Trudging through knee- or thigh-deep snow is far more tiring - not to mention freezing - than walking on solid ground. If you find yourself caught in the middle of a snowstorm without snowshoes, you could get into trouble quickly. Airlite inflatable snowshoes give you a lightweight emergency back-up, that lets you walk atop the snow and get out safe and sound.

Alaska-based Airlite is quite clear that its snowshoes are designed for emergency use only, providing someone stranded in a deep-snow environment a better chance of hiking his way to survival. They aren't designed to be a replacement for regular recreational or backcountry snowshoes, but more of a piece of survival gear.

The snowshoes were inspired by incidents involving stranded snowmobilers. In one specific incident cited by the company, two snowmobilers ran out of gas in the backcountry. Even though they were only about a mile from a lodge at midday, they were unable to make it back by nighttime because of the deep snow in all directions. They were found frostbitten the next day after spending the night in the cold, wet outdoors. Given their proximity to civilization, all it would have taken was a pair of snowshoes to get back before night set in.

While regular snowshoes are too large, heavy and cumbersome to serve an emergency function, Airlite's urethane inflatables pack small and weigh just over 2 lbs (around a kilogram) per pair. When inflated, each snowshoe measures 36 x 16 inches (91.4 x 40.6 cm) and provides more than 540 sq in (3,483 sq cm) of surface area to allow you to better float atop deep snow. They inflate by mouth, but require a bike pump or CO2 inflator to deliver the proper pressure - the company says they'll deliver some float when inflated by mouth alone, but should be topped off with a pump for the best results. They work best for user weights up to 250 lbs (113 kg), but the company is currently working on a 325 lb (147 kg) model for the military.

Though Airlite snowshoes aren't designed to be used as an everyday piece of gear, they are made from durable, puncture-resistant material. They should hold up to multiple uses without deflating. The material was tested in the incomparably tough conditions of Alaskan winters at temperatures tumbling down to -30ºF (-34ºC).

The Airlites have a knobbed traction pad on the underside to provide some grip on harder, slicker snow. The company is currently working on a folding, strapped stainless steel crampon that will make the Airlites more versatile in slick, mountainous terrain. It will actually offer the crampon to current owners free of charge and will sell it as an accessory to new buyers. It should be ready for next winter.

In addition to snowmobilers, Airlite snowshoes are a useful survival tool for dog mushers, backcountry snowboarders, hunters, mountain rescue personnel, and other professionals and recreationalists that might get caught in deep snow. At US$168 a pair, they aren't any cheaper than regular snowshoes, but their small, packable form factor makes them a useful tool.

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