Saturday, February 16, 2013

BCA Float pack - a month in

Ash and I have both had our (matching!  how cute....) BCA Float 32 packs for a month or so and taken them out probably 20+ days each.   Overall I think we both give them a thumbs up. 

I can't say I'm wild about the color choices, but they are distinctive.....
I have always preferred the "sack" type packs, mostly because I feel like zippers are the weak points of packs, and this has born itself out in the fact that I've only had about 3 packs in 25+ years of backcountry skiing.    I have blown zippers on pretty much every zippered product I've ever owned, and pack zippers are far more integral to performance and difficult to replace than jackets.  But the ease of access of the panel-loading type has not been lost on me, and the nature of the Float packs - in that there needs to be access to the air cylinder - lends itself to panel-loading, and the popularity of panel-loaders in general probably made that decision (by BCA) easy.

I really have had no problems with the pack.  As ski packs go it's on the big side, but I like that; I hate having to try to stuff stuff into packs (that's how I blow zippers!), and the truth is that a bigger pack (empty) only weighs ounces more than a smaller pack.  I carry an emergency kit, extra mitts, a puffy jacket, usually a camera (in this pack I carry the camera in the shoulder strap "pocket" that's intended for a hydration tube), a super warm hat with goggles tucked inside (both for extreme days), a lightly insulated shell, and of course my trusty big thermos of tea nnd my plastic gorp container.  This leaves room for my ltwt shell that I peel when I get hot on long climbs and for my skins on the last run of the day. 

 in addition, of course, to probe and shovel, in a separate big, easy-to-access pocket. 

The backpanel material is fairly snow-phobic - which is important to me - and the shape - while not as "innovative" or ergonomic as some other packs on the market now - is fine. 

The little convenient goggle pouch offers up a nice fleece-lined pocket that keeps my sandwich and other snacks nice and comfy:

I have foregone my old standard 90' of 7mm cord for unexpected belays and raps, but I think that with a bit of stuffin' that will fit (I tend to get more use out of that in the spring). 

The important bit:  the balloon and the exploding part....the system is quite easy to hook up (ie the trigger to the cylinder, and the cylinder to the balloon) despite my trepidation that I was going to blow the thing up in my face, because the cylinder comes pre-pressurized.  The red pull-tab is very prominent and easy to grab/yank; I was able to give one a yank at the trade show (well out in the hallway so as to make as impressive a display as possible) and it ballooned up ;oudly and well. I was disappointed that it's not nearly as convenient on Ash due to her smaller stature; on me the yanker is right at my chest, but on her it's down closer to her waist.  BCA is  - I think - working on a smaller torso size for the bigger pack (fwiw - our comparably-sized friend Megan got the 22L version and she finds it to fit her well, but I don't think that pack would be big enough for Ash and I).  Ash is determined to do a test blast of the pack, which I think is probably wise, and apparently a nearby scuba shop is well-accustomed to refilling these by now and it's cheap and easy. 

The way the balloon comes out is pretty clever; a velcro-closed flap protects a zipper part that is purposely un-attached:

so it guarantees an instantaneous foolproof exit of the balloon.

The waist belt uses an aluminum buckle that is quite a bit more robust than a plastic fastex buckle; it's a little awkward at first but once you get accustomed to it, it's quite user-friendly. 

The pack also comes with a strap that is intended to go around your butt/leg/crotch, but according to BCA, that's superfluous, esp given their more-robust waist buckle. 

Ash made the good point that the very-squared off top of the pack is a bit of a snow-catcher in storms and going under trees, and the snow comes off onto your neck at inopportune times......

I did a booter a few weeks ago and the slant carry system works fine.  Apparently there's a snowboard carry system - and there's a few elastic cords and toggles that may hold other things that I sorta ignore - but most b/c snowboarders are on splits and they can carry them on a slant just like the ski system. 

A lot of the airbag packs coming out now have the ability to detach the system; I understand the theory of this feature, but for us the reality is that we ski in avy terrain most of the time, and the few periods where we don't (spring corn) we barely bring a beacon and we - along with most other folks - have other packs that we can use.  As it turns out, I'm flying to ski twice in the next coupla weeks (Tahoe then Japan!) and won't be able to take it on these trips, but flying to ski is - for us - fairly rare, and to me the non-flyability is not a reason to not get one of these (and I suspect that as time goes on and these become more popular dealers will start getting wise to the opportunity of renting cannisters, or at least getting the ability to fill them). 

 Do I notice the extra weight?  Not really.  Does Ash with all of her 115 lbs?  not really.  An 3 extra pounds is chump change when it comes to what I feel is significantly higher odds of surviving a slide. 

There was some talk at the OR show about the concept of feeling somewhat bolder and taking more risks with an airbag pack vs not having one, and Ash admitted that she felt more comfortable skinning up the very-exposed Bonkers with it a few weeks ago.  But I think that adorning yourself with safety gear is natural; it's why I carry a beacon, probe, and shovel, it's why I ride (and now ski) with a helmet, I buckle my seat belt in my car, etc.  And if you use the rationale that an airbag pack will make you bolder, you should be re-thinking your decision-making process (though I do really like the concept that - unlike a beacon, probe, and shovel - with the balloon pack you are taking your safety/survival somewhat out of the hands of your partners; that's a large burden to put on them, and the odds of a successful burial recover is not only low, the prospect of a full-burial is not that appealing to me anyway; I panic when simply breathing air while scuba diving!). 

In short, I've been waiting for an airbag pack that fulfills my desires for a ski pack for a while, and the BCA Float 32 fulfills them.  There are some nuances that I've not had in a pack in the past but I'm quickly becoming accustomed to, and it's become quite natural to me already.  The BCA seems to be noticeably less-expensive than the others (Da Kine, North Face, Mammut, Ortovox, and a couple others) yet seems to provide comparable performance at a larger size.   I realized that I'd been "waiting" for a good pack that incorporated the system in a manner that was appropriate for me, and that time has come.  The only limitation that I see is that - as noted above - I think the manufacturers (and the dealers) are a little leery of investing in the inventory burden of different sizes other than those for medium-sized men.  When a more-Ash-height-appropriate torso length pack comes out we will take a close look at that. 

There is another inflation technology that is in the works now but it won't be out until Fall 2014 at the earliest and is progged to be the same weight and likely comparably-priced, so if you think you'll be skiing in avalanche terrain between now and November of 2014 these things are worth a look.

Basically, if I'm getting rolled in an avy, I don't want to feel like this guy:
so I think it's a worthy investment in money and weight to stack the odds a bit more. 

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