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At an online shop I found a great deal for an avalanche shovel (14€). It's not a no-name brand, indeed it is a trustworthy German label. Still there are users complaining about the robustness of the shovel. Someone tested a brand new shovel and it directly broke while digging some tight snow.

Because an avalanche shovel is relevant to safety and even surviving could depend on it:

  • Is there some kind of standard or reliable quality criterion for avalanche shovels?
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    As I know that you are able to understand German, this one might be helpful: bergundsteigen.at/file.php/archiv/2008/4/print/… I will compile an answer based on it tomorrow as I will have more time then. – Benedikt Bauer Jan 7 '15 at 22:19
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    IMO it's a bit of a delusion, all of this business about taking avalanche courses and preparing for how to survive an avalanche with transceivers, shovels, etc. If someone is buried in an avalanche, they're likely to die. The snow partially melts from friction and then sets back up as hard as concrete. You can't dig a hole in it to get your buddy out. If you want to avoid dying in an avalanche, you need to practice avalanche avoidance, not avalanche safety. – Ben Crowell Jan 8 '15 at 3:00
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In this article in the bergundsteigen journal (unfortunately in German) the authors, one of whom is a known Swiss expert in the development of avalanche rescue systems and techniques, did a review of a bunch of avalanche shovels. As they do not cite any norms that these shovels must comply to but comment that some manufacturers seemingly don't even test their products under realistic conditions, I guess there is no such norm.

Background of this review was that during a test of shoveling strategies for avalanche rescue (same source, also German) they encountered several shovels that broke during the test after only rather moderate use time. Hence they obtained some shovels from various manufacturers to test them in practice. The (at least to me) surprising outcome was, that more than half of the tested 11 products were more or less only suited for one-time use, i.e. they developed serious signs of wear during use – cracks in the blade, bent shafts and the like which would not qualify the shovel for further use. One product failed so much that they qualified it as unsuitable.

Despite some ergonomic considerations they stress the importance of one key fact: durable models were all made of 6061 aluminum with T6 temperature hardening. Only if those two properties are explicitly specified (not just something generic like "special hardened aluminum") one can expect a shovel that lasts for more than just one or two employments.

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    BD has written a response to this, noting the scenario in the test is a bit extreme and only suitable for body recoveries. It also references similar responses from other manufacturers. The text can be found here: tetongravity.com/forums/showthread.php/… – requiem Jan 8 '15 at 22:34
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No there isn't.

But it would be kinda nice if there was...

A shovel is a shovel, they aren't a piece of fall protection or something that your life depends on. Someone elses life may depend on your shovel, in which case it is important to ensure that the shovel you carry will preform when you need it to, but you'll have to use your own judgment when selecting an avalanche shovel. Cheap typically means cheap, invest what your friends lives are worth to you when purchasing an avalanche shovel, but when venturing out into avalanche terrain, what type of shovel someone has is less important than making sure that everyone in your group has one.

I took a backcountry skiing leadership course where the certified mountain guide cautioned us on carrying questionable shovels. He told a couple stories about old mountain veterans that had their old trusty shovels they've been using for years and years, and said that it's not something that you should skimp on or neglect. If your shovel breaks in its time of need because it's old, worn, or just cheap, then it could mean that you're not going to get to your friend in tome before he runs out of breathable air.

It's worth noting too that a piece of gear–even a shovel–is only good if you use it properly. I broke my old avalanche shovel while trying to build an igloo out of bomb-shelter sized blocks I was prying from a wind drift that had a couple solid layers of ice in it. Needless to say that shovel got retired, and I invested in a smaller, more robust design from BCA.

Everyone likes to save money, but when it comes to safety equipment, ask yourself how much your life (or the life of a friend) is worth to you, and invest accordingly.

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    Yes and for safety equipment there should be some kind of safety standard. The most important spot seems to be the transition of blade and shaft. I guess I have to check that spot by my own judgement. – Wills Jan 7 '15 at 19:50
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    @EverythingRightPlace - Not necessarily, I split my last shovel in the middle of the blade, and some avalanche shovels don't even have a shaft. In avalanche rescue you use your shovel more like a paddle, you're not trying to dig a hole. The technique is to move the snow down hill and dig straight into where your victim is, not dig down to them. When you're digging someone out of an avalanche you form a human chain down slope of where they're buried, and everyone just keeps moving the snow downhill, I've seen people use skis or the plastic back supports out of their backpacks to do this. – ShemSeger Jan 7 '15 at 20:12
  • Your life could depend on your avo shovel, if you have to dig in due bad weather and delays/injury etc. – user5330 Jan 7 '15 at 21:52
  • @mattnz - I've dug a shelter with my dinner plate and cup before. People don't typically dig in for the night in a hard packed avalanche chute (I would hope that no one does—ever...), in which case any flimsy shovel would suffice. In those situations, merely having a shovel is more important than how durable it is. – ShemSeger Jan 7 '15 at 21:58
  • The snow where you climb must be very different to the snow where climb. Flimsy shovels last a few minutes around here as we relativy warm marine conditions meaning a lot of heavy snow bordering on ice. – user5330 Jan 8 '15 at 2:06
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No, there doesn't seem to be any standard in place for avalanche shovels.

Even though an avalanche shovel has to be depended on in a life or death situation, there are plenty of cheap ones out there that would snap in half shoveling well-packed snow.

Try to avoid buying one online, and avoid buying any that have questionable customer reviews. If you can, buy one in person where you can pick up each one and compare the build quality.

Spend twice as much time worrying about and inspecting your partner's shovel ( you aren't going out into avalanche terrain alone now are you? ) than your own, because if you're caught in an avalanche you won't be digging yourself out, your partner will be digging you out with the shovel that they brought.

Some more purchasing advice to peruse: http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/snow-shovel.html

  • Perhaps swapping shovels is a good idea. If you are not prepared to rely on him digging you out with your shovel, why not? – user5330 Jan 7 '15 at 21:54
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    @mattnz sounds a bit like swapping drinks if you fear that the other one has poisoned yours ;-) – Benedikt Bauer Jan 7 '15 at 22:16
  • I'm saying that if you are buried, someone else will have to dig you out. One of my instructors once said something to the effect of "buy a good shovel, and always give it to someone else in your group to use for the day." – Scott Hillson Jan 7 '15 at 22:32

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