Digging Deep: How to Choose the Right Shovel & Probe Combination for Your Backcountry Setup
The beacon leads to the probe, the probe leads to the shovel, and the shovel leads to your partner. Finding a probe and shovel combo that fits your needs can be difficult with all the options out on the market today. Various sizes, shapes, and lengths proliferate the landscape. To aid in your decision-making, we’ve assembled a guide that lists the pertinent features of each product and highlighted what kind of user they are designed for.
The right kit for the right use
If you are the Andrew McLean super-tour type, lightweight equipment is paramount. Smaller blades and shorter probes are likely your go to. If you are a professional rescuer, a bombproof blade and stout 300cm probe are required equipment. However, if you just like to venture outside the gates on occasion, you probably fall somewhere in between. How far you are traveling and pack size are also important considerations.
Two shovelers perform a rescue. Photo Credit: Sean Zimmerman-Wall
Features to Look for in a Shovel
Blade size and shape
Every shovel on the market is great at moving soft snow. However, if you are digging through concrete-like avalanche debris, you’ll want to look for something a bit more formidable. Small blades are great for limited pack space but may not be as effective at removing large amounts of snow. More surface area gives you greater shoveling power, and a wider leading edge chops up dense snow with ease. BCA’s B-52 has one of the largest blades on the scene (11 x 13.5in) and it has become a favorite among users who like to build jumps in the backcountry.
The shape of the blade and its interface with the handle vary across manufactures. Some handles have a ferrule that extends from the blade, while others are integrated into the blade. The design relates more to packability than overall strength. The Voile Telepro has been the choice amongst professionals for years, and its design has been tested in thousands of rescues.
Squared or curved blades also lend themselves more to packability, but it’s unclear whether they truly translate into more efficient snow removal. A flat-backed blade does make it easier for keeping snowpit walls clean and adding that extra bit of craftsmanship to snow shelters.
Perhaps the most important feature of a shovel is the length of the handle and the shape of its grip. I recommend a telescopic handle as its additional leverage will be appreciated when you’re moving snow. Longer handles also make it easier to excavate snow from deep within a snowcave. Handles with a D-style grip offer more comfort while shoveling, but they take up more space in the pack. T-style grips are still effective and selection will be a matter of personal preference. Models by Black Diamond are developed to be more compact and the curve of the handle matches that of the shovel so the pieces slide together. The trapezoidal shape of the shaft also makes it impossible to rotate the handle during deployment.
Weight and Durability
Long tours require counting every ounce and making sure you have room for all your necessary food and clothing. Aluminum is the material of choice for most shovels on the market. Tempered plastics are also available, but perhaps not as strong when digging through debris or chopping ice.
Carbon fiber handles are being introduced in an effort to lighten the overall load. Its strength-to-weight ratio has been proven in other areas of the ski industry and I imagine we’ll see more of this in the future.
Manufactures have started thinking outside the box and adding extra functionality to their shovels. BCA and K2 have added innovations like a snowsaw that stores in the handle. The K2 Rescue Shovel has an interchangeable ice-axe head for the handle, and it can be used to construct an impromptu rescue sled with a pair of skis. Several companies have also added holes drilled into the blade to allow it to be used as a dead-man anchor.
By switching the orientation of the handle and the blade, certain shovels have the ability to act as more of a hoe for chopping hard snow and removing debris. Serrated blade edges are also helpful for chopping ice or getting through frozen chucks of snow.
Features to Look for in a Probe
Probes come in a variety of lengths, and nearly all of them are marked in 5cm increments along each piece. Shorter lengths are lighter weight and take up less space when it counts. However, the average burial depth is 140cm and you would hate to run out of probe if your buddy was buried deep. For length, 240cm should be the minimum you consider, and 300cm is the pro standard. The markings not only help you determine how deep someone is buried, but they can be used for layer identification in snowpit walls.
Weight and Durability
Like shovels, the tried and true material for probes is aluminum. Steel is still used in certain models, but carbon has become very popular in probe designs and it shaves a few extra ounces. I recommend a stout-shafted probe for professional use, as pros deploy their probes more often and are sometimes searching in very dense debris for longer periods of time.
All probes are broken into segments of about 30cm. This lends to packability and overall strength. The principle difference in regard to deployment is the locking mechanism. Some use a looped cable, while others utilize a T-style or knob-shaped pulltab. When properly assembled, the familiar “click” lets the user know its locked and ready to go. A quick-release clip or button is also used to release tension and assist in breaking down the probe for packing. Nearly every probe comes with a fabric or nylon sleeve, but it usually only prolongs deployment and clutters up your rescue site.
Pieps’ long line of innovations has led to the development of the iProbe One. This device uses a single AA battery-powered electronic sensor that can pick up on the transmitting signal of a beacon. It is also supposed to increase the effective probe length by 50cm. When used with a Pieps beacon, it can shut off the transmitting beacon once it has been located to aid in multiple burial situations.
Building your kit is an essential part of feeling safe in the backcountry. Practicing with and knowing the limitations of your gear is paramount to performing a successful rescue. Fast, lightweight equipment is no replacement for education and knowledge of your snowpack. Think about where you’ll be touring and what features you’ll benefit from the most, and once you make a decision on your kit, get out there and practice with it.