“Avalanche Airbags Save About 1/2 of Those Who Would Have Died” | Bruce Tremper on Avalanche Effectiveness

Miles Clark | | Post Tag for AvalancheAvalanchePost Tag for Gear ReviewGear Review
Avalanche airbag deployed
Avalanche airbag deployed

“If you look at it with a glass-half-full approach, a deployed airbag saved about half of those who would have otherwise died.  If you look it with a glass-half-empty approach, you would say that half of the people who deployed airbags died anyway.” – Bruce Tremper

Read Bruce Tremper’s (author of the famous book:  “staying alive in avalanche terrain”) full article here:  Avalanche Effectiveness – Something closer to the Truth

Avalanche airbags are all the rage amongst backcountry skiers and riders right now.  Even Squaw Valley ski patrol has every single patroller using an airbag.  Statistics keep pouring in about how effective airbags are.  Many skiers and riders now consider an airbag critical pieces of backcountry gear.

But exactly how much do avalanche airbags really help?  Bruce Tremper decided to tackle this question head-on, and we thank him for it.

how an avalanche airbag system is supposed to work

“There seems to be no end of confusion about the effectiveness of avalanche airbags.  I have heard numbers bantered about ranging from the aforementioned 97 percent all the way down to, “Avalanche airbags would save only 3 out of 100 who would have otherwise have died”, which was presented by a prominent avalanche professional in a national class.  That’s a lot of confusion.”

– Bruce Tremper

avy airbag
Bruce Tremper

“This winter I noticed a magazine advertisement for an avalanche airbag pack that claimed “A 97 percent success rate in real-world conditions.”  What the advertisement didn’t mention was that people caught WITHOUT an avalanche airbag have an 80 – 90 percent success rate.”

– Bruce Tremper


– Swiss Federal Institute of Snow & Avalanche Rescue

– 400 cases of people getting caught in avalanches with airbags

– Percent of people who died in an avalanche decreased from 19% to 3% with airbag use

– Thus, 81% of people without airbags survived, and 97% of people with airbags survived

bruce tremper
Bruce Tremper


Bruce’s Bottom Line:

“Ignore the 97% number and the 3% number.  My best guess is that avalanche airbag packs will probably save a little more than half of those who would have otherwise have died in an avalanche.  They will never save all of them because 1 out of 4 will likely die from trauma of hitting trees and rocks on the way down and an additional 1 out of 4 will probably end up in a terrain trap (deep burial), buried by a secondary avalanche or caught in an avalanche that does not travel far enough for the inverse segregation process to work (larger objects rise to the surface).

 – Bruce Tremper

 Read Bruce’s full paper here:  

Avalanche Airbag Effectiveness – Something Closer to the Truth

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11 thoughts on ““Avalanche Airbags Save About 1/2 of Those Who Would Have Died” | Bruce Tremper on Avalanche Effectiveness

  1. Seems a more important study would be on decision making while wearing the airbag – do people consciously or unconsciously take more risks? Saving half of those who would have otherwise died is good, but how many got into an accident that wouldn’t have if they weren’t considering a backup safety system? Also, where was the data from open terrain in the Alps or heavy trees and rocks? Isolating the data presented by the terrain it occurred in might reveal useful information

  2. I work on a ski patrol that has airbags for everyone. I personally wore one even before. The way I see it, every bit of training is key to safety, but I still want every thing that could possibly save me or my partner if the in thinkable happens. Fancy equipment is not a replacement for education, and education is not a replacement for equipment.

    Stay safe!

  3. Got one, never used it. I do think it gets in my head and pushes me into more dangerous terrain. Need to take a step back.

  4. CAIC has just released a thorough report on the 5 avalanche deaths in Loveland Pass area.
    2 of them had airbags. 2 of them had Avalungs. NONE of these devices were deployed.

    1. That’s scary. Shows that airbags aren’t even easy to deploy. Especially since they were traveling uphill and likely had the handles secured with straps or inside zippers

  5. Yes, the numbers advertised have been misleading. I’ve also heard that your are twice as likely to survive an avalanche with an airbag, which seem unfounded. That said, I’m still not going out there without my airbag system. It seems obvious now that they do help. I also agree with Bruce’s point that we don’t need to use the airbag as a leveraging device to allow ourselves to ride more challenging terrain because we have a great “backup system.” We still need to make sound decisions on where, when, and what to ride.

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