I have learned over and over that processing wood in a survival situation is absolutely essential.
Whether you are building a shelter, building a fire, building a trap, or crafting tools, you have to be able to cut wood to a precise length. There are dozens of different tools available for cutting wood, and I have been through all of them.
When your energy is fading and calories are limited, the way you process wood can make a huge difference.
An efficient method can help you conserve precious energy, while a method that expends too much energy can only delay the moment you get to warm yourself from a fire.
Best Tools for Wood Processing
Here are some of the most used ways to process wood in the wilderness.
Axes And Hatchets
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 and concentration.
Additionally, the blades of an axe can dull quickly leaving you with an inefficient tool.
Hazards such as falling onto the axe head or missing the wood and having it bite into your leg are ever present and require your full attention to avoid.
A lot of these incidents are caused by inexperienced users but with time and patience can be avoided. For some, there are better options out there.
Hatchets are smaller versions of axes and offer some advantages over their larger version. They are lighter and require less energy to swing, but they are one handed, putting all of the abuse on one arm.
This also limits the amount of power and accuracy in your swing, making it a poor choice for larger logs.
Because they are lighter, it takes more swings to get through the same piece of wood. They still dull quickly and there is that ever present high risk of injury.
The main advantage is that they are ideal for trimming the branches off of a pole. This should be used as a backup and not a main processing tool for most.
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.
Knives And Machetes
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.
A knife is far lighter than a hatchet, so it requires a large 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, such as carving. A knife is the one tool you should always have on you just for the versatility alone.
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.
The blade has 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. This is why they are often used for bushwhacking through the jungle.
They are just as dangerous, can be dulled easily if not careful, 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 would be remiss if I failed to mention about using a kukri as an option for wood processing. Often touted as a “jack of all trades” the kukri can perform the task of a knife, machete, and axe in survival situations.
While it can perform all of those tasks sufficiently, it does not excel at any of them. This means that it works in most situations but you’ll still want an axe to split wood, for example.
They make for excellent tools in bushwacking, hacking smaller branches off a tree, and splitting small logs.
Using Your Body
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 effectively cut through thick pieces of wood without expending a great deal of energy.
Saws will stay sharp for a relatively long time. It is much more difficult to injure yourself with a saw versus the other popular methods.
They can be small and lightweight, making them ideal for a variety of outdoor situations. They can handle the rough processing but aren’t well suited for things such as carving. For processing thicker wood, the saw is the tool I use.
There are other considerations to keep in mind about how well a saw will work and that includes things such as: blade length, blade material, teeth pattern, and construction.
There are several types of saws to choose from and they all work in different situations. 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.
What to Look for When Buying a Saw
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.
Tooth Pattern – As important as the tooth size, the pattern that the teeth follow really helps determine the cutting power.
A saw with only a single direction of teeth will only cut effectively one way. If you have a saw with multiple directional teeth then the blade will not only cut as you push the saw out but also chew through wood on the return pull.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’s 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. 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.
The Best Survival Saws
We’ve talked about all of the different survival saw types that you can have and what makes for a great saw
However, now it’s time to show you some of the best examples of gear that you can add to your outdoors kit.
Bahco 396-LAP Laplander Folding Saw
Bahco makes an impressive folding saw that last years, even with regular use. It has a coating on the blade that reduces friction and a multi teeth pattern that ensures you tear through any small to medium pieces of wood.
It is lightweight making it ideal for packing light and if the blade gets dull you can easily replace it with a new one.
The nice thing about this saw is that you can let the blade do all of the work. The design is meant to reduce fatigue when processing larger amounts of firewood.
- Compact and lightweight
- Non-stick blade coating for frictionless cutting
- Built in locking mechanism for storage
- Not meant for larger pieces of wood
- Sawdust can get caught in teeth if cutting wet wood
Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. See my full disclosure for more.
Interested in checking out this saw? Click here
Coghlan’s Sierra Folding Saw
Here is another survival type saw that has one job and one job alone, to cut through wood. It has no bells or whistles, just a stainless steel blade that is both sturdy and great at retaining its sharpness.
It has a durable handle and locks into place mechanically so that you know it is secure and ready to work.
The interesting thing about this saw is that it has more teeth than you’d normally find on a folding saw. They are also rather deep so it makes each cut count instead of wasting energy.
The durability of this saw is reliant on how you maintain it. If you are light with your saw and let the teeth do the cutting then it will last longer than if you were pushing down with excessive force.
- Excellent locking system
- Effective for most wood processing tasks
- More teeth than the average saw
- Smaller blade limits the thickness you can cut
- Blade can be flimsy if you apply too much pressure
Bahco Ergonomic Bow Saw
Bow saws excel at cutting thick pieces of wood. The Bahco bow saw has a 30 inch blade that easily cuts through wood with a thick diameter. The blade is thin enough that it can easily glide through wood.
If you’re interested in using less calories and energy while processing wood then you’ll appreciate the long strokes which provide maximum power.
The additional blade length lets you even cut through green wood, making it ideal for clearing large areas of overgrown trees and brush.
- Long blade makes for easy cutting
- Replaceable blade are not expensive
- Made of high quality steel
- Large saw not really meant for backpacking unless dismantled
- Thin blade can sometimes get pinched in a log
You can get one here!
Agawa Canyon Boreal 21 Folding Bow Saw
If you are looking for the convenience of a folding saw combined with the power of a bow saw then look no further.
The Agawa Boreal 21 saw is a fully foldable bow saw that sports a 21 inch hardened steel coated blade that chews through anything you need it to.
The folding mechanism is brilliant as it uses an automatic tensioning system to keep your hands clear of the blade while flipping it open. Add in the high clearance factor and you can tackle some seriously thick logs.
- Easy folding setup and takedown
- Extremely durable blade
- Unique shape allows for larger cuts
- It is an expensive saw
For more information on this saw click here
Nordic Pocket Hand Chainsaw
Don’t want to carry a bulky saw with you? A hand chainsaw could be the answer you’re looking for. These are easily folded up lengths of chainsaw chain that have a handle at each end.
The nordic pocket hand chainsaw is a handheld wood cutting tool that while shouldn’t be used as a main tool, can be handy in any survivalists pack. Using heat treated high carbon steel ensures that the teeth on the chain are razor sharp.
- Tough, durable chain lasts through dozens of cuts
- Easily stored for light packing
- Handles are easily graspable
- Quite expensive for a hand chainsaw
Get one here!
SOS Gear Pocket Chainsaw
If a pocket saw isn’t enough for you, then how about an entire survival kit included with it? It includes a hand chainsaw, a magnesium fire starter, compass, and survival whistle. All of it wrapped up nicely in a small pouch for easy carrying convenience.
The saw itself is great for light duty work as there aren’t very many teeth on the chain. While it may be good for starting fires with smaller twigs and branches, it’s good to have along with another tool to process wood with.
- Carbon steel chain for durability
- Easily packed away for emergencies
- Complete emergency outdoors survival kit in one
- Limited number of teeth reduces cutting effectiveness
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the questions you may come across in your search for a new survival saw.
The easiest way to tell if your saw needs sharpening is to pay attention to the sawdust. If you are sawing away and seeing minimal sawdust shooting out along your saw blade, that means that the teeth are not biting in as much as they should.
If your saw is able to be sharpened then you can easily fix that with a file, but if not, you can always replace the blade directly from the manufacturer.
It doesn’t take much to clean your survival saw but there are some things to remember before doing it. Ensure you are not using a strong solvent to clean the blade or it might take off the protective coating
If your saw is covered in resin, a simple way is to spray some cleaning solvents or simple isopropyl alcohol on it. Let it sit for a second and then use an abrasive scrubbing pad to work the resin off the saw.
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 very little, 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.
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.