The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

Best Avalanche Airbags of 2020

Ryan O'Connell  Eric Dalzell  and Ian Nicholson testing airbag packs at Thompson Pass near Valdez  Alaska.
By Ian Nicholson ⋅ Review Editor
Tuesday July 28, 2020
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Our snow experts have tested over 30 of the best avalanche airbag packs in the last 7 years. In this review, we purchase 6 of the market's most current and up to date models and put them in a head-to-head contest to see which offers the best floatation, comfort, and versatility. Our testing crew is comprised of some of the leading snow experts in the field, including avalanche forecasters, AIRE course instructors, and professional guides. Our testing takes place across the globe, including remote locations in the Sierra Nevada, Alaskan Range, and the French and Swiss Alps. Our recommendations are grounded in hands-on research that is intended to help you find the best airbag for needs while skiing in the backcountry.

Top 6 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 6
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Best Overall Airbag Pack


Black Diamond JetForce Tour 26L


Editors' Choice Award

$1,199.95
at REI
See It

87
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Airbag System - 20% 10
  • Backcountry Utility - 22% 8
  • Comfort - 12% 8
  • Downhill Performance - 13% 9
  • Features - 15% 8
  • Weight - 18% 9
Weight: 7.6 lbs | Cartridge type: Electric fan
Best airbag system out there
Functional pack design
Decked out with rad features
Lightweight
Performs well on the descent
Easy to travel with
System can charge off a pair of AA batteries
Volume is a little tight for big days
Expensive

If we could only own one model for all types of backcountry pursuits, this would be it. The JetForce Tour 26L is Black Diamond's latest airbag which takes a sharp change in direction from their previous offerings. Instead of using their own proprietary airbag design which uses a very powerful, but heavy lithium-ion battery, they have now switched to licensing Alpride's E1 supercapacitor powered fan design. The advantage to this relatively major change is the supercapacitor's ability to deliver a large amount of energy in a relatively short period of time. It is also only minimally affected by temperature, negating the need for a powerful lithium-ion battery, thus enabling the system to be significantly lighter (around two pounds) than similarly sized battery-powered-fan models.

You'll get all of this, coupled with one of our review team's favorite overall packs-designs. The Tour 26 is loaded with sweet and easy-to-use features and is lighter than average. It sports the airbag system that is the easiest to deal with and is our favorite in our fleet.

Read review: Black Diamond Jetforce Tour 26L

Best Bang for the Buck


Backcountry Access Float 32


BCA Float 32
Best Buy Award

$412.46
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

82
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Airbag System - 20% 7
  • Backcountry Utility - 22% 10
  • Comfort - 12% 8
  • Downhill Performance - 13% 8
  • Features - 15% 9
  • Weight - 18% 7
Weight/Volume: 7.1 lbs/32-L |Cartridge Type: Compressed Air
Price
Well-designed pack
One of lightest for volume on the market
One size that often doesn't fit shorter people

The new Backcountry Access Float 32 features one of our testers' favorite pack designs and a reasonable weight 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 ax lashing system, and a huge, easy-to-access snow safety pocket.

Its only downside is that it doesn't fit shorter folks as well as other models and the cartridges require refills. Aside from that, it's hard to find anything wrong with this high-value contender!

Read review: Backcountry Access Float 32

Best for Lightweight Carry


Mammut Light Removable 3.0


Top Pick Award

$579.95
at Amazon
See It

79
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Airbag System - 20% 9
  • Backcountry Utility - 22% 6
  • Comfort - 12% 8
  • Downhill Performance - 13% 9
  • Features - 15% 7
  • Weight - 18% 9
Weight/Volume:5.63 lbs/30-L |Cartridge Type: Compressed Air
Lightest in the volume range
Downhill performance
Ski and snowboard carry system
Bomber suspension
Not many features
No dedicated snow safety gear pocket

The Mammut Light Removable Airbag is by far the lightest airbag pack available in a mid-sized volume and is the lightest airbag pack reviewed; plus, its airbag is interchangeable! At five pounds, six ounces, the Light Removable Airbag is over two pounds lighter than the top-scoring Black Diamond Jetforce Tour, and over a half-pound lighter than the next closest contender. Despite its weight, it carries heavy loads and rides well, making it comparable to other top scorers in these categories.

Unfortunately, it doesn't have a ton of extra features, but it has all the basic features most tourers want, like diagonal and A-frame ski carry options. It doesn't have a separate snow safety pocket and instead features sleeves on the inside of the main compartment. While we did find this to be a disadvantage, for folks looking for the best balance of weight and functionality, it is tough to beat.

Read review: Mammut Light Removable 3.0

Best for Sidecountry and Heli Travel


Backcountry Access Float 22


Top Pick Award

$374.96
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

159
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Airbag System - 20% 7
  • Backcountry Utility - 22% 8
  • Comfort - 12% 8
  • Downhill Performance - 13% 9
  • Features - 15% 8
  • Weight - 18% 8
Weight/Volume: 6.5 lbs/22L |Cartridge Type: Compressed Air
Lightweight
Least expensive
Excellent backcountry friendly features
Versatile
Great downhill performance
One frame size
Overall volume size
Snow safety gear pocket is on the small side

The updated Backcountry Access Float 22 is a great choice for side-country skiing or heli or cat skiing. Its fantastic pack design is among our testers' favorites and is low-profile enough for riding chairs, but we could still squeeze a day tour's worth of gear into it. Our entire review team is impressed by the Float 22's comfort and performance on the descent.

Our only complaint is the snow safety gear pocket is a little small. With a little added room here, it'd be easier to use and access important tools in the event of an avalanche.

Read review: Backcountry Access Float 22

Notable for Technical Adventures


Mammut Pro Protection 3.0


Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0

$760.00
(5% off)
at Amazon
See It

77
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Airbag System - 20% 9
  • Backcountry Utility - 22% 8
  • Comfort - 12% 8
  • Downhill Performance - 13% 6
  • Features - 15% 9
  • Weight - 18% 6
Weight/Volume: 7.19 lbs/35-L |Cartridge Type: Compressed Air
Awesome airbag system
Lots of extra features
Higher volume
Heavy
Snow safety gear pocket is on the small side

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. It also performs on the down very nicely and moves with its wearer nicely while skiing couloirs and managing technical entrances. We really like its Protection Airbag System (PAS) because not only is the system interchangeable, but 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 it is on the heavier side, it's still nearly a half-pound lighter than other heavier contenders. Some of the other features we really like about this pack's design are 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


BCA Float 22s and Float 32s are everywhere! Ryan O'Connell gets ready to drop into the 50-degree entrance of the Gun Barrels while testing airbag packs in Valdez  AK.
BCA Float 22s and Float 32s are everywhere! Ryan O'Connell gets ready to drop into the 50-degree entrance of the Gun Barrels while testing airbag packs in Valdez, AK.

Why You Should Trust Us


This review is brought to you by Ian Nicholson a professional snow forecaster, IMFGA ski guide, and AIRE course instructor. Not only has he taught over 70 different classes on snow science, but he is an outdoorsman passionate about outdoor gear. He uses avalanche airbags every day in his work whenever adventuring out in the field. In addition to his expertise, a wide range of AMGA guides, patrollers, and safety course instructors contribute their knowledge and expertise to this in-depth review.

Our testing begins with the selection of 6 of the best airbags on the market. We focus on those that are the most highly rated, lightweight, and popular in the outdoor industry. After purchasing each at retail price, the real fun begins where we use each for at least three months during the winter season. All products tested have seen the likes of steep mountain terrain in far-out locations like the Chugach in Alaska and the French and Swiss Alps in Europe. While testing, we hand these bags out to clients, friends, and family while guiding through technical and mellow terrain in icy, creamy, and hard pack snow situations. We look at functional features like the ability to carry a helmet and its overall portability. We also research the most up-to-date statistics and current debates on airbag packs and reported them here in a more digestible manner. After our rigorous side-by-side testing, we offer your our recommendations to help you find

Related: How We Tested Avalanche Airbags


Analysis and Test Results


We test the best of the best avalanche airbags on the market. This article focus' on the nuances and differences between each pack. To rate each product, we test them based on the type of system, backcountry utility, comfort, downhill performance, features, and weight. Our testing process is thorough, comparative, and unbiased to provide you excellent recommendations to keep you safe and protected in the backcountry.

Related: Buying Advice for Avalanche Airbags

We perform real world  side-by-side comparisons to help bring you the best avalanche airbag pack review possible.
We perform real world, side-by-side comparisons to help bring you the best avalanche airbag pack review possible.

Value


With price tags ranging from just hundreds of dollars to over a thousand, choosing the right avalanche airbag and gauging its value can be a daunting task. We compare the overall performance of all the airbags we test to their corresponding price points. Items that edge ahead in performance yet still maintain modest price tags, such as the Backcountry Access Float 32, offer the best value.


Airbag Systems


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.

There are so many models and styles of avalanche airbags on the market  and each brand has their own airbag design with its own advantages and disadvantages. Below we break down the plusses and the minuses of each design. Photo: Ryan O'Connell skinning toward the Bryant Peak Couloir while helping test airbag packs for this review.
There are so many models and styles of avalanche airbags on the market, and each brand has their own airbag design with its own advantages and disadvantages. Below we break down the plusses and the minuses of each design. Photo: Ryan O'Connell skinning toward the Bryant Peak Couloir while helping test airbag packs for this review.

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. 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 is also a top scorer, followed closely by the Mammut Pro Protection 3.0.

Voltair
Voltair

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, is 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.

Tester Ian Nicholson wears the Arc'teryx Voltair while traveling in avalanche terrain.
Tester Ian Nicholson wears the Arc'teryx Voltair while traveling in avalanche terrain.

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 Arc'teryx Voltair 30 features a 150L airbag with a slight "wrap-around design". This design can marginally reduce potential trauma to the wearer if they are caught in an avalanche.
The Arc'teryx Voltair 30 features a 150L airbag with a slight "wrap-around design". This design can marginally reduce potential trauma to the wearer if they are caught in an avalanche.

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).

Leg Strap

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 find it is inspiring to all users (even the laziest of them all) to use the leg strap.

Don't forget to tour with your trigger out and your leg strap on. If you're carrying an extra ~four pounds around the backcountry  you might as well maximize your airbag pack's ability to help you. Most importantly  don't let wearing an airbag pack push you into terrain you otherwise wouldn't travel in. Photo: Ian Nicholson out on an observation day for the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC).
Don't forget to tour with your trigger out and your leg strap on. If you're carrying an extra ~four pounds around the backcountry, you might as well maximize your airbag pack's ability to help you. Most importantly, don't let wearing an airbag pack push you into terrain you otherwise wouldn't travel in. Photo: Ian Nicholson out on an observation day for the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC).

Black Diamond JetForce System

The Black Diamond JetForce is the first battery-powered airbag pack available and remains a good system that is nearly our favorite overall with a handful of advantages. Like the Voltair, the JetForce, it 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 BD JetForce electric fan airbag system.
The BD JetForce electric fan airbag system.

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 BD JetForce system being charged (left) and trigger with operational display lights (right).
The BD JetForce system being charged (left) and trigger with operational display lights (right).

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 rank 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 photo on the left shows how the Snowpulse Life Bag/Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System) wraps around the wearer's head to help prevent trauma. On the right  an inflated PAS system and the PAS unit with no pack.
The photo on the left shows how the Snowpulse Life Bag/Mammut PAS (Protection Airbag System) wraps around the wearer's head to help prevent trauma. On the right, an inflated PAS system and the PAS unit with no pack.

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 will be larger and potentially increase survival.

ABS System

ABS and Osprey all 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.

A previous avalanche pours down in front of Eric Dalzell and Ryan O'Connell on our way up the Odyssey.
A previous avalanche pours down in front of Eric Dalzell and Ryan O'Connell on our way up the Odyssey.

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

This is a solid design that is the least expensive modular airbag system. Its airbag shape is somewhat the new "standard", and the Mammut RAS is similar in size, shape, volume, and location to airbags offered by other companies like BCA. While the Mammut 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. The 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.

On the left  a deployed RAS system on the Mammut Ride Removable. On the right  the RAS unit.
On the left, a deployed RAS system on the Mammut Ride Removable. On the right, the RAS unit.

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.

The BCA and K2 airbag systems are identical and utilize a single 150L airbag in what has become the most popular shape. These bags utilize compressed air and a universal fitting  and are easy to refill almost anywhere for around $15 or less.
The BCA and K2 airbag systems are identical and utilize a single 150L airbag in what has become the most popular shape. These bags utilize compressed air and a universal fitting, and are easy to refill almost anywhere for around $15 or less.

There are reports that if you contact BCA directly, you can possibly buy a BCA 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 Mammut 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.

Another day of airbag comparisons and another day that Ryan O'Connell has a big smile on his face.
Another day of airbag comparisons and another day that Ryan O'Connell has a big smile on his face.

Trigger Type


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.

The Arc'teryx Voltair 30 is very easy to arm. When you start touring  simply turn the pack on by accessing a switch via the zipper on the side of the pack - this will illuminate a green LED. You can disarm it by turning 180-degrees - a red "X" is then displayed.
The Arc'teryx Voltair 30 is very easy to arm. When you start touring, simply turn the pack on by accessing a switch via the zipper on the side of the pack - this will illuminate a green LED. You can disarm it by turning 180-degrees - a red "X" is then displayed.

A lot of companies make a big deal about their trigger system. Our testers conclude that of all the things that should be compared when considering avalanche airbag systems, the trigger mechanism is least significant because the reliability difference is 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 turn, 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.

Comparing the sizes and shapes of the three main types of compressed gas canisters  from left to right: the BCA (air)  ABS (nitrogen) and the Mammut/Snowpulse (air).
Comparing the sizes and shapes of the three main types of compressed gas canisters, from left to right: the BCA (air), ABS (nitrogen) and the Mammut/Snowpulse (air).

Refilling

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.

Often scuba and paintball shops are the least expensive and most readily available places to refill your airbag canister. Here an Underwater Sports employee refills a BCA compressed air canister for only $8 in North Seattle.
Often scuba and paintball shops are the least expensive and most readily available places to refill your airbag canister. Here an Underwater Sports employee refills a BCA compressed air canister for only $8 in North Seattle.

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 at most scuba shops, paintball 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 isn't too expesnive. 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.

Air Transportation

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 big bucks if you tend to tour in your own backyard.

A note written and attached to the box containing an empty airbag pack canister in hopes that TSA will not take it away. Some Float owners even take off the cap so that TSA can see inside and confirm that its empty.
A note written and attached to the box containing an empty airbag pack canister in hopes that TSA will not take it away. Some Float owners even take off the cap so that TSA can see inside and confirm that its empty.

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 to ship your canister ahead of time. The one bright side: You can ship the canister fully. 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.

Backcountry Utility


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.

In our Backcountry Utility category  we compared similar features that all ski touring packs should have  like a snow-safety gear pocket and the ability to carry skis. How easy it was to physically pack and unpack was also taken into consideration. In our Features category  we compare additional non-essential design characteristics that just make a pack easier or nicer to use  such as a helmet attachment  hip-belt pockets (or additional pockets in general)  and a padded spot for our goggles.
In our Backcountry Utility category, we compared similar features that all ski touring packs should have, like a snow-safety gear pocket and the ability to carry skis. How easy it was to physically pack and unpack was also taken into consideration. In our Features category, we compare additional non-essential design characteristics that just make a pack easier or nicer to use, such as a helmet attachment, hip-belt pockets (or additional pockets in general), and a padded spot for our goggles.

Our favorite packs were the Backcountry Access Float 32, Backcountry Access Float 42, and Arc'teryx Voltair 30. The Black Diamond Saga 40 is close behind in performance. 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, along with the Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0. 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.

While the ability to carry skis  a splitboard (while split)  or a normal snowboard was possible on most airbag packs we tested  some models fared better than others. Here tester Ian Nicholson checks out the Arc'teryx Voltair 30 which was easy to load for flattish walking along ridges. We found it would be a little nicer if this pack carried the skis at slightly more of an angle.
While the ability to carry skis, a splitboard (while split), or a normal snowboard was possible on most airbag packs we tested, some models fared better than others. Here tester Ian Nicholson checks out the Arc'teryx Voltair 30 which was easy to load for flattish walking along ridges. We found it would be a little nicer if this pack carried the skis at slightly more of an angle.

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 model's 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?

A-framing skis can be more comfortable for longer low-elevation approaches  but most airbag pack manufacturers only recommend carrying skis diagonally in avalanche terrain where there is a chance of deployment  as it is less likely to interfere. Chris Marshall booting up the 1500ft Aussie couloir on Mt. Joffre with a Mammut Pro Protection Airbag  B.C. Coast Range.
A-framing skis can be more comfortable for longer low-elevation approaches, but most airbag pack manufacturers only recommend carrying skis diagonally in avalanche terrain where there is a chance of deployment, as it is less likely to interfere. Chris Marshall booting up the 1500ft Aussie couloir on Mt. Joffre with a Mammut Pro Protection Airbag, B.C. Coast Range.

All the packs we test 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 Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0 are the best options which all feature a diagonally carry system but also compression straps for A-framing.

Ryan O'Connell and Eric Dalzell booting up Tone's Temple while comparing airbag pack ski carrying abilities. Ryan is wearing a BCA Float 32 and Eric has on an ABS Powder 15. Thompson Pass  AK.
Ryan O'Connell and Eric Dalzell booting up Tone's Temple while comparing airbag pack ski carrying abilities. Ryan is wearing a BCA Float 32 and Eric has on an ABS Powder 15. Thompson Pass, AK.

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 are floppier and move around more than we would like. Most split boarders will use these same systems with the board still "split". For non-split-board snowboarders, the Mammut packs and BCA Float 32 are the best, because they feature two straps to hold the board vertically. For snowmobile access boarding, our testers like the diagonal across-the-back carrying system compatible with all BCA packs for a low price.

Features


We also compared additional features and perks that made a pack easier to use but aren't necessarily the typical essentials of a backcountry pack. We give higher scores to packs with features like easy-to-use and stowable helmet attachments as well as hip pockets, which are nice for cameras, Gu, or sunblock. We like packs that have additional soft, non-scratching fleece-lined goggle pockets, which help to protect our eyewear while keeping it accessible. We also discuss features of a modular system, which any backcountry guru can appreciate.


Showing the snow safety gear pocket on the BCA Float 32 pack. This pocket was one of our favorite features of this pack and on similar packs in this review. We like when this compartment can fit even larger than average probes and shovels  in addition to wet skins  to help keep items in our main compartment drier.
Showing the snow safety gear pocket on the BCA Float 32 pack. This pocket was one of our favorite features of this pack and on similar packs in this review. We like when this compartment can fit even larger than average probes and shovels, in addition to wet skins, to help keep items in our main compartment drier.

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 side-country 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 the 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 are also over a half dozen third-party manufacturers who make zip-on packs compatible with ABS's base unit. Compare that with Mammut, which requires quite a gouge to the wallet.

Mammut currently offers several models for their two systems that are not interchangeable, and their airbag line continues to multiply each year. 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.

Here tester Ian Nicholson is wearing the BCA Float 22 while performing a hand-shear in the Stevens Pass Backcountry
Here tester Ian Nicholson is wearing the BCA Float 22 while performing a hand-shear in the Stevens Pass Backcountry

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.

Eric Dalzell and Ryan O'Connell descend while testing airbag packs and helping with snow pack stability assessment for Tailgate Alaska: A World Freeride Festival.
Eric Dalzell and Ryan O'Connell descend while testing airbag packs and helping with snow pack stability assessment for Tailgate Alaska: A World Freeride Festival.

Comfort


For comfort, we compare how well each pack carries on the way up, as well as how comfortable and articulated the back panel and shoulder straps are. We give higher scores to packs that use higher quality material on the inside of the shoulder straps.


Our top overall picks for comfort on the up and while skiing with heavier loads are the Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce, with its sturdy frame and comfortable shoulder straps. The Arc'teryx Voltair 30 takes home a near-perfect score, taking into account just how comfortable the pack feels on the wearer.

Eric Dalzell checking our his airbag pack's ride-ability while hop turning his way down a tight couloir after a steep entrance.
Eric Dalzell checking our his airbag pack's ride-ability while hop turning his way down a tight couloir after a steep entrance.

The Black Diamond Halo 28, Mammut Ride Removable, Mammut Light Removable Airbag 3.0, and Mammut Pro Protection are all top scorers in the comfort category. Each of the models features nicely articulated shoulder straps and cozy but supportive padding that our review team feels stands out compared to other models.

The Backcountry Access Float packs are close, but a step behind. For overnight or hut-to-hut loads, we like 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.

Besides performance on the down  we compared how each pack felt and handled loads while carrying day-touring equipment. For the bigger packs  we compared multi-day hut loads. Here Pete Keane drops in while leading the second of back-to-back  sixth-day-on Ortler tours for the Northwest Mountain School in the South Tyrol region of the Italian Alps.
Besides performance on the down, we compared how each pack felt and handled loads while carrying day-touring equipment. For the bigger packs, we compared multi-day hut loads. Here Pete Keane drops in while leading the second of back-to-back, sixth-day-on Ortler tours for the Northwest Mountain School in the South Tyrol region of the Italian Alps.

Downhill Performance


This scoring metric rates how each pack feels and moves with us while skiing and snowboarding on the descent. We give higher scores to packs that make us feel like they're hardly on. We don't have a runaway winner, and some of the best riding packs are also the smallest.


The Backcountry Access Float 22 is an exceptional performer with the Arc'teryx Voltair, Black Diamond Halo 28, Backcountry Float 22, and Mammut Light Removable 3.0 scoring high in this category. For medium-sized packs, our favorite is the Black Diamond Halo 28 JetForce, which performs better than the Arc'teryx Voltair 30. Among the lighter packs, the Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce and Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0 outperform the BCA Float 42 Tech.

The performance on the down metric rated how each pack felt and moved with its user while skiing and snowboarding on the descent. We gave higher scores to packs that made us feel like we were hardly wearing them. Photo: Dallas Glass gets ready to step through the wardrobe into Gnar'nia.
The performance on the down metric rated how each pack felt and moved with its user while skiing and snowboarding on the descent. We gave higher scores to packs that made us feel like we were hardly wearing them. Photo: Dallas Glass gets ready to step through the wardrobe into Gnar'nia.

Weight


Carrying a ton of weight isn't ideal while traveling in the backcountry, so it's an important metric to consider. For this test, we simply weighed each pack and comment on sizing and wear while in the backcountry.


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 is the Mammut Ride Removable Airbag 3.0(6lbs, 6-oz). 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 the Black Diamond Halo 28 Jet Force (7lbs, 8 oz) and the Arc'teryx Voltair 30 (7lbs, 9 oz). Of comparably-sized packs, the only other option that was mildly close was the BCA Float 32.

Sizing and Fit


Most medium and taller testers like the Backcountry Access Float 32. The newest version of the Backcountry Access Float 22 works well for shorter riders. The Black Diamond Saga 40 and BD Halo 28 are both available in two torso lengths.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read our review on airbag packs. We hope it helps you make a more informed decision on which model is best for you.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read our review on airbag packs. We hope it helps you make a more informed decision on which model is best for you.

Conclusion


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. Hopefully, you can utilize it to find one of the most important pieces of safety equipment you can take on any backcountry ski mission.

Ian Nicholson