Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review of the BCA Float 32

This blog has posted about avalanche airbags since 2009 so half a decade already. It started off as me sharing my research when I was looking for an airbag system for myself.  Since I bought my first avalanche air bag back in 2010 I have not been out on a single outing without it. Once I own it I would feel like a first class idiot if I got caught in a bad one “the-very-day-I-didn’t-bring-my-pack”… So being on the compulsive side of things it’s all or nothing. The problem I have with approaching this any other way is that, for the days I decide to NOT carry one, I would have to KNOW that I am not going to face any avalanches. If I knew that…
Optimal usage rates may be debatable stuff. The one thing that in my opinion is NOT debatable is that everybody that goes out in the BC in winter should absolutely have an avy back pack. For a quick overview of the underlying principle of these click here, and here for animations of avalanche releases. If you do not want to read too much about the underlying principles then know that the airbag systems rely on the “inverse segregation principle” which in really short means “bigger stuff stays on top”. In an avalanche you can then see the benefit of becoming “bigger stuff” when your airbag inflates.
Avalanche bags have been around for a very long time, especially in Europe. We are now to a point where I think it’s safe to say that there is a consensus: You are safer with one than without. So why isn’t everyone using one of these? Two enemies: Price and weight. More on that below.
Back Country Access - BCA is a company that for a great many years have pioneered or improved on a great deal of back country safety products. It is one of those companies that truly understand their users and the intended (and, at times, unintended) usages of their products. With now half a decade on the airbag market they have been through a fair amount of trial and error and in the process learnt a lot and it shows in their avy packs.

The BCA Float 32
This pack was introduced for the 2012/2013 season so not new, but not geriatric either. As the name indicates it’s a 32 liter pack - 1,593 cu inches. So what does 32 liter translate into? Everything you’ll need on your day tour and then some. Enough for a week on a European hut to hut (food and bedding provided by the hut). Enough for a 2 – 3 day tour if you pack right. Basically more than you need on the vast majority of your tours and then some. Is 32 liter overkill for a day tour? Sure it is. However unless you want to buy a quiver of these I always recommend to go bigger than you need for day touring. In this case it is really a no brainer because the weight is so low on this system that you’ll save marginally on that with a smaller pack while still cutting yourself off from some options. The verified weight of the entire system including cylinder is 6.6 lbs.
Recommended Use: backcountry skiing, heli skiing, snowmobiling and snowboarding (with minor rework of some straps, more on that later).
I am not going to duplicate all the specs, for all the details go to BCA’s Float 32 page.

Notable features and design considerations

Inflation: Compressed air cylinder. Ease of use, ease of traveling and low refill cost… Operated by a trigger that can be placed on either the left or right backpack shoulder strap. Air intake is boosted by a venturi inflation system that allows full inflation of the 150 liter bag in about 3 seconds. The trigger is mechanical so no explosives and so much easier to travel with as you avoid all the travel restrictions explosives comes with.
Trigger access: The trigger is by default on your left strap for right handed operation. If you’re a leftie, just switch it to the right strap. The strap remaining unused can host your hydration tube.
Clam shell: Some object to this design as they find it sloppy, floppy and, if you don’t pay attention, add to the risk of losing your stuff on the hill. In this case I like it because it’s a sturdy construction but also in general because it allows me to select my entry point into my bag. I always pack the same way so I know where the stuff is in my pack, the shell construction allows me to make my own 4 – 6 inches opening anywhere I want. I like that.
Frameless: Here again there are pros and cons. Frameless is shape-less and so feels floppy to some. On the other hand frameless saves the weight of the frame… When it comes to these packs there are really only two barriers to a wider usage and that’s price and weight. Anything BCA can do to eliminate weight is extremely valuable and may trump some comfort considerations. Regarding price – we’ll get back to that. Soon.
Wet compartment: This is a great feature that I now make a necessary requirement. I will only consider bags that have them. You put your shovel and probe here and on the up track, I put my skins there. Very convenient.
Alloy waist buckle: I hear a fair amount of grumbling about these. First I will state the obvious, it is for security reasons it’s there – its main objective is not to be easy, comfortable or user friendly – it’s there to save our life when time comes. Second, not only are we skiers but we are back country skiers. We are resourceful people. Most of us have made stepping in and out of tech bindings a second nature thing, surely we can figure out how to get that miserable alloy waist buckle on in two seconds flat- blindfolded! This is how the vast majority of avy back packs are buckled and the last thing we want at the critical moment (which has been described as “the hand of God” lifting you out of the avalanche) is to have your plastic buckle snap...
Helmet: The helmet hammock has two positions. One half way down your back and one on top. Use this last one whenever you want to attach your skis and your helmet to the pack.
Diagonal ski carry: This works fine for skis and is pretty straight forward. The only issue (and this is the only problem area of this bag) is if you’re a snowboarder. The snowboard straps are meant for horizontal carry. Not what most of you guys will want to do so you will probably have to customize this with some added straps of your own.
Cool extras:
There is a fleece (or microfiber) lined goggle pocket that will keep your eyewear protected from scratches. The pocket is on top so you’ll always have easy access to your goggles.
Waist pocket: Camera – glasses –nutrition gels, bars or whatever you need handy.
The easiest to use ice axe holders 
The bottom line:
This is one of the absolutely best avalanche airbags I’ve seen so far. Why? Because:
It is by far the best standard back pack offered with an avy airbag system. To get anything similar you would have to buy a system that cost a lot more, toss their standard pack and buy a compatible zip-on that you’d like. By the time you are done with this little process you are very close to paying twice the price of the Float 32.
It offers the ease of refill and travel that comes with a compressed air system. Not only do you have a lot more options on where to refill, the cost of refilling compressed ($5 – $30) air is a fraction of the cost of refilling gas cartridges.
BCA’s long experience with the BCA Stash products is definitely showing in this very high quality pack. In December of 2010, I wrote: “It is possible that a few years from now, as more research and data comes to light, either or both BCA’s Float30 and Snowpulse’s bags will come out on top but that day is not today.” Well, today (September 2014) I feel that day is here; the BCA has proven itself over the years and the product improvements are such that I now feel this is the best value in airbag systems available anywhere. The price including filled cartridge is $725.00.

BCA has achieved a major feat by successfully resolving the tension between weight and price without sacrificing functionality.  This is the best slayer of the Weight/Price monster that I know about. And that’s important because the more back country skiers use these types of bags the more lives will be saved. 

The bag

The cylinder kit

To the right (user's left) the trigger.
The other strap can host your hydration tube.

Goggle pocket on top - lined with felt.

The "wet compartment" for shovel,
probe etc and your skins on the up track

Main compartment in clam-shell design... also hosts some important elements
 of the safety system...'s the detail of that...

The opening in the zipper that will let the air bag out
when the time comes.

What the airbag looks like. It comes with...

...great and easy to perform
folding instructions.

The helmet hammock allows you...

to carry your helmet half way down your pack...

..or on top. This helps keeping your helmet
out of the way when you carry your skis diagonally.

Efficient, simple and easy to use axe holders... with an axe in. 

Hip belt pocket. Carry your camera, nutrition
or anything else you need handy.

Alloy waist buckle: Easy as 1 - 2 - 3?

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