Tools of the Trail: Knife, Axe and Saw

by David Cronenwett

As we move into winter, let's consider the tools necessary should we should be stuck out in the cold woods for a couple of unplanned nights, with limited equipment.

Proper use of cutting tools is an important wilderness skill, but too often neglected and forgotten in modern times. Many folks I instruct have little or no experience with the proper use and maintenance of an axe, knife or saw. In winter, these tools can prove invaluable for survival. In all seasons, they may significantly contribute to your comfort and enjoyment.


Safety is imperative, since any of these tools may end up being the cause of a survival situation or make a marginal situation worse. Good judgment also recognizes that there are some fragile habitats or high-use areas where it is inappropriate to chop, saw or otherwise extend your skills.

The knife is the smallest and most frequently used tool. Tasks like building a fire, gathering wood, building shelter – plus ordinary outdoor tasks like filleting and gutting fish and game – are greatly aided by the right knife. An excellent choice for an all-purpose bush knife is the Swedish "Mora" style, with a 3-4 inch blade. The basic design has been used throughout Scandinavia for centuries.

Carbon steel is superior to stainless for two reasons: first, it is much easier to sharpen and holds an edge for a long time; second, the back of the blade can be the striker in the flint-and-steel fire method. A carbon steel blade can be maintained to shaving edge with wet-dry sandpaper, whetstones or even river rocks.

The blade's single bevel allows great control in woodworking, which is the essential task in wilderness living and survival skills. This style of knife allows the user to efficiently split wood, cut notches and fell small trees. I wear the sheathed knife on a cord about the neck. It is always handy and more difficult to lose in this position. When traveling, I tuck it into my shirt.

Some experts say that if you must carry only one tool into the wilderness, it should be a well-chosen axe. A good, general size is a 24-inch handle with a one-and-a-half pound head. While it is heavier and somewhat less versatile than the knife, its durability and prodigious felling and splitting qualities make up for it. The axe is also the most dangerous object in the woods. Read up on proper use and find a mentor if possible. The best commercially available axes, hands down, are made by Gransfors-Bruks of Sweden. They are light, beautiful and hand-forged. A good, sharp hatchet is also useful for skinning large game, like elk or moose.

The bow saw or Swede saw is an excellent complimentary tool. It is safe and accomplishes certain tasks quicker than an axe. It is also the most fragile and if the blade breaks, it is essentially useless. Saws intended for butchering game, like Wyoming saws will work in a pinch, but are not designed for bucking a large store of firewood. A bow saw with a 24-inch blade is infinitely more efficient.

If choosing between a hatchet and a game saw in a daypack, I recommend the hatchet. While a game saw may have advantage when butchering game and be somewhat lighter, a hatchet is more versatile and more durable, especially if you want to build a fire in a hurry or in a survival situation.

Please remember; all tools require regular maintenance and regular practice.

About Caitlin Thompson