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Avalanche Airbag Usage and Risk Attitudes of Backcountry Skiers and Snowboarders in the American West

Published:March 14, 2023DOI:


      Backcountry skiers and snowboarders are increasingly using avalanche airbags to improve safety. New safety devices can cause risk compensation, the concept in which users take more risks given the larger safety margin provided by the device. This may limit overall benefits. We sought to elucidate attitudes toward risk-taking behaviors and risk compensation in backcountry users relating to avalanche airbags.


      A convenience sample of 144 backcountry skiers and snowboarders was surveyed after a backcountry tour in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah and the Tetons of Wyoming during the winter 2020–21 season. Demographic and experiential data were compared with risk propensity scores and attitudes toward risk compensation. Respondents were stratified into high-, medium-, and low-risk groupings based on risk propensity scores and whether an airbag was carried.


      Thirty-two (22%) respondents carried an airbag. Airbag users were more likely to endorse risk compensation behavior, ski terrain over 30 degrees, and fall into the high-risk cohort. The high-risk cohort was also more likely to endorse risk compensation behavior than medium- and low-risk individuals.


      Risk compensation was more prevalent in 2 groups: 1) those carrying an airbag and 2) those falling within the high-risk cohort. Given the prevalence of avalanche airbags, risk compensation should be considered alongside other human factors in avalanche safety and education so that users can mitigate these effects. Although risk compensation appears to be occurring, the magnitude of this effect remains unknown and likely does not obviate the safety benefits of the airbag altogether.


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