Avalanche airbags gain national media spotlight

National media outlets have been abuzz this week over avalanche airbags. There is an upside and downside to all the coverage industry experts tells SNEWS.

National media outlets have been abuzz this week over avalanche airbags after an avalanche over President’s Day weekend killed three skiers in Washington, sparing a fourth who credited the device for saving her life.

From CNN and NPR to NBC and USA Today, avalanche airbags and winter safety are making headlines.

It’s the second wave of national coverage for avalanche airbags after a video of a snowboarder surviving an avalanche went viral on the Internet earlier this winter.

The recent attention to the products has both an upside and downside for winter safety and the outdoor industry, said Bruce Edgerly, co-founder of Backcountry Access.

“The upside is that we now have a tipping point in consumer awareness of avalanche airbags,” he said. They are now seen as extremely effective tools — every bit as important as a beacon, shovel, and probe. And those who were aware of the technology, but skeptical about their applicability in North America, are most likely changing their minds.

“The downside is that equipment is often portrayed as more glamorous than the fundamental aspects of safety, such as knowledge, good planning and terrain selection,” Edgerly said. “This education message can be lost in the background, especially in the national media, where every second is precious and attention spans are short.”

The media exposure comes on the heels of more outdoor manufacturers, such as The North Face, Dakine and Ortovox, joining Backcountry Access and Mammut in the airbag market. At Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012, manufacturers told SNEWS airbag sales are on the rise as the equipment gets lighter, easier to use, and less expensive. (Click here to read SNEWS coverage of the latest airbags and winter safety gear debuted at the show.)

Edgerly said airbag sales had been on the rise in the United States before the recent media blitz, but there could be another bump. Earlier this year in Europe, a rash of publicity of an Austrian avalanche accident involving Dutch Prince Friso, whose rescuer used an airbag to stay on top of the debris, “has cleaned out our European distribution center in Salzburg,” Edgerly said.

Outdoor retailers told SNEWS they’ve seen an uptick in consumers interested in the airbags, both because of the recent news and because more options are coming to market. (Click here to read the SNEWS Retail College chapter on “How to Sell Winter Safety Gear,” including airbags.)

“A lot of people are coming in wanting to know how they work,” said Kevin O’Hara, store manager for Tahoe Mountain Sports in Kings Beach, Calif. “They’re still relatively new to U.S. consumers and there are a few new different designs out there. It’s almost a James Bond-like product, very techie, so they want to learn about it.”

On Tuesday, Tahoe Mountain Sports featured the recent national news coverage on its blog, providing additional information about airbags, along with links to its products for sale.

Consumer interest in airbags has been more concentrated in the in the West, or those who travel there, where avalanches conditions are more prevalent, said Mike Donohue, co-owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vt. It’s the first year his store is carrying the products, and mostly consumers are asking questions, he said.

“They’re definitely the wave of the future,” he said, but for many consumers who head into the backcountry, they’re still too expensive, running $700 to $1,000.

An example of that, Donohue said: “We’ve sold one airbag (in 2012), but we’ve sold 500 climbing skins.”

Airbags don’t make skiers invincible. Much of the national media has neglected the story of a sidecountry skier in Telluride, Colo., who died in an avalanche Feb 13, despite, according to officials, wearing and deploying an airbag. The American Avalanche Association has recorded 18 avalanche deaths so far this 2011/12 season, seven fatalities ahead of this time last season, which eventually saw a total of 25 deaths.

“We need to keep focused on the importance of education, and resist the temptation to rely solely on equipment to address risk in the backcountry,” Edgerly said. “The best alternative is to stay out of avalanches in the first place. This is done by learning how to interpret avalanche bulletins and riding in terrain that is appropriate to the conditions. There is no substitute for taking an avalanche course and gaining knowledge from those with more experience.”

–David Clucas