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Hatchet or saw: Choose the best portable survival kit woodcutting tool

Hatchet or saw: Choose the best portable survival kit woodcutting tool

We’ll assume you already have the survival knife and  basic Ten Essentials, and are assembling the rest of the tools needed for a portable survival kit. Do you need to add a hatchet or a small  saw?

This custom pipe tomahawk is a useful survival tool and weapon, but it may not be a good choice to include in a survival kit.

by Leon Pantenburg

It depends. Some might call this collection a “Bug Out Bag,” or something along those lines. Or you may be a backpacker, hunter or fisherman who needs a light, easy-to-carry wood cutting device. A hunter may be looking for a tool that can cut wood and that will also be useful in  quartering and field dressing a big game animal. Choice of  tools is important, because there isn’t much space, and you need to keep the weight down.

So,  is the best choice a hatchet or a saw?

Either choice has advantages and disadvantages. When choosing any tool for wilderness or urban survival, start by anticipating  where you might be when you may need the tool, and what tasks it will need to perform.

Will you be in a cold wilderness environment, where gathering firewood to keep a campfire going will be critical for survival? Will the tool be mostly carried, or do you anticipate remaining somewhat sedentary and that the tool may be used a great deal? Will you need to saw or hack bones to butcher large animals?

Or will the tool be used in an urban setting, where the primary uses might include breaking up pallets and splitting wood scraps from a dumpster for firewood? In an extreme situation, might you need this tool to break down a door, gain forced entry into or egress from, a locked vehicle? In a really extreme situation could this tool be an effective weapon?


A hatchet is a small axe that can be wielded with one hand, and the flat part may be used as a hammer.  A hatchet is a great tool for splitting wood, limbing trees and hammering in tent stakes.

Many settlers on the American frontier had an axe as their primary tool. The axe may have been the only tool available

The pipe tomahawk on top could be useful, but the Plumb hatchet below it is the better tool.

for making a log cabin, splitting rails for a fence and  cutting firewood.  Essentially, the axe only had two parts: the head and the haft, or handle. If the handle broke, it was possible to whittle another out of a piece of hickory or some other hardwood.

A hatchet can also be sharpened easily with a flat rock. This meant, that for long-term survival, the hatchet could be a tool with incredible durability.

And there’s no question that an axe or hatchet makes a formidable weapon! From the stone age flint war axe, to Viking battle axes, to the tomahawks used on the North American frontier,  these edged  tools have been the weapon of choice in many eras.

My buddy, the late Jim Grenfell, was fascinated with ancient weapons. When he heard I hunt with a flintlock .40 caliber Pennsylvania rifle, he claimed I only had part of the kit. The tradition, Jim said, was that after finishing making a rifle, the gunsmith would take the leftover chunk of wood from the rifle stock blank, and a piece of gun barrel, and fashion a matching tomahawk. No long hunter, he pointed out, would be caught dead without his tomahawk, because if the rifle didn’t fire, the hawk was his backup!

So Jim made me a pipe tomahawk that matched my rifle. I still carry the tomahawk, along with the powder horn, shot bag and other accouterments when I blackpowder  hunt. The tomahawk could be used to help quarter a deer, or field dress small game.

But I take it along because the hawk  looks so cool tucked in the back of my sash next to the powder horn! When I take a break in the field, it’s fun to stick the tomahawk in a tree, lean the long rifle up against it, and hang the powder horn and shot bag off the rifle barrel. Then, I sit and  admire the workmanship of  my tools while chewing on jerky and hardtack.

These saws are lightweight, easy to carry and efficient. From left, is my old reliable Gerber folder; a Fiskar sliding blade, and a double-edged Pac-Saw Wyo.


Despite my enjoyment of  tomahawks and history-related weapons, I usually carry a saw in my daypack. As a big game hunter, I need a tool that can saw through the pelvis of a deer, hog, antelope or elk. Sometimes you need a saw to cut through the ribcage of a big elk.  And while I can disjoint the lower legs of an elk or deer with a good hunting knife, the saw is quicker.

If you’re saving horns, a saw is almost mandatory. I haven’t seen anyone chop the antlers off anything, but I did loan my Pac-Saw to a guide once so he could take the antlers off a moose skull.

Many field dressing chores could probably be done with a hatchet. I used a full-sized axe once to help dress out a whitetail buck once, and it worked fine.

But there are a few safety issues associated with axes. The Boy Scouts have banned hatchets at campouts because of the potential danger. A special axe yard is cordoned off at scout camps, so nobody inadvertently walks behind an axe user. And consider that  the cutting power of a hatchet or axe depends on velocity generated by swinging the tool. Axes and hatchets can bounce, slide or ricochet off wood at odd angles and then an accident is possible.

Wilderness survival expert Peter Kummerfeldt is a proponent of carrying a saw instead of  an axe. He carries an 17-inch, double edged saw made by Dandy, and calls hatchets “weapons.”

“You can give your saw to someone to gather wood, and they probably won’t hurt themselves,” he said in an interview. “But with a hatchet, an inexperienced user could severely injure himself.”

I have several folding saws I regularly use, and generally have a couple along. My Swiss Army knife has a very useable, small  saw blade, and so does my Leatherman Wave. Both saw blades work well for sawing through a deer pelvis bone, removing lower legs for quartering and either blade will easily saw through a stick the size of my wrist.

I’ve also carried a Gerber folding saw for about 25 years.
Designed as a wood saw, it cuts as you pull. It weighs next to nothing, and is a superb limbing tool. For hunting, I carry a double-edged, single piece Pac-Saw with both wood and bone teeth. I also used a Sawsall, a fold-up woodsaw, in the Boundary Waters, and it is an effective tool.

As I see it, the primary reason for including  a hatchet and/or saw in your survival kit  is to gather firewood. It takes an incredible amount of firewood to keep a campfire burning throughout the night, and the person with a survival mindset will start gathering wood as soon as possible. In a pinch, it is safe and effective to pass out your saws and have everyone start gathering wood.

So which tool do you want to include in your gear? As usual, it will depend on your skill level, potential needs, and  willingness to practice. You’ve already shown your survival mindset by reading this far, and now you can make an intelligent choice!

#hatchet #saw

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View Comments (14)


  1. Leon

    05/20/2016 at 17:42

    If you watched “Alone” you saw an axe accident.

  2. Best axe

    05/17/2016 at 09:24

    Good quality judgment. I’m also apprehensive that the adrenaline generated from a continued existence circumstances possibly will foundation an important person to act unreasonably. With a chop up or best axe, that could prove fate .
    thank you

  3. Native

    04/17/2016 at 19:55

    Personally I prefer a saw over an axe because it’s lighter and safer to use. When I’ve gone on long hikes and am tired at the end of the day the last thing I want to do is to swing an axe.

  4. Buyerguide

    04/11/2016 at 01:28

    I enjoyed the review! I’ll share a few thoughts on hatchets & axes.
    I wholeheartly agree on the Estwing they are great and as far as I know are still made in the USA!
    The only down side to them I can see is possibly weight if you were backpacking.
    I would like to see a review on the Gerber backpacking hatchet.

    best axe,best hatchet web: http://bestaxesguide.com/

  5. Hatchet man

    03/23/2016 at 21:10

    It’s physically easier and it’s much quieter to use a saw. However a survival hatchet has more uses. Ideally you’d have both but if you’ve ever been on a long backpacking adventure when you have to cover a lot of miles you know that you want to carry as little weight as possible.

    Having said that, I’d still go for the hatchet because it gives the psychological benefit of feeling safe.

  6. Robert

    03/04/2016 at 11:49

    I carry both, a small Fiskars, and a small Silky saw along with my Bushlore knife. One can saw part way through a piece of wood, and tap it on a log to “split” it…vet easy, very low risk …or start a small “lazy man’s fire” and burn the other pieces and push them into the fire as they burn through…again easy and safe…..just my $.02…

  7. Leon

    09/09/2015 at 22:32

  8. J Burton

    09/08/2015 at 22:26

    An axe is a tool or splitting bolts of sawn firewood often suppliers at state and provincial parks or national forest sites. The nice pre cut blocks oddly do not exist in the wild, so what wood are you going to chop with you heavy clumsy axe or Rambo survival knife. There is deadfall everywhere so using a saw to cut 3 – 5 inch logs don’t that need splitting is just far faster and more sensible; the smaller twigs are kindling and old mans beard is your tinder. Just buck’em with the saw and you have firewood. Also, what nitwit uses his knife as an axe. Chopping with a knife is useless in reality. I believe that making a shelter with a saw is faster, safer, less energy and lighter. Too logical; alas it lacks the macho bullshit that wannabee he man image sees him self as because axes and chopping is macho and looks cool and some guys thing they can fight a grizzly with an axe. Wishful thinking, cause a lot of you wannabees are living in a fantasy, not the logical reality of what is really happening in the Canadian wilds. Axe or saw – axe for the state park where supplied firewood that needs chopping, saw for the wildnerness.

  9. Christopher

    07/09/2015 at 18:33

    A hatchet, at ~28 oz. compared with a 12-ounce knife and a 5 ounce saw….
    Very few carry methods keep the hatchet as quickly accessible as a belt knife.
    A tomahawk with a 2-inch cutting edge, compared with a knife with a 6-inch cutting edge, works poorly for cutting grass, vines, etc., and is slow for taking small brushy limbs off of small trees.
    A good cleaver isn’t a bad tool, either.
    But, for extreme long-term survival (as on the frontier 200 years ago), the durability of the tomahawk and its round eye (which makes for easy handle replacement) has definite advantages.

  10. Leon

    11/08/2014 at 09:27

    Good thoughts. I’m also concerned that the adrenaline generated from a survival situation could cause someone to act irrationally. With a hatchet or axe, that could prove fatal!

  11. Leon

    11/08/2014 at 09:25

    I been carrying a small saw for years. I like the chainsaw in a can: http://witzendhosting.com/survivalcommonsense/choose-an-axe-or-saw-for-your-survival-kitfeed/

  12. Brett530

    11/03/2014 at 13:56

    You forgot a critical aspect in the decision: the effort it takes to use the tools. In a survival situation when food may not be plentiful, burning extra calories should be avoided. I find a saw to be much lower effort. A hatchet usually presents the temptation to blitz your way through like a maniac, leaving you exhausted.

  13. Leon

    10/23/2014 at 21:56

    I don’t carry a hatchet much, since a saw is effective for gathering wood around where I live.

  14. Pete M

    10/18/2014 at 18:54

    Carry both most of the time. I have a camping ax which is longer than a hatchet but has a smaller head than a full sized ax. It also has a flat back for hammering. For thick brush I swap out my ax for a machete. Never owned a tomahawk but I agree with you, they don’t really cut it as a survival item. Despite the cool look all the ones I’ve seen are too small for serious wood cutting and the spike or pommel on the back is more dangerous than useful in my opinion.

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Leon's Blog

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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