Outdoor Retailer Winter Market '06 Trends: Backcountry ski packs, beacons and accessories

Check out the latest trends and products in backcountry ski packs, beacons and accessories as seen at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006.
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The SNEWS® team of editors powered by imported dark chocolate and numerous espresso shots (not necessarily in that order), zigged and zagged around the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market floor to ensure we could bring you the most comprehensive take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations in stories that will run until we pass out. No, each report is not complete and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned when it should have been. We're only covering product that stood out to us, so if you're not mentioned, our brains were either too frozen from our early morning runs to see you, we didn't think your product stood out sufficiently, or we started drinking espresso shots too early in the afternoon -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on trends and new products for backcountry ski packs, beacons and accessories:

Overall trends and views
Ski packs are getting a second look by many manufacturers. In the past few years, most have been normal daypacks with a few widgets thrown on for winter sports. Now the designs are better suited to actual backcountry skiing. Features that were once rare that are now becoming commonplace include: diagonal carrying systems, separate pocket for shovel and probe, shoulder straps with an internal hydration hose, pockets on hip belts, goggle pockets that won't scratch expensive lenses, and helmet carriers.

Ski packs have also separated out into small (roughly 20 liter) packs for lift-served backcountry and larger (roughly 35 liter) packs for backcountry day trips. Larger packs have another advantage besides more capacity: When caught in an avalanche, a larger pack with a down parka loosely stuffed inside offers significantly more flotation

Another clear trend at this year's Winter Market: Avalanche probes are getting faster and easier. With so many options that can assemble in mid-air (BCA, G3, Life-Link and Ortovox now offer them), there is little reason to purchase old-school probes that require jiggling and fiddling. These new probes are essentially the same weight and price so it's win-win.

Companies and products that stood out to us
Backcountry Access
-- After the recent acquisition of the manufacturing facility, BCA has dropped the price of the Tracker avalanche beacon by $20 to $290 next season. This is likely to be the first shot in a price war for digital beacons and mark the beginning of the end for analog-only beacons.

The Companion Shovel received a major overhaul: the blade is stronger aluminum, larger, has a flat back (better for making smooth snow pits), and has an avalanche search procedure graphic printed as a (hopefully unnecessary) reminder. As before, it will be available with a fixed ($50, pointless) or extendable handle ($55) and with or without the short probe that fits inside.

The new BCA avalanche probes feature alignment plugs and grip system that dramatically speed assembly. Customers should be encouraged to opt up for the Quickie tensioning system since it's only a bit more money and works a lot better.

While BCA has long had a nice line of small front-load ski packs, most aren't big enough for backcountry day trips. The new Stash Valhalla ($110, $130 with hydration), a 37-liter top-loader with zipper access, fills that void.

Black Diamond -- Certainly among the highlights at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market were the new Avalung packs and avalanche shovels from BD. The packs come in two models: the front-loading Covert ($200, 42 l) for riding lifts to access backcountry and the top-loading Anarchist ($270, 32 l) for day tours. Unfortunately, the Anarchist only comes in black, which, if one considers the need for visibility and safety, is a color that blends when it should be standing out. The packs are available without the AvaLung too, for a $90 saving (a Lung with harness runs $125), but there is little point to this option in our opinion -- why wouldn't anyone want the safety of an AvaLung.

The new Deploy Shovel ($65 with extension, 25 ounces) is just plain cool -- these will sell like hot cakes. It improves upon the Indigo design of an attached handle and has a stylish anodized aluminum blade. The larger Transfer Shovel ($50) doesn't have the attached handle, but shares some of the other features. It's more for camping and building kickers. Also particularly nice is the new FlickLock Snow Saw ($45) that attaches to most ski poles for cutting.

CAMP -- Since ski mountaineering is very popular in Europe and CAMP makes the lightest ice axe (XLA 210) and crampon (XLC 390) on the market, it should be little surprise that the company also offers some very nice ski packs. The new M3 EVO ($140) is a rugged 30-liter top loader with a back panel that unzips for easy access. Niceties include a pocket on the hip belt, crampon case and a helmet holder. For the rando-racers, the X3 600 ($100) strips down the M3 to the bare essentials and uses lighter fabric (cutting 12 ounces). It loses the back panel and helmet holder but adds a slick ski carrying system that doesn't require removing the pack (Granite Gear copied this feature on the company's Q2 model).

Gregory -- Two new ski packs from Gregory are designed with an emphasis on carrying comfort while skis are attached. The Drift ($130) is a smaller (20 liter) front-loader designed for area skiing with out-of-area jaunts. The Targhee ($180) is a larger (33 liter) top-loader with a zip closure intended for day trips. Both feature an insulated hydration tube hidden in the shoulder strap (borrowed from BCA), front pockets for shovels, and sleek lines.

Komperdell -- The Carbon Avalanche Shovel ($160) is for the weight-conscious backcountry skier; anyone who buys a Dynafit Titanium Race binding needs this shovel. At only 15 ounces with an extendable handle, it's lighter than any fixed length shovel. It's stiffer than Lexan shovels and has a steel chopping edge; the blade can also attach at a right angle.

Lowe Alpine -- Long known for its climbing and hiking packs, Lowe Alpine hasn't offered real ski packs in a long while. That changes next fall with the introduction of three ski-specific models. The Powder Line 22 ($100) is the smallest yet it has most of the features expected these days including a diagonal ski carrying system. The Snow Attack 20+5 ($125) is similar but adds zip-away expansion (similar to a CamelBak Blowfish) and a shovel pocket. The Fall Line 35 ($150) has all the bells and whistles including an adjustable torso and goggle pocket.

Life-Link -- The new Pit Boss shovel ($60, 29 ounces) is made for moving a lot of snow yet packing relatively small. It has a large aluminum blade with a flat surface for shaping snow and an extendable handle. Ideal for building kickers, it may not fit inside some packs.

Since the Avalanche Lily (carbon fiber, adjustable length, probe pole with a narrow grip and graphics for women) proved popular, enter the Uber Lily ($110) with the same features but a longer length for touring (39 to 57 inches).

Mammut -- The Pulse Barryvox avalanche beacon ($400) will create a lot of discussion next season. Its main talking point (the motion sensor) is of limited value currently since it only works with like units. But its other features (interface, three antennas, etc.) are significant improvements over the standard Barryvox ($310). Debates over the current value of the Pulse (motion sensing) feature aside, the Pulse Barryvox appears to be a nifty step up from the current crop of digital beacons.

The new Raptor shovel ($70) has a unique D-Grip at the top of the Lexan blade for another hand position. The extendable handle remains attached to the blade and rotates into position. It's a neat system, but selling plastic blades could be tough -- metal remains the flavor du jour for most consumers it appears, despite certain advantages touted with Lexan.

Marmot -- For those who don't use the wired remote control or own a shell with controls on the sleeve, the iGloves ($30-$75) are the solutions for making selections on an iPod with a click wheel without having to bare fingers to cold air. These gloves have a special fingertip, co-designed with Apple, that conducts bioenergy to the wheel -- normal gloves prevent operation.

Mattini -- Old timers will recall the Chouinard Mountain Lounger, a "chair" that you created with a pair of skis and ski poles. It's baaack. The Mattini Allround Air Seat (about $45) weighs 24 ounces and packs down to the size of a Sigg bottle. It uses either a pair of skis or poles to create the backrest, while the self-inflating pad provides insulation from snow and comfort on rocks. A version for snowboards ($35) uses the board as a backrest, so it's even lighter. Sure, it's a frivolous luxury, but you earn style points and looks of envy that could be worth it.

The North Face -- Although hydration tubes located inside a shoulder strap are all the rage these days for winter packs, they can still freeze up when it's really cold. Those who remember the now dearly-departed MET5 jacket, the technology lives on in the new Snowday ($150) and Flask ($120) hydration packs. Powered by four AA batteries, the heated tube will remain warm for 20 hours keeping fluids liquid; an LED indicates battery status. The Snowday (12 liters) is barely big enough for a lift-served ski pack, while the Flask (4 liters) is better suited to Nordic skiing.

Ortovox -- The S1 avalanche beacon is getting closer to reality. Delayed by a series of engineering problems, it promises to be the most sophisticated beacon on the market when it arrives. Good thing too because the retail price of $585 will also make it the most expensive beacon by a very wide margin. As cool as it is, the price tag will certainly keep the riffraff out.

Fortunately, Ortovox offers the biggest selection of beacons with five models starting at $240 (F1 Focus, analog). The single antenna M2 is both digital and analog, and remains at $310. The dual antenna X1 is reduced to $290. And the new three-antenna D3 will cost $310. The D3 and S1 will both use a carrying case, while all the other Ortovox beacons use a harness system that ensures they are transmitting when worn.

Of all the fast-assembly avalanche probes on the market, the new PFA series from Ortovox has the nicest ergonomics. There will be seven models with this mechanism ranging in price from $50 to $90, including three that are carbon fiber.

Osprey -- The Switch series of ski packs has received a complete makeover for next season -- in fact, they no longer switch. Three of the five previous models were two packs in one -- a hydration pack detached from the main pack. The three new Switch packs are much cleaner and a bit more affordable. The Switch 36 ($150) is now the largest in the series (replacing the 40+5), the Switch 26 ($130) is the mid-size (replacing the 25+5), and the Switch 16 ($100) replaces the 18 and 14. All three feature pockets for avalanche gear, a hip belt pocket, internal hydration tube, and back panels made of a fabric that is easy to brush free of snow. The larger two also have helmet pockets, and the Switch 26 offers back panel entry.

Smith -- Long known for excellent goggles, Smith is jumping into the ski helmet market. The Circuit ($130) and Premise ($120) appear to rival high-end Giro helmets for features, including adjustable ventilation and audio compatibility. The Platform ($80) is available in adult and junior sizing (62 cm and 49 cm, respectively) and has vent plugs that can be removed. The Antic Jr. ($55) is a kids' helmet with no vents. Given that Smith has a solid reputation, and that no other ski helmet companies bother to attend Winter Market currently, this line is likely to be a smashing success at outdoor specialty.

Toko -- Waxing cross-country skis will be easier than ever next season -- just spray on the new SportLine GripSpray Universal ($13). While spray-on klister has been around for a couple seasons, this is the first grip wax in a spray can. It should be even easier than the tape some companies offer. The Universal works on all snow from freezing down to minus 4 degrees F; there is also an X-warm for temps right around freezing. A beginner kit ($40) includes both types of canned wax, base cleaner, cork and instructions.

Toko has at last concluded that there is no reason for separate hot-waxes for Nordic and alpine skiing. What took so long? This reduces a lot of SKUs and confusion. Hopefully, some other wax companies will follow.

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