Story and Photos by Reuben Bolieu
You’re lost! Darkness is setting in. You grab your hatchet and rush to make a shelter when things go from bad to worse—you cut yourself. Now you’re bleeding and have just added another dimension to your already dire condition!
An emergency or survival situation is bad enough but adding an injury to the mix can be life threatening. It doesn’t matter if you are deep in the bush or in your local campground, a bad cut is usually trip ending. However, what if you are alone and/or far from primary care?
Preparation for safely making wilderness shelters, wood prep for campfires or any type of camp craft starts before any trip—in the form of knowledge and practice.
Survival tools, in my opinion, are tools most avid outdoorsmen carry for hikes, bug out bags, camping gear and survival kits. Knives, saws, hatchets, tomahawks and axes are the usual bunch. Each has their own degree of danger, which coincides with the degree of injury that can be inflicted, should an accident occur.
Saws—available for outdoors travel and use around the homestead—are all handy, energy efficient ways of cutting wood and pruning branches. Projects small and large can be accomplished, or embellished, using a saw, with a greater degree of safety than all of the survival cutting tools.
Most survival books have a section on cutting tools, but few have safety tips included. I feel that safety with cutting tools should start with wearing leather gloves, especially for gathering wood (branches or logs), as they can have thorns, splinters, course bark and sharp protruding pieces.
Most dry branches can be broken with your own gloved hands and feet. If they are truly dry and fit for the fire, they should crack easily. However, hardwood and thicker branches require sectioning, and this is where a saw shines.
A saw can easily reach into odd spaces that would require more room for a chopping tool, like a machete or axe type of tool. Often, when sectioning branches or a tree, it is very disheveled and hard to move, until some pieces are cleared.
A bucksaw or bowsaw (frame saw) is excellent for sectioning larger wood but may struggle to get into certain places, at first. However, folding saws can zip through branches with great authority, but safety must be observed. Just grabbing a branch or small log and sawing close to your hand seems natural but is the easiest way to cut your thumb and/or the top of your hand. It is best to use branches as buffers or safety blocks when cutting.
On long, straight sections with no nodes or offshoot branches to protect your hand, reach over the saw with your free hand and grip the wood so the saw can’t skip out onto your hand. It may feel awkward at first, but after a few times it will be natural and the safest way to use any saw.
Using a stump, support log or rock will help the cut naturally break and save the user from exerting too much energy that may result in a slip and injury. Never cut branches above your head, out of reach, it may result in eye, face or head trauma.
Another way of safely cutting wood with a saw is to do what feels natural, by gripping the log where you want the cut with your free hand, but hold a small stick in it, so it protrudes a couple of inches beyond your thumb. It will act as a buffer if the saw should skip out.
I read in the classic Bushcraft book by Mors Kochanski that the saw was the only wood processing tool that a blind person could use safely.
The knife is arguably the most valuable cutting tool in survival and has the most potential for complacent use—leading to the risk of injury. Always make sure to practice the safe handling and use of a knife and never let yourself lose focus during use. Safety lies within the correct techniques.
The simple rules are typically the most important to remember. First and foremost, always cut away from yourself and others. Equally as important, and related to the first rule, never use your leg or any body part as the support or cutting board.
Along with focusing on safety considerations, the proper grip for the job also plays a huge factor in safe knife use.
The forehand grip is by far the most common way of holding a knife. Hold the knife in a firm fist type grip, with the edge facing away from you. Whittling a point on the end of a stick and cutting heavy materials is typically done with this method. Remember the rules above when following through with your cut and ensure that there is no one in the path of the blade.
When making nice, even fuzz sticks, be sure to keep the arm flexed and use your whole body in a slow, smooth motion, while applying constant pressure. On the safety side of things, keeping your arm in a locked position will save you in the long run from unnecessary jarring of the elbow, which can lead to injuries (tennis elbow).
The chest-lever grip is also a safe, efficient method, where the edge is actually facing in the same direction as the knuckles of the hand—outward.
With the thumb resting on the flat of the blade for support, or high up on the handle, bend the elbow and position the hand (with the knife) across the chest, with the spine facing the chest, edge facing out. Bring the work hand up to meet the cutting edge.
The cut is accomplished by using your shoulders and back muscles, with a chest-out motion, pulling your bent arms away from each other. This makes for a powerful cut. The position is unique because it can also be used for fine tip work when combined with the push cut.
The advantage of this kind of position is that you can have it at chest level, right under your eyes, for very controlled cuts. Most of all, it is a very safe grip because the knife is not flailing around when you follow through.
This section will deal with processing downed wood, as there is very little need to fell trees these days in the majority of wildernesses around the world.
In this section I will use the term Axe to also represent a hatchet/tomahawk.
Back up your work regardless of the task, be it chopping or splitting wood. This will give you the best energy transfer and ensure your bit doesn’t get buried into the ground or worse—bone!
Chopping a small log that is on the ground, in a horizontal position, should be done from a kneeling or sitting/squatting position. The forearm and axe handle should both be kept parallel at the moment of impact and thereafter. This is known as the parallel plane.
If the hand and forearm(s) are kept above the point of impact it causes the bit to continue in the path back toward us. The longer the handle, the safer the tool is to use.
For maximum effect, chop a log in a “V” shape cut, alternating sides at an angle—not straight on at a 90-degree angle. Make the width of the “V” cut approximately the same thickness as the diameter of the log. If at all possible, roll the log over after chopping about halfway through.
Another option for chopping through a log is to make four chops in a row, moving in one direction and then repeat four more chops in the opposite direction, thus chipping out the first four cuts.
There are other techniques for chopping halfway through on one side of a log, and then switching your position and chopping the log from the opposite side, while standing, but this is meant for larger diameter wood and longer handled axes.
One handed chopping with a short handle means getting up close and personal with the wood, hovering over it and still keeping the parallel plane. Chopping while using two hands with a 19-inch-long handle, or more, is the best way to control the bit and get more power out of a lighter tool.
Accuracy counts much more than a hard, blundering chop. Practice is paramount for using an axe accurately and safely!
This task is best done on a downed tree while standing on the opposite side of the branches being cut, using the trunk as a protector log. Chop the branches close to the trunk of the tree and in the direction of growth.
The disadvantage of a lighter tomahawk is the lack of weight needed for splitting firewood using the more conventional method of an axe or hatchet, where the log is placed vertically on a chopping block, and then split using the weight and wedge shape of the tool.
However, there are other ways. Selecting wood for making a fire is a matter of using your brain and not choosing wood that is too thick—anything thicker than wrist/bicep-thickness can be used as larger fuel and doesn’t need to be split.
Not everyone is accurate when swinging chopping tools. For that reason, batoning with an axe allows the user to create precise, intentional splits in wood rather than a potentially dangerous chop.
Another easy way to split wood with an axe is by holding the handle and the wood parallel, placing the axe bit at the top end of the small log, raising the two up about a foot and then bring them both down together on a chopping block. This will drive the bit in the wood and create a split. Now, just pull the handle and wood apart in opposite directions (like sheers) to finish the split. This is the safest way to split small diameter wood.
Do not attempt to chop into the top of the log first, this is a common thing people try to do when first using this method. Just let the momentum of the axe bit do the work. Naturally, softer wood will be easier to split than harder, knotted-up wood, so be patient and practice. There are no minor injuries when it comes to the axe or any chopping tools.
Fine work with an axe should be limited to smaller splits for kindling. Making fuzz sticks for fire with an axe is a little more advanced. To think otherwise is fooling yourself—use a small knife for anything requiring real craftsmanship.
Don’t use heavy cutting tools after dark, if at all possible.
Safety with any type of axe or knife starts by having a reliable sheath for carry and transport. Having the knowledge and know how will put you on the fast track to safety and further your survivability, without injury! K&G
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Adventurer, writer, photographer, gear designer and survival instructor for Randall’s Adventure & Training, Reuben has spent most of his life hiking and backpacking through the wildernesses of the world. He has traveled abroad in extreme environments, from Alaska to the desert heat of Egypt – as well as the humid conditions of Southeast Asia and South America. He continues studying primitive survival techniques, construction and uses of knives and edged tools from places such as: South America, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, and numerous countries in the South Pacific and Scandinavia. Reuben has published many articles on survival, knife and tool use, woodcraft, shelters, and remains a lifetime student of survival.
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