Costco does it again: two 21-oz telescoping aluminum backcountry shovels for $20!

This past summer I was delighted to find Cascade Mountain Tech trekking poles at Costco for Amanda. The twist-style locks are failure-prone, but for $27 they were by far the best value on the market, featuring carbon fiber shafts, faux cork grips, carbide tips, and several types of baskets.

This past weekend I found another fantastic deal at Costco: a two-pack of 21-oz telescoping aluminum backcountry shovels for just $20. They are made by Lifeline, a brand that I don’t recognize, that has no website, and that should not be confused with Life-Link, an Italian brand that is distributed in North America by Garmont.

While the shovels are not marketed for “backcountry” use, this appears to be a feasible application based on their size, weight, materials, and build quality — with a major caveat, discussed below. I’ll assume that Lifeline’s owners determined that they could sell shovels by the pallet by marketing them as “ideal for your car, truck, SUV, recreational vehicle or snowmobile,” instead of catering to the tiny community of human-powered winter enthusiasts.

Specs

The Lifeline shovel has similar specs to those made by Backcountry Access, Black Diamond, Voille and other reputable outdoor brands, with one notable difference: its blade is 1-3 inches narrower than most models, making it more packable but reducing its shoveling capabilities.

Full assembled shovel

  • Length: 27″-33″
  • Weight: 21 oz

Handle

  • Weight: 8.5 oz
  • Length: 16″-22″

Blade

  • Weight: 10.5 oz
  • Width: 8.625″ tapers to 7.75″
  • Length, front tip to shaft cup tip: 11″

Is it really backcountry worthy?

It’s 60 degrees in Boulder today and the mountain snowpack is still very thin, so it may be weeks (or, dread, months) until I can test out this shovel. If nothing else, it will be a great $10 product to keep in the trunk of our vehicles (e.g. if we were to get stuck) and to use for winter camping (e.g. digging out footprints and setting shelter anchors).

As for an avalanche shovel, this video review gives reason to be optimistic, but this one is rather discouraging. If you need to carry a shovel for possible avalanche rescue, it’d probably be wise to invest in shovel of higher quality.

14 Responses to Costco does it again: two 21-oz telescoping aluminum backcountry shovels for $20!

  1. Steve November 21, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    bought these a few weeks back, had the same thought. Along with my $30 “kids” down jacket, and their deal on Mountain House foods, Costco is becoming my latest backpacking supply store! =P

    • Andrew Skurka November 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

      > Costco is becoming my latest backpacking supply store

      I feel the same way. It’s all about volume — the average Costco store does $150 million in sales per year (600 stores, $89 billion in sales), versus an average REI that does about $14 million (122 stores, $1.8 billion in sales). Said another way, for every $10 someone spends at REI, they spend $100 at Costco! With that much volume, the overhead expenses of Costco and their brands are diluted among more products, translating to much lower prices that approach the marginal production cost.

  2. Stephen November 21, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    Hmmm, that’s interesting….

    Have a good Thanksgiving Andrew and Everyone out there in internet land….

    Take Care

  3. Ben November 22, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    It’s not that hard to find out where and how they were manufactured:
    http://www.alibaba.com/product-gs/636234801/telescopic_aluminium_shovel.html

  4. Paul Mags November 25, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    Amazing the amount of outdoor goodies now found at Costco: Merino wool socks (Smart wool clones essentially but 3 for $10 ), merino blend long underwear, soft shell jackets, down jackets and so on.

    Of course, our favorite outdoor item was bought today for the not-quite-4 yo niece.
    Came from this company with a bundle esp made for Costco apparently:
    http://www.insectlore.com/Campfire+Kids/

    Lantern, battery powered “firel” and skillet w/ eggs, marshmallows and hotdogs.

    Gotta indoctrinate the kids early.

    ;-)

  5. Jeff Bartlett December 11, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    Interesting post. I will put my two-cents in before sharing a link to some very telling yet very unscientific testing.

    I will never consider touring with someone who is unwilling to shell out the requisite money on safe backcountry equipment. Sure, this shovel is cheap but are you going to tell me that it is equal quality to a BCA B2 for digging my buried body out of an avalanche? There is often a reason that there is a price difference and it isn’t always that costco does larger volume sales. Its that costco’s target market is not the few of us that recreate in avalanche terrain…

    And the link for some shoddy testing: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151284732674183.491497.111734399182&type=1

    I’ve had that Voile shovel for 10 years and it is still unscathed. Better yet, I’ve used it to dig 100′s of snow profiles but I’ve never had to dig out a friend because of sound decision making. I just upgraded to the BCA B2 shovel simply because I want a stronger, lighter, and more compact version to carry. Circling back to the test, I was not in attendance at this course but I know Lori and I understand what she was doing. When it comes to chopping, hacking and digging your way through avalanche debris, this shovel is clearly weaker than its name-brand counterparts. Why not skip a ski resort day ticket and put the money towards a suitable tool?

    • Andrew Skurka December 12, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

      Is that “test” a valid measure of backcountry performance? Seems like more realistic field-testing is warranted before completely dismissing it for backcountry use. It reminds me of a “test” done by Backpacker in which they dragged backpacker behind a car to measure durability. That all said, for $10 per shovel and without backcountry-specific design, it would not surprise me if the shovel does not stack up.

      • Jack January 6, 2013 at 11:49 pm #

        I’d say that jumping on the shovel is definitely a fair test for an avalanche rescue tool. I’d never trust these shovels and wouldn’t ski in avalanche terrain with people that carried them.

        Digging in avalanche debris is hard work. People put crazy forces on their shovels, including kicking them at weird angels to pry cemented snow.

        Thanks for the link Jeff.

        That said, for keeping a small shovel in the car, it’s a good deal.

  6. David February 7, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

    Dick’s Sporting Goods store in my area (Topsham, Maine) currently has these shovels on sale for $9.95 each.

    Going through the shovels on the rack, I noticed a very large variation in the quality of the weld at the shovel’s collar that encircles the handle. For an idea of what a good weld should look like, take a look at the welds on a bike frame. Then, pick a shovel with a weld that demonstrates good, uniform thickness and technique…hopefully that will help you get a relatively strong one.

    We’re hoping to test ours this weekend — forecast is for 1 to 2 feet of snow. =)

  7. David February 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    …but I still will be using this as a car / winter camping shovel, not an avalanche shovel…

    The point for “stupid cheap” in this case is a valid one, and I can only justify the shovel’s use for recreation, not rescue. Avalanche shovels should be thought of as more of a critical tool, similar to climbing hardware or an ice axe — alpine climbers and skiiers should stick with the companies they trust to design structurally sound gear.

  8. Neal February 18, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    Costco is notorious for selling grey market, non-authorized, no warranty, products. Why would you bother with this unethical company? Stick with ethical companies that care about their relationships wit their customers and vendors. Price alone is not a good judge of value.

    • Joe Guide January 7, 2014 at 1:14 am #

      It’s an obvious cheap knockoff… the product name is Lifeline, with a Red Cross-style cross logo…. appearing to be a clone of Life Link (to impress the unwary?). Lifeline implies lifesaving implies rescue. Yet the packaging makes no mention… probably to avoid product (failure) liability if the claim that the shovel was a rescue-capable shovel proves to not be legitimate. You gets what you pays for. Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer be wary)

  9. Rick July 2, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Any follow opinions on how this shovel did for those that used it over the Winter?

    • Andrew Skurka July 2, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

      It makes a fine backcountry shovel, e.g. for shaping tent platforms and gathering snow for cooking. Given the aforementioned concerns and anecdotal reports, I think it’d be wise to limit the scope of its uses to non-avalanche situations.

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