Once seen as a novelty item of the "gear head", or point of interest in some technical outdoor stores – in Britain at least – the snow shovel has in recent years become a staple winter product for all the UK’s mountaineering and ski-touring specialist retailers.
The practical use of a snow shovel is now well beyond debate, as these simple tools have been carried for many years in the US and Europe, proving their worth time and again. So why precisely do we carry snow shovels in the mountains or backcountry? The following is a breakdown of the various tasks, you may find difficult or impossible without the addition of a snow shovel to your winter gear résumé:
Outside of the UK, avalanche rescue is probably the most prevalent reason for carrying a snow shovel. Traveling at speeds of up 120mph, and entombing the victim in a concrete-like snow-pack, these "white waves of destruction" offer little chance of avoidance if caught in their path. As such the only way of rescuing a victim is by digging them out with a sturdy snow shovel. In avalanche country it is also wise for each party member to carry both an electronic transceiver and/or avalanche probe. Another elementary mistake made by groups in areas at risk of avalanche, is that they don’t all carry a snow shovel. Each person should be packing a quality snow shovel, as it’s not much use if the only snow shovel ends up being carried by the avalanche victim!
Connected to ‘Avalanche Rescue’, another potential life saving use of the snow shovel is for testing snowpack conditions, before venturing out onto a conspicuous open slope or mountain side. Such techniques as Snow Sheer, Snowpack Pit’s and most telling, the Rutschblock test (see the well explained video below for how this is done) will help you avoid avalanche dangers, and cannot be achieved without the use of a snow shovel.
Snow shovels are also invaluable for making a camping platform or an emergency shelter. If you are carrying a suitable tent, a shovel is a great tool for carving out a level space for your campsite, and packing down the surface snow. The shovel can also be used to create wind breaks, collect snow (for brews or cooking) and dig a toilet area. If caught out and you need to stay overnight due to an unexpected emergency or time miscalculation, you can make a basic or elaborate snow shelter – mound shelter, snow cave or trench shelter. Another handy tool in this eventuality is a snow saw.
There are many variances in snow shovel design but the two most obvious differences, are the material the shovel is made from and the type hand grip/shaft construction. Metal Snow Shovels: for the consumer who is likely to be using their shovel a lot then a metal (aluminium) shovel is probably the best bet. Metal shovels are harder wearing, have more structural rigidity (and integrity in the cold), and bite the snow better when in heavy use. That said they will be fractionally heavier than plastic snow shovels. Plastic Snow Shovels: on the whole plastic shovels are slightly inferior to their metal counterparts, as they are weaker and have less structural rigidity. That said, if the user is only going to carry the shovel in case of emergency, then they are a reasonable option, as they are generally lighter and cheaper. The Grivel ‘Steel Blade Shovel’ is an interesting hybrid. This has a plastic body but steel tipped blade, offering the lightweight attributes of a standard plastic snow shovel with the added bite a metal shovel. Handles: with regard to the actual grip there are generally two options, the T-grip – gripped between the fingers, lightweight but can be awkward if you're wearing mitts. And the D-grip – usually chunkier and slightly heavier, but many people find it to be an easy and efficient design for moving lots of snow, especially if you prefer using mitts. The shaft of the handle is often collapsible, to help with packability. Some snow shovels, such as the Grivel ‘Steel Blade Shove’, are supplied shaftless, with two simple scoop style lateral handles and the option to insert a walking ice axe or trekking pole as an impromptu shaft, again helping to minimize carry weights. Finally, once you have purchased a snow shovel it’s worth practicing with it at leisure, in a safe environment. Here you can see how fast you can assemble the unit (if collapsible), and also find your own best method for digging/moving snow quickly and efficiently, with your particular snow shovel.