Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 23-26. 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.

Backcountry winter safety was the hot topic at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market.

We saw it in a surge of new products for the category, and heard it in a growing discussion on whether the industry is doing enough to support the crucial component education.

Nowhere was the topic more evident than in the hyperinflation of brands entering the avalanche airbag pack roster at Winter Market. Whereas two years ago, there were less than a handful of companies in the category, there are now close to a dozen.

“Airbags have reached a tipping point where they are no longer a fringe item that a few people have seen in Europe,” said Bruce Edgerly, vice president of marketing and sales at Backcountry Access. “A lot of U.S. retailers are coming aboard.”

BCA was one of the first in the United States to get into airbags, and in early January, it announced it was being acquired by K2 Sports as the field becomes more crowded. Still, many of the latest products rely on the same airbag technology provided by either ABS or Mammut’s Snowpulse. And most of the newcomers are debuting only “airbag-ready” packs — those that have the right construction, but consumers must buy the airbags, trigger systems and canisters separately.

“It comes down to cost,” said Chad Perrin, brand director at Jones Snowboards, which introduces its 30-liter RAS Ready pack (MSRP $299, pack only) built for Snowpulse’s technology. “I think a $300 airbag-ready pack is a lot more palatable for the consumer. They can work their way up to the system.” In addition, the manufacturer takes on less financial risk by letting the consumer purchase the most expensive part of pack, he said. The Snowpulse RAS airbag and trigger run MSRP $450, plus MSRP $175-$200 for the canister.

Matching the packs to the proper systems likely will fall to the specialty retailer in many cases, perhaps a benefit as it can drive people into stores, but it also creates extra work. Most of the airbag suppliers already have dealer networks in place with the proper training, and look for the number of those locations to expand in the coming years.

Scott Sports partners with Snowpulse’s airbag technology to introduce its Air 20 and 30 RAS packs (MSRPs $225/$250, pack only). It features Scott’s Diacomp ski-carry system where the top-webbing loop connects to the bottom cable system, therefore compressing the skis to the back of the pack, providing stability and even weight distribution. Burton (#38113, 38125) comes to the show with a new 23-liter Snowpulse-compatible airbag pack (MSRP N/A), as well.

While Mammut licenses its Snowpulse RAS (Removable Airbag System) to the above brands, the Swiss company maintained a leg up at Winter Market with its new PAS (Protection Airbag System) included in its latest packs (photo, right). PAS ejects not only from behind and above the pack, but also out of the shoulder straps to better cradle and protect the sides of the head from physical trauma. The system is remains removable and comes in four different Mammut pack models, 15 to 35 liters (MSRPs $839-$949; plus $200 canister).

Numerous other brands are partnering with airbag supplier ABS for their products. Ortovox enters the category with its Freerider (MSRP $319, photo below) and Tour (MSRP $329) ABS-ready packs, which notably include women’s-specific versions — the first we’ve seen on the show floor. The separate ABS airbag systems come in at MSRP $700 for the airbag and MSRP $175 for activation unit and canister. Millet targets first-time winter backcountry adventurers with its ABS compatible Steep 30 Safety Pack (MSRP $369). While the airbag is sold separately, the pack does come with a shovel and probe, provided by European brand Arva Equipment.

Dakine debuted its ABS Signal 25-liter pack (MSRP N/A, photo below) at the show, too. Bergans of Norway is one of the few brands integrating the airbag system into its new 15-liter Hodlekve ABS freeride pack (MSRP $1,189), sold as a complete package.

Officials say the sudden rise of avalanche airbags in United States stems from increased media coverage of avalanche survivals with airbags (full disclosure: there have been a few avalanche deaths with airbags, too) and the overall boom in alpine touring advancements, resulting in more people heading to backcountry, where winter safety gear is deemed an essential.

But some in the industry worry that the products are getting ahead of the top priority — avalanche training and winter safety education.

“Manufacturers need to assume more responsibility in the financial, marketing and people support toward the nonprofit organizations that provide the daily avalanche reports and assessments, along with the affordable avalanche classes,” said Adam Greene, U.S. marketing manager for Scott Sports.

Perrin at Jones Snowboards agreed, adding that with so many brands entering the category, it might cause some complacency among consumers when deciding to seek education. He advocated for an industry-wide effort to send a universal message to consumers through every winter safety product. Numerous company officials said they were working on online videos to spur education, and some are working with guides to develop in-depth retail clinics.

Back at BCA, Edgerly said he’s beginning to see the forefront of new winter ideas and education being driven by North America over Europe.

“There will be some growing pains, including more avalanche deaths,” he said, “until the gap between new products and education is closed.”

–David Clucas