By Ben Long
Backcountry enthusiasts need to cut things, big and small. Get a log out of the way, shorten a guy line or snip a leader on a fly line. Part of being a competent backcountry traveler is gaining basic skills with things that are sharp.
Fundamentally, this comes down to the knife, the axe and the saw. All three are wedges — a knife is a wedge with a handle; an axe is a wedge with a lever and a saw is a series of small wedges on a long blade.
Beyond that, each tool has a list of pluses and minuses. There is really no right or wrong, but rather what is right for you and the task at hand.
The knife is the universal woods tool. Primary concern is the length of the blade. Most seasoned sportsmen prefer a blade of about 3 inches, though tastes vary in both length and shape. Carbon steel is easier to sharpen and can be used to strike a spark, but stainless deters rust. Folding knives are safe and compact, but a stout fixed blade can be used to split bone and wood. Some folks swear by features like replaceable blades, serrations, gut hooks and belt clips, but the standard “belt knife” has withstood the test of time.
The hand axe has an honored place in the hunters’ kit. When it comes to limbing a tree or collecting firewood before it gets dark, the hand axe is tops. It efficiently cleaves the pelvis or sternum of a big game carcass, and can help in skinning as well. A hatchet may be heavy compared to a saw, but indestructible. A hatchet is probably the most dangerous tool in the woods, next to a firearm, so a saw may be more appropriate for a youngster.
A portable saw is the choice of many and come in fixed, folding or bow-style. Saws cut neatly, are safer, and tend to be lighter weight than a hand axe. A saw blade of more than 12 inches can cut small logs much more efficiently than a hand axe. A saw makes a neater job of cutting bone than does a hatchet. The saw’s downside is blades can pinch, and if a blade snaps or a critical nut or bolt is lost, you are left with a useless handful of parts.
All cutting tools are dangerous and inefficient when dull. Sharpening blades is no great mystery, but does require patience, practice and good tools.
First, start with good steel. Steel hardness is measured on the Rockwell scale typically 55-60 for sporting knives. Soft steel is easier to sharpen, but quick to dull. Hard steel is harder to sharpen, but holds the edge longer.