US Department of Agriculture, USDA Forest Service, Technology and Development Program Banner with Logos.
Images from various aspects of the T&D Program.
HomeAbout T&DT&D PubsT&D NewsProgram AreasHelpContact Us
  T&D > T&D Pubs > Handtools for Trail Work T&D Publications Header

Handtools for Trail Work

Tools for Digging and Tamping


Shovels are available in various blade shapes and handle lengths. In general, shovel blades are tapered for shifting loads, square-edged for scooping, or pointed for digging. Handle lengths vary from D-handles of about 27 inches to longer-handled shovels up to about 48 inches. They weigh from 3 to 5 pounds. Long-handled shovels are usually preferred for trailwork. A shovel with a detachable handle is often a good choice. Firefighters use a shovel with a detachable handle that is designed to scrape combustible material down to mineral soil. It is lightweight and durable and well-suited for scraping as opposed to digging.

Image of a round-point shovel.

Image of a square, round-point, and taper shovel head.

When shifting or scooping materials, bend your knees and lift with your legs—not your back. Use your thigh as a fulcrum to push against the shovel. This makes the handle an efficient lever and saves your energy and your back. When digging, make the top diameter of the hole large enough so that it won't interfere with the shovel handle while removing loose dirt as the hole deepens. A shovel used with a pick or bar is most effective; picks or bars make prying with the shovel unnecessary. Wiggling the shovel handle while applying foot pressure on the blade will help you dig deeper.

Carry shovels with the head forward and the handle behind. Grip the handle firmly near the head and hold it away from your body while you walk. Sharpen blades with a mill bastard file. Start filing the edge just below the foot rest and work to the point. File away from blade center. Maintain the bevel on the inside (top) surface of the blade approximately at a 45° angle. Sharpen square-edge and tapered-edge shovels on the bottom only. Final honing is unnecessary.

Photo of a man pressing his elbow to his thigh to gain leverage while shoveling.
Press your arm against your thigh to gain leverage.

Image of two shovels (square and taper edge shovels) being sharpened.
Sharpening square-edge and taper-edge shovels.

Digging and Tamping Bars

A digging and tamping bar is about the same length as a crowbar, but much lighter. It is designed with a chisel tip for loosening dirt or rocks and a flattened end for tamping. These bars are not prying tools. Bars are approximately 70 inches long with a 2½-inch-wide tamping end.

Carry digging bars at their balance point, like shovels or crowbars. Maintain bars by keeping them as straight as possible and by sharpening the chisel tip to retain the factory bevel.

Image of a digging and tamping bar.