How to Choose a Backcountry Shovel

Following an avalanche, the average victim has about 15 minutes to survive. This means his group has 15 minutes to find his general location with a transceiver, probe the snow to get an exact location and shovel him out. After that, the chances are that they'll be shoveling to uncover a body. The backcountry shovel is a vital piece of gear and should be carried with you at all times when skiing, snowboarding or climbing in the backcountry where avalanche conditions exist. When picking out a shovel, you want something that's lightweight and compactable but you should never sacrifice quality and usability. Think about it this way. If you were buried in the snow, would you want your buddy using that tiny, flimsy plastic ultralight "scraper" to dig you out or would you hope that he had something a bit more substantial?
How to Choose a Backcountry Shovel


Difficulty: Moderate

Step 1
Consider how sturdy and effective the shovel will be. Remember, a backcountry shovel is an essential piece of safety equipment that could save someone's life. Also bear in mind that you won't be using it to shovel dry powder. After an avalanche, snow sets like concrete and can be quite heavy, hard and dense. A strong metal head and shaft can help to ensure the shovel gets the job done. Avoid plastic heads.
Step 2
Measure that the shovel will fit in your pack. Many backcountry shovels break into two pieces or include a collapsible handle so that they are easier to carry. Bring your backcountry pack along to the shop to make sure that the shovel fits comfortably.
Step 3
Break down and reassemble the handle to see how easy and user-friendly it is. Remember time is life and even a few seconds wasted fumbling around could be the difference. If it is difficult to line up spring pins when you're standing in the shop, imagine how difficult it will be in the freezing cold with gloves on and heart racing.
Step 4
Make sure the handle is sturdy and effective. Most backcountry shovels feature a small T-bar or D handle on top that will help provide leverage when digging. Make sure this fits your hand comfortably and provides the necessary support to give you the most digging force.
Step 5
Consider other features. Some shovels also come with other necessary tools like probe and snow saw built right into the handle shaft. This could help to save some space in your pack.
Step 6
Consider weight. While integrity and function are the most important factors, you'll want to limit weight as best you can so that you have a lighter pack. Check the specifications or simply roughly compare weights of various shovels by hand.

Tips & Warnings

Remember the bigger the head, the quicker you'll dig. Get as big a shovel as you can fit in your pack to provide the most efficient digging.
A longer shaft can make a shovel easier to use when standing up and can provide extra leverage.
Practice digging things out of the snow with the shovel before going into the backcountry. The more comfortable you are with it, the more effective you will be.
No amount of equipment can fully protect you from an avalanche. There is no substitution for proper preparation, skills and knowledge.
Don't travel in avalanche country on high-risk days and take avalanche safety courses for a better understanding of avalanche science and rescue.
Never travel into the backcountry without packing the following: avalanche beacon, shovel, probe and a partner with all the same equipment.

Article Written By Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher has been a writer since 2002, starting his career in politics and legislation. He has written travel and outdoor recreation articles for a variety of print and online publications, including "Rocky Mountain Magazine" and "Bomb Snow." He received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Rutgers College.

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