Airbags and Avalanche Safety

Some people have argued that an airbag is a false sense of security and could lead to skiers taking greater risks, but many industry experts disagree. By Brigid Mander

The idea for the airbag was developed in the 1970’s, by a German forest ranger.  The company he formed is today known as ABS, one of the three major producers of airbags, along with Mammut/Snowpulse and BCA. 

The basic concept behind airbags is simple – the best way to increase a skier’s chance of survival is to prevent burial.  The airbags function as a flotation device keeping the person’s head above the moving snow. All airbags use either compressed air or nitrogen canisters, which are punctured and inflate a durable bag when the skier pulls the hand trigger. When properly deployed, the survival rate with airbags is nearly 97%. 

Standard safety equipment for the backcountry has long been an avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe, competent partners and at least a basic understanding of snow science and current avalanche conditions. But now, airbags, long used in Europe, have clearly been making a big splash in the US.

As airbags become more popular, buyers can choose different options such as size of the pack, removable airbags, and type of trigger. Prices range from just under $700 to about almost $1300. “You need to figure out what pack will work best for you,” said John Slaughter, an avid backcountry skier and manager of Teton Mountaineering in Jackson, Wyoming, which sells airbag packs.

At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the tragic death of a patroller in an avalanche while doing control work in 2010 prompted the resort to adopt a safety policy of airbag packs for all its patrollers and alpine guides.  The first ski resort in North America to do so, JHMR followed the steps of many cat and heli-ski ops that were already utilizing airbags.

Avalanche equipment is not usually a topic for mainstream, national news outlets. But after three well-known, experienced skiers were killed in an avalanche on Stevens Pass, WA, on February 19th, and a fourth skier survived due to the deployment of her avalanche airbag, backcountry safety protocol was center stage on the national news.

The tragedy of three deaths coupled with professional skier Elyse Saugstad’s survival after she activated her airbag shone a renewed spotlight on these devices, a tool skiers use to increase survival in avalanches. 

Some people have argued that an airbag is a false sense of security and could lead to skiers taking greater risks, but many industry experts disagree.

Mike Rheam, a heli-ski guide in Alaska and avalanche forecaster with the Bridger Teton National Forest, says he recommends that any skier skiing in active avalanche terrain consider using an airbag. “False sense of security is a weak argument. Only a very small percentage of people will have confidence boosted by their gear. In reality, this is a safety tool.

However, Rheam does point out that about 25% of US avalanche fatalities are due to trauma. “Airbags are not likely to help in extremely large slides or in the areas with a lots of trees and rocks.” 

When buyers have questions, Slaughter added that he makes sure to tell them “the airbag is your last measure of safety. You need to ski a slope because it is a good, informed decision, and not just because you have an airbag.”