Backcountry Access Float 32 Pack

Despite many of our perceptions here in the US, air bag packs are nothing new: they have been around a few decades in Europe.  The original concept started in the 1970s.  In 1980, Peter Aschauer purchased the patent and started the company ABS.  The first fully functional and tested air bag was introduced at the winter ISPO in 1985.  It received a lukewarm reception at best.

Since that time things have really changed.  The theory that becoming a larger object helps you stay on top in the event of an avalanche has been pretty thoroughly testedThey are now common enough in Europe that we are getting to see some pretty reliable studies coming out on their real world effectiveness.  The numbers, to say the least, are very promising.

As a backcountry skier that makes a living working as a guide and avalanche educator, I’ve been keeping a keen eye on these backpacks for some time now.  For years I’ve wanted one, but just couldn’t bring myself to fork over the money.  Why not?  Well, because I’ve been really unimpressed with the actual pack designs.  As a working guide I need a pack that is highly functional.  It needs to carry all of my gear, and allow me to organize it and access it in a way that I’m able to function efficiently in the mountains.  As a backcountry skier I also place a high value on lightweight and comfort.  I just couldn’t bring myself to spend a significant amount of money on a pack that was not only heavy, but just looked like a terrible backpack.

That changed last year when I got to check out a prototype of the 2012-2013 BCA Float 32.  I was impressed to see that BCA had made the air bag system more compact, freeing up much needed space on the inside.  I was also thrilled to see that BCA had created a completely separate compartment for the avalanche tools (shovel, probe, and saw), something I thought was missing on the earlier Float 36.

The Float 32 arrived in mid-January this year.  I immediately unpacked it and started fiddling around with all the features, and how I would pack it.  My first impression was while it was noticeably heavier then my normal ski pack (about 4 pounds heavier on my scale) it was comfortable and seemed like a well thought out ski pack.

Since I had an avalanche class going into the field the next day, I packed it up and took it out.  Over the next week of work and touring I continued to fiddle with it and figure out how to organize all my systems.  After that week I finally had couple of down days and I realized that I hadn’t tested out the actual airbag yet.  That evening I was giving a short presentation to an Adventure Education class at Fort Lewis College.  One of the students was more than happy to volunteer to put on the pack and yank the trigger.  As expected everything worked perfectly.

Of course, now I had to get the pressurized air canister refilled.  I went to the BCA website where they’ve been thoughtful enough to include some very helpful videos on repacking the airbag and resetting the canister.  They also have a list of certified refill centers.  Price of a refill varies dramatically, so it is worth shopping around.  Our local dive shop was more than happy to refill my canister and replace the little O-ring for a very reasonable $7.  From what I’ve seen this is definitely on the low end of the current market.  Like I said before, shop around.

I’ve been using this pack for over a month now and I’m pleased to report that not only is it an airbag pack, but it is a decent ski pack as well.  I’ve found the 32 liter rating to be fairly accurate.  As a guide I tend to carry a fairly large pack while working.  Not only do I carry all the normal backcountry ski stuff such as shovel, probe, extra layer, water, food… but I also regularly carry a rescue sled, slings and carabineers, extra gloves, hats, and layers for clients, as well larger 1st aid kit and repair kit.  I’ve found that this pack is about the perfect size to carry all this gear without having a bunch of empty space left over.  This pack is big enough that with proper planning and gear selection I could easily do an overnight trip, either staying at huts or using snow shelters.  Squeezing a tent in it would probably be a little too much, though.  On personal tour days when I bring a more ‘civilian’ sized load, I’ve been happy to find that the pack compression system does a decent enough job snugging everything up and keeping the half-empty pack from getting floppy.

The overall organization of the pack is where I think it really shines.  When I’m alpine climbing I like the simplest pack possible.  My favorite packs look a lot like a plain tube with an attachment system for ice axes.  As a skier I’ve actually found that I like some of the bells and whistles: aving a “mudroom” for all the avi gear (shovel, probe, saw) is a must for me.  This stuff isn’t just for avalanche rescue, they are tools that I use throughout the day to keep in tune with the snowpack.  I’m not the type to spend a ton of time in pits, especially when I’ve got paying clients waiting for me, but I’ve found that there is significantof information you can gain from the snowpack by just constantly poking and prodding around.  Being able to quickly access this gear is important not only for me to be efficient, but more importantly, if it’s not easy, then I just won’t do it as much.   Since I use this gear so much it tends to be constantly snowy.  Having a separate compartment keeps that snow from getting all my other gear and spare layers wet.  I also really like the two organizational pockets.  The one inside the pack keeps my keys, cell phone, skin wax, multi tool and Binding Buddy where I can find them quickly.  While the “goggle pocket’ not only keeps the goggles but a handful of snacks or bars where I can quickly grab them at the transition points.  The hip belt also has a fairly large pocket on one side where I keep camera, compass, sunscreen, lip balm, and sometimes another energy bar.  Some users may wish there was a pocket on the other side too.  For me, I find the one pocket big enough for what I need at hand, and since my skiing brings me onto glaciers and into technical mountaineering terrain, I’m more than happy to have the gear loop on that side.

Other small details include an effective and simple helmet-carry sling that works well with the diagonal ski carry.  The metal waist buckle was a little fiddly at first but after a few days became second nature.

If there was one thing I could change on this pack (trust me, I can always find something) it would be the leg strap system.  I realize that most users never or rarely use this strap so most of you will be happy that it is 100% removable, but you really should use it.  There is a reason that all the packs come with some version of this strap.  Without this strap in the event of an avalanche the pack can get pulled up your body.  This upward motion of the pack combined with the metal (i.e. non-breakable/releasable) waist buckle could result in the waist belt compressing your chest as you are literally suspended from it.  This would severely compromise your ability to breathe as your chest would not be able to expand properly.  If you’re willing to carry the extra 4 pounds of the airbag itself then the extra ounce the strap may weigh is well worth it to make sure everything works properly.  Looking at it from this lens I wish that not only BCA but all the companies were not make the strap removable but actually integrated the strap directly into the hip belt.

Overall, I may have gained 4 pounds in pack weight but in return I’ve received a really good ski pack and a big piece of mind.

Ben Gardner

AIARE level 1 Course Leader

AMGA Certified Rock Guide

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