Airbags: Hype or hot?

Possibly the fastest growing product sale in the backcountry ski industry today is the airbag pack system.  Contrary to a lot of internet spray, these devices don't operate like a life preserver on water - even though BCA's product is called the Float.  During an avalanche, the debris starts to sort itself out with larger particles ending up higher in the material.  Basically the bigger around you are, the more likely you will end up on the surface, regardless of your weight.  You can do an at home science experiment to prove this by collecting a bucket of sand, gravel, and a few baseball-sized rocks, well mixed.  Now if you vibrate that box long enough, the baseballs will end up on the surface, the gravel underneath, and the sand at the bottom.  Do this again with a tennis ball added - and that tennis ball will end up on the surface too, despite it being lighter than the baseball-rocks.  The earth science people in the audience will tell you this is called kinematic sorting into inverse segregation.  I found that out by talking to four of them at once (I'm forever scarred from the experience).

The concept is to make an avalanche victim that tennis ball.  Increase their surface area enough that they end up on top of the avalanche with the other big pieces, not buried underneath them.  This has proven surprisingly effective, with over 500 simulated incidences using dummies and explosive-released slides, and a handful of real-life incidences.  These bags appear to double a victim's odds of ending up on the surface.

The con?  These bags are heavy - I only use one riding in the sidecountry, or with mechanized assistance. The manufacturers know this though, and I expect to see bag weights drop considerably this season.  Cost is another - I know, "How much to you value your life" and what-not, but fact is most consumers do put a price tag on how much they'll pay for security.  Finally, they can be complex, and require refilling or replacing a canister after use.

The plus?

This is pro snowboarder Meesh Hytner, on 25 January, in the Snake River backcountry near Montezuma, Colorado.

Because of the weight/space penalty, I still haven't justified carrying one all the time.  But you can see the train a-comin'.  The video of Hytner went viral, and a wave of internet criticism came out against the decisions of the rider, the team, and surprisingly against BCA for showing a video of its product in use.  Some even claimed that it was staged for marketing.  BCA ended up issuing this statement in response.

Arguing that avalanche rescue equipment encourages reckless behavior is like arguing that driving the safest car on the market encourages speeding, fast lane changes, and cutting other people off.  Of course it does - to a point.  But in the end - its up to the rider.  Or the skier.  Or the sledder.  Not their equipment.  Having one of these packs doesn't replace a shovel, prob, and beacon (for the short-end-of-the-stick odds of ending up buried).  And having all this gear doesn't replace good decision making.

Disclaimer:  I do work for BCA as Technical Representative.  The views expressed here are my own, and don't represent the view of Backcountry Access.