The 7 Best Off Road Shovels (and What Makes Them Great)
It's always nice to have the right tools for the job when you go off road, isn't it? When you're wheeling in mud, sand, or snow one of those tools to have is an off road shovel. Sometimes you just gotta dig.
While you can use any old shovel, there are a number of options now that:
- Thrash hardware store shovels in strength
- Have blade designs that destroy hard ground
- Last longer out in the sun and rain
- Use multiple attachments
In this article, we'll take a look at what makes a good off road shovel and show you the 7 best off road shovels and axes for different needs.
Why Do I Need a Shovel Off Road?
A shovel is simply a piece of essential off road gear:
If you have a Hi Lift jack, you should have a shovel. If you have a winch, you should have a shovel.
A shovel complements your off road recovery tools. You can dig in front of your tires to take strain off your winch when you're mired in mud. You can jack up a tire with your Hi Lift and fill underneath it when you get high-centered on a rut. 10 or 15 minutes of shoveling can often completely change a recovery situation.
Of course, you can do lots more than just get unstuck:
- Clear an area for your tent.
- Dig a poop hole.
- Dig a fire pit.
- Put out a fire.
- Do trail maintenance.
Off Road Shovel Design
Get a shovel that is suited to the difficulty of your off-roading:
Carrying a small folding shovel might be okay as part of an emergency off road kit, but you're going to want a real, full-size shovel if you get seriously stuck.
So, short handle or long, pointy or square, folding or not?
Shovel and axe kits
Should you get a shovel and an axe for your off road kit?
We prefer to use an off road shovel and axe kit - a modular handle that has at least a shovel and axe head. If you're actually going somewhere you need a shovel, it seems likely you'll want an axe.
We'll be frank:
We tend to use our axe at camp, and use it much less for actual off road recovery. However, we do use axes for clearing downed trees on the trail. On a recent trip we had two heavy storms that laid trees down on the trail and we weren't about to turn back. A winch with an axe and/or bow saw can make quick work of trees in your path.
Like we said:
We like kits that have a single handle with multiple heads. If you don't use all the heads, leave 'em at home.
Don't even bother with a square shovel unless you have a really good reason.
Pointy shovels are superior to square shovels because they can actually penetrate the ground. Square shovels are terrible for recovery unless you're moving a lot of sand or snow - both things that are easy for a square blade to penetrate. Try digging a hole in your backyard with a square shovel sometime.
What's the best for hard ground or lots of roots?
The toothed blade. This blade is even more efficient at penetrating hard ground with it's multiple points. Good quality versions of these shovels tend to be make with thicker steel than a normal shovel. We haven't heard of any failures of the individual teeth.
You should sharpen and deburr your shovel with a file. Hard ground will dull the blade, just like a knife, and can sometimes push the cutting edge over into a dull burr. You don't want a razor sharp edge on an off road shovel since you'll just fold the edge over the next time you hit a rock.
You wouldn't think that there's a whole lot to say about shovel handles...but you'd be wrong.
Here's the deal:
You have to decide between 3 different handle materials and 3-ish different lengths. Off road shovel handles can be made of:
- Fiberglass: Fiberglass is lightweight, durable, and has proven itself for use in outdoor tools and off road recovery tools.
- Steel: Steel shovel handles are made of round tube. They are durable and could be used to shore up a damaged part in a pinch. Since they're tubular, we'd want one that was 100% sealed (probably not possible with typical production processes) or that's easy to drain. If stored on the outside of your rig, any water that gets in during the winter can freeze and split the handle.
- Wood: Wood is pretty light and cheap. However, if you leave your shovel strapped to a roof rack or somewhere else on the outside of your 4x4 it'll deteriorate in the sun and rain. Frankly wood can last a pretty long time, but the expansion and contraction of the wood along with water inundation can make the shovel handle develop splinters pretty quickly. The shovel handle also only has one purpose - as a shovel handle.
Shovel handles also come in different lengths.
- Folding: Most of the off road folding shovels we've seen simply aren't suitable for serious off road recovery operations. They have small blades, short reach, and a short throw distance. But if you're like us, you have two off road recovery kits: "everyday" and "4x4 trip". The everyday recovery kit gets a folding shovel and the 4x4 trip recovery kit gets big shovel.
- Short: Normally, these shovels have a D handle on the end. This type of shovel is probably the best for off road shovels. We often prefer a long handle, but this shovel can get under your rig when you're in a serious pickle.
- Long: Yes, a full length shovel handle is the best for serious digging. But it's length means it's usually harder to store and that it's hard to maneuver under your rig when you need to do some serious earth sculpting.
So what do the best off road shovel handles look like?
For normal off-roaders, you want a short steel or fiberglass shovel handle. This gives you a durable and long lasting shovel handle that you can leave out in the weather. The short length makes it easy to store and easy to maneuver under your 4x4.
Folding shovels won't do the same work as a larger shovel on serious 4x4 outings, so keep them in your "everyday" recovery kit with a couple of D-ring shackles and a recovery strap.
7 Off Road Shovels and Axes
We surveyed the off road shovels and axe kits out there to find the best for doing duty in your 4x4. Except for the Fiskars, which is made in Finland, all of these are currently made in America. If you want an inexpensive kit with all the features, pick the Hi-Lift Kit. If you want something that gives you more handle lengths and tool options for the future, get the Mag-Lok. For a folding shovel, there is only one: the Gerber E-Tool.
Hi-Lift Jack Handle-All Off Road Shovel Tool Kit (Best Buy)
This made-in-the-USA shovel kit is just what you need without extraneous stuff and it does it all for a good price. The Hi Lift kit is modular with four attachments. You get:
- a shovel
- an axe
- an 8 lb sledge hammer
- a pick axe head
Why do we like this kit so much?
For one thing, it collapses into it's own small bag which means you can store it in your 4x4. It also includes the tools you're most likely to need on the trail. We definitely like having a shovel and an axe. The pick is good for digging in hard ground. Although it's not a tool we use frequently on the trail, we can see it's benefits, especially if you need to do trail maintenance or trail building.
The sledge hammer, though...
We'd never use it on the trail. Some people love having it, but we already bring a mini sledge for banging stuff back into place. You might use it if you needed to drive some pipes or stakes, like for a winch anchor.
The tool pieces fit tightly together and you could use the just one shovel handle instead of both connected if you needed to shovel in a tight spot.
- The handle can be slippery: Use gloves or some hockey stick handle tape if that's a problem.
- The tools ship dull: You'll need to learn how to sharpen your shovel and axe sooner rather than later.
Super Shovel by Krazy Beaver (Craziest)
If it's not obvious from the picture, this shovel is meant to be a serious, root-busting, clay-skewering, zombie-killing shovel.
The handle is lightweight, high-viz fiberglass. The handle and head are steel that's powdercoated on both the inside and outside - not a common feature, especially not on shovels. It should prevent any rust for a very long time.
With heat-treated 13 gauge steel, the shovel head is twice as thick as a normal gardening shovel.
You're probably wondering about the most obvious feature:
teeth. So do they work? There are similar shovels out there, but the
Krazy Beaver is the most robust. Most users report that penetration is
good in hard ground and even better than a normal shovel in softer
ground. This makes sense, since there is so much less leading edge that
needs to penetrate.
The teeth won't do everything, though. We can't imagine using this shovel anywhere you'd need a pick, and it's likely to have the same problems as a normal shovel in extremely rocky ground.
Radius Garden Stainless Shovel (No Rust!)
If you have a roof rack mount for your off road shovel, take look at a Stainless Steel Shovel.
What do we love?
It'll never rust. If you live near water or in a place that salts the road, you know the battle we fight with rust. Every day rust is eating away at your rig - your frame, your body, your suspension, and all your cool off road accessories.
You can at least claim back your shovel by switching to stainless steel. With an overall length of 41", it is the standard shovel length. It weighs 5.75 lbs, which is a little heavier than a standard shovel. However, this is due to the steel shaft and handle which will both last much longer than a traditional wood-handled shovel.
While this fits in our D-ring handle category, it actually has circular handle. The ergonomic shape is more comfortable for digging and won an Editor's Choice award in Organic Gardening magazine. Now, we're not gardening, but we'll take the endorsement from a hobby that probably digs even more than we do!
Mag-Lok Offroader's Shovel Kit (Most Versatile)
The US made Mag-Lok Off Road Shovel Tool Kit is one of the more interesting kits here.
It's probably the most modular and versatile set of off road and garage tools you can get. In this particular kit, they offer 4 tools:
- 8 lb sledgehammer
You also get 2 different handles: one at 14" and one at 36". But
that's not the cool part. The cool part is that Mag-Lok has about 60
different tools and handles that you can combine for different tools and
Want a Pulaski? Done. Push broom? Got it. Rake? They have it.
This particular kit is a great starter set for off road. We appreciate the machete/saw combo which would work great for clearing trail brush and campsites. The kit also stores nicely in your Jeep in an included nylon bag.
Gerber E-Tool Folding Shovel (Best Off Road Folding Shovel)
Like we said, a folding shovel is no fun for serious stucks.
A small folding shovel is often handy to have in your everyday, slimmed-down, off road recovery kit. Which one should you get?
Probably one that is used by the US military, made in the USA, folds to a compact shape, and that allows for different shovel angles.
And there is one shovel that meets those criteria:
The Gerber E-Tool. It has a steel shovel head and anodized aluminum/polymer handle that fold out to almost 24 inches. The actual military version has a full aluminum handle, but we haven't heard any complaints about the polymer handle failing on this version.
It folds down to 9.3" x 6" and weighs a lightweight 4.6 ounces. While we wouldn't want to dig out a vehicle with a folding shovel off road, if we had to, this is the folding shovel we'd use.
Fiskar's 28" Chopping Axe (Best Off Road Axe)
If you need a dedicated axe for chopping wood off-road, this is the one to get. Fiskar's is known for it's excellent outdoor tools, and this axe is no
exception. It weighs 3.5 lbs and has a fiberglass handle.
Generally, we think hatchets are just too small to do much good on the trail. While a hatchet is okay for general camping and bushcraft, you want a serious axe with serious chopping power on the trail. On the opposite end of the spectrum are chainsaws. Frankly, chainsaws just take up too much space and require too much extra gear (plus premix!) to run safely on the trail. On a long trip, we'd expect to do trail clearing once every few days, and just can't justify the size, weight, and trouble of a chainsaw.
With the Fiskar's chopping up downed trees on the trail is no problem:
This axe is shipped razor sharp from the factory and comes with a hard plastic sheath. With the durable handle, light weight, and factory sharpness, you can throw it in your 4x4 without even thinking about it. It is ready to go.
MAX Multipurpose Tool Kit (Most Expensive)
The Max Ax Shovel kit is probably one of the most well-known off road shovels. Well-known in the bush-firefighting world where firefighters carry this tool on their backs, this American-made shovel kit has been around for years in the off-roading world.
It's a pretty compact set, with everything fitting in a small nylon bag. The main tool is an axe with a hi-viz fiberglass handle and a notch for adding attachments. The kit includes these tools:
The whole set weighs 12.5 lbs.
We like this tool a lot - it has an excellent reputation, is made in the USA, and has proven extremely durable in the field. It's even used in the military. That said, it has some drawbacks:
- The axe head is permanently mounted: It weighs 3.5 lbs, so if you're slinging mud, you're also slinging an extra 3.5 lbs.
- The shovel is mounted at a slightly odd angle: It's meant as a fire shovel, so the shovel head is slightly angled up which requires some small adjustments in use.