Best Backpacking Shovels & Trowels [2017 Buyer’s Guide]

No, we’re not talking about a long handled wooden shovel.

We’re also not talking about those military backpacking shovels that fold in half and weigh an insane amount. So what constitutes a backpacking shovel or trowel for this article? We’re talking about poop trowels for properly disposing of human waste.

In the backpacking world, it’s important to properly take care of the areas we use and travel in. Not only are we protecting the natural resources but we’re also trying to provide a good experience for the next visitor. For those reasons, it’s critical to follow LNT guidelines when disposing of human waste properly in the wilderness. One way to do this is using a trowel to dig a hole and cover your waste.

I’ll share with you a nasty story that illustrates exactly why this is so important in just a minute. But if you’re rather skip ahead to the more practical stuff, just click one of the links below:

Why bury waste? (a shitty story)

When guiding a trip on the Appalachian Trail several years back I took off my backpack during a rest break and set it against a tree no more than a foot from the trail. After our break was over I picked up my bag and put it on. Unfortunately, something smelled AWFUL so I started checking around. Turns out I had set my backpack right in a pile of human poop, fresh too!

This really got me upset because for one I don’t like poop on my gear. For another, there’s an awful lack of respect and stewardship of hiking resources. trash left in campfires, toilet paper littering a radius around shelters, and other examples of abuse of our public recreation lands. Burying waste is only one example of proper Leave No Trace camping procedures.

Waste should be buried along with any toilet paper, sticks, rocks, or leaves that you’ve used to wipe with. Cover the hole with the dirt you dug out, and then place an X of sticks over the top. This helps other hikers avoid digging up your poop and getting it on their trowels when hiking in congested areas.

How to choose the best backpacking trowel

Weight

I always include weight as a priority consideration on any backpacking gear. When it comes to trowels and shovels they can weigh anywhere from 0.5 ounces up to several pounds. We’ll talk later about different ways backpacking shovels can be used but 99% of backpackers use them only for digging human waste catholes. For this reason, we simply need something small, effective, and lightweight.

Features & Functions

There are very few functions and features that really matter in a backpacking shovel because, well… it’s a shovel. Let’s not over complicate it. However, some common features that are useful include folding handles and serrated edges.

Folding handles are nice on many products because they can cut the size of the trowel in half when folded. Maximizing space in the backpack is always important. When it comes to “cutting” power, just keep in mind that backpacking shovels are NOT AXES. At most, they’re meant to go through tiny, toothpick sized roots. If you’re finding yourself hacking away at finger-sized roots, go dig somewhere else.

Attachments

No, I’m not talking about adding a scope to your trowel. However, having a backpacking shovel that can easily attach to your bag can be helpful. I keep mine clipped to the outside of my bag, along with two MSR mini-groundhog stakes, using a small carabiner. Why? Because I don’t want to have to dig it out when I need to use it. Simply clip it on, and tuck it into an outer pocket to prevent it from swinging around.

Just look for a trowel that has a small hole in the handle or some attachment point for easily clipping it to your backpack. Don’t want it to fall out and get lost!

Materials

Well, here’s the question. Plastic, aluminum, or titanium? In order of price you’ll find that the least expensive are plastic, then aluminum, then titanium. I’ve found, however, that buying plastic trowels simply adds up to a higher cost over the life of your trowel. Why? Because plastic backpacking trowels break all the time and you have to buy new ones.

I’d argue that aluminum might be the best price-weight ratio. While titanium is a little lighter, it tends not to matter that much. If weight is your top concern, however, you’ll definitely want a titanium Suluk46 Tark Trowel.

Durability

Durability is one of the biggest concerns for me. I’ve seen no lack of broken trowels and shovels over the years. From shattered folding “army” shovels to broken plastic trowels. Today, more than ever, manufacturers are making inexpensive products that just don’t hold up. That’s why I will advise backpackers to opt for the Outdoor Products Hand Shovel which is a nearly bomb-proof steel folding shovel. I’ve used this shovel on group trips for years and love it!

If you’re not sure which shovel is the best pick for you, I’d err on the side of durable, simple, and proven.

The 6 Best Shovels For Backpacking

This has got to be my overall favorite for every situation. I have a personal fave backpacking shovel, but this one takes the cake for most situations. Why?

Because many hikers prefer durability and resilience over lightweight. This trowel is nearly indestructible and will last forever if used properly. I’ve used these mainly on group expeditions with tons of new backpackers. This little steel shovel is light enough to be a good choice, durable enough to stand up to abuse, and very small when folded down.

Overall I think the Outdoor Products Hand Shovel is the best choice for the widest range of backpackers. The full steel construction is ideal for those seeking durability above all else. It’s a simple design, proven product, and solid concept. Nothing revolutionary here, just a trusty product.

Tark Ultralight Trowel

Suluk46 Tark Ultralight Trowel

Now, this is my personal all-time favorite backpacking trowel. The Suluk46 titanium backpacking trowel is little-known and hyper effective. It’s available in two sizes small (original) or large and each version can be purchased in titanium or aluminum versions. I personally use the small titanium version.

What attracted me to this backpacking shovel originally? The absurdly lightweight, of course! The weight is better measured in grams than ounces. Of course, this means it’s not nearly as indestructible as the OP steel shovel we mentioned earlier. This was a concern of mine at first but after years of use, it still works great!

One thing that surprised me about the shovel is that it’s actually easier to use than larger and heavier shovels. How is that? Because it’s so thin that the shovel actually cuts through minor roots with ease – it’s so thin it’s practically sharpened. Overall this get’s my 5/5 star approval and recommendation.

With the popularity of the Suluk46 titanium Tark trowel (and a few others like it years ago) there have been plenty of competitors arising. The Deuce of Spades by TentLabs is one such product. With a nearly identical design and 0.6 oz weight, it's nearly as great as my favorite Tark trowel and it's a bit cheaper. This could be a great choice for those who want an aluminum-only version of a trowel that has many of the same advantages at the Tark trowel.

One major disadvantage of the Deuce of Spades, when compared to the Tark trowel, is the handle design. Because of the lightweight and thin material these types of shovels are made from, it can be difficult to get a good grip. The Deuce of Spades lacks the critical finger stops that the Tark trowel provides and users may find this to be the biggest drawback of the Deuce.

It does come with a lifetime durability warranty which is nice, particularly for those who are wary about the durability of such a thin trowel.

One user measured this trowel at a back-breaking 3.3 ounces compared to the 0.5 ounces offered by the Tark Trowel from Suluk46. Of course, 3.3 ounces is anything but back-breaking. However, we're moving into the realm of plastic trowels and I can tell you that they're always less durable, less effective, and will cost more in the long run. Why?

Upfront theFiskars FiberComp is much less expensive than the Tark or Deuce but once you’ve broken a few you’ll end up paying more. To be fair, I’ve included the FiberComp because it’s actually the only plastic trowel I’ve ever seen used effectively in the backcountry – all other ones seem to break instantly. So, if you’re on a super-tight budget and HAVE to save pennies up front then consider this one. Over the long run, however, you’ll be happier with one of the aluminum, titanium, or steel trowels.

While I've never used or seen this particular backpacking shovel used, we'll consider it for our list due to great user reviews and low cost. One thing I do like about this trowel is the included depth gauge. Many companies simply print the numbers on the trowel which, of course, just rubs and wears off over time with digging. Grizzly Peak had the foresight to actually stamp the ruler into the plastic of the shovel for longevity. Of course, this can be circumnavigated altogether by simply learning the overall length of your shovel and learning how deep to dig.

This might be a good choice for those seeking a budget oriented backpacking shovel and not convinced that an aluminum or titanium trowel is the right choice. If this sounds like you, then consider either the Grizzly Peak trowel here or the FiberComp Trowel above.

SeaToSummit Pocket Trowel

I’ve always loved Sea to Summit products. While I don’t use their products all the time, I do find that they often have surprisingly good products across a wide range of backpacking gear. Their pocket trowel is a commonly popular piece of gear on the trail and I’ve seen it used many times. That said, I’ve never found myself attracted to it personally. It’s a bit bulky and clunky for my tastes but it does have a few great things going on.

First, it’s made of a nice durable aluminum design. As we talked about earlier, durability is a big factor – we don’t want a broken trowel while trying to dig a cathole to go to the bathroom. Second, I really like the sliding compact design of the Sea To Summit Pocket Trowel. Similar to the folding design of the steel backpacking shovel we talked about earlier, it allows for an overall large design that can be packed down small in the pack. Overall, though, I feel they could have reduced the size a bit.

Other Types of Backpacking Shovels

Why have we only included human waste cathole trowels? Because there’s really no need to take any other shovels with you on a backpacking trip. If you’ve got a friend who has talked you into carrying a larger shovel, just ask yourself, “why?”.

For trail crews and volunteers working on trails or those embarking on very specific expeditions with some sort of “digging” component then large trail tools make sense. For hikers like you and I, all we really need is a small, lightweight backpacking shovel just big enough to take care of our catholes.

Conclusion

Ultimately I gauge a backpacking shovel by only a few key measures. How small is it? How light is it? How durable is it? How well does it dig a hole I can poop in?

As long as it has a good balance of all these characteristics, it’ll make a great backpacking shovel for me. Overall I recommend metal backpacking shovels and encourage backpackers to keep it simple when buying. Look for the product that has the features you need at a price you’re willing to pay. Don’t get lured in to overcomplicated and quick-to-break products.


About the author

Casey Fiedler

Professional ski instructor and backpacking guide, Casey Fiedler went to school with CWC and NOLS for Outdoor Education and Leadership. Want to read more about what it takes to lead great adventure trips? Casey writes about outdoor education at caseyfiedler.wordpress.com