Is an entrenching tool (e-tool) part of your survival prep, emergency car kit, or bug out bag? If not, you’re clearly missing out. Any modern military worth its salt has always included an entrenching tool in every soldier’s survival pack—and you should, too, even if you’re not from the armed forces.
You might not need to dig foxholes and trenches to protect yourself from enemy fire, but you will definitely need a reliable e-tool for many other purposes, from shelter-making to water purification and hygiene.
Wanna know how to use your e-tool to its full potential?
Read on to find out:
A Brief History of the Modern Entrenching Tool
So, just how did the modern e-tool come to be?
History tells us that a military officer from Denmark came up with the first modern e-tool back in 1869, but soldiers have been using entrenching tools way, way, way before that.
Records show that these tools—which were technically simple shovels back then—date all the way back to ancient Rome. Important figures all throughout military history, from Julius Caesar to Napoleon, thought that these digging implements were essential during wartime. The legions and armies of old used shovels to dig trenches, build fortifications, and eventually lay siege to a territory.
Fast forward to World War I, where the entrenching tool became vital as the soldiers fought in trenches and foxholes. This was also the time when other functions were incorporated into the e-tool: aside from being a spade, it can be used as a hammer, ax, close-contact weapon (there were designs where the trowel doubled as a bayonet,) and even as a frying pan on occasion.
By the time World War II came around, the fixed entrenching tool evolved into the foldable design we know today. The shovel head’s angle can now be adjusted so that it can be used as a spade, hoe, and pickaxe.
Up to this day, modern armies still consider the e-tool as an important part of their packs.
From digging trenches and fortifications, the e-tool has now evolved into an all-around survival device. They’re now relatively lighter, sturdier, and more compact.
Most, if not all modern e-tools, employ a tri-fold design to make them easier to carry. They’re also decked out with more functions. Similar digging implements, like this multitool shovel, are even designed with 15 functions that can get you out of any sticky situation. Needless to say, the humble e-tool has come a long way.
Benefits of Using E-Tools
Carrying an entrenching tool has various benefits and advantages. Here are some of them:
It’s Compact and Portable
Most modern e-tools are made of carbon steel, aluminum, or a combination of both, making them relatively lighter and more bug out bag-friendly than a regular shovel. You can also collapse these shovels and stash them in MOLLE-compatible nylon sheaths for easy storage.
The great thing about e-tools is that they can weigh around only 2 pounds. If this is too much weight for you, don’t worry. Because of their compact size, you can conveniently stow them away in your bug out vehicle instead.
If you’re willing to put on additional weight in your pack, make sure it will serve many purposes.
Aside from the usual entrenching and digging jobs, e-tools can be used for shelter-building, food and water procurement, and even self-defense when needed. We’ll explain these further in detail below.
It’s Built to Last
E-tools are obviously meant to withstand serious use and abuse. It’s not uncommon to see steel e-tools from World War II still being used today. The same can be said for modern e-tools—they’re tough as nails and are built to last even after rigorous use.
Types of E-Tools
E-tools can be made using different materials and designs.
Carbon steel is one of the most common materials used in modern e-tools, particularly in the construction of the shovel head. Carbon steel, coupled with heat treating, makes the e-tool harder, stronger, and more resistant to stress and heat damage. The higher the carbon content, the stronger the e-tool will be. Most carbon steel e-tools come with black coating to prevent corrosion.
Aircraft-grade aluminum is often used for the handles to keep them light yet durable and resistant to damage.
Design and Features
The very first entrenching tools came with fixed, straight handles made from steel or hardwood. These were initially designed during the first World War. Later models have detachable shovel heads that fit into the wooden handles.
These versions offer great stability—the fewer moving parts involved, the lesser chances of damage. The downside is that these straight-handle designs are unwieldy and space-consuming.
World War II brought the first folding e-tools into the fray with the German foldable spade. During that time, only the shovel head could be folded at an angle while the handle remained fixed. This allowed one to use the shovel head as a hoe. Other designs also incorporated a pick into the design.
This folding shovel later evolved into the fully collapsible design we know today.
Currently, most e-tools can be collapsed and folded into three different parts using a threaded lock system. Other designs employ a telescoping handle using impact-resistant polymers. These telescoping handles are lighter and more compact, but they’re arguably less sturdy than aerograde aluminum.
The greatest advantage to these collapsible models is that they’re very travel-friendly. They take little space and can fit into sheaths or carrying cases that can be stowed away in bug-out bags.
From a simple digging implement, e-tools have now evolved into something more sophisticated and multifunctional. Most, if not all, shovel heads sport a sharpened or serrated edge that can be used for cutting and chopping.
As mentioned earlier, there are multitool shovels available in the market today which can be decked out with as many as 15 functions.
The TAC9ER multitool shovel, in particular, can function as:
- an axe
- hex driver
- serrated knife
- wire cutter
- rescue knife
- bottle opener
- safety hammer
- Phillips and flathead bit and…
What Should You Look for in an E-Tool?
The criteria for choosing a reliable e-tool pretty is simple. When picking an e-tool, make sure to look for the following qualities:
Overall Weight and Size
E-tools that weigh just over 2 pounds are great for bug out bags; in contrast, anything more than 3 pounds may not be worth the additional weight, especially if you plan on going ultralight.
If you want to save on precious space and weight, the obvious choice would be to go for a foldable e-tool. Consider the overall length of the entrenching tool when extended and folded. It should be easy to store and carry around when folded yet still convenient to use when fully extended.
Your shovel of choice should be made of high-quality materials. As mentioned earlier, high-carbon steel for the shovel head and aircraft-grade aluminum for the handles is preferred if you want an e-tool that’s tough as nails.
Secure Locking Mechanism
A foldable shovel is only as good as its locking mechanism. If you settle for something flimsy, you might damage it. You’re also putting yourself at risk for injury.
A threaded lock system ensures that the folding parts of the shovel stay securely in place during use. By simply twisting the lock, you can also adjust the angle of the shovel to fit your needs.
Ergonomics and Functionality
Despite its compact size, a good e-tool should still be easy to use. A shovel with an open, D-handle is great if you want a comfortable grip. This type of handle also allows you to swing the e-tool and dig even with just one arm.
As far as functionality goes, pick an entrenching tool that can serve many purposes. Make sure that the shovel can be adjusted and configured at various angles so you can use it for different jobs. The serrated edge of the shovel should also sharpen easily.
Ways You Can Use Your Entrenching Shovel
Building trenches and defensive positions are things that many civilians aren’t likely to do, especially during peacetime. But don’t discount the entrenching tool just yet—there are still a bunch of things you can use it for.
Here are some of them:
Sanitation is essential whether you’re looking at short-term or long-term survival. Without proper waste management and disposal, you’re putting yourself at risk for various infections and diseases.
Plastic trowels are great for digging cat holes when car camping or on a day hike, but when you’re bugging out for survival, you’ll need something bigger and more reliable.
An e-tool allows you to dig latrines for when you need to do your business. Can you imagine digging a latrine with a dollar-store trowel? No can do. An entrenching tool gives you the functionality of a full-sized shovel without the unnecessary bulk.
Need a toilet seat? You can use your shovel for that, too. Simply position the shovel at a 90-degree angle and stick the handle on the ground. You can now use the shovel head as a relatively comfy toilet seat.
Shelter is one of the most important aspects of outdoor survival. You can only last for 3 hours without shelter in harsh conditions, so you gotta find or build a shelter fast.
You can create a primitive dug-out shelter with your entrenching tool or use it to pound in and remove the stakes of your tent or tarp shelter. Bigger bushcraft super shelters, like these, need a basic foundation, so put your shovel to good use and do some digging.
An e-tool will also come in handy when building snow shelters like a snow cave or a quinzhee.
Most e-tools or folding shovels come with sharp and serrated edges that you can use to chop small pieces of wood for your shelter. You can also use it to dig a drainage path to keep rainwater runoff from flooding your campsite.
Firebuilding and Camp Cooking
E-tools are great for digging fire pits or even underground Dakota fires, as shown in the video above. You can also use your e-tool to smother and put out fires when breaking camp.
Need wood for kindling? Hack away with the serrated edge of your shovel.
If you feel like cooking in a dutch oven, you can use your e-tool to dig one and shovel coals from your campfire to light it up.
You can put the shovel at a 90-degree angle, light a camp stove below it, and voila—you’ve got a nifty stand for your camp cooking pot. A word of warning, though: while e-tools are made from high-carbon steel, this cooking method could still damage the material, so use this only when absolutely necessary.
In the same 90-degree angle configuration, the e-tool can be used as a seat, which is great after a long day of activities.
Food and Water
An e-tool for food and water purposes? Not unheard of.
Remember, WWI soldiers occasionally used their e-tools as a frying pan when the situation called for it. If you’re a little short on camp utensils, you can take a page out of those vets’ books and use your e-tool as a frying pan or skillet. To do that, just make sure the shovel is clean. Slather some oil onto the shovel, hold it over your campfire, and cook some eggs or bacon on it, just like you would on a normal frying pan.
You can also use your e-tool to create traps to catch animals for dinner. Pit traps may be simple, but when done correctly, they can easily catch small critters for food. Creating one is pretty easy, too.
For example, if you’re trapping rabbits, look for tracks or droppings that will lead you to its burrow. Dig a hole near the rabbit’s habitat—make sure it’s deep enough so that the rabbit won’t be able to jump out. Cover the hole with foliage, top it off with the bait, and wait for your target to fall in. If you’re lucky, you can catch food while doing other tasks.
As for water, an e-tool will come in handy if you want to build a solar still to gather clean H2O. Solar stills are useful when collecting water in an arid environment. However, this mode of water collection and purification requires a lot of digging, so having an e-tool with you makes the job easier.
Essential Gear for Your Car Kit
How often have you wished a shovel was hidden somewhere in your car?
Maybe you needed one when it was snowing really bad, and you had to clear a path ASAP. Or perhaps it was during those times when your vehicle got stuck in mud or snow. In an extreme scenario, such as being trapped in a submerged vehicle, having a multitool shovel with a serrated blade and glass breaker can certainly mean the difference between life and death.
Regardless of the situation, an e-tool can be very useful in car emergencies, so include one in your car kit.
All-Around Entrenching Tool and Other Uses
Resourcefulness is key for prepping, so use your e-tool for the following jobs:
- Excavation and rescue during landslides and avalanches
- Digging foxholes and trenches
- A short, makeshift post for camp
- A boat paddle
- A grappling hook if you need to rappel or scale walls. Adjust the shovel head to a 45-degree angle, tie a rope securely around the handle, and use it as a grappling hook.
- Close-contact weapon. E-tools are considered non-lethal weapons, but it’s better than nothing should the need arise.
Many people often disregard the good old e-tool when it comes to survival prep. Don’t make the same mistake! As discussed above, e-tools are not only great for digging holes. They’re also capable of completing other tasks necessary for survival, like shelter-building, water filtration, and hygiene.
E-tools have the best of both worlds: they’re capable of doing everything a full-sized shovel can minus the unnecessary bulk and weight.
These nifty contraptions have been an integral part of military tactics for centuries. So if a reliable entrenching tool is capable of saving thousands of soldiers from nasty scenarios, it can surely get you out of a sticky situation, too. Include an e-tool in your bug out bag, camping gear, or car kit. You won’t regret it.
Is an e-tool part of your survival gear? Why or why not? Share your experiences in the comments below!