Avy Tech - The Hills Are Calling

New airbags are your backcountry lifeline
Mountain Snowmobile Riding
Great power, great responsibility. Sleds can reach places better than ever, that means education and preparation must follow suit.
Once, while with a buddy in the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains many years ago, I triggered a small avalanche. It was a slow-mover; nothing to get excited about - or so I thought. It slowly encompassed me, bolted my feet to the ground, then slid past my waist. I waited, helpless and stationary, observing with wide eyes as the snow, unhurried, ticked around me. It moved like the final counts of the giant spinning wheel on the Price is Right. And just like a Showcase Showdown contestant, I waited. Would it stop at my chest? No. My shoulders? No. Moving, moving… and then it stopped. Under my chin. Less than a ruler’s worth of snow depth kept me from possibly meeting my maker. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. After a lot of digging, (and jokes about leaving me in my crazy situation), my friend dug me free. But I will never forget the pressure around my whole body and how innocent the avalanche looked.

In those days avalanche safety was not talked about much. When we went out riding, or skiing, we never checked avalanche conditions as that wasn’t even an option then. On a heavy snow day, sleds of the past could barely get out of the meadow, so hills didn’t pose a high threat. Now, sleds can go further into the backcountry and to higher elevations than ever before.

The first step of true avalanche safety is staying away from precarious locations and situations when there is an avalanche threat. The second line of defense is to GET EDUCATED! Good gear is only worthwhile if you have practiced and know how to use it! Your airbag and other avy tech will provide a second lifeline in case, even after taking the necessary precautions, you still end up in trouble.

Ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse for not checking conditions and wearing avalanche gear. Everyone out West should be riding with an avalanche airbag system, beacons, probes and shovels. I hear people say airbags are too expensive, but when you are about to be buried, the expense of the airbag suddenly becomes irrelevant. There are a lot of options available out there to keep you safe, and we’ve evaluated many of them. However, the message we want everyone to understand is that it does not matter what brand you purchase, just purchase something. Most importantly, get educated and learn how to use the pack, probe, beacon and shovel together effectively! No excuses, it may cost you money to get the proper education but it is well spent and ultimately more important than the fuel you are putting in your sled to go ride!

Comparing packs

We compared five different airbag packs to help you find the one that works best for you. Evaluation was done in five categories: weight, price, type of airbag filling technology, if the device allows the user to practice without refilling cylinders, and if the pull trigger is designed for right or left hand response.
Pieps Jetforce Pack
Pieps Jetforce Pack
Pieps JetForce Pack
The Pieps Jetforce pack is probably the most advanced system on the market as far as utilizing new technology. The thing that separates the Jetforce Pack from other airbags is the use of a lithium ion battery running a super-fast fan to keep the bag inflated (think bounce house technology meets ultra-hand-dryer). Even with a tear in the bag, the JetForce fan will generate enough blow to keep your bag inflated. Then after three minutes it deflates to create a potential air pocket.

What we like best about this technology is it allows the user to practice deployment as there isn’t any cost or outside sources needed to refill it. As an added bonus, the device is travel-friendly. You can take the Jetforce through airport security as it doesn’t use compressed air.

The downside it is most comfortable to deploy with your right hand, even though it technically can be deployed with either. This means you will have to take your thumb off the throttle, potentially losing precious seconds when you need to be navigating out of harm’s way. It is possible to pull the cord with your left hand, but it takes some practice and muscle memory, which we highly suggest doing regardless of what you are using.

PRICE: $1,029
Weight: 7.5 lbs
WEBSITE: www.pieps.com
Snowpulse Highmark Charger Vest and Snowpulse Pro 3.0 Systems
Snowpulse Highmark Charger Vest and Snowpulse Pro 3.0 Systems
Snowpulse Highmark Charger Vest and Snowpulse Pro 3.0 Systems

Highmark came out this year with a new ultra light, compact airbag system in the form of the Charger Vest. This option is the lightest of all the airbags listed, and the vest equips riders with complete chest impact protection. Its pull-over design is aimed to provide maximum freedom of movement and we were surprised at how easy it was to get it on over our heads. The conforming fit and zipper-free front made it extremely comfortable, almost to the point of forgetting you had a backpack on. The waist belt was great at also keeping the weight on your hips and not on your shoulders which is a good thing.

The 3.0 system is also light and comfortable but without the charger vest.

Both Highmark systems are known for their left-hand deployment which is great for navigating, but not so great if you are not comfortable using your left hand. And, with the cylinder airbag filling technology, practice is going to require you getting canisters refilled. There are a lot of places that will do it for free or for very little, paintball stores are a good place to have them refilled.

Weight: 6.65 lbs
WEBSITE: www.snowpulsehighmark.com
BCA Float MTNPRO Avalanche Airbag
BCA Float MTNPRO Avalanche Airbag
BCA Float MtnPro Avalanche Airbag

Backcountry Access (BCA) has been around for 20+ years, and is a stable force in snowmobile avalanche safety. The BCA Float MtnPro is a great choice for backcountry riding. Although it is one of the heavier backpacks, weight is spread evenly. It has a mid-range price and comes with several features we like, including the ability to change the deployment hand to the left or right side. It also has full front, side and back protection.

We also were very impressed with the ease of accessing the pockets on the front of the pack and the new clip system in the back that allows you to access the items in your pack without taking the shovel out. Another cool feature is the breathability of the pack. Like most snowmobile clothing lines out there that are breathable, so is the BCA Pack. The shoulders of this system were a big source of improvement, as the new pack is much less bulky and more flexible on the ends without protruding. The front zipper is more manageable too. In addition, BCA has worked to make this breathable bag work with other external equipment including hydration packs and BCA link radios.

PRICE: $799
Weight: 8.6 lbs
WEBSITE: www.backcountryaccess.com
Ortovox Free Rider 22 AVABAG
Ortovox Free Rider 22 AVABAG
Ortovox Free Rider 22 AVABAG

Ortovox is a name that many sledders may not be familiar with, but don’t let that scare you. Ortovox has been around for a very long time in the ski and safety industry. They developed the very first double frequency transceiver in 1980, the ORTOVOX F2. When it comes to avy tech they are one of the industry leaders.

The Ortovox Free Rider 22 AVABAG is the first to be completely welded (high frequency welding) without using seams, stitches or tape. This creates an extremely compact and puncture-resistant airbag. And, while it uses cylinder technology, they have developed a method in which you can practice deploying the airbag without the cylinder by using a pre-tension tool.

In addition to the practice feature, deployment can be set up on the right or left. The largest selling point, however, is comfort. The waist strap does an excellent job of keeping the weight off your shoulders and the pack didn’t feel bulky or awkward, in fact it was extremely easy to maneuver around in. We also liked that it was hydration system compatible.

Avalanche safety is something the AmSnow Western Team values and it is heavily promoted by BCA and the other airbag manufacturers. If you have not already done so, you should get online and check out the Backcountry Ascender program. This is a new avalanche education platform for snowmobilers. The program was developed, in partnership with Avalanche 1, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA) and the four snowmobile manufacturers: Arctic Cat, Ski-Doo, Polaris, and Yamaha. More info: www.backcountryascender.com

PRICE: $720
Weight: 7.8 lbs
WEBSITE: www.ortovox.com
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