Gear Feature: ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack

Posted By: The Ski Channel on February 23, 2012 10:45 am

The Avalanche Airbag System, also known as ABS technology, is nothing new; the idea has been around since ABS testing began in 1985. However, a tragic avalanche this past Sunday, February 19th, near Stevens Pass Ski Resort has brought the ABS system to the forefront of recommended safety gear. A group of professional skiers and beloved ski industry moguls triggered an avalanche in the Tunnel Creek backcountry. A snow slab thirty feet wide consumed Jim Jack, Freeskiing World Tour head judge, and spread across the slope into the tree line. The fast moving snow overtook Stevens Pass Director of Marketing Chris Rudolph and fellow skier John Brenan, three lives lost in total as a result of the incident. The survivors in the group included professional skier Elyse Saugstad, ESPN Freeskiing Editor Megan Michelson, as well as Powder Senior Editor John Stifter and photographer Keith Carlsen.

Professional skiing duo, Cody Townsend and Elyse Saugstad, thank ABS technology for saving their lives.

Professional skier Elyse Saugstad is lucky to be alive. After skiing the line and settling further downhill near the trees, the triggered avalanche at Stevens Pass carried her and other helpless skiers 3,000 feet before the snow finally settled. Saugstad released a statement later on Sunday evening, with condolences for the families of the victims of the avalanche: “I was caught by the avalanche and was not completely buried. I believe my partial burial and survival was on account of the inflation of my ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack. My thoughts and prayers are with those that lost their lives today.”

Saugstad was wearing an Powder Line Backpack with ABS technology, which she was able to deploy. The device kept her head and hands above the snow — and is very likely to have been a key factor in her survival. As the death toll rises in a string of reported avalanche disasters, the 97% survival rates of ABS equipped backcountry skiers and snowboarders cannot be ignored.  The Dutch Prince Johan Friso, who was buried alive by an avalanche on Friday while skiing in Austria at the Lech Ski Area and is currently in critical condition, was reported to be skiing with others who had the ABS backpack and thus left the scene unharmed and found help.

Today, The Ski Channel searches for answers from the survivors leading us to the following conclusion… we all want an ABS Avalanche Airbag backpack! With his phone ringing off the hook due to the recent avalanche incidents, CEO of ABS North America Steve Wagner told us, “it shouldn’t take news like this to make people realize how important it is to invest in safety equipment.”

What exactly is an avalanche airbag? The key components of the ABS system are two 85 liter Twinbag airbags, Venturi valves, and an activation unit consisting of pyrotechnic handle and nitrogen filled steel cartridge. AKA, picture two mini-airbags on either side of your backpack that fill up by activating a red emergency trigger on the front of your pack. Once triggered, it very well may help you stay alive if snow were to sweep you downhill due to the surface area of the bags. As seen in the diagram below, the bags help prevent an avalanche victim from being buried deep below the surface.  The increased surface area provides greater flotation, allows for unblocked view and room to manoeuvre in a natural swimming position with face and head coverage by your arms, as well as influencing a leg-up position — lessening the chances of legs being anchored in the first decelerating layer of snow.


The ABS Twinbag keeps an avalanche victim closer to the surface when deployed.

Developer Hunter Josef Hohenester had some wacky self-experiments in the 70′s, sliding over deep couloirs while carrying deer on his shoulders. Avalanches were so frequent in his town, that he soon discovered an unexpected buoyancy effect through the additional volume of the deer he was carrying.  The discovery lead to the first experimental versions of floating devices. The first ABS mono airbag system hit the market in 1985, weighing about 9 pounds and mounted directly to the body. Now weighing about 5 pounds, the ABS system can be utilized as a zip-on attachment and added on to the rest of your gear. The newest ABS system is now the official pack of Tailgate Alaska.

Peter_Aschauer ABS Monobag

Peter Aschauer sporting the original ABS Monobag.

“ABS has saved the lives of many amazing athletes,” Wagner told The Ski Channel, “most of whom are professional and the most-trained in the backcountry. But every avalanche is different. It is better to be prepared.” ABS sponsors professional skiers and snowboarders like Jeremy Jones, Xavier De Le Rue, Lynsey Dyer, Marc & Martin Strasser, Sebastian Hannemann, and even Cody Townsend who lent his ABS backpack to wife and avalanche survivor, Elyse Saugstad.

Professional snowboarder and multiple winner of the Freeride World Tour, Xavier De la Rue, also survived a massive avalanche accident virtually unharmed thanks to ABS. Check out the incredible footage of an avalanche that Xavier survived with an ABS pack:


CEO of ABS North America, Steve Wagner, suggests an avalanche safety course as the most powerful tool: “We need to use all the tools available; this means studying the terrain, skiing with a buddy, and utilizing probes, beacons and shovels.” The ABS technology is now a mandatory device worn by Jackson Hole mountain guides, and used in many of today’s consumer accessories like Dakine backpacks, and soon to be TNF dedicated pack and compatible zip-on for ARVA products. REI is reported to have interest in selling ABS systems to the USA consumers. At a pricey $1000 – $1300 retail, Wagner reminds us of the price of skis and what skiers spend during an average season on ski trips. “It’s a question of priorities. If your skis are $800, then maybe your life is worth a bit more.”

Renting the ABS backpack is also possible at some of the world’s top destination ski resorts. You can also find them online at and For more info or to purchase directly, visit ABS Airbag’s website.


ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack Trigger. "Pull as soon as you feel like you're in danger," Wagner recommends.


The 10 SURVIVAL PRINCIPLES of the ABS avalanche airbag:

The 10 survival principles of the ABS® avalanche airbag prove how effective the ABS® system is, and clearly attest to the high survival rates offered by this true original.

1. Highest Survival Rate

Investigations carried out since 1991 by the independent and internationally renowned SLF Swiss Avalanche Institute in Davos have clearly shown that ABS systems significantly reduce the risk of being buried by an avalanche. The results of the studies speak for themselves: Out of 262 people who activated their ABS® avalanche airbag, 97% survived and 84% of them were uninjured. This makes ABS® the only self-rescue system that has proven its life-saving effectiveness over many years. ABS® makes life eight times safer for freeriders and ski tourers.

2. German Engineering

The in-house engineers at ABS® have been busy with R&D activities since 1985, working closely with mountain professionals, independent institutes, universities and athletes to continually improve the system. Based on extensive experience from the field, we replaced mono airbags with our more effective TwinBags several years ago. ABS® also replaced the mechanical Bowden cable activation system with the far more effective pneumatic activation system. ABS® Wireless Activation, the carbon cartridge and the popular Vario system all prove that when it comes to practical effectiveness, ABS® refuses to compromise.

3. Double Safety

TwinBags have, through years of testing, been found to be clearly superior to mono airbags. An avalanche places great strain on each airbag. Even if one of the two ABS® TwinBags is damaged, there is usually sufficient remaining volume to prevent total burial. Manufacturers of mono airbags save costs by omitting this important and practical additional safety feature. The side-mounted TwinBags are flexible and move with the avalanche. Consequently, maximum use is made of the volume and lifting surface. The TwinBags reduce the downfall turbulence to prevent serious injury.

4. Pneumatic Pull

If disaster strikes, there is no time for mistakes or malfunctions. That is why ABS® uses the most reliable activation technology: pyrotechnic pneumatic activation. A quick pull with little force and the system inflates irreversibly at the speed of sound. The Bowden cables used in simple systems must be pre-tensioned before every activation, with hair-trigger readiness. This frequently results in unintended activation. This prompted ABS® years ago to switch to pneumatic activation, which is more suited to practical use.

5. See and Flee

You need an unobstructed view and complete freedom of movement if you are to escape from an avalanche. That is why the ABS® TwinBag is designed so it can be activated without hesitation at the first sign of an avalanche, with no risk of obstructing the wearer. The TwinBags work as one with your body, helping you achieve your top-priority goal – escaping burial.

6. Dynamic Lift

During an avalanche, the material is constantly mixed and unmixed in a process called the segregation effect. In granular mixtures, large pieces work their way up to the top. The TwinBags were designed in light of this scientific finding. The two ABS® TwinBags are positioned at the side of the

body, keeping the victim as flat as possible on top of the avalanche. A vertical position creates an anchoring effect, and minimizing this effect is the key to reducing the risk of being buried in the snow during the avalanche run-out.

7. No Bug Effect

The ABS® TwinBags do not rotate the body into the dangerous and helpless supine position, robbing the victim of all control as the avalanche descends, with no hope of avoiding injury by collisions or sinking into the avalanche. The system has proven its effectiveness in hundreds of avalanches.

8. Maximum Visibility

In 97% of all documented avalanche accidents with activated airbags, the TwinBags were visible on the surface. That means the rest of the group usually know exactly where a victim is in the avalanche, so they can dig him or her out more quickly. Maximum visibility means that ABS® TwinBags reduce any residual risk from being buried.

9. Easy Pack and Use

The packing process of the ABS® system has been optimized several times over 25 years of practical use. Compared with many other mono-bags, the ABS® TwinBag is not only faster but, importantly, easier and more reliable to repack.

10. Inflate It

The ABS® TwinBags must be ready at all times in case they ever need to be activated – with no room for compromise. Every move you make must be right. That is why ABS® encourages regular practice activations before and during the winter season, and does not charge retailers for refill. The customer only has to pay a small handling fee to the retailer. 

“It sounds odd, but hopefully you will never have to utilize our device.”  Words of advise? ”Pull as soon as you can,” Wagner recommends. 

For more info or to purchase directly, visit ABS Airbag’s website.