Gear Review: ABS Vario Avalanche Airbag System
Weight: 7 pounds 10 ounces (Base Unit Only)
Summary: The ABS Vario avalanche airbag system is an industry standard for the backcountry community. After years of success, it has proven to be a solid, dependable, backcountry tool that has the potential to save lives. The ability to zip on different sized packs make this avalanche airbag one of the best options on the market.
An avalanche airbag is one more tool to add to your backcountry safety quiver. As you can see from this article from the Utah Avalanche Center, avalanche airbag statistics can be misleading. An avalanche airbag pack is not a guarantee of your safety and it’s not designed to replace knowledge and experience in the backcountry. That being said, avalanche airbags have the potential to save lives and I wear one.
Airbags work on the principle of inverse segregation. The idea is that bigger particles will work their way to the surface as smaller stuff sinks to the bottom. Take a bag of chips and shake it to see this principle in action. It’s also known as the Brazilian Nut theory.
ABS has set the standard in avalanche airbag technology for over 20 years. The majority of statistics available on avalanche airbags is based on ABS technology. It seems like everyone is trying to elbow their way into the avalanche airbag market and it’s important to do your research before buying one. ABS has the reputation and experience to stand out as a top pick.
There is no doubt about it – purchasing avalanche airbags is a confusing process. When choosing a backcountry pack you need to consider travel precautions, weight, reliability, comfort, track record, an so much more. I’ve researched avalanche airbags a lot and this is my opinion on the ABS Vario Avalanche Airbag System. I have used the Vario 40 pack in Montana and British Columbia. It’s a pack that I have used and abused.
The ABS Vario System is definitely a solid, dependable, proven backcountry tool. ABS has been in the game for a long time and they know what they are doing. Most other companies have been manufacturing avalanche airbags for less than 5 or 10 years. ABS’s proven track record is a big selling point. Plus, they have designed and refined their pack to near perfection over the years. Let’s take a look:
The ABS Vario Base Unit
The ABS Vario Base Unit costs around $950. It’s the heart and soul of the system. This low profile airbag system includes the airbags, compressed nitrogen cylinder, shoulder and waist straps, and trigger. A large zipper surrounds the base unit that allows you to zip on Vario compatible packs. It’s a modular system so you can adjust your pack size to your needs. The Vario base unit is not compatible with ABS’s Powder Line (a lighter, smaller version of airbag packs) and vice versa.
The base unit comes in small and large sizes depending on your torso size. The base unit is relatively small and does not hold any gear. The shoulder straps are comfortable and the waist band has a metal buckle. There is also a strap from the base unit to the waist strap that goes through your legs to keep the pack during an avalanche. Many people do not use this feature, but it is very important for the airbag to function properly.
The ABS Trigger connection is located on the left shoulder strap. I believe you can switch it to the right shoulder strap, but I have not tried as I want to be able to pull the trigger with my right, dominant hand. The trigger can be taken on and off. It can be stored easily in a small zipped pouch on the waist belt when not in use like when you’re in a helicopter or tram.
The trigger is easy to attach to the trigger line. Just pinch and lift the gold adaptor, insert the trigger and release the adaptor. It can be safeguarded from accidental pulls by a velcro band. Unfortunately, the gold connecting adaptor can get bent if it is stepped on so be careful.
The trigger is easy to pull – your grandmother could do it. It’s a bit bulky, but for mitten wearers this is a nice feature because it’s easy to grab and yank when disaster strikes. When pulled, a small explosive charge travels down the line to the compressed nitrogen cylinder. This punctures the cylinder and inflates the airbag. It’s a quick process (approximately 4 to 5 seconds from trigger pull to full inflation), but the explosive charge and closed cylinder make air travel difficult. There is also a wireless activation option available from ABS.
One of my favorite things about the ABS system is that there are two twin bags for redundancy. In the unfortunate event that one gets shredded, another bag operates as a separate system. This is unlikely because the bags are made from the same or similar material as zodiac boats. It’s bombproof.
ABS started using the dual airbag system in 1996 and have stuck with it for a reason. There are two 85-liter bags that deploy from the sides of your pack, near your back. Most airbag packs have one bag that deploys near our head. ABS claims their design helps an avalanche victim’s body stay horizontal in the snow when deployed.
Repacking The ABS Vario Base Unit
Once the airbag has been deployed, it must then be deflated and repacked. On the back (shoulder strap side) of each airbag there is a black circle with a red cover. Lift the red cover and press the red button to deflate. Make sure that all of the air is out of the airbag.
Next place the airbag shoulder straps down and fold the airbag back up. It’s easy to see where to fold the airbag, but there are also directions located in the base unit on the cover over the activation unit.
Once the airbag is folded up, roll it toward the base unit. Ensure that the black deflating circle is up and against the mesh as you place it back into the base unit. A thick velcro will secure it in place. Repeat for both sides.
Compressed Nitrogen Cylinder Activation Unit
After deployment and repacking, you absolutely must replace the compressed nitrogen cylinder. It is not user-refillable. This “activation unit” is hard to refill and I think there is only one location to refill in the US. Instead it’s easy to swap at many stores for a $40 to $70 fee or you can buy a new one.
Compressed nitrogen is said to work better at colder temps than compressed air. Many other airbag manufacturers use compressed air cylinders that can be refilled at scuba shops, fire stations, or the ice cream shop in Jackson for a few bucks.
When you buy an ABS activation unit you can choose from a cheaper steel cylinder that weighs 0.5 kg or a “lightweight” carbon cylinder that weighs in a 0.3 kg.
Once you have a fresh cylinder, it’s easy to install. Just remove the top and screw it in to the unit. It takes about 30 seconds.
The Vario 40 Pack
The beauty of the ABS Vario base unit is that you can zip on a wide variety of packs on to it. This allows you to have one airbag system and lots of different sized packs. ABS currently has 8L, 18L, 24L, 32L, 45+5L zip ons. Other ABS compatible companies include: Arva, Atomic, Berghaus, Burton, DaKine, Dynastar, Evoc, Exped, Mountain HardWear, Head, Karrimor, Millet, North Face, Osprey, Quiksilver, Rossignol, Salomon. With ABS you have lots of options. I have the ABS Vario 40.
The Vario 40 offers 40 liters of zip on capacity. It zips on to the base unit with a heavy duty zipper. Then four cinch straps secure it even further. Unfortunately, the two cinch straps on the top of the pack, near the dual haul straps, cinch over the orange zipper that accesses the shovel/probe pocket, which means your avalanche gear is one step further away than necessary.
Complete with emergency communication protocol information, the shovel/probe pocket is surprisingly massive. It’s one of the only pockets I’ve found that’s big enough to hold some of the truly massive shovels on the market, like my Life Link Guide Shovel. The pocket is located between the base unit and main Vario 40 compartment. When in full mission mode, this sets the loaded pack’s weight farther behind the center of mass than might be ideal.
The Vario 40’s lid features a big pocket and a mesh pocket for easy access to snacks, sunscreen, and maps. The main compartment comes with two cinch cords to keep the weather out. It’s basically one large compartment, which I like because it’s easy to stuff things in and it seems to engulf just about everything you could need.
The exterior of the pack is full of bells and whistles. The orange side zipper provides access to the interior of the pack making it easy to grab what you need. There are two cross straps that make it easy to attach a snowboard. With the Vario 40, skis are attached A-Frame style as the pack is set far enough away from the airbags. Smaller packs typically have an I-Carry to ensure safe inflation of twin airbags. There is an ice axe loop and daisy chains to attach any other necessities. Compression straps keep the pack sleek when needed.
The Vario 40 is an ideal pack for larger missions or for a guide who needs extra gear. I think a smaller zip on to the well designed ABS base unit might be better all around due to the weight of the ABS system. Overall, I’d say that the ABS pack is ideal for day trips, quick out of bounds laps, or fast shuttle laps.
Traveling With ABS
ABS seems to continually have issues with TSA. Technically according to the IATA regulations, the ABS system is allowed on planes, but a few horror stories have raised eyebrows. TSA seems to have issues with a sealed compressed nitrogen cylinder and an explosive charge in the trigger. This makes traveling with the ABS pack unreliable, even when you follow directions. Surprisingly, many TSA agents are not backcountry skiing enthusiasts.
If you do travel with the ABS, contact your airline, print off all documentation, and attach it to the cylinder in your checked bag. There is more in depth info about traveling with ABS systems on the ABS website.
The Future Of Airbags
There are lots of airbag competitors on the market. Many use the same or similar technologies. Mammut uses SnowPulse technology. BCA and Mystery Ranch have compressed air models. Black Diamond just released the first battery powered Jet Force. Arc’teryx is producing a battery powered model in the near future. There are probably other avalanche airbag options that are so cool that we don’t even know about them yet.
The world of backcountry skiing is changing. Don’t let technology affect your risk tolerance, judgement, or decision making. Buy an airbag pack, but remember it’s only a worst case scenario tool that may or may not save you.
The ABS Vario is a tried and true avalanche airbag pack. It’s proven the test of time and it’s saved lives. It’s a heavy tool to add to your safety quiver, but it’s worth the extra weight.
Buy An ABS Vario Avalanche Airbag System
To buy an ABS system, you’ll need to purchase:
A Mountain Journey recommends shopping at Backcountry.com .
ABS Vario Base Unit Price Comparison:
Here are a few additional images of the ABS Vario Avalanche Airbag System: