The best defense against avalanches is to know how to travel safely through avalanche terrain. However, if you are caught in a slide, an avalanche airbag could make the difference between staying near the snow surface and being fully buried.
Avalanche airbag packs have their drawbacks, including increased weight and cost relative to standard backcountry skiing backpacks. But the extra margin of safety they provide is well worth it if you ski or ride frequently in avalanche terrain. In this guide, I’ll highlight the 5 best avalanche airbags backpacks for 2023.
My Review Process
I’ve spent years backcountry skiing throughout Washington’s North Cascades, and particularly in the Mt. Baker area. I understand what features make a great ski touring backpack and what goes into making an airbag easily and reliably deployable when you need it.
For me, price and weight are two of the biggest factors when comparing avalanche airbags. Avalanche airbag packs can be pricey, and that cost can be a real barrier for many skiers and riders who are thinking about switching from their current backpack. If a pack is too heavy, I’m more likely to leave it at home on the big days when I’m most likely to be exposed to avalanche hazards.
I’m a huge fan of Ortovox’s ski touring backpacks, so I was excited when the company released the Ascent 30 Avabag pack. This is a canister airbag pack with a few unique features.
First, you can practice deploying the airbag. I’ve yet to find another canister-style airbag pack that allows you to do that without using up the canister.
Another benefit is that the airbag is removable and compatible with any other Ortovox canister airbag pack. You can use a single airbag with multiple Ortovox packs of different sizes, saving you money and enabling you to take the right backpack for every objective.
The pack itself is well-designed, offering plenty of room for your shovel, probe, and touring gear. I really like the J-zip design, which gives you quick access to everything you need throughout the day.
The Ascent 30 Avabag isn’t cheap, but the price is a relative bargain for this type of pack. At 5 lbs 8 oz, it’s also one of the lighter options on the market.
The Black Diamond Jetforce UL is where I see the future of airbag backpacks heading.
This pack uses a battery-charged supercapacitor to inflate the airbag rather than relying on canisters or lithium-ion batteries. It’s reliable and can be recharged in less than an hour with two AA batteries. The pack weighs 5 lbs 11 oz, making it lighter than the vast majority of electric airbag packs.
The JetForce UL is only 26 L in volume, which can feel pretty tight for all-day tours. There’s a helmet carry system on the outside, which helps, plus a dedicated pocket for your avalanche safety gear.
The only major issue with this pack is that it doesn’t offer an A-frame ski carry. However, that’s the case for nearly all avalanche airbag packs, since the skis would get in the way of the airbag deployment.
BCA has earned a reputation for making high-quality touring gear at relatively affordable prices, and the Float 32 2.0 falls neatly into that value category. This canister pack is easy to use and comes in multiple sizes ranging from 12 to 42 L.
What I like most about the Float 2.0 is that it functions well as a touring pack. There’s plenty of space and the compartments are easy to access. You carry skis diagonally and there’s a simple helmet carry system on the front of the pack.
The drawback is that this pack is heavy: 7 lbs 1 oz to be exact. While that’s not the heaviest airbag pack I’ve seen, I could shed close to 5 pounds by taking a standard touring pack. That’s a little more incentive to leave the airbag at home than I’d like.
The Black Diamond JetForce Pro is a terrific airbag pack that mainly misses out on being my top pick because of its price. This pack costs more than the rest of my touring setup combined.
However, you get what you pay for. Black Diamond built this pack with a lithium-ion battery-powered fan, which is super reliable and easy to test. You can also deploy the pack multiple times on a single charge and customize the deployment settings using a Bluetooth connection.
Another great thing about this pack is that it’s modular. You can swap out the airbag between multiple BD packs, including 10 and 35 L sizes.
The diagonal ski carry is well-designed and the pack’s compartments are easy to access. The pack weighs in at 6 lbs 7 oz, which is pretty impressive for an electric fan airbag system.
The Mammut Pro is another modular airbag pack that lets you take out the airbag system and put it into any other compatible backpack. What’s nice about Mammut’s system is that it’s compatible with packs from Dakine, Jones, and Highmark, not just other Mammut packs.
Another thing I like about this pack is that the canister uses compressed air rather than nitrogen. That makes it much simpler to get the canister refilled, especially if you’re traveling to ski. With a filled canister, the pack weighs 6 lbs 11 oz.
This pack is easy to use and offers plenty of space for big days in the mountains. It opens through the back panel, which isn’t my favorite way to access gear but a style that some skiers really like. Of course, there’s a dedicated pocket for your shovel and probe on the front of the pack.
What Do Avalanche Airbags Do?
An avalanche airbag is designed to keep you riding on or near the snow surface if you’re caught in an avalanche. The airbag acts like a flotation device, preventing you from being sucked under the snow even as you slide downhill.
That’s extremely important because your chances of survival are much higher if you’re only partially buried or shallowly buried compared to if you’re deeply buried. I’ve also heard of cases of an avalanche airbag providing cushioning when a carried skier was pushed into a tree.
Types of Avalanche Airbags
There are currently three different systems in use for avalanche airbags: canisters, lithium-ion battery-powered fans, and supercapacitor-powered fans.
1. Canister-powered Airbags
Canister systems are the original type of avalanche airbag system. You carry around a small canister or compressed air or nitrogen gas in your pack. When you pull the trigger to deploy the airbag, the canister’s contents release and expand, filling the airbag.
Canister-powered airbags are generally cheaper than electric systems, but they do have some drawbacks. First, you only get one deployment per canister. That means that you can’t practice deploying your airbag (at least, not without spending a lot of money on canister refills). It also means that you may be more hesitant to deploy your airbag at the first sign of an avalanche.
The other big drawback is that you can’t fly with loaded canisters. Canisters are allowed on planes if they’re unfilled, but you’ll likely still be hassled by the TSA. Then you need to find somewhere that will refill your canister at your destination.
2. Lithium-ion-powered Airbags
Lithium-ion battery systems use the battery to power a powerful electric fan. This blows air into the airbag at a high rate to inflate it.
These systems have a few advantages. You can practice deploying your airbag without spending any money. You may also be able to deploy your airbag multiple times on a single charge.
Notably, lithium-ion batteries for avalanche airbags are exempt from the usual restrictions on these batteries on planes. You have to remove the battery from the pack, but then you’re allowed to take it on board with you.
The drawback to lithium-ion-powered airbag packs is that they’re very expensive. They also tend to be heavier than canister packs since the batteries themselves are heavy.
3. Supercapacitor-powered Airbags
Supercapcitor-powered airbag systems are still relatively new, but this seems like where the industry is headed. Supercapacitors store up a lot of energy and then release it all at once, powering a fan that inflates the airbag.
Supercapacitor airbag systems are lighter than lithium-ion systems while offering all of the same advantages. Even better, some models can be recharged in the field using AA batteries.
The biggest drawback to supercapacitor systems right now is that there aren’t many pack models available that use this technology. However, that should change in the next year or two.
Avalanche airbags can potentially save your life if you’re caught in an avalanche. They can be heavy and expensive, but the added margin of safety is well worth it for frequent backcountry travelers.
My top pick is the Ortovox Ascent 30 Avabag. It’s one of the lighter and more affordable avalanche airbag packs on the market, and the canister system is unique in that it enables you to practice deployment.
Avalanche airbags can help keep you on top of the snow or near the snow surface if you’re caught in an avalanche. However, deploying an avalanche airbag is not a guarantee that you won’t be buried. The best defense against avalanches is to travel safely to avoid being caught in one in the first place.
Avalanche airbags deploy from your backpack. The airbag is designed to help you float on top of an avalanche rather than being sucked underneath the snow. Under ideal circumstances, an airbag will help you remain partially buried as opposed to fully buried.
You can fly within the US with any electric airbag, including lithium-ion and supercapacitor-powered airbag models. If you have a canister airbag, you can fly with the canister as long as it’s empty. You’ll need to refill your canister when you arrive at your destination.
Choosing an avalanche airbag largely comes down to airbag type, weight, and cost. Newer airbag systems are electric, offering some advantages over canisters. You’ll also want to consider how well the pack itself works for touring and whether the airbag system can be removed.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.