How to choose your avalanche backpack ?
95% of avalanche accidents are due to slab avalanches triggered by the victim.
In other words, the biggest danger when you are skiing in the backcountry ... is you ! The democratisation of ski touring has brought avalanche safety equipment into the spotlight, at the same time as skiers have discovered the dangers of off-piste skiing. Thus, the avalanche beacon-shovel-probe trio and the airbag backpack have, more than ever, come to the fore in recent years.
However, the airbag backpack still lags behind its companions, the transceiver, shovel and probe : price, complexity and lack of information, etc., can all be obstacles to purchase. However, it is an invaluable asset in the event of an avalanche, as it is the only tool that can bring you back up to the surface.
We'll let you into all the airbag backpack's secrets - how it works, key features, the ideal pack for the way you ski, and even airbag checks - and help you find the right one for you !
How does an airbag backpack work ?
An avalanche airbag backpack is a pack equipped with an inflatable balloon system that increases a skier's volume and lift surface. Why is that important ? Larger particles tend to rise to the surface of an avalanche, which reduces burial. Your airbag backpack is designed to help you float as much as possible towards the surface of the avalanche. Interesting, isn't it ? This phenomenon has been widely demonstrated and, indeed, has a name : inverse segregation. The system also works with particles other than snow… like muesli, for example ! Test it for yourself : take a packet of muesli, shake it, and observe the result. The larger pieces of fruit and nuts end up at the top of the packet, as if by magic !
So, the principle remains the same, even though airbag systems differ from one brand to another. The airbag is located in a specific compartment in the backpack and is triggered when the wearer pulls a handle to deploy it. This triggers either a gas or compressed air cartridge or an electric fan that inflates the airbag behind the wearer's back. The goal is always the same : to increase your volume and lift in the face of the avalanche, bringing you as close as possible to the surface. However, this simple change in volume can sometimes save a life because burial can make all the difference during a rescue involving an avalanche. Hence the crucial importance of taking an airbag backpack on all your off-piste sessions.
Why is it so important to have an airbag backpack ?
Of course, increasing the volume and lift is sometimes not enough to free an avalanche victim. It actually depends on many factors, starting with the type of snow, the force of the avalanche, the degree of the slope… in short, several characteristics. However, the phenomenon of reverse segregation has proven to be effective in many cases. You maximise your chances of getting to the surface of the avalanche because the airbag backpack balloon increases your mass.
However, the risk of an avalanche exists from the moment you start off-piste skiing ! From unstable snowpack on a steeply inclined slope to the passage of other skiers further up, they can be triggered by many… and varied causes ! While the principle is simple at first glance, there are many variations on the airbag backpack: inflation using an electric fan or a cartridge, single or double-balloon, and even arrangement in the backpack. Let's look at all the different types of airbag backpacks.
What are the different airbag systems ?
Historically, the compressed air cartridge system has consistently proven its worth in terms of airbag backpacks. However, in recent years, other extremely successful systems have emerged.
Airbag backpacks with a compressed air cartridge
This was the first system to appear on the market. These have a trigger handle and pulling it generates pyrotechnic pressure. This lets a needle pierce the compressed air cartridge : and the balloon inflates ! As with the gas cartridge system, the compressed air cartridge needs to be recharged after each use.
Airbag backpacks with a gas cartridge
The principle is simple: when you trigger the airbag backpack by pulling its cable, the pressurised gas contained in the cartridge is released inside the backpack. This inflates it in just a few seconds. Clearly, you can only trigger this system once. Once used, the gas cartridge must be recharged before it can be used again.
Airbag backpacks with a battery-powered electric fan
In this battery-operated system, the gas cartridge is replaced by a battery and fan. This time, the user has a button, not a cable for activation, and the fan uses the air outside to inflate the air balloon. So this system can be triggered several times on a single charge of the easily-recharged battery. The disadvantage of this system, however, lies in its significant weight and volume.
Presenting the Arva Reactor system
Our Arva Reactor system is based on the gas cartridge. Pulling the trigger handle inflates the Reactor airbag in just a few seconds. Compact and light (680 grammes), this airbag system is also removable. So you can transfer your airbag system from one backpack to another, changing the storage volume as you wish (see the compatible ranges). Gas cartridges are designed to withstand a pressure of 300 bar and can only be recharged by Arva. Our gas cartridges, made in steel or carbon, comply with current standards and regulations.
Apart from inflating the airbag backpack, the shape of the balloon is equally important. Our double airbag system offers greater reliability if one of the balloons is punctured or torn. In addition, an enveloping U-shaped airbag, particularly at head level, gives the rider improved protection. Because pictures are better than a thousand words… take a look at our Airbag Reactor system on video !
How to choose the right airbag backpack: the key criteria
Release system, balloon shape, or even number of balloons: these points are crucial in choosing your airbag backpack, but other factors also come into play. Do you know which volume in litres to choose? Or what features could make your trips easier ? Have a look at our answers !
What size airbag backpack should you choose ?
Regardless of the trip you envisage, an airbag backpack is a must from the moment you leave the well-groomed slopes ! In general, the ideal capacity and volume of your airbag backpack depend on your skiing activities and the duration of your trip.
Our smallest airbag backpack capacities start at 18 litres. This volume in litres is generally intended for freeride ski enthusiasts: large enough to carry your essential safety equipment, an 18-litre airbag backpack is also small and light enough not to hinder you during your runs.
Our 25-litre and 24-litre airbag backpacks are intended more for day ski tourers. Our 30-litre and 32-litre airbag backpacks are intended as much for ski touring enthusiasts for long outings as for ski-mountaineers.
Beyond that, our 40-litre airbag backpacks are ideal for long ski tours lasting several days. Fans of minimalism can opt for our smaller 15-litre format, which comes in the form of an exceptionally practical jacket.
Do you want to change your backpack without buying a new airbag ? Good news : our ranges of airbag backpacks are compatible with each other. You can change the volume of your backpack without changing your airbag.
The weight of the airbag system is a factor you should not neglect
As you can imagine, adding an airbag system to your pack adds extra weight. However, the weight of airbags has decreased significantly in recent years. For instance, our Reactor airbag system weighs only 680 grammes today. The weight of your airbag backpack can be crucial if you like strenuous activity but can usually be compensated by the adjustable straps. You will quickly forget your airbag backpack when it is held firmly against your back !
Choosing a functional and practical airbag backpack
Your ski backpack must be able to contain all the essentials for your ski outing : avalanche safety equipment (transceiver, shovel, probe), warm items, water bottle… the list can quickly grow ! So it is essential to choose a practical airbag backpack, which will hold everything without requiring an excessive capacity. With a front pocket for your avalanche safety equipment, holders for skis and snowboard, compatibility with your hydration system, a pocket for your ski mask, ice axe loop, helmet holder, belt pocket ... your airbag backpack can help you carry lots of things !
Focus on comfort !
Has your backpack ever hampered you on a ski trip ? This can (very) quickly spoil your pleasure. So make sure your airbag backpack has a comfortable back, ideally made of foam. The different straps and belt settings can also make a difference to your comfort. Chest, belt and shoulder straps must be adjustable to suit your body type. Padded shoulder straps can provide extra comfort. So now that you have all of these features in mind ? We have Arva airbag backpacks to suit all your activities. Ski touring, freeride skiing, a ski trip over several days: there is something for everyone !
Which Arva airbag backpack should you choose to suit your skiing activities ?
Have you found your ideal Arva airbag backpack ? Now we need to look after it ! Here are our recommendations for checking your airbag backpack.
When should you check your airbag backpack ?
Whether you want to check your airbag backpack yourself or have it done by one of our experts, it should be checked every two years. The activation mechanism must be tested regularly, and the components must be checked to ensure that your airbag backpack is fully operational. Want to carry out your check yourself ? Here's the list of points to check. Would you rather call on our experts ? Make an appointment online.
Your airbag backpack is in good order, and even better, you are going to travel with it! Find everything you need to know before taking your airbag backpack on a plane.
How do you travel with an avalanche airbag backpack ?
The rules for travelling with your airbag backpack may change depending on your destination. Our dedicated article explains how to travel with an airbag backpack.
Have you any other questions about choosing your Arva airbag backpack ? Contact our team of experts! We will be delighted to advise you according to your particular needs.