TBT Gear: EMS avalanche shovel


Growing up in Rhode Island, my choice for outdoor stores was limited.  There were a couple of local outdoors stores that had a good selection of backpacking gear. But the stock was limited as these stores also sold to hunters, fisherman, canoeist, etc and stocked the equipment as appropriate.  I am not complaining, as that was the market in Rhode Island, at least in the mid-late 1990s, supported.

In New England, the home-grown GO TO place for more specific and a wider selection of gear was Eastern Mountain Sports. Or simply EMS.  The closest EMS to me was just over the border in Attleboro, MA. (This location is no longer in business. Curiously, there is now one less than five miles from where I grew up.)

For someone new to the outdoors and growing up in the suburbs of Providence, EMS was an almost magical place. I’d walk into the place and see all the cool gear and dream of places where I’d hike and backpack.  I did not realize the concept at the time, but EMS, and other outdoor stores,  was selling a lifestyle as much as gear.   I bought the lifestyle as  I purchased their gear.

I took their house brand EMS 5500 on my earlier backpacking jaunts (including a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail) and I still have and use their EMS Glacier Down Parka as my seemingly indestructible beater-down coat.

On the Long Trail in Vermont, 1997.


After my thru-hike, I somehow got into my head that I was going to do winter backpacking in the Whites.  I bought  an EMS-branded Camp ice axe, some strap-on crampons, and a beast of a -20F EMS-branded synthetic bag.  ( I could not then, and cannot now, justify the expenditure of a -20F down bag.)   And one last item: an EMS-branded Black Diamond avalanche shovel.

Simple, not fancy and did the job.   The biggest feature of this shovel is that it broke into two parts for easy transportation.

So…what is the fate of all this gear?

  • Many years later, the crampons and ice axe are very rarely used.
  • The sleeping bag? I keep it  in the car for winter emergencies and some occasional cold weather car camping solo or if I g with someone, let her  use it when I take my zero degree bag. (And if it is REALLY cold weather car camping? We take these! ) I do not do any true winter mountaineering and do not really need it for its intended purpose. I can layer enough with my zero-degree bag to drop it down a bit in the  temperature rating when backpacking.
  • The EMS 5500? I loaned out this ~6+ lb pack a few years ago and did not get it back. I’m OK with that. 🙂
  • The down coat is used pretty regularly as mentioned.

But the shovel?   Other than the down coat, it is the one piece of EMS gear I still actively use.


Photo courtesy of Andrew Skurka


I take it with me on any winter trip that is any a combination of :

  1. Above tree line
  2. Extended in length
  3. Away from people and popular areas
  4. Overnight

The shovel is also a permanent part of my winter car kit.

There are lighter shovels out there. And ones with longer handles. Or ones with other features such as snow saw in the handle. Even inexpensive ones that aren’t certified for avalanches but work just fine for the car or your winter camp. 

But this scuffed up, non-descript shovel is one I don’t see any compelling need to replace.

It moves snow. It breaks down for easy transportation. It helped dig out my old S-10 pickup that was lousy in the snow. It helped to dig out others.  It works.

Why I still have it: Because an avalanche shovel is indispensable tool for winter backcountry travel. One should almost always be brought. Needless to say, it’s small size lends itself to keeping it in the car for any winter travel.

Would I suggest buying this shovel?:   Over fifteen years later, I doubt this specific one is still made. But, an avy shovel is really something any person should have in their winter kit.  They aren’t too terribly  expensive,  are a good tool for winter safety, can be handy at trailhead or road situations and just being useful for around camp on overnight trips.  Any  outdoor store that sells winter gear will have one…including the ubiquitous REI that is now even found in Rhode Island!


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments