How Do I Fly with an Avalanche Airbag?

The TSA might give you trouble about those compressed-gas canisters. Here's how to avoid it.

Mar 11, 2015
Outside Magazine
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You can travel with your avalanche airbag, but you'll need to prove to the TSA that your air canisters are empty.    Photo: Roberto Caucino/iStock


Outside marketing director Sam Moulton recently incited the wrath of the TSA and a few prickly airline agents when he tried to fly with two avalanche airbag systems to a hut trip with some buddies in Idaho.

“You become persona non grata real fast,” says Moulton. Most avy airbag packs, designed to keep you floating above a slide, rely on compressed-air canisters to inflate. But here’s the problem: The TSA prohibits flying with compressed air. Moulton thought he’d done everything right: The canisters were empty, as the gauges clearly indicated, and he had printed out the suggested paperwork to accompany them. In a momentary lapse of reason, however, he didn’t realize that he simply needed to unscrew the canister lid to placate the TSA officials. This turned into an hour-long fiasco that caused Moulton to miss his flight—and lose both canisters.

To make sure you don’t end up in the same costly, frustrating predicament, I interviewed Bruce Edgerly, co-founder and vice president of global sales and marketing at backcountry safety company BCA. Follow these six rules and you’ll be chasing premium powder without any hassle from the TSA.

Empty It

You’re allowed to fly with an air canister—it just has to be empty. “I empty the cylinder with a practice deployment: I pull the trigger and let the air out,” says Edgerly. This makes the following step safe, and it’s a good excuse to check the pack’s systems before you start skiing.

Separate the Head from the Cylinder

You’ll have to prove to the TSA that the canister is empty. (This is where Moulton got into trouble.) “Even if you have an empty canister, the TSA has to be able to look inside,” says Edgerly. It’s the TSA agent’s responsibility to make sure there are no explosives inside the canisters. BCA’s canisters are all set to be hand-tightened, and taking them apart and putting them back together doesn’t require a torque wrench. Just screw the lid off and you’re good to go.

Be Diligent About Storing the Parts

“I put the head and cylinder in a new Ziploc—not the one I’ve stored a sandwich in,” says Edgerly. Don’t contaminate the threads or O-ring on the cylinder or head; dirt or crumbs will damage the integrity of the cylinder and could prevent it from holding air. Edgerly also keeps the head and cylinder connected until he arrives at the airport. He then separates the two at security and reattaches them after he arrives at the gate.

Carry It On

You don’t want to check the avy airbag; it could be lost or damaged. After placing the head and the cylinder in a clear plastic bag, Edgerly puts the device in his carry-on with his computer. Following these rules, he’s never had problems getting cylinders onto the plane. 

Refill Once You Land

“We’ve made an effort to make sure there’s a refill station in every resort and in every city near a ski area,” Edgerly says. You can find those fill stations at BCA’s online locator map. If a fill station is not available, BCA will ship a cylinder to your destination or loan you one if you provide them with your credit card information.

Be Flexible When Traveling Internationally

“There are various geographical differences,” says Edgerly. “In Europe, they usually prefer to do exchanges over refills.” Japan, on the other hand, uses a special cylinder with a unique head that you’ll find only in that country. They will do refills only for cylinders with Japanese government–approved cylinder heads, Edgerly says. BCA has cylinder rentals in Niseko and Hakuba, but if you’re traveling anywhere else, we recommend having BCA ship the full cylinders to your hotel room. You can email the company at [email protected] for this service.

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