Last weekend it snowed 8 feet at my house. The weekend before it snowed 7 feet. This week it's forecasted for another 4 feet or so. Which is to say, snow shoveling has been on my mind as of late. So I thought it might be fun to write down all I've learned about snow shoveling. I'd estimate that I've reduced my effort snow shoveling 100x over the past decade. After each of these storms, my girlfriend and I have spent about 1-2 hours each clearing our driveway by hand. That's less time than my neighbor spent trying to get his snowblower working!
Most of this is fairly particular to my location and context, but I think many people can benefit from some of this. Out here in the Sierras we get huge, wet storms followed by clear days. The city does plow my road, but usually 1-2 days after a storm. For many reasons, I choose not to use a snowblower. They are expensive, loud, nasty smelling machines that break down often and require constant maintenance and babying to keep functioning. I can keep my shovel outside and it works every single time without any preamble at all.
When to clear snow
The most important thing you can learn to reduce your effort in clearing snow is to understand the best times to clear the snow. You have three goals when clearing snow:
1. Gain access to the road
2. Reduce ice (slippery stuff!)
3. Do your future self a favor (leave room for the next storm)
The most important thing you must do is pay attention to the weather
. If the snow is coming in warm (30˚F+), you want to remove it as soon as possible. If there's more than a couple inches, you should get out there and clear it. Don't let it pile up! Wet snow is heavy. Don't let it sit overnight! Freezing temperatures will turn wet snow into a hard-packed glacier. If the snow is coming in cold (<20˚F) it will be nice and fluffy. You can leave that snow be until it is going to warm up (30˚F+). It'll stay unconsolidated and easy to move.
When the plow comes by your street, it has the effect of a super warm day followed by a freezing night. That is to say, it turns any snow at all into hard ice chunks almost immediately (avalanche effect). As soon as possible after the plow comes by, clear your berm. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. Sometimes this means a groany five minutes of shoveling when you were ready for bed versus two hours the next morning when you need to get to work. If you wait long enough, you will need heavy equipment (skid steer or tractor) to clear the berm.
Keep in mind this temperature effect when choosing how cleanly to scrape your driveway. Packed powder has far more traction than ice. But packed powder + warm temperatures = ice rink. If it's staying cold, I'll leave an inch of snow on the driveway so I can walk comfortably. If it's going to get warm, I scrape it down to the pavement.
How to shovel
The most important shoveling technique to learn is to stop shoveling! You want to be pushing the snow around, not picking it up. Shovels should be used to break snow up and move it short distances. So let's get started with the tools you should have.
Go and get yourself a nice metal shovel. A transfer shovel can be used for this, but I much prefer a snow-specific shovel. Mine has metal teeth on the ends, a scoop shape, plastic glides on the bottom, a D-handle, and even folds up! I can fold it up and pack it behind the seat of my R32 (a tiny little 2 door passenger car). Don't even think about a plastic shovel if you get a lot of snow. It will fail you in your moment of most need.
The push bucket
This tool is a miracle of science. I cannot even fathom not owning it anymore. I want to buy more of them. It holds as much snow as twenty shovels full and can push another ten shovels full in front of the bucket. Instead of laboring with your back and biceps, you can stand up straight and use your legs to push the snow on the ground. This will reduce fatigue by leaps and bounds. Would you rather carry a baby down the street, or push them in a stroller?
The last tool you'll want is a nice metal scraper. I think this was called a sidewalk scraper. But anything of similar shape will do fine. This is for hacking pure ice and scraping hard packed snow/ice off hard surfaces.
Now that you've got the tools squared away, you need to move the snow. Your goal is to push the snow into the street (where the plow will reach it), down the flow of traffic from your house (so that the plow will push it away from your house, not back into your driveway!), into a nice smooth ramp (so that you can glide the push-shovel up the ramp). Here's the end product:
You can use any strategy you want to clear the snow. With two people, it's kind of nice for one person to push the snow from the driveway into the street while the other person pushes the snow from the street onto the ramp.
The last thing to keep in mind while shoveling is where the snow for the next storm is going to go. If you can't push the snow into the street where city plows will deal with it, you should really take some time in the summer to plan out where your snow pile is going to be. Hopefully in a sunny place where it'll have more chance to melt and consolidate in the sun.
Aspects of your property
Once you've done the snow shuffle a few dozen times, you'll start to learn that there are some environmental factors that make some driveways easier to clear than others.
The good side of the street
If you happen to live on the sunny side of the street, that means your snow will melt faster! It also means your snow will melt faster :( So while you might be happy in springtime, you might watch your driveway turn into an ice skating rink during freeze/thaw cycles. Still, most of us prefer the sunny side. It'll give your driveway a break in between storm cycles.
The other thing you'll realize is how nice it is to live on the side of the street that slopes down to the right of your driveway as you leave. This means that when you are pushing snow down the street (so the plow doesn't push it right back into your driveway), you'll be pushing it down hill.
And speaking of slopes, probably the most important aspect of a driveway designed for snow removal is that it slopes away from your house
. In fact you want everything sloping away from your house. It makes snow removal easier (pushing down hill), but more importantly, it will prevent flooding and the resulting ice-rink caused by flooding. No, your french drain will not not help you. In the winter, all drains get clogged with snow and ice and do not function. I would never purchase property with an inward sloping driveway. Every single person I've known with one of these has had massive flood damage and lives in misery all winter with their ice-rink driveway.
The mailbox shuffle
My mail carrier drives an old Jeep CJ and can make it through some pretty gnarly conditions. That doesn't mean she can clear a 7ft berm to deliver my mail. She needs a nice arc so she can pull the Jeep up and reach the mailbox out the window. But here's the dilemma: if my mailbox is close enough to the street for her to reach it, it's also close enough to get decimated by the plows.
That's why I've settled on a movable mailbox. AKA a bucket full of dirt with a mailbox shoved inside. I put the mailbox in the center of my driveway. I'm going to clear that out anyway, and that gives my mail carrier the widest arc to be able to drive in past the berm to reach the mailbox.
Get yourself some snow stakes. I'm sure you know where your driveway is, but trust me — things get more complicated when the snow piles up. I haven't seen my curb in a month. But that's not even the real reason to put up snow stakes. You do it for your plow driver. You know, the poor soul in a giant tractor navigating residential streets at 11pm during a blizzard. They'll thank you for some nice brightly colored markers with reflectors showing where your driveway starts and stops. Most plows have a gate they can drop that temporarily holds back the berm caused by plowing, and the snow stakes also allow them to get closer to your property line since they know where it is. Even if it's "obvious" where your driveway is, put them out and be a good neighbor to that driver. They'll appreciate you trying to help them out.
Now that you've spent all that time, sit back and enjoy your job well done!
And don't forget an old piece of wisdom I learned from one of my old neighbors: why spend money to fix the road when you can buy a truck instead? (There are many ways to solve the same problem, this is just how I do it…)