Knife or axe? That is the question

Paul Smith
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

I’ve said many times before that you should absolutely never go into the woods without an axe.

But sometimes, especially in summer, you just don’t feel like lugging all that weight around.

What do you want an axe for anyway? Couldn’t you keep a fire going by breaking off tree limbs or uprooting small dead and dry standing trees?

The answer is definitely yes, but only sometimes.

In the dead of winter, when every twig and bush is covered in snow, feeding a fire is not a trivial thing.

The absolute worst-case scenario is when a winter rain is followed directly by freezing cold. Water is frozen onto and into everything. If you got lost in the woods under these conditions, you would not likely get a fire going without an axe, and you just might end up dead.

The beauty of an axe is its utility. It can chop down trees, sharpen tent pegs, drive tent pegs, chop holes through ice, open bean cans, drive spikes, sharpen pencils and split wood.

There are other tools that can do some of these chores, but certainly not all.

A few nights ago, I watched a fascinating documentary on Netflix about the life of Siberian sable trappers. I watched an old woodsman fashion skis with nothing but an axe.

He chopped down a straight tree with few limbs, meaning, of course, that the resulting board would have few knots.

He laid a seven-foot section flat on the ground and attempted to split it. He’s crazy, I thought. I underestimated Russian ingenuity. He chopped all along the log in a line that ran parallel to the wood’s grain.

Of course, the log didn’t split all the way through. The crafty trapper then chopped smaller hardwood trees and hewed wedges from them, all with his axe.

Then he drove the wedges into the long split he had created in the seven-foot log. He pounded away on the wedges until the log split wide open, just as if it had been sawed on a mill blade.

He repeated the process and produced a one-inch-thick plank that he would later shape, with his axe, into a ski.

It was an amazing demonstration of bushcraft and what can be accomplished with a simple axe.

You can build a makeshift shelter with an axe, or even construct a permanent cabin.

And if you are lost in the woods, even in the harshest conditions, you can split open wood to get at the dry core inside. You can light a fire and feed it all night so you can survive to hunt another day.

But having sung the praises of the axe, there are still times when you don’t want to tote around two or three pounds of steel.

I never carry an axe salmon fishing, and often I’ll opt for only a knife while on a day hike.

But when I substitute a knife for my axe I always make sure it is a capable one. I mean one that, in a jam, can split wood.

That’s right — you can split wood with a knife. With a stout and robust fixed blade knife there’s no problem splitting open some decent-sized junks of wood.

If push came to shove, you could even survive overnight in winter conditions with the right knife and woodsy know-how.

Splitting wood with a knife is called batoning, and here’s how it’s done.

Buck your wood shorter than usual. Shorter billets are obviously easier to split. If you are without a folding saw, you could also buck wood with your knife.

Remember, I’m talking here about a big knife, Crocodile Dundee-style, even. I’m sure you know the “that’s not a knife” line from the movie.

Hold the billet vertical, with the lower end on something solid, like a big tree root or stump. Centre the blade on the wood and tap it into the grain using a solid wood baton.

A baton is just a wood chunk of convenient size to deliver a substantial blow to the back of the knife.

Allow about one inch of the blade tip to stick out past the billet that you’re splitting. You will see why.

Rap on the blade until it’s flush with the billet. If you are lucky, the wood will split, but most likely it will remain intact with the knife blade fully imbedded.

That’s why you left at least an inch of the blade tip sticking out the side of the billet. Hold the knife firmly by the handle, and tap the tip of the blade with the baton. If all goes well, the blade will penetrate further and the billet will split. Then split it again to make kindling and get that fire going.

I mentioned bucking wood with a knife. With a heavy knife like a larger bowie or equivalent, you can easily chop smaller wood, but batoning is far more efficient.

Use a batoning action to cut deep V’s into opposite sides of a log. Then stomping with a heavy foot will provide plenty of leverage to break quite a substantial stick.

A solid knife, combined with knowledge and skill, will get a fire burning and maybe even save your life.

Or, in summer, it’s a great way to get wood burning to grill a plump salmon.

Or, you could never leave home without an axe.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page