expert advice / SKI TOURING


If you’re taking your skiing to the next level and heading out into the backcountry, then safety – and safety equipment – are your biggest priority. Whether it’s ski touring, splitboarding, freeriding, ski mountaineering in winter or alpine mountaineering all year round, you will be entering terrain that’s potentially prone to avalanches. By their very nature avalanches are unpredictable. So in addition to an avalanche beacon to help locate buried victims, and maybe even an airbag backpack, you will need an avalanche probe and an avalanche shovel.

1. What is an avalanche shovel and why is it important?

An avalanche shovel is designed as an essential piece of safety kit to dig buried people out of the snow after an avalanche. Used effectively, a good snow shovel can reduce rescue times and therefore make the difference between life and death. Statistics show that the chances of surviving an avalanche burial fall dramatically after 15 minutes. In an emergency situation, time is of the essence. So it’s important to carefully consider what kind of shovel you get and then learn how to use it properly.

2. What materials are avalanche shovels made from?

Durability is key when it comes to an avalanche shovel, since snow tends to become compact and heavy through the avalanche process. But because you are carrying it, along with any other mountain equipment etc. you need to have with you, weight is also an issue. The lighter your pack, the more energy you will have, and therefore the safer you are if you need to push your physical limits. It’s also more enjoyable to ski when you’re not carrying extra weight on your back.

  • Metal offers the best strength-to-weight ratio for a backcountry-capable, durable snow shovel. Metal shovels, usually aluminium or tempered aluminium, have less rebound and are stronger and more durable than plastic shovels which can bend or snap.
  • Plastic is best avoided. It might be lightweight, but it’s not up to the rigours of chopping snowpack. Having a sharp cutting edge on the shovel blade is very important.
  • Carbon or titanium avalanche shafts are very lightweight and durable but come with a higher price tag. Some shovels have carbon handles to reduce weight.

3. What different styles of avalanche shovel are there?

An avalanche shovel needs to be easy to use and compact so that it packs away neatly in your backpack – but importantly, it also needs to be large enough to be effective at shifting snow.

Shovel blade size

It is an important factor when deciding what shovel to buy. Smaller blades are lighter and easier to handle but larger blades are more efficient at moving large amounts of snow. But if you are wielding a large shovel blade and unable to lift it when full, then you will become tired more quickly. So the blade needs to suit your size and strength, as well as fit into your backpack. Ideally, try to choose the largest shovel that will fit in your pack, and that’s also comfortable for you to use.

Shovel blade shapes

It can be flat, curved, serrated or even have holes in them. A flat blade is best for creating smooth snow pit/ snow profile walls. Curved blades prevent snow from escaping over the sides when shovelling. A blade with a serrated edge will be more effective at getting through ice and hardpack. And blades with holes in them are both lighter and can be used to build snow anchors, or in combination with skis to create a rescue sled.


They are often telescopic or segmented so that when assembled they are long enough to provide good leverage but will still fit neatly inside a backpack. Do not opt for a shovel shaft that is so long it sticks out of your backpack, as this can be dangerous in an accident. It is important that the grip of the handle is comfortable to use and non-slip for better control. Avalanche shovel grips tend to come in either D-shape, T-shape or L-shape designs.

  • D-grips are more comfortable to use and easier when wearing mittens or thick gloves, but they are also bulkier.
  • T- and L-shaped grips take up less space but are best used with fingered gloves rather than mittens. They also have the advantage of being adaptable to both left- and right-handed people.


Related Topics


Crampons are pieces of equipment that we attach to our shoes to improve traction when the ground is completely or partially frozen over, or if there is heavy snow.



Ski touring is a type of backcountry skiing, also called alpine touring or Randonnée. Ski touring makes use of special adapted touring skis and touring bindings that convert from free-heel to fixed-heel mode.



The best defence against avalanches is to learn how avalanches work and how to avoid them.


4. What are other uses for an avalanche shovel

The most important reason to have an avalanche shovel is for emergency situations but shovelling techniques must be learned and practised. It’s best to attend a special avalanche course to learn these techniques as you’ll save valuable minutes in a rescue situation if you use the most efficient techniques. But practising with them is also important. This can be done in a range of ways – some of them just for fun, and some of them useful too.

These include:

  • Digging out a snow pit or snow profile to assess snow stability
  • Building a snow shelter – another skill that needs to be professionally taught
  • Building kickers and jumps
  • Digging your car out of the snow
  • Preparing a winter camping site in the snow, or protective snow walls around the tent
  • Collecting snow to melt for drinking water
  • Shovelling your driveway clear of snow
  • Making an igloo in the garden for the kids

Use the shovel blade:

  • As a surface to place your stove onto that won’t melt
  • To create a rescue sled by attaching it to the front of two skis strapped together in a pointed triangle shape


An avalanche shovel is an important piece of emergency equipment when heading away from groomed pistes or into the mountains in winter for any activity. Every person in the group should always have an avalanche shovel, probe and beacon with them. But most importantly you need to know how to use them and have practised using them. So make sure you attend an avalanche course before embarking on any backcountry winter adventures.