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Thursday, September 29, 2011
Updated: October 18, 3:47 PM ET
Innovations on snow

By Megan Michelson and Melissa Larsen
ESPN.com

Every year at this time, ski and snowboard shops around the country start bustling with anticipation for the upcoming winter. The shelves are stocked high with new gloves and Skittle-colored goggles and the walls are lined with shiny hard goods. But how do you make sense of all the new stuff? And what do you actually need? Don't worry. We're here to help sift out the overly hyped gadgets from the truly useful innovations. Here is a cross-section of the upcoming season's products and trends worth paying attention to.

100 percent recycled outerwear: Many companies are stepping into the eco-friendly outerwear game, but Lib Tech is leading the way with its line of outerwear made completely (down to the zippers) from recycled bottles ($175-280). Why bottles? "Hemp technology isn't quite there yet to make it as waterproof as we need it to be," says Lib Tech's Trevor Phillips. "Bamboo is a good renewable resource, but it takes a lot of chemicals to break down. We found that recycled bottles worked best." Why doesn't everybody jump on the bandwagon, then? "Cost," says Phillips. "It just costs more."

Performance alpine touring boots: In skiing, look for a whole new category of boots: sturdy, performance-oriented alpine touring boots that are designed for both hiking and charging downhill. Such as Salomon's brand new Quest 14 ($750), a 130-flex boot with a walk-mode and hike-friendly sole. "When we started looking at what's next in the sport, we realized that sometimes the best skiing takes a short hike to reach," says Jerome Minet, a Salomon boot product developer. "Our solution is a burlier boot made of the same polyurethane as our World Cup race boots, so now the strongest skiers can enjoy Quest's combination of access and performance." Other examples: Atomic's Tracker 130 ($879), Black Diamond's Factor 130 ($739), and Scarpa's Mobe ($749).

Waterproof/breathable outerwear: The term "waterproof/breathable" has been plastered on outerwear tags for years, but the truth is a lot of jackets and pants don't live up to the claim. A new fabric from Polartec, called NeoShell, tackles both of those challenges in a way no fabric has before. "Traditional hard shells require a build-up of heat and humidity inside the jacket before they start to breathe," says Nate Simmons, Polartec's global director of marketing. "NeoShell has an 'always on' technology that allows a small amount of airflow through the fabric, so it's constantly venting." New products made with NeoShell include Marmot's Zion Jacket ($375), Westcomb's Apoc Jacket ($480) and Flylow's Especial Pants ($425).

Mammut's Gipfelgrat Jacket is made with the new Polartec NeoShell fabric.

Women's powder skis: "Back in the day, there wasn't a big demand for women's powder skis and conventional wisdom said the market was too small to bother with," says Jeff Mechura, K2 Skis' VP of global marketing. "But conventional wisdom lost in this case." K2 now has four women's skis longer than 100 millimeters underfoot, and other companies are also committed to making legitimate women's powder skis, including the new Armada VJJ ($900), Rossignol S7 Women ($800) and Kastle BMX 118 ($1,150). "I am more than excited to have a women's specific powder ski that caters to my type of skiing," says pro skier Michelle Parker, who rides K2's new Missdirected ($875).

Bamboo gear: Bamboo can be found in everything from base layers to hard goods now. Panda Poles is a new company that's making ski poles (from $85) with shafts made entirely from hemp webbing and sustainably harvested bamboo, which is stronger and lighter than some aluminum and graphite poles. "Our poles may not be 100 percent sustainable yet, but we like to think of the poles as a hybrid -- a transitionary tool, intended to help make passage from one paradigm to the next," claims Panda Poles' manifesto. Other bamboo products: Liberty's LTE ski ($560), Salomon's Shogun ski ($810) and Komperdell's Bamboo Carbon ski poles ($160).

The return of camber: "There is so much wussy technology going into snowboards these days to make it easier for someone to get down the mountain," says pro snowboarder and pro-camber proselytizer Bode Merrill. "The problem is, it's teaching everyone how to snowboard the wrong way. You can slip and slide your way around the mountain or you can learn how to do a carve and actually generate speed from turning." Merrill -- whose pro model snowboard, the Man Board ($500), is traditional camber -- is one of a growing number of snowboarders who are preaching a return to old-school snowboard technology roots. Also on board for the anti-reverse-camber movement is Kevin Jones, who plans to introduce a regular-camber snowboard line with Bluebird in 2012.

The new HD Hero camera from Go Pro.

Helmet cameras: The hands-free camera market has exploded in recent years, and now you can capture your exploits on the hill with pro-quality, high-definition, even 3D footage. Go Pro's HD Hero cam ($299.99), Contour's new GPS-enabled camera ($349.99) and VIO's POV.HD ($599.95) are all excellent choices on your road to YouTube fame. "Helmet cams used to be a bunch of cables and wires you strapped to your head," says Marc Barros, CEO of Contour. "We've come a long way to make hands-free cameras easier than a camcorder to use, and durable enough so you can wear it while hucking yourself down the hill."

All-mountain park skis: You like to hit the park and pipe on occasion, but you also don't want skis that are made only for sliding rails. All-mountain park skis are a growing category designed just for your kind of versatility. These tools are made to handle jumps and halfpipes but also to be playful whether you're on groomers, in the trees or plowing through crud. Jack of all trades? Try Scott's Punisher ($600), Volkl's Wall ($600) or Armada's AR7 ($620).

Splitboards: Once seen as a niche market, the demand for splitboards has exploded in the past couple of years. Established snowboard companies such as K2 have started making a lightweight, bamboo-core splitboard ($600), while smaller companies such as Colorado-based Venture snowboards ($895) and big-mountain dominator Jeremy Jones' Jones snowboards ($700-800) are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in splitboard design, with rocker, reverse camber and twin tip shapes.

Functional flannels and hoodies: Because you don't always want to wear a jacket on a warm spring day, but you don't want to be a soggy, stinky mess at the end of a fun session in the park either, companies such as Analog and ThirtyTwo have started combining the style of street wear with the function of outerwear. The shirts in Analog's ATF collection ($70) look and feel like regular flannels, but are made with anti-bacterial, moisture wicking, quick dry, 4-way stretch fabric, allowing you to sweat without paying the price. ThirtyTwo's Sti Repel technology, which is used in a line of water-repellant sweatshirts ($60), won the ISPO Boardsports Award for most innovative design last winter.

Bungees were engineered for people who live in places where inclines are hard to come by.

Bungee: Bungees are exactly what they sound like: giant bungee cords attached to a water ski handle are attached to a fixed object on one end, and stretched to the point of maximum tension by a snowboarder at the other. The experience of getting whipped at high speeds onto handrails and into walls is not for everyone, but for urban-jib-focused snowboarders and skiers, the Banshee Bungee has opened up a whole new world of riding possibilities ($125-230).

Headphones: Phillips and O'Neill just released a line of ultra-durable headphones made specifically for the action sports set, backed by triple cork ninja Sebastien Toutant ($60). Fellow Canadian snowboard superstar Mark McMorris just got picked up by Sony, and the Frends crew has been pushing a line of signature headphones ($30-60), sported by everyone in their extended roster of riding buddies, since last year. Given the amount of kids rocking tunes on hill, it's a surprise that the move toward athlete-tested headphone design hasn't happened sooner.

Touchscreen gloves: In June, a company called GLT released patent-pending technology called Touch Tec that is supposed to mimic the human touch in leather and textiles, enabling glove manufacturers to make gloves that allow you to use your touch-screen devices without freezing your fingers off. Touch Tec enabled leather was originally designed for, and tested by, the military and first responders, and is now being adapted by snowboard companies such as Burton (Liner Glove, $18) and Celtek ($25-60).

Interchangeable lenses: You could buy two pairs of goggles with different lenses -- one for sun and one for flat-light. Or you could just buy one pair of goggles with interchangeable lenses. No brainer, right? We like the ease of Dragon's new frameless APX ($185), Smith's popular I/O goggles ($165) and Oakley's new Airbreak goggles ($220 and Shaun White's goggle of choice), which come with a locking lever mechanism that quickly releases the lens and snaps in a new one. Typically, you get two lenses with your purchase but you can always add more.

Avalanche airbag packs: Some backcountry safety trends come and go. (Remember that inflatable backcountry rescue sled? Yeah, didn't think so.) But avalanche airbag packs -- which inflate around your head and neck to help prevent getting buried in an avalanche and protect from trauma -- are here to stay. "Airbags are already becoming 'de riguer' in the guiding and ski patrol world, where safety and liability are king," says Bruce Edgerly, the vice president of marketing at Backcountry Access, which produces the Float 18 pack. "For basic recreationalists, it's just a matter of time before airbags become the fourth item in the beacon/shovel/probe trifecta." Look for BCA's Float 18 ($684.95), Snowpulse's Lifebag ($1,049) or ABS's Avalanche Airbag (from $700).