras, Gu, or sunblock. We liked packs that had additional soft, non-scratching fleece-lined goggle pockets, which help to protect our eyewear while still keeping it accessible.
For comfort, we compared how well each pack carried on the way up, as well as how comfortable and articulated the back panel and shoulder straps were. We gave higher scores to packs that used higher quality material on the inside of their shoulder straps.
Our top overall picks for comfort on the up and while skiing with heavier loads were the Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce, with its sturdy frame and comfortable shoulder straps (9/10). The Arc'teryx Voltair 30 took home a near perfect 9 out of 10, taking into account just how comfortable the pack felt on the wearer.
The Backcountry Access Float packs were close, but a step behind. For overnight or hut-to-hut loads we liked the BD Saga 40 JetForce, with the BCA Float 42 Tech and the Mammut Pro Protection both scoring well, though neither were quite as supportive nor as comfortable when carrying heavier loads.
This scoring metric rates how each pack felt and moved with us while skiing and snowboarding on the descent — we gave higher scores to packs that made us feel like we were hardly wearing them. We didn't have a runaway winner and some of the best riding packs were also the smallest. The Backcountry Access Float 22 was an exceptional performers, with the Arc'teryx Voltair, Black Diamond Halo 28, Backcountry Float 22, and Mammut Light Removable 3.0 scoring 9 out of 10s.
For medium sized packs, our Top Picks were the Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce, which performed better than the Arc'teryx Voltair 30. Among the lighter packs, the Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce and Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0 outperformed the BCA Float 42 Tech, taking home 8 out of 10s, with the Float 42 scoring a 6 out of 10.
Sizing and Fit
Most medium and taller testers like the Backcountry Access Float 32. Smaller women and shorter and narrower-shouldered guys favor the Mammut Ride short Removable Airbag 3.0. This fits the smallest of any airbag pack we tested, so if you find most airbag packs too big, you should check this pack out. The newest version of the Backcountry Access Float 22 works well for shorter riders, but the fit is not as comfortable as the Mammut Ride short Removable Airbag 3.0. The Black Diamond Saga 40 and BD Halo 28 are both available in two torso lengths.
At 5 lbs 6 oz, the Mammut Light Removable 3.0 is the lightest pack we tested, over half a pound lighter than the next lightest pack. The next lightest in our fleet were the Mammut packs, the Ride Removable Airbag 3.0 and its shorter counterpart, the Mammut Ride short Removable Airbag, both 6 pounds 6 ounces. The Backcountry Access Float 22 clocks in at 6 pounds 8 ounces.
This is impressive, especially when we consider that the Mammut Light Removeable is over two pounds lighter than our awarding winning Black Diamond Halo 28 Jet Force at 7 pounds 8 ounces, or our Editors' Choice award winner, the Arc'teryx Voltair 30 (7 pounds 9 ounces). Of comparably-sized packs, the only other option that was mildly close was the BCA Float 32.
Comparing Modular Airbag Systems
There are several airbag packs that offer a modular system, so you only have to buy one system to use in multiple avalanche airbag packs. The cost of each part varies wildly between manufacturers. In the end, owning two airbag packs is costly, but if you know you want to own two airbag packs, say one bigger for hut-to-hut or multi-day tours, and one smaller for heli, cat or sidecountry skiing, purchasing a modular pack with options that best fit your needs will be beneficial.
Let's start with ABS. First the downside: The base unit is the most expensive. Compare that to Mammut's RAS (Removable Airbag System) and PAS (Protection Airbag System) for about half the price. The positive side of ABS is that it not only produces the greatest number of zip-ons, but also the widest range of volumes (from 8-55L). Though they have the most expensive base unit, they charge the least for their zip-ons. There is also over a half dozen third party manufacturers who make zip-on packs compatible with ABS's base unit. Compare that with Mammut, where each additional pack will run you around $260-$340.
Mammut currently offers 11 models for their two systems that are not interchangeable and their airbag line continues to multiply each year. Mammut, despite their large number of pack offerings, only offers packs that range in volume from 5-40L, but they do include some really lightweight options. None of these prices for base unit airbag systems or packs include a cartridge, which will run you another $180-$200 per pack.
The Backcountry Access Float airbag systems are removable and therefore interchangeable. However, at this point, the only model sold without the airbag already installed is the BCA Float 8 and BCA is not selling the airbag component separately - so you already have to own one. Keep in mind that they are inexpensive enough that buying both model packs and one cartridge is around the same cost as buying an ABS setup with two zip-ons.
Knowing what avalanche airbag to purchase depends on your specific backcountry needs. This review is intended to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of the options available today.
— Ian Nicholson