The Leverage Of The Tac Shovel


In case you missed it, we recently brought up the benefits of carrying one of those light, compact, sturdy survival shovels, or as the marketers are calling them, “Tac Shovels.” And it’s not just marketing … nobody gets far in basic military training without running into the need to dig a hole fast, nor learning the difference any weapon with leverage, a sharp edge, or both can make if it comes to physical defense.

And, of course, as people have caught on to the benefits, and gotten perhaps a little overly enamored with multi-tasking, these shovels are often more than just short handled scoops with one extra sharp edge, though that’s really what’s important. Several of them have various notches (e.g. mini hex-tool, bottle opener), angle-adjusting bolts, thicker axe/hatchet segment, and even a removable handle that has a harpoon tip! Hollow sections can include flint and tinder, coil of string, etc. just as with the classic “Rambo” knife. They’ve added several other features as well.

The Blade

We’re of mixed opinion on all of these options. The more notches there are, the more places to snag. The more hollow the handle the more likely to dent or break. The more various functions are crammed onto an originally pure design, the more the design of each element can be diminished. That said, if you lost all your gear except the single multi-tooled shovel, additional features might just save your life. Emphasis on might, because if you’ve ever seen Tom Hanks in Cast Away, you know that even a single sharp edged skate blade can make an extraordinary difference. As you probably know by now, one good knife is locked in at the very top of our List of All Things, and we never anticipate that changing, but the most crucial element of that knife is its sturdy, sharp metal edge. In other words, it might be a lot more awkward to whittle kindling shavings and make finer cuts to things, but the sharp edge of your survival shovel will still get it done when it counts.

As to self-defense, we’ll leave it at this. Anyone who’s ever seen Deadliest Warrior may already know where we’re going. There are highly trained military personnel who swear by the quickness, power, and lethality of a sharp-edged survival shovel. It’s about halfway between a Tolkein dwarf’s battle axe and a short sword, and if someone found themselves in a post-apocalyptic survival situation with nothing but a tac-shovel, they could do a lot worse than hanging a few sacks of leaves and sod and practicing how to swing and parry without hurting themselves. Obligatory caution: one of our staff still has the scar from when he was a child, took a too-dull double-bladed axe and swung it underhand against a rotten stump. The rebound came back and, well, had it been an inch lower, he’d have mangled his knee. As it was, the blade gave his thigh a good kiss, and he never forgot the lesson that swinging anything with a sharp or dull edge poses danger on the follow through, or the rebound. We don’t recommend training yourself nor practicing anything with a lethal weapon without going to an expert first. But if the world ends, the lawyers won’t have any place to file their lawsuits anyway, and we’ll all be doing whatever it takes by then, right?


We’ll get into the imaginings of life with and without a shovel in terms of a homestead or survival shelter elsewhere. For now, the question of whether it’s worth carrying one of these with you leads directly to one thing: shelter building while surviving on foot.

So, put simply, all a shovel does is give you that critical thing mankind has always found boosts civilization: leverage. The handle lets you get your big muscles into the digging, and the shape of the scoop and sturdiness of the metal holds up to the abuse it was designed for. That said, if you watched First Blood you saw what a strapping human being full of adrenaline can do with a sizable knife. Stallone held that bad boy in both fists and plunged it through the earth, and dug himself a trench faster than many people could with a full-sized shovel. But that’s also the point. If your muscles that have muscles, have extra muscles, and you’re either actually Special Forces trained or just setting up the scene in a movie, then certain things are possible for you that aren’t for most.

When you need to hunker down from the biting wind and hypothermia is approaching fatal levels, the difference between picking at the icy ground with your knife blade and being able to stomp on the back of the shovel scoop to get full body-weight bight, well the difference is practically unimaginable unless you’ve had to try. Slashing fronds, vines, branches, and bushes to make precious insulating layers of bedding is certainly possible with a knife, that’s why it’s top of the list, but the wider, more powerful slashes of a longer handled blade save time and calories. If you’re in the midst of building a shelter and a wild dog or a boar charges you, you’re dead.

Just kidding. But really, it’s bad. A knife might save you, but a handled shovel could allow you to put such a beast at bay with better distance and power.

You may want to check out our earlier article on shelter building. Perhaps you wouldn’t need a shovel if you found a perfect crook in a tree, but usually it’s a matter of finding or making an indentation that keeps you, well, “sheltered.” And any form of digging, scooping, hefting, and clearing is made easier with added leverage and a wide tool.

So the only question becomes: how do you decide whether the survival shovel makes the cut? The items you carry all get heavier with every mile you walk. Every calorie you burn must be replaced.

Weight Versus Utility

Are you alone or in a group? Even a small group can divvy up the camp stove, the water purifier, a coil of rope, food, first aid kit, etc. What kind of terrain might you be facing, and what is the weather like? It’s hard to imagine any but the rockiest terrain being totally unamendable to the advantages of a shovel, but if the nights are warm enough and the existing options comfortable and non-hostile, the weight versus utility question shifts.

Put it this way, if one of us had just escaped the molten crater of a city, alone, and had no idea what we were about to face, but were lucky enough to have a pile of gear replete with items on our List of All Things before us: would any of us strap the survival shovel to our pack?

Our answers are mixed. Some of us are younger, work on our cardio and lift weights, and can go twenty miles with a heavy pack. But those health-obsessed knuckleheads still can’t make up their minds! One in particular is a true minimalist. Yep, the old loin-cloth-is-optional as long as I have my knife types. Sometimes he even heads into the wilderness without the knife, which we do not approve. He laughs at our shovels.

But the point of the minimalist approach is multi-layered. Yes, it encourages mental strength, imagination, the right attitude toward “things,” as in not becoming too attached to them. Not becoming too dependent on a “gear bubble.” But part of that imagination and attitude is taking what the universe gives you. If all you have are your wits, and you stumble upon an abandoned survival shovel, your odds of living just increased, massively, no matter how well trained you are.

So even though none of us have ever, for real, experienced a post-apocalypse, many of us have simulated what we would do, in part at least. And the shovel would almost always be strapped on the outside of the pack anyway. Meaning it is one of the last things packed, and it’s easy to decide on toward the end. Easy to reach. Easy, in fact, to discard if one finds the weight to be worse than its utility.

Give It A Dry Run

In a future when survival and prepping could conceivably go hand in hand, having a survival shovel stored in your earthquake kit means you at least get to make the decision. You may want to try one thing if you have the backyard for it, or woods nearby. Go out and pretend you need to dig a proper, temporary shelter. Deep enough to be out of wind and out of sight, long enough for you to lie down and sleep, with leaves, fronds, or whatever long, spongy, springy bedding and insulation nature can provide you. Do that once with only a knife on you, then try it again soon with a survival shovel. We think even the minimalists among us will acknowledge the time and calories saved that can be spent on fire building, water retrieving and purifying, laying traps, hunting, or foraging.

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Skipp40 - May 8, 2020 Reply

Well written, with pros & cons in different areas of concern. All in all, the information is usefu. Thank you!

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