One of the more often overlooked survival items needed in a well-stocked cache of equipment is a good quality entrenching shovel. While most people probably think that a shovel is a shovel is a shovel, there are dozens of different kinds of shovels for a wide variety of specialized tasks: snow shovel, barn shovel, irrigation shovel, flathead, round-nose, garden spade, and a duckbill spade to name a few.

Having a shovel in a survival situation is paramount: digging a latrine, hiding your garbage, and turning over coals in the fire to shoring up your tent drainage system, pounding a stake, and even burying the bodies if it comes to that. In the right hands, it can be a formidable weapon; you can use the blade as an impromptu frying pan; and they might even be pretty good at digging a hole.

There are many survival shovels on the market today, and most offer similar features: collapsibility for easy storage, a couple of different configurations, a storage/carry bag, and a few extra built-in tools. The three shovels that we chose to highlight this month spotlight those offerings in three unique ways, while giving you an idea of just how versatile modern entrenching shovels can be.

 

SOG Elite Entrenching Tool

The nearly 9-inch blade is made of carbon steel and has a well-rounded curve that scoops dirt easily instead of letting it slip off of the edges.

  • Length: 26 inches
  • Folded Length 11 inches
  • Weight: 24.8 ounces
  • Shovel Length: 81⁄2 inches
  • Blade Thickness: 0.06 inches
  • Finish: Hardcased black
  • Hardness: RC. 40-42
  • Blade Steel Type: 1075 carbon
  • Handle Material: Glass-reinforced nylon
  • Handle Color: Black
  • Sheath Color: Black
  • Sheath Material: Ballistic nylon
  • Sheath Attachment Type: Belt loop
  • Sheath Closure Type: Snap buckle

It arrives in a sturdy well-constructed nylon pouch. There are no straps to sling over your shoulder, but instead, three loops with which to affix it to your pack or belt (which would be impractical.) Folded up, the 11-inch shovel fits snugly in the sheath. Unfolded, the shovel’s overall length is 26 inches, with an 81⁄2inch long and six-inch wide blade. The shoulder is rolled over for strength when digging, but the pivot-locking mechanism will get in the way of those using their right feet. A half-turn in either direction will lock the blade into an infinite range of angles. The handle is a Fiberglas-reinforced nylon and although it gives the first impression of being simple plastic that will break when it meets its first rock, Fiberglas used in this way is very strong.

The knob handle unscrews to release a very sharp steel saw-tooth blade that can be used for cutting wood or a variety of things. The 7-inch blade reverses and feeds back in through the knob, which is screwed back onto the handle. Doing so can be tricky, and if you’re not careful, you’ll be a victim of the business end of the blade. It is a little awkward at first to use the shovel in this manner, but we got use to it fairly quickly.

The handle is dodecagonal shaped, which provides a solid grip, even when wet, and the slight texture adds to that grip. The rounded knob has indentations that affords a comfortable pivot point for your opposite palm. The blade is 1075 carbon steel, the same material SOG makes some of its knives with; it is the kind of steel that holds its edge very well, but will oxidize if the scratches are not properly carried for.

 

WJQ-308/Q5 Chinese Multi-Function Military Shovel
The shovelhead has a host of abilities all by itself.

The shovelhead has a host of abilities all by itself.

  • Length: 26 inches
  • Folded Length: 17 inches
  • Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Shovel Length: 7-3/4 inches
  • Blade Thickness: 0.06 inches
  • Finish: Hardcased black
  • Hardness: N/A
  • Blade Steel Type: Steel
  • Handle Material: Wood
  • Handle Color: Natural
  • Sheath Color: Cammo
  • Sheath Material: Ballistic nylon
  • Sheath Attachment Type: Three-point buckle
  • Sheath Closure Type: Snap buckle

According to the manufacturer, the inventor of this shovel was wounded twice in combat and awarded eight times for his service, and he used his experiences to create the Swiss Army Knife of entrenching tools. It comes in a very nice box with a well thought-out sheath, but since the directions and text on the box are all in Chinese, finding out what this tool can do was an experiment in discovery. Obvious attributes on the 71⁄2-inch long, 6-inch wide shovel head are a bottle opener, a 31⁄2inch long serrated portion of the head for sawing, two “wrenches” (10 and 9mm), and a smooth sharpened blade on the opposite side for chopping.

The pivot point hosts its own bevy of tools. Unscrew the locking mechanism, and you can adjust it to a wide variety of settings; however, having to line up the setting screw with the appropriate hole in order for the screw to seat properly (and lock in the head) is a little fiddly. Completely folded up, it becomes a pair of wire cutters. Also while folded, there is a rounded flat head on the back of the shovel that can be used as a hammer. At various angles, the pivot point reveals numerous abilities, from a can opener and a pry bar to a screwdriver and wire wrappers.

The 16-inch handle is stout at 11⁄2-inches wide and made of wood with a nice lacquer on it. Running down the length of the shaft is a centimeter scale. Unscrewing the knob end releases a 10-inch spike that might have more than a few applications. It reverses and screws back into the handle to form a long bayonet, perhaps, or mine probe.

The sheath has a multi-configurable strap that allows you to carry it over your shoulder or in your hand. It is made of sturdy nylon and has two extra pouches that can hold a variety of things.

 

Rothco Five-in-One The Diminutive Digger
In spite of its size (or perhaps because of it), the five-in-one tool has a few surprises in store to make up for its shortcomings.

In spite of its size (or perhaps because of it), the five-in-one tool has a few surprises in store to make up for its shortcomings.

  • Length: 131⁄2 inches
  • Folded Length: 9 inches
  • Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Shovel Length: 5 inches
  • Blade Thickness: 0.04 inches
  • Finish: Hard-cased black
  • Hardness: N/A
  • Blade Steel
  • Type: Steel
  • Handle Material: Rubber Handle
  • Color: Black
  • Sheath Color: Black
  • Sheath Material: Nylon
  • Sheath Attachment Type: Belt loop
  • Sheath Closure Type: Snap

Okay, don’t laugh. Hear us out first. There are a couple things at fault with this tool, but it isn’t its size. On the other hand, it is inexpensive and well made. The steel is solid and will take quite a beating, especially the pick tool. Sure, the shovelhead is small and you could get a handful of dirt just as easily with, well, your hand, but that is the point. Who wants to dig with their hands? The size of the shovel, which folds up to only 9 inches makes this perfect for a go-bag or in the trunk of your car. The pivot point is locked in place by a large nut and washer, traditional to the typical entrenching tool design, and each of the four tools are affixed via a cotter pin-secured bolt. The box says the bolt should have a quick-release button, but our example has a cotter pin, which is quite difficult to get out without pliers.

The shovel comes with five tools. The pointed shovelhead is 51⁄2-inches long and fairly robust; the shoulders are rolled over for strength, and it is riveted in three places to the mounting bracket. There is a hint of serration on the left side of the blade, but no way is that cutting anything. An 8inch-long saw-tooth attachment fits in place of the shovelhead, and although isn’t as sharp as it should be, can be used to cut small branches easily. The hammer/hatchet attachment is a little to be desired. The hammer doesn’t have the heft needed to drive nails, but it can work in a tent stake fairly well. The hatchet side, if properly sharpened, might prove useful. Out of the box, it won’t cut butter.

The best of the five tools is the pick. At 41⁄4 inches, it is very strong and able to penetrate even the toughest dirt. On the butt of the handle is a small compass that is useful in a pinch. The rubber grip slips off easily, which can be dangerous in mid-swing but easily remedied with some glue.

There are several good reasons to include this in your pack as a secondary shovel where space and weight is an issue. In spite of its size and a couple of machining issues, it is very practical, functional tool.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.