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Four tools to cut and chop wood for survival

by Gaye Levy

One of the basics of survival is having the ability to cut and chop wood. It is wood that will fuel the fires that keep us warm, boil our water and cook our food.

It seems simple enough, right? Grab your tool of choice, head outdoors and chop away. Alas, if it were only that easy. How many times have you gone to the garage or outdoors to the shed, only to be perplexed when it comes to choosing the best tool for cutting or chopping wood? Been there done that.

For this article I have reached out to experienced outdoorsman Cody Assmann to share his knowledge with those of us that have yet to select the perfect tool to meet our needs.

An introduction to tools for cutting and chopping wood

by Cody Assmann

When it comes to backwoods kits, everyone has their own opinions on gear. What to take, what to leave behind and what to look for in tools is highly personal. It is also no doubt impacted by the area you will be traveling in and the time of year. Some people take shelters, others make them. Some people go modern, and some people stick to more traditional gear. Still, others aim to go super light-weight, while others go as gear heavy as possible. There is no right or wrong way to build a kit or head into the woods. That said, however, there is one tool that nearly everyone takes every time; a knife.

Steel knives are almost unanimously included in every backwoods kit because they are so absolutely useful. The list of tasks you can perform with a good steel knife is almost limitless but includes shaping wood, gathering fire material, cleaning animals, cooking and creating other tools. The reality is that steel knives make life easier and better. It was one of the first trade items that Native American people were looking for when they contacted Europeans. In fact, one mountain man, Osborne Russell, met a group of Native people living in the Stone Age, except for the single steel knife they had almost completely worn out. History supports the modern ideology that a good knife makes your backwoods life better.

The truth is, though, there are a variety of tools to cut and chop wood that are extremely handy to have with you. There are many tools for the purpose of cutting wood, but some of the most common are a knife, hatchet, axe and saw. These tools each serves a specific purpose and adding one to your survival kit might fit your specific needs. By understanding the applications and strengths of each tool you can best decide what you’ll need.

Specific tools to cut and chop wood

Knife

As discussed in the introduction, a good knife is a great tool to have along. It’s one of the tools to cut and chop wood everyone takes along. You’ll probably want to include one in your survival kit. Not all knives are the same though and understanding what you’ll be asking a knife to do is important to understand. Small knives, like a basic Mora knife, can be handy for a number of reasons. One, a small knife with a single cutting edge is super handy to have around for all the small camp chores you’ll likely run into. For basic carving and cutting, a simple Mora is hard to beat. Two, being so lightweight and small makes them easy to tote around even on long trips.

On the other hand, sometimes a large knife is what you’ll want. One large knife that has received a large degree of notoriety recently is a Condor knife designed by TV personality Matt Graham. This knife is robust and had a blade over eight inches long that is built to withstand serious abuse. If you are trying to stay light and only want one tool to do all your woodwork, a big stout knife like this might be the ticket.

Over the years I’ve been given two pieces of advice when buying a knife I believe are pertinent.

One, when you are buying knives you are generally buying the steel the knife is made with. That means a more expensive knife has generally used a better steel in construction that will last longer and keep a sharper edge.

Two, full tang knives are your best bet for rugged long term use. In a situation where you’ll be asking for your knife to really chip in and do some work, a folding knife has the built-in weakness of a pivot point. Sure they are convenient, but their inherent weak link can problems. I read a hunting story one time about an Alaskan hunter who was gutting a moose with a folding knife. Miles from anywhere, with his hand inside the moose, the blade closed shut and lopped off the fella’s fingers. Fluke or not, play it safe and get a solid full tang knife.

Another knife that is overlooked is the crooked knife. These knives are designed for specialty work such as carving and shaping wood. There are lots of different designs out there, and the specific bend you want will probably depend on what you’d like to achieve. For the most part, these knives tend to be smaller and wouldn’t add a lot of weight to a kit. On the other hand, every time you add something to your kit the heavier it becomes. If you are doing a lot of traveling, you might think twice about bringing more than one knife.

Hatchet

A hatchet is another tool to cut and chop wood you might consider taking along with you. Hatchets are basically small axes to be used with one hand. These are good tools that many woodsmen and survivalists have toted with them in one form or another for generations.

Hatchets have a major benefit over a knife, in that they are designed for heavy usage in the field. Chopping small trees, splitting wood and rough general usage are the tasks a hatchet is designed for. For someone heading to a heavily wooded area, that is predicting doing some heavy chopping and woodwork, a hatchet might be a good option.

Another benefit of a hatchet is the weight of the tool. Although a good hatchet is certainly heavier than a knife, they are still light enough to be strapped to a backpack and carried for considerable distances.

Men like the eastern long hunters and the mountain men of the west often carried a similar tool in a tomahawk. Hawks are lighter and are not as well adapted to heavy work. They can, however, be thrown and generally come with longer handles which give the light head some torque when used. Personally, I carry a tomahawk on my trips as the reduced weight is ideal for me, and I don’t spend a lot of time splitting wood.

If you are going to constantly be moving camp, trekking or just want a simple tool you can carry that is capable of heavy use, a hatchet or tomahawk is a good choice.

Axe

Another tool that can really benefit someone in a survival situation is a good axe. An axe looks a lot like a hatchet, only much larger in size. These tools are well suited for anyone predicting to be doing an excessive amount of woodwork. Axes were used to fell trees by the pioneers to construct log cabins, build fortified walls, split firewood and anything else that required the use of mature trees.

If your goal is to build similar structures in the woods or to create a large wood reserve, an axe should probably find its way into your kit.

Nearly all axes use a heavy axe head to sit on top of a long axe handle. The result of this is two-fold. One, you get a heavy duty axe head that can be somewhat abused and stand up to the task. Secondly, you can generate a good amount of speed and torque on the head as you swing it. This enticing combination is what made the axe a tool many woodsmen of the past carried with them while doing heavy work.

Not all axes are created equal, though. Before you choose an axe, you should consider what task you will be using it for.

Some axes are designed for splitting wood that has been cut. These typically have a flair in the head that acts as a wedge when driven into the wood. Other types are made specifically for chopping trees. These axes tend to have a smaller profile that makes the axe easier to remove while working.

There are double bit axes and broad axes. Each serves a specific purpose. Whatever task you plan on using your axe for, odds are there is a specialty axe for the job. You can also find a few designs that try to offer a mix of benefits. These could be referred to as the Jacks of all trades, Kings of none. They might be ideal for someone who can’t tote along a variety of heavy axes all the time.

The major downfall of an axe is its weight. Although the heavy head and long handle make using the tool ideal, it is not a combination that lends itself well to extended travel. If you are going to be in a situation where you can afford to stay in one place, you might consider one. If you plan on doing any sort of frequent movement or travel, you may find it too cumbersome to drag along. However, if the ability to chop sizable wood is important to you, it might be worth taking along. It all depends on your needs, wants and personal situation.

Saw

The final tool to cut and chop wood in a survival situation you may want to consider is the tool best suited for cutting wood: a saw. Saws come in all shapes, sizes and designs and might be something worth throwing in your bag. Today, we have the luxury of folding saws that are actually sturdy enough for heavy use. These saws stow away easily yet still have some beef to cut through fairly large logs. They are very popular with folks all around the country for their availability, compact nature and convenience. Odds are you’ve probably seen one of your favorite YouTubers using one of these folding saws.

Another saw option out there is the takedown bucksaw. Takedown bucksaws come in many different designs, but the principle is the same. A takedown frame is put together with enough tension and support to spread and hold a saw blade tightly. Personally, I prefer this tool for several reasons. One, if it breaks you can make a new one, or fix your existing one, with just a few simple tools or materials you have lying around. Secondly, the blades are cheap, super lightweight and stow away easily as long as you have something to store them in. Thirdly, the bucksaw design is comfortable to use. Not saying the folding saw isn’t, but I simply prefer the bucksaw.

If you’re looking at your local environment and think a saw would be handy and help you complete tasks you’d like to perform, these two types of saws are probably your best options. Personally, I don’t often take a saw on my outings. Most of my camps are lightweight, portable and easily moved. If I do happen to make a camp in one place for an extended period of time, that’s when the saw finds its way into my gear. Again, the tools you bring should reflect your particular situation.

Finding the right balance when choosing your tools

Having the right tool to cut and chop wood in a survival situation is essential. For obvious reasons, wood will likely become the number one source of building materials in many areas. Having the correct tool for the job will allow you to get the job done more quickly and efficiently, thus opening up time for other chores you’ll need to take care of.

Knives, hatchets, axes and saws are all possible cutting and chopping tools that could find their way into your pack. Some people can do just fine with a simple knife as their only cutting tool. Others may find the advantages of extra tools to balance out the weight. Finding the right balance is up to you.

The final word

I readily admit that there has been a good deal of trial and error involved with the personal selection of wood cutting tools. I just wish I had read this article before making my selections because I now feel so much smarter!

That said, I do have a sizable collection of Moraknivs both in my packs and in the kitchen. They are used in one manner or another on a daily basis. I also have a decent axe, hatchet and two different machetes. What comes next? Getting outdoors and actually using them so I know what to do when my life depends on them for survival.

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