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By Andrew Hobman,

Andrew Hobman is a snow safety professional who has worked, played and survived in the mountains for over 40 years. After spending more than ten years skiing and climbing around the world he has worked as a Search and Rescue team leader at Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park, Alpine and Avalanche Programme manager for the Mountain Safety Council and is now a Director of Avalanche NZ, a non-for-profit organisation focused on avalanche safety.

Everyone who goes into backcountry avalanche terrain needs to be carrying avalanche safety gear and know how to use it. This includes a transceiver, shovel and probe, and ever increasingly an avalanche airbag backpack. Avalanche Airbags work by keeping you close to the surface of avalanche debris and minimising how deeply you are buried. 


But how well does this avalanche rescue gear actually work?


International studies on avalanche accidents show that around one out of four fatalities are caused by trauma; hitting objects like rocks and trees or being thrown over cliffs. Avalanche rescue gear is not going to do much here. The rest die from asphyxia. From being buried under the snow and unable to breath. If everyone was wearing an avalanche airbag and transceiver, two out of three people who died from asphyxia would still be alive. The latest comprehensive study (Haegeli 2014) has shown that out of every 100 skiers who have died in avalanches, 36 would have lived had they been equipped with airbag packs.


The bottom line is that avalanche rescue gear will only save about half of us and the best approach is not to get caught in first place, but travelling in avalanche terrain is full of uncertainty and increasing the odds is worth investing in.


Airbags have been available in Europe and North America since the 1990’s and numerous stories and YouTube clips are a testament to their effectiveness. They work by the principle of inverse segregation, a bigger object will rise to the top. So by making you bigger they increase your chances of winding up on top of the avalanche debris.


Avalanche airbags come in a wide range of brands and models but generally they are a deflated bag stuffed into the top of a bag pack which can be rapidly inflated by pulling a trigger mechanism. Most models use a single use refillable canister of compressed air or nitrogen to fill the airbag but a new advancement in battery-powered devices are on the way.


Although airbags are very common in the northern hemisphere they have been slow to catch on here in New Zealand. This is partially due to the price and availability of the products and it is a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation. Until there is a demand, the product importers are hesitant to invest in bringing them in and shops are wary of over stocking them. Once people start to buy and use them, the prices will drop and more of a range will be available.


I was recently at a gathering of snow safety professionals and airbags were being discussed. A wise old guide, having over-heard the conversation, looked at me and said “This is exactly the same argument that we had 30 years ago about transceivers; too expensive, too heavy, and now look where we are. None of this group would go out without one.”


There are a few misnomers circulating about the effectiveness or safety of airbags. Things like; they aren’t safe to fly with, they aren’t reliable or that people will be more reckless when wearing them. However these things have been shown to be completely untrue and it is time that we had a serious look at the benefits of these devices.


Below, we have compared the four main brands available in New Zealand; ABS, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond and Mammut however more options will be increasingly available and I would recommend the follow websites for further information:










ABS are German and have been an early developer and leader in the airbag market.


The systems are removable from the backpacks and many backpack manufactures are offering ABS systems with their bags.


The inflation system and airbag is fairly light and the weight is down to whatever bag they are put into.



These bags use compressed nitrogen cylinders to inflate the bags which have a single use and need to be sent overseas to refill.

Backcountry Access- Float airbags

BCA is an American company that has a proven record in avalanche safety equipment and education resources.


Lightweight and the least expensive.


Good storage and features.


Good availability and support in NZ.

Use compressed air cylinders which have a single use however these are easy and fairly cheap to refill at most dive shops.

Black Diamond- JetForce airbags

Black Diamond, another American company, are new to the airbag market but have brought innovation with their battery-powered system.


The new era in airbag technology.


The battery-powered system allows for multiple inflations in a day. The airbag is bigger and deflates after a set time to provide an air pocket.


Rechargeable battery.

The system is heavier than others, and the most expensive.

Mammut-Pro airbags

Mammut are a Swiss mountain equipment specialist since 1862 and recently purchased the Snowpulse airbags.

The backpacks are well designed and the airbags offer extra head and neck protection. Bag deflates after a set time.


The inflation system is light-weight and removable from the backpack.

Use compressed air cylinders which have a single use however these are easy and fairly cheap to refill at most dive shops.

Limited availability in New Zealand