When your energy is fading and calories are limited, the way you process wood can make a huge difference. An efficient method can keep you alive, and a method that expends too much energy can ensure your death. Axes are quite popular, but can be heavy and dangerous. They can process large pieces of wood, but each swing requires a huge amount of energy. They dull quickly, and falling on an exposed ax head is always a hazard. In addition, inexperienced users often have the axe head bounce irregularly causing a cut on a leg or foot. For me the axe is not a good option.
Hatchets are smaller versions of axes and offer some advantages. They are lighter and require less energy to swing, but they are one handed putting all of the abuse on one arm. Because they are lighter, it takes more swings to get through the same piece of wood. They still dull quickly and still offer the risk of injury. The main advantage is that they are ideal for trimming the branches off of a pole. Again, this is not the tool I use most.
Large knives are fine for cutting wood. A heavy, full-tang camp knife is good for batoning wood, and can be used to chop anything up to about three inches in thickness. They are even lighter than hatchets, so it requires a great number of swings to get through your wood. Knives are ideal for trimming limbs off of poles, and can be used for finer knife work as well. If you need one tool to do everything, this is the tool.
Machetes are an option many people use. These long flexible blades are good for chopping through thick brush, blazing a trail, and cutting poles up to about three inches in thickness. They have more weight than a knife, so you will not have to take as many swings. However, it is difficult to use a machete for fine knife work. They are just as dangerous, dull easily, and put a great deal of strain on your wrist and forearm. Many machetes will twist in your hand causing it to cramp up after a while.
I should mention that breaking branches by hand is always an option. If you use two trees for leverage and put a dead branch between the two, you can safely break the branch. However, this is not an exact science. The branches will often break a foot or more from where you would like it to break. In addition, it only works on dead branches. Green wood will not break this way.
This Brings Us to Survival Saws…
In my mind saws are the safest and most efficient tools for processing wood in survival situations. They can efficiently cut through thick pieces of wood without expending a great deal of energy. They stay sharp for a relatively long time, yet it is difficult to hurt yourself with a saw. They can be small and lightweight, making them ideal for a pack. The only real downside is that they are not good for trimming small branches or for knife work. For processing thicker wood, the saw is the tool I use.
However, there are several types of saws to choose from. They range greatly in cost from only a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. In addition, the quality varies a great deal. Some of these tools will break almost immediately and some will last a lifetime. In this article I will cover the different types of saws you can choose from, and help you pick the one that best fits your needs.
When you are looking at getting a saw for wilderness survival or even for homesteading, there are several factors to consider. These variables will make the difference between a useful tool that will help you survive and a worthless gadget that gets thrown away. Please pay attention to these features:
Size – A good survival saw needs to be compact. If your saw does not fit well in your pack, takes up too much space, or is too heavy, it will not be practical. You need something that is naturally small, or breaks down to a small size.
Durability – If your saw breaks the first time you use it, then there is no point in taking it with you. In some cases the handle might break, which can injure your hand. In other cases the blade itself could snap, which is just as dangerous.
Tooth Size – When selecting a saw, tooth size makes a difference. Saws with large teeth will cut through wood faster, but they catch on the wood easier. This can be hard on your arm and shoulder. Smaller teeth give you a motion that is smooth, but they take longer to get through your wood. Normally, something in the middle is best.
Flexibility – A good saw blade should flex to some degree. A rigid blade will typically snap off when the teeth catch on a tough part of the wood. A blade that is too flexible will bend and bow too much when the teeth catch making your chore just as difficult. Again, a medium flexibility is best.
Handle Comfort – When selecting a saw, keep in mind that you may be using this tool for hours each day. It can easily wear blisters in your hand or cause it to cramp up if the handle is not comfortable.
Joint Strength – Any spot where one piece is attached to another can be a point of weakness. How those two pieces are attached will greatly affect how long that joint lasts before breaking. Play close attention to these joints.
Blade Length – The length of your blade directly dictates what sized wood you will be able to cut. You need at least a couple inches of blade on either side of your wood to get the range you need. The more range you have, the fewer strokes it will take to cut through your wood. This means that longer blades put less strain on your arm and shoulder.
Each hand saw design is going to have a different handle placement. This means that the design of the saw dictates the motion of your arm and where you apply the most pressure. This determines what part of your arm or shoulder takes the most abuse. Some will allow for a second person to help, while others leave you on your own. Here are the saw types available for survival.
Folding Saw – This is often my saw of choice because of its compact nature, reliability, ease of use, and cost. Folding saws are quite simple in design. They are like a large pocket knife with a saw blade instead of a straight edge. Most have a large handle with a joint at the end. The knife blade is protected and locked in place when not in use. Then you rotate and extend it out, also locking it in place when ready for use.
These saws vary quite a bit in length from about seven inches up to about eleven inches. Even the shorter ones are good for wood up to about three or four inches in diameter. For what I do on survival challenges, this is perfect. Rarely would I ever expend the energy to cut anything larger than four inches. The blade does a good job of staying sharp. When you are finished, there is a switch on the handle to release the blade and close it back into the safe position.
I only spent about $20 on mine, and I feel like it will last a long time. There are a few that were nicer and the blades were a bit longer. They were running in the $50 to $80 range, but still pretty reasonable for a cutting tool. Mine has a lifetime warranty as well. The blade is flexible, but not too much so. It has a medium tooth size perfect for cutting firewood and wood for shelters. It is also small enough to fit in my pocket or my pack easily.
Bow Saw – Growing up, this is the type of saw that we always used when camping. Ours was an aluminum bow with a foam handle on one side. Stretched between the ends of the bow was a thin saw blade. We used it for cutting firewood, clearing brush, and any other random tasks my father assigned. It was sturdy, and I do not remember ever having to sharpen the blades. It was also a longer blade stretching about two feet, so larger wood was easier to process.
There were a few downsides to our bow saw. The teeth were large, so often they would catch and put a great deal of strain on your shoulder. In addition, the blade was very flexible. When it stayed stretched taught by the bolts on each end, this was not a problem. When they started to loosen, the blade would flex and catch on the wood.
Safety did not seem to be an issue, but it could have been. There was no way to cover the blade, so it was always exposed. The biggest issue was that there was no way to break it down. The bow was just over two feet in length and one foot high. This is an awkward shape and size to try and put in a pack or carry with you. For this reason alone, I would probably pass on this style of saw. They are normally a bit more expensive than a folding saw.
Frame Saw – This type of saw has been used for hundreds of years to process wood. It consists of a folding frame that extends to form a rectangular shape. There is a handle on one side, and a blade stretched down a perpendicular side of the rectangle. This is normally a large saw with most being about three feet long and two feet tall.
There are two primary benefits to this saw type. One is that you can process virtually any sized wood with a three foot blade. Even if you have to cut down a tree that is 18 inches in diameter, you should be able to handle the job. The other advantage is that two people can easily work with this style of saw. One person can grab on each side and help move the blade back and forth. This reduces the strain on each person by one half. You can also use your free hand to grab the top of the frame and guide the angle. This ensures that you have minimal catches and snags as you saw through your wood.
The other nice part about a frame saw is that despite its size, it breaks down to being not much bigger than a folding saw. All of the pieces come apart so you can easily put it in your pack without taking up much space. The only real downside I see is the time it takes to assemble and disassemble the frame. If it were not for that, this would probably be my saw of choice.
All of the separate parts do concern me. Typically the more joints you have, the more chance there is for the saw to break. I have not personally had an issue with this, but the potential is there. The cost is quite a bit more on these saws easily breaking $100 on some models.
Hand Chainsaw – This little contraption is relatively new to the world of wood cutting. For many years chainsaws were only used with a gas powered engine to rotate them at incredible speeds. Then somebody figured out that they work almost as well when moved at slower speeds by hand. This is simply a chain with ‘L’ shaped teeth every few inches. Fabric loop handles are attached to each end to give you a good grip. You just wrap it around your piece of wood and move your hands back and forth to saw through.
There are a few problems with this design. One is that it requires two hands unless you have two people with each working one handle. Every other saw type can be operated with one hand if you need the other hand to hold the piece of wood. Another problem I see is reliability. Please be cautious on purchasing this type of saw. I have literally seen them break on the first use. There are just too many moving parts to not have issues. I have found one model that has been quite reliable, but it is still not my favorite option.
The real benefits of this saw are apparent. It is the smallest saw type available, but can process the largest pieces of wood. Even a 36 inch blade can fit in your pocket. This could easily cut pieces of wood 18 inches in diameter or larger. It is also inexpensive, typically running around $20. The other nice part is that it is the only saw that allows you to pull to apply pressure instead of pushing. If a branch is above your head, this is a huge advantage. You can literally let your body weight do all the work. Despite the benefits, I rarely take it with me in the wild except as a backup in case my folding saw has an issue.
In the end I feel that the folding saw is the best survival saw you can find. Like any saw style, there are cheap models out there that will not do the job. The saw I use is a LifeWell folding saw with a seven inch blade. It cost me less that $20 and does a fine job for the thickness of poles that I typically deal with. I have also used Silky brand saws and they are incredible, but quite a bit more expensive. Take the time to do your research and find one that will be durable and functional for your needs. I think you will find that a good saw will be your best friend if you ever find yourself in a survival situation.