Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
In the dark ages of the early 1970s, we built our own backcountry snow shovels out of grain scoops and aluminum sidewalk scrapers. The beefy ones weighed a ton. They’d last a season till they broke. If we constructed something that weighed less, it was strictly a throw away for one-time use. Progressing from there, only a handful of companies made shovels specific to backcountry skiing. Some of the first were by Life-Link and Voile, with Black Diamond coming in eventually with well designed product, as well as European companies such as Ortovox. Eventually, favorites such as Backcountry Access also entered the fray. Presently, you can find all sorts of good quality shovels for avalanche rescue and other uses in ski touring.
Back in those dark ages, out of frustration one avalanche consultant I knew carried a steel spade that weighed about eight pounds. His shovel never broke, but the sight of him tumbling down a slope, with the deadly implement flopping near his cranium, was worse than a slasher film.
With the dark ages behind us, shovels designed specifically for backcountry skiers and riders have been available for a while. Most are adequate for emergency use. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Some are shaped for optimum shoveling ergonomics, others are harder to use but pack easily. Most importantly, every shovel is a compromise between weight, durability and size.
Thus, for the committed winter backcountry enthusiast, one shovel may not be enough.
My shovel quiver always includes a standard “avalanche” shovel for hardcore mid-winter trips, and I’ve always got what I call a mini-shovel, a small cut-down lightweight job that’s designed to stay out of sight and unnoticed. Add to that my steel weapon stored in the back of our track, and then consider the huge shovels we use at the huts or for expeditions such as Denali.
You get the idea. Lots of shovels and pick the one most appropriate for the day. In our view, any committed backcountry skier should own at least two. One smaller lightweight for skiing in low avalanche conditions or in large groups with a variety of shovels, and one “regular” sized for average to dangerous avalanche conditions.