A good camping shovel, while not absolutely necessary to have with your go bag, can be a very valuable tool to have at your disposal. A shovel can make your shelter, it can dig a fire pit or a latrine hole. A quality shovel can help you chop or split wood, it can help you forage for food, paddle a boat, you can cook on it, and it can defend your life.
Keeping a camping shovel of some kind in your vehicle, is a good idea, even if its a small trowel type shovel. In colder climates, a small snow shovel is a handy item to have in the trunk also.
The best shovel for you will depend on its intended use. What will you be using the shovel for? Filling sandbags? Digging a shelter? Tending a fire ? will you be carrying the shovel in your gear or keeping it in your trunk? Will you have a hatchet with you or will you need your shovel to do hatchet duty? What sort of environment will you be in? Sandy? Woods?
Here we discuss some different types of camping shovels and some specific shovels that you might want to check out. It’s not important to have the most expensive or the best shovel available but get something dependable, that won’t fall apart on you when you need it the most.
Cathole camping Shovels
These are small trowel type camping shovels that are used mostly for digging bathroom holes and smaller camp tasks.
For light tasks, and light backpacking, a good small camping shovel will be all you need. They are lightweight and don’t take up a lot of room. If you are going to cover a lot of ground on foot, and don’t need a heavy duty shovel, then this may be all you can pack. Primary mission: digging “Cat holes” for waste disposal. The orange Coghlan’s Backpacker’s Trowel is a commonly found cathole shovel. For the same price, you can buy a Fiskars trowel or Fiskars 370030-1001 DuraFrame Scratch Transplanter which gets you some additional benefits; not only is it sturdier, you can take the cap off, jam a straight stick into the handle, sharpen the point, and you’ve got yourself a spear.. (hopefully you’ve been paying attention and are armed sufficiently that it won’t come to that though).
You can also roll up a decent amount of toilet tissue (or whatever else you want to stash) and put it into the handle and put the cap back on, the seal is tight enough that it is essentially waterproof. Both the coghlans shovel and the Fiskars model have a hole in the handle to attach a lanyard or hang it up.
Obviously, for heavier jobs, a small cathole camping shovel like this will not be adequate, but as long as the soil is not too hard or rocky, and you only need to dig a small latrine hole or small firepit, its something to consider. If you are putting together a bug out bag and trying to keep it light this is a good option. Remember, Human waste is a contaminant and can cause dysentery, cholera, Schistosomiasis, typhoid and all kinds of other nasty stuff that you do not want to experience. Dig your hole about 6 to 8 inches deep, in the decomposing layer of the dirt, and well away from any water source. Cover the hole with dirt and if possible, leaves or other organic material. Tree huggers call it “Leave no Trace”, I call it “Catch no diseases”.
The U-Dig-it folding shovel is another good small camping shovel, its made from Stainless steel, so it won’t rust and will do a better job on the harder ground. A metal shovel also means you can place it in the coals of your fire and cook on it if you have to. You could get a small piece of fish or meat, or an egg cooked on a shovel this size pretty easily. It goes without saying that you really don’t want to use your toilet digging shovel to cook on, we’re talking pretty extreme survival The folding mechanism is simple enough but does not lock into place 100% reliably, it can fold if you are stabbing at the dirt with it. The handle is a little fatiguing after prolonged use, but overall it’s a nice tool. A little pricey, but comes with a nylon sheath, and its made in the USA. ..and it’s small… really small.
If you wind up in a spot where you need a shovel, and you didn’t think to bring one with you, make an improvised shovel from a stick. Find a good piece of recent deadfall hardwood about 2 to 3 inches in diameter and work the end down to a 45-degree angle with your fixed blade knife that you didn’t forget. If it will break up the ground, you can use your hands to do excavate the dirt. If you can’t find a suitable branch to make a shovel, look for a flat rock with a pointed end and go feed flintstone.
These are designed to take up less space, there’s plenty to choose from, some good, some not so good.
Folding shovels or “Army Shovels” as some people call them are a popular choice among outdoor enthusiasts for obvious reasons, they are reasonably light and compact and will get the job done. There are however a lot of versions of this shovel that just not worth buying, most of us have seen them and perhaps used them. They are a poor excuse for a tool and fail quickly under any sort of real workload. Enough said on that, don’t buy a $10 folding shovel with a broomstick diameter handle and expect it to last more than 5 minutes under any sort of serious use. If you want to buy a good folding shovel, the surplus military shovels are a good place to look, Glock also makes a good sturdy shovel, with a root saw in the handle, which folds down very neatly. The Swiss military surplus folding shovel shown below makes a great camping shovel and can be found for under $20 online.
These shovels are built like a tank, come with a nice leather sheath, and can be sharpened to make root chopping a breeze. They will even split smaller logs if required and are also a good defensive weapon. The shovel blade is a good large size, unlike some other folding shovels that are too small to do any real digging. The blade locks at 90 and 180 degrees. the locking collar mechanism is as smooth as a Swiss watch, just take care to put a little oil in there every once in a while, especially if exposed to salty conditions. The one shown here rides behind the seat of my truck at all times. This particular model does not have a pick on the back side, but there are German, Swiss, and other surplus shovels available with a pick on them if that is a feature you are looking for.
Here are some other good quality folding camping shovels to check out.
The Glock Entrenching Tool. Folds out to about 25 inches, and is a good quality product. As with most things with the Glock name attached, it’s a little on the expensive side (expect to pay about $40)
a unique feature about the Glock shovel is that the handle contains a small saw, good for cutting roots / small tree limbs, etc, it will do the job, but don’t expect it to do too much, it’s not intended to be a primary saw. If you expect to be doing a lot of sawing, bring a saw up to the task. There is room in the handle to stash some smaller survival items along with the saw.
The Glock shovel folds up to a very compact 10 inches and is very light, yet very strong. It comes with a carrying pouch to mount it to your pack or belt. If you’re a Glock fan, this might be your shovel.
Gerber makes a couple of folding shovels, the “E-tool” and the “Gorge “. They are very different from each other. the E-tool is a good size, fairly sturdy shovel with a serrated edge on one side of the blade and a D-handle. The Gorge is a very small shovel, not as well made, and would really only be an option where size and weight are the primary factors in the choice, and no heavy digging is required.
One to avoid…
The Texsport folding shovel s, with “survival saw” in the handle was a shovel that we decided to give a shot, since the handle is made from steel, the locking mechanism was not the usual screw down collar design, and it had a saw onboard… so we thought, “what the hell”. First of all, and I’ll just get this out of the way up front… the saw is useless, forget it exists. It is thin, flimsy, and well.. it doesn’t cut through things, which makes it a bit of a disappointment as “a Saw”. It would probably spread butter on toast like a champ though, so if you need a shovel with integrated butter spreader, here you go. It never ceases to amaze me how companies go to all the trouble to integrate something into their product to make it stand apart, but don’t go that one extra step to make sure it actually works… or even half ass works. You got the saw in there, put some teeth on it!
The black steel handle extends a few inches for extra leverage, which is sort of funny because when you apply that extra leverage, the blade folds over like a 99 cent taco. The only good news is, you can just put your foot on the blade, and pull up on the handle to bend it back to something resembling a shovel again. The locking mechanism did not fail, but honestly, after I made a “U” out of the blade, I didn’t see much point in trying to break the locking mech. It did become apparent after the little digging that I got done, that the mechanism is subject to getting stuck because dirt and rocks get jammed up in it. I did not try to sharpen the blade or do any chopping, frankly, the thought just seemed a little ridiculous. Bottom Line: The texsport folding shovel is better than no shovel at all, and would probably be ok for a family campground trip or something, but not for any sort of serious use, or as part of any survival kit. Spend the extra ten bucks and feel better knowing you have a shovel you can count on.
Small camping shovels:
Compact shovels with no moving parts to break, generally, the strongest and best option if you have the capacity to stow it.
The Cold Steel special forces shovel is a good contender for one of the best small camping shovels or survival shovels available. It is highly durable, and its simple design works well and has no moving parts to fail. modeled on the Russian Spetsnaz shovel, the cold steel special forces shovel is not only a workhorse but also a really nasty weapon in the right hands. The sharpened blade on this shovel will inflict a lot of damage to whatever it hits.
The head of the cold steel shovel is fairly small, but at 26 ounces, it is light and can be easily strapped to the back of your go pack, or in your vehicle. You would never know it from watching YouTube, but this shovel is actually capable of digging a hole, not just chopping watermelons and water bottles in half, or throwing at sheets of plywood.
An optional sheath can be purchased for around six or seven bucks and is not a bad investment… not so much to protect the shovel but to protect your other gear from the shovel. Shown at right is a picture of the fastening design with the handle. Hard to show in a picture, but it’s pretty substantial. You would have to be trying pretty hard in order to break this handle off.
Some modifications made to the one shown at right include some grooves put around the handle, and removing the super slick finish on the wood. Also, a hole has been drilled so that a lanyard can be attached, and the top of the shovel has been painted red. ( because I cant see too well, and its just easier to spot when its sticking up out of the dirt in the middle of the woods surrounded by trees, leaves, etc)
Condor Knife and Tool makes some great, reasonably priced outdoor equipment, Including several small camping shovels, all of which are good, sturdy, simple shovels with no moving parts to break. Most of Condor’s small shovels weighs in at around 3 pounds, so if weight is a factor, this might not be your shovel. With the round-edged version, the edges of the blade are contoured up slightly and the round point makes it a less effective chopper, but a better “shovel” as far as moving material. Condor also has a small pointed shovel, and several versions of each with a D type handle for better grip.
When you are digging a hole, for whatever purpose, it’s nice to be able to deal with a root without putting down your shovel and picking up your hatchet or root saw, but if you are in a desert, or lucky enough to be on a beach, you really don’t give a damn about roots and chopping, you want to move sand. If you need to fill sandbags, a small shovel like the condor will get the job done much better than the cold steel shovel, or the Marbles shovel below. So not to sound like a broken record, but the more specific you get with your planning and thinking, the better your decision-making process will be when you assemble your gear, even when it comes to simple things like small camping shovels.
Marbles Devil’s tail Shovel. A somewhat unique design, this small camping shovel is a part hatchet, part shovel, part machete, and a pretty cool tool. The full tang construction makes it all but unbreakable, and just like its cousin the marbles machete, you really can’t believe the value you get for your money when you hold it in your hands. The handle is somewhat short so you don’t get quite the leverage you would with a long-handled shovel. The devils tail comes with a tough Cordura sheath, with 3 utility pockets, a sharpening stone, velcro handle closure, and a belt loop.
The blade is flat, which makes it an outstanding chopper, but won’t hold a lot of fine material or sloppy mud. The other obvious down side to total flat design like this is that it can be bent more easily that a stamped and tapered type design. This is probably the most significant weakness of this shovel. The blade itself is quite large, about 8″x8″. As far as self-defense, yes, it can chop a water-filled milk container in half, and is lethally effective on menacing watermelons.
Another option is to just go to a local hardware store and buy yourself a small gardening shovel. Any shovel is better than none at all. Ames and other garden tool manufacturers make some good products. If you just need to dig a hole, and don’t need any “Chopping” done, these shovels do the trick just fine. Size is an issue, but if you are just looking for an emergency shovel to keep in your trunk, or back of your truck, jeep, etc… size is not as much of a factor. You obviously would not want to haul one of these on your back for any distance.
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