For bushcraft, an axe excels at chopping and splitting, a knife excels in carving and precision tasks, while a saw is ideal for cutting notches and crosscutting. Each tool serves a specific purpose, so carrying a combination ensures versatility and efficiency in wilderness survival situations.
When preparing for bushcraft, having the optimal equipment can be the difference between survival and a harrowing trip. Whether you are backpacking and want to pack light or camping and can have a full truck, selecting the correct gear is a decision worth getting right.
There are plenty of options available, from axes to knives, machetes, saws, and various other tools. Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages that we will get into in more detail.
It also depends on the exact tasks you will be using them for, such as carving, felling, chopping, or limbing. The size and shape of the wood to chop will influence which tool is best suited for the task. Even whether the local trees are hardwood or softwood can change your decision.
The other aspect to think about is food prep and skinning if you intend to hunt. Does this mean you need a second tool, or can you get away with a dedicated bushcraft axe?
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The most versatile option from the list would be a bushcraft knife. This has the broadest range of uses and is almost a non-negotiable in my mind. Some of its key uses are:
- Food Preparation
- Animal Skinning
- Cut down softwood saplings
- Make kindling
- Wood carving
- Start a fire with a Ferro rod
However, a knife is not practical when it comes to larger hardwood trees. If you need to split larger hardwood firewood or hew any logs, then a knife is not the correct tool.
A bushcraft saw is either a folding saw or a bow saw. These are both lightweight and don’t take up a lot of space. They are very efficient at cutting smaller limbs and branches. They are less effective at cutting kindling or larger logs. They are very good at doing what they are designed for but aren’t particularly versatile. Their primary use of smaller wood is one of the most common tasks you will need.
An axe or a hatchet is between a knife and a saw in terms of versatility. They are suited for cutting both large and small logs and branches. They can cut kindling, do wood carving, and even some animal skinning if you are skilful and patient.
The most portable options are a folding saw and a knife. If you have a hip holster, then this is even better. A bushcraft axe or tomahawk can also be stored and packed reasonably easily and efficiently. Anything larger than a hatchet will begin to take up too much space and too much weight.
I have heard an advanced tactic just to carry the axe head and then carve your own handle when you are in the wilderness. This is certainly not something I would recommend for anyone but the most experienced survivalists.
This is a shortlist of the average weights for these bushcraft tools:
- Bushcraft Knife – 6 oz
- Folding Saw – 5 oz
- Hatchet – 32 oz
Let’s start with splitting a large hardwood log. There is nothing as efficient and labour saving as an axe. The weight of the head and the striking technique can’t be beaten. This uses physics to its advantage. This is why splitting axes or splitting mauls have such heavy heads and long handles. While each strike uses a lot of effort, the low number of strikes makes the entire job very efficient.
There is no tool as efficient as a hunting knife in terms of food preparation, butchering, and animal skinning. You can get away with using an axe, but I never leave home without my trusty knife. I am less enthusiastic about cutting wood with a knife. You will need to spend a lot more time keeping it sharp and risk damaging the knife’s edge. This can be catastrophic for a camping trip.
Within durability, I consider both the difficulty in breaking the tool into an unusable condition and the difficulty in keeping the tool sharp.
Many modern axes come with composite handles that are incredibly durable and almost impossible to snap. I say almost because I have seen them break. The alternative is a wooden handle that is a lot less durable, but you can also replace it in the wilderness – if you have the skillset.
If you are carrying an axe or a knife, I would strongly recommend bringing a whetstone or sharpening stones to make sure they are always sharp and ready to go.
A folding saw with serrated blades is much more difficult to keep sharp if used heavily for extended periods. It is not impossible, but you will need a small file and spend a lot of time sharpening it.
Getting an injury is the fastest way to ruin a good camping trip. One of the most common ways to cut yourself is an awkward swing of your axe or slip of your knife.
Here are my five key safety tips for using sharp tools in bushcraft:
- Visualize what you are going to do before you start.
- Always store the cutting edge in a sheath when not in use.
- Always cut away from your body.
- Always pass a knife by offering the handle.
- Always keep your blade sharp.
There are enthusiastic fans of bushcraft who will never stop arguing about the best between an axe vs knife vs saw. I will never leave home without my knife. It is so versatile, particularly around food preparation. However, I also won’t use it for chopping wood. That is the task of a completely separate tool.
Based on my own experience, no single tool can do all of these jobs. If you can handle the weight, I would strongly recommend selecting a knife and then picking between an axe and a saw, depending on the type and size of wood that grows in your local environment.