Where to Buy
The Bottom Line: Once you have taken a AIARE/AST Level 2 Course, and Wildness First Aid, this is a worthwhile purchase for that extra bit of peace of mind. In the right circumstance it can definitely improve your chances of survival, and the ability to test and activate regularly without expensive refills is a great perk.
The Halo 28, and it's larger sibling the Saga 40, are Black Diamond's entry into the avalanche airbag category. They have been around for a little while now, but when they were launched they were assumed to be revolutionary. Arc'teryx had actually been experimenting with a working prototype for a few years, they just didn't get it to market as fast. Unlike most avalanche bags that used single use cannister of gas to expand the bag itself, the Black Diamond Jetforce system uses battery powered fans. Pieps, now owned by Black Diamond, sells the same bags with different nomenclature. But they are identical.
So how do the bags do? First I will offer a strong opinion. No one should own an avalanche airbag without first taking a Avalanche Safety Training Level 1 AND Level 2 courses. Airbags work best if you know when you are in a position to activate them. This requires in-depth training, and knowledge of what you are getting yourself into. Most people reading this will probably be familiar with this, but just in case: Avalanche airbags are not silver bullets. Avalanches have killed people who are wearing these bags, mostly due to non-inflation (Hanging Lake 2017 being the most well known in my area). Like all tools, the airbags are only as good as the user. If you want to stay alive, you are better off spending $500 on extra knowledge than $1100 on a fancy tool that delivers mixed results.
I have used the Halo 28 on a couple of ski touring days in the Rockies, and I've used the larger Saga 40 Avalanche Airbags in Rogers Pass skiing some entry-level steep lines in Rogers Pass. Conditions varied, though this didn't really effect the overall performance of the packs aside how many extra layers could be carried.
The fit of the packs is accurate relative to the rest of the Black Diamond medium and large sizing. They are surprisingly comfortable and breathable on the back panel for a winter pack. I certainly found them rather comfortable to wear. The ample hip belt helps carry the increased weight well. The bags are burly and feel super durable with robust materials all around. The waist and crotch buckles are easier to operate than with other avi bags I've seen. The crotch strap in particular, which stops the pack from being ripped off your body when you're being chucked around inside a slide, sits in a hand compartment and is easily clipped through the leg. It's simple and can be deployed in seconds if you suddenly realize you managed to walk onto a woomphing snowpack somewhere you shouldn't be and you don't want to unstrap the whole bag or lift your leg.
Skiing with the bag is decent: I have no complaints for ascents, and they carried well thanks to the excellent hip belt. They suffered a little on descents when compared to non-airbag packs. When compared to my Arc'teryx Quintic 28 with a huge the body for example, the Halo and Saga are definitely easier to feel when taking deep turns. Especially the Saga. With that said, the Saga skis a little better than any 40-liter bag I've used for overnights, so it is by no means bad.
The Halo 28 is larger then it's internal volume suggests. It appears to be a 35-40 liter bag from the outside, but I can get exactly the same amount of gear into it as my Arc'teryx Quintic 28. But it is advertised as a 28, so I suppose that shouldn't be surprising. I carried a tiny packable wind shell, a soft shell, a hard shell, a down jacket, a 1-liter Nalgene, mitts, a first-aid kit, a repair kit, a mini bivy, and a harness and crevasse rescue kit. When I put all my layers in the pack on the ascent, I really had to force the zipper shut. In hindsight, I should have left the hard shell at home, but that's not that much stuff.
The Saga is more around a 35 liter size, so it is still good for day trips and possibly a bit small for overnights. I would advise anyone trying to decide between the two to lean toward the larger size unless you are minimalist or hitting the slackcountry.
Getting into the packs are easy. Rear openings make everything accessible, and they keep the back panel out of the snow, a standard ski pack feature. The air bag takes up the side and top, leaving the center portion to stow your gear. This layout normally distributes weight rather well, improving uphill and downhill comfort.
The avalanche kit pocket in the front is adequately sized for a Black Diamond Evac 7 shovel and a BCA saw and probe. It has its own distinct white zipper on the red packs, and red on the black packs, for extra visibility in panic moments. It's a bit tight, but I consider this an advantage. I am not a fan of avi pockets that carry more than the needed equipment. Extracting the gear is rapid and easy, which is the most important part.
There are extra pockets that are easily accessed from the front as well. In the bottom is a clever storage space for the helmet holder, and the packs have a diagonal strap/ice axe loop. Both work very well. My favorite feature is the tiny pocket on the waist belt that stows the under leg strap, which is a necessary but annoying feature of avi bags. It is well stored, and it stays out of the way until you need it, when it is easy to put on in an instant.
The single best feature for these bags is that they have more than enough charge for one full inflation just to test the system. Turning it on is simple. You press the button on the toggle for four seconds. It blinks, and then you get a green light that gently strobes. When it powers up, the fan will have a rapid activation. This is a test feature. Once it's done you can zip it back into its pocket so that it doesn't accidently deploy.
When you get to terrain you are less confident about, unzip the charge handle. Should you end up in a slide, then rip away. Or if you are like me, whip it out during aprés to liven things up and start given'r. We tested it three times before we got a half inflation, which is pretty impressive. After you use it, all you have to do is recharge, which only takes a couple of hours. If you travel for skiing, this is a huge advantage because you never have to be concerned about compressed gas. And while the goal is to never have to deploy the bag, being able to double check it is a comforting thought. It's also handy if you accidentally deploy it in the field or if you are on a multi-day trip.
The main downside about this pack is the weight. The fan and bag throw in a extra 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms). This makes both packs heavy; while they are comparable to most other models out there, it is still worth acknowledging this downside because it is noticeable coming from lighter packs. I got used to the extra weight after a few days, but it was definitely hefty.
Now for a more personal consideration. I had one immense fear about this pack: Would it make me feel invincible? I was deeply concerned it might make me less risk averse or otherwise impact on my decisions. In practice I found my concern about this pushed me to be more conservative at first. As I used the pack more often I found that I basically forgot about it.
The one major benefit is that when you are the airbag person, you rock up to the top of the line, and everyone looks around. Who best to be first and sacrificial Avalanche Poodle? It's going to be the person with the airbag, cause they have the best chance, right? The best feature of this pack is that you get to be the first one to drop a line three times in a row and enjoy all the fresh gnar you can handle. The astute among you may identify the confirmation bias at work here, but I unwisely did take advantage of this benefit.
Overall, battery powered bags are the way forward. I haven't used the Arc'teryx system, so I can't say if the Halo and Saga are the best alternatives, but I really enjoyed using them, and I would highly recommend them over other systems. I enjoyed skiing with this system, and I while I pushed it's life-saving benefits mostly out of mind, I know my family members likely felt better about it being there.
I have added a video of a snowboarder using the Black Diamond Jetforce Avalanche System.This video is textbook example of what not to do in avalanche terrain. Luckily the snowboarder survives. The snowboarder roughly sits down on what is obviously (notice the little waves, and crust looking surface on a ridge) a windslab (the feature identified by Avalanche Canada as the most dangerous on January 10, 2017, the day before this video). This shock loads the slope. Because he chose to do this inside a convex roll, the most likely place of trigger, it pulls the whole slope. Worse, he is directly above a narrow shoot with rocks and trees. If he weren't on the top of the snow, he would likely have sustained multiple injuries. The last and most egregious error belongs to his buddy that comes to rescue him. Rather than skiing down the slope that has been emptied of dangerous snow, he skis the still loaded slope directly beside the runout. It's a miracle a second avalanche wasn't triggered, which would have buried the airbag user, regardless of what he had on his back. While this video demonstrates the effective application of the technology, it should also serve as an example of what not to do in avalanche terrain.