AXE SKILLS can save your life.
As a winter outdoor adventurer, the ability to build a fire is critical to survival. Practical and safe axe skills range from felling to limbing, bucking and splitting and allow you to protect yourself from cold and accidents.
Start with the most efficient way to gather dry firewood. Try to find dead standing timber. Upright timber is up off the ground and not covered with snow. If the tree is dead standing it’s probably already seasoned or beginning to dry. The best seasoned wood is 2 to 3 years. After 4 years the wood begins to deteriorate and is not good to burn. The bark should come off easily with no green color, and all of the leaves or needles should be gone. You can burn conifers (trees with cones), but they burn quickly, so the best way to produce BTUs is birch, then oak, maple, hickory, walnut and fruit trees.
Before felling a tree, first look where it is going to fall. If you are in an area close to your shelter, know where the tree will land to make sure that it doesn’t fall on your shelter, even if it falls wrong. Use your compass to help make this determination. The compass I like is a Suunto MC-2 with a clinometer on it, perfect for deciding where the tree will fall if everything goes right.
Using the clinometer, index either west or east to the top index line. When the top edge is flat, the black arrow settles right on the zero which tells you you’re holding a zero degree angle. Back up a few feet and figure out about where you want the tree to fall. Cite along the top edge of the clinometer to the top of the tree.
As you’re citing that, look at the clinometer and determine the angle. Back up until it indicates a 45 degree angle. That reading tells you that the distance from where you’re standing to the base of the tree is the same distance as the base of the tree to the top of the tree, which makes a right angle.
Now you have a close estimate where the tree will land. Be sure it lands where it is nice and clear. Once you know where the tree is going to land, you’ll have some work to do around the tree. Look to see if other tree branches would stop the tree from falling and take them out.
I use a Woodcraft Pack Axe with a 24” handle that I can use while standing. But when I’m felling trees, I typically use a kneeling position. It gives me a lower stump which means more firewood from the tree. Basic axe safety teaches that if you are using a handle 19” or less, always make sure you’re kneeling. See all of my preferred cutting tools HERE.
Before you begin, look up and see if anything could cause your axe to hang as you’re swinging, resulting in bringing down a branch on your head or if you could catch your axe on a branch. An axe is a heavy, sharp head on the end of a long stick, and it gets momentum as you swing, making it one of the most dangerous tools you can use in the woods.
The next thing to check is which way the tree is leaning. Sometimes it can be a trick to convince the tree to go the way you want it to go. You can use paracord to put tension on it to pull it in the proper direction as you begin your cut.
Also check to see how solid the tree is and if there are dead or broken sections that might break loose and fall on you. Conifers generally have branches that make a shield that prevent that, but it’s particularly important when you are bringing down a hardwood.
If you are using just an axe, use a front cut and then follow with a back cut using a saw. Make the front cut on the side of the tree in the direction you want it to fall. Create a large “V” notch to give the tree some relief so it falls in the right direction. Remove the material as you cut so that the notch can close and is in line with where you want the tree to fall. Cut in a 45 degree angle at the top going down, then 45 degree angle from the bottom going up, and then in the middle.
When the notch is about half way through the tree, put your axe down and out of the way. Remind yourself of your escape route. Go around to the other side and use your saw to make “a back cut”. The back cut is always a little higher than the center of the front cut. Cut to within about an inch of the center of the “V” to create a hinge that holds up the tree and as it closes, the hinge keeps the tree from flipping. Give the tree a nudge to make it fall, and run out of the area via your escape route.
Next, limb the tree and top the smallest portion of the tree. The top is usually not big enough to throw in the fire, but it does make good kindling. You can limb a tree with a saw, an axe or hatchet. When using an axe hit the limb from the bottom side to cut cleanly and not splinter. Keep the tree trunk as a barrier between you and the limbs and make sure your axe stops behind you and not on your body. After you have limbed it, top it with a saw.
All that’s left to do at this point is gather your kindling and take it to camp, then drag the tree back to camp. It’s a quick way to transport some lumber for your fire.
At camp, break it down, or “buck it,” to make it usable for a fire. Don’t put round branch sections on a fire, but expose the inner heart wood that burns well. The wood dries from the outside in so moisture is trapped toward the center.
Safety measures require splitting the rounds on an anvil like a flat stump. Place the round on its end as far away from you as you can because the goal of having the anvil is not only to hold the round at the correct height, but also to provide you with an axe backstop.
If the axe misses the round or glances off, it won’t glance off to the side and hit you in the foot or thigh. Again, make sure there is nothing overhead or around you that might catch the axe. I could use a 24” handle and split standing up, but I like to split on a knee so that if I miss, the axe will hit the stump or ground before it hits near me. If using a 19” handle or less, definitely split on a knee.
The goal is to hit the round dead center for the first hit. Bring the axe over with both hands and use the weight of the axe to come down. After the split is started, rotate the round a little bit, keeping it as far forward on the anvil as possible. Several other splits will start. To be safe at this point, move on to the next round.
When you are finished splitting, sharpen up what is called a “glut” or wedge from one of your split pieces. Use the glut to split the wood into smaller pieces by placing it in a crack you’ve created or one that already existed. Place the glut into the crack and tap it with the butt of the axe to continue that split.
Knots in the wood want to hold the wood together but the glut will help split it. If the wood has a lot of knots (like fir), using a glut is a lot less calorie-consuming to pick it apart than using an axe. Split it into manageable sizes depending on what type of tinder resources you have.
Take the split wood from fuel size down to kindling size. Don’t try to hold the wood with your hand thinking you can move your hand out of the way – that isn’t safe. Using a “cheater stick” to hold the wood steady on the anvil is a better choice, but contact splitting is the best choice. Lay the wood down and place the bit of the axe in contact with the piece you want to split. Pull both up while maintaining contact, and allow the weight of both to fall and split the wood. If it doesn’t split fully, pull the wood to one side while leaving the bit in place. Don’t torque the axe handle or it will cause to loosen over time. while you cut thin feather-like pieces right along the grain almost to the bottom of the wood. As the wood gets smaller it will get more difficult, and less safe with the axe.
With softer wood, you should be able to split that fairly easily with your knife and billet or baton. Wedge your knife into the wood and tap it with the billet, tapping it down through the grain and it will curl into smaller pieces. You should be using softer fuel sources for kindling, so it should be no problem for your knife.
“Feather sticking” a piece of split wood creates even more surface area, and you can actually light a fire with it. A lot of the wood will come off, but it’s still usable. With each curl you are creating a ridge on two sides. Slowly rotate it and barely bevel it to create the curls. Once you get through the roughness where it was split, it will be smoother and easier to curl. Create fine curls so you can easily light with whatever ignition source you have. The fire will roll over to all of the new edges and will light much quicker than if you try to light the entire stick.
Using these techniques will allow you to efficiently and safely fell trees and build a fire. To learn more, get my full Into The Winter: Cold Weather Skills video course HERE. And as always when using anything sharp in the backcountry, it’s ALWAYS recommended to keep a full IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit) on hand as accidents can happen.
Hope to see you in the woods!
-Josh (The Gray Bearded Green Beret)
P.S. You can download my full Winter Survival packing guide and recommended GEAR LIST HERE!
And watch this video here to see my recommended cutting tools.