Avalanche airbags: which one to choose?

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 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 Navarro
The lucky survivor of a huge avalanche: freeskier and user 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!

Climbing Aiguille du Tour: Father and son bonding time

The mountains are a great environment to rediscover and deepen relationships, such as father and son. Guided by Julia, four Belgian parents took each, one of their kids to ascend Aiguille du Tour (3540m), in the Mont Blanc range. The efforts, the views, and the quality time and emotions shared made them go back with a renewed bond, strengthened during those days in the Alps. And for many of them, it was their first mountaineering adventure, so they also returned with the desire to go again to the mountains, and repeat the experience.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour
2 fathers and their son enjoying the sunrise during their ascent of Aiguille du Tour

This trip will be unforgettable and I hope I can do this again in the future’, said William, one of the four kids, after the trip. He was one of the participants who had their first mountaineering experience at Aiguille du Tour, and was amazed with the solidarity shown between sons and dads during the ascent. According to him, that is what allowed them all to reach Aiguille du Tour’s summit.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour

Paul was the one who had the idea of the trip. Experienced mountain lover, he wanted to share this passion with his son. So he checked through Explore-Share, and contacted Julia, an aspirant IFMGA mountain guide based in Chamonix. Together, they decided to do a 3-day mountaineering trip in the Mont Blanc range, suitable for 16 years old kids, with no previous mountaineering experience.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour
Glacier walk to the summit of Aiguille du Tour

According to Paul, climbing Aiguille du Tour was the perfect choice: ‘It included hiking on a mountain trail, up to the refuge, then a walk on a glacier with crampons, and some rock climbing when reaching the summit. It was not too long; the refuge is new and comfortable… perfect for a first and good experience’. And he was thrilled to see how the climb gave the boys the opportunity to relate among them, and with their fathers, in a different environment than daily life.  The situation showed them also the importance of taking responsibility for themselves and for others, a symptom of becoming adults. Of course the guides helped them, but they had to take care of their equipment, backpacks, carry their load, and behave correctly in the mountains.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour
Paul and his son spending quality time together on their way to Albert 1er mountain hut

The other fathers agreed with Paul. They also considered the trip a very good opportunity to get back to the basics, and discover new things. Moreover, they enjoyed to have their mind very far while being close from home and daily life. And for those who hadn’t previous experience, the ascent allowed them to notice that there are a lot of things accessible in the mountains and that not everything is as extreme as it may look.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour
Ice axe and crampons’ exercises next to Refuge Albert 1er on Day 2.

The program was the following: On Day 1, they did a hiking tour above Chamonix. This allowed Julia to check the level and mood of the participants and for the participants to have a nice and easy introduction to mountaineering. That day, Julia also checked the equipment of everybody and presented the planning of the coming days. On Day 2, they hiked up to the Albert 1er mountain hut. And on Day 3, they did the ascent of Aiguille du Tour starting at 4 AM, and after summiting, they hiked down to Chamonix. Day 4 was to return to Belgium.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour
JB (IFMGA mountain guide) and 4 members of the team hiking down the glacier

Paul was very pleased with the guiding service of Julia and JB, an IFMGA mountain guide who joined her:  ‘They were excellent because they took a lot of time to explain what we were doing and coaching each of us. You could feel they were really looking to transmit things, their passion, putting the right ingredients allowing the participants to share a great time together. But they were also tough and strict when it was necessary, like when we arrived on the glacier’.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour

Augustin, one of the kids, agreed: ‘The guides were awesome’. It was his first mountaineering experience, so he was pleased the trip was adapted for everyone’s level: ‘It was a wonderful experience and great to live such an adventure with my dad’. William was impressed by the sunrise over the Alps, and the possibility of seeing some of its most famous peaks. And Jules, another of the boys, didn’t hesitate to say: ‘If I had the opportunity to do these kinds of experiences again, I would for sure sign for them”.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour

According to Paul, ‘Father & son unique moments in daily dynamic family life is sometimes a challenge. This one to one window in the year creates a great opportunity to build that important relationship in their adolescent life where our role has a father changes.

The activity reinforces team spirit while enjoying a wonderful environment. It also shows each other different aspects of personality that might be hidden in day to day life.

So we at Explore-Share are happy to help people to live these kind of experiences, which also shows that mountaineering is not only for top athletes, but also accessible to beginners, families with kids, and anyone willing to discover the amazing world in the mountains.

Father and Son Aiguille du Tour
The team celebrating on the summit of Aiguille du Tour at 3540m high

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Facing bad weather in the Pennine Alps: the value of going with a guide

What to do when you have a trip plan in mind but circumstances force you to change it? Two Belgian friends tell us why counting on the help of experienced local mountain guides has been so necessary in their mountaineering expedition in the Pennine Alps.

The climate instability around the Pennine Alps region is not always a problem. Especially when you are in the company of local certified guides as Yann (IFMGA Guide) and Jonathan (aspirant guide from La Vallée d’Hérens). They know the area so well that they could transform what looked like a canceled plan into a new big mountaineering adventure.

Facing bad weather in the Pennine Alps:

Last August two friends from Belgium, Romain and Charles, were looking for a new challenge. So, they contacted Yann through Explore-Share. They enjoyed a great experience at Blanc de Moming although in fact, that was not the initial plan:

“The original program was the ascent of La Dent Blanche. Unfortunately, since the guides were warned that the rock wasn’t dry, we had to change our objective and valley. So, we finally headed to the Val d’Anniviers and its Imperial Crown”.

The new goal proposed by the guides was the Zinalrothorn. So, they hiked towards the Cabane du Grand Mountet, ready for the following day’s new objective. Before bedtime, they looked above and saw a great clear starry sky, which encouraged them facing the next day.

It was 3 AM, time to get up. The waking up in the Imperial Crown is always a magical experience. The first thing they did was to go out and check the weather. But there was no more clear sky and, to their surprise, now there was only mist and drizzle. Nevertheless, after a meeting with the guides they decided to continue with the approach, hoping for the bad weather to change.

Yann (Swiss IFMGA mountain guide) and Charles studying the situation before the decision

After a 1:30 hour walk, they were on the glacier. They put the crampons on and get roped under the rain. Fortunately, the mood of the group was still good. After crossing the glacier, they began the ascent towards the Blanc Ridge (L’Arête Du Blanc). And here the worst happened: they started to get swept by the wind and it was colder and colder…

“We arrived quickly under the shoulder of the Zinalrothorn (4017m). There, the two guides took a difficult and frustrating but safe decision. To turn back after a sad but predictable conclusion: the rock is frosted and the ridge impassable”.

The expertise and knowledge of both local mountain guides were enough to convince Romain and Charles to go down the ridge. But no one wanted to finish the trip empty-handed. So, instead of going all the way back, they decided to go for a new objective. That’s why, rather than going back to the glacier, they continued on the very steep and sharp ridge until the Blanc de Moming (3.661m). Finally, they reached its summit and got a very short good weather window to enjoy the views over the Weisshorn and the rest of the Imperial Crown.

The Imperial Crown, one of the best landscapes of the Swiss Alps

On the way down, the feeling of the mountaineers was strange:

“A mix of joy and a sense of accomplishment, but still disappointment for not having been able to fully reach the n°1 goal of the day. But we felt perfectly safe being roped with Yann and Jonathan. They’re very friendly and professional and know the area very well. That allowed us to easily find alternatives following the uncertainties of the weather”.

This experience shows that mountaineering has a lot of nuances. What’s more, it will be always a good experience if you enjoy it by the company of friends and expert local guides. They can offer more flexibility when the weather and conditions are not as planned.

Moreover, once you lived such a positive experience like Romain and Charles, it is very likely to want to continue challenging your own limits and objectives. As they told us after their adventure…

“This tour made us want to return to Le Val d’Anniviers and reach the summit of the Zinalrothorn (and of La Dent Blanche) even more. We will contact Explore-Share again to book a new trip very soon”.