An airbag isn’t any good if you leave it at home in your gear cupboard. Is Arc’teryx‘s Voltair good enough to use it every day? IFMGA guide Martin Chester finds out
This is not our first acquaintance with the Arcteryx Voltair bag. Will Robson did a great job in our initial review so that saves me any long winded need to repeat the technical spec here. But I wanted to see how this particular model compared in real use – now that the initial hype has calmed down and air-bags are part of our every-day. Or are they?
When it comes to the new religion of avalanche packs, I am an agnostic theist. Sure – I am aware that there are loads of packs to choose from, but I am not sure any of them are always worth the weight, bulk or discomfort. I also have a dirty little secret to share by way of a confession: I often decide not to take my avi-pack for the tiniest of ridiculous reasons (the shoulder strap is uncomfy, the pack is too crowded to fit my axe inside; I just can’t be done with the extra weight today). Daft? Maybe. But the best pack in the world is no use if it is in your cupboard at home. The end result is that I err towards being a keen user for lift served free-riding, but less convinced for lightweight days of ski-touring. So far . . .
The Big Issues:
To use one, you have to decide to carry one, and airbags are still quite heavy. The new Voltair 20 pack from Arc’teryx weighs in at 3235g. This compares to the lightest compressed gas airbags (the Ortovox AvaBag 22 @ 1950g) as an extra 1.3kg on your back. Compare this to my favourite touring pack (Blue Ice White Tiger @ 1.1kg) and we are carrying an extra 2.1kg of avalanche safety kit. Now I don’t ever plan on getting avalanched, so when I am chopping my ski-touring toothbrush in half to save weight, it becomes tricky to justify taking the 2kg “lucky brick” with me. That is 2kg of extra kit I don’t plan to use, hope not to need, and can do without if I just make sensible decisions instead . . .
But the stats for avalanche airbags really stack up for preventing burial in a flowing slide. Dr. Pascal Haegeli recently reported an 83% chance of survival with an airbag, compared to 56% without. So, assuming you wear one properly and pull the handle in your moment of need, you just got an extra 27% chance of survival.
Failure to pull in an avalanche is a real problem with airbags. The Voltair’s handle is easy to grip, and the red cross/green light system clearly indicated whether the system is activated or not.
The number one killer is asphyxiation and, by increasing your volume with a 150 litre balloon, you become a big lump and stay on the surface above all the smaller lumps in the pack. Staying on top means less snow inhaled and less burial = less asphyxiation and no need to search.
For me, that is a huge vote for airbags!
But airbags are no guarantee, and are unlikely to work in terrain traps. In fact, the stats are bleak in terms of trauma, as some 25% of avalanche victims are killed by a battering, rather than a burial. Sure, I suspect time will deliver stats to show that being on the surface reduces trauma too – but in the meantime I like the idea that the bag inflates around your head and neck area. That seems to offer some protection and that makes good sense to me.
So let’s just assume that we have all decided the weight is worth it. Battery powered airbags offer a host of advantages: they allow you to practice as often as you like and pull in confidence, without hesitation, every time. With a gas powered bag there will always be the “is this the one?” decision, which may prevent you pulling until it is too late. With a battery pack you can pull, for real or in practice, as often as you like. I just think you are way more likely to pull the handle…
The Voltair mid-inflation
The Devil in the details:
The first thing to mention is that Arc’teryx have gone out of their way to make a great pack, that contains an avalanche airbag – and that shines through as a success for me. The usable volume of the Voltair 20 is a large tardis-like empty compartment. This is complemented by “just enough” of a tool pocket and small zip pocket for valuables and lippy. Perfect! It is one of the first 20l avi-packs that I could actually fit all my guiding kit in for a day or two of proper touring. As always, it may get tricky to get the axe inside, but there are neat fixtures and fitting on the pack, exactly as you would expect.
Plenty of room for your most important kit. Or just another pack of Mars bars
In fact, “just enough” is a massive complement in this over-engineered world of pointless features and Arc’Teryx are the masters of the perfunctory: The waist belt has a proper buckle; the crotch strap is stripped down yet functional without being overly heavy, over engineered, or complex. The cunning clip is just like my ice-screw clippers – and works a treat, even with gloves on. The shoulder straps are comfy enough to forget this is an avi-pack (and that is not always the case with a massively engineered mechanical monstrosity over one shoulder).
This particular demo model arrived in the post, without instructions, and I have no idea when it was last charged. Ah-ha, I thought, this could be a sneaky twist to the test. I’ll see what I (and the kids) can do without a clue, or even charging the battery. I need not have doubted Arc’teryx as the Apple of the avi-bag world. Everything was intuitive and simple. We were able to use, deploy, deflate, re-pack and re-use the pack several times, despite an amber charge light and little or no clues as to what we were doing. This is good . . . really good!
In fact, the similarity to Apple did not stop there, as the battery and charging pack comes in super stylish boxes. It is this attention to detail that really impresses – with a charger that is set up with all you need from Japan to Jiehkkevárri and every adapter in-between. A quick charge until the light is green and you are good to go.
The Voltair ships with every adaptor you might need to charge it, whether you’re in Japan or Jiehkkevárri
The fan is incredibly noisy, but so what. The bag inflates suitably quickly and feels pretty bombproof. The fan then continues topping up the pressure, so it could handle a nick or a tear – another plus for battery systems! The deflation tube is anchored inside the pack and provides a super quick way to deflate and allow re-packing of the bag in no time. No Velcro horrors and rippy zips on this pack. A secure catch holds all in place as you re-stow and re-close ready for the next time. It really is as good as it gets . . .
The handle is simple to use and simple to pull. They even add extra holes on the handle so you can fix a leash if you wish. The cunning twist (excuse the pun) is that you can even pull the handle in the locked off position if you really need (and you know how). Just don’t tell your mates in the lift . . . Make use of the on/off master switch when the pack is net needed, but remember to check you have it turned on. Here there are LEDs on the pack to display the status, but I see a time in the future when transceivers and avi-packs will integrate for checks (and even battery power).
Green for go – it’s obvious when the system is armed and ready for deployment
Of course, another classic benefit of battery over gas is that this is TSA compliant and you can take it as your cabin baggage. I would still be dubious about this, check in advance, and get some paperwork as proof – as some airlines are jumpy about phone batteries, let alone this über brick we are packing here. And before you ask, so long as there is no current, that massive battery should not affect your compass bearing. That would be awkward . . .
The Arc’teryx Voltair 20 is a great pack, as well as an avalanche airbag.
It is functional and comfortable to wear, with less bulky shoulder straps than most and tons of available volume inside. That matters, as you have to choose to wear it. Every little decision helps to tip the balance and make the weight of these packs worth carrying. The best airbag in the world is no use in the cupboard at home!
Failure to pull is a real issue. In my mind this is less likely with battery systems and least likely with the Arc’teryx packs.
This all adds up to set the bar for this genre of avi-packs. It is also the first I have seriously considered using for late-season touring (rather than just early season free-ride). So we have come full circle and, when it comes to this particular pack, I am now a believer! That might just save my life one day . . .
Martin Chester is an IFMGA Guide and Backcountry Editor for Fall-Line Magazine. Find out more at martinchester.co.uk.