Lessons from the Trail: How to Use an Axe

By Jim Baird

The current was strong and it only took three-and-a-half hours to travel 18 miles down the wide, powerful Natashquan River. The day was foggy and at times it felt as though we were paddling into an abyss. We pulled over to make camp on a massive mid-river sandbar early in the evening as the fog was slowly lifting.

Like at the end of every day, it was time to gather firewood again, and I headed into the dense bush with the axe. Once in the bush, I looked up for standing dead trees. You can usually be sure that standing dead trees will have a nice dry core, especially black spruce trees. The exception is birch. Birch bark is so hearty and water resistant, moisture can’t escape and the center of the tree can be rotten while the bark is still intact. With all the rain we’d had, I was glad to find a couple nice standing deads within a relatively short bushwhack from the sandbar.

On my canoe trips, I bring along a smaller-sized axe, something that falls in between a large hatchet and a full-sized felling axe. Often referred to as a Hudson’s Bay Axe, this type of axe was developed by Voyageurs of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In my opinion, it’s still the best type of axe to bring on a backcountry canoe trip. A Hudson’s Bay Axe has about a 24-inch handle and a 2-pound head. Although not marketed as such, the Fiskars X 15 Chopping Axe I use meets this description nicely and is extremely durable.

Note: A sharp axe can make all the difference. Before heading out on your trip, sharpen your axe with a grinder and save yourself a lot of elbow grease.


Here’s what to keep in mind when chopping down a tree:

Start wide: The idea is to chop out a large area on the trunk. Begin with a downward stroke perpendicular to the tree, and then follow up with an upward stroke. The game plan is to take chunks of wood out one by one. Using all your force to chop directly in one spot will get you nowhere.

Look out for widow makers: These are large, dead branches or even the top of the tree itself. These could potentially break off with the vibration of a chopping axe and injure the lumberjack below. Don’t be that guy.

Make an escape route: It’s always good to plan your route of escape in case a window maker comes down. If the bush is too dense around you, hack out your own escape route before you begin chopping.

Back at camp: After you haul your wood back to camp, you’ll want to chop it up into burnable-sized pieces. Safety concerns are why most guiding companies don’t bring an axe along. Make sure you follow safety protocol. Learn how to swing an axe with control, or you could end up chopping yourself instead of your firewood.

Start wide again: This is the same method used when felling a tree but with the log lying on the ground. Chop the log at about a 35-degree angle at a desired length from its end. Then chop in the other direction at about a 35-degree angle. It’s okay to do two or three chops in a row on one side before switching to the other. Think of it like you are chopping a wide V-shape, only with a flat bottom, like this shape: _/.

Keep going: Continue chopping an angle on one side and then the other. Big chips of wood will start flying everywhere, and you’ll be through faster than you think. Once you’re almost through, a strong downward blow in the middle of the V should break the piece off. Then move up the log and start chopping off the next piece.

Reposition: While partway through a log, it may be beneficial to move your body to chop from the other side. Or, when you’re halfway through, you can roll the log over to chop it from the opposite side.

Control: Control and accuracy of your swings will get you through the wood faster and more safely. Gain accuracy with your swings by sliding your hand up and down the axe handle as you swing it. Start with your hand under the axe head and slide it down the handle throughout the swing. Your hands should be together at the bottom of the handle when your axe makes contact. This is especially important with longer handled axes.

Avoid: Don’t just hold both your hands together at the bottom of the axe handle and start swinging wildly.


– Always be aware of where your feet and legs are.

– Always think about where the axe blade will end up if you miss your target or if you break through your target unexpectedly.

– Keeping the above two points in mind, always make sure to keep your feet and legs out of the way of a potential miss.

– Especially when chopping a log on the ground, you’ll likely need to reposition your feet a little bit when you go from chopping on one side of your V to the other.

Note: A saw can be faster when cutting your wood into lengths, and it usually requires less effort. It’s also easier to split sawed pieces than chopped pieces. The problem with a saw is that the blade can break which has happened to me on a couple occasions. And overall, it’s less versatile. If you have to decide between one or the other, an axe is your best bet, but bringing both never hurts.

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Splitting Wood

If some of your pieces are wide, you may want to split them. They will take a flame faster this way, and splitting will give you more pieces to burn. This means you can regulate how much wood you put on at once, and it will help your wood go further. Many smaller pieces are also better for regulating the heart of a cooking fire. There are a couple ways to go about splitting logs or smaller pieces of wood.

1) Just lay the log you want to split on the ground and chop in the middle of it. It may take a few blows with the axe before it splits. This often works better if you create a firmer base with two other logs and put the one you want to split on top.

2) Prop up your log and split it while it’s standing vertically. This is much easier when the piece of log you’re trying to split has been sawed flat on either end. It’s also easier if you can balance it on top of a stump, or on another stout piece of log that’s flat on either end. Such ideal situations aren’t usually possible or necessary while camping though. So, like I do in the video, prop the piece you want to split up as best you can, and try to hit the top of it dead center with a firm downward blow.

3) Batoning. Leave the axe aside. You’d be surprised at how effective this method is for splitting wood. It’s great for smaller pieces to make kindling, and it will also work on larger logs. You’ll need a large knife for this, and one with a fixed blade is preferable.

a) Find a stick about 18-inches long, and about four inches in diameter. This will be your baton.

b) Stand up the log you want to split vertically, and place the middle of your knife blade on the top of the log to hold it upright.

c) Smack the spine of your knife with the baton, embedding it into the log you want to split.

d) While still holding the handle of your knife in one hand, repetitively smack the other end of your knife with the baton as the log splits down the middle.

Note: On wilderness trips, carrying a sheath knife on your belt can really save your butt if you loose your outfit in a rapid. If hypothermic and wet, a small folding knife isn’t going to let you split logs and whittle dry tinder out of them. Additionally, a large knife can even be used along with a baton to cut down a small tree.

Another Tip: If you find yourself in a pickle with no large knife, remember that hand-carved wooden wedges can be used to split logs when pounded with a large rock.


Tinder in wet conditions

With all the rain we’d had, everything was soaking wet, and I needed to access the center of a log to whittle out dry tinder. This is another circumstance where having a larger sized sheath knife can really come in handy. This is because a larger knife can be used like a draw knife to access the dry center of a wet log to create an effective piece of tinder that’s similar to what’s called a “feather stick”.

– With one hand on the handle and the other on the back of the knife near the top, place the middle of the blade on the log, with one hand on either side.

– Repetitively draw the knife towards yourself while cutting into the wood.

– When you get to the dry center, keep drawing to create many thin slices of wood, leaving them connected at the bottom of your cut. On the last draw, cut all the think pieces off together, and you’ll have a nice piece of tinder that will take a flame.

We got the fire going as the fog lifted to reveal the rich golden hue of evening. Our surroundings became incredibly still and beautiful. We relaxed by the campfire as the forest cast mirror-like reflections on the calm river, and a red sky gave promise of a beautiful day to come.

— Check out more LESSONS FROM THE TRAIL WITH JIM BAIRD, including:

Episode 1 of the Côte-Nord Adventure: Getting There
Episode 2: How to Strap a Canoe on a Float Plane
Episode 3: Tips for Dealing with Waves and Bugs
Episode 4: Sometimes There’s a Cabin
Episode 5: Shotgun Whitewater
Episode 6: Maneuvering a Canoe in Whitewater
Episode 7: Cleaning Pike and Brook Trout
Episode 8: Delaying the Inevitable
Episode 9: The Big Carry
Episode 10: Bear Trouble
Episode 11: Heavy Rain

This summer, C&K is rolling out new episodes of Jim Baird’s Cote Nord Adventure series, presented by Nova Craft Canoe.

About this Series: Come along with Adventurer Jim Baird, his girlfriend Tori, and their dog Buck as they paddle a wild and seldom traveled river of Quebec’s breathtaking Côte-Nord region. Watch the story of their adventure unfold in this 15-part video series as they use and learn a variety of wilderness travel skills, including everything from whitewater paddling maneuvers to axemanship and, when unwanted visitors show up, operating a bear banger. You’ll get to see things from the dog’s perspective too. So grab a paddle, and get ready for a 14-day journey that begins 118 miles from the nearest road.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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