Hand Tools for the Camp and Woods
By Gary Zinn
I have used outdoor hand tools for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a small farm in West Virginia during the 1950s. In that place and time, boys learned to help out on the farm at a very young age. When we grew bigger and stronger we became true farm hands, working at whatever jobs arose throughout the neighborhood.
Outdoor activities were our main recreation. I began hunting small game and varmints when I was seven years old and began fishing on my own at about the same age. By the time I was twelve, a couple neighbor boys and I had taught ourselves how to camp in the woods.
Farm work, woodcraft and camping introduced me to various tools and prompted me to learn how to use them correctly. This learning process continued when I went to college. I majored in forestry and learned about the specialized field tools used in that discipline. After college, the first two decades of my professional career were devoted to teaching and practicing forest management.
I began thinking about what I have found, from long and varied experience, to be the most essential and versatile outdoor hand tools. I will discuss these tools, by type or example, and indicate what are their capabilities.
In promotional copy for their extensive line of machetes, the Cold Steel folks assert that a machete is the ultimate outdoor and survival tool. Then they go on, using a dozen verbs to describe the various ways one may wreak havoc with the tool. If the hype is overblown, it is not by much, for a good quality machete is a very essential and versatile edged outdoor tool.
Machetes come in almost unlimited blade patterns, sizes and quality levels. Rather than try to cover that waterfront, I will mention just two which I have used extensively.
A machete that I got very familiar with during my forestry career is the Woodsman's Pal. This is an iconic forestry tool with many practical uses. It features a slightly curved, weight forward blade with a sharpened sickle hook at the end of the blade spine. The handle is hardwood, riveted onto a full tang. The powder coated, carbon steel blade is 1/8-inch (3.2mm) thick; the blade is 10-1/2 inches long and the OAL is 16-1/2 inches; it weighs 23 ounces. It can be bought alone (about $50), or with a Cordura nylon belt sheath and honing stone (about $60).
I consider the Woodsman's Pal to be a heavy duty machete. It eats heavy brush as an appetizer and is a better tool for chopping wood than a hatchet. The Pal is a high quality tool all the way and very durable.
The Woodsman's Pal that I used was issued to me by my employer, so I had to leave it behind when I made a mid-life career change. I did not want to be without a machete, so after deliberation I bought a Cold Steel Kukri. (See illustration at top of article.) I chose the Kukri pattern because it has a weight forward blade, a feature I had come to like from prior experience. I could not justify the cost of buying a Woodsman's Pal for intermittent personal use when the Kukri (with sheath) was discount retail priced at about $25.
This machete has a 2mm thick carbon steel blade with a baked-on matte finish. The blade is 13 inches long, with an injection-molded, checkered polypropylene handle that extends the OAL to 18 inches. The tool weighs 16 ounces and comes with a Cordura nylon sheath. It is light enough to use for slashing weeds, briers and light brush, but sturdy enough for general wood chopping chores.
If you need to trim, chop, split, debark, or otherwise abuse wood, or slash heavy vegetation, a machete is the first choice. If a piece of wood is too large to handily break down with a machete, it is time to get out an axe or saw.
(Note: For use in tropical jungles and other areas where poisonous snakes are common, the tip of a machete blade should just barely miss the ground when hanging straight down at the user's side. This facilitates its use as a snake defense weapon in a sudden emergency. -Editor.)
A compact pull saw is almost as essential as a machete. I would not think of not having one around a camp. I especially like a saw made by Vaughan tools. It features a coarse/medium toothed (9 tpi), 13 inch blade and an ergonomic synthetic handle that is reversible.
This is the best all-purpose small saw that I have ever found. It is efficient at cutting both green or dry wood and easily cuts rigid plastic pipe and tubing. It even serves as a butcher saw, for it cuts well through green bone. The same saw can be had with a fine tooth blade, but stick with the coarse/medium blade for general use. This saw is an honest value at about $35 in 2015.
I bought a good 30-inch bow saw almost fifty years ago; I still have it and the frame currently holds its fourth blade. I bought it to cut up campfire wood, but have used it for about every imaginable wood cutting task over the years.
My saw is a Sandvik, but that brand name has been changed to Bahco. Bow saws with blade lengths of 21, 24, 30 and 36 inches are offered in the Bahco brand. 2015 prices range from about $32 to $55, depending on blade size and type.
With proper technique and a bit of patience, one can break down almost any small to moderate sized tree or log with a good bow saw. This is a great tool to have in your kit.
This is a specific pattern of tool designed, as the name implies, for wild land fire fighting. Its primary professional use is to cut fire breaks for indirect suppression of surface fires.
The tool head consists of a steel ferrule and 12-inch angle iron bar. Four tempered steel sickle bar mower teeth are bolted onto the bar. The teeth can be sharpened and damaged teeth can be replaced. A 60-inch hardwood or fiberglass handle is mounted through the ferrule. The 2015 retail price is about $50.
Ordinary lawn, garden and landscape rakes are to a fire rake as seals are to a shark. This tool is designed to clear the ground of heavy debris and can easily till, smooth and reshape the ground surface. It readily cuts through or rips out small roots and can be used to twitch out stones up to baseball size. It is quite effective at chopping weeds, briers and light brush. This is not a wimpy tool.
A fire rake has many uses besides fire fighting. Around camp, clearing and smoothing a tent pad comes immediately to mind. Clear an area for the campfire. Make a bare feet friendly path to the latrine. The list goes on.
Is the ATV trail to your favorite hunting area getting a bit washed out? The fire rake can help, along with the next tool I will mention. Need to clear a spot for a ground blind or make a silent trail to your tree stand? Use the tool. I once wanted to make a foot trail to a stand site, but the best route led me right into a large brier patch. I started hacking away with a fire rake and soon breached the brier patch. (I think I saw Br'er Rabbit in there.) A stand site can be sweetened by using a fire rake to put in a small game food plot nearby. (Verify legality in your area.) This takes advance planning and work, but can really pay off at hunting time.
The Pulaski is another tool originally designed for fire fighting. It is double-edged, with an axe blade on one side and a narrow grub hoe blade on the other. The head weighs 3.5 to 3.75 pounds (varies by maker) and is mounted on a 36-inch hardwood or fiberglass handle. Its 2015 retail price is about $60 and a sheath that covers the tool head adds about $25.
The axe blade should be sharpened very keen, while the edge of the hoe blade needs to be only file sharp. The latter is because the hoe blade will be used to dig in the dirt, hack roots and pry out rocks, so trying to keep that edge really sharp is both unnecessary and futile.
A Pulaski is not likely to be used as much as a fire rake. However, it is the tool to have when one is two miles beyond nowhere and the chopping or digging is heavier than a fire rake can handle. Making and maintaining ATV trails is a specific example of a Pulaski task. If I were into backcountry ATV-ing, I would carry a Pulaski, for breaking and maintaining trails or getting myself out of a jam.
Pruning Shears, Loppers and Tree Pruners
This group of tools is for blind or stand hunters who are fussy about the details of their setup. Shears and loppers are handy for cutting and shaping foliage to naturalize a blind (or even build one), while tree pruners are essential for clearing all-important elevated shooting lanes for the tree stand hunter. These tools can be used quietly, which is important if a blind or stand needs some landscaping at the last moment.
I am going to use one tool brand, Fiskars, for examples of these tools and their use. I have had good experience with Fiskars tools (they work well and are durable), they are sold at the big box home improvement stores and they are reasonably priced.
Pruning shears are one-handed, cargo pocket-sized tools that are as handy outdoors as scissors are in the house. Use them when dressing a blind, clearing a low shooting lane, trimming away a branch along your access trail that keeps knocking off your hat, etc. A machete or hunting knife can do all of these things, of course, but pruning shears can be easier and safer.
Fiskars offers over a dozen models of pruning shears at prices between $15 and $30. I like their Power-Lever Anvil Pruner.
Loppers are two-handed pruning shears with a big appetite. Fiskars makes loppers that can cut stems or branches up to two inches in diameter. Loppers can be used for everything I suggested for pruning shears, but bigger.
Loppers have extended handles, primarily for cutting leverage, secondarily for reach. Fiskars lists over a dozen models, with handles from 15 to 32 inches long. Prices mostly run between $25 and $50. I have a good lopper right now, but if I were in the market I would look closely at the PowerGear2 18-inch lopper.
Pole pruners are for reaching up or out to remove tree limbs. This is an indispensable tool for the tree stand hunter who is serious enough to hang permanent stands or prepare specific sites for portable stands. Elevated shooting lanes must often be carefully cleared, especially when bowhunting, and a pole pruner is the best tool for the job.
The right tool is one that has a telescoping pole, with a tool head that mounts both a lopper and a pruning saw blade. Get and mount both, not either/or. Fiskars offers five models, with the longest extending to a 16-foot reach. 2015 prices run from $40 to $75.
Overhead pruning should be done from the ground, whenever possible. If you must cut a lane while up in a tree, tie in securely before beginning. Otherwise, you run a grave risk of the pole pruner pulling you off of your stand.
Loose Ends, Disclaimers and Final Thoughts
Add sturdy work gloves to your outdoor tool list. I prefer those with suede leather palms and fingers and ballistic cloth backs for warm weather work. For cooler weather, I switch to all leather gloves. Insulated leather gloves are in order in the cold. Use leather oil sparingly to maintain your gloves. When you find a pair of gloves that fit and perform well, buy an extra pair, just in case. Get in the habit of wearing gloves when doing all but the very lightest work.
I have not mentioned chain saws, axes, wedges, or other logging tools. Felling large trees, working up large amounts of firewood and similar heavy work is beyond the intended scope of this article.
I have used all of the tools covered above, for the purposes indicated or implied. Some I have used a lot, others only occasionally. I know what each tool is capable of and what it does efficiently. I currently own all of the types of tools I have mentioned, except a Pulaski.
Are all of these tools necessary? I consider a machete, pull saw, bow saw and work gloves to be must haves. After that, it becomes situational.
I have already touted the utility of a fire rake around camp, on the trail and at stand sites. If I had an ATV, I would have a sheathed Pulaski strapped to it. Pruning shears and loppers are very handy for the purposes I indicated, though not absolutely necessary. Finally, I hold that a pole pruner is essential for a tree stand hunter (been there, done that, got the tee shirt), but is otherwise probably not needed.
Copyright 2015, 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.