Plastic or aluminium avalanche shovel?

by Fraser

I’ve owned a backcountry, collapsable shovel for a good while now, probably 4 years or so. It’s one of the plastic sorts, from Ortovox. When I bought it, the primary aim was to help with building the occasional kicker in some soft snow. Separating into two parts makes it easy to fit in your back pack, and it’s does just fine building the odd jump, off-piste; it’s not like I build huge booters! Here’s an example…

Now, I’ve heard the argument more than once that plastic shovels aren’t as good as their aluminium counterparts; a couple of seasons ago when I bought an avalanche beacon, I considered swapping the plastic for aluminium…

The way that I’ve heard the argument is this: plastic shovels are great for building jumps, but if you need to dig someone out of an avalanche debris pile, you’re going to struggle. When an avalanche comes to a stop, the snow is supposed to settle into a really tough mass – nothing like the fresh snow you scoop up when building a jump.

To me, this is all hearsay. It’s not that I doubt the hardness of the snow after an avalanche – I’ve just never witnessed it for myself. Taking a quick look at some available shovels, it seems that they’re almost all aluminium.

Well, there’s been a fair amount of snow in the North of England over the last couple of weeks. I decided to put the plastic shovel into practice, and used it to dig out my car and driveway. It was this experience that triggered this post: some of the snow was quite hard and it made me question the shovel. I had the feeling – not too sure I’d want to use this to dig a friend out of an avalanche…

OK, it’s not a direct comparison, far from it. But it did bring the issue back to my attention – are plastic shovels up to the job?

I want to hear what you have to say; have you got a view on plastic vs. aluminium? What do you own/use? Has anyone tried digging in an avalanche pile before? How tough is it? Do you take plastic?

avalanche shovels

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1 comment

Rick 12/02/2023 - 12:25 pm

Yes I have and your friend will die whilst you look at your broken shovel and start digging with your skis instead.

Surely if you’re good enough to build kickers you have skied / boarded over some avalanche debris to access off-piste somewhere. Next time you do, just stop and try digging a bit of it with your plastic shovel.

When you decide to buy a metal one, it’s worth looking for one that can work both ways – by this I mean 1. as a normal shovel to dig, but 2. with the blade turned 90 degrees to the handle (look at online pictures available) which is really useful when you’re not the digger to help scoop snow back from the digger’s feet. If you’re actually trying to dig in reality to save someone’s life, and you’re not on your own, you have to rotate round every few minutes as the combination of adrenaline and exhaustion means you become unproductive very quickly.

Food luck with your off-piste adventures but at least get the kit to find and rescue your buddies and make sure they have the same to rescue you.


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