Entrenching tools, e-tools, survival or folding shovels--- call this device whatever you want, but one thing's for sure: you need one in your bug out bag, car kit or camping backpack.
Primarily used by soldiers to dig trenches and defensive positions, the e-tool has now evolved into an essential instrument for every prepper and outdoorsman.
An e-tool can be used in a lot of ways---from digging latrines and foxholes to shelter-making, hygiene and even cooking. You can also store one in your trunk so you’ll never have to worry about your vehicle getting stuck in the mud or snow. When push comes to shove, you can even use it for self-defense.
The question is, how do you know if an e-tool is worth your money? Every prepper and outdoorsman needs a reliable e-tool for survival or backpacking, so we've taken it upon ourselves to review some of the best e-tools in the market today.
What's An E-Tool And Why Should It Be Part Of Your Survival Gear or EDC Kit?
Entrenching tools or e-tools started out as standard-issue military gear. These "folding shovels" were primarily used to dig defensive positions like foxholes and trenches. But like any good tactical gear out there, they soon caught the attention of civilians who wanted a compact yet reliable shovel to take with them to camping trips or as part of their bug out bags and car emergency kits.
Today e-tools have become an indispensable part of every outdoorsman or prepper's kit. This device not only good for digging holes and clearing out campsites; you can also use them in a number of ways.
Here are some of them:
- Digging catholes and latrines
- Makeshift toilet seat
- Digging a compost pile
- Can be used to build survival or bushcraft shelters (dug-out shelter, snow cave)
- Sharp edges can be used to chop wood and branches
Firebuilding and Food
- Digging firepits
- Digging traps and solar stills
- Moving coals from a campfire
- Cooking using a Dutch oven
- Can be used as a frying pan
- Digging your car out of mud or snow
- Landslide and avalanche rescue
- Grappling hook
- Boat paddle
- Close contact weapon
To know more about the uses of an entrenching tool and to watch some awesome tutorials, check out this in-depth article.
What Are The Different Types of E-tools?
E-tools can be classified into two general categories: straight-handle and folding.
Fixed, straight-handled e-tools first emerged back in World War I, back when trench warfare was the thing. These entrenching tools usually came with an all-steel construction. Today, this type of e-tool can be outfitted with a hardwood handle and a carbon steel head. They're known for their stability and durability, but they can also be space-consuming and heavy.
The Germans introduced the world's first folding spade back in World War II. This device's handle remained fixed, but the shovel can be folded at the head so one can use it as a hoe or pick. This revolutionary design was further improved into the modern tri-fold e-tool we know today.
The obvious advantage to this type of e-tool is that they're compact and portable. They can easily be stored in MOLLE-compatible sheaths, bug out bags or backpacks. The downside is that they involve more moving parts and are relatively more prone to damage than their fixed counterparts.
What Should You Look For In An E-Tool?
Not all e-tools are created equal. Some claim to be good but end up being a complete waste of time and money, so it’s important to come up with a certain standard or criteria.
When selecting the right e-tool, consider the following factors:
What and Where You’re Using It For
First things first: where are you using your e-tool for? Knowing this little detail will help you determine the type of entrenching tool that best suits your needs.
For example, if you’re prepping for a disaster and are packing a bug out bag or car kit, you’ll most definitely need a robust e-tool that can handle a lot of use and abuse. You might even want to go for an e-tool with a fixed handle if you’re setting up a bug-out shelter.
On the flipside, if you’re just putting together a camping backpack and are only using the e-tool for small chores around the camp, you might want to settle for a more portable device that can be easily carried around.
Distance You’re Covering
This factor is closely related to the first one, albeit more specific. Do you plan to travel on foot and are expecting to cover long distances? Pick a small, compact e-tool that can be easily stored in your backpack. You might want to look out for one with a MOLLE-compatible sheath, too.
Driving to your destination? You can get away with a bigger entrenching tool and simply store it in your trunk.
Most modern e-tools have shovel heads made from carbon steel. Depending on its overall carbon content and heat treatment, this type of material can withstand a lot of pressure and heavy-duty use. The higher the carbon content, the tougher the steel.
The shaft and handles can vary from thermoplastics or polymers like glass-filled nylon and polypropylene, aero-grade aluminum, wood or steel. Thermoplastics significantly weigh lighter than any of the other materials mentioned, but they are also more susceptible to damage. Hardwood or steel is sturdy, but they will kill your weight savings. Aircraft-grade aluminum is the middle ground between these materials, being both relatively lightweight and strong.
Regardless of your mode of transportation (or lack thereof), you have to consider the e-tool’s portability. How heavy is it? Can you comfortably stow it in a backpack or your car trunk? Does it come with its own sheath or do you have to purchase one separately?
Lots of e-tools are designed to be folded and stored comfortably in a backpack or in your car’s trunk. Many come in tri-fold designs while some have telescoping or removable handles. Still, there are others who sport straight or fixed handles. Each design comes with its own set of pros and cons, so weigh them out accordingly.
Ergonomic Design and Functionality
Make sure that your e-tool of choice won’t kill your back when it’s time to dig. Straight, fixed handles have no-nonsense functionality, while open, D-handles are great if you’re looking for something versatile.
Also look out for features like a secure, threaded locking mechanism that doesn’t loosen up under pressure and serrated edges along the shovel head to help you cut and chop some wood, underground vines and roots.
How We Did Our Review
Curious about how we tested, reviewed and ranked these entrenching tools? Here’s what we did:
First step: separate the wheat from the chaff. That meant scouring the internet for e-tools with the best features, price-performance ratio and of course, customer reviews. We also considered the size and weight, ease of use, functionality and durability of each e-tool.
From dozens of possible candidates, we narrowed it down to the top 6. We ended up selecting four full-sized e-tools and two smaller ones, just to see how they would fare when pitted against each other.
Once the line-up was complete, we subjected these e-tools into various tests that would test their durability, functionality and overall effectivity.
The Top 6 E-Tools For Survival and Backpacking
Tac9er Collapsible E-Tool Shovel
Weight: 2 lbs 7 oz
Length: 9.5” folded; 23” extended
Shovel head: 8.25” x 6.0”
Material: carbon steel
- Affordable price point
- Comes with own hard carrying case
- Solid build
- Secure threaded lock system
- Straight and serrated edges need sharpening
Topping our list is Tac9er’s Collapsible E-Tool Shovel.
There’s a lot to love about this tri-fold shovel from outdoor and survival brand Tac9er, but what eventually won us over was the unique balance between its portability and strength.
At 9.5 inches when folded, you can bring this compact e-tool wherever you go. It comes with its own hard carrying case, making it easy to stow away in a bug out bag or backpack. One can fold and extend the tool without a hitch as its threaded lock system is easy to use from the get-go. It doesn’t need additional lubrication and can be used directly out of the box.
Weight isn’t an issue for the Tac9er’s Collapsible E-Tool Shovel — the entire thing just clocks in at just a little over 2 pounds. It feels great in the hand, but it’s not too bulky, either.
While it’s very portable, the Tac9er doesn’t cut corners when it comes to durability and strength. Made from carbon steel, this shovel is made to be used and abused. Its open D-handle has a matte finish and offers an easy, ergonomic grip. If you’ve injured one hand, you can easily use the handles to swing the e-tool and still do some serious digging.
It can dig through packed dirt and rocky terrain and can handle a lot of pressure. You’ll see the black oxide coating chipping off after moderate use, but this doesn’t affect the shovel’s performance in any way.
The shovel head is quite versatile, too. While this e-tool doesn’t incorporate a hoe or pick, it’s got a pointed shovel-head that’s capable of heavy-duty entrenching. Simply configure it at a 90 or 45-degree angle and you’re good to go.
Looking closer at the shovel head, you’ll see that it’s got a serrated side for cutting and chopping small pieces of wood. The shovel’s edges do a good enough job, but if you need to do some heavy cutting and chopping, make sure to sharpen it before use.
The threaded lock system is pretty secure as well. We found that the locks on the other e-tools in this list loosened up after some rigorous testing and activity. Tac9er’s threaded lock impressively held its ground against the pressure.
Overall, the Tac9er Collapsible E-Tool Shovel checked all of our boxes. It’s durable yet compact and it’s got a versatile design that makes it great for any situation. Best of all, it comes at a friendly price point for its quality, making it an excellent choice for preppers, outdoorsmen or regular joes looking for a reliable entrenching tool.
Gerber E-tool Folding Spade
Weight: 2.55 lbs
Length: 9.37” folded; 23” extended
Shovel head: 8”
Material: glass-filled nylon handle; 7075 aluminum shaft, powder coated steel spade head
- Light yet sturdy
- Ergonomic grip
- Sharp edges great for cutting and chopping
- Pricier than most folding shovels
- Carrying case sold separately
Next up, we’ve got the Gerber E-tool Folding Spade. This robust, foldable e-tool came with details like a unique locking mechanism and a more angular handle which made for a smooth performance.
Like most e-tools in this list, the Gerber folding spade is a tri-fold device. It’s compact enough, but its carrying case is sold separately.
Instead of having an all-metal construction, the manufacturers opted for a lighter, glass-filled nylon handle and an aluminum shaft. This combination makes the Gerber light yet sturdy enough for heavy-duty tasks.
Don’t be intimidated by its textured, angular handle. It doesn’t look it, but it’s got a surprisingly nice grip and is actually quite comfortable in the hand, albeit having a squarish shape.
Looking at the Gerber, you’ll see that its head isn’t as sharp or pointed compared to the other e-tools in this list. This is great if you need to cover a wide area, but it may not the best for functions that need hoe or a pick. It’s a little less powerful than the Tac9er shovel as far as digging and entrenching is concerned, too.
What we loved most about the Gerber are its serrated edges. Some e-tools’ serrated edges were all bark and no bite, but the Gerber took care of small shrubs, roots, and branches without a hitch.
Perhaps the biggest downside to the Gerber is its price point. At nearly $50, this costs almost twice as much as the Tac9er which offered the same performance.
Overall, the Gerber E-tool Folding Spade passed our testing with flying colors. We just wished it came with a sheath for that price.
Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel
Weight: 1.60 lbs
Shovel head: 2mm thickness
Material: Medium carbon steel shovelhead, hardwood handle
- Sharp edges great for cutting
- Hardwood handle has great grip and is well-balanced
- Solid build
- Can’t be folded to a more compact size
The Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel is one sturdy piece of gear. Its fixed, hardwood handle and robust shovelhead are made for insanely tough jobs. Unfortunately, these features also make the Cold Steel relatively difficult to store and pack in a bug out bag. Portability is important for us, so we had to put it on our number three spot.
First things first: the Cold Steel Special Forces shovelhead has wicked sharp edges straight out of the box. It’s great for cutting sticks, roots, wood, zombies—name it, the Cold Steel can cut through it without a hitch. It’s like a tomahawk and a shovel in one. That being said, make sure to store this shovel with a sheath or cover at all times, because you can seriously hurt yourself or through your gear, if you’re not careful. It’s just too bad that the sheath has to be purchased separately.
Next, the fixed hardwood handle. This has obvious pros and cons in itself. The biggest advantage is that it’s insanely sturdy. It feels solid in the hand and is well-balanced. There aren’t any hinges or any other moving parts to be wary of, so you can dig and entrench all you like without fear of damaging the device. Despite the handle’s smooth finish, though, it can still chafe your palms after extended use. Be sensible and make sure to wear gloves.
The disadvantage is that this design isn’t the most ideal if you’re looking for something portable. There’s no way to fold this shovel into a smaller, more compact size. You can remove the screws and disassemble the whole thing, but that would just make things more complicated.
Another thing about having a straight, fixed handle is limited grip options. Open, D-handles tend to distribute the force of your digging between the two prongs and can still be used even with one arm out of commission. Straight handles, on the other hand, are quite limited.
In conclusion, if portability is the most important factor for you, you might want to skip Cold Steel and opt for the folding shovels mentioned in this list. On the other hand, if you need a trusty shovel with wicked sharp edges that can double as a hatchet, the Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel is a solid choice.
SOG Folding Shovel
Weight: 24.5 oz
Material: full carbon steel
- Lightweight and portable
- Ergonomic handle and grip
- Great for small tasks around camp
- Locking mechanism is not as secure as others
- Not great for cutting and chopping
Aside from the full-sized e-tools, we also included a couple of smaller e-tools in this list, just to see how they would hold up against the bigger kids on the playground.
Calling the SOG a “military shovel” would be pushing it, because it’s really tiny compared to the full-sized shovels. The good thing is that it can hold its own— as long as you set the right expectations.
Made from an all-metal construction, this tri-fold shovel has a threaded lock mechanism and an open handle like the other full-sized e-tools. It’s also equipped with a rather sharp pick on the other end of its shovelhead. The only difference is that it weighs about half a pound lighter.
While it doesn’t come with its own case or sheath, storing or clipping the SOG folding shovel in a bag is no problem at all.
What we had a slight problem in was its locking mechanism. It appeared stuck at one point. We eventually resolved it, but that being said, you might want to keep some oil nearby to lubricate this folding shovel’s joints before and after use.
Using the SOG to dig through sand and loose dirt was okay, but its locking mechanism did loosen up a bit when we tried to dig through some packed dirt and rocks.
It is quite small, so bigger folks who want something heftier may not like this tool’s make and material. It can also be a literal pain in the back after extended use as you have to bend quite a bit to gain better ground. You mostly gotta work on your knees with a shovel this size.
Despite its serrated edge, cutting and chopping remained to be a weak point for the SOG. It couldn’t cut through small roots and shoots.
Overall, the SOG performed okay up to a certain capacity. With its smaller build, you can’t expect it to do heavy duty tasks, but it will do well for light to moderate work around the campsite.
Fobachi Military Survival Folding Shovel
Weight: 1.48 lbs
Material: high-carbon steel body and steel handle
- Lightweight and portable
- Comes with own pouch
- Rubber grip can chafe hands
- Handle keeps loosening up
- Poor cutting performance
- Edges easily oxidized
Another small e-tool on this list is the Fobachi Military Survival Folding Shovel. Its black oxide coating and sharp edges make it look formidable, but it’s actually quite smaller than we initially expected. It also didn’t impress us much when it came down to functionality.
Instead of a tri-fold design, the Fobachi can be disassembled at the handle and folded at the head. You can stow it away in the accompanying pouch. Nothing special about the sheath’s material; in fact, it looks kind of flimsy.
Fobachi’s shovel head has a more defined edge to it, but it’s markedly smaller than the SOG. Ironically, the sharpened and serrated edges didn’t do great in cutting branches, sticks and the like. If anything, it was actually quite dull. We also saw some rust and oxidation along the spade’s edges and around its hinges after use.
As for digging, the Fobachi can penetrate deeper than the SOG but we found its handle quite disappointing. First, the rubber grip chafes your palms after extended use. Second, the handle tends to loosen up and twist off, so it’s not the most secure shovel out there.
All in all, the Fobachi was indeed portable, but it was a bust in every other aspect. It can dig, but the fact that its handle kept on loosening up was both disappointing and hazardous. If you’re looking for a smaller shovel, we recommend the SOG instead of the Fobachi.
US GI Military Entrenching Shovel
Material: Steel Blade with Aluminum handle
- Comes with own hard casing
- Rough hinges
- Unsecure locking mechanism
- Dull edges
We didn’t expect to rank the US GI Military Entrenching Shovel at the bottom of our list, but here we are. Based on the customer reviews we found all over the internet, this was supposed to be the e-tool to beat all others, so we had high expectations for this military issue shovel. Sadly, its clunky build and rough hinges didn’t make for a great experience.
One of the few good things about this shovel is its casing. Made from tough plastic material, the sheath is a good place to put this entrenching tool.
But that’s really about it.
Out of the box, the US GI shovel was unlubricated— we had a lot of difficulty folding and extending the entire device at first use. Compared to the Tac9er and the Gerber, the US GI shove’s hinges did not feel smooth at all. The rounded open handles felt good enough in the hand, but the rest of the shovel felt like it was going to come loosely apart, even if the threaded lock was already securely screwed in place.
The shovel head is pointed and can be used as a pick when configured at a 90-degree angle. It also has serrations along its edges but they weren’t as sharp as we would have wanted it to be. They’re not very useful when you’re out cutting and hacking at stuff.
During our digging and entrenching test, the US GI Military Entrenching Shovel performed poorly; it kept loosening up and again, its hinges didn’t feel secure.
Overall, the GI’s performance was disappointing. It could be possible that we got a fake, because it seems like the GI Military shovel that people raved about and the shovel that we used were two completely different things. Regardless, we can only give conclusions based on our testing and experience, so you might want to skip this one and opt for the more reliable, full-sized e-tools on this list.
Reviewing e-tools is tough business because these devices are pretty straightforward. Still, after the dust settled, it’s safe to declare the Tac9er Collapsible E-Tool Shovel as the winner of this review. It’s durable, ergonomic, made of great materials and, most importantly, available at a friendly price point.
The Gerber E-tool Folding Spade earned its place on the second spot with its unique combination of materials and overall performance.
Cold Steel’s fixed handle could be a pro or con depending on your needs, but one thing’s for sure: you can depend on its no-nonsense functionality and wicked-sharp edges.
We hope that this review helped you in making an informed decision on which e-tool to get for your outdoor, survival and EDC needs. If you liked this review, don’t hesitate to drop a comment below or share this post with your fellow preppers!