Mystery Ranch Blackjack Airbag Backpack

Mystery Ranch Blackjack, Blsiter Gear ReviewMystery Ranch Blackjack

Volume: 2,600 cu. in. / 43 L

Weight: 7.8 lbs. / 3.5 kg, with Airbag kit

Dimensions: “Versatile and compressible”

Days Tested: 100+

MSRP: $1,025

Airbag backpacks have been getting a lot more attention in recent years as another avalanche snow safety tool. While the Swiss Avalanche Institute has been researching them since 1991—with compelling survival data—more and more anecdotes about lives saved by airbags have been appearing.

For those not acquainted avalanche airbags, the idea is to decrease the density of the rider relative to the snow around him or her, since, in an avalanche, less dense objects end up on the surface. The airbag adds volume without much mass, effectively decreasing the density of a rider and helping him end up on top.

I’ve been interested in trying them for eight or nine years now, and I’ve tried several models, including an older style ABS Vario and the BCA Float 30. I’ve played with friends Mammut Airbag pack and a BCA Float 36.

The problem I have encountered so far is that the design of these packs seemed to revolve around the airbag first and the functionality of the pack second. As a result, I’d often leave my airbag at home in favor of a pack better suited for what I was doing, be it a bigger, lighter pack for longer days with more climbing, or a small simple pack for average ski touring days.

The Mystery Ranch Blackjack, however, seems to break this pattern, taking a well-designed, versatile pack and incorporating an airbag.

I’ve spent the past 11 months and more than 100 ski days using my Blackjack for just about everything: lift-serve skiing; sled skiing; bootpacking; sidecountry laps; travel to South America; long, glacier-based, ski-plane-drop-off trips; and several extended self-support ski touring/winter-camping trips. I’ve even used it for summer camping and packrafting trips, and it’s become my carry-on bag for all of my travel. More than anything else, though, I’ve spent my time ski touring with it here in Alaska.

At $1,025, the cost of the Blackjack does seem steep, at least initially. But I suppose you get what you pay for, and a big part of that is the airbag system, so let’s start there.

Mystery Ranch Blackjack, Deployed, Blister Gear ReviewAirbag System

The Blackjack uses the WARY Airbag System, which uses a single airbag system (similar to the BCA packs) instead of the dual, slightly higher-volume ABS system (150 L for BCA, Snowpulse, and WARY vs. 170 L for ABS), or the head protection style bag of the Snowpulse 2.0 packs. But the system is simple and intuitive. Pulling large T-handle (that stores neatly in it’s own pocket) on left shoulder strap deploys the airbag. After reading the manual once, I could rebuild the system after detonation in about 10 minutes.

I should note that last winter some Blackjacks had delay issues when deploying the airbag for the first time, because of some kind of O-ring issue from WARY. I do not know the technical details, but Mystery Ranch sent e-mails to all Blackjack owners with instructions to detonate packs immediately. I did, and my pack had a delay of about 15 minutes. Not cool. At that point, I had toured with it quite a bit, which was a little disconcerting.

To their credit, the guys at Mystery Ranch rapidly identified the issue and pre-tested subsequent packs after fixing the problem. I’m told that there have been zero delays on second detonations and on new packs.

I’ve fired mine four times since that first delayed event (to test the system and to depressurize for travel), and the bag release has been instantaneous, as it should be. Four other friends of mine also own this pack, and I was the only one with a delay on first opening. My understanding is that all packs since that initial run no longer have issues and are extensively tested.

When it comes to refills, I’ve had good luck at any location that refills BCA or Snowpulse packs, including while skiing in Chile and Argentina. It is also easy to remove the regulator portion of the bottle so that you can travel with an empty tank. In the TSA monitors, it then looks like a water bottle, and agents seem reassured when they can look into the empty bottle.

The airbag system is easily removable, and I’ve read rumors on Internet forums that additional packs might be built to which the WARY system can be transferred.



This point is important to me. It’s something that occurred to me halfway through the season last year, when I realized I’d taken my Blackjack every day I’d skied.

While some days involve bigger objectives or more questionable overall snowpack than others, it’s philosophically troubling to me to have an avalanche accessory that I take out only on the “big days,” and I realize now that to some degree I used to treat my airbag packs like that because I didn’t like carrying them if I couldn’t justify the need. This seems to imply that I take the airbag when I’m accepting more risk. Is this the first step toward blurring the distinction between carrying the airbag because I’m planning on taking more risk, versus taking more risk because of the airbag? If I ever slipped into the latter mindset, I think it would nullify any survival benefits the equipment might have…or worse. It seems better to have a great ski pack that comes on every trip no matter what, and secondarily, has an airbag in case the need arises.


10 comments on “Mystery Ranch Blackjack Airbag Backpack”

  1. Hey Adam, Thanks for reading. I haven’t tried this year’s BCA packs yet. They look good. I think one of my partners is getting one soon and I can update here if I get my hands on it. Have a great winter. Paul

  2. Hi Paul,

    Where did you end up refilling the canister in Argentina? this is where I mostly do my touring and that’s a big concern for me. I’m in the process of choosing my first Airbag Backpack, and was thinking about the snowpulse pack, but after reading your review I might change my mind. Let me know, thanks!

  3. Hi Pepe,

    I’m not sure if this will always work but I called a few places and ended up talking to BCA and got in contact with their rep in Santiago. My understanding was that he’s hoping to do refills through a new shop there but I don’t know if/when that will happen. I think that any snowpulse, WARY (MR), or BCA pack can be filled by the same type of equipment so that might not influence your decision too much between a snowpulse and MR pack. Have a great winter. Paul

  4. Hi Paul,
    thanks for the excellent review, specially the general thoughts on pack quality and it’s importance for having the airbag on you on all days out.
    I am in Europe, where Mystery Ranch isn’t available, but I know the quality from my old DANA pack. Here, ABS or Snowpulse would be the obvious choices. I trust their systems, but dislike their packs.
    On the Mystery ranch packs, the airbag sits all way up on the top of the pack, unlike ABS (two bags at the sides) or Snowpulse (a U-shaped bag, around the head). To me, this seems to increase the chance of the airbag floating on the avalance, while the head is slill getting buried. Do you have any thoughts on that?
    Cheers, Felix (Hamburg, Germany)

  5. Hey Felix, Thanks for reading and for your comments. My understanding is that all of the current airbag designs provide enough bouyancy to help keep someone on top in the event of an avalanche. I’m not aware of any data or studies showing real evidence that one style of bag is superior to another. I’ll keep reading on the topic too. Cheers, Paul

  6. Hi Paul,

    Great review, I agree that an airbag pack needs to work as a pack first otherwise something like the Wary AviVest would be the way to go:

    Since I happen to be near Bozeman at the moment, I’m going to swing by and have a chat with MR about their packs, seems like a good option based on your detailed review.

    Thanks again!

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