Do Avalanche Airbags Work?
If that is the only thing you need to know then there you have it, time to buy one! But if you’re like me and want to know more then read on.
An avalanche airbag is a personal protection device. Much like a seat belt in a vehicle. Sometimes it saves a life, and sometimes it does not. There are many factors that dictate when these things can be effective. For example, if someone is caught in an avalanche in unsurvivable terrain, then it does not matter what they are wearing, or if their companions are the best at a rescue. They will die from trauma, or be buried so deeply that time will run out. So terrain management and formal avalanche education is the key to real survival here.
So when does an Avalanche Airbag work? If you’ve done some reading, you’ll discover a variety of different statistics. The variance is due to the factors in which tests have been performed, and which number people have latched onto. This might include: whether the airbag was deployed or not, what size avalanche, and if more than one person is caught.
Pascal Haegeli performed a study in which he compared the mortality rate of people who wore airbags vs. those who did not. The key fact we can extract from this professional study is that a deployed airbag saved about half of those who would have otherwise died. To me, this is a pretty good percentage, and I chose to wear an avalanche airbag every day I ride my snowmobile in the backcountry. I mean why not? I also wear my seat belt when in a vehicle. Any chance at improving the outcome of a mistake seems like a smart move to me.
Read Haegeli’s paper “The effectiveness of avalanche airbags” which confirms the effectiveness of avalanche airbags here.
Read Haegeli’s paper “Do avalanche airbags lead to riskier choices among backcountry and out-of-bounds skiers?” here.
An avalanche airbag is designed to keep you on top of the avalanching snow as it breaks into smaller pieces and tumbles down the mountain. It inflates a bag that makes you a larger object and allows you to stay on top or close to the surface of the avalanche, therefor either making it so you are not buried, easier for your companions to rescue you, or keeping your head unburied when the avalanche stops. There are multiple types of airbags, deployment systems, and the packs they are attached to. I like to put my trust in products that are proven, like compressed air systems that have been around for many years, have undergone lots of testing, and are a mechanical system, rather than an electronic system that can have faults inside the control unit.
The added bonus of an avalanche airbag is that they are attached to a pack or vest that can vary in size of storage. I have found for a normal day or riding I like to have around 16 liters of storage. This keeps weight off my back, as I also run a tunnel bag for other gear I bring, but this also allows me to carry my avalanche rescue gear on my person. Transceiver on my body, probe and shovel in my pack. Along with spare goggles, gloves, an inReach, and some lunch. So when you're looking at getting all of your personal protection equipment, I recommend looking at a system that is tried and true, has the right amount of storage you want, and something that professionals like avalanche educators, forecasters, and guides use for their personal equipment. Be cautious of all the social media “pros” that are just recommending a product because they got a discount and want to be that influencer. Do some research on products, ask people why they use certain gear, and read a bit about it before you click “buy now”.
DUNCAN LEE | American Avalanche Association Professional Member / Avalanche Education Lead Instructor / International Snowmobile Guide / Professional Backcountry Athlete