Avalanche airbags have been around for decades and have been gaining a lot of steam in the North American market over the past few years. They provide one more level of safety, preventing avalanche victims from getting buried by snow and, in some cases, protecting the head and neck from trauma injuries. These airbags are almost always integrated into backpacks, but The North Face has a different idea: avalanche airbag clothing.

The North Face Powder Guide ABS vest integrates a nitrogen-based airbag system from German manufacturer ABS. When deployed by the rider, two brightly colored bags pop out from the back of the vest and increase the victim's surface area so that he'll float on top of the moving snow, rather than sink to the bottom where he could become trapped and suffocate.

The Powder Guide could almost be thought of as a backpack in vest form. Since an airbag wouldn't do that much good if it was trapped inside a shell, the Powder Guide is made extra large so that it fits over the jacket. It features a series of pockets designed to stash other gear, including a shovel and probe. Unless you have a lot of other gear to carry with you, you could probably just throw the vest on in place of a full backpack.

The vest comes at the right time. The growth of backcountry and sidecountry skiing and snowboarding has been a major story over the past several years. The SnowSports Industry of America reports that sales of alpine touring and randonee ski gear were up by 90 percent last year. Backcountry equipment like wide skis and splitboards have become a increasingly significant and visible part of the market.

At the upper tier of that growing pool of backcountry enthusiasts, professional skiers and riders are pushing the sports' limits to bigger, steeper, more dangerous lines every season. In fact, it was those professional skiers and riders that convinced The North Face to build the Powder Guide ABS.

Xavier De le Rue, a French snowboarder who's quickly gaining a reputation as the best (perhaps craziest) big mountain rider in the world, credits his life to ABS technology. De le Rue was caught in an avalanche that carried him more than a mile down-mountain, and he came out breathing with help from an ABS pack.

De La Rue says of the technology: "I'd never go riding without it. I think people should take note of that and freeriders should use it all the time."

Half a decade ago, you'd have had a hard time even finding an avalanche airbag in the United States, but now a number of mainstream backpack and accessories companies are offering bags with built-in airbag systems or airbag compatibility. The Powder Guide ABS vest seems a little more casual and low-profile than a full backpack. Skiers and riders could throw the vest on whether or not they planned to duck under the ropes of their local ski resort and have that added protection.

Of course, the price will need to come down before avalanche apparel reaches that level of casual user. The Powder Guide ABS, which will launch next fall, will retail for US$1,300, a price that should limit its appeal to serious backcountry enthusiasts and wealthier skiers. The North Face will sell a backpack with the same ABS system for just under $1,000, so at least for now, avalanche apparel comes at a pretty sizable premium.

If $1,300 sounds way out of your price range, another type of avalanche apparel out of Europe may offer a more cost-effective solution. The Rotauf MRK5 system that Gizmag covered last month could be built into a jacket or vest and sold for as little as a $100 premium. That system does not offer the same protection as a full avalanche airbag, but is instead designed to help rescuers locate a buried victim.

The North Face isn't the first company to develop an avalanche vest, either. The Wary Avi-Vest sells for less than half the price of the Powder Guide ABS, though it doesn't appear to offer the same level of flotation.

Source: Outside