Snow Shoveling 101

The sidewalk was a packed ridge of slippery snow and ice. Walkers had to stay focused on their footwork so couldn’t even take a moment to frown or gesture at the house, hoping the residents would notice them. This clearly was a case of shoveling neglect, not tolerated well in these parts and enforceable by local code.

Shoveling snow is a required seasonal task in the upper Midwest, learned at a very early age because it is a community responsibility to be shared proudly by family members. Well, that’s what I was told. It could be added to death and taxes as a certainty in upper Midwest life. Global warming could change that, but not soon enough for us. Around here the word “shoveling” automatically implies snow shoveling just as raking implies leaf raking.

If you are new to shoveling, just observe your neighbors. If you move to a new house like I did recently, you need to learn how to shovel it efficiently. Where are the cracks and raised concrete that will catch the shovel and jar your entire upper body? Where should you toss the snow so it doesn’t later melt and run back onto the walking surface and freeze?

There’s both science and art behind shoveling. It is a task defined by recommended equipment, procedures and personal experience. One certainty, though, is that you can only practice shoveling live, not when it is convenient in August. And when you do shovel, you are not likely to savor the moment, at least for very long.

The internet provides training for newcomers to shoveling snow. An example is the wikiHow three-part “How to Shovel Snow” short course in proper snow shoveling. One of the important steps includes a break for hot chocolate. Taking a break is a good idea since a lot of people die from heart attacks each year shoveling snow. But most of us are reluctant to stop halfway through, go inside, remove boots and coats, then reverse that process just for a cup of cocoa.

Years ago, a new neighbor from San Diego asked me if the city shoveled the front sidewalks. He was serious. Later that same winter we had an ice storm. He asked me if you could get metal blades for snow blowers that chopped up the ice. He’s quite a thinker, this one. Now I’m not saying someone has not tried creating such a device, but I’ve never seen one. I did see an advertisement for a snow-melting device that was basically a propane torch on wheels. I’ve seen them used on frozen football fields but if you melt the snow on your sidewalk, a funny thing happens. It becomes ice, a much bigger problem.

One thing is certain – snow does not arrive at convenient times and must be dealt with quickly. If you don’t shovel as soon as it stops snowing, it will get packed down and you could be walking and driving on an immovable layer of ice until May. Large snowfalls may require several shovelings during the storm just to stay ahead of it. And it is bad form to be the last one in your neighborhood to finish shoveling.

The science of snow shoveling includes having the correct equipment, which varies depending on the conditions. It’s not necessary but a good idea to have several types of shovels on hand – from light plastic pushers to massive metal scoopers. Experience will show you which ones work best in what conditions. You can also use a leaf blower or broom for light snows but my observation is that it takes longer. Ergonomic shovels have a curved handle designed to make it easier on the back.

When it comes to snow blowers, there are really just two main types – single-stage and two-stage. The single-stage are referred to as snow throwers. They have twisted rubber paddles that can clean up a light to medium snowfall in short order.

Two-stage snow blowers are much heavier and more powerful. They are the go-to workhorses in deep and heavy snows, such as your driveway apron after the plow has gone by. They also can be beasts to maneuver. They offer many options including multiple drive gears, a cab, heated handle grips and electric start. I once owned a snow blower with a cab. A neighbor said I looked like a walking telephone booth.

The art of shoveling and snow blowing comes with experience and planning. A wide driveway should be shoveled down the middle first, then cleared of snow side to side. A snow blower might be able blow it all one way. Remember, shoveling is not like mowing grass. You can’t shovel in nice symmetric squares, although someone from San Diego might need convincing. The thing to avoid is shoveling or blowing snow on top of other snow you need to clear or you will be doubling your work.

My previous house had a 100-foot driveway, turn-around area, deck, lots of steps and long sidewalks. It took two hours no matter what the snow depth. When I left there, I had four shovels, a two-stage snow blower, two different size snow throwers and an ice chipper. I used them all. I’m hoping to shrink that at my new place.

This season Mother Nature has provided us with only practice snowfalls. But we know the big one is due any time now. Maybe Super Bowl weekend. Keep practicing.