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A Leap Forward In Avalanche Airbags

In 2014, battery-powered fans will compete with gas canisters in the backcountry safety market.

The list of mandatory backcountry gear now goes like this: beacon, shovel, probe, and—if you can afford it—an avalanche airbag backpack. In Fall 2014, a wave of new technology and improved designs will offer backcountry travelers more options for the last item on that list.

The idea behind an avalanche airbag is simple. Caught in an avalanche? Pull a handle on your backpack shoulder strap and a balloon deploys, much like your car airbag reacts in an accident. An inflated avalanche airbag is less dense than the surrounding snow and increases your surface area. Because of inverse segregation, this acts to buoy you on the surface of a debris flow. The same physics apply to the last Brazil nut rising to the surface in a can of peanuts. Simply staying above the snow greatly increases your chances of walking away. All things considered, the research indicates that avalanche airbags increase survival rates by 16 percent. Statistical analysis can be nuanced—there’s likely some under-reporting in non-burial scenarios—but of those who would have otherwise died, deploying an avalanche airbag saves a little more than half of them.

Developed over the last 30 years in Europe, avalanche airbag packs arrived in the U.S. many years ago.  But the hefty price tag ($1,000 or more) and initial skepticism made adoption slow. Most packs also employ compressed gas in cartridges that are tedious to refill and inconvenient for travel because of outdated air travel guidelines in the U.S. Even so, emerging research and high profile saves have made them common backcountry tools.

For 2014, traditional players like ABS and Ortovox offer improved pack designs. Well-known pack makers like Osprey continue to integrate the technology into snow-specific packs. And Scott has an exclusive on the Alpride airbag, which uses dual canisters of carbon dioxide and argon to inflate a 150L airbag. It’s a smaller and lighter system based on the technology used in airline lifejackets.

But the big story is Black Diamond’s JetForce Technology, which uses a battery-powered fan to fill a 200L airbag. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries fill multiple bags per charge. And eliminating sealed gas means you are less likely to get a cavity search from the TSA. (See more in the video at the top of the page.) “I’ve heard concerns about batteries and electronics. But I don’t see this as any different than a beacon, and everyone trusts them,” says Chad Brackelsberg, race director of the Wasatch Powder Keg backcountry ski race.  —Matt Hart

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