tactical survival shovel

The Best Tactical Shovel

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Shovels are one of the oldest and most useful tools known to mankind. They allow us to do everything from planting crops to building skyscrapers. Without one, moving dirt is near impossible – our hands are ill-equipped for the purpose. Despite their usefulness, how often do you have a shovel with you? Sure, you probably have one if you’re on the way to a construction or landscaping project. Otherwise, not so much. 

That’s a shame because there are plenty of highly portable shovels on the market right now. Tactical shovels, as they’re known, fold up or break into sections to keep them small enough for everyday carry. Many are equipped with tools that go beyond earth moving and a few even have sharp edges that they can be used as a defensive weapon. These shovels are meant to be strapped to a pack or thrown in the bed of your truck, or behind your seat, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Tactical shovels are the tool you never knew you needed.

Our Top Pick
Gerber E-Tool Folding Spade

The best tool for the job is often the simplest and the Gerber is as simple as they come. The E-Tool is just a well-made shovel with a sharpened edge for chopping.

gerber tactical shovel

Why Do I Need a Tactical Shovel

Having an everyday carry knife seems reasonable, but why would someone ever need an everyday carry shovel? 

  1. A shovel is a very useful tool. It can be used to dig latrines, smother a fire, or pry rocks from your campsite. Don’t underestimate how useful a digging implement can be – your hands are near useless at some of the tasks a shovel is specifically intended for.
  2. A tactical shovel is far more than a shovel. For one, a sharpened shovel blade can chop wood very effectively. Some tactical shovels have a serrated blade for sawing wood too. In a pinch, a tactical shovel is an effective defensive weapon (army’s around the world train their soldiers with entrenchment tools). Most tactical shovels also come with a few extra hidden in the handle, like a firestarter or compass. 

The Best Tactical Shovels

1. Gerber E-Tool Folding Spade with Serrated Edge

gerber tactical shovel
  • Steel: Baron Carbon
  • Weight: 2.33 oz
  • Length (unfolded): 24 in
  • Blade Width: 7 in
  • Type: Folding
  • Made In: USA

Gerber is one of the biggest names in everyday carry knives, so it makes sense they’d also produce one of the best everyday carry shovels. The E-Tool is a basic entrenching tool that doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles. The only feature on this folding shovel is a serrated edge on one side of the spade that helps it slice through weeds and hard soil. It’s incredibly well built, using high carbon boron steel. Since it’s not loaded up with accessories though, it weighs just 2.33 lbs; that’s less than average for a higher-quality shovel. 

It’s biggest downside is its length, extending to a paltry two feet long. You’ll definitely be bending over to do any kind of digging with this tool and it won’t give you much leverage either. While Gerber could have added handle extensions, it would have compromised the structural integrity of their product. Longer handles with multiple sections aren’t very strong, but the E-Tool is near unbreakable. It’s a design tradeoff that will disappoint some, but please those that want an ultra-durable tactical shovel.

Gerber is also one of the only major companies that are manufacturing their shovels in the U.S. Specifically, they’re designed and built in Gerber’s Portland, Oregon factory. 

Gerber’s e-tool might be right for backpackers and survivalists that desire a very strong and foolproof method for digging holes. There aren’t really any extras packaged in with this, just a highly qualified tool ready to do the job.

Why should you buy the Gerber E-Tool?

  • Doesn’t come with superfluous accessories.
  • Incredibly durable steel construction.
  • Wide spade for improved digging.

2. BANORES Camping Shovel

Banores Camping Shovel
  • Steel: 3Cr13 Stainless
  • Weight: 4.3 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 37.6 in
  • Blade Width: 6.3 in
  • Type: Screw-In
  • Made In: China

The Banores camping shovel certainly looks like it can do a lot. Inside the handle is a cutter, saw, screwdriver, bottle opener, whistle, fire starter, ice piton, fish scaler, and compass. The shovel blade has a slightly serrated face for chopping wood along with multiple angled positions. All of those accessories add up though, and the shovel weighs close to four and a half pounds.

The nearly six and a half-inch wide blade on the Banores is made from 3Cr13 stainless steel and it really shows. The edges of the shovel shine bright and will stay that way even if you don’t do any maintenance on it. Though the edges will dull with time and using a sharpening stone is recommended to keep it tip-top digging condition. 

The Banores has one of the longest handles of any tactical shovel, extending to thirty-seven and a half inches. It’s able to do this using three extension tubes that attach to the much shorter shovel handle. The tubes are made from aircraft-grade aluminum and are plenty strong enough for most camping tasks. However, any time you introduce attachment points the metal is weakened. Given how much force you can exert with such a long lever, there’s always the chance of bending the handle or wrecking the shovel’s pivot point.

This is an excellent shovel, especially for the price. Equivalent models usually cost twice as much, and some have fewer accessories. The Banores is one of the better choices if you’re looking for a very long-handled shovel, but its higher weight and possible failure points make it a poor option for backpackers and survivalists who need their gear to work perfectly every time.

Why should you buy the Banores Camping Shovel?

  • Comes with a great camping ax.
  • Extra-large and thick blade is incredibly durable.
  • The stainless steel shovel blade is maintenance-free.

3. BOYISEN OKOOLCAMP Foldable Camping Shovel

  • Steel: Alloy Steel
  • Weight: 1.36 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 16.14 in
  • Blade Width: 3.94 in
  • Type: Screw-In
  • Made In: China

Finally, a great tactical shovel for backpackers! So many of them are loaded up on accessories and have extra long handles, it’s no wonder hikers rarely carry an entrenchment tool. The Boyisen Okoolcamp though is not bulky or overbuilt. It weighs just over one and a third pounds, making it one of the lightest tactical shovels on this list.

It’s able to be that light because it’s not asked to do too many things. This is a shovel, a hoe, and a pick – it’s made for digging. There’s no superfluous survival gear hidden in this one. The pick is a nice addition though, especially if you regularly camp in dry climates with intense hard pack. 

The digging implements are made from some high-quality alloy steel though, an improvement on carbon steel. It takes carbon’s positive attributes like hardness and durability and does even better. The tools are also powder-coated for some initial corrosion protection. The handle comes with a rubberized coating along the shaft to give its user a better grip. 

This shovel isn’t without its faults though. It’s compactness and lightweight design necessitate a smaller shovel blade. It’s a little less than four inches across, which is going to make digging with it a lengthy task. The Boyisen Okoolcamp is also hard to operate since it’s only sixteen inches long when unfolded. You’ll need to be close to the ground, presumably on your knees, to do any digging. The handle can be shortened even further by removing the extension tube – a great idea for multi-night trips where every ounce counts.

The Boyisen Okoolcamp folding shovel is clearly designed for backpackers and others that need the lightest possible tool. It’s too small for big tasks and has too few accessories for survivalists, but might be just right for the average backcountry camper.

Why should you buy the Boyisen Okoolcamp Shovel?

  • Alloy steel blade is the best of stainless and high carbon steel.
  • Ultra-lightweight design is ideal for backpackers.
  • Included pick is useful for breaking up hard soil.

4. FiveJoy Military Folding Shovel Multitool

FiveJoy Military Folding Shovel
  • Steel: Carbon Steel
  • Weight: 2.19 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 33 in
  • Blade Width: 5.7 in
  • Type: Screw-In
  • Made In: China

The FiveJoy really is the jack of all trades when it comes to tactical shovels. It’s there to do any job and do it well. First off, it has one of the most impressive collections of accessories for a camping shovel, including a shovel blade, a hoe, an ax, a saw, a hammer, a rescue knife, a fish scaler, a can opener, an emergency whistle, a bottle opener, and a firestarter. With the exception of food, you’ve got everything you need for a camping trip right there.

It’s no slouch in the quality department either, the shovel blade is constructed from high-carbon steel that is both ultra-durable and very sharpenable. As with all carbon steel blades, this means a little more maintenance compared to stainless, to prevent it from rusting. The blade is a full five and a half inches wide, which provides ample surface area for earth moving. Holes will get dug a lot faster with something like the FiveJoy. The handle is made from aluminum and comes with anti-slip foam handles to prevent it from flying out of your hands with vigorous digging. 

The shovel is twenty-one inches long with the extension tubes removed and thirty-three when they are attached. This gives you a lot of flexibility for how it’s used – removing the tubes for more detailed work and adding them when you want to stand upright. With the tubes removed, it weighs around two and a quarter pounds, which is light enough for backpacking. Should you need them, you could bring the extension tubes and they’ll only add a few ounces to your pack weight. 

That packability comes at a cost though – the FiveJoy is a screw-in style shovel, with two points of attachment for the extension tubes. Although the handle is well-made and even has some gaskets on the interior to keep moisture out, it’s just not going to be solid as a shovel with a one-piece handle. Every attachment or pivot point is a place where the shovel can fail, and the FiveJoy has a couple more than its competition.

One could also argue that the bevy of accessories is more than any camper would need. If you don’t see yourself using at least half of the included pieces you’d be better off by a dedicated version of the tool, which will undoubtedly be better made and more functional. The Swiss Army style shovel is much more useful when you don’t anticipate a need for the accessories. For that reason, the FiveJoy is an excellent shovel to keep in your bug out bag or vehicle.

Why should you buy the FiveJoy Military Shovel?

  • Extra-long handle for better posture and leverage.
  • Over a dozen survival accessories are included with the shovel.
  • Wide blade for faster earth moving.

5. PATHWAY NORTH Camping Axe and Survival Shovel

PATHWAY NORTH Camping Axe and Survival Shovel
  • Steel: 3Cr13 Stainless Steel
  • Weight: 2.9 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 32 in
  • Blade Width: 5 in
  • Type: Screw-In
  • Made In: China

If you weren’t a fan of the FiveJoy’s maintenance-heavy carbon steel and overload of accessories, this is an excellent alternative. Rather than being packaged with a dozen or so extra doodads, the Pathway North has just a few: a firestarter, a whistle, a screwdriver set, a couple of hex bolt wrenches, and a glass breaker. You can also detach the shovel blade and replace it with an ax blade. That last feature makes it one of the better options for camping shovels.

Another great feature on the Pathway North is its 3Cr13 stainless steel blade. It’s five inches across and almost completely maintenance-free. Unlike the high-carbon steel models, this one requires no wipe downs or oilings after usage. Under most conditions, it will never rust. That being said, it’s not as durable and won’t take abuse like its high-carbon counterparts. It also doesn’t sharpen very well, which will be a detriment to your wood chopping. 

The shovel also comes with an extra-long handle, folding out to a lengthy thirty-three inches. This is accomplished by screwing in two handle extensions, both made from durable aluminum tubing. When fully assembled, it weighs a little under three pounds and even less if you’ve got the ax head attached instead of the shovel. That’s not bad for a shovel of its size – the shovel blade is actually five inches across and can move some serious dirt. 

Beyond the ax head though, some of Pathway North’s accessories just don’t seem that useful. The included wrenches are three hexagonal holes drilled into the shovel face. I can’t think of any time when it would be comfortable to use these to turn a bolt. The screwdriver set and tactical knife aren’t terrible, but these are items that deserve dedicated tools, not add-ons to a shovel. 

The Pathway North is an excellent choice for campers that want a great shovel and an ax. It’s fairly lightweight while still having a long enough handle that your back isn’t screaming by the end of the day. The price is a little higher than most folding shovels, but since you won’t need to purchase a separate ax, it’s really not that bad.

Why should you buy the Pathway North Tactical Shovel?

  • Extra-long handle for better leverage.
  • Maintenance-free stainless steel shovel blade.
  • Comes with an axe head.

6. Iunio Portable Camping Shovel

iunio Portable Camping Folding Shovel
  • Steel: Carbon Steel
  • Weight: 4.4 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 38 in
  • Blade Width: 6.1 in
  • Type: Screw-In
  • Made In: China

Iunio has created a great folding shovel for budget-minded consumers that walks the line between overbuilt survivalism tool and simplistic camp ware. The shovel’s blade is made from high-carbon steel that is less well prone than stainless but requires some care to prevent rusting. Though the blade also has a matte black coating that will protect it for the first couple of seasons before wearing off from use. The iunio’s blade face is one of the larger ones too, being just over six inches across. If you’re digging deep or moving a lot of dirt, this is a huge advantage. 

Where this shovel shines though is its leverage. The iunio offers the longest handle of folding shovel at thirty-eight inches, along with one of the widest shovel blades at six inches. If you need to move a big rock or even work to get your vehicle unstuck from the mud, the extra leverage could prove very useful. However, that extra length is the result of three extension tubes attaching to the handle – three weak points in the shovel’s design.

You’ll definitely want to ensure that the extension tubes are fully tightened before exerting much force on the handle as the loose sections are likely to get bent. All those extra tubes add some weight too, with the iunio coming in at nearly four and a half pounds.

However, as far as tactical shovels go, it’s kind of light on the accessories. It includes a whistle, a glass breaker, a bottle opener, and a saw and pickax built into the shovel. It also has four handle sections to extend its length to thirty-eight inches – the longest of any model on this list. If you don’t need the length though, you can just use the handle that’s attached to the shovel blade and save on space and weight. 

The Iunio doesn’t really stand out from its competitors except that it’s an inch or two longer than a few. It’s priced well though, costing just a little more than the cheapest tactical shovels on the list. It’s too heavy for backpackers and doesn’t have enough tools for prepper-types. It does come with a nice carrying case though, one that’s MOLLE compatible for easy pack attachment. It’s also just a really solid camping tool and can stand up to several weekends of abuse each year, which is all you can really ask for.

Why should you buy the Iunio Portable Shovel?

  • Longest handle of any tactical shovel on this list.
  • Has a reasonable number of accessories.
  • Comes with MOLLE compatible carrying case.

7. US GI Military Original Issue E-Tool Entrenching Shovel

USGI Original Military Shovel
  • Steel: Carbon Steel
  • Weight: 3 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 24 in
  • Blade Width: 6 in
  • Type: Folding
  • Made In: USA

This one’s the real deal, the entrenching tool issued to U.S. service members. Built to military standards and manufactured in the U.S. of A, you know this tool is not going to fail you at an inopportune time. Unlike most tactical shovels, the e-tool doesn’t come with a lot of extra gadgets, which helps to keep the price down. It works as a shovel, an ax, and a hoe – that’s it. It’s meant to do just a few things really well. 

The U.S. e-tool’s shovel blade is made from thick high-carbon steel that’s been given a black powder-coating. Two edges are sort of serrated, which helps if you’re trying to chop wood with it. The blade can take a lot of abuse without going dull or deforming. Just because it’s a workhorse, doesn’t mean it can be mistreated though. Once the powder coating wears off you’ll want to oil it up before you put it back in the shed or your gear closet, just to make sure it doesn’t rust.

When folded up, the e-tool is only nine inches long, making it one of the most compact folding shovels on the market. Unfolded, it extends to twenty-four inches, which isn’t nothing, but won’t please anyone that’s got a bad back and has a hard time bending over. You’re also not going to get as much leverage with a two-foot-long shovel, which isn’t all that bad really.

If you wrench on one of the longer shovels and the handle or pivot point isn’t well constructed, you run the risk of snapping your tactical shovel. However, you can apply as much force as you want to this e-tool and it’ll never break.

The e-tool is also a little heavy at three pounds. Given that the handle only extends to two feet, it’s one of the heaviest tactical shovels for its size. That all goes back to durability though, a thick shovel blade and indestructible handle are going to add some weight. 

Overall, this is a solid choice for buyers that want a shovel that works well as a shovel. It’s not a just-in-case tool, but rather a “this is going to get used a million times a season” sort of tool. 

Why should you buy the Original US GI Shovel?

  • Doesn’t cost much.
  • Is nearly indestructible.
  • Is perfect for buyers that just want a shovel.

8. SOG Folding Shovel Survival Shovel

SOG Folding Survival Shovel
  • Steel: Carbon Steel
  • Weight: 2.03 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 18.25 in
  • Blade Width: 4.5 in
  • Type: Folding
  • Made In: China

Short and sweet is the name of the game here – SOG’s folding shovel is actually one of the smallest tactical models on the market. When extended, it’s just eighteen and a quarter inches long; you will absolutely need to get on your knees to use this shovel. Folded up, it’s ten inches long and fits in an included carrying case. The case can easily be attached to a backpack, belt, ATV rack, or anywhere you might think you need an entrenching tool nearby.

The shovel blade is especially small, at four and a half inches wide. That’s going to be a hindrance if you need to move a lot of snow or dirt, but it does make storage and carrying a whole lot easier compared to larger models like the Gerber or U.S. e-tool. 

The SOG’s blade is made from high-carbon steel for enhanced durability and easier sharpening. Be sure to throw some oil on it before you put it away though or else you’ll find a rusty mess come next camping season. One area where the SOG is a little more functional than the U.S. e-tool is in sawing.

The SOG has a very sharp serrated edge on one side of the shovel blade. In a pinch, you could cut through some small-diameter logs, but it won’t be easy. A dedicated pocket saw would make quick work of that log where the SOG will awkwardly muddle through it. That is to say that the saw is for emergencies when there’s an unexpected need for it.

Unlike its closest competitors, the U.S. and Gerber e-tools, SOG’s folding shovel is not made in the U.S.A. While the company has some high-quality standards that I’m sure its Chinese manufacturing operations are following, you just can’t compete with American-made. 

The SOG folding shovel is a good option for anyone wanting the most compact and lightweight entrenching tool but without a lot of bells and whistles. This shovel does its job well and you won’t damage your back carrying it around. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it costs a third of what some of the pricier tactical shovels do.

Why should you buy the SOG Folding Survival Shovel?

  • Comes in a convenient carrying case.
  • Has a sharp saw blade on the shovel face for emergency cutting.
  • Offered at a budget-friendly price.

9. Zune lotoo Annihilate Tactical Shovel

Zune Tactical Shovel
  • Steel: Carbon Steel
  • Weight: 4 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 24.4 in
  • Blade Width: 5.7 in
  • Type: Folding
  • Made In: China

The biggest difference between a tactical shovel and a run-of-the-mill entrenching tool is that it can be used as a weapon. Thus far, most of the tactical shovels have been subtle in their role as a weapon, but the Annihilate tactical shovel doesn’t hide its purpose. It’s an intimidating piece of equipment with two very sharp edges on the shovel blade. Should you encounter an attacker though, the handle turns to reveal a hidden tactical knife.

Other folding shovels also come with knives, but this is the only one that can be deployed in seconds. The Annihilate is more than a shovel and knife too, it also comes with a firestarter, whistle, camera support, finger saw, paracord loop, and glass beaker.

Beyond its potential as a weapon, the Zune Iotoo Annihilate is a great shovel for digging. The carbon steel blade has a hardness of around 60 and is thick enough to support the weight of an adult male. It’s a little over five and a half inches across – larger than most and sufficient for moving large amounts of soil. The kind of steel that’s used in the Annihilate is more resistant to dulling and can be sharpened again and again to return it to a factory sharp edge. The edging on this shovel is naked though – no powder coating, so you’ll need to be extra vigilant when it comes to stopping corrosion. 

Moving on to the Annihilates thick aluminum handle, which is just under thirty inches when fully extended. That’s a little less than some of the other models that utilize extension tubes in the handle, but not really enough to matter. It is considerably heavier though at four pounds. This isn’t the best choice for backcountry campers that count their ounces, but as a tactical shovel, it’s great for keeping in your vehicle.

The Annihilate is definitely one of the better tactical shovels if you’re looking for a self-defense tool. It’s also a worthy earthmover and ax, but the primary reason for purchasing this model is to get the hidden tactical knife. 

Why should you buy the Zune Tactical Shovel?

  • Tactical knife is easy to deploy in defensive situations.
  • Extra hard and wide shovel blade.
  • Built to last with a heavy-duty aluminum handle.

10. Schrade SCHSH1 Stainless Steel Telescoping Shovel

Schrade Telescoping Shovel
  • Steel: 3Cr13 Stainless Steel
  • Weight: 1.95 lbs
  • Length (unfolded): 16.6 in
  • Blade Width: 5.19 in
  • Type: Folding
  • Made In: China

At first glance, the Schrade SCHSH1 looks fairly similar to other tactical shovels. It folds up into a compact package and it’s got a black coating designed to prevent corrosion, but those are where similarities end. Unlike most tactical shovels, the Schrade’s blade is made from 3Cr13 stainless steel. When combined with the outer coating, this is near rust-proof. If you’re regularly near saltwater, this is one of the few shovels that won’t be corroded by the time you get it home.

The Schrade is also one of the better tools for backpacking trips, thanks in large part to its featherlight weight. It comes in at just under two pounds. This can be attributed to its smaller stature and the use of hard plastic in the upper section of the handle. To make it more portable, Schrade packaged it with a great little carrying case that protects the shovel blade and can be attached anywhere you need it.

Like the Gerber, SOG, and U.S. e-tool, the Schrade takes a compact form. My biggest issue with the Schade though is its telescoping handle. While it’s very convenient that you can go from ten inches folded up to twenty inches fully extended, the way this shovel does it is just not my cup of tea. It takes just seconds to twist and unlock the handle’s collar and pull it to your desired length. It’s a weak point though. The collar can get loose with wear and the telescoping action seems prone to failure.

You want a folding shovel’s handle to feel like a single piece of metal in your hands, even when it’s actually a couple of connected tubes. You’ll feel the lack of rigidity every time you pitch into fresh soil or try to chop a branch with its edge.

The Shrade SCHSH1 is not as bulletproof as many other tactical shovels, but it will do the job and requires less maintenance than other models. It’s also one of the lightest camp shovels, so you can carry it just about anywhere with little to no strain.

Why should you buy the Schrade Telescoping Shovel?

  • Stainless steel blade for maximum corrosion resistance.
  • Easy to change the length of the telescoping handle.
  • Extremely lightweight.

What to Look For When Buying a Tactical / Survival Shovel?

Shovels are simple devices – you have a metal spade attached to a handle, not much to see here, right? Not exactly. As they say, “there’s a tool for every task and a task for every tool.” The steel and aluminum used in the blade and handle can be of varying quality and your tactical shovel is definitely not something you want breaking deep in the backcountry. The shovel’s weight and length can be tailored to your needs too, depending on how it will be carried.

Steel

Just like purchasing a knife, there are some pros and cons to every type of steel used in tactical shovels. Stainless steel shovels will be easier to care for as they don’t rust, even if you leave a clump of wet mud on it when it gets put away. Stainless isn’t as strong as carbon steel though, it’s more likely to deform under pressure. Stainless won’t keep an edge as well and won’t get as sharp even after you use a sharpening stone.

If all you’re doing is digging, maybe that doesn’t matter to you. Customers that need a fine edge for chopping wood with their survival shovel should stay clear of stainless steel. These are often identified by a “Cr” in their designation number, indicating the presence of chromium.

Carbon steel is the preferred metal for high-quality tools. Shovel blades made from carbon steel are harder and less prone to dulling. If you need a sharp edge on your shovel blade, you can get it razor-thin with some time on a sharpening stone. It’s easily recognizable by its matte finish, which if left out in the elements or exposed to moisture, will rust. Some companies add a protective powder coating to their carbon steel, but this is a thin layer that wears off with even moderate use. Carbon steel shovels require maintenance and aren’t the best option for buyers that want to set them aside and forget them until a need arises.

A compromise between carbon and stainless steel is alloy steel. It takes the properties of both metals and combines them into one. Alloy steel isn’t exactly rustproof, but it is more durable than its stainless counterparts. 

Length

Why would you need a longer shovel? Two reasons: leverage and comfort. 

“Give me a long enough lever and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world” – Archimedes

The longer your shovel’s handle, the more force you can exert with it. If you’re digging through hardpack or need to pry a rock out, that extra leverage can be quite useful. 

A longer handle also means less bending over. Some of the shorter folding shovels look like they’re designed to be used while on your knees. That’s bad for your back and certainly doesn’t make for a fun camping experience. A shorter shovel is only useful if you need to cut weight (such as on a backcountry adventure) or you don’t have a lot of storage space. In the latter case, you can probably find a shovel with multiple handle sections to give yourself a long enough lever without taking up a lot of space.

Weight

The biggest difference between a tactical shovel and one designed for gardening is the weight. The vast majority of folding shovels come with a steel blade but have handles made from lighter weight materials, with aluminum being the most common choice. Aluminum isn’t as strong as steel, so there’s some risk of bending the handle if too much force is applied to it. Many shovels use plastic parts around their pivot point, which is another common point of failure.

If weight isn’t your biggest concern, look for thicker materials in the handle and blade. You should also avoid any plastic parts and look for a shovel that has a beefy pivot point. Backcountry campers will need to be more careful with their lightweight (i.e. more fragile) shovels.

Blade Size

Tactical shovels usually have smaller blades compared to the one you have in your shed. Functionality isn’t the top priority, compactness is. Most tactical shovels have a blade that’s between four and seven inches wide. Compare that to the eight to twelve-inch blade on your standard digging shovel. A tactical shovel isn’t going to move a lot of earth very fast.

For most buyers, that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t take a very large blade to pry up a rock or dig a cathole for yourself. That being said, a wider blade will make your work easier in most circumstances. It will also add weight and make the shovel less compact, which is a big problem for backcountry campers and not very important for anyone storing the tactical shovel in their vehicle. 

Handle Type

Two types of handles pervade the tactical shovel market: folding and screw-in. Folding shovel blades are permanently attached to the handle via a pivot point and the handle is a single piece. Screw-in models usually have the blade attached to a small handle section, which may or may not be used on its own. Extension tubes are then screwed into this to give a full-length handle. 

Folding tactical shovels are generally shorter, but more durable than their screw-in counterparts. A one-piece design has fewer points of failure; if there’s one spot on a screw-in style shovel that’s going to break, it’s where the pieces come together. However, folding shovels are usually less two-feet long. Anything longer and it doesn’t really qualify as a tactical shovel, it would be a run-of-the-mill garden shovel.

If you’ve got the back for it and can operate the shovel from a kneeling position, a folding shovel is more functional. Most people prefer to use a shovel from a standing position though and need the extension tubes found on screw-in models. Screw-in shovels are usually less heavy too.

What do you need? Backpacking vs Survival vs Camping vs Tactical

By nature, a shovel has many uses and an equal number of scenarios where it would come in handy – no shovel is ideal for all of them. 

Backpacking

If you’re backcountry camping, weight is the most important consideration. All those little extras packed in the handle? Probably just dead weight. Take them out and carry only enough handle length to do what you need to do. That’s also an argument for purchasing a tactical shovel that can be broken down into several pieces; you should only carry what you need for that backpacking trip.

Survival

If you’re purchasing a survival shovel, the situation calls for almost the exact opposite. You’ll carry it in your vehicle for when catastrophe strikes (truck breaks down, a natural disaster hits, any sort of bug-out scenario), and weight won’t matter. Having an extensive set of tools could be a lifesaver though. You don’t know what the situation will call for, so having an ax, a survival knife, saw, firestarter and ice chisel all packed into one tool isn’t such a bad idea.

Camping

Camping shovels fall somewhere in the middle. You’ll probably get a lot of use out of this tool, so it should be durable and easy enough to handle. The extra weight that comes from a handle full of tools isn’t going to be a problem, but you’ll also have a good idea of what tasks you’ll be doing at the campground and some of the tools will prove to be unneeded. 

Tactical

A tactical shovel, on the other hand, needs to do two things: dig and act as a defensive weapon. These two roles could conflict with each other as you might want a heavy tool for digging and a lightweight one for swinging at an attacker. Most importantly though, it should feel good in your hands, with a solid grip and balanced design.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that an intimidating-looking shovel is a good tactical shovel. That’s all marketing and won’t do anything for you should a conflict arise.

Trade-offs: The race to shove in another utility

These days nearly every tactical shovel has ten different uses; you can chop wood or hoe a garden or start a fire. The shovels are packaged with a bevy of little tools stored inside the shovel’s handle. But how often are you actually going to use any of these gadgets? First and foremost you are buying a shovel. If you need a firestarter, you should probably buy a dedicated firestarter.

The tradeoff with any of these included pieces is that they’re not going to work as well as tools designed for a single purpose. All of those extras add weight to the tactical shovel too; to prevent it from being overly bulky, most companies will build all of the tools (shovel included) out of lighter, lower-quality metal. 

The takeaway: think about which tools you’ll actually use out of the half dozen or more that come packed in your tactical shovel’s handle. If it’s just one or two, spend the money on a better shovel and buy those tools separately. You’ll be much happier with each of your tools and it’ll probably cost less. If there are several instruments included with your survival shovel that you’ll use on every camping trip, then a multi-tool setup might be worth getting. 

Tactical Shovels: Frequently Asked Questions 

What Can I Do With a Tactical Shovel

  • Use the pick or shovel blade to break a hole in a sheet of ice. Then you can collect water or set up an ice fishing spot.
  • Free a stuck vehicle. Use the shovel blade to clear mud from around the tires and axles.
  • Dig a fire pit. This will prevent embers from flying around and starting a forest fire.
  • Use the shovel blade’s serrated edge to saw tree branches for firewood.
  • Dig a cat hole for defecation.
  • Light a fire by striking the shovel blade on an included ferro rod.
  • Clear a campsite of rocks and debris.
  • Chop wood using the sharpened face of the shovel blade.
  • Defend yourself against human or animal attackers.

How Do I Maintain My Tactical Shovel

Two things to be concerned about with your tactical shovel are dulling and oxidation. Dulling will happen with frequent use, especially if you’re digging up rocks or other hard materials. If you have a stainless steel shovel blade, dulling will happen sooner. To bring your shovel back to its former greatness you’ll need to work on it with a sharpening stone. This is very similar to sharpening a knife, but you’ll be working with a larger surface, which can be intimidating. High carbon steel shovel blades are easier to sharpen and will come to a finer edge. Remember though, this is a shovel, not a knife, it doesn’t need to be razor-sharp.

Oxidation, or rusting, is the other major issue you’ll run into. If your shovel blade is stainless steel, rusting should be minimal as the alloy already contains a protective coating. High carbon steel is very prone to rusting and it’s best to add a coat of oil whenever it goes into storage. Many campers and survivalists use gun oil, but a general-purpose lubricant like WD-40 works well too. Be sure to oil the hinges and any parts with metal on metal contact, such as where the handle’s extension tubes fit together.

What’s the Best Way to Dig a Hole with a Tactical Shovel?

Tactical shovels have an advantage over traditional shovels in that many come packaged with a pick. If you need to dig a hole in hard-packed dirt, start by breaking up the soil with the pick. Then you can use the shovel blade to remove the loose dirt. This is a much better strategy than prying up rock-hard soil with the shovel blade.

Conclusion

A tactical shovel is a true multi-tool that would make an excellent addition to anyone’s camping kit or bug out bag. It’s the sort of item that you never thought you’d need until you actually do. Fortunately, most models are fairly inexpensive and can easily fit in your backpack or under the seat in your car. More expensive models will last a lifetime, and with proper maintenance, work as well as the day you bought it twenty years down the road. 

Our Top Pick
Gerber E-Tool Folding Spade

The best tool for the job is often the simplest and the Gerber is as simple as they come. The E-Tool is just a well-made shovel with a sharpened edge for chopping.

gerber tactical shovel
Ryan Victor
Written by
Ryan Victor
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