May 28 2013

Review: Oakley’s SnowMad RAS pack

Oakley’s SnowMad RAS pack. 30 liters with SnowPulse HOT technology.
Cost? Priceless if you need it.

For the moment I’ve lost track of how many companies are planning to offer a BC airbag pack. According to a catalog I was browsing last week, there will be 26 brands of airbag packs in Europe alone, or maybe that was the number of licensees for avy packs working with the original ABS. With such proliferation of the technology, it appears a lot of companies expect airbag packs to become a backcountry commodity.

In case you doubt that perspective, then how does one explain Oakley offering a BC pack designed to incorporate the SnowPulse Removable Airbag System? As the RAS name implies, the airbag system can be removed, allowing the pack to log some hours of use in the summer too. In this case, Oakley only provides the pack, one with the ability to add a rider insurance policy for avalanche safety at a later date. Since this pack wouldn’t merit a review without that option included, the rest of this review assumes the RAS has been added.

The more airbag packs become commodities, as with any other pack, the distinguishing characteristics will be defined by the system of straps, zippers, and compartments. Whether they fit your packing strategy is bound to be somewhat personal. If you’ve adopted the SnowPulse RAS as your airbag system of choice, you now have one other pack to consider.

Packing Logistics
Oakley’s SnowMad achieves easy access with compartments stacked back to back, using a clamshell zipper around the top and sides to open up and grab deep and seal back up quickly. The zippers look like they’re #8′s which isn’t the strongest size but it seems zippers in general are more reliable in recent years. Time will tell on that detail.

Space is tight, but Oakley allows good organization in spite of the airbag pouch.

The outermost panel can hold a shovel blade, but not a long shaft, or most avy probes. Those fit in the main compartment, but not without butting up against the stored airbag. With judicious packing you can get your skins in the outer panel, and a spare pair of gloves. A goggle pouch is available near the top, but there isn’t much room for it with the airbag taking the majority of the room at the top of the pack. It works for other small items though, and there’s room for a jacket, lunch, and up to a liter of water if you use a bladder. There’s a hydration port that lets you route the hose in the right shoulder strap. The airbag trigger is on the left, good for righties but not southpaws. Space-wise it’s tight, but enough.

There are straps along the sides for carrying skis A-frame style, or with a single external strap looped through the top corner slots you can carry diagonally with an adjustable loop on the lower right rear. Not a two-plank rider? SnowMad has you covered with a pair of straps on the rear to hold a snowboard vertically.

Shoulder straps are not excessively padded, but wide enough to distribute the load without digging in to your shoulders. The waist belt is similarly spartan in padding but wide enough that it distributes well, while cutting extra grams and bulk. As you would expect, the buckle is metal, and yes, there’s a leg strap to be complete in the safety department. Overall the padding and suspension would be insufficient for an overnight load, but it is just fine for a day tour.

HOT technology yields a voluminous 150 liter bag that runs partway down your backside.

The SnowPulse HOT RAS
I’m a fan of the SnowPulse airbag system for a couple of reasons. First, in the paranoid skies of Amerika, there’s no point in attracting attention to the fact that you’re carrying an air bomb in your pack, or rather, one that expands at a rate the nannycrats have decided meets their definition of explosive. For the sake of the collective if it can explode, irrespective of the probability that it won’t, it isn’t safe to fly on a plane with. I find it ironic that a safety device needs to be defused to be safe to travel with, which then renders it impotent until you re-arm it so it can fulfill its original purpose as a life saving safety pack. It can be a hassle to refill at your destination, but since resistance is futile, it can be easier to empty the canister (beforehand), declare that you’re traveling with an airbag pack and assimilate with the crowds ’til you board the plane unmolested (unless you prefer to be and then I’ve heard TSA agents are more than willing to oblige your predilection). Seriously, if this concerns you, leave the cartridge behind and arrange for one to be waiting at your destination.

With a person for perspective you can see the airbag extends below the shoulders.

The other reason is that some of the SnowPulse systems use an airbag that surrounds your head and extends down to your chest. In theory this will protect your head more and/or keep your head on top. Mammut, the licensor of SnowPulse technology calls this original configuration PAS. The SnowMad doesn’t use PAS, where the airbag expands in either side of your chest, but a simpler one called HOT technology with a shaped airbag that expands behind your head and down the sides a bit. The claim is that because the airbag expands partway down the torso it increases the odds your head will be on top when the avy monster stops flowing. Does HOT technology really work? Friends in Europe are adamant that airbags oriented lengthwise helps, but the statistics distinguishing it from simpler airbag systems are not yet established. It certainly can’t hurt, except in the way that every airbag can hurt, by tempting you to test the edge of fate a bit further.

The overall size of the pack is claimed to be 30 liters. I didn’t measure it, but it took all the stuff I normally carry, suggesting by comparison with other packs that the 30 litre figure is accurate. There wasn’t much spare room, due to the RAS pouch at the top which is about the only negative thing I can think of about the SnowMad, but it is equally true with every other airbag pack to some degree or another. Thus, the most annoying thing about the SnowMad – the volume and weight of the airbag system – is the main reason you would even consider it.

SnowMad RAS
MSRP: $ 225
Weight: 2 lbs. (950 g) (unconfirmed estimate)

Mammut RAS
Price: $450
Weight: 1 lb., 14 oz. (850 g)
Volume: 150 liters filled, ~2 liters compressed.

Mammut Compressed Air Canister
Price: $175
Weight(full): 1 lb., 6 oz. (630 g)

© 2013