What role should airbags play in avalanche safety?

A harrowing first-person video of a snowboarder caught in an avalanche near Whistler went viral last week.  

The footage shows a slab of snow breaking into pieces and carrying the man down the slope, picking up speed as it goes. He was wearing an avalanche airbag backpack and managed to pull the cord just as the slide began. Luckily, he floated down with the avalanche rather than being buried under the snow.  

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Considering millions of people watched it around the globe in the first day, it might be the best advertising airbag makers could hope for.

While it certainly looks like the airbag was the reason the snowboarder floated on top of the avalanche (which is their entire purpose), it’s hard to say definitively if the outcome would’ve been different without it.
Avalanche Canada lists airbag packs as “recommended gear” on their website rather than essential gear like a transceiver, probe and shovel. However, it still warns that the equipment isn’t “a silver bullet.” It requires proper set up, education and deployment to work, and, even then, there’s no guarantee it will save your life.

One of the biggest risks of airbags though is that they will give backcountry users a false sense of security. Arguably, if you believe you’re strapped to a device that will keep you above an avalanche, you might — consciously or subconsciously — make different choices than if you didn’t have one at all.

New backcountry users — or people new to Whistler who haven’t had avalanche safety messages drilled into them — seem particularly at risk.

As many people said in the comments under the video, an airbag is useful if the user is also armed with the essential tools, avalanche education and the knowledge to choose proper terrain for the conditions. After all, even if you’re wearing an airbag, you never know when you might have to rescue someone else in your party or a complete stranger.

While some commenters said the snowboarders involved in the recent avalanche look like they might not have chosen the best terrain, other experts say they did a lot of things right.

What’s valuable is that they chose to share the video as a warning for what can happen in the backcountry. It’s one thing to learn about or hear stories of avalanches, but to watch one unfold from the perspective of the person caught in it is captivating, terrifying and effective.

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