A snow shovel can be used for a variety of tasks in the backcountry.
The most important reason to carry one is in case of an avalanche. If you're equipped with avalanche beacons and probes but don't have a way to dig out the victim, you're pretty much up a creek (without a shovel, so to speak).
Every person in a group, not just 1 or 2, going into the winter backcountry should carry a shovel. You never know who will get caught in an avalanche, and you want to make sure that all the available shovels aren't buried.
Shovels are indispensable for making quick emergency shelters. If, on a day outing, you need to stay overnight due to an unexpected emergency or mishap, you can dig a quick shelter in a tree well or trench or you can make a more elaborate snow cave.
A more commonplace use of snow shovels is that of carving out a level space for your tent when snow camping or glacier climbing. You can carve out a windscreen or dig a kitchen area, complete with seating, if you're so inclined. Snow camping can bring out the kid in you, especially when you have shovels along!
And last but not least, a shovel comes in handy for digging fresh snow to melt for drinking water. Scooping with your water bottle or your hands works, but it can get a little tiresome and cold after a while!
Snow shovels are made of lightweight materials for ease of carrying on a backpack.
● Aluminum and Lexan® polycarbonateare typically used in shovel blades. The Lexan blades are favored for their lighter weight, while aluminum blades are most commonly used for their strength and durability. Aluminum is most commonly used in the shovel shafts for strength.
● One unique shovel, called the Snowclaw, is constructed of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) that can be rolled up and stored inside your pack. It does not have a handle, which makes it useful for snow camping but maybe not the best choice for serious, fast shoveling required at an avalanche scene.
There is debate among skiers and mountaineers over the "best" material. Some think that aluminum blades are far better at removing solid avalanche debris or ice, while others say that the polycarbonate blades are adequate for either purpose and won't weigh you down. Ultimately, you need to decide which is more important to you. If your shovel weighs so much that you leave it behind, you aren't gaining anything.
Most backcountry shovels have telescoping or segmented shafts that can be made compact for carrying on your pack. They fit together with spring-loaded buttons that pop into holes in the connecting sections.
Handles, typically made of plastic for easy grip, come in a variety of shapes:
● The T-grip, which is gripped between the fingers, is lightweight but can be awkward if you're wearing mittens or overmitts.
● The D-grip is usually bulkier and slightly heavier, but most people find it to be an easy and efficient design for moving lots of snow. It's also easier to use with mittens.
● The L-shaped handle, found on the Ortovox snow shovel, is somewhat like the handle on an upright vacuum cleaner. This handle can actually be inserted backwards into the shaft of the shovel to create a sharper blade angle. This blade position is helpful for carving out snow caves or emergency shelters.