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Avalanche airbags blow up winter safety market

With so many consumers heading into the winter backcountry and sidecountry, outdoor manufacturers are introducing more snow safety products, including a bevy of brands entering the avalanche airbag pack market.

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Avalanche beacons, shovels and probes have been the go-to trio of winter safety products when heading into the backcountry. But as more enthusiasts and weekend warriors venture into avalanche-prone areas — some just steps from the resorts — manufacturers are responding with a bevy of new products, spurring a rush toward avalanche airbags.

“Folks are accessing steeper, more dangerous terrain, easier,” said Stephen Barnes, senior product manager for equipment at The North Face. “And, with that, more people are letting their guard down. We’ve seen accidents and fatalities on the rise, so there’s a big opportunity in snow safety gear to produce and tailor the equipment to where they are going.”

An avalanche of airbags

At Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, both The North Face and Dakine revealed partnerships with ABS Avalanche Airbag System to debut new avy packs for 2012/13. On the heels of the show, Ortovox announced an agreement with ABS to integrate the airbag technology into some of its packs for 2013.

The airbags, which can be quickly inflated by users to keep themselves on top of sloughing snow in an avalanche, will be the future for backcountry winter packs and soon will be deemed essential gear, manufacturers told SNEWS.

“They are becoming a tried-and-proven system of keeping you on the surface,” Barnes said, noting that the survival rate is 90 percent among avalanche victims not buried, according to the American and Swiss avalanche associations.

The North Face, Dakine and Ortovox will join Backcountry Access and Mammut with avalanche airbag products serving U.S. retailers — the latter two, which were also at Winter Market, revealed updates for 2012/13 at the show.

“It used to be just Europeans and some North American snowmobilers who were using airbags here in the U.S.,” said Bruce Edgerly, co-founder and vice president of marketing for Backcountry Access, which wrapped up its fifth season of exhibiting its line of Float airbags at Winter Market. “But I think they are starting to come of age here, with a lot of backcountry skiers really starting to catch up on the benefit.”

Edgerly said BCA is updating its line of airbags for 2012/13, with larger sizes than the brand has offered in the past in the new Float 22, 32 and 42. Mammut, which had been building its line of airbags with Snowpulse, acquired the brand this summer, and debuted two new packs from the partnership at Winter Market with the Ride R.A.S. 22 and 30. One of the top features in the Snowpulse design is the ability to move the airbag system from pack to pack, and also to empty the canister for air travel, and refill it at paintball or SCUBA shops. Mammut is working on an international directory of ski town “filling stations” for just such use.

The North Face not only revealed its new Patrol 24 ABS Pack (MSRP $999) at Winter Market, but will bring the airbag technology to its new Powder Guide ABS Vest (MSRP $1,999) too. The North Face plans to set up a replacement canister (MSRP $40-50) exchange program through its stores and specialty retailers, and has launched a Know Boundaries snow safety public relations initiative to help skiers and snowboarders try to avoid getting caught in slides in the first place.

Dakine brings its new Altitude Series of airbag packs to keep pace with what it calls one of the fastest growing segments of the winter pack market. “Our athletes and loyal Dakine users – including patrollers and mountain guides – are asking us to improve on what is currently in the market,” said Dave Bisset, Dakine senior product manager.

New Avalungs, anchors and beacons

Beyond airbags, SNEWS noted at Winter Market the trend of more manufacturers addressing winter safety in some fashion, many with new products in the segment that are lighter, less expensive and easier to use.

Black Diamond’s AvaLung returned to the market with improvements, after last year’s product recall. The technology provides a breathing system via a tube in the pack’s shoulder strap to draw oxygen from the surrounding snowpack for nearly an hour’s worth of air. Seven new packs from the 11-liter Bandit to the 43-liter Anarchist (MSRPs $189-$289) include the technology in the Avalung series. Black Diamond redesigned the Avalung mechanism to fit deeper inside the pack to prevent possible discomfort, built the device with more durable plastic, improved flow rates and added its latest active suspension system to the packs. “There’s definitely a mindset today of ‘what can my pack do for me beyond carrying my gear,’” softgoods category director Nathan Kuder said.

With an eye toward making winter safety more accessible both in price and ease of use, Ortovox unveiled its latest avalanche beacon at Winter Market, the Ortovox Zoom (MSRP $249). The new beacon combines visual and acoustic search with direction and distance indicators that are more intuitive, company officials claim, to a broader audience.

Cascade Design’s MSR brand plans for a future expansion into snow tools with the first update since 1987 of its Coyote Snow Picket (2-foot, 3-foot; MSRPs $30-$40) and a new MSR Snow Fluke (small, large; MSRPs $40-$50). Both are used to anchor an alpinist’s ascent or descent on steep snowy slopes, or to hold down gear or a tent. The updated Snow Picket will add a reinforced end to lessen damage from hammering and a bright red pointed end for quick reference on which side goes down when it’s used vertically.

— David Clucas and Peter Kray