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Avalanche Airbag Ski Packs

Backcountry Ski Stuff:
Avalanche Airbag Ski Packs
These packs are designed to keep you alive if you are caught in an avalanche.  They contain an airbag that is inflated with a pressurized gas canister.  If you are caught in an avalanche, you pull a handle, and the airbag inflates.  The inflated airbag helps you to float to the top of the avalanche, lessening the chance that you will be buried.  Airbag packs have been in use in Europe for several years, where they have been used with a great deal of success.  They are only recently becoming popular (and available) in the United States.
The two biggest companies that make these packs are ABS, and Snowpulse.  I have airbag packs from both companies (although I have significantly modified my ABS pack.)   Recently, Backcountry Access has also come out with an airbag pack, the Float.  It is significantly less expensive than the ABS or Snowpulse, and has some interesting features.  


ABS Vario 30

ABS Vario 30 Pack
I picked up an ABS Vario 30 pack.  The pack consists of a frame and suspension with the airbag components, and a detachable pack bag that is attached the to frame with a beefy zipper and some straps.  This is so you can vary the size of the pack bag by zipping on different modules (hence the "vario" name.)   
Total weight, including the cannister and activation handle is 7 pounds, 13.5 ounces. This pack is not built with weight savings in mind. It's beefy, with a lot of pockets, compartments, zippers, straps and other gew-gaws (besides the airbag stuff.) It is pretty burly, and I doubt that durability will become an issue. Sewing and materials all seem to be top quality, heavy, and bomber. I guess they figure that if somebody is buying a pack that costs over a 1000 dollars, it not ever wear out.
The suspension is better than I thought it might be.  It is comfortable to carry, and hugs your back well when skiing.  It doesn't shift and wobble and throw you out of balance when you're making turns. 
There are some aspects of the pack that I can't figure out, as some buckles don't seem to have corresponding straps, etc. My assumption is that these buckles are there to fit different interchangable pack bags, and that my particular 30 liter pack bag just doesn't need them. There are some apparent redundancies, such as carry/haul loops on both the frame unit and the bag unit, right next to each other.

The airbag feature is well thought out and quite an elegant piece of engineering. It is very easy to arm, disarm, and activate. Even with big gloves on, I won't have any issues pulling the rip cord and activating this pack's airbags. There is a velcro safety strap to secure the activation handle when you are not in avalance terrain, and for even greater security, you can just remove the activation handle completely. (The instructions recommend removing the handle when you're on a chair lift, and after test activating the bags, I can see why.)

The pack comes with an excellent instructional DVD, which is a terrific idea, and much more user friendly than the written instructional manual.

I tested the airbag feature it in my back yard. It performed as advertised, inflating the bags in a couple of seconds (and scaring my young daughter who was watching.)

Overall, I'm happy with the pack so far. Weight is a little more than I expected, but really, for a person my size (200 pounds) 4 extra pounds on my back is pretty inconsequential.

Vario 30 with Airbag Deployed

Combining the ABS Airbag Pack with the Avalung

Although I was happy with the ABS Vario 30, and I used the pack as it came from the manufacturer for a while, I finally decided that, when it comes to avalanches, it's best to have all the advantages you can get.  So, I created a backpack that incorporates both the ABS airbag and the Black Diamond Avalung.

I call it my Ultimate Mutant Avalanche Pack.

Here are some pictures of my mutant pack:



Here is how it came about. I got tired of wearing both the Avalung and ABS pack. Too many straps, and I didn't like having to remove the Avalung every time I put on or took off a clothing layer (because the Avalung has to go on the outside.)

So, I called Ron Rob at R2 Packs.

R2 is a truly custom pack maker. They work with you to design and build literally anything you want.  (Although they are now out of business)

I went to Ron with the idea of combining the avalung pack with the airbag pack.

The task was made somewhat easier by the fact that the ABS airbag pack I have is modular. There is a standard frame, that contains the airbag, and then you can zip on different pack bags of different volumes.

So, we didn't have to tweak the frame or airbag portion of the pack, we just had to figure out a way to incorporate the Avalung into the pack bag.

Initially, I thought that I could just incorporate my existing Avalung into the pack, but after examining the BD Avalung packs, it became apparent that the pack avalung has some important differences compared with the stand alone avalung. So, I bit the bullet and bought a BD Covert avalung pack.

The Covert pack was canibalized for parts, and the avalung parts were incorporated into the pack bag. The packbag itself was created by R2 from scratch, using lightweight fabrics, and was designed to my specifications, with pockets sized to fit my shovel, probe, and snow saw, in addition to other features like a larger main compartment, hydration pocket, and a floating lid that I could secure a helmet under (unlike the fixed lid on the ABS packbag.)

The final finished product is pretty cool.  The addition of the Avalung and the greater volume added about 8 ounces of weight, brining the total weight of the pack to just over 8 pounds.  That's 5 pounds heavier than a typical skiing pack, but considering the large volume, the integrated Avalung, and the added safety of the airbags, I think it's worth the weight.  

Even though it is heavy, the pack is very comfortable, has excellent balance for skiing, and distributes the load well. 

I've used this pack on numerous day trips, and some multi-day overnighters.  It's handled all of these ski trips well.


Snowpulse 45L Lifebag  (6 pounds, 15.8 ounces)
(Another airbag backpack.)
Snowpulse is one of two companies I’m aware of that makes airbag backpacks for backcountry skiers. (The other company is ABS.)  As outlined above, I already own an ABS pack, but I wanted to get an airbag pack for my 16 year old son, who is going on a lot of backcountry trips with me this season.

Rather than get another ABS pack, I decided to get a Snowpulse instead. The primary reason for this is that I like the design of the Snowpulse airbag. When deployed, the Snowpulse airbag forms around your head and upper torso, providing some impact protection. The ABS airbag deploys to either side like wings. Particularly here in Colorado, where there are quite a few trees in avalanche zones (compared with Europe, where much of the skiing is above tree-line) I thought that having some extra impact protection might be a good idea.

The Snowpulse bag surrounds the head and torso

The Snowpulse gas canister that makes the airbag work is filled with compressed air, as opposed to the ABS, which is powered by compressed nitrogen. The Snowpulse airbag is designed so that even if you are buried, the airbags provide breathable air in a pocket around your head. This also seems like a good idea.
So, it was this innovation relating to the airbag design that led me to purchase a Snowpulse, rather than buy the ABS.
Unlike the ABS, the Snowpulse is shipped with an empty canister, which you have to get filled yourself. Scuba shops have the capability of filling the Snowpulse canister, but in order for them to do it, you’ve got to have an adaptor. These adaptors are used by paintball guys to fill their paintball gun canisters. It was harder than I thought to find one of these adaptors. The local sporting goods and paintball stores didn’t have them. I ended up driving an hour away to purchase one, and it cost me $90. Only later did I look on Ebay, and see them for $40. If you get one of these Snowpulse bags, I suggest that you buy a paintball adapter off of Ebay at the same time. That way, when your bag shows up, you will have the ability to fill it.
A friendly scuba shop guy filled up the canister to 3000psi as directed. However, the gauge on the Snowpulse canister read way too low. After reading the instructions again, I noticed that according to the instructions, my airbag wouldn’t function correctly with the pressure that low.  So, I went to another scuba shop, and had them fill the canister again to 3000psi. (The canister gauge still read low.) We switched out gauges on the fill bottle, and pumped up the pressure to 3050psi. The Snowpulse gauge still read in the “too low” zone.
I contacted the North American distributor for Snowpulse and told him about this. He said that the gauge was not working correctly and also that a number of the gauges don’t work correctly (all showing too low.) However, he assured me that the bag would work correctly if it had 3000psi in it.
I was somewhat reassured by this, but not entirely. I had watched the scuba guy put the correct amount of air in the canister, but with the Snowpulse gauge not working, I have no way to accurately check the canister pressure going forward. Maybe I’m just over cautious, but that seems like kind of a big deal to me. If this was a pressure gauge on a super soaker, I wouldn’t really care. However, I kind of expect the gauge on a ($1000) life-saving device to work. When the manufacturer can get this problem sorted, I’m going to ask them for a replacement canister with a working gauge.
I attached the Snowpulse canister (a bit more difficult than with the ABS) and finally the pack was ready for action.
When I took the new Snowpulse out skiing for the first time, I found that the waistbelt buckle was broken. The pack comes with a quick-release metal buckle that is supposed to keep the backpack on you even in the midst of an avalanche. However, the buckle kept popping undone all day long. Finally, when I got back to the car and examined it, I found the problem. One of the springs in the buckle was mis-aligned. Whoever had assembled the buckle had allowed the spring to be placed on the outside, rather than the inside. So, the buckle would snap, however, a tug on the buckle would make it come undone. When I got home, I worked on the buckle for a while with a screwdriver and a needle nosed pliers, and managed to get the spring in the correct position. So, the buckle works now. (I’m glad I figured this out before I actually “needed” the backpack.)
Other than the quality control issues, I like the Snowpulse quite a bit. The suspension is quite comfortable to carry. The pack frame is quite torsionally rigid, and doesn’t really flex with you when you move, but I didn’t find that this hampered my skiing much. Compared with the ABS, I think that I found the two suspension systems to be pretty comparable. Weight for the Snowpulse is 6 pounds 15.8 ounces, compared with 7 pounds 13.5 ounces for the ABS vario 30 (which is a 30 liter pack compared with the 45 liter Snowpulse) So, the Snowpulse saves a substantial amount of weight compared with the ABS. The leg strap on the Snowpulse (which keeps the pack from riding up during an avalanche) is easier to use than that on the ABS.
The Snowpulse has a good strap set up for carrying skis (which I used today for the first part of our trip, hiking over the dirt road.) It also has a convenient pouch for a water bladder, and a hole to stick the hose out of. It’s a zippered panel loading pack (the airbag design would seem to preclude a top loader lay-out) with a main compartment, and another outside pocket compartment that appears designed to hold avalanche gear (it fit my Ortovox Grizzly shovel perfectly, and there are places to put probes and other stuff.) There’s also a small, padded pocket for stuff like keys, cell phone, etc.
I couldn’t figure out any good way to carry a helmet, except for inside the main compartment of the pack.
The Snowpulse model I purchased was the 45 liter capacity model, in a size long back length. In this size, there is more than enough room for a typical day trip, and even enough room for an over-nighter if you’re going light. It seems like the perfect size for multi day hut trips.
If I were going to buy another airbag pack, would I buy an ABS or a Snowpulse? I think I would buy a Snowpulse. Its airbag design, that protects the wearer’s head and torso, really seems to me to be significantly better than the ABS design. I’m guessing that the quality control issues I’ve encountered are due to the fact that this product is pretty new to the market, and Snowpulse doesn’t have the same experience that ABS does. Hopefully, the Snowpulse manufacturer can get their gauge issues fixed. If I can get a canister with a working gauge, I think I would be pretty satisfied with this piece of gear.


Snowpulse Lifebag 45

Snowpulse Lifebag 45

Snowpulse Lifebag 45

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