One of our earliest bushcraft memories is that of our dad bringing down a 2-foot round cherry tree with his Granfors Bruks American felling axe.
It was a beauty, that axe. Could make short work of really thick hardwood.
Great feel, perfect handle, a head that didn’t stick.
Was passed down the family like a souvenir. Authentic Swedish made and marked, unlike the cheap replicas that one sees on eBay these days.
In fact, we re-profiled the head last month when we set out to restore our old wooden cabin.
Strangely though, a lot of people who saw us at work were surprised that we use an axe a lot more than a Stihl.
Well, the chainsaw has its place folks.
But as surprising as it sounds, we still rely on an axe for a lot of our bushcraft tasks.
Our grandpa worked as a lumberjack and it was he who emphasized that we learn our way with the axe before we graduated to fancier equipment.
Walk out into the woodlots without gasoline, files, wrenches and whatnot. Old school wood crafting. The sound of steel hitting the knots.
As an ode to some of the curious glances and fumbled questions that we were subject to in the past 30 days, we will walk you through seven essential bushcraft skills that will skyrocket you to ax-manship glory!
And if you are on the fence about walking out into the woods with an axe slung over your shoulders, this will put it to rest.
#1 – Felling
Felling a tree with an axe is one of the oldest but most useful bushcrafting techniques. One that can help you immensely in a survival scenario. And if you are a rank beginner, it will help you hone your technique wielding the axe.
Here are some great felling axes, if you do not own one.
There are many reasons why a tree may need to be felled.
It can be causing subsidence problems, it may be diseased, may have suffered unrepairable damage due to a storm or you fancy some self-felled lumber (like us) for your next woodworking project.
If you are inexperienced, we recommend that you start with smaller trees (your arm should go around the trunk fully) before you try your hand at thicker ones.
The Prep part
Before you grab the axe and go Rambo on the tree, take some time to inspect it.
What’s the natural lean of the tree? It’s always safer to let the tree fall in this direction. Just walk away from the tree and watch it from two different angles to determine the lean. You can also use a plumb line for it.
This will determine whether you need to clear obstacles from the path where it will fall, or whether you need specialized tools to bring it down in another, safer direction.
Check the direction of the wind. This might pose problems as the tree falls.
Inspect for signs of rot or infection. Is the lumber discolored or swollen? If yes, then might fall a lot sooner than you expect it to.
Prune off any limbs at least till shoulder height that might get dislodged as you start to chop the tree. Ensure that you clear off even small branches as they have the potential to flay and injure you.
Check your swing radius. This needs to be clear of everything, even a small twig.
A clear path will help prevent a mishit and deflections that can accidentally chop off your big toe. Yikes!
Wear protective gear. And have at least three to four escape routes in case you discover that the tree believes a lot more in Murphy’s law than you do.
Time to get to work.
Mastering the felling technique
There are three basic techniques that you need to master while felling a tree.
- The stance: Stand on level ground with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders. Create two imaginary parallel lines outside your feet. These are the boundaries that you need to stay within. Keep your body firm and steady. Your strokes should always be outside the parallel lines.
- The grip: Hold the axe with your dominant hand positioned just below the neck and the other hand slightly lower on the handle. Have a firm grip at all times. Ensure that your body is not tense. When you swing, the dominant hand will slide downwards and meet the other hand.
- The cuts: While felling a tree, you will predominantly use lateral cuts which will swing downwards from the top in a 30 to 45-degree angle. Always offset yourself to the side rather than standing directly in front of the tree. You will first make a face cut at the base of the tree followed by a back cut two-inches above this one on the opposite side, which creates a hinge allowing the tree to fall without causing a kickback. Make steady, accurate swings and try to hit the same spot every time. Never make upward swings because those are more likely to hit your face.
That’s it. You’ve just mastered tree felling.
#2 – Limbing
Okay. You’ve got yourself a fallen tree. What next?
Now you’ve got to chop down the branches and limbs.
This is called limbing and you will mainly be using vertical swings here.
It’s easier than felling the tree. But needs better technique because if you swing too hard and sever the branch at one go, there’s no back up to reduce the force of the axe, which again, is a recipe for injuries. Here are some great axes for limbing.
- Work your way from the top of the fallen tree. Chop off all limbs and branches at the top as it will prevent the tree from flailing when you remove the limbs at the base.
- Work within the parallel lines and try to position the main tree trunk in a way that it always remains between you and the limbs you are chopping.
- Thicker branches can be removed in two to three swings at the most. The first swing should be landed at an angle, barely a few inches above the base. This will reduce the resistance and loosen the branch. Now land the second and third swings parallel to the tree to sever the branch. Smaller branches can be severed in one swing if you hit exactly at the base in a downward angle.
#3 – Bucking
After limbing, you should have a clean trunk that has very little chances of moving when you start to buck it. Time to chop the tree down into small logs that can be transported to your shed or to your camp to make a bonfire.
Stand on the log with your feet wider than your shoulders. Ensure that you double check to see that the log is stable and doesn’t move too much when you stand on it. If it does, then use some of the smaller limbs or branches that you chopped earlier to scotch it.
You can also use wooden wedges for this.
Bend your knees, keep the hips flexed and make accurate vertical swings to make a ‘V’-shaped notch that’s as wide as the diameter of the log. For example, for a log that’s 15-inches in diameter, make a notch that’s 15-inches wide.
You can cut the right side of the cut mark first followed by the left side to create the notch.
Once you make the notch on one side of the log, turn around and repeat it on the other side. Keep chopping until both notches meet and the log breaks. Repeat across the log using your axe’s length as a guide/measuring tool.
#4 – Splitting
When it comes to splitting the logs that you just bucked, a splitting maul will be a better choice than your good old axe.
That’s because it relies on weight (it’s at least 6 pounds heavier than an axe) and the force of the swing to split the log along the grain. Picture a heavy sledgehammer with a blunt edge, that’s the splitting maul for you.
However, there may be times when you are out in the field and do not have access to one.
In such a situation, technique is of utmost importance and will help you split even the thickest unseasoned hardwood log without sweating too much.
If you are splitting for firewood purposed, its best to split while the wood still green. Afterwards, you can lay the firewood up for some time and allow it to season.
Here’s a guide on selecting the best firewood for burning.
There are a couple of possible scenarios in which it might be a safer bet to not even attempt splitting a log.
- The log is green and it has a knot in it. Splitting through knots is incredibly difficult if you are doing it with an axe. You might spend hours trying to get through it.
- If it’s an old log that has nails embedded in it. No amount of safety gear can prepare you for a nail that comes flying at your face at high velocity. Not to mention that it can damage your axe head and cause deflections.
One of the reasons why people split wood outdoors is to ensure that there’s nothing that can be damaged by a piece of flying wood or an axe that slips out of your hands.
If you have a chopping block, place the piece of wood on it. Else, place it on level ground where it won’t wobble or get tipped over. The general consensus is to never place wood on the ground because it can blunt your axe head.
But if you do not have a large log that can be used as a chopping block, place the wood on the ground by all means. We have done it hundreds of times and the axe can still cut.
Stand with your feet wider than your shoulders. Check the swing radius. Bring the axe straight back over your head and swing it with straight arms trying to hit the wood in the center. Start slow and gradually build up speed once you have a rhythm going.
Remember, you’ve got to let the weight of the axe do the bulk of the work rather than using brute force.
You might err. The log might get stuck in the wood. You might not hit the same spot again no matter how hard you try.
All these are perfectly normal and happen even with the most experienced lumberjacks. Don’t fret too much over it.
Eventually, you will see the wood split along the center. Use smaller swings to break it into two.
Split wood always burns easier and splitting is a technique that will help you immensely in the wild.
#5 – Ice Cutting
We move away from the commonest bushcraft scenarios to one that you are equally likely to encounter, ice survival.
If you lose your way during a snow camping, trekking or mountain climbing trip, then an axe is one of the best tools to bail you out of a possible nightmare.
It can easily cut through hard ice and snow, much better than a survival knife or a small hatchet. You can use it to cut through ice to create a small hole that can protect your fire from the winds.
You can also dig up an entire ice shelter very fast with a sharp axe.
Ice shelters will allow you to get through the extreme temperatures in the night. Add a fire inside and you have a warm and cozy home that will prevent hypothermia.
Now, we know that ice cutting can be accomplished with a lot of other fixed blade knives. But an axe can also be used for some of the other skills that we mentioned earlier.
Most experts would recommend a specialized Ice Axe for the job, especially if you are using it as a walking stick for steep inclines. But if it’s mostly flat terrain, just about any sharp axe would do the job.
#6 – Self Defense
We know what you are thinking.
But we ain’t talking about going head to head with an enemy who’s toting an automatic firearm.
This is bushcraft and if it’s a survival scenario where you have to live off the land, then an axe is one of the best weapons to have in your kit.
If its sharp enough to cut through a log, it can cut through skin and flesh in the blink of an eye. Possibly, even sever a bone.
If you have set a snare or a trap for wild boar or game meat of any variety, an axe will allow you to bring down the animal easily, no matter what the size. There are expert bushcraft survivors who have used their axes to bring down big-sized game meat, like elk or deer.
And if it’s an animal attack, the sheer force of the axe head can either hurt the animal really bad or at least force them to retreat.
The best part is that there’s no rules written in stone about technique here. You just need to swing hard and fast. The very design of the axe, with the long handle makes it one of the best weapons for this purpose.
Psst….they work phenomenally well against Zombies too!
#7 – Dressing game
Field dressing big game doesn’t seem like the easiest thing to achieve with an axe.
But try splitting the pelvis bone on an elk with a small knife and you will start to weep, yearning for that axe instead.
The axe is all about force. It can split thick bones like the pelvis and the backbone. You can use it as a baton to break through the ones that you can’t chop directly.
Even the more delicate tasks like skinning can be achieved easily with the axe. If you have ever used an ulu, you’d know how to grab the axe head and use it like one.
True, if you are processing smaller game, a knife might be a better pick.
But given that an axe can also double up as a knife, a hammer and a saw, we see no reason why it doesn’t deserve a place in every backpacking kit.
Bonus skill – Use it as a signal mirror
In another post, we spoke in detail about polishing an axe head without specialized equipment.
That mirror finish on the axe head can be used to reflect light flashes that can indicate your position to a rescue team.
Just point it to the sun and rotate the head in different directions so that it reflects bright flashes to the rescue team.
Despite being one of the oldest tools known to man, there are mixed feelings in the current generation of bushcrafters about carrying the Axe.
They prefer using smaller fixed bladed knives instead.
We find that surprising because there’s no other tool as versatile as an axe as made evident here.
That sums up our list of essential bushcraft skills with an axe.
Do you have anything at all that you’d like to add to this? Please share your experiences with the axe. We’d love to hear about them.