Review: An Avalanche Airbag That Saves Your Life—and Your Money

Backcountry Access Float 32 Avalanche Airbag Backpack


An avalanche airbag is now considered standard equipment, especially when skiing in the avalanche-prone backcountry.

Before I even boarded a plane bound for the snow-covered Andes, I deployed BCA's Float 32 in The Active Times offices. For one, I had to discharge the air canister before taking a commercial flight, and secondly, I wanted to test my setup before I had to rely on it. I was bound for Bariloche, Argentina, for a week's worth of big-mountain backcountry skiing with the gang at Sass Global Travel, and wanted to save my skin in the event of an avalanche.

Deploying the Airbag
Testing your gear—particularly life-saving safety gear—before you start relying on it in the field is an absolute necessity for a first-time user. In the case of the Float 32, I read the directions, set it up and, in a blaze of ripcord-pulling glory, deployed the airbag in the relative safety of a television studio. It worked like a charm.

Luckily, I didn’t have to test it “live.” My roommate in Argentina, Jeffrey Wyshynski, did. He deployed his BCA Float 32 while heli-skiing in Alaska. Wyshynski describes the course of events:

“Only one ski came off on its own, and I could feel my other knee getting torqued by the other ski, so first I reached down and broke it off. Then my airway was getting filled with snow, so I put in my Avalung. After I could breathe, I was able to deploy the airbag.”

He said there were ergonomic issues with deployment: the pull cord was on the wrong side (the new version of the pack allows you to configure the cord on either side) and the handle is a little small. That said, he did deploy the Float, and it may have saved his life. In fact, after suffering only minor injuries, he was back dropping into some big lines later the same day. Here's the video of the avalanche from his helmet camera:

In this live situation, the pack performed. Wyshnyski was sinking under the snow, deployed the airbag and floated to the surface, face-up. His support crew didn’t need to search for him with their beacons and he was able to free himself from the debris. This, of course, is the point of airbag technology—keep the skier on the surface of the avalanche, where they can breathe and be seen by rescue teams.

Traveling with It
Chances are, there will be a flight between you and your destination of choice. The main challenge will be the air canister. BCA's website instructs you to discharge and unscrew the canister, then take it through security personally. I checked mine in my board bag without problem and, when I did try to carry it onto a later flight, was stopped by domestic security in Argentina and required to check it. All of this was fairly painless.

As long as you can manage the air canister, the Float 32 works great as carry-on luggage. It fits easily into overhead compartments and is roomy enough to fit over a week’s worth of clothing, a toiletries kit, beacon, baggage scale, and still have room for a few souvenirs. The clamshell configuration makes packing and accessing your stuff straightforward and easy. If you don’t want to take a separate laptop bag, the shovel/wet pocket is a worthy stand-in. The helmet carry option also comes in quite handy when navigating airports and boarding the plane.

Design and Build Quality
This is a solid backpack, to be sure. The pack cloth is heavy-duty, the waistbelt fastener is proper metal and the zipper pulls are easy to use, even with gloved fingers. The layout and construction reflect BCA’s long experience designing tools and packs for backcountry snow sports. There’s a fleece-lined goggle compartment that’s roomy enough for several pairs of goggles, a hip pocket big enough for a camera and snacks, and a separate compartment for your shovel and probe. You can feed a hydration tube through the shoulder strap that’s not used for the airbag trigger.

The Float  32 offers a full 32 liters of packable space (other companies count the airbag room in their space calculation—but not BCA), which means you have plenty of room for over 2 liters of water, extra layers, food and emergency equipment. In fact, you could manage a light overnight trip with this pack.

The snowboard carry is an extra add-on that wasn’t included with the review model we tested, but it was no problem to carry the snowboard horizontally through the shoulder straps. The ski carry is diagonal, not A-Frame, and the ice axe loops appear to be incredibly efficient.

The Float 32 only comes in one size. I’m 5’7”, and the pack was comfortable on me, but the back panel seems to be made for someone with a slightly longer torso. As such, the waistbelt didn’t support much weight while climbing. The pack feels light for its size and distributes weight well, so you have plenty of fun descending.

This is where it gets real. The BCA Float 32 is the cheapest float pack we could find—less than half the cost of some of the higher priced alternatives, in fact. Considering the quality of the pack, the (relatively) low price means you can spend what you save on another heli drop and still know that you’ve got a rugged, lightweight, well designed piece of safety equipment strapped to your back. Just don’t let that increase your tolerance for risk—the best way to survive an avalanche is, as it's always been, to avoid being caught in one in the first place.

$550 ($725, including cylinder);


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