Backcountry skiing is definitely big in the Pacific Northwest, and here in Seattle, we have great access to some fantastic backcountry property right at our doorstep. Snoqualmie’s Alpental, a 50-minute drive from the city, offers spectacular backcountry runs (and you can always make it back to the lifts, no need to be picked up on the side of the road). Many backcountry skiers choose to carry an avalanche shovel for the event of an avalanche. As one never should enter the backcountry by oneself, the shovel is primarily intended to dig out your partner if he or she gets into an avalanche, but it is also used to build shelter platforms if you choose to do an overnight excursion, or to dig into the layers of snow for a snowpack study to determine avalanche danger.
When buying an avalanche shovel, make sure that it is not made of plastic. Plastic shovels are just not sturdy enough, especially if you have to dig through icy debris. Make sure to get a quality shovel that does not weigh too much because a shovel that is too heavy can become burdensome. Most quality shovels are either made of aluminum or polycarbonate; however, most backcountry folks will tell you that aluminum is the only way to go as it is the only available material that can slice through crud and ice. Therefore all shovels reviewed are made of aluminum.
You should be able to easily transport a shovel in (or on the outside of) your backpack without restricting your movements, which is usually easily accomplished by choosing a telescoping or segmented handle design. There are shovels with T-grips, D-grips and L-grips, the shape of the letters describing the shape of the actual handle grips. I had a chance to dig with all three handle shapes and prefer the D-shape, but that is just a matter of taste.
At Alpental, you see lots of backcountry skiers standing in line with their backpacks including the obligatory avalanche snow shovel. To help complete this review I had the chance to talk to numerous backcountry enthusiasts, finding out which shovels are most preferred. The shovels listed below were all recommended by avid backcountry skiers, professional stores, or members of ski patrol. In addition, I did a little shoveling myself for a more comprehensive review.