avalanche airbag skiing safety survival outside
An avalanche airbag, deployed. (Jan Greune/Getty)

The Most Promising Safety Tool Surfacing on the Slopes

Avalanche airbags have arrived.

Free skiing equipment, Mayrhofen, Ziller river valley, Tyrol, Austria

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The idea is simple: as an avalanche slides, big stuff stays on top and little stuff sifts to the bottom. Airbag-equipped backpacks are primarily designed to make the wearer larger, improving the chances of remaining at the surface. Sales of avy packs have increased 400 percent over the past four years, and there are now more than 50 models to choose from.

The answer to the most obvious question? Yes, they work. According to a recent study, 78 percent of people caught in a slide will survive. Among those who successfully deploy an airbag, that number rises to 89 percent, with the 11 percent who die generally suffering trauma from hitting trees or falling down cliffs.

Until this year, there were two basic models: those that use ABS-style nitrogen canisters and those that use compressed-air canisters. The main difference is that nitrogen canisters must be refilled at the factory, while compressed-air canisters, which are taller and bulkier, can be refilled at licensed retailers and most scuba or paintball shops.

This fall, Black Diamond debuted a third type, inflated by a battery-powered fan. The advantage: unlike canister packs, which can’t be reused in the field unless you’ve lugged a spare along with you, the Jetforce can be deployed at least four times on a single battery charge. Plus, full canisters aren’t allowed on planes, and the Jetforce is travel-ready.

Which one is right for you? If you ski close to home, it’s hard to beat the ABS system for the sheer number of designs available. Companies like Deuter, Jones, Osprey, and Salomon all use ABS in their avy packs, many of which allow you to convert them to conventional backpacks via removable panels. If you travel, a compressed-air pack requires only a quick stop at a dive shop to have your canister filled before hitting the mountains. And there’s much to like about the Jetforce. The Halo 28L we tested worked reliably, even in cold temperatures at elevations above 12,000 feet. The blower, battery, and air-intake tubes take up a lot of space in the pack, but they’re bound to get sleeker in subsequent models. Arc’teryx and others are currently working on their own designs and should help drive innovation.