Can the US market really support more than a dozen airbag manufacturers? That’s right, there’s thirteen I know of that plan to distribute airbag packs next season, and two more soon after.At the moment the two biggest are the originator of the avalanche airbag pack, ABS, followed by SnowPulse. ABS uses compressed nitrogen to power the inflation of two bags on the pack. SnowPulse uses compressed air to inflate a single bag that expands around the back and sides of your head. ABS has licensed their airbag technology to The North Face, Ortovox, and Bergens of Norway. SnowPulse was bought by Mammut who have their own version of airbag packs using the SnowPulse system and have licensed the system to Arva, Oakley, and Scott. That makes ten. Then there are the independents who use compressed air to inflate a single bag behind the head, but unlike ABS or SnowPulse who discharge the compressed gas by piercing the seal, these companies use various switches that open a valve, including Backcountry Access’ Float series of airbag packs, Wari, and Mystery Ranch. That brings the count to 13.
On the horizon is a revolutionary design using an electric fan to fill the airbag. This could make the airbag much easier and cheaper to inflate multiple times with no foreseeable restrictions to air travel. Arcteryx and Black Diamond have both been working on this concept for at least a year. It sounds like this version of an airbag pack is still 2-3 years away from coming to market. Interest in avalanche airbags grew slowly and steadily through the 90s, but awareness has stepped in to overdrive with compelling statistical evidence combined with a couple of high profile avalanche incidents where the survivors were wearing them and victims were not.
Which begs the question – is the backcountry market really that big? It’s a whole lot bigger than it used to be, but it is still at most 10% of the overall ski market. In spite of them being such a small percentage, backcountry skiers tend to become gear junkies. Even though they’re accused of being misers, that’s only because BC skiers have more on their shopping list than skis, boots, and bindings. Besides those key items they also need to buy a beacon, shovel, probe, wool socks, Gore-tex jackets, Schoeller pants, adjustable poles, climbing skins, and now an airbag pack. Will they draw the line on airbag packs and say no more, or will they try to be prudent and rack up another $1000 on the credit card? Of course their life is worth it, but is it really necessary? In other words, how savvy do BC skiers think they are, and how lucky do they feel?
Thirteen manufacturers are betting you’re not going to feel lucky. We’ll see.