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Avalanche airbags: which one to choose?


Tomas Ichaso

May 19, 2017

Last updated on March 22, 2022 by the Explore-Share team


Increasingly, mountain guides are encouraging their clients to bring an avalanche airbag to the backcountry. Many Explore-Share users have asked us about the different types of packs and which one to choose. Bag’s weight, size and system are all important considerations. Discover the different options and stay safe on your next ski trip!

Some avalanche knowledge is crucial to ski in the backcountry. Being able to assess avalanche risk and knowing how to react if caught in one are essential when skiing off-piste. Only after the proper training and knowledge, can you focus on gear.

The avalanche airbag is a part of the safety equipment that is strongly advised when freeride skiing. Apart from the beacon, the probe and the shovel, an avalanche airbag could help save your life. 

© Eric Collard© Eric Collard

Please note, however, that even though an airbag could help increase your chances of survival during an avalanche, it should not be used as an excuse to go too far or take unnecessary risks. An avalanche airbag doesn't make you immortal, it just helps stack the odds in your favor.

However, not all airbags are created equal. We've asked several mountain guides in the Alps to help us put together this guide to help you decide which is the best option for you.

Avalanche airbagAvalanche airbag

How do avalanche airbags work?

An avalanche airbag is the only piece of equipment that limits burial depth. This is due to a phenomenon called "inverse segregation". During an avalanche, the most voluminous elements rise to the surface, while the smaller ones are attracted to the bottom. The inflated airbag will increase the skier's volume, allowing him to "float" on the surface and limiting burial depth.

If buried, inflated airbags can stay on the surface and allow for faster localization. The avalanche beacon, the shovel and the probe also aid in this process. Note that after 15 minutes a buried skier sees his chances of survival greatly reduced.

user of ABS avalanche airbags Aymar Navarrouser of ABS avalanche airbags Aymar Navarro

How to choose an avalanche airbag?

You should take into consideration the bag’s weight, size and system when choosing your avalanche airbag.

Generally, sizes range from 18 to 45 liters. However, it is necessary to pay close attention to the indicated volume of the bag, as this can include the system, which means that the bag itself will be smaller.

Weight and volume do not always go hand in hand. With the use of thinner materials, some brands offer bags with a large volume but a reasonable weight.

System-wise, there are several options:

ABS system: an explosive release system that inflates two 85-liter flasks on the sides of the bag. It has a base on which it is possible to zip larger or smaller packs, from 15 to 50 liters.

Cartridges and handles are good for a single use. Once used, these systems must be changed. It costs around 30 euros to replace them.

Snowpulse system: It is triggered by a cable that inflates a 150-liter, U-shaped single balloon around the skier’s head. The shape has been designed so as to make the skier float with his head up, in order to avoid asphyxiation and improve protection.

There is no need to change the trigger handle. The cartridge must be recharged. Two types of cartridges exist: compressed nitrogen cartridges and compressed air cartridges.

JetForce Technology: Highly innovative, this is the latest airbag system introduced in the market. The airbag’s inflation is no longer via a CO2 cartridge but instead uses a ventilator. It extracts air from the atmosphere and fills the 200-liter canvas. The bag deflates after 3 minutes, creating a 200L air pocket around the burial victim. This could be key to extending survival time.

This electronic device has the advantage of deploying several times in a row, which is very useful for training and also in case of a second avalanche. The Lithium battery is very similar to that found in laptops and, when fully charged (around 8h, via AC adapter) it offers up to 4 triggers, even in extremely cold conditions (-20 ° C).

Can I take an avalanche airbag on the plane?

The Jetforce Technology model is ideal for air travel. Indeed, not all airlines allow the transport of gas cartridges. And airlines’ domestic flights may have different rules.

In IATA’s Dangerous Goods Regulations, there is a list of items allowed on airplanes, including airbag cartridges. It is nevertheless necessary to notify the airline before departure in order to obtain authorization.

Take into account, however, that some users have found that it is sometimes too long or even impossible to obtain authorizations. This is particularly the case in the United States, where the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) does not allow pressurized bottles on board.

We hope this article gives you additional insights into avalanche airbags and helps choose the best one for you. Let us remind you, however, that staying safe in the mountains is not only a matter of having the right equipment. Freeride skiing, as all mountain sports, implies a certain level of risk, so the main goal is to be able to assess risk, manage it and keep it as low as possible.

The importance of proper preparation when going backcountry skiing can’t be stressed enough. According to ISTA (International Snow Training Academy), 90% of avalanches involving skiers are triggered by skiers themselves. Furthermore, 1 in 2 people involved in an avalanche dies (200 deaths per year in the Alpine countries, Canada and USA).

A good option is to participate in an ISTA avalanche training. And, of course, hiring a certified mountain guide is key to staying safe!

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