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How Avalanche Airbags Works

  • Filip 

Many studies have shown that when people wear an avalanche airbag when skiing off-piste, it can save lives to a great extent. Hence, it is recommended to carry one that’s fit your needs. Wondering how does an avalanche airbag work?

The science behind airbag technology is similar to a process called inverse segregation. An avalanche airbag is a tough balloon that inflates when you pull the handle and makes you a larger object so that you can stay atop the avalanche instead of getting sucked underneath.

What makes an avalanche airbag important?

No crowds, pristine landscapes, breathtaking views, and untracked snow are some of the benefits that you get from backcountry skiing. But there’s a major downside which is the risk of facing avalanches. So, how to manage this tricky situation? The answer is avalanche airbags.

Studies have proved that these airbags can increase the chances of surviving an avalanche. In short, avalanche airbags are potential lifesavers. An avalanche airbag is a large balloon that inflates when you pull a handle or a cord. As a result, it makes you a larger object.

And, allows you to stay out of the snow rather than getting sucked into it. The process can be compared with the ‘brazil nut effect’. When you shake the can containing nuts, the bigger nuts tend to stay on top. Meanwhile, the smaller ones get sucked up between the gaps. 

An avalanche airbag is a kind of backpack that has an integrated airbag system. You can carry all your gear as you do normally. But it has an extra feature of an airbag. The demand for avalanche airbags has increased in recent years and for a good reason. 

These bags increase your chances of survival if you are caught in an avalanche. It can increase your chances of surviving by up to 50%. However, that doesn’t mean that it is safe to venture into dangerous terrain. 

Keep in mind that avalanche airbags are the last resort that you can use. Moreover, you can still get serious injuries even if you deploy these airbags. So, take precautions while exploring unknown territories.

So, how do they work?

If you are wondering how an avalanche airbag works, this section will help you understand the basics. The deployment mechanism used in these airbags helps them to inflate quickly. There are two methods used to deploy airbags: compressed air and high-powered fans.

The best part is that in both these cases you can repack the avalanche airbag after deployment. If the bag isn’t damaged, you can use it over and over again. Most of the avalanche airbags that you come across use compressed air canisters. 

When you pull the handle or cord, it triggers the compressed air to release and as such, the bag inflates rapidly. Air compressed canisters are mostly intended for a single deployment. And, you have to refill them later. You can refill them by using a high-pressure pump at home or a filling station. 

However, make sure to read the instructions before refilling these canisters and have a clear understanding of the model. But the only downside of using an avalanche airbag with canisters is that flying on commercial airlines might be difficult. 

Most airlines will need you to decompress the canister and detach its head if you want to travel with the airbag. So, it is wise to check with your airline before flying. High-powered fan systems, on the other hand, doesn’t have such limitation.

Certain avalanche airbags have high-powered and rechargeable fan systems in the airbags. On some backpacks, the battery-powered fan gives the ability to inflate a 200-liter bag. And, all it takes is a mere 3.5 seconds. This is what you need when you are amidst an emergency. 

The rechargeable batteries for the fans used in avalanche airbags are good enough for two to three times deployment. After that, you need to recharge them. Now, that’s an advantage if you want to practice deployments. 

How does an avalanche airbag get people on top?

One of the common misconceptions that many people hoard in their minds about avalanche airbags is that the bag helps people to float on top of the snow. They believe that it works the same way as a floating jacket does to shipwrecked sailors. However, the reality is something else. 

The physics behind this mechanism is called inverse segregation of granular convection. Also, most people refer to it as the ‘brazil nut effect’. This principle explains that in a moving stream with different kinds of objects, the larger ones tend to remain on the surface. Whereas, the smaller ones sink to the bottom. 

It’s a kind of ratcheting mechanism where the smaller particles fall under the bigger ones when you shake the contents. When the difference in the surface volume or area is greater between the particles and mixture, the mechanism works better. 

Besides, the sorting mechanism needs a power source. When it is about the box containing nuts, it is you who is shaking the box. And, in the case of an avalanche, it is the skier who is tumbling do and the mixture of snow. 

What are the limitations of avalanche airbags?

When you understand how a certain tool or equipment works, you can use it effectively. Also, you need to be aware of the situation when it might not work as expected. The same thing goes when you are using an avalanche airbag. 

If you are involved in a terrain trap, for example, an avalanche airbag might not be effective. What happens is that the snow comes directly on top of you and stops right away. It doesn’t give you enough time for the sorting process to happen. 

Even when you are on a slope, it depends on where the avalanche starts and the size of chunks it generates. Also, the speed determines how they are energetically traveling for you to come to the surface. 

How safe are the avalanche airbags?

There is no denying that avalanche airbags will keep you on top of avalanches. Still, there are dangers of getting yourself injured by the trees and cliffs. Certain brands that manufacture avalanche airbags have designs that unfold around the wearer’s head and protect them from any kind of traumatic situation.

Furthermore, if the wearer doesn’t activate the airbag right on time for whatever reason, it is nothing but dead weight in their backpack. Problems can occur if the bag doesn’t respond to the inflating mechanism or is punctured otherwise. The difference between air canister and battery-powered inflating systems plays a key role to determine safety as well.

On battery-powered systems, the air is pumped into the balloons continuously to keep them inflated. As such, even if there is a hole, you don’t have to bother about that. Another advantage of having a fan-battery combination over gas canisters is that you can store away and reuse them when you want. But gas bottles require refilling after a single-use.

Do avalanche airbags works?

Avalanche airbags work wonders and they are very effective when it comes to increasing chances of survival during an emergency. Because you need to pull the handle at the right moment, practice is a good idea. Moreover, it is hard to pin down the effectiveness of these airbags in terms of reduced risks.

One of the biggest risk factors, when you are caught in an avalanche, is suffocation. And, airbags help you to stay on top of snow and prevent you from getting trapped below. That way, the risk of suffocation reduces to a great extent. Avalanche airbags provide you with head protection as well.

So, having a big balloon around your head allows you to prevent collision naturally. Also, the massive yellow or red balloon makes it easy for the airbag to get visible ad decrease the amount of search time needed if you end up buried under snow. These bags are a useful tool that helps you to survive if you end up in an avalanche. 

As said, the effectiveness of an avalanche airbag is always a matter of debate for a long time. However, a lot of factors come to play. But, when you wear them properly and use them at the right time, it helps you increase the survival rates if you are carried in an avalanche.

It is worthy to note that about 80% of people who are caught in avalanches tend to survive. Moreover, the statistic around using avalanche airbags is that chances of survival increase about 10 to 15% more. That way, it is good to add extra weight.

There are debates about the exact number and this is because most of the research is hard. Also, there are lots of factors that you need to consider. Apart from that, many avalanches go unreported. 


Avalanche airbags are preventive tools that have your back when you are amidst an emergency. And, there is plenty of data that shows airbags can be helpful if you are caught in an avalanche. However, it is always good to stay away from places where the chances of avalanches are high. The bottom line is that owning an avalanche airbag is a good idea when you are on an unmarked territory.

If you are in need of an avalanche airbag, you might also be interested in Avalanche Transceivers, read more about how Avalanche Transceivers works.