Should I Buy an Avalanche Airbag?

“Within two seconds I knew I couldn’t ski out of it.” 

What started as a small avalanche below Marin Lefebvre’s skis had propagated 20m above and all around him. It quickly took him off his feet and sent him downhill. In desperation, he pulled the handle of his avalanche airbag. The pop and hiss told him it was inflating. 

“It was a beautiful sound!”

When the slide started to slow and lose momentum (90m downslope), Martin assumed he was about to be buried. “I put one hand over my mouth [to create an air pocket] and stuck the other up in the air.” He believes that it’s thanks to the airbag, that he was never pulled under. Instead, debris buried him up to his chest, while the airbag on his back and his upper body remained above the surface. 

So there you have one anecdote for wearing an avalanche airbag. Airbags are designed to help keep you from being buried if caught in an avalanche, and in so doing they provide a “statistically significant increase in survival rates,” according to Pascal Haegli,The Avalanche Journal, 2012.

It’s called the Brazil Nut Effect and, simply put, it means that the largest particles tend to end up on top when things are shaken–like the bigger nuts in your trail mix bag. The extra surface area of an airbag (150 litres inflated) makes you a bigger nut and more likely to end up on top of avalanche debris–AFTER you are thoroughly shaken.

There are certain terrain traps or situations where an airbag will not keep a victim on the surface, but research suggests that more than 90 percent of the time when a person pulls an airbag, they do not get buried. Not all of those people would have been buried without an airbag, though, and roughly a third of avalanche fatalities in Canada are the result of trauma, not asphyxiation. 

Arcteryx Voltair Avalanche Airbag

So airbags won’t guarantee that you’ll survive a slide. Bruce Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Center gives a pretty reasonable opinion on their effectiveness: “My best guess is that avalanche airbag packs will probably save a little more than half of those who would otherwise have died in an avalanche.”

So why isn’t everyone wearing an airbag every time they hit the backcountry?

“Too expensive and heavy.” “Too unproven still.” “They give people an excuse to make bad decisions.” “They’re difficult to fly with.” “If I need one, I shouldn’t be skiing there.” These are the usual arguments. They were once also the arguments for not buying avalanche transceivers. 

Good time in the backcountry!

Good times in the backcountry.

There was a time, long ago, when people would ski the backcountry with long strings trailing behind. The idea was that if you were caught in an avalanche, some part of the string would be visible and your partners could follow it to find you. Simple and cheap, but it was not a reliable way to rescue people before they asphyxiated. 

At some point, someone made the technological leap to draw arrows on the strings that pointed toward the skier. That one idea cut the search area in half, but you still had to dig all the way along the string to get to the victim. And that’s if the sting ended up on top of the slide.

When avalanche transceivers became available, searchers could pinpoint a buried victim to within a probe strike relatively quickly. So, transceivers became the standard because they saved lives by helping rescuers quickly find aburied victim. Now. airbags take it one step further by preventing certain burials in the first place. 

photo: Scott Thumlert

We can talk about the negatives—weight (usually around 3 pounds extra), cost, hassle—but we can’t argue against the fact that airbags save lives. And as they save more, they will become the accepted norm in backcountry skiing. A growing number of backcountry users are already carrying airbags, but they are still the minority. Every year the packs get lighter and nicer though. And every year more people adopt them.

Of course, backcountry skiers are free to ski without avalanche transceivers, airbags, or strings tied to their feet. It’s up to each individual to decide what safety precautions they want to take. Whatever you decide, we want you to be safe out there and have fun!

*friends of Fresh Skis get 50% off online Avalanche Fundamentals courses from M-T-N Guiding. Use the coupon code: "FRESHBLOG"

*swing by the shop or callto learn about our selection of avalanche airbags. Including: North Face, Arcteryx, BCA, and Mammut.