BCA Arsenal Backcountry Skiing Shovel Review

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

I’m down in New Zealand, in the thick of winter, dealing with avalanche terrain and associated equipment. Yep, shovels take on new meaning when you’re living at a resort and out every day. Luckily, I’ve been testing the new Backcountry Access Arsenal Shovel with 35mm Saw and Companion Blade. I was able to get a hold of it a few days before I left, which was great, since my old BCA Tour shovel/probe was getting worked after several years of heavy use.

The Tour shovel was small and super light, which was great, but over the years I have come to realize that a bit beefier shovel, with slightly more blade area, would be safer and more useful. After all, it is BCA themselves who opened my eyes to how important shovel strategy is when you’ve got an avalanche burial — easily as important as your beacon skills.

When I first unpacked the Arsenal/Companion shovel, I was super impressed by the design. My previous shovel had a probe that was stored in the handle, but getting it out meant taking out the push button that held the shovel together. Not only did you have to take the shovel apart, but the probe sometimes got jammed inside the handle, an annoying and potentially dangerous hassle.

Backcountry skiing Arsenal shovel BCA.

From left to right: Arsenal Shovel with 35mm Saw and Tour Blade, Arsenal Shovel with 35mm Saw and Companion Blade, detail of Arsenal handle/saw

At WildSnow HQ we actually received two new shovels from BCA, along with the Arsenal/Companion, the other in the quiver is an Arsenal with Tour blade and 240cm probe in the handle. The blades will attach to either handle, and the probe can fit in the saw handle, although not vice versa. With both, the most impressive design feature is that the probe and saw slide out of a nicely designed handle that has a section of the handle that pops out when you press a button. This is a WAY better design than my old shovel, since the shovel doesn’t have to be dismantled to get at the probe or saw.

The Companion blade is fairly large, but it is still very light, I think because it is thin aluminum. Nonetheless it seems plenty strong. The handle extends to about 1.5 times its original length. The saw is integrated into the handle beautifully, although it rattles a bit if you leave it in the shovel while shoveling, which is annoying. I have used the shovel to dig a few snow pits, and also for various ski patrol duties at Cheeseman, it’s holding up fine. The blade tends to deflect a little bit when shoveling really hard snow, but the flex isn’t enough to change the efficiency of shoveling. I also like the fact that the blade is flat and square; not only does this make nice snow pit walls, but is a much better stove platform than my old shovel (especially after it is modified).

I have never owned a snow saw before, mostly because I never encountered a layer in a snow pit that couldn’t be chopped through with the tail of a ski. That all changed in Washington last winter. In a few pits, I couldn’t chop through a particularly hard layer without demolishing everything around it (including my nice column). So I decided it was time for a snow saw. Luckily, just around that time the box arrived from BCA. Their 35 mm snow saw is nicely made, integrates with the shovel well, and is sharp and light. I haven’t had a chance to attack any rain crusts with it, but I have encountered some pretty hard snow layers down here in the Southern Hemisphere. The saw also cuts through wood pretty nicely, although I have never understood why snow saw manufactures always advertise that their saws cut through wood as well as snow. I guess if you are lugging a saw around, you might as well be able to cut wood with it. Perhaps it helps in Pacific Northwest bushwhacks, or extricating someone from particularly nasty avalanche debris? (I don’t even want to think about the latter.)

In all, I am truly impressed by the new BCA Arsenal shovels — they are definitely a step up, while still being light enough to pass WildSnow muster!

BCA’s Arsenal Shovel series will be available this fall, and you’ll be able to shop for them here.

Comments

19 Responses to “BCA Arsenal Backcountry Skiing Shovel Review”

  1. SB July 29th, 2009 10:41 am

    I’d guess that cutting wood might be useful in a survival situation where a fire was needed.

  2. Randonnee July 29th, 2009 10:51 am

    Ski Patrollers may make use of that saw cutting brush that sticks up in ski runs. Been there, done that. Many years ago, I bought light plastic/ metal Glock e-tools with a woodsaw in the handle, which was used some to cut brush poking through the piste…

  3. Steve July 29th, 2009 7:50 pm

    I remember those e-tools. Carrying a Glock at a ski area – gotta love it! Ha!

  4. Jack July 29th, 2009 10:34 pm

    Thanks for the well written shovel report, Louie. And your report on the ‘Tairn Forest’ was terrific. Would love to hear more on the NZ ski life.

  5. databot July 29th, 2009 11:17 pm

    Hard layers aren’t my main reason for using a snow saw in snowpits. A saw cuts columns far faster than a ski tail, w/ less hazard to anyone else in the pit, meaning you can duplicate tests quickly. More importantly, a saw makes far more consistent columns than the tail of a ski, esp when you are dealing w/ snowpacks deeper than in CO. And consistent columns make for far more meaningful comparisons between tests in the same pit and on different days. I’d much prefer to know that the difference between my test scores is due to a weak layer difference, not the dimensions of my column.

  6. Jonathan Shefftz July 30th, 2009 7:26 am

    Would love to hear more on how stiff the saw blade is for thick nasty crusts – big priority for us here in New England! For example, the regular BCA snow saw, although beautifully crafted, is just too flexible laterally for our all-too-typical “snow” pack. (G3 r-block cord? Hah! Hey G3, try coming up with a G3 r-block chainsaw!) I do like the idea though of putting the saw blade in the shovel shaft, since that solves the problem of how to protect everything else from your saw blade (without resorting to a dedicated cover – oh those extra ounces). I just noticed that Voile seems to have modified their design – I had the older version, which was a great saw, but the saw + shaft combo was kind of big.

    I also hope the BCA probe is similar in design and length to their newer “quickie” series. The old probe-in-shaft design was very short, and tricky to assemble.

  7. Dave Field July 30th, 2009 8:36 am

    The Canadian Avalanch Association published an artical recently by some Austrian researchers on the durability of shovels for chopping through hard snow. Many popular shovels were easily trashed. It gives a good idea of which shovels hold up to hard use. I see that Voile has put it on the web:

    http://www.voile-usa.com/AvalancheVol86_54-60.pdf

  8. Jonathan Shefftz July 30th, 2009 4:11 pm

    I was impressed (and reassured, since my quiver includes them among others) that the little Voile XLM and also the still quite light T6 came through that intact.
    But overall, that study was highly misleading regarding other shovels. Read the test’s protocol – do you know anyone who would dig for a potentially live victim in such a manner?

    BD’s response:
    “In our view, the technique used in the test involving hammering down with ski boots onto the back edge of the shovels is only used for and should only be used for, dead body recovery. We have questioned several seasoned professional patrollers about this technique just to be sure, and none of them have ever dug in a rescue search in the manner described in this test.”

    Pieps: “Basically you can destroy any piece of equipment, if you want…The strike with your foot method is dangerous for the victim…For this test to use this method and call it correct blade use is dangerous to publish.”

    Ortovox: “…We believe that so-called tests like the one…by Manuel Genswein and Ragnhild Eide only create uncertainty for consumers…. The results of this test are not comprehensible.”

    I think the test does prove how strong the Voile models are, but I don’t think it conveys any useful information on how the other shovels will fare in actual usage.

  9. Randonnee July 30th, 2009 5:42 pm

    Manufacturers who make such comments are just marketing-not appropriate- independent testing is what is needed. The XLM, which I carry, is the first commercially made shovel that I felt was light and strong enough to carry. Before that I carried my etool, which was actually lighter than a lot of the fancy big pretty shovels (before XLM) and is not likely to break. Etools are designed for dirt and rock and stand up quite well. Some patrollers in my past raced digging and claim the etool won over the larger pretty shovels- it is not just a matter of shovel blade size, also factoring in are the strength for vigorous use and quick shoveling. In other words, as demonstrated in the 19th Century Shovel Test (with laborers shoveling materials all day) there is an optimal size for moving material, larger does not necessarily mean more volume moved except in something like pristine fluffy snow. So for me, I carry my etool or my XLM.

  10. Louie July 30th, 2009 10:15 pm

    Jonathan, The saw is pretty flexible, definitely more than some other snow saws I have seen. I haven’t looked at the regular bca snow saw, but it is probably similar. It seemed adequate for all the sawing I have used it for, but I don’t live in New England.

  11. ScottP July 30th, 2009 11:42 pm

    It’s a shame they didn’t include any plastic shovels in that test. It would be interesting to see if they really are as weak as everyone claims.

  12. Lou July 31st, 2009 6:13 am

    In my experience, there is a myth that in a companion rescue situation the avy debris “sets up like concrete.” That does happen eventually, but not immediately, and is not a huge factor in a live companion rescue. Just to be sure, I’ve checked the debris of many recent avalanches, and it is definitly digable at first with just about any shovel, and without hacking. Just an FYI for those of you trying to sort all this out. What this means to me is that if I’m carrying a shovel that’s basically for moderate pit work in snow such as Colorado or Utah, and might be used for a rescue, strength is not that big a deal, but rather the shovel needs to be the correct size and not so heavy that it weighs down the backpack and prevents inclusion of other important safety gear such as enough water and food, or that extra layer of clothing. That’s not saying the shovel makers should ignore strength, just that they and us sometimes make too big a deal out of it.

    Also, a distinction should be drawn between shovel use by the ski tourer who doesn’t snow camp and digs an occasional snow pit, and that of the professional snow worker who pries on their shovel almost every day.

  13. Dave Field July 31st, 2009 8:42 am

    I agree the article’s test seems more applicable for those who use their shovels a lot as a workhorse tool as opposed to skiers who carry a shovel for emergency uses. You can rationalize the weight and occasional use justification of the lighter shovels but the weight penalty doesn’t seem huge to me for this critical tool. Perhaps what’s needed is a more realistic field test comparison of the current shovel crop using actual fresh avalanche debris?

  14. Randonnee July 31st, 2009 10:11 am

    There was a avalanche burial rescue attempt in my locale 15 years ago where it was reported (reliably) that two rescuers broke their (pretty and big) shovels while trying to save the buried skier. Too many other errors would have led to the death, anyway, the broken shovels were not the cause, but I feel that this example is important. I feel that this is an important issue. The larger the shovel blade, the greater requirement for strength and weight in the shovel. My estimation is that many large pretty shovels do not have the necessary strength for the size. Short, small and stout, in my view, and I think logically, is more reliable, and one is able to quickly dig more shovel strokes and thus move more material than with a large blade. This is my personal experience digging holes in the military (dirt) and also as a Patroller in heavy Cascade snow. The discussion and evaluation of shovels and transceivers is dominated by marketing and fashion, a tragic phenomenon in my view.

  15. Shoveler July 31st, 2009 11:12 am

    No doubt avy rescue shovels need a certain amount of strength, but I’d agree that sometimes the marketing gets on that too much… after all, we could just carry a steel blade shovel from the hardware store if it was really that big a factor.

  16. Mark Worley August 2nd, 2009 7:24 am

    Scott,
    In my experience the plastic shovels are nearly on par with metal shovels for strength. The often-noted problem is how the plastic deflects in certain snow while shoveling. Energy is wasted during this deflection.

  17. Jason August 4th, 2009 1:39 pm

    I’ll never use a plastic shovel again. I have an older plastic BCA and the new BCA tour shovel, I love the metal blade. Especially in the spring and heavier snow areas. That saw in the handle looks nice, but I’d worry about that thing flying outta there on my desperate attempt to unbury my buddy. Is it in their solid? I carry my probe on the outside of my pack. I think I’d do the same if I owned a saw… Good review. Send some pics of NZ!!!!

  18. Louie August 17th, 2009 3:02 pm

    Jason- the saw is in there pretty solid. you have to depress a small button to get it out, and even then it has a little bit of resistance. I like having the saw in the shovel because it creates a great carrying case to protect your other stuff from the saw, it also keeps it out of the way, since you are not going to be using it that often

  19. Jonathan Shefftz November 12th, 2009 4:28 pm

    Mine just arrived — very nifty!
    Minor correction to the original blog:
    “The blades will attach to either handle, and the probe can fit in the saw handle, although not vice versa.”
    – It’s the other way around. In other words, the saw can fit in either the fixed-length or extendable shaft. By contrast, the probe can fit in only the fixed-length shaft. (This is because the extendable shaft has a slight constriction partway down that is too narrow for the probe to pass through.)

    BTW, some neato mix-and-match combos are possible even without the probe or saw. For example, the fixed-length shaft plus the Tour blade equals a combination that is only about an ounce and a half heavier than the regular Tour shovel, but with some extra length though could be helpful. Or remove the extension from the extendable shaft, pair with the Tour blade, and you’ve replicated the regular Tour shovel.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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