How to shovel snow

kid shovelling snow
CC BY 2.0 oddharmonic -- A child works hard to shovel snow

The TreeHugger guide to snow shovelling will help you survive the winter.

This winter is shaping up to be a snowy one. Many places in the United States and Canada have already experienced much higher levels of snowfall than usual, which means people are shovelling like mad to keep their walkways and driveways clear.

Shovelling snow, however, is not an intuitive activity, especially if you live in a region that is not accustomed to getting a lot of snow. So, I have put together the first-ever TreeHugger guide to snow-shovelling, which will walk you through the necessary steps to clearing snow as easily and quickly as possible.

I consider myself qualified to do so because I grew up in Muskoka, cottage country north of Toronto, where the snow falls steadily and deeply from December to March. I used to make money as a teenager shovelling snow off cottage roofs. Now I live in southwestern Ontario, where the snow blows in sideways off Lake Huron and piles in colossal drifts. The shovelling, needless to say, never ends.

So, if you find yourself inundated with white powder, here's what you should know.

Dress properly.

Shovelling is hard work and an excellent form of exercise. You will work up a sweat in no time, so underdress slightly in anticipation of this. It's best to wear layers that you can remove as you heat up. Wear a hat and gloves (to avoid blisters), wool socks to absorb moisture, and waterproof snow boots with a good tread on them.

Protect your body.

Be sure to stretch well before starting to avoid injury. If you're not in good shape or have a history of heart problems, be alert to the possibility of a heart attack. Warm up before you start. Shovel many light loads, instead of heavy loads. Take frequent breaks, drink water, and don't worry about clearing it all the snow perfectly. Stop immediately if you feel lightheaded. "The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends that anyone who has ever had a heart attack, stroke, or heart surgery should have someone else do the shovelling or should speak to their doctor about their shovelling risk." (via CTV News)

Get the right tool for the job.

Shovels come in many shapes and sizes and serve different purposes. I consulted my father, who has far more decades of snow removal experience than I, and he broke them down into three main categories: the lifter, the pusher, and the sleigh.

Lifting shovels have more square-shaped blades. They are for digging down, scooping, and lifting snow to throw onto a snowbank. Sometimes you may need to grab a sharp metal flat-edged spade to break up ice or compacted snow before lifting.

lifting snow shovel© Home Depot -- A snow shovel for lifting snow, complete with a metal scraping edge

Pushing shovels are more rectangular, longer along the bottom edge than they are tall. They have more curvature to them and are perfect for pushing snow out of the way when it's not too deep.

pusher snow shovel© Home Depot -- A pusher snow shovel

Sleigh shovels are designed for moving large amounts of snow down an incline. They are enormous square-shaped scoops that could be several feet in width and length, with a handlebar for gripping with both hands. These cannot be lifted off the ground when loaded with snow and are good for shovelling roofs and slanted pathways. (My siblings and I used to pull each other around in my dad's sleigh shovels. They make great snow toys.)

sleigh shovel© Amazon

Some shovels now come with ergonomically-shaped handles that are supposed to be better for your back. I have not tried these before, but they sound great. It is crucial to maintain good posture and not bend your spine under load in order to avoid injury.

Metal vs. plastic

Plastic shovels are becoming more common. They are lighter, and therefore better for people who aren't as strong. The surface is more non-stick than metal, which helps the snow to fall off easily. But plastic breaks over time and isn't good for chipping at ice or packed snow, unless it has a metal edge.

Metal shovels are heavier, but this helps to propel them deeper into snow for lifting. One downside is the stickiness of snow. As my father said, "The real purist would wax a metal shovel to make sure the snow doesn't stick to it, the same way we would wax the bottom of a sled."

Sand vs. salt

Be wary of salt. Salt can be deadly to certain kinds of concrete. My father recounted an experience where a single season of sprinkling salt on a concrete threshold resulted in it flaking off and losing nearly a half-inch by springtime. If you plan to use salt, test it on a small corner for a season beforehand or consult the concrete manufacturer.

Salt is also bad for pets. It irritates and burns their feet and can be very unhealthy if ingested.

Many bags of sand from a home supply store do contain some salt, however, because it prevents the sand from clumping. Unless pure sand is kept perfectly dry, it will go rock hard without the addition of salt.

When to shovel:

It's best to shovel immediately and frequently because the longer you leave it, the more likely it is to get compacted and icy. Says my father:

"It's always best to shovel right away. If you walk on snow you will compress it, forming an ice layer. If you're very diligent and keep shovelling as soon as it snows, you can keep that snow layer to a minimum."

Where to shovel:

If possible, move any vehicles out of the way before shovelling so you can clear as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. It helps to clean off your vehicles thoroughly before shovelling, or else you could end up with a lot more snow on the driveway afterward. Shovel the driveway, all walkways to doors, and the sidewalk in front of the property. If you're feeling energetic, offer to shovel for any elderly or infirm neighbors who may not be up to the task.

winter snow© K Martinko -- A fun picture showing the view from my front door during one particularly snowy day in 2014

Get kids involved:

Kids are wonderful little snow shovellers, and they'll really get into the task if you get them size-appropriate tools, available for a few dollars at any local hardware store. Shovelling is a great way for parents and kids to spend time outdoors in winter, while getting exercise and accomplishing an important task -- a win-win situation all around.

Thoughts on snowblowers:

If you're feeling terribly daunted by the amount of snow, you might be considering a snowblower. Snowblowers are useful when you have a considerable space to be cleared, but for most urban driveways they're probably unnecessary.

Snowblowers come in two forms, wheeled or tracked. Wheeled is suitable for smaller driveways, whereas tracked is better for deep snow conditions or inclined driveways where you need more traction.

Snowblowers, however, aren't the easy solution they may appear to be. Sure, they can throw snow, but they require a lot of attention, maintenance, gas and stabilizer, storage in the off-season, and, as my father said, they "eat shear pins when they gobble up hockey pucks left on the driveway." Plus, whenever I use a snowblower, I'm amazed at how much of a workout it is; I'm nearly as exhausted after heaving around the enormous machine as I am after shovelling.

On a final note, enjoy it! Snow shovelling is hard work, but it's great exercise. and valuable time spent in nature. Allow it to replace a workout at the gym. You will feel so good by the time you come inside, ready for a cup of hot cocoa or tea by the fireplace.

Have any specific questions? Ask in the comments below and I will try my best to answer them (or consult my experienced father).

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