Folding shovels seem like one of the ultimate prepper tools. Compact, useful, and used by pretty much every army around the world, these tools can do everything from help dig a stuck vehicle out of the mud, to dig a latrine, or even serve as a last-ditch weapon.
Also known as entrenching tools or “e-tools”, folding shovels date back the just before WWII when the German army adopted the first military issue folding shovel. Later copied by the United States, it has influenced folding shovel design to the present day, although modern many modern folding shovels are a tri-fold design which I’ll show you in a minute.
There are a lot of folding shovels on the market, some are junk, some are high quality, so I sat down, and chose the four best folding shovels for you to add to your bugout bag or emergency kit.
The US Army Tri-Fold
Probably the standard by which all e-tools are judged, the US Army tri-fold shovel is a high quality, easy to use folding shovel that brings a lot to the table.
The main advantage of the tri-fold shovel comes in the space reduction offered by folding it up. Folding the shovel makes it easier to carry on a belt or on a backpack with a compatible carrier. I have an army surplus shovel in my emergency gear, and it has always proven to be sturdy and reliable.
This particular shovel has one side sharpened for use as a chopping tool, a serrated side for hacking through roots or turf, and of course works as a basic shovel. With the head folded to a 45-degree angle, it can be used as a sort of pick as well.
Because this military issue shovel is so popular, there are plenty of cheap imitations on the market, and some of them can be downright worthless. I’ve handled cheap knockoffs that bent and twisted out of shape under basic use, while others hold up to casual use, but wouldn’t be something to count on if SHTF. If you want a tri-fold shovel, find a genuine issue item and call it good. Buying anything less will be a waste of time and money.
Chinese Army Shovel
A survival shovel that has a cult like following in some circles, the Chinese military shovel is considered by many to be the best folding shovel available on the market!
One of the standout features of the Chinese army shovel is the fact the blade is an actual forged piece of steel, instead of stamping as is found on many other folding shovels. Like many folding shovels, one edge is sharpened for use as a cutting tool, while the other is notched like a saw. There are other nifty features too, including a wire cutter, bottle and can opener, and the advertised ability to use it as a makeshift grappling hook and anchor.
The heart of this shovel is the unique locking system that locks the shovel in the head with a high degree of strength not found in any other folding shovel. This eliminates almost all of the flex and play found in most folding shovels, and justifies the popularity and price tag this shovel rates.
While a bit more difficult to carry than a tri-fold shovel due to the wooden handle, the Chinese military shovel offers the prepper a superior shovel choice that is as much at home in a vehicle emergency kit, as it is strapped to the outside of your bugout bag. If you are in the market for a fine folding shovel, this is the one exception to the “don’t’ buy an imported Chinese folding shovel” rule.
Glock Folding Shovel
This little gem is also popular with skilled preppers and outdoors fans. Departing from the usual norm of shovel blades that also are saws, Glock sticks a removable saw in the handle of the shovel itself. This dedicated saw is far more useful than a saw notched shovel blade, and gives the Glock folding shovel a real leg up on the competition.
Another advantage of this shove is the high quality, telescoping polymer handle. Stronger and lighter than wood, this handle allows the user to adjust the length of the tool to their specific needs.
While Glock is famous for their handguns, smart preppers have learned that other tools with the Glock name on it are just as rugged and reliable. These folding shovels are a great choice for all but the absolute toughest end use, and the built-in saw makes it a superior choice for an emergency kit, camping, or bugout bag use. And, as an added bonus, it weighs about half of what the US Army e-tool weighs!
Folding Snow Shovel
A tri-fold snow shovel might be just the ticket for some folks. Having an emergency snow shovel in your car could mean the difference between being snowed in, or digging your way out of a mess.
What’s great about this shovel is the fact it is, in fact, a proper snow shovel. Now I suppose you could put it to other uses, but you’ll be hard pressed to get as good of service out of it as you would by using it as a snow shovel.
Because it is a tri-fold design, it neatly folds up into a compact space, making it an ideal choice for stowing under or behind a seat, in a large toolbox or strapped to the outside of your backpack. While not suitable as a primary folding shovel, if you are going places where your main concern is clearing snow, this would be the perfect shovel to take.
While this folding snow shovel has good reviews, I’d be cautious about putting it to really heavy use. Like any inexpensive folder, it won’t hold up to extreme use, but for that odd moment when you need to shovel some snow and have nothing better on hand, it will do the trick quite nicely.
Choosing a Folding Shovel
It should be pretty clear by now, that you should only bother with better quality, military grade folding shovels. Because of their utility, there are a ton of cheap knockoffs on the market that pretend to be useful for more than digging holes in soft dirt or sand. A cheap shovel will only leave you disappointed at best and seriously screwed at worst.
It is an absolute must you select a folding shovel that will hold up to hard use. Consider what preppers need a folding shovel for – digging out stuck vehicles, digging a latrine, or drainage around a shelter, or maybe even helping hack your way out of a damaged building.
Beyond that, any decent folding shovel will run you about $30-50, so it isn’t a terribly expensive piece of gear, but it is one that has many uses, both when hiking, camping, or put aside as emergency equipment.
Using a Folding Shovel
You should have noticed one big thing about folding shovels – they are short. These are not tools you can comfortably use all day long, or with minimal strain. They require bending over, and extra effort on your part. You aren’t going to be doing extensive digging with them, rather they are meant for digging hasty defensive positions, or quick entrenching chores.
If you are going to buy a folding shovel, you need to practice with it so you know what to expect before you have to use it. Spend an hour or so digging and chopping with it, test your physical limits and the limits of the shovel. If you can, test it in different soils, and even different weather conditions, especially frozen earth. You’ll likely be surprised about what you learn.
Just remember a folding shovel is not a magic dig all bullet. It is a tool that is a number of compromises that is useful for several tasks but does not excel at any of them.
Every prepper should have a folding shovel of some sort in their inventory, and ideally with their BOB, and another in their vehicle (unless you can stow a full-size shovel, always go that route if you can.)
While more difficult to use than a full-size shovel, and presenting a number of different limitations, it is by design better than nothing and offers you a useful tool that can dig you out of trouble, or see to common camping chores like digging a fire pit.
Cheap shovels are a waste of money, while even the best folding shovels are affordable and should be attainable by all. Choose the one that you are most comfortable with and suits your prepping philosophy, and you’ll be good to go!
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.