Airbags – the good, the bad and the ugly

We are sometimes asked why we don’t supply airbags. The answer is not straightforward. When it comes to safety, our position is always to make the most informed judgement. Airbags are a very good tool which can prevent injury and or burial in avalanches. This fact has been determined by much research. However, there are cases when airbags have contributed to greater injury than may have occurred without an airbag. There are also cases where an avalanche victim has not survived a burial, even with an airbag deployed.

Airbags are designed to inflate which aids in keeping a person closer to the surface when caught in an avalanche. They are most effective when skiing or riding in open terrain such as alpine and treeline bowls.

When airbags are deployed on steep treed runs, the user tends to ride up on the surface of the snow and may, in fact, accelerate faster downslope. The bag will provide some protection from impact; however, the user may be unable to slow or stop themselves. There is at least one documented case where a skier was seriously injured in this manner.

Airbags weigh more than standard backpacks which may negatively impact the skier experience or worse, cause harm to the users back.  User error is also something we need to consider. Accidental discharge is not uncommon and reloading an airbag can be challenging and time consuming with some models. Fan operated airbags are gaining in popularity and we continue to watch these developments very closely.

There is a lot of information being circulated by airbag manufacturers. For those interested in learning more, I found this unbiased article published in Adventure Journal which outlines The Truth about Airbags and Avalanche Survival.

In a nutshell, airbags are a good additional layer of protection against serious avalanche injury. However, they do not guarantee surviving an avalanche.  At Selkirk Snowcat Skiing, we provide our guests with industry accepted avalanche safety and self-rescue equipment including a transceiver, backpack with probe and shovel, and 2-way radio. Staying safe in avalanche terrain is our top priority and we take every precaution to avoid serious avalanche involvements. For now, we encourage our guests to exercise their choice of whether or not to wear an airbag.

Airbags are available for rent at ROAM and other backcountry equipment outlets in Nelson.

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