Gear trends: Winter packs and safety for 2014/15

Leagues ahead: Increased backcountry travel and new airbag technologies spur demand for consumer education.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 21 – 25. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

As more skiers and boarders forgo lift lines and exit the gates to head into the backcountry, the definition and education of the sport and the proper gear are evolving.

That’s leaving a lot questions from consumers, and they’re coming to specialty outdoor retailers for answers.

Airbag packs burst onto the market several years ago, and are arguably one of the sources of the big backcountry buzz, even with their $1,000-plus sticker prices.

“I was concerned about stocking them at first, but they’re selling better than I thought they would,” said Andy Olpin, owner of Wilson Backcountry Sports located at the base of Jackson, Wyo.’s Teton Pass. “I don’t know if ‘popular’ is the right word, but they’re getting greatly accepted, especially when people get saved in an avalanche.”

That increase in consumer demand is leading more brands to enter the airbag arena and producing some of the Winter Market’s biggest news. Black Diamond wasn’t satisfied with the now-standard canister gas airbag system, and after more than three years in the making, its jet-fan inflation system debuts in 11, 28 and 40-liter Black Diamond-branded JetForce airbag packs, plus 24- and 34-liter versions from its sister brand Pieps.

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Taking advantage of Pieps’ strong electronic heritage, Black Diamond created the rechargeable electronic system that inflates a 200-liter airbag in 4 seconds. Going the electronic route not only enables a pre-trek practice run (the battery is good for at least four inflations), it also avoids common canister problems like their incompatibility with airport security, one-use limit and permanent deflation with the infliction of small holes. “We recognized that puncturing your avalanche airbag is a big detriment,” said Nathan Kuder, BD softgoods category director. “We wanted to provide re-inflation — that was one of the goals.”

Both Mammut and Bacountry Access are sticking to their time-tested airbag systems, while offering them in a new package. Mammut presents the Alyeska Protection Airbag Vest (MSRP $840), a carrying system that reduces back bulk, making it perfect for lift-accessed outings. Backcountry Access (#36113) has tweaked its Float line to include 27- and 42-liter versions (MSRPs $775/$925, including canisters), each equipped with an adjustable trigger to make pulling the airbag easier for a wider range of body types.

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Brands that aren’t creating their own airbag systems are making sure their offerings are compatible with one. New packs compatible with the ABS system include the Vaude ABScond series, Dakine’s ABS Signal 25L (MSRP $1,250), Osprey’s Kode ABS 42L (MSRP $220), the Deuter Ontop series and Salomon’s Quest 20 (MSRP $150). The Higher 30L RAS (MSRP $299) pack from Jones Snowboards is compatible with the Mammut Snowpulse R.A.S.

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Packs designed for the less avid out-of-bounds skier don’t boast the airbag boost, but they are coming compartmentalized for quick access to the shovels, probes and snow saws essential to the experience. They’re also taking comfort into account with wet-gear specific pockets for skins and better ski/board-carrying straps for boot-packing occasions.

The Slackpack (16/20-liter; MSRPs $79/$99) from The North Face features avy-tool organization sleeves; the Flow 35L Dry Pack (MSRP $200) from Sea to Summit includes gear attachment points for a snow shovel and alloy hook-release buckles for attaching skis; and CamelBak’s 11L Caper (MSRP $115) winter hydration pack is set to carry helmet, skis, shovel, probe and skins, among other things. Grivel’s Mago Freeride (MSRP $80) takes a different approach. The 16-liter pack rides on a single-shoulder and is designed to be swung around to the front so the wearer can retrieve the contents without taking the pack off.

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Consumers also are realizing that one size doesn’t fit all, and they’re willing to shell out for a smaller sidecountry pack as well as their bigger, burlier hut trip bag. Peter Kavouksorian, owner of Mountain Travelers Hike and Ski Shop in Rutland, Vt., said that “small to medium packs that can be thrown on a shoulder while you’re riding a lift” are a favorite with his customers.

As a result, in addition to presenting a portfolio of different pack sizes, pack extensions are gaining popularity, as seen in Millet’s Steep Safeguard 28L+7L (MSRP $200). Gregory  designed its 15- and 25-liter Verte pack (MSRPs $69/$99) for summit days, making it easily compressible and compatible with the larger Denali. Arva, Deuter and Bergans of Norway have recognized that the fairer sex is just as hardcore as their male counterparts. All three brands will offer women’s-specific backcountry packs for 2014/15.

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Beacons, probes, shovels and more
“Faster and lighter” is a great mantra for ultra-runners and hikers, but for winter safety it’s all about performance — even if it means adding an ounce or two — for added safety, stability and durability benefits.

It can be a difficult message to drive home with a consumer base ever demanding featherweight tools. “I always want to carry a small, lightweight pack — and I want my partner to carry a bulldozer,” joked Todd Walton, who handles public relations for ABS Avalanche Systems.

That’s not to say that the latest versions of the holy trinity of winter safety gear could be described as overweight. Instead, probes, shovels and beacons are walking the line between beefy and burly, careful to maintain strength while pushing the boundaries for lighter weights. That’s especially true for shovels, where aluminum’s muscle trumps carbon’s lightness, as seen in the professional-level MSR Operator (MSRP $69), a shovel that features a serrated leading edge for aggressive performance in avy debris. Recent scientific studies have shown that pulling snow away from a victim is the fastest method for unburying, so many new shovels feature a hoe-mode perfect for this method of snow removal. Cases in point: the Alugator Guide (MSRP $70) from Mammut, which can be reconfigured from a scoop/cut moderate blade angle to be used as a hoe, and the similar Evac 7 Shovel (MSRP $80) from Black Diamond

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Probes, too, are balancing the weight/strength tightrope, while aiming for quicker deployment. Take the MSR 240 Striker (MSRP $59) and its usage of variable thickness tubing to shave weight in less-critical upper sections without sacrificing stiffness, and the Fastlock probes (MSRPs $55-$75) from Mammut, which use a Dyneema cord for lightweight, low-stretch durability. Black Diamond’s Quickdraw 320 Carbon probe (MSRP $80) has updated dual speed ferrules and a stuff sack that integrates with the probe’s pull cord for fast, single-pull deployment.

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Snow saws also are becoming more mainstream with heavy-hitters like Black Diamond and MSR jumping on board. MSR’s Basecamp Snow Shelter Saw (MSRP $89) has a slightly curved blade, allowing all the laser-cut, two-directional teeth to connect with uneven hardpacked snow and ice for more efficient cutting. The blade’s high-strength 7075 aluminum construction aims to offer the rigidity of a single-piece blade, and has the ability to collapse to half its size when folded.

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Subtle changes are taking place in the avalanche beacon market, as seen with the latest beacon incarnation from Backcountry Access, the 20 percent smaller Tracker 3 (MSRP $335). Mammut has refined its technology with a firmware update aimed to reduce common user errors that waste search time. Its Element Barryvox 2.0 (MSRP $350) will be equipped with Intelligent Fine Search, a search simplification tool that uses an arrow in combination with an audio tone to guide the rescuer through a grid search. A “probe here” icon pops up when the person is located.

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Backcountry safety 101
Beacon — check. Shovel, probe — check, check. Airbag pack — check. Your customers have the gear, but do they know how to use it?

Backcountry safety education is gaining steam across the country as brands take on the onus of these precautions. “If we’re making gear for people to go out, we all have a responsibility to help try to educate [them] so that people can make good decisions,” said Chris Parkhurst, director of MSR Alpine.

More and more, outdoor brands supplying the gear to get out off-piste are training their customers to realize that once they step out of bounds, the safety net falls away. Ortovox, for instance, paired up with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) to create a curriculum for retail professionals that emphasizes avalanche education, companion and self-rescue and the importance of quick decision-making. And many brands, Dakine and Black Diamond among them, are instructing their reps to tell retailers about the importance of safety education.

“Whenever we produce a marketing push, education awareness and familiarity with the tools is all first and foremost,” Nathan Kuder, BD softgoods category director, said.

But this push is just the beginning. Eric Henderson, formerly the lead guide at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and operations manager for Valdez Heli-Ski guides, and current communications manager for Dynafit, expects that the next step will be “unification of the language,” including standardized hazard and snow stability ratings. He believes that education is imperative to the backcountry trend’s survival.

“We want people to be buying boots and skis, but we need to be thinking about how we’re doing it in order to be growing in the smartest and safest way,” he said. “If we have some sort of massive catastrophe, then the trend is going to slowly decline and parents will be less likely to buy little Billy the gear.”

The Internet, social media and video are also likely to play a larger role in education said Peips Snow Safety Product Line Manager Ryan Guess.

“Videos and social media can’t replace the hands-on aspect of snow safety training, but they can serve as reminders and refreshers so people can make more consistent judgments.”

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