We are living in a time of technological advancement in which new, amazing products are invented almost daily. While none of this stuff is truly a necessity of life, modern technology can simplify our lives, provide entertainment, or increase our productivity—allowing us more time to do cool shit outside.
Are Avalanche Airbags Necessary?
The title asks the question: Are avalanche airbags necessary? This depends on what you define as necessary. Look at today’s new vehicles. They all now come with a plethora of safety airbags installed. Are they necessary? We drove around for decades prior to their invention. But now that they exist, I would bet that everyone would say “yes” when asked if they prefer to have the extra safety protection of airbags in their vehicle. Should we look at avalanche airbags any differently?
Necessary is a labeling term. I don’t believe we should be asking if avalanche airbags are necessary. More importantly, we should consider if the benefits of wearing an avalanche airbag are valuable enough for us to make them an integral part of our regular safety gear.
Necessity and Consequence
I carry a lot of items with me on the mountain that are beneficial to my safety in the event I need them. However, none of them can be considered as truly necessary until the moment I realize I could have used them. Many of the items I carry would simply aid in comfort, such as a pair of down mitts to keep my hands warm in the event of a long stay on the mountain. In this example, my regular gloves may work—they just would not be as effective. I may have cold hands, but I am not going to die as a result.
However, in the case of either using an avalanche airbag or not, this will truly affect my likelihood of surviving an avalanche. The necessity of an avalanche airbag is not related to comfort—but to my survival.
Avalanche Airbag Survival Rates
In 2014, a group of researchers lead by Pascal Haegeli from Simon Fraser University published a detailed scientific study on the effectiveness of airbags. They found that for individuals seriously involved in avalanches of size 2 or larger, the risk of critical burial (head under the snow surface) was 20% with inflated airbags versus 47% without airbags.
They also discovered that for individuals seriously involved in avalanches of size 2 or larger, the use of an inflated airbag reduced the risk of dying from 22% to 11%. A difference of eleven percent doesn’t sound like all that much, but look closer. This research shows that inflated airbags saved about half of the victims who would have otherwise died. Let me put that into other words: The use of an airbag can increase your chances of surviving an otherwise fatal avalanche by roughly 50%. This is a tough statistic to argue against.
In the Backcountry, Preparedness is a Necessity
Accidents can happen in the backcountry, no matter how prepared you may be. When we venture into the mountains, we assume a certain level of risk. There are tools out there, such as avalanche airbags, that can help increase our chances of coming home alive.
For me, the answer to the question “are avalanche airbags necessary?” is, undoubtedly, yes.
Curtis Pawliuk | Manager of the Valemount and Area Recreation Development Association (VARDA), owner of avalanche education provider Frozen Pirate Snow Services and a professional member of the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA)
1) Haegeli, P., Falk, M., Procter, E., Zweifel, B., Jarry, F., Logan, S., . . . Brugger, H. (2014). The effectiveness of avalanche airbags. Resuscitation, 85(9), 1197-1203. doi:10.1016/j.resuscitation.2014.05.025 link: http://www.avalancheresearch.ca/pubs/the-effectiveness-of-avalanche-airbags/