A snow shovel can be used for a variety of tasks in the backcountry.
The most important reason to carry one is in case of an avalanche. If you're equipped with avalanche beacons and probes but don't have a way to dig out the victim, you're pretty much up a creek (without a shovel, so to speak).
Every person in a group, not just 1 or 2, going into the winter backcountry should carry a shovel. You never know who will get caught in an avalanche, and you want to make sure that all the available shovels aren't buried.
Shovels are also used to dig pits for determining snowpack conditions. Frequently throughout a trip, members of the party should dig into the snow to see what's happening underfoot. A snow pit allows you to determine if weak layers exist, which could release and start to slide. For more on snowpack study, see our Avalanche Basics Clinic.
Shovels are indispensable for making quick emergency shelters. If, on a day outing, you need to stay overnight due to an unexpected emergency or mishap, you can dig a quick shelter in a tree well or trench or you can make a more elaborate snow cave.
A more commonplace use of snow shovels is that of carving out a level space for your tent when snow camping or glacier climbing. You can carve out a windscreen or dig a kitchen area, complete with seating, if you're so inclined. Snow camping can bring out the kid in you, especially when you have shovels along!
And last but not least, a shovel comes in handy for digging fresh snow to melt for drinking water. Scooping with your water bottle or your hands works, but it can get a little tiresome and cold after a while!
Snow shovels are made of lightweight materials for ease of carrying on a backpack.
There is debate among skiers and mountaineers over the "best" material. Some think that aluminum blades are far better at removing solid avalanche debris or ice, while others say that the polycarbonate blades are adequate for either purpose and won't weigh you down. Ultimately, you need to decide which is more important to you. If your shovel weighs so much that you leave it behind, you aren't gaining anything.
Most backcountry shovels have telescoping or segmented shafts that can be made compact for carrying on your pack. They fit together with spring-loaded buttons that pop into holes in the connecting sections.
Handles, typically made of plastic for easy grip, come in a variety of shapes:
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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