Last year ABS provided me with a few airbag packs, one for me to test and one for me to use to demonstrate the function of the packs to local shops and such. I was given a bunch of zip-ons (the ABS packs consist of a base unit that integrates with any of the zip-ons to give you the capacity and function you desire, from ultralight 10L to 40L capacity), extra cartridges and triggers, and lessons on how to use the pack; from how to set it up and deploy it, to how to pack the airbags back up and install a fresh cartridge. Even with that much in-depth coaching, I spent a long time getting to know the device before feeling like I should write a review of it.

To cover a little bit of background, though – when I first set out to test an avalanche airbag pack, I stopped by both BCA and ABS at Outdoor Retailer. BCA really turned me off to the whole thing with their juvenile approach to marketing – they’d filled their demo airbag pack with a blow up doll of a naked woman (seriously. And they STILL use that thing. They trotted it out at the International Snow Science Workshop in Anchorage last year to a rather stunned and uncomfortable reaction; a blow up doll is NOT what anyone needs to see at a serious scientific conference) as well as the rep’s reaction to me trying on a pack that didn’t fit well. At first he looked disappointed but then slammed his hand on the table and told me “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to tell everyone that this pack fits great and is the best.” And I don’t think he was kidding.

This is 5’5″ me with a fully loaded 30L Vario ABS pack. I was surprised at how bulky it looks compared to my usual 29L backcountry pack. I think the airbag system probably adds bulk to the pack, so expect a little more cumbersome a package.

I had as far an opposite experience as I could have when I stopped by the ABS booth. Steve (the then-CEO who has since moved on to a bike company) was excited I’d stopped by, and mentioned that many of the ABS sponsored athletes were women so they had taken pains to make sure the packs fit smaller frames. We scheduled a time that afternoon for me to come back and get a lesson in how the pack worked, because Steve wanted to make sure there was enough time to go through all the features. Sure enough, the pack fit me great and I was impressed by the professional and friendly approach the booth staff took. From those experiences, I pursued a field test of an ABS pack.

Equipped with my test pack, I’ve been experimenting with various zip ons and pack functions. Fortunately I haven’t had the need to actually test whether or not the pack will save my life in an avalanche, but given the increasing frequency with which new anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that airbag packs can tip the odds in one’s favor, I’m certainly glad to have it when I hit the backcountry. It’s heavy, true – and requires a little more “doing” what with the arming and disarming of the pack. Once I gained a little confidence with the functions, though, it’s become second nature.

Generally the base unit is almost a “set it and forget it” type of thing as long as you’re not taking it on airplanes or removing the cartridge all the time (I don’t know why you would). The cartridge screws into the cradle and it’s nearly impossible to screw up. It can’t be cross-threaded (by design) and is simple enough to put in place. You’ve got to be a little careful about the order in which you set up the pack – never attach the trigger when there is no cartridge in place. If you end up deploying the trigger with no cartridge, your pack will be rendered useless and will require service before you use it again. Considering the lack of instructions-reading that people engage in (they’ll read endless blogs and message boards and trip reports but not the damn product instruction book), I think this is very important to note. Whenever I hear stories of airbags not deploying properly I usually wonder if the user even read the instructions. This is an expensive life-saving device, learn how to use it properly!

Anyway, once you have the cartridge in place, you can hook and unhook the trigger as needed. Be careful when doing this; resist the temptation to tug to make sure it’s seated. The reason for this should be obvious, but if it’s not, see the last sentence in this paragraph. I usually remove the handle for storage and transport, but attach it as soon as I head out into the mountains. So far I’ve never had an accidental deployment, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Be careful – that will cost you about $140 for a new cartridge and trigger (once deployed, they’re expended and must be replaced).

The base units come in long and short; the short fits me well. The waist strap is different than usual, using a metal “safety fastener” which operates kind of like a skydiving harness instead of a standard buckle. It’s kind of nice to be able to remove it one-handed, but getting it all fastened properly is a little bit of a production. There’s also a crotch strap that, quite honestly, NO ONE ever uses because…crotch strap. I don’t know for sure if any of the documented successful saves from the pack were with crotch strap attached, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I doubt it. I don’t use mine. If I’m in something so big that this highly engineered device is ripped off my body for lack of a crotch strap, I think I’d be in trouble anyway.

Bulky or not, hucking and landing, no problem. It fits well with no shifting.

I had to feel around quite a bit before finding a zip-on that I liked. Quite honestly I thought the ABS Vario Zip-ons were pretty lacking in the features department. I didn’t like the 25L or the 40L, finding a dearth of good places to stow gear and carry avalanche safety tools, which seem kind of important when you’re carrying an avalanche safety device. Ultimately I settled on the Vario 30L, which does not actually seem to be sold anymore. I liked it because it had ready access to gear via a front pocket (I hate hate hate top loaders, and the 25L and 40L are straight top loaders), so I put skins, snacks, water etc in the front pocket while putting shovel, probe, and extra layers in the main compartment. The shovel blade does waste a lot of space in there, but what can you do. Even with that, I don’t have any trouble fitting all my gear for a long day in the pack. I’d still like a totally separate shovel and probe pocket because I worry about pulling out my shovel from amongst a bunch of other gear when I really really need it, but there’s not a ton of options in general. I carry as big a shovel as I can manage and most times the blade doesn’t fit in gear pockets anyway. I also think the ski carry on the Vario zip-ons is weak, and the snowboard carry is just plain awful. The straps tend to buckle the pack over on itself rather than cinch tight to the snowboard.

Still, if you hate all the ABS zip-ons, there are quite a few companies making compatible zip-ons, so really that’s not that big of an issue. The biggest benefits to me are the fit of the base unit on the skier (me) and the actual deployment of the airbags and whether they will save one’s life. I’m reasonably sure that even had the unfortunate blow-up-doll-incident not been a factor, I would have gone with ABS because of the dual airbag system, which provides redundancy. If one bag is punctured (which is unlikely – the are tough), you’d still have the other to provide some flotation. There is an argument for the “around the head” configuration of BCA’s one-airbag system as some think it provides protection for one’s head, but I don’t like that design as the presence of the airbag is more likely to actually break your neck via impact rather than protect your head if you are falling and the airbag impacts a hard object. It’s not a soft pillow-like structure – it’s firm enough to cause damage. I’ve struck a vehicle airbag with my face and these are similar in design – believe me, it’s not going to cushion anything; don’t kid yourself. It’s not that I think the around-the-head configuration to be inferior for flotation; it’s just not at all superior for trauma protection and I think it’s probably a little irresponsible to suggest that it’s got that function.

With the ABS twin bag system, your head has more range of motion with the bags deployed. You can also ski with the bags deployed, and move your arms without encumbrance, which is nice for those inevitable accidental deployments or when you have to ski out of a slide (hopefully never to both of those events).

Sometimes I wonder how my preferences for ABS over BCA were shaped by the whole blow up doll incident, and the arrogant way I was treated at the trade show, oh, and the deer-in-headlights “uhh….would it have been funnier if we’d used a sheep?” response I got from the rep at ISSW whom I confronted about the stunt. I know for certain that the ABS pack fits me a LOT better than the BCA one, so that’s a plus one on the side of objective facts. The issue of redundancy is an important one, I think, and ABS wins there too.

This one adds no value to the review. It’s just funny. 10K feet of cat track skinning might turn you weird too.

I found the ABS system really easy to repack. I haven’t checked out BCA for this capability so I can’t compare the two there; I can just tell you that ABS is really easy to reset. It’s still a safety device with a rigid set of restrictions for safe use, so pay attention.

Generally I’ve been won over by the pack. I went through a period in which I didn’t wear it much, because I think Bob Sayer had a point when he told me “If you think you need that thing, why are you skiing there?” Ultimately, though, I decided that I ski solo and practically-solo (with a beginner or non-savvy partner) so often, and in terrain in which the airbag would have a chance to work (wide-open ramps, no trees or similar trauma-inducing obstructions), that the airbag is a reasonable tool to use. I still take Bob’s advice almost every day when choosing terrain and route, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that this technology is available to me and I don’t see much of a downside to using it for touring. There are downsides to airbags in the heli-ski world that Bob inhabits (restrictions and pain-in-the-ass issues involving helicopter transport), that I saw for myself, but for touring it’s what I use. And until I find a better system, ABS is my preferred model.