Choices in Lightweight Gear — Shovels

Post by blogger | March 28, 2006      

The plastic vs aluminum shovel debate continues to rage on web forums and during private conversations. A number of people have asked what I use, and why I depict a minimal plastic shovel in my photo of a gear kit for springtime lightweight ski traverses. Let it be known that we’ve got a variety of shovels here at the world headquarters (steel,plastic, aluminum) and pick our shovels based on the goals and style of our trips. Some of our spring ski tours have little to no avalanche danger, and for those trips we might carry a modified shovel that’s been cut down for less weight and easier packing. Since such trips may involve dangerous travel on steep frozen snow, carrying a lighter shovel might allow us to haul iceax; crampons; rope — items we might leave behind if our pack was already too heavy.

During other trips we’re going for backcountry powder, so we carry the shovel we think is the best compromise between weight and performance for digging out an avalanche victim. That shovel could be the best quality aluminum models, or the best quality plastic ones, both of which I believe perform fine for avalanche rescue. Avalanche debris do set up and “freeze” a while after the avalanche happens (a “while” meaning after nearly all hope of live rescue is gone), and digging such snow might require more shovel then any of the packable aluminum or plastic models available. Bear in mind when I’m writing about avalanche shovels I’m talking about party self-rescue within minutes of a burial. Anything else is body recovery in a frozen tomb, and even the vaunted aluminum shovels sold for self-rescue may not be up to the task of digging out a corpse frozen in a virtual block of ice.

So what shovels do we use? Here are a few picks from our pile (in random order):
– Indigo SnowLogic
– Voile XLM (weighs 17 ounces rather than the advertised 16)
– Life-Link plastic (various models, some modified)
– Black Diamond Lynx
– Backcountry Access (don’t know exact model, I think it’s the “Tour”)
– Steel spade (kept in truck, for getting unstuck or mountain rescue volunteer work during avalanche body recovery)
– other shovels we play around with modifying and testing.

Everything can be improved, so I’m always trying to figure out the best shovel size/weight/durability compromise, and also trying mods such as lightning holes and methods for using an ice axe or ski poles as a handle. Indeed, for our overnight spring ski traverses I may switch to a small aluminum shovel such as the Voile XLM. Why? It can be used as a stove platform. Why not? A dark plastic Life-Link shovel works well as a solar snow melting device. Perhaps one of us will carry the alu, and one the plastic. Yeah!

In the meantime I’ve got to get my first aid card renewed. Anyone else need that?


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6 Responses to “Choices in Lightweight Gear — Shovels”

  1. Josh P. March 28th, 2006 10:01 am

    Good point regarding the First Aid card. I took level 1 avy, but it did not even cross my mind to brush up on first aid until my wife mentioned it the other night. Duh.
    As for the shovel debate, I would rather carry a little heavier, and more burly shovel myself (metal), but hell, that just gives me a better workout.

  2. dave downing March 28th, 2006 10:57 am

    but lou. what about backcountry jumps. do you have a shovel preference for that? i just tie a rope from my pack to my drive way snow shovel and drag it along. so long as it doesn’t snag anything i get little resistence as it slides along, and therefor little weight penalty for maximum snow piling ability:)

  3. RobinB March 28th, 2006 11:38 am

    Thanks for pushing the First Aid component of self rescue lately. I think it’s one thing that is often neglected.

    Read Andrew McLean’s story at: for a heads up on why you might need more than a beacon, shovel and probe.

  4. Lou March 28th, 2006 12:46 pm

    Dave, you carry a true big-shovel, you are an animal. But if you do want a shovel you can carry and still build kickers with, perhaps the Life-Link Pit Boss would be a good choice.

  5. Roy Haraldstad March 28th, 2006 2:30 pm

    If you read the accident reports, human factors tend to bury most people in avalanches.If i were to spent money on only one backcountry item, it would be a good avy course.How many people “really” practice with their beacons?If you are not quick enough locating your partner, having a backhoe would not matter.The first aid part is also right on the money.Here in the North East where 99% of the people who ski “tucks” don’t own that type of equipment anyway.They read the avy report and if it says low,mod or high, they go.

  6. Dmitriy Yegoshin March 28th, 2006 4:56 pm

    I think that gear choice and technique are different to everyone.

    For example I was reading a russian website where they advise against using a probe for fear that you might poke someones eye out. True that is a possibility but then again I would rather live with one eye then die with both intact.

    I agree that there is not clear winner that stands out, for me personally it was a the price that detemined I will/am carring a steel shovel.

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