Surviving an Avalanche with an Airbag System

Avalanche on Everest

Your best bet with an avalanche is to not be there when it happens.  If you are too adventurous to avoid the possibility, there are some pieces of equipment that can save your life if you get caught.  Typically these include:

You can buy these items individually or in a kit.

Airbag Systems

ABS System Before Release

ABS System Before Release

A newer safety tool that is rapidly becoming more commonly used is the avalanche airbag or airbag system (ABS).  Typically it comes with a specially constructed backpack that can also hold the other equipment you need with you when skiing or snowshoeing in mountainous backcountry, like the equipment listed above.   The airbag itself is much like an inflatable personal flotation device you might use when canoeing or kayaking.  It has a couple of bladders that are immediately filled with air from a can that is opened when you pull a ripcord-like release.

If you are caught in an avalanche, you immediately pull the cord and the bladders inflate.  Unlike a flotation device, an ABS is intended to make you bigger.  In the water, buoyancy brings you to the top; in an avalanche, its granular convection that does the job.  Larger objects tend to rise to the surface of an avalanche so you want to be as large as possible if you start off on an avalanche ride.


Before Triggering

ABS After Inflation

ABS After Inflation

Before the ABS system expands, it looks much like a normal day pack.  The example shown here is a North Face Patrol 24 ABS Avalanche Airbag Pack.  It holds 24 liters plus the airbag system, including a nitrogen canister that is used to fill the bag.  It also has a special body harness to help keep the system attached to your body during your ride.  It weighs a total of about 6.6 pounds, before you fill it with gear.


After Triggering

When triggered, the bags immediately expand to nearly double the size of your body. It may look a little odd, but you won’t mind a bit if you need to use it.  Notice the bright color of the bags.  this is intended to help you be seen during and after your ride down the mountain.


Continual Improvement

As with most outdoor gear, designers are continually improving on the concept.  A recent development is the external ABS.  These systems, like The North Face Modulator, attach to the outside of almost any pack.  That gives you considerably more freedom in your choice of backpack while still offering the advantages of an airbag system.



Airbag systems certainly improve your chances of survival in the case of a mountainside accident, but they don’t always work.  Sometimes the user is unable to pull the trigger on the system due to the speed at which these things can happen.  Sometimes the equipment fails – the systems are not perfect either.  Sometimes the avalanche is just too massive.  Depending upon where you get your data, survival with a ABS runs  from 95%  to 97%.  However, survival with no ABS at all runs 80% to 90%.  As with most things, you get to decide the level of risk you wish to accept.

Falling Down a Mountain

It’s not too hard to fall down a mountain, even if there is no avalanche.  This video shows what happened to Ian McIntosh, a veteran skier as he tumbles 1600 feet down a mountain.  He has a microphone on so you can hear him as he falls.  He did bring some snow down with him, but it doesn’t seem to be much of an avalanche.  Nonetheless, his airbag system prevented serious damage to his body leaving him banged up, but not broken.

These systems are not cheap, but if you enjoy the danger of skiing in avalanche prone areas and want to reduce your risk, you should give serious consideration to getting and using one of these systems.

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