One Airbag Feature You Need To Use That You Probably Don’t

Eric Behn | BackcountryBackcountry | AvalancheAvalancheGear ReviewGear Review

A case study from the fall edition of the Canadian Avalanche Association‘s publication The Avalanche Journal details the death of a skier in Revelstoke and brings light to one feature on many airbag backpack systems you might not have even heard about: the crotch strap.

The analysis featured in the Fall edition of The Avalanche Journal provided a good breakdown of the incident and what it tells us about airbag us.

The author, a key analyst of the incident for CAA and aid for both the RCMP and BC Corners Service, noted that the failure to use the crotch strap while in avalanche terrain may have been a key factor in the skiers death.

“He had not attached the crotch strap of his airbag. As the overburden of the slab he triggered from mid-slope overran his position in the toe of the debris, the airbag was lifted away from his back and above his head.”

Not fastening the crotch strap allowed for excess movement of the pack allowing it to swing from the skiers back as he was carried down the hill. It’s sobering to think that such a simple device could have made such a difference.

“As the balloons and pack were pushed forward and downhill it lifted the pack, causing the chest strap to catch on his chin and impede his airway.”

The absence of the strap turned the airbag backpack from a lifesaving device to mere hindrance of the victims survival. His pack blocked the airway, suffocating the skier along with the mass of snow which had carried him down the slope. When the snow mass had stopped the airbag was approximately 50cm from his back and it was evident that it had prevented the skier from being able to use his arms to protect himself and create a pocket of air around his head.

To say that this skier’s failure to use the crotch strap was ignorant or careless would be a misconception. After speaking with a number of experienced skiers, we found that the crotch strap on airbag backpacks is not a well know feature. For some it’s an option that they choose to wear or not to wear. For others, it wasn’t even something they knew existed.

This Dakine pack didn’t show a leg or crotch strap. The clip on the hip strap may be for this but it was not noted in the description.

Some older packs didn’t feature a crotch strap or leg strap, and because of the magnitude of the investment of an airbag (often $700 or more) it’s not uncommon for an owner to use the same system for a long period of time. 

Several packs that feature a crotch or leg strap.

A quick search of various ABS ready or equipped packs shows that the crotch strap isn’t a prominent feature. Most Mammut packs have it shown in their catalog photos, but other brands often omit a crotch or leg strap from product photos or descriptions. In fact, the Canadian Avalanche Center’s webpage about Recommended Gear mentions nothing about airbags featuring a crotch strap.

How an airbag system is supposed to work by carrying the victim to the surface.How an airbag system is supposed to work by carrying the victim to the surface.

What have we learned from this Case Study?

The great thing about the backcountry skiing community is that everyone is keen to share new information and learn more about safety in the field. With each incident we learn more and though every death hits home for each and every one of us, we can pull something new away and hopefully prevent future deaths.

In this case, we have learned that wearing the crotch strap is extremely important when using an airbag backpack. The failure to use the crotch strap can lead to a worse outcome than no wearing one at all because it can become restricting to both your body’s movement and your airway.

We highly recommend researching what type of crotch or leg strap features any airbag pack you may be interested in buying has and to always wear the straps when skiing in avalanche terrain. 

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10 thoughts on “One Airbag Feature You Need To Use That You Probably Don’t

  1. If I was using a lifesaving device, I would read the instruction manual to find out how to wear it properly. Using the crotch strap is required, at least according to the manual for the BCA Float 22, p7.

  2. “To say that this skier’s failure to use the crotch strap was ignorant or careless would be a misconception.” No, it is not a misconception. If they didn’t know that the strap was there, how to use it, or its importance, then they were ignorant. If they knew about it, yet chose not to use it, they were careless.

  3. One factor may be the ratio between waist and chest size. If you have a much smaller waist than your chest then the belt is more unlikely to ride up if it is done up tightly over few layers of clothing.

  4. Nice work. I suspect that part of the reason crotch straps weren’t spoken of is that we had no evidence (until recently) that they actually effected outcomes. Intuitively it made sense, but anecdotally no one was reporting that it was a key component to their survival.

    I hope that making these straps easy to buckle and unbuckle, while remaining sturdy enough to withstand the forces in an avalanche, will be an important design consideration going forward. The inconvenience they pose when putting on and taking off your backpack is the most common reason I see cited for not using the strap.

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