2014 Avalanche Airbag Reviews, Comparison & Buying GuideJanuary 4th, 2014 By Dave
My job is to pick the best gear to present to the TMS customer base, and with the growing popularity of the Avy Airbag category, these packs have been hot topics of conversation around the shop the past couple of weeks, both in the store and through our online customer service channels. So, here is my take on the pros, cons, ups, downs and all-arounds of this dizzying category of backcountry ski gear.
I am going to break this up into a couple sections and parts since its a deep and intricate topic with lots of info. So, this first post will focus on the differences between the ABS and Mammut systems with a brief discussion about the packs and options for each system.
Twin Airbags situated on side of backpack/body – Provides redundancy in case one bag gets punctured. Airbags are long (ranging from about knee-height to above the head). This keeps your entire body above the snow and provides the flotation needed to “ride” out a slide and remain on top. 170 liters of volume is the most offered by all airbags on the market.
Compressed Nitrogen w/Pyrotechnic Trigger Mechanism (Activation Unit): Compressed nitrogen is housed in a smaller canister than compressed air and therefore takes up less room in your pack. It must be filled at ABS headquarters or swapped out with an ABS canister exchange at a certified ABS exchange center (Tahoe Mountain Sports does this!). The Pyro trigger is easiest to pull when under duress as there is no physical puncturing that takes place. The handle can also be switched from side-to-side for use by lefties, righties, or snowmobilers who wish to keep their hands free for throttle-access. The ABS Activation Unit includes the compressed nitrogen canister plus the pyrotechnic handle.
Here’s a brief rundown of how the ABS avalanche airbag system works:
Single Airbags Deployed from Top of Pack: RAS and PAS systems utilize a single airbag that deploys out of the top of your pack. The RAS system is the first generation of the Mammut (formerly SnowPulse) systems and is the least expensive. It is basically a large pillow behind and above your head. The Mammut PAS system was released to the North American market in the Fall of 2013 and comes down through the shoulder straps as well as above the head. Basically, the PAS system is meant to protect against head trauma. My one con with the Mammut airbag system is that you can still get buried up to your airbag (neck area) and if you were solo, you would likely still be stuck in the debris of an avalanche and not able to dig yourself, given that you even survive the slide.
Compressed Air w/Physical Puncture Trigger: Mammut packs utilize a compressed air canister which is slightly longer and wider than the ABS canister. Compressed air is more readily available in the marketplace as you can get your canister filled at a local filling shop (like Tahoe Mountain Sports!), scuba shops or paintball stores. The only potential problem here is user error when filling. Scuba and paintball shops are usually unfamiliar with the specific type of filling that needs to take place and therefore there could be user error on the filling side. We always recommend coming in and allowing us to fill your canister or just exchange it for a full one that we always have waiting for you in the shop. On the trigger side of things, the Mammut trigger requires a small pin to mechanically puncture the canister. Through testing in the shop, this takes slightly more effort than the ABS version, but not much.
ABS utilizes a Base Unit and then zip on modular system. Basically, you purchase an ABS Base Unit for about $950 (includes Activation Unit) and then you can purchase zip-on packs with capacities ranging from 5 liters to 55 liters. This is a great option because once you invest in the Base Unit, you are pretty good to go on any trip from a quick mission out-of-bounds at the ski area to a week-long hut trip in British Columbia or Europe. All the zip-on packs retail for under $200. The design and functionality of the ABS packs does leave a bit to be desired, and this is their biggest downfall. They don’t offer much utility space or fancy pockets/attachments for gear, but there is an ABS Helmet Holder available, which is nice. In my opinion, the functionality of being able to switch between zip-on packs for different types of trips is by far the best part of the ABS pack system. Also, the Base Unit is offered in Small or Large sizes so ABS packs can fit a variety of body types.
Mammut makes some of the nicest backcountry packs on the market, whether they are for climbing or skiing, so when they took their popular models of Nirvana ski packs and turned them into avalanche airbag packs, they didn’t skip a beat. Tons of features and a super comfortable carrying system really put Mammut at the top of the list when it comes to pack design. The colors are super cool and they come with helmet holders, goggle pockets, and reinforced carry loops and straps to ensure your Mammut backpack is going to last a long time (can’t say the same for the ABS zip-on packs, as they are made of more lightweight nylon). Mammut makes “ready” packs in addition to selling the packs as packages. The Mammut Ready packs allow you to purchase a smaller or larger version of the pack to start with and then change out your airbag system as your trip dictates. The largest is still only a 45-liter, so you will be somewhat limited on longer journeys. The packs are also much more expensive on their own, so if you are going to go with more than one size Mammut pack, you will quickly be at or above the price-point of an ABS system.
Mammut has kept their RAS and PAS systems in-house, meaning nobody else has access to their technology and their pack design, while ABS has chosen the opposite route and licensed their technology to some of the leading brands in the outdoor industry.
Perhaps my favorite in the ABS partner lineup, and the pack system I have chosen for this season, is the Ortovox Tour 32+7 with the Mass ABS Ssystem. The M.A.S.S Unit (Modular Airbag Safety System) weighs only 1300 grams and can be inserted into any Ortovox airbag backpack in less than three minutes. This system allows you to take your ABS system in and out of your pack for the times when you do or don’t want to take it with you. I like this because there are lots of daytrips I go on that don’t necessitate an airbag pack. This lets me keep all my avy gear, skin wax, googles, etc all in my pack without having to move my gear between an airbag pack and a non-airbag pack. Ortovox also makes some of the finest packs in the ski arena. I love all their attachment points, included helmet carriers, axe and crampon loops, skin pocket, side access and more. These packs are also super durable, so nothing to worry about in terms of quality.
When the biggest brand in the outdoor industry joins forces with ABS, you know a winning combination is on tap. TNF bumped out two main products: The Patrol 24 ABS Pack and the Patrol ABS Vest. The Patrol 24 Pack is a 24-liter pack with a great carrying system and a very simple and direct pack design. This is the perfect daypack size and will work perfectly for most people. The Vest is one of the most unique and innovative integrations of an Avy pack on the market. Modeled after the Patrol Vest you see all the patrols skiing around with at every resort in the US, this version basically gives the patrols and other users the added safety of any Avy airbag. This is great for the professional or for the day-trip person who rips from 8 a.m. until the last chair, and is all over the mountain and probably out of bounds, or at least sidecountry for part of the day, and looking for that extra bit of safety.
That’s enough tech-talk for now. Look for Part II of our Avy Airbag series coming your way in a few weeks…
One more video…slightly intense:
ABS Avalanche Airbag Activation Unit – Exchange
Ortovox Tour 30+7 ABS Backpack Package