SALT LAKE CITY -- An inflatable vest meant to keep skiers afloat in an avalanche has taken top honors at a premiere outdoor-gear trade show in Salt Lake City.
The $1,300 vest uses air bag technology and a rip cord to inflate two bags, and it can also protect a tumbling skier from head injuries, Stephen Barnes, senior product manager for The North Face, said Friday.
The concept was developed in Europe, where a Swiss avalanche institute says it has proven itself for skiers in hundreds of avalanches.
A handful of U.S. companies are now introducing inflatable packs in the Rocky Mountains.
The North Face took "Gear of the Show" honors from Outside magazine because its inflatable vests pack a smaller and lighter profile than packs.
"I think it's ready to go," said Scott Bedford, of Wasatch Powderbird Guides, a helicopter skiing company in Utah.
"These packs will probably become standard for everybody" in the backcountry.
The four-day Outdoor Retailer Show lasts until Sunday, with 950 manufacturers and distributors taking orders from retailers big and small.
No consumers are allowed inside, where gear junkies would drool over goods ranging from compact titanium cookware to snow goggles with built-in visual dashboards.
The show featured a celebrity appearance by Bear Grylls, star of the reality television series "Man vs. Wild." Grylls promotes a line of clothing for Britain-based Craghoppers Ltd.
More than 20,000 industry people are taking part in the gear show, an event that has been held summer and winter in Salt Lake City since 1996.
The outdoor industry has steadily grown despite an economy hammered by recession, posting an increase of 6 percent last year, officials said.
Americans spend about $289 billion a year on outdoor gear, travel and services.
"This is the business of America. We have nearly 1,000 companies here, many of them with new ideas. This is where job creation is happening," said Frank Hugelmeyer, president and chief executive of the Outdoor Industry Association.
The trade shows give a boost to innovators like New Hampshire-based NEMO Equipment Inc., which makes tents that can stand up on their own without poles. They use inflatable air bladders instead for support.
"What's driving the market is the experience people want of camping, fly-fishing for the first time or paddling on a river. It's the outdoor lifestyle -- a journey that never ends," Hugelmeyer said.
The inflatable airbag-equipped avalanche packs are making a U.S. appearance several years after Utah-based Black Diamond Equipment Inc. introduced a then-revolutionary breathing device for skiers trapped under snow by an avalanche.
The grimly named Avalung has its limits, however. It can extend a skier's life long enough to be dug out of snow, which can take precious minutes.
Inflatable packs or vests can keep skiers on the surface.
Most skiers caught in slides, however, die of injuries from being dragged over rocks.