Avalanche bags have seen a massive increase in usage among the ski and sled community as they’ve gotten more affordable and reliable over the years. The principle is simple; if caught in an avalanche, the victim deploys their avi-pack, and either an electric fan or a compressed gas inflates an “air bag” that increases the chances that the avalanche victim will “float” to the top of the slide, greatly increasing their chances of survival. The process is called “reverse segregation” and in a nutshell, states that “bigger particles work their way to the surface and smaller particles work their way to the bottom.”
Getting an avalanche airbag filled can be a royal pain in some places, and Alaska is one of those places. The combination of needing to use extremely high pressure gas and the fact that the gas in the cylinder needs to have next-to-no moisture in it means that smaller shops are going to have trouble filling packs if they don’t have access to a source of dry, high pressure breathing air: the kind you would find in a fire house or at a recreational scuba diving shop (such as Dive Alaska). It’s possible, although more work, to use a series of high pressure air cylinders to fill avalanche cylinders in a process called “cascading.”
How do I refill my avalanche cylinder?
Long story short, you probably don’t, and would need to take it to a dealer or a dive shop that is capable of doing the fill for you. Unless you want to spend a long, long time using a hand pump to inflate your cylinder, in the long run, it’s probably cheaper and a much better use of your time to take it to someone who does a lot of canister fills. They can then either exchange it for a full cylinder, or fill your canister while you wait.
One thing to bear in mind is that each brand of canister will require a reset process following deployment. This looks different for each brand, and being familiar with that process for your specific avalanche pack is a good idea. For example, BCA Float cylinders use a small, internal o-ring on their deployment mechanism that is quickly and easily replaced, while Snow Pulse systems will look different depending on when they were manufactured. Their current models use a copper washer and disc.
What type of gas goes in my pack?
Knowing what type of gas your avalanche airbag should contain helps greatly when trying to find somewhere to get it filled. Some of the largest brands making packs today, such as BCA’s Float system or the Snow Pulse system used in Mammut packs are filled with air. There’s older brands as well that are still in circulation, but may no longer be manufactured, that rely on air to inflate their airbags. Whether or not these brands can be filled depends on the age of the cylinder and if the parts required to reset the cylinder after deployment.
The other common means of inflation is nitrogen-filled canisters, as opposed to air-filled, such as those manufactured by ABS and Arva. The advantages of nitrogen is that it’s less affected by cold than air, and can be stored in a smaller cylinder. However, it’s also a more expensive gas to fill. Generally speaking, these canisters are unique to each individual brand, and must be exchanged with a full cylinder from an authorized dealer.
Where can I get my pack filled?
Some ski and snowmobile shops have cascade systems set up and can fill avi-bags, and it’s best to know what type of bag you have and calling in advance to ensure it can be filled or exchanged. In remote areas, there may be private individuals, mountain rescue groups, public safety teams, fire departments, etc. who will fill canisters in the interest of public safety. Another safe bet is local scuba diving shops or paintball shops; places that would have access to high pressure air and can ensure your avalanche pack will be fully filled when you hit the slopes.
Availability of dealers and service should play a role when selecting an avalanche airbag system, whether that’s in your local area, or some of the places you plan to travel to. Because you can’t fly with a compressed gas cylinder, if you plan on traveling, you’ll need to drain and de-valve your canister before getting on a plane with it.
Can I get my avalanche bag filled in Anchorage, Alaska?
Dive Alaska fills all major brands of avalanche canisters for a range of packs, including BCA, Snow Pulse, Wary, and Mammut. If it’s a compressed air cylinder, we can fill it. Give us a call today if you have any questions, and ride safe!