Airbag packs make you safer. Yes they’re expensive, but your life is worth it. They add some weight, but hey, you’re not being responsible if you’re not protecting yourself, right?
Over the past few weeks I’ve had a lot of conversations about airbag packs with family and friends, and I’ve been hearing a lot about them through various media. Slide: The Avalanche Podcast had an excellent discussion of their use, which partly informs my view. The Cripple Creek Backcountry Podcast mentioned their use in two recent episodes (here and here).
On Cripple Creek, they talk about how they insist that every shop employee wear an airbag, always. They say that they like the extra safety, especially when they’re trying to go faster or father when they might not communicate as much. They ask, could airbags have provided some trauma protection to Jason Dorais should he actually have been carried during a slide last year?
This talk makes me angry.
You see, airbags are a tool. Every tool has a place, and using any tool in the backcountry means that you’re sacrificing energy or space for other tools to bring that tool along. I use airbag packs (I never would have been able to afford one if not given one by my parents, thanks guys!) but I use them the minority of the time.
The reasons are these:
- Airbags are only useful sometimes. 50% improvement in mortality if deployed, but only a 16% overall improvement in outcome. That 50% doesn’t count people dead from trauma. It doesn’t count those who did not or could not deploy their bags. Thinking through the physics of surviving an avalanche, you’ll quickly find that an airbag is going to be useful only on slopes of moderate size and with open runouts. I ski those sometimes, and sometimes I’ll use an airbag pack there. In Japan, with shorter slopes, moderate angles, lots of trees, I didn’t bring it.
- Airbag packs are heavy. My BD pack is 5.9 lbs heavier than my other touring pack on the same stated size. For that weight, I could instead be carrying a stove, fuel, emergency shelter, radio, and trauma kit. A radio can keep you out of a slide, and can save your ass many ways besides. An airbag does one thing for you, sometimes.
- Airbag packs are less functional as backpacks. This is going to vary by pack, and folks will defend whatever they own. Still, you can’t argue against the fact that designing the pack around deploying an airbag will force design away from other uses. Most obvious is external carries on the pack. Because an airbag must have room to deploy, the options for carrying skis, ice axes, helmets, and ropes are limited. In the case of my airbag pack, you can more or less pick one of those things, so long as it’s not a rope.
- Airbag packs change your thinking. I could yammer about risk homeostasis, but I suspect that you know what I’m talking about. If you think that you’re immune to it, an exception to this fact of human behavior, you’re flat out wrong. Airbags are new, and there’s a lot of anecdotal hype about them. There’s reason to be excited about them even. But to think that they can replace good communication, as suggested on Cripple Creek? To think that they might protect you from trauma? To think that you don’t approach runs differently with them on? That’s lying to yourself. If you don’t believe me, go ski alone without a beacon. I’ve done it, and I’ll tell you that it will remove any blinders that you have about risk homeostasis. When you put your airbag pack on, you add a dream to your safety dreams, a dream in which you’re caught in an avalanche and survive. That dream isn’t real, but it will shift your decision making slightly. It will make you more risky.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t wear an airbag pack. Hell, I’d wear one a lot more if I lived in Colorado, because that snow is scary as hell and their skiing is often on moderately-sized wide-open paths.
This is to say that you can’t be blind to the decision that you’re making when you spend $1000 on an airbag pack. You’re choosing not to take an Avy 2 class, not to get medical training, not to get yourself radios, heck, not to go on a pretty cool ski vacation.
It’s not a panacea. And it’s not always the right decision. Just think about it.
You can support Mountain Lessons and reduce the probability of getting involved in an avalanche for a fraction of the price of an airbag.