I’ve remained largely indifferent to avalanche airbags since they started gaining popularity a few years ago. I thought them to be expensive, excessively heavy pieces of equipment suitable for snowmobilers or guests and guides at mechanized operations. I never really took them seriously for self-propelled ski touring.
Earlier this season I began working with the Backcountry Access’ #Direct2Dirtbag influencer program and in February I was sent the BCA Float 42 avalanche airbag for testing. I had officially run out of excuses to enter the avalanche terrain without what the industry is quietly pushing to become the fourth essential tool of winter backcountry travel.
I wrote about the various bells and whistles of the BCA Float 42 in my First Look post, so I won’t exhaustively list those here, but rather how the pack performed in the field.
Packs are a very personal thing in my experience. It really comes down to two things: fit and function. The Float 42 isn’t the most ergonomic design with the back panel being as straight as a washboard, but makes up for that with the lightly padded hip belt and height adjustable chest strap. It took a bit of fiddling to get it right on the first couple of trips but I managed to get it to feel comfortable under a full load.
There’s two compartments for storage; one on the front for wet storage (shovel, probe, skins etc.) and one main compartment for all your other gear. The cylinder and cable system hide snuggly behind a zippered cover so you don’t have to worry about knocking them around. The full length zippers for the storage compartments were handy for accessing stuff at the bottom of the pack without having its entire contents spill out onto the snow. It would have been nice to see some mesh pockets on the sides for quick access to items like toques and water bottles, but no pack is perfect.
The other slightly annoying trait of all airbags is the crotch strap. These are essential in making sure the pack doesn’t get ripped off the victim in an avalanche, or worse, have the chest strap pull upwards and choke them. I don’t like having things dangle off my pack so I tried to get in the habit of securing the crotch strap even when I was touring on logging roads. To avoid that extra step when I was on the skin track, I would leave the crotch strap wrapped around my leg when I put the pack down for shedding layers etc. After a while the annoyance of the crotch strap became more of a quirk.
I was initially disappointed with the pack’s inability to carry skis in the A-frame style, but after rocking the diagonal carry on long hauls and onto summits, I can safely say that I stand corrected. The diagonal carry works just fine, providing it can secure the skis properly. The BCA Float 42 does just that.
As one of the thousands of ski tourers that has gotten along just fine without an airbag for years, I was interested to see if having an airbag on my back changed my approach to the terrain. Having written and researched extensively about avalanche accidents and human factors, I like to think I wasn’t giving myself any false sense of security with a ripcord at my finger tips.
It was, however, a lot more comfortable skiing knowing it was there just in case. Skiing Foon Alley, a couloir on Phalanx Mountain in the Blackcomb backcountry last week, I triggered a pretty hefty pocket of sluff. It didn’t propagate into a slab, but it was enough to knock me off my feet. For the first time I reached for the rip cord but soon realized I was slowing down and hadn’t triggered anything dangerous. I didn’t deploy the airbag, but knowing it was at my fingertips made a scary moment – however brief – a lot more bearable.
The expense of airbags is still significant barrier of entry for a lot of consumers with most avalanche packs costing in excess of $1,000. The Float 42 airbag doesn’t have the dual “wings” of the ABS or the trauma protection of the Snowpulse, but for two thirds of the price of those brands you’ll still get the benefit of coming out on top of an avalanche – as long as it’s deployed in time.