Even for a gram-counting backcountry skier, metal-bladed shovels are now so light that there is no reason to purchase a plastic-bladed shovel—plastic just doesn't have the debris-penetrating ability of metal-bladed shovels. (And yes, Lexan shovels are plastic.)
Perhaps the biggest difference among the many quality avalanche shovels is size: both blade surface area and assembled shaft length. Keep in mind that bigger is not necessarily better. When shoveling you'll be down near the snow surface (unlike when shoveling your driveway) and an excessively large bladeful of snow is not an efficient way to move snow. And make sure the disassembled shovel can fit securely into your pack.
Rescuers Excavate an Avalanche Victim
After blade size and shaft length, personal preferences comes into play:
- Check that you can assemble the shovel quickly and reliably with your typical winter handwear.
- If you frequently wear mittens instead of gloves, consider either a D-shaped handle or perhaps an offset-T designs.
- Blade shapes vary considerably. Sculpted, pointy blades are better for rescue and flat blades are preferable for snowpit work. Since most of us spend more time in snowpits than extricating avalanche victims, I prefer a flat blade.
- If your backpack has limited space, you might consider a model where the shaft stores in the blade (e.g., the Black Diamond Deploy shovels).
- Some shovel shafts can accommodate a probe or snow saw (or even emergency sled hardware for the K2 Rescue Shovel Plus), but make sure it's a probe or snow saw that you'd buy regardless of its stow-away convenience.