how effective are avalanche airbags?

How Effective are Avalanche Airbags? [Myth-Busting Time!]

by Fraser
Updated:

Before we plunge into the chilling depths of today’s topic, let’s clear the air (pun intended) about one thing: this isn’t a marketing blog post for avalanche airbags!

But given their remarkable impact on avalanche safety, they certainly deserve our attention. 

Now, before you reach for your credit cards, let’s take an unbiased look at the juicy details. First and foremost, how effective are avalanche airbags?

The Short Answer

Avalanche airbags can be highly effective in improving survival rates during an avalanche. A respected, peer-reviewed study demonstrated that deployed avalanche airbags can reduce the mortality rate by approximately 50% (from 22% to 11%). Airbags should therefore be used as part of a comprehensive set of avalanche safety measures, but not as the sole safety mechanism. Here are some of the best-rated avalanche airbags.

Ready for the longer answer? 

Keep reading my inquisitive friend…

What is an Avalanche Airbag?

An avalanche airbag, also known as an avalanche backpack or ABS (Avalanche Airbag System) pack, is a piece of avalanche safety equipment used by skiers, snowboarders, and mountaineers.

An airbag system is typically integrated into a specially designed backpack. In the event of an avalanche, the wearer can manually trigger the airbag’s deployment.

avalanche airbag

Once triggered, the airbag inflates, usually with the help of a compressed air or gas canister, although some models use an electric fan system.

How Does an Avalanche Airbag Work?

Avalanche airbags operate based on the principle of granular convection, also known as the “Brazil Nut Effect”.

The idea is actually pretty simple. 

In a mix of differently-sized particles, the larger particles tend to rise to the surface when the mixture is agitated. When you shake a jar of mixed nuts, the larger Brazil Nuts often end up on top. 

In the case of an avalanche, snowboarder and skiers are the Brazil nut. 

Once inflated, the airbag increases the wearer’s volume (by 150-200 litres), effectively making them a “larger particle” in the avalanche’s flow.

how to avalanche airbags work

This higher volume, combined with the churning action of the avalanche, increases the likelihood of ending up closer to the surface when the avalanche comes to a stop.

By preventing or reducing complete burial, the airbag significantly increases the chance of survival.

After the avalanche has passed, the airbag can be deflated to help the individual get out from the snow if they are partially buried.

Types of Avalanche Airbag

1. Canister Systems

These are the most traditional type of avalanche airbag.

They utilize a canister filled with compressed gas (usually carbon dioxide or air) to inflate the airbag.

When the wearer pulls the deployment handle, it punctures the canister, releasing the compressed gas and inflating the airbag.

canister avalanche airbag

While canister systems are reliable, they can be challenging to travel with due to regulations regarding pressurized canisters on planes. Also, once used, the canister must be refilled or replaced.

2. Electric Fan Systems

These are a newer type of avalanche airbag.

They utilize a battery-powered electric fan to inflate the airbag. When the wearer pulls the deployment handle, it activates the fan, which rapidly pulls in air to inflate the airbag.

Electric fan systems can be easier to travel with as they don’t involve pressurized canisters.

Additionally, the batteries can be recharged, and the system can be practiced with and easily repacked.

Avalanche Airbag Shapes

As for the shape and design of the airbags themselves, there are several different designs, including:

  • Single Bag Systems: These have one large airbag that inflates behind the head and shoulders, offering some protection to the head and neck.
how effective are avalanche airbags - shapes
  • Dual Bag Systems: These have two smaller airbags on either side of the backpack. The theory is that two bags offer more stability and redundancy—if one bag fails, the other might still work.
  • Vest or Jacket Systems: These incorporate the airbag into a vest or jacket rather than a backpack. These systems aim to offer better body coverage and a closer fit.

Each type has its own pros and cons, and the best choice depends on your specific needs and preferences.

How Fast Do Avalanche Airbags Inflate?

Most airbags will fully inflate within 3 to 6 seconds of activation. This super fast inflation time is necessary to ensure that the airbag is fully inflated before the avalanche engulfs the wearer, maximizing the chances of remaining near the surface.

*The specific time varies slightly based on the design and mechanism of the airbag system.

How Do Avalanche Airbags Inflate So Quickly?

  1. Compressed Gas Power: Inside traditional avalanche airbags, there’s a hidden hero—a compressed gas canister. The airbag springs into action when needed (like when an avalanche strikes!). When you pull the trigger, the compressed gas is released with a burst of power. It rushes into the airbag, causing it to puff up like a snowball balloon!
  2. Instant Avalanche Response: Timing is everything, and avalanche airbags know it! These gadgets react fast, providing the user has quick hands! No hesitation, no delay—they’re like snow superheroes, always ready to save the day!
  3. Engineered for Speed: These airbags aren’t just any ol’ balloons—they’re snow-engineered for maximum speed! The materials are tough and designed to handle the rapid inflation process. Their smart, innovative construction ensures that the airbag instantly expands to a larger volume, giving you that extra size advantage to stay afloat in the chaos.

So, How Effective are Avalanche Airbags?

Avalanche airbags have been extensively researched.

A Swiss study by Pascal Haegeli, et al. published in Resuscitation journal in 2014, analyzed 424 people involved in 245 avalanche incidents from 1994 to 2012.

are avalanche airbags worth buying?

The study found that the absolute mortality reduction was 11% for those wearing airbags (inflated or not inflated), compared to 22% for those not wearing an airbag.

This represents a 50% reduction in mortality rates, which is pretty effective if you ask me!

The airbag’s effectiveness is primarily down to preventing the wearer from being completely buried by the avalanche, which is a primary cause of death.

“It’s not a perfect system and doesn’t always save you, but neither does a beacon,” Haegeli concluded. 

More Research...

Now you might be thinking, a 50% reduction is great… but it’s a far cry from the rates advertised by the airbag brands!

"97% of rider's wearing avalanche airbags will survive an avalanche"

Well my friend, that’s because they’ve manipulated the numbers in their favor.

What they’re saying is indeed true. However, what they’re not telling you is that 81% of people in avalanches will survive without an airbag (according to Brugger et al. 2007). 

In other words, the study found mortality rates of 19% for those without an airbag and 3% for those with an airbag.

Of course, that still demonstrates a significant survival benefit from wearing an airbag, but 97% effectiveness sounds much better for the ads!

Put simply, avalanche airbags work… but not every time. 

Why Don't They Work All The Time?

Obviously nothing in life is 100% guaranteed. But with mortality rates ranging from 3-15% for those wearing avalanche airbags (depending on the study) you can’t help but wonder what gives. 

Well, here’s a few reasons why:

  1. Roughly 1 in 4 avalanche deaths are caused by trauma, which even the best avalanche airbags can’t prevent. 
  2. Airbags are less effective when dealing with terrain traps (like gullies and bowls). Avalanches get very deep, very quickly in spots like these. 
effectiveness of avalanche airbags graph

   3.  Sometimes avalanches have second or third waves. Whilst an airbag may keep the rider on the surface during the first, a deployed airbag may be less effective in subsequent waves.

   4.  As discussed, airbags float the rider to the surface during turbulent flow. If the avalanche is too small or doesn’t travel far enough, there may not be time for this to occur. 

   5.  In as many as 20% of cases, the rider doesn’t (or couldn’t) activate the airbag. 

The Effectiveness of Canister vs Electric Airbag Systems

Both canister and electric systems effectively inflate the airbag, providing valuable protection during an avalanche.

As far as I know, there are no studies comparing the effectiveness of the two airbag types. Electric airbags take around 1-second longer to inflate, but they have additional features such as re-deployment and automatic deflation. 

gas canister vs electric fan system avalanche airbags

The choice between the two therefore comes down to personal preference, convenience, and the type of backcountry adventure you embark on.

Whether it’s the classic reliability of canister systems or the rechargeable convenience of electric systems, having an avalanche airbag on your side is now a must!

Canister Systems

Pros: 

  • Canister systems are trusty, reliable and have been used for many years.
  • Easy to use, and the trigger pull manually activates the gas canister, leading to quick inflation.
abs powder airbag

Cons: 

  • Once the canister is deployed, it needs to be refilled with compressed gas before it can be used again; this might require a visit to a speciality shop.
  • Some airlines won’t allow filled gas canisters onboard. 

Electric Systems

Pros: 

  • Electric systems use battery-powered fans instead of compressed gas. They offer multiple deployments without needing to refill anything. This makes them more convenient for extended backcountry trips.
  • Some electric systems automatically deflate after a set time period, leaving an air pocket around your head (if you were buried). 
electronic fan system avalanche airbag
  • Better for travel (especially with airlines). 
  • Allows practice and test-pulls, as it can easily be repacked and recharged. 

Cons: 

  • Electric systems can be reactivated after deployment but rely on batteries, which must be charged before use. The user must ensure the batteries are charged and in working order before heading out into avalanche terrain.
  • More expensive up front (though may be cheaper over time as does not require new canisters). 

Are Avalanche Airbags Worth It? 

Absolutely! The Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) conducted a study that found avalanche airbags to be approximately 20% more effective at reducing mortality risk than traditional avalanche safety gear.

While they might not be a guarantee, they can make a lifesaving difference in those essential moments.

Pair them with smart decision-making, avalanche training, and other avalanche safety gear; you’ve got yourself a snow-savvy adventure team!

A Word on Risk Compensation

Risk compensation theory suggests that individuals adjust their behavior in response to perceived levels of risk. When people feel safer, they take more risks!

Now, how does this connect to avalanche airbags?

Well, avalanche airbags are designed to increase a person’s survival rate if they’re caught in an avalanche. They’re fantastic tools, and indeed can save lives.

However, some people feel so secure wearing airbags that they ski or snowboard in riskier areas or more dangerous conditions. This is backed up by respected research papers.

The irony here is that the perceived safety provided by the airbag might lead to riskier behavior, potentially increasing the overall likelihood of getting caught in an avalanche. That’s risk compensation theory in a nutshell!

Remember, safety gear like avalanche airbags should be seen as a last line of defense, not a license to push boundaries!

Common Myths About Avalanche Airbags

Airbags (and avalanche safety gear in general) are often misunderstood. Let’s debunk some of the more common myths. 

Myth 1: Avalanche Airbag Packs Are Super Heavy!

The weight of avalanche packs has plummeted in recent years. It should no longer be a barrier, with some packs adding just 2-3 pounds (compared to regular backpacks). 

Electric systems are usually heavier, but the latest Black Diamond Jetforce Tour Pack weighs just 2530g. This even rivals the lighter gas powered airbags, such as the Ortovox Free Rider (2410g). 

Myth 2: Avalanche Airbags Are Super Expensive!

Okay, this one’s sorta true. But whilst entry-level packs stated at $1000+, they’re now available from jut $349

Myth 3: Avalanche Airbags Aren't Allowed on Planes

In the past, countries such as Japan and the USA have had outright bans on flying with gas canisters. 

These days, electric systems have solved this issue.

But gas canister manufacturers have joined the cause too. Most brands now make removable stow-able canisters, or easy-to-refill canisters that can be transported whilst empty. 

Myth 4: Avy Packs Replace Other Avalanche Gear (and Knowledge)

Heck no!

Whilst avalanche packs are probably more effective than avalanche transceivers, they are not designed to replace them. 

You should instead add an avalanche pack to your standard safety gear; including a shovel, probe and beacon.

Attending avalanche safety courses is also essential. 

Myth 5: Avalanche Airbags Are Hard To Activate

A major flaw with traditional avalanche backpacks is the single-use system. This prevents users from practicing with the airbag (without a costly refilling fee). 

Electric systems solve this issue, as do canisters that can be refilled with a pump. 

It’s super important to practice with your gear, both to develop muscle memory and to check that it works. 

Any packs are actually extremely easy to deploy once you’re familiar with them. Learn to pull the trigger as soon as you suspect an avalanche. Don’t wait to confirm it!

Here are a few examples.

In Conclusion

Avalanche airbags have emerged as an indispensable and lifesaving companion. They can effectively reduce mortality rates by at least 50%.

Whether gas or electric, these high-tech backpacks therefore offer an extra layer of protection. But that doesn’t grant you permission to ride dangerously or make rash decisions!

Pair them with the rest of your avalanche gear. Educate yourself. Stay savvy. Stay alive.

Happy riding! 

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