Latest BCA Avalanche Rescue Shovels — Best Yet


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Shop for BCA avalanche rescue shovels

(Editor’s note from Lou: Someone asked me about shovels this morning. As far as I can tell, BCA makes some of the best and we like they’re a USA company. So I thought I’d bring this post from last spring up to the front this weekend. An upgraded latest shovel makes a nice gift, hint hint.)

Backcountry Access B Series avalanche rescue shovels, B-1 to left, B-2 to right.

Backcountry Access B Series avalanche rescue shovels, B-1 to left, B-2 to right. Sunglasses for scale.

Ah, the lowly and sometimes lovely avalanche rescue shovel. Extra weight 99.9 percent of the time for most backcountry skiers. Then, the .1 percentile occurs and it is hopefully love at first sight.

No clear nor industry-wide standard is in use for avalanche rescue shovels for mountaineering. Instead, the person who does the most visible test and has the strongest opinion seems to rule the design process. Recent industry trend is for much stronger shovels due to the Austrian Alpine Club Genswein Test of a few years ago. In my opinion some of that test was misguided (as in worrying if a shovel can be stomped on hard enough to decapitate a moose in one stroke), but it did inspire an industry-wide improvement in shovels that continues to this day.

One of this season’s best examples of a better shovel is the Backcountry Access “B” series. Comprised of three sizes, B series provides a shovel for just about every backcountry traveler out there — even a big one with D-handle (B-52) for Alaskan style adventure. By virtue of engineering such as reinforcement dimples, oval shafts and welded shaft/blade sockets, the B Series shovels are virtually the same weight as previous BCA shovels, but stronger. They also look better with a modern touch of color and form that inspires confidence.

We tested and are still using the two more “normal” versions of the B series: B-1 and B-2.

During safer tours or snowpack, or tours with large groups, our go-to was the B-1 which at 90 square inches (9″x10″, 23 x 25.5 cm) is right in there as the smallest size most people agree is still practical for actually performing a snow digging rescue. I did my usual torture tests by wedging the shovel in place and levering on it with gusto. Pass. Shape of the blades is fine, with reduced profile for easier packing. Extendable shaft locks in with a positive “snick” of the spring buttons, has acceptable amount of play. Grips feel fine and nice to see the D handle on the big guy, as in my experience that’s the best way to configure a shovel for use in extreme environments (we’re also assuming the B-52 D handle can be used with the other BCA blades).

Cons? Only two: 1.) how about a few more lashing holes in the blade, and 2.) I think it’s time we started seeing some avalanche companion rescue shovels that were significantly lighter yet strong enough.

This brings me to a thought: depending on your size and strength, your shoveling ergonomics will, to some degree, dictate what size shovel is going to yield the most efficient dig-out of a buried friend. This is especially true if you’re by yourself. My recommendation is if you’ve got the upper body strength of an average fit male and are traveling with just one companion, you go to the next size up from the B-1 form factor, to the B-2 at 110 square inches, (10″x11″, 25×28 cm). If you’re a smaller person or traveling with a group that’s going to be teaming up for “strategic digging” during a rescue, shovel size is not much of an issue. Carry what you feel is appropriate (perhaps the smaller blade if you’re a smaller person); once a rescue dig begins the correct shovels for the different tasks will quickly sort themselves out.

Also in terms of shovel sizes, I’ve found it useful to have a quiver of several to choose from at home during the get-ready at home. In terrain that’s likely or somewhat likely to produce avalanches during backcountry skiing, I like having an extendable shaft as that’s key to really moving snow. Along with that, when I’m with just one other person I prefer something more the size of the larger B-2. On the other hand, in low avy hazard terrain or conditions (such as consolidated spring or summer snow) I carry a smaller blade and non-extend shaft. The BCA variety supports this idea. For example, buy a B-1 with a fixed length shaft and a B-2 with extendable. The shafts will work with either shovel, mix and match for the day. Nice. They should sell the duo as a package deal — “My BCA quiver, shovel love!”

BCA B Series shovel blade and shaft interface.

BCA B Series shovel blade and shaft interface. The trend these days seems to be welding in a shaft socket instead of attempting to bend it in during blade forming. No doubt more expensive, but said to be much stronger and allow building the shovel without a long neck that makes it hard to pack. If you've ever used a shovel to failure, you might have experienced this as the fail point, and thus understand the need for an improvement.

Additional details:
B-1 comes in three versions, extendable (596 grams), fixed length (525 grams), and fixed length with stowed probe (666 grams).
B-2 in two versions, extend (723 grams) and no extend (624 grams).
B-52 one version, shaft extends for super efficient total shovel length of 39.5 inches, 100 cm. (879 grams)

Shop for BCA avalanche rescue shovels

Comments

35 Responses to “Latest BCA Avalanche Rescue Shovels — Best Yet”

  1. Mark W May 17th, 2012 9:57 am

    At a recent avalanche class I attended, I discovered that handle length made a HUGE difference in shoveling comfort and efficiency, i.e. stubby, non-extendible handle worked only passibly and was uncomfortable. I felt really stooped over and had little leverage.

  2. Wyatt May 17th, 2012 12:27 pm

    I was in the market for a shovel recently and the B series seemed to fit the bill exactly. However, doing searches online yielded complaints of the tube filling up with snow, causing problems with the spring latch thing. I ended up going with an Arva Ovo since it has the hole blocked off.

  3. Lou May 17th, 2012 1:30 pm

    Wyatt, that is an excellent point. They should indeed block that hole off. On the other hand, all snow getting in there would do is make it tough to push in the spring buttons and get the shaft out, wouldn’t interfere with a rescue. Personally, I’ve never had anything like that happen with a shovel, but I’m usually in Colorado snow at colder temps.

  4. Charlie May 17th, 2012 2:17 pm

    Cascadian snow getting stuck in an open-shafted shovel (and being frozen, wet, and interfering with the spring latch) is about half the reason I switched to a new shovel. The rest was due to strength. While shoveling out a high-centered car, I heard a crackling sound at the shaft/shovel interface.

    New shovel is supposedly stronger. The plugged shaft means I take it out and dig more often, since it doesn’t get my pack wet nor compromise function in a rescue.

    Frozen snow in the shaft impede latching as well as disassembly.

  5. Lou May 17th, 2012 3:16 pm

    How much you want to bet BCA will block that hole off next season?

  6. Tim May 17th, 2012 3:49 pm

    I also had trouble with the probe getting forced into the spring tab area. A sharp thump of the handle on the ground fixes that when it happens.

    This is only a serious problem if I had to take the handle off to put on or take off the outside of my pack(handle doesn’t fit in the axe loop.)

  7. Shane May 17th, 2012 4:57 pm

    I don’t know Lou, I can imagine snow/ice (especially if it’s the right size of chunk) getting shoved into the tube, compressing the spring clip, possibly releasing the handle while digging. I think that is a pretty good reason to wait until they plug the hole before buying one of these.

  8. Tim May 17th, 2012 5:01 pm

    Looking at the handle and spring clip I think it would be pretty far fetched that it would be forced closed(releasing the handle).

    Then again, anything’s possible. I could see holding off if it was a choice of the same price and availability, but given that I own the shovel already I couldn’t see myself ‘upgrading’ if they fixed that

  9. Mark May 17th, 2012 5:07 pm

    If they do plug that hole I would hope that they make the plug and pin removable. Otherwise it would be much more difficult to use the handle as spacers in an emergency sled.

  10. David B May 17th, 2012 5:32 pm

    Wouldn’t plugging the hole be worse.

    I have a BD shovel with formed socket which is open. If snow gets in it’s easy to just push it through with a gloved finger, pole or probe. From my experience snow gets in to every available hole, so blocking one end would seem to trap the snow and give it no escape.

    My shovel fits neatly into the back pocket of my pack which protects it from snow clogging.

  11. MorganW May 17th, 2012 10:52 pm

    in reply to wyatt:

    “complaints of the tube filling up with snow, causing problems with the spring latch thing”

    I thought the same thing about the BCA design, so went with Black Diamond.

  12. AndyC May 18th, 2012 9:53 am

    I’ve been carrying the same Chouinard shovel (blade 8.5 x 10″) for almost 20 years; of course, I’ve only used it in rescue simulations and digging pits–it is not the best for digging pits with nice clean walls. I has reinforcing channels in the blade and an ovalized handle. It is the largest that will fit in my Manaslu pack shovel pocket and handle pocket. My wife went to a bc store and asked the Tele/AT salesperson for the best avy shovel for me for a Xmas present. It was soooo big that it wouldn’t fit into my Arc’ teryx Khamski pack (it would fit in my Dana bomb pack with the handle up in the air! LOL

  13. Lou May 18th, 2012 10:16 am

    Ask someone’s opinion of the best avy rescue shovel, that’s like asking them what the best snow tires are. And since when did shop sales clerks become avalanche rescue experts. Some are, some are not…

    And hey, why not ski with a shovel handle sticking up in the air, isn’t that stylish?

    Lou

  14. Wyatt May 18th, 2012 10:57 am

    I think this thread is one of the the things I read – lots of good discussion (and the usual TGR attitude):

    http://www.tetongravity.com/forums/showthread.php/237994-BCA-Bomber-Shovel-review-fail

  15. Edge May 18th, 2012 11:12 am

    Thanks for all this feedback. We love people who care about shovels! You’ll be pleased to hear that next year’s BCA shovels will have a plug in the shaft to keep snow from packing in. A wad of snow can indeed sometimes impede removing the shaft from the blade. However, we have not seen it actually cause the spring pins to disengage. It’s feedback like this that helps us improve products. Keep it coming!

  16. Lou May 18th, 2012 11:38 am

    It sounds like all shovel shafts should be plugged. But in all honesty, after using BCA and other open shaft shovels for years, for everything from Denali expeditions to snow cave building to shoveling out the portahut, I’ve never had a problem with snow getting in the shaft and doing anything that would have compromised a rescue. In fact, I can’t remember any problem at all other than once I had a shovel (not BCA) that had crumby buttons on it and my glove would push them in while I was shoveling, and release the handle. Even this only happened once in a while, and was easily fixed by wrapping a ridge of duct tape above and below the button (duct tape storage). I have no doubt the “snow wedgie” can happen, but have to wonder if sometimes the case is being over stated, especially when it comes to this ever compromising a rescue.

    Stuff at the above mentioned website frequently gets over-stated and raged about all too much. To me, the anonymous flame posts over there don’t usually have much credibility. For all I know, it’s some guy being paid by a competitor to diss a product. Believe me, that happens, just like there is a whole industry of paying shills to do forum posts and blog comments touting just about any product. We try to prevent all that. In fact, we work our butts off to keep these comment threads on the up-and-up. Lou

  17. Lou May 18th, 2012 12:30 pm

    I find it telling that the much revered Genswein test, the test that’s basically driving avalanche shovel design almost industry wide, only briefly identifies this shaft plug issue as a test or failure factor. First, perhaps it shows that the Genswein test isn’t the end-all be-all, or second, perhaps it shows that the plug or no-plug issue is not a big deal — since the Genswein shovel nukers didn’t think it was a big deal. Thinking outloud… Lou

  18. Mark S. May 18th, 2012 1:07 pm

    I bought this shovel in early March. We had unusually warm weather and wet snow in Montana, and my new BCA shovel was plugged with snow every time I dug a snowpit. The first time it happened, I tapped the shaft on my boot to remove the snow. I didn’t think that I hit it very hard, but was hard enough that I deformed the shape of the shaft just enough so that I couldn’t put it back into the blade.

    Credit to BCA – they immediately shipped me a replacement shaft, no charge. No one designs 100% perfect gear, but this kind of excellent customer service makes the difference to me. From my experience just digging pits (no rescues), it seems to be a great shovel otherwise. Glad to hear the hole will be plugged.

  19. Tom May 19th, 2012 12:47 am

    Hey Lou, thanks for the review, what’s your opinion on the spring loaded pins used in every shovel? Could you explain how they work/ are attached inside? I worry and recall reading in a tree well incident about them failing or popping through or out, ever heard/ experienced anything similar?

  20. Lou May 19th, 2012 5:36 am

    Hi Tom, good question. The spring loaded pins can definitely be a weak point. Never had them fail myself but I recall that in the Genswein test they did get some to fail after hacking on the shovel like maniacs. I’ve seen quite a variety. For a shovel that’s used the way most avy shovels are used (occasional pits, one rescue at the most in the whole life of the shovel) most spring-pins are plenty strong, provided they are the larger version and best done as doubles (filling holes on both sides of the shaft). If they’re double they are quite strong, and if they do fail the shovel can be quickly repaired by simply sticking bailing wire through the holes a few times then wrapping with some duct tape.

    Most shovels use the larger version of the pins, and the BCA uses all doubles as do some other brands. You can get versions of the spring pins that are even stronger than most in use, I’ve seen them, but they’re overkill in my opinion.

    Clear?

    Lou

  21. Lou May 19th, 2012 5:40 am

    As for how the pins work, they’re simply mounted on the ends of a U shaped spring that’s inserted i the shaft. The end of the spring can be seen in the photo in blog post above. If you examine a shovel with these, they’re pretty obvious. The one near the end can usually be easily removed. Indeed, if someone was concerned about the pins, they could easily be replaced periodically and a spare could be carried in repair kit.

  22. robbie May 21st, 2012 6:16 am

    the welds along the shaft socket look very short. Why do they make them shorter than the actual socket? This looks like a weak point to me. They should extend the welds to the top of the blade/socket. My Mammut shovel with similar socket/blade welding failed after a few short digs, as the welds cracked.

  23. Lou Dawson November 25th, 2012 10:27 am

    Robbie, I’m not sure about the answer. I do know that it makes metallurgical sense to not extend the weld to the exact edge, where it can actually make a weak point where a crack can start. BCA did some major testing, and we’ve used these quite a bit now, the welds seem to hold up fine. Also, those welds might be quite a bit stronger than the material they are holding, which is another reason they don’t have to look huge.

    As for testing one brand/model then using that to evaluate another brand/model, I’d suggest that’s going a bit too far in terms of guesswork.

  24. Ian November 25th, 2012 11:58 am

    Thought I’d let everyone know, I got a new B-52 in the mail last week and there is now a plug in the end of the shaft. Should solve the problem of the shaft filling with snow.

  25. Knut November 25th, 2012 1:32 pm

    What the fog? Best yet. I have the shovel in question, and it’s really fun to use. After the first two-three shovel movements, you have the choice: Either your shovel blade falls off now, or you’ll have to attach it to the outside of your backpack afterwards, because you won’t be able to disassemble. Lucky are those conditions, where either happens and you end up with still having the spring feathers for locking the shaft.

    I thought higher of your ability to judge, guys

  26. Lou Dawson November 25th, 2012 1:34 pm

    Sorry to let you down. Your comment gives a nay to the yea, so there you go… Worked fine for us…

    If what’s causing your problems is the lack of a plug at bottom end, to prevent snow and ice packing in, duct tape exists (grin). Lou

  27. MC November 25th, 2012 6:36 pm

    In Europe they don’t have duct tape freely available so they decided to design shovels with shaft holes closed (regardles of snpw sililar like in CO). I heard, as soon as they have a WallMart and duct tape on the shelf there they will implement cheap BCA design there too.

  28. John Gloor November 25th, 2012 7:08 pm

    I ski with a BD avalung pack and a Voile telepro shovel with a D handle. I can barely get the handle into my exterior shovel pouch. If the blade did not have the extended socket for the handle, then the handle would have to be that much longer to make a shovel of comparable length. For every bit that the blade assembly is shortened, the handle has to be that much longer. Just something to think about if you have a small shovel pouch. If my handle was any longer, I’d have to store it in the main storage area.

  29. Juergen November 26th, 2012 4:49 am

    I’ve just bought a B1 and needed to remove a tightly fixed plug in order to stow BCA’s minimalistic probe ! I would highly appreciate their B2′s probe storage system in an upgraded B1 shaft !

  30. Lou Dawson November 26th, 2012 7:22 am

    Gloor, what I’m liking if I’m willing to carry the weight is to use an extendable shovel shaft, cut it to whatever length fits my pack nicely. Since it extends, it’s plenty long even after taking a bit off. For spring skiing with minimal avy danger, I use a non-extendable shortened shaft, and sometimes a smaller blade. One thing I like about BCAs shovels is you can mix and match.

  31. Lou Dawson November 26th, 2012 9:30 am

    Ok you guys, regarding all this moaning and gnashing of teeth about the BCA shovels shaft plug issue. Here is the official word:

    “they all have a plug in that (lower shaft) opening now. We even have a retrofit
    kit, so you can add a plug to your existing Bomber.”

  32. Steve February 19th, 2013 8:29 am

    Lou
    I have just bought my first shovel and probe being the BCA B- 1 Tour System which means the B-1 shovel and a 180cm probe. As you say the shaft of the shovel does have a plug in the bottom opening of the shovel. However, BCA’s promo on this B-1 Tour System is that the probe can be stowed in the shaft of the shovel, but the only way to get it in is to remove the plug and then the spring clip system that holds the shaft to the blade. Now I may be new to backcountry stuff but one thing that stands out above all is that speed is of the essence to saving people’s lives who have been caught in an avalanche and hence BCA’s suggestion to keep a probe in a difficult to get at place is irresponsible as well as misleading to customers.
    I have written to BCA twice about this issue in the last couple of days but so far no response.
    I would welcome your and other’s thoughts on this please and wonder if you would be able to ask BCA to comment please?
    PS Great site, very useful, thanks

  33. Lou Dawson February 19th, 2013 9:17 am

    Steve, storing the probe in the shovel handle can be kind of lame unless it goes in and out fast. Also, probes that are small enough to do that with tend to be too flexible. Personally, I’d rather have a shorter and more rigid probe rather than a longer flexy one. And that’s exactly what I do, I carry a fairly short but fairly rigid probe. Some folks here know that I don’t always carry a probe, just saying that so I don’t get jumped on by folks who know of my controversial take on that. I do carry a probe when I feel it’s appropriate, just as I carry larger or smaller shovels, and larger or smaller first aid kits. If you’re new to the game, always carry your probe. But once you’re experienced practice with a probe made from singe ski pole with basket removed, you may be surprised at how well that works with combined with modern beacons. Also, when it comes to avy safety, be sure your group always carries an emergency comm device such as a SPOT or satphone, or cell phone in an area where it work. Those things save lives as well, since trauma from avalanche is frequently of the type where a quick evac can make the difference between life and death. Lou

  34. Steve February 19th, 2013 4:32 pm

    Lou, thanks very much for your very useful advice.
    I am amazed that BCA are marketing the combination of the B-1 shovel and a 180cm probe on the basis that the probe fits in the shaft of the shovel and so saves space in a back pack which for many people like myself who have opted for the Float22 avalanche airbag system is desirable due to the relatively small amount of space available in the bag. I have no plans to do any ski touring and so I am keen on light and compact equipment and like many people I am not in a position to have an armoury of different types and combinations.
    I am sure a lot of people visit this site to get information on equipment as indeed I did and so I think it would be very useful for the site to point out that the B-1 Touring System as BCA have called it is not really fit for purpose if the probe is stored in the shaft of the shovel as is suggested by BCA’s promotional information. This would save some other people using your site from buying a product that is sure to disappoint.

  35. Lou Dawson February 19th, 2013 5:16 pm

    Steve, you pointed it out, so it’s done! That’s the way a blog with comments is supposed to work. Thanks! Lou

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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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