7 Best Avalanche Airbags for Backcountry Skiers
Nothing beats the adrenaline rush and pristine surroundings of skiing and riding in the backcountry. This expansion of snow sports has become more and more popular. However, the additional perks of the backcountry don’t come without a cost. Without the safety of ski patrollers or large budget resorts, skiers become susceptible to triggering avalanches. Avalanches have killed an average of 27 people per year over the past decade, which is a lot considering the relatively small number of people venturing into the territory.
That’s where an avalanche airbag comes in handy. These backpacks have airbags that deploy once you pull the handle located on the shoulder straps. As the airbag fills up with air or gas, it’ll lift you above the snow, increasing your chances of surviving without injuries in the event of an avalanche. The best avalanche airbags should be extremely reliable – you may only need to use them once, but that single moment could save your life.
Be sure to check out our buying advice for avalanche airbags at the bottom of this post. There is a lot to unpack when it comes to features of a potentially life saving product. Let’s take a look at our favorite avalanche packs!
*Disclaimer*: We do not condone or encourage travel in avalanche terrain without proper education on safety and avalanche awareness. The use of an avalanche airbag should merely be a supplement and last resort – it does NOT replace having adequate knowledge of avalanche terrain, snowpack, avalanche safety tools, and techniques. Visit AIARE’s website to sign up for avalanche courses and for the latest in safety knowledge.
|Airbag||Deployment||Capacity||Weight||Removable Airbag||Price Range|
|Black Diamond JetForce Tour||Electric||26L||5.8 lbs||No||$$$$|
|Backcountry Access Float 22||Canister||22L||6.1 lbs||Yes||$$$|
|Mammut Ultralight Airbag 3.0||Canister||20L||3.3 lbs||Yes||$$$|
|Backcountry Access Float 32||Canister||32L||6.4 lbs||Yes||$$$|
|Ortovox Cross Rider 18||Canister||18L||3.6 lbs||Yes||$$$|
|Backcountry Access Float Mtn Pro Vest||Canister||20L||6.9 lbs||Yes||$$$|
|Osprey Soelden Pro 32||Electric||32L||6.3 lbs||Yes||$$$$|
Best Avalanche Airbags for Backcountry Skiers and Snowboarders
Whether you are skiing, snowboarding, or snowmobiling, the JetForce Tour 26L is a top of the line avalanche pack. The Alpride E1 supercapacitor powered fan is lighter than the lithium-ion batteries used in previous Black Diamond bags and represents state of the art technology for electric deployment. Electric airbag deployment is much more user friendly than compressed air canisters that most other bags use.
Outside of the deployment mechanism, the JetForce Tour is loaded with your typical ski bag features, and does so in a lightweight manner. There is a dedicated avalanche equipment pocket, a front loading pocket, a helmet holder, hipelt pocket, and other internal accessories. As such, even with the airbag, there is enough room for extra layers, food, and other emergency gear so that you have everything you need on a full day trip.
Overall, while pricy, Black Diamond provides a leading product that is clean, sleek, performs well, and is extremely user friendly. This pack will be your go-to for types of day excursions in the backcountry.
Backcountry Access, or BCA, is one of the leaders in backcountry safety equipment. Their packs utilize BCA specific compressed air canisters to deploy the airbag. While canisters are a bit more involved than electric deployment, BCA’s canisters are the easiest to use and have numerous authorized refill locations all around the globe.
The bag comes in a wide range of sizes, however we like the 22L pack because these packs tend to be on the heavier side, so staying small keeps weight to a minimum. BCA Float bags are well thought out and have all the bells and whistles you would expect out of a ski pack. The 22L is also one of the cheapest avalanche airbags out right now, making it a great budget option for skiers who only need to get a few days a year out of it.
Remember that the air cannisters come separately from the avalanche bags, so make sure you grab one if you are buying a compressed air powered avy pack.
If you place a high priority on low weight more than any other feature, the Ultralight Removable Airbag 3.0 should be your best bet. Mammut made sure to remove everything that you don’t crucially need to cap the weight at an amazing 3.3 pounds — that’s no small feat for avalanche backpacks.
On the front side, there’s a sturdy adjustable strap that you can use to store your skis in a vertical or a diagonal manner.
The inside compartment supposedly measures 20 liters. However, it actually feels much smaller than this. The fact that you can access the inside of the pack only from the back panel makes it feel even smaller.
The airbag mechanism sits in a separate mesh enclosure. However, there are no other internal pockets or separate compartments. As you might imagine, this makes the packing process a bit challenging. You’ll need to be mindful of where you’ll place every piece of equipment so that you can immediately retrieve it when you need it.
The minimalistic design and limited capacity mean you shouldn’t beat this bag up too much and you can’t try to carry too much with it. Really the Mammut airbag is best for sidecountry or heliskiers who don’t need to haul much for any length of time. But for ultralight, downhill performance? Nothing beats it.
Back again with Backcountry Access, this time with one of their regular backpacks. The Float 32 comes with two main compartments: The first one that sits on the top has a bunch of mini pockets for your probe, shovel handle, or any other tools.
The second compartment is spacious enough to store any clothes and food you’d want to have on the backcountry. There’s also a small webbing loop to hold the radio in place.
On the top of the pack, you’ll find a super helpful fleece-lined pocket to store your goggles. Placing your goggles there ensures that they’ll stay intact and fog-free at all times. One of the things I love about the Float 32 is the side compression straps — you can use those to cinch the bag when you’re not using the full storage.
On the front of the bag, you’ll find a vertical system for the snowboard carry and a diagonal equivalent for skis. Unfortunately, some users reported that the diagonal carry is designed in a way that forces the skis to poke a hole through the external compartments.
Like the majority of BCA’s backpacks, the waistbelt has two small pockets to place things you’ll use on the go, such as energy bars.
The AVABAG from Ortovox excels as a lightweight freetouring avalanche backpack. At just 18L (less after you account for the space the airbag takes up), this bag is designed for riders going light and quick.
A special feature of the AVABAG system is the ability to practice activating the back without the cartridge attached. This way you can prepare over and over again without needed to refill the air canister. The system is removable and can be used with any other Ortovox backpack.
A useful aluminum locking clasp and safety leg strap ensure a secure fit of the pack when descending, and overall the pack has a compact and form fitting feel.
Avalanches can often drag you over stumps and rocks, raising the possibility of fractures and wounds. While the airbag will help you stay afloat, it won’t do anything to protect you from the trauma. Lucky for us, Backcountry Access put some thought into that.
The Float Mountain Pro Vest isn’t just an airbag backpack. It has sturdy plastic sheets embedded into the sides and back to absorb forceful impacts. And thanks to the unique vest design, this bag will guarantee impeccable all-around protection, regardless of your sliding direction.
On the front, there’s an external pocket in which you can store your fully-assembled shovel. We absolutely like this feature since you might not have enough time to put your shovel pieces together.
In the internal 20-liter compartment, you’ll find special sleeves to store your avalanche probe and shovel handle. On the sides, there’s a webbing loop that accepts the BC Link radio, which is an essential tool to guarantee an uninterrupted connection with your boarding or skiing mates.
The airbag fills with the refillable Float 2.0 cylinder. Unfortunately, it’s not airline-approved, so you’ll have to empty it before getting on the plane.
Osprey is one of the most widely recognized outdoor backpack brands, and they bring their expertise to the avalanche back space with the Soelden Pro 32. Like just a few other packs, Osprey utilizes an electric powered deployment system rather than compressed canisters. This system is both easier to use, maintain, and travel with.
Additionally, their NanoFly fabric is specially engineered to be both incredibly light and very abrasion resistant. Given the 32 liters of storage capacity, which is on the higher end for avalanche bags, this pack is well suited for longer days and longer ascents. As with any Osprey backpack, their avalanche airbag is made with high quality and functionality in mind.
A large front panel gives easy accessto your avalanche safety kit, shovel handle, and probe. The primary middle compartment has enough space for layers, food, and more. A stow-away helmet carry and secure ice tool attachment point round out useful features for mountain use. The biggest thing missing in our opinion is a dedicated hydration sleeve for a water bladder, although you could still fit one in the primary compartment.
If you are a fan of the fan (ha, get it?) powered, electric deployment system, but you don’t like the Black Diamond packs, the Osprey is another great choice from a highly trusted outdoor brand.
More Avalanche Airbags
What to Consider Before Buying an Avalanche Airbag Backpack
What is an Avalanche Airbag?
An avalanche airbag is a backpack or vest with an integrated airbag that can be deployed in the event of an avalanche. In these scenarios, the inflated airbag keeps the skier at or around the surface of the snow as to avoid being completely buried by the slide.
How Does an Avalanche Airbag Work?
An attached handle or trigger located on the shoulder strap of these packs will activate the airbag inflation when pulled. With canister systems, air or gas held under pressure is released into the airbag and inflates it to full capacity. With electric systems, a powered fan blows the air into your bag for inflation.
Airbag Deployment System
All avalanche backpacks deploy the airbag after pulling a trigger. However, the system by which the air fills can depend on either canisters or a battery-powered jet fan.
Canisters / Cylinders
Canister systems are the most common form of avalanche backpack deployment. In a canisters system, compressed air or gas is kept under pressure within a cylinder.
- Canisters are more affordable than newer, electric powered systems
- Canisters are typically lighter than most electric systems (especially lithium battery powered ones)
- Requires little maintenance and can be easily repaired if necessary
- No reliance on technology or electronics (which is often good in very low temperatures)
- You must refill the cylinder after each use (at a fee)
- Not ideal to practice with since you have to refill each time
- Does not allow for continuous deployment (in case your bag gets punctured during an avalanche)
- Can NOT fly or travel by air with a full canister
Black Diamond was the first brand to ditch canisters. Their backpacks have powerful jet fans that pump the atmospheric air into the airbag by using a battery. Of course, you can deploy the airbag more than once; the actual limit comes down to the size of each model’s battery.
Unlike canisters, you can fly with these models without facing any restrictions.
What’s the catch, you might ask? Well, some people don’t trust these systems enough. The battery might suddenly lose its charge due to the freezing temperatures, for instance. But to be fair, these incidences are notably rare.
- Easy recharge, no fee based refilling required
- Easy to practice deployment
- Allowed on air planes
- Continuous deployment in the event your bag is punctured, it will stay inflated
- More expensive than canister airbags
- Usually heavier than canisters, especially battery-powered ones
- Professional maintenance required if broken
- Extreme temperatures can have an effect on battery life or performance (although rare)
Air Travel with Avalanche Airbags
For hardcore skiers who travel often for their backcountry skiing fix, you will have to be well aware of the restrictions around flying. Fortunately, airbags that use supercapacitors or batteries are perfectly okay to fly with, although you might need to take ones powered with lithium batteries as your carry on (similar to laptops). If you fly often with your avalanche gear, these are the best option.
Canister powered systems are more difficult for air travel. The TSA for the United States specifically does not let you travel with compressed air, so you will need to empty your canister before flying, and then find a place to fill up at your destination. Alternatively, there are manual high-pressure pumps that you can buy and take with you, though they are a bit expensive.
Choosing the backpack size comes down to your personal preferences and intended use.
If you’re mainly interested in things like heli- or cat-skiing, going for a 20-liter pack should provide enough storage without impeding your movement. For longer touring trips, you’ll need 35 liters to pack everything you need. Longer expeditions and hut-to-hut trips will require you to have at least 50 liters of storage.
As you go bigger, make sure that you’re getting sturdy materials that can support the presumed capacity. It’s actually common to hear about premature tears in 50-liter backpacks, especially with no-name brands.
On another note, make sure you find a pack with a weight that is comfortable for you to continually wear. Remember, this is a potentially life saving item, and you don’t want to leave your pack behind because “it’s too heavy”. If going smaller or lighter ensures you will wear it, then that is probably the way to go.
You will often be wearing your avalanche backpack for a decent length of time. The same as you would for backpacking packs or anything else, you should make sure the specific model fits your body. Everyone’s body is slightly different, and may just not jive with certain models for whatever reason. It’s best to figure this out in the store or your living room before finding it out halfway through a backcountry hut trip.
Testing and Maintenance
Most avalanche backpacks have a listed use of only around 40 to 50 deployments and that they should be replaced after 10 years. In the meantime, you should make sure to deploy the system at least once per year and doing routine checks like assessing any damage to the airbag, deployment handle, or storage compartment.
Many airbags have a looped strap near the back of the hipbelt that you can slide your leg through ensuring that your pack stays connected to you in the event of a slide. This is a useful feature. its worth noting that some leg loops are easier to use than others, which encourages you to actually take advantage of it. Using your leg straps to keep your pack attached could prove life saving, so its worth giving consideration.
Outside of the airbag functinoality, your pack should still have the features that help you on days in the mountains and in the backcountry. Dedicated pockets for shovels, probes, transceivers, and snow study tools will help keep your gear organized and help you remember everything. Attachment points for carrying your skis or snowboard, ice tools, or helmet will be necessary on most trips. Make sure your pack has these and that they are adequate for your taste.
Avalanche Safety Courses
No matter how experienced you are, avalanches will always be dangerous. Getting an avalanche backpack shouldn’t encourage you to intentionally venture inside a danger zone. Despite advances in technology, an avalanche airbag is not a guaranteed savior and should not increase your risk tolerance.
You should take the necessary classes and refreshers to learn and stay up to date on the techniques and tools you’ll need to use to save yourself from an avalanche emergency. Practice avalanche procedures with your ski partners on a routine basis, and NEVER go out into the backcountry without at least somebody in your party having adequate experience.
Shop Related Products
An avalanche airbag is a fantastic piece of gear for skiers and riders venturing into the backcountry and avalanche terrain. It should be used in conjunction, not in place of, other important rescue tools such as beacons, shovels, and probes.
Be sure to get familiar with your gear and be in love with it enough to wear it in the backcountry every time you go out.
So what are you waiting for? Go send it! But be safe!
So, do you have any experience with avalanche backpacks? What other tips do you have for heading out into the backcountry? Let us know in the comments below!