Mounting backcountry interest bolsters gear sales

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Lighter gear and more diverse participation has sparked a surge in backcountry interest, a windfall for retailers catering to the growing ranks of alpine tourers and riders.

Photo from Zach Dischner on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zachd1_618/14444020568

Photo from Zach Dischner on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zachd1_618/14444020568

The backcountry beckons, bringing more thrill seekers than ever out of bounds in search of deep, untouched powder.

As backcountry interest rises, so do gear sales: six million skiers and snowboarders dropped into the backcountry in the 2013/14 season, the last season for which data is available, according to Snowsports Industries America. That’s up from five million during the 2010/11 season, and sales in more recent years show that the spike in interest is far from slowing down.

Increased access has been a boon for retailers: splitboard sales nearly tripled from 2010/11 and to 2013/14, and sales of skins, AT boots, and AT bindings saw steady increases in that same time frame, according to SIA.

“The numbers used to appear to be increasing about 10 percent a year, but I feel like it’s really started to skyrocket recently,” said Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Scott Toepfer.

Graphic by Corey Buhay. SIA data provided by NPD Group.

Graphic by Corey Buhay. SIA data provided by NPD Group.

This could be in part because women, long a relatively untapped market for backcountry equipment vendors, have started to get in on the game.

“Alpine touring equipment made specifically for women has enjoyed growth in sales, particularly in the boot category,” says Kelly Davis, director of research at SIA. Looking at the full 2014-2015 season, women’s touring sales rose from $1.1 to $1.2 million.

That 9 percent increase doesn’t fully reflect the magnitude of growth in women’s backcountry participation. Many women are buying men’s or unisex equipment rather than women’s specific-equipment, Davis said.

“The ratio of backcountry skiers is probably about the same ratio we get in downhill skiing overall,” she said. “It’s gotten so popular, we’ve been calling it the yoga of the mountains.”

Photo via http://adventurejay.com/blog/images/powfaceshot.jpg

Photo via http://adventurejay.com/blog/images/powfaceshot.jpg

Lighter gear certainly helps.

La Sportiva’s Vapor Nano weighs in at 1200 grams per ski—about as much as a half-gallon of milk—thanks to a carbon nanotube construction. At a dollar per gram, the Vapor Nano is a little pricey, but Fischer’s 1250-gram Hannibal 94 is proof that lightness can be accessible; it retails at $650. The Hannibal 94 achieves that featherweight feel with carbon, titanium, and paulownia, a durable wood with high strength-to-weight ratio.

Splitboarding also owes its surge, in part, to better gear. One example of innovation is Salomon’s Premiere splitboard, which divides lengthwise into thirds transforming into two narrow skis, which allow for faster touring than traditional splitboard skis, and one center piece, which divides in half for easy storage in a pack.

Both men’s and women’s snowboard equipment sales continued to grow between the 2013/14 and 2015/16 seasons—impressive, given the poor snow conditions that dented sales across the eastern seaboard in 2015. Women’s sales were up 3 percent while men’s sales were only up 0.3 percent. Similar to backcountry touring, increased snowboarding popularity among women may be evidence of a previously untapped market beginning to gain critical mass.

While backcountry gear sales have boosted retailers’ revenue, safety training might not be keeping up with that threshold.

Graphic by Corey Buhay. Data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Graphic by Corey Buhay. Data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

The rapid out-of-bounds push means not everyone is ready for the transition. The 2015/16 season has already seen 23 avalanche fatalities, a count that’s growing faster than usual.

Despite increased awareness campaigns, the past 10 years have seen upward-trending avalanche fatalities in backcountry skiing and riding as well as ice climbing and snowmobiling.

“(We've seen) an upward tick in avalanche deaths starting in the early ‘90s,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

He commends avalanche safety nonprofit Know Before You Go (KBYG) for reaching out to consumers through multimedia, including a new video featuring pro skiers, riders, snowmobilers, and photographers. Increased interest in the backcountry means a greater need for avalanche awareness campaigns.

Companies like Backcountry Access, Avatech, and Zeal Optics have sponsored KBYG and its youth-facing multimedia campaign. Sponsoring safety initiatives is one way gear manufacturers can combat the image that they promote risky activities by showcasing the sport’s most extreme backcountry athletes.

“Everything from the movies to the magazines are showing people riding big lines,” said Toepfer. “But it’s my impression that the industries are trying to address that what they’re promoting is potentially dangerous and promote doing it right.”

Safer consumers are an obvious benefit. Sales boosts for beacons, shovels, and probes are just a fortunate side effect.

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