How to Choose and Use Snow Shovels
A snow shovel designed for backcountry use can handle a variety of chores, but avalanche rescue is easily the most indispensable one. This article provides snow-shovel usage suggestions and tips on how to shop for one.
Shop for REI's selection of snow shovels.
For related info, see the REI Expert Advice article, Avalanche Safety Gear.
Uses for a Backcountry Snow Shovel
The most important reason to carry one is in case of an avalanche. If you're equipped with avalanche transceivers and probes but don't have a way to dig out the victim, you're in a very bad situation.
Every person in a group, not just 1 or 2, going into the winter backcountry must 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 backcountry 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—these could release and start to slide. For more on snowpack study, see the REI Expert Advice Avalanche Basics series of articles.
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. See the REI Expert Advice article, Winter Camping, for more on snow shelters.
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.
Perhaps less well known is that a shovel comes in handy for digging fresh snow to melt for drinking water. Scooping with your water bottle or your hands also works, but this quickly gets tiresome and cold.
Of course, backcountry shovels can also help you dig out your car at the trailhead or at the ski resort.
Shopping for a Snow Shovel
Key factors when shovel shopping are finding the right balance of strength, weight, blade size/shape and grip comfort.
Backcountry shovels are made to be both strong and lightweight:
- 6000-series aluminum is most commonly used for shovel shafts and blades. Though plastic is lighter, aluminum offers the strength and durability needed for emergency use.
- One unique design, the Snow Claw, uses high-density polyethylene (HDPE) so it can be rolled up and stored inside your pack. This super-light model is more useful for snow camping than it is at an avalanche scene.
Blade Size and Shape
Blade sizes vary between models. Larger blades are great for moving snow quickly, but they require more strength and may exhaust you faster. Smaller blades are easier to handle and may allow you to shovel at a faster rate over a longer period.
Blade shapes also vary. Flat blades are best for creating smooth snow-pit walls; a serrated blade edge helps bust up ice.
Most backcountry shovels have telescoping or segmented shafts for easy attaching to 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:
- The T-grip, which is gripped between the fingers, is lightweight and works well for most people. Some may find it awkward when wearing mittens or overmitts.
- The D-grip is usually bulkier and slightly heavier. It offers an efficient design and is often easier to use with mittens.
- The L-grip is less common, but it offers a lightweight option reminiscent of a vaccuum cleaner handle.
Choose a grip that fits comfortably in your hands.