The avalanche airbag is a relatively new piece of safety equipment, so it’s understandable that many people would ask the question: Do avalanche airbags work?
The primary goal of an avalanche airbag is to reduce the chance of a rider becoming buried—or at least reduce the total burial depth of a victim—in the unfortunate event of an avalanche involvement.
How Avalanche Airbags Work
In a moving avalanche, larger particles (such as big blocks of snow) are automatically sorted toward the top of the flow and tend to end up on the surface. Think about a box of granola. Ever notice that the biggest chunks always end up at the top?
The way an avalanche airbag works is that by increasing the total volume of the victim (by inflating the airbag, making them larger in size), the chance of being sifted to the bottom of the moving flow is decreased.
In addition to reducing the chance and depth of a burial, avalanche airbags also provide other benefits as well. The inflated airbag can help with impact protection, reducing the possibility and severity of trauma in a slide. Also, a large, bright airbag can act as a visual aid in helping the rest of the party either establish a last seen point or as a snow surface clue.
As technology advances, so do the potential benefits of wearing an airbag. More recently, a paper published by McIntosh et al. (2019)1 showed airbags that automatically deflate might increase the survivability in a full burial by creating an air pocket.
The Effectiveness of Avalanche Airbags
In 2014, a group of researchers, lead by Pascal Haegeli from Simon Fraser University, published a detailed scientific study on the effectiveness of airbags.2 They found that for individuals seriously involved in avalanches of size 2 or larger, the risk of critical burial (head under the snow surface) was 20% with inflated airbags versus 47% without airbags. This statistic suggests an improvement in the critical burial statistic of 27%.
For individuals seriously involved in avalanches of size 2 or larger, the use of an inflated airbag reduced the risk of dying from 22% to 11%. This shows that inflated airbags saved about half of the victims who would have otherwise died.
Avalanche Airbag Limitations
Far too often, burial victims are found with release handles hidden away or with non-inflated bags. The same study by Haegeli and colleagues highlights that non-deployment remains the most considerable limitation to the effectiveness of airbags.2 Shockingly, in 60% of the cases studied, users did not inflate their airbag for whatever reason.
For an avalanche airbag to be effective, it needs to be utilized correctly. Hence, familiarity with deployment procedures and proper maintenance are paramount for ensuring that airbags work properly.
Do Avalanche Airbags Work?
There are many studies out there and while they vary in focus, they all show that there is a strong safety benefit to using—and knowing how to use—an avalanche airbag. One point airbag users really need to keep in mind is the human factor associated with wearing an airbag. Haegeli’s most recent study looks at whether wearing an airbag might lead to riskier decision-making.3
So do avalanche airbags work? Yes! As an avalanche professional and backcountry user myself, the airbag has become mandatory equipment for my mountain adventures.
Curtis Pawliuk | Manager of the Valemount and Area Recreation Development Association (VARDA), owner of avalanche education provider Frozen Pirate Snow Services and a professional member of the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA)
McIntosh, S. E., Little, C. E., Seibert, T. D., Polukoff, N. E., & Grissom, C. K. (2019). Avalanche airbag post-burial active deflation — The ability to create an air pocket to delay asphyxiation and prolong survival.
Haegeli, P., Falk, M., Procter, E., Zweifel, B., Jarry, F., Logan, S., . . . Brugger, H. (2014). The effectiveness of avalanche airbags. Resuscitation, 85(9), 1197-1203. DOI: 10.1016/j.resuscitation.2014.05.025
- Haegeli, P., Rupf, R., & Karlen, B. (in press). Do avalanche airbags lead to riskier choices among backcountry and out-of-bounds skiers? Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.