The North Face announces Avalanche Airbag Safety System (ABS) vest and pack, we go hands-on (video)

Imagine hitting the slopes for the ultimate free ride down the edge of a cliff. Now picture being caught in an avalanche with only a shovel to free you from hundreds of pounds of snow -- the odds don't look too good. The North Face hopes to change all that by integrating an Avalanche Airbag Safety System (ABS) into its tried and true backpacks with the launch of its ABS Patrol 24 Pack and ABS Vest, two new body-worn fixtures that inflate to protect your from falling snow much like the airbags in your car. Add two new fabrics into the mix, FlashDry and Thermoball, and it seems like we've come a long way since the days of working out in our college sweats. We go hands-on with pro snowboarder Xavier de Le Rue after the break to see how it works.%Gallery-139505%

The North Face is moving beyond basic cold weather clothing and backpacks to integrate Avalanche Airbag Safety System technology into its ABS Vest and ABS Patrol 24 pack. The request came from pro snowboarder and The North Face team member Xavier de Le Rue, the free rider who found himself caught in an avalanche four years ago. After facing death, de Le Rue demanded the ABS be built into his pack -- pushing the safety trend forward into the mainstream.

It works like this: if a skier or snowboarder finds themselves trapped under heavy snow, the system will inflate to give pinned athletes 150 liters more body volume, equalizing some of the extreme density and helping to bring the body towards the surface as the snow gains speed. Compared to airbags in your car, this body-worn variety utilizes nitrogen canisters rather than CO2, a gas that's safe to carry around or travel with as long as TSA gives you the go-ahead.

Strapping the backpack on, it was surprisingly light, similar in weight to a normal pack filled with a book or two. Featuring the same chest clip as the standard variety, the ABS Patrol 24 has an additional between-the-leg and waist clips to help it stay put. Before the ride, athletes screw the pull lever into the left strap, connecting it to the nitrogen canister inside. In the case of an emergency, riders can pull the lever, which will inflate the pack into a full-sized body buoy.

Along with its portable ABS, The North Face is introducing two new fabrics called Thermoball and Flashdry. Somewhat reminiscent of down, Thermoball is an insulate that uses small balls of synthetic fiber to provide lightweight warmth along with wet-weather protection. FlashDry on the other hand, uses micro-porous particles to increase wicking and breathability -- making it ideal for clothing across the company's various sports offerings.

Both the vest and pack are slated to launch by fall 2012 in specialty stores only, so you won't be able to purchase these higher-end products in your local sporting goods shop like that puffy jacket that keeps you warm around town. The vest is currently in testing so there's no word yet on how much it will cost, but the pack will set you back $900 plus an additional $150 for a nitrogen tank and starter lever. Of course, if you have to deploy the system, a new nitrogen tank will cost around $50 -- a small price to pay for safety. Combining clothing expertise with ABS body airbag technology, The North Face just made shredding your way down a ledge a little bit safer.

Zach Honig contributed to this report.