Avalanche airbag packs were designed with one purpose in mind—to save your life in the event of a slide. But how effective are they if you find yourself caught in an avalanche?
The idea behind the packs—essentially backpacks with a massive balloon inside that inflates when you pull a handle—is simple. The pack is designed to keep you floating on the top of the slide, rather than getting buried by the concrete-like snow.
It sounds like a pretty great idea, but airbags do have critics. Some experts suggest that wearing an airbag will encourage skiers to take more risks, while others say a giant inflated balloon on your back blocks your peripheral vision. But the technology has its share of supporters, including pro skier Elyse Saugstad who swears that her airbag pack saved her life during the Stevens Pass avalanche.
Either way, your gear is only as good as your knowledge of how to use it. While we recommend you take advantage of airbag packs and other safety gear including beacons, probes, and shovels, it’s never wise to rely solely on the equipment to save you.
No system is perfect, so we've outlined both the pros and cons of two popular avy airbag packs to help you choose the one that's right for you.
Mammut Light Removable Airbag PAS 30L ($1,000 with refillable cartridge)
Pro: Trauma Protection
Mammut’s newest airbag system not only keeps you afloat in a slide, it also protects your head and neck. (Trauma causes about a third of all avalanche fatalities.) The airbag is shaped like a claw, with balloon talons hooked over your shoulders from behind.
The mechanical, maintenance-free Mammut PAS airbag uses a pressurized cartridge of compressed air to inflate the bag. Cartridges can last for up to 10 years, and because the pack inflates with a bang, the force will likely blast any snow away from you.
The modular airbag can be swapped between compatible packs, letting you have multiple size packs that all work with the same airbag. The extra bonus? Pull out the balloon and you have a normal backpack for year-round use.
The PAS system weighs only 3.5 pounds, including the cartridge. The whole pack weighs less than six pounds, making it not much heavier than a normal ski touring backpack.
Con: Flying restrictions
The TSA won’t let you fly with your air canister. But Mammut does have a network of retailers in the U.S. and Canada that will ship a rental cartridge to your destination with a prepaid return label.
Con: Limited reuse
You only can inflate this system once before taking it into a shop. This is a problem during multi-day trips in sketchy conditions, and it can also get expensive. Every time you pull the trigger, you’ll have to spend up to $45 refilling the air canister and replacing the washer.
If the balloon gets torn during the slide, it’s useless.
Black Diamond Halo JetForce 28L ($1100)
Pro: Unlimited reuse
This cutting-edge, battery-powered, fan-inflated system tells you when your pack is armored and ready to go. A button in the handle turns the system off when you’re loading a heli and because the system uses atmospheric air and a fan, it won’t cost you anything to re-armor the pack. Simply put, you can inflate however many times you want.
Pro: Fly with it
You can fly with it. Enough said.
The fan, which pumps air into the bag for the first minute, can keep the bag inflated even if the balloon sustains a six-inch tear. It has an effectively limitless supply of air (unlike the Mammut system) because it doesn’t rely on a canister.
After three minutes, the fan reverses and the pack automatically deflates. It makes the balloon easy to re-pack—no folding required. It could also create a life-saving air pocket if you’re below the snow surface.
Con: Battery life
Black Diamond estimates the JetForce’s battery will last about three years. Thankfully the pack comes with a battery health test to let you know when you need to retire it.
Con: Weaker deployment
Critics say that trying to inflate the fan when there’s pressure on the bag won’t work. Black Diamond disagrees. According to the company, even though the fan-powered system lacks the initial explosive power of a canister system, it can quickly overcome any outside pressure once the balloon has some air in it. “If the system is initially hindered, which can happen to cylinder systems too, repeated fan bursts will correct the problem,” said Nathan Kuder, Black Diamond’s softgoods category manager. In lab tests, JetForce technology repeatedly lifted 250 pounds when inflated.
You can’t currently swap the system from pack to pack. And at just over seven pounds, the Halo weighs a bit more than the Mammut pack.