backpacking shovel

Do You Need a Backpacking Shovel?

When you’re going on a thru-hike or a long backpacking trip, you really need to think about what gear to bring. What items do you absolutely need? What things can you live without?

A backpacking shovel might sound like one of those bulky items to leave behind. But it’s actually a very valuable resource on the trail. Let’s get into the basics.

What is a Backpacking Shovel?

A backpacking shovel is… you guessed it – a shovel. But this isn’t your standard house shovel used to dig holes for fence posts. A backpacking shovel is much smaller and more compact than a standard yard shovel. Many backpacking shovels are lightweight and some can even fold when not in use.

backpacking shovel

Difference Between Backpacking Shovel and Hiking Trowel

Although you might assume these two tools are the same, there are some fundamental differences. The main difference comes down to size. A backpacking shovel will be much larger (and heavier) than a hiking trowel. You can use it for bigger tasks like building fire pits or clearing out a campsite. Although backpacking shovels are larger, many times they come with a collapsible handle for storage.

A hiking trowel is a much smaller tool and ideal for ultralight backpackers. These trowels will be made out of metal or plastic and many of them weigh only around one ounce. Hiking trowels are mostly used to dig cat holes. Due to the small blade size, larger holes will require much more time and effort. Hiking trowels are also useful as a stake when you’re setting up a camping tent.

A Backpacking Shovel Has Many Uses

Backpacking and hiking gear needs to be strategic. I’m talking about handy items that have multiple uses. A coffee mug that doubles as a soup bowl. A spoon that doubles as a fork. You name it, the list goes on.

This theme is no different with backpacking shovels. These awesome little devices have a range of uses that will help you out on the trail. So check out all the different ways you can use a backpacking shovel below.

  • Dig a Cat Hole

Let’s get the most obvious reason out of the way shall we? If you’re going on a hike that’s longer than a couple of days, you’re going to need to use the bathroom. The only problem is, unless you’re at a public campsite there are no toilets available. So when you find yourself needing to take a poop on the trail, you need to be more creative.

This is where a backpacking shovel comes into play. You might also know it as a potty trowel, or a hiking shovel. Regardless of the name, it’s used to dig a hole (cat hole) so you can go to the bathroom. Burying you’re waste is not only better for the environment (I’ll talk about that below) but it’s also considerate to your fellow hikers.

  • Help with Fire Building

A backpacking shovel can also help with fire building. If you’re building a fire pit for example, you’re going to be digging a lot. Now I know there are other fire building techniques that don’t require digging and those are good as well. But a fire pit is great for those harsh nights, when you need to protect the flames from the wind.

Fire pits are also useful for better controlling the temperature of the fire. When you build a standard fire above ground, wind (even in small amounts) can alter the temperature. Use your backpacking shovel to clear out a small circular hole for the fire wood. Then you could even place a campfire grill over the hole, making it even with the ground.

  • Even Out Your Tent Area

You could also use a backpacking shovel to even out your tent area. Let’s face it, sometimes it can be near impossible to find a flat area for your tent. The last thing you want after hiking for hours is to spend more time finding the perfect level surface for your tent. This is where a backpacking shovel comes in handy – as it will save you time.

Bringing this tool on a hike will give you a better peace of mind when it comes to winding down for the day. And it’s not all about dirt either. A backpacking shovel can also be used to clear large rocks from a tent area. All you need is a little bit of leverage and you can roll that rock away. Remember not to damage any tree roots when clearing out your tent area.

Best Backpacking Shovels

In this section I’ll list some of the best backpacking shovels on the market today. These will be the larger tools you can use to dig holes or even out your tent area. They’re also heavier than hiking trowels, but they have the advantage to fold away when not in use. If you’re looking for information on the much smaller hiking trowels, I’ve listed those further down the list.

Gerber E-Tool

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For the price, the Gerber E-Tool is the best overall folding backpacking shovel. It’s lightweight, tough and very compact when you need to store it. As an added bonus, the Gerber E-Tool has a serrated edge – so you can cut small logs and branches.

For extra strength, it also has a useful locking mechanism for when the shovel is fully extended. It tops my list because of these awesome features. It’s a rugged little tool that has a variety of uses.

SOG Entrenching Tool

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You really can’t go wrong with this high-rated SOG Entrenching Tool. It’s your standard lightweight and compact folding shovel – that can be used for a variety of tasks. The shovel is made with a high carbon steel handle so it feels very sturdy and reliable.

It also has a powder coat finish, so you don’t have to worry about paint chipping from heavy use. The overall weight is 24.5 ounces and it measures in at 18.25 inches when fully extended.

 REDCAMP Folding Shovel

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This REDCAMP military folding handle shovel is ideal for outdoor environments. What sets it apart from the other backpacking shovels on this list is the actual tip of the shovel.

Notice how it’s slightly more angled than the others. With this feature, ground penetration will be much easier. The blade itself is made from a high strength carbon steel, so you don’t have to worry about durability. Like the others, this shovel also folds when not in use.

Best Hiking Trowels

Maybe you want the convenience of a backpacking shovel, but at a more manageable size and weight. Not to worry – as a hiking trowel is the best option. You can still do all the tasks a larger shovel can, it just might take a little longer to dig a fire pit or even out a tent area. But hey, if you just need a shovel to dig a cat hole, a hiking trowel is all you need.

The Deuce of Spades

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This is the go to hiking trowel for ultralight backpackers. The Deuce of Spades is 6.8 inches long and only weighs 17 grams! It’s so small and lightweight that you won’t even notice it in your backpack.

At the same time, it still offers the stability to dig a solid cat hole, regardless of the ground type. Just remember with these smaller hiking trowels, your hands might get a little dirty in the digging process. You won’t have a long handle like a backpacking shovel, but you make up for it in weight.

GSI Outdoors Trowel

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If you’re looking for a slightly longer trowel that’s still lightweight, the GSI Outdoors trowel is a solid option. It measures in at 10.3 inches long and only weighs 3.1 ounces.

So yes, it’s a little bigger in size compared to the Deuce but still a very manageable trowel. This means that you can dig a deeper cat hole with the added length and don’t have to worry about getting dirt under your fingernails. There are tons of metal trowels on the market, but this is made from recycled polycarbonate.

Coghlan’s Backpackers Trowel

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Weighing in at only 2 ounces, this is yet another extremely light hiking trowel. The bright orange color makes it very easy to spot in low light situations or in the snow.

What I like about this trowel is the added added feature on the blade itself. The inch markers on the side let you know how deep your hole is, so you don’t have to keep guessing. Another cool little feature is the opening on the trowel handle. This makes it easy to attach a cord to the trowel, so you can then carry it on your pack.

Leave No Trace

If you plan on being outdoors for an extended period of time, you should know about the leave no trace principles. Naturally, one of these principles is disposing of waste properly. This isn’t just about trash either, you have an obligation to properly dispose of human waste as well.

If the area you’re in allows cat holes, you must dig them between 6-8 inches deep. And a least 200 feet from water sources, the hiking trail and your campsite. When you’re finished with your business you also must fill the cat hole up with dirt.

So why go through this whole process just to use the bathroom? Hiking is all about experiencing nature how it is meant to be. No one wants to breathe in fresh mountain air and have a bag full of trash roll by. And I guarantee you don’t want to step in a pile of human waste on the trail either.

So do the right thing – respect nature and make sure to clean up after yourself.

Final Thoughts

By now you should know the main differences between a backpacking shovel and hiking trowel. Both tools can be very handy, depending on the scenario you plan on using them in.

If you’re going on a camping trip, I definitely recommend picking up a backpacking shovel. A shovel is great on camping trips, because you’ll be in one place the whole time and will be digging fire pits.

If you’re going on a hiking trip, a trowel might be the better option. They’re super light (only a few ounces) and you won’t even notice them in your backpack. You won’t regret it when it comes time to go to the bathroom!