Backcountry Camp Shovels

Leave-No-Trace etiquette notwithstanding, a shovel in camp during the summer might have limited uses such as prepping an area for a fire ring, removing coals or in digging a cat-hole latrine. However, it’s during a snowy winter in the back-country where their utility can be much more appreciated and applied to various snow-related tasks.

There are two types of “camp” shovels; the first is the more commonly recognized, classic military type typically available as an entrenchment tool at Army surplus outlets or sold as emergency/survival gear. The other is a bigger, wide bladed “snow” shovel used primarily in avalanche rescue operations.  Each design has its advantages for performing different snow removing tasks in a snowy, cold weather setting.

The small, compact, folding or telescoping handled “military/emergency” shovels feature a spade-like blade that unfolds to serve as a mini-shovel for surface digging or other shallow hand excavating work. Many of these blades fold back to lock at a ninety-degree angle to become a small hoe for shallow excavating (cat-hole latrine) or quick digging just below the snow’s surface (digging out a buried snow-mobile?).

The larger shovels look similar to those used to clear a homeowner’s sidewalk/driveway. They have longer handles and a broader blade. They are best for moving a  high volume of deep snow quickly. Their blade’s edge is also well suited for creating a smooth surface to shave away snow for revealing layers during a snow profile procedure. Most have break-down handles. They can be used to create large mounds of snow for constructing a quinzee shelter or for piling insulating snow around the outside of your tent or shelter.

To be a good camp shovel there are several factors a traditional/hoe shovel should have, including:

  • Long Handle – relative to the blade to provide better leverage for more efficient digging;
  • Adjustable – variable handling, more efficient digging options (folding blade for hoe, pick option); extendable shafts;
  • Lightweight – considered being under 1.5 pounds, less prone to cause fatigue, less added weight for packing; (shovels over 3 pounds are considered to be too heavy);
  • Collapsible – ease of packing/stowing; handles telescope, either fixed or at variable lengths;
  • Handle Grip: Triangular or “T” for secure gripping, less fatigue when digging;
  • Strong materials: Stainless steel is popular but doesn’t hold edge well (cutting roots, etc.); Carbon steel has good edge retention; Aluminum is lightweight but prone to bending.

A traditional shovel should be strong enough to endure repeated stomping on the blade top to help cut through the ground. Snow shovels are more for scooping/piling large quantities of snow (clearing a snow cave or creating/carving out a quinzee snow shelter).

  • Portability: easily stowed (compactness; foldability);
  • Adaptions: Serrated side edge for cutting through roots.

In addition to their main function as an excavating tool, some shovels have holes strategically located in the blade to better enable the shovel to be used as an emergency snow stake. While not a tool every camper needs, a camp shovel does have a few applied uses that make it a valuable piece of gear to have as part of your camping gear inventory.

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