I know, I know . . . there are several much more glamorous bits of equipment with which to decorate a 4WD vehicle—many that are well worth having. But I can’t think of any with the same combination of, 1) Affordability, 2) Reliability, 3) Versatility, and 4) Simplicity, as this most basic of tools.
A great many vehicle boggings occur when two or more tires spin down through whatever substrate you are trying to negotiate, until depth and friction prevent them climbing out. Assuming you’ve already aired down, the simplest way to extract yourself is to scoop out four ramps for the tires to climb. Even if you have a set of MaxTrax to employ, it’s smart to give them a head start with some digging.
You can also use a shovel to add substrate to a hole you have to drive through. If you need to fill a bigger hole with rocks, a shovel will help you pry half-buried candidates out of the ground. If you high-center on a rock or dirt, the shovel can help free you. And of course a shovel is handy for innumerable other tasks, which can’t be said for most recovery-specific products.
So what sort of shovel to have? That’s in many ways up to personal preference. However, I’ve found several characteristics that I think make a shovel better suited for recovery work.
Length: Some experts recommend a full-length handle, to enable you to reach all the way under a vehicle that might need sand cleared from its chassis, for example. However, a long shovel is awkward for most other uses in the field, and much more of a pain to carry in a vehicle. I like one no longer than about 40 inches total, and have found that this length actually works better in a majority of cirumstances.
Handle: I strongly prefer a T or D handle, and if you haven’t tried one I bet you’ll agree with me. A handle perpendicular to the shaft offers far more comfort, control, and power when punching it under a tire to clear sand, and it’s far easier to put sideways torque on the blade when needed.
Shaft: It’s hard to criticize an all-welded-steel shovel such as the Wolverine DH15DP above, which I wrote about here. For sheer indestructibility it has no peer. However, a proper ash or hickory shaft/handle will be perfectly sturdy and is nicer to use in heat or cold.
Combination tools: Not a fan. Again this is personal preference, but I’ve found the tools that combine a single handle with, for example, a removeable shovel blade, axe head, and sledge to be generally heavy and not very good as any individual tool. The axe function, in particular, is invariably miserably balanced and completely lacking in grace. An axe should be a living thing—and, frankly, that balance and grace is a safety issue when you’re swinging a sharp blade. Buy yourself a proper axe and leave the shovel as a shovel.
Folding entrenching tool: Definitely, absolutely better than nothing, but c’mon—you’re not carrying it in an A.L.I.C.E. pack with MREs, you’ve got a vehicle. Get a real shovel. If you really want or need something that compact get one of the brilliant surplus German one-piece shovels like this:
. . . which typically have one side of the blade sharpened as a makeshift axe (or a nasty self-defense weapon that doesn’t look like a weapon to authorities in authoritarian countries).
My favorite recovery shovel is about as prosaic as you can get: It’s the Land Rover T-handled tool that comes in the evocatively named “Pioneer Kit,” which also includes a very functional take-down pickaxe. You’ve seen these clipped to the front wing of inumerable Series vehicles. My first close encounter with one was in Namibia, on a guide’s battered Series IIA that also sported an entire sofa bolted to the roof for tourists to ride on. The shovel was so well-used in Namib sand that the blade was visibly shortened, and shiny as glass.
The Pioneer Kit is available through UK surplus stores online; occasionally as NOS (New Old Stock). If you happen to be there you can find them for less at one of the myriad four-wheel-drive shows. The shovel’s blade extends to a long shank that encloses nearly half the wood (ash?) shaft. If anything the blade is a bit thicker than it needs to be. In any case it will demonstrably last through years of abuse in the Namib, probably a lot longer if you aren’t constantly needing to dig out a Land Rover with a sofa on the roof.
U.S. manufacturer A.M. Leonard offers a forged D-handle shovel that looks excellent, although I’ve not seen one in person. Ditto with U.K. maker Richard Carter.
Whatever you decide on, make sure you actually keep it with you. I give you my situation a few weeks ago, camped on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with a few friends. Roseann and I had both our Tacoma/Four Wheel Camper and the FJ40 along, and when she needed to dig out an existing fire pit she asked me where she could find a shovel.
"Uh . . . "
Fortunately our friends were better prepared.
Update: Correspondent John Wilson tells me that the BLM in the Owyhee region (Oregon, Nevada, Idaho) requires one to carry a full-length shovel, presumably because it is easier to use to put out a spreading campfire. My own advice would be to make sure your damn campfire can't spread in the first place, but thanks to John for the heads up.