Axe Choice For The Northern Forest

by Paul Kirtley

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[You can also view Choosing An Axe For Winter Camping And Travel on YouTube].

An Axe Is Your Most Important Tool

In the Northern Forest, an axe is your most important cutting tool.

There is a general trend amongst outdoors people to carry quite small axes.

These small axes are very wieldy, yet you can apply to them to large jobs such as felling trees as well as quite fine jobs such as carving useful implements and splitting quite fine firewood.

They’ve got a half-length handle and a relatively light head. The handle only comes half the way from your fingers to your breastbone.

That makes them eminently portable. They’re easy to put into a rucksack, even a day-sack they’ll fit into quite nicely.

However, in the Northern Forest, it’s my view, that a larger axe than this has specific advantages. In winter, you need plenty of fuel, whether you’re bivvying out or sleeping in a heated tent with a stove, you need plenty of fuel. Obtaining firewood in the Northern Forest typically means felling dead standing trees and then, of course, you have to process them. You have to take the limbs off, you need to section the trunks and you need to split the wood into manageable sections that you can put into your stove.

The trees here grow more slowly than further south. The growing season is shorter. At a more northerly latitude, the summers are shorter, the trees have fewer days in which to grow. This makes the rings of the tree closer together, which makes the wood tougher. In turn this means you need more cutting power from you axe than you do further south.

In my opinion, a three-quarter length axe gives the extra cutting power you need for winter travel and winter camping in this environment. The additional handle length provides extra leverage. Also, it’s got a heavier head and a slightly larger cutting edge than the smaller axe. That gives it extra weight and extra cutting power as well.

Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe stuck in tree stump

The three-quarter length axe has specific advantages in the Northern Forest. Photo: Paul Kirtley

So, all of those things combined deliver more efficiency when you’re using this axe. As I’ve already said, the wood here is tougher, it’s tighter grained, it’s more knotty, it’s harder to cut, it takes more effort with a small axe. So a large axe like this gives you an advantage in processing the firewood that you need, particularly in winter. In terms of felling, this is an excellent axe.

It’s also very good, very well suited to limbing and sectioning the trunk once you’ve brought it down. The extra length and extra weight of the head also means it’s very efficient in splitting firewood – yet you can still do the finer day-to-day jobs that you need to do, such as splitting down firewood to get your stove going.

Despite its extra weight and size, a three-quarter length axe is still very portable, particularly if you think about the means by which you’re going to be travelling in a winter environment.

You’re unlikely to be light-weight hiking. You’re much more likely to be travelling by snow-shoe with a toboggan or pulk, or maybe be skies with a pulk, or by snow-machine or by dog-sled. Taking an axe like this is not much of a problem when you’re travelling by those means. The benefits of carrying a tool such as this for winter travelling and winter camping far outweigh the downside of its extra size and extra weight.

The video and text above should give you an idea of the power and versatility of the three-quarter length axe.

I hope that it also demonstrates why this tool is my number one choice for winter camping and winter travel in the Northern Forest.

What are your preferences for an axe for winter camping? Let me and other readers know in the comments…

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog:

Tree Felling For Winter Firewood: Axe and Saw

Winter Magic: Return To The Northern Forest

How To Build An Arctic Lean-To

A Winter Camping Trip in the Northern Forest

How To Split Firewood On Snow: Key Axe Techniques

Cold Injuries: Take Care In The Blue Zone

 

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark H

Hi Paul,

Once again great advice.

I bought the ‘three quarter’ axe last year but have rarely used it since. I

Reply

Mark H

part two ! keyboard issues and age..

………. I find using my Forest axe almost habitual and don’t feel quite as comfortable with the slightly larger tool. I have however started using it at home to cut logs and am starting to get ‘the feel’ of it…

The Forest axe is still my tool of choice in my natural environment. Boggy , dank , deciduous woods !

I noticed the small carabiner/clip on the sheath of the three quarter axe. Is that to keep the mask safe whilst you use the axe ? I am always putting my mask down and mislaying it. Good idea !

I see the ‘Moomintrolls’ are still stalking you.

Go well

Best

Mark

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark,

Good to hear from you my friend.

The trolls are always lurking in the sidelines. It’s what they do ;)

I still mainly use the Small Forest Axe for general light woodland use in the UK. You’re right about the correct tool for the job feeling like an extension of yourself once you have learned to use it well.

The karabiner wasn’t for the axe mask. I think the one you are seeing must be the one my small Sami knife was suspended from. Great little tool to have on you for small jobs…

Go well,

Paul

Reply

Dave Smith

Hey Paul.
Great video on the importance of an Axe in the Northern Forest.
I have a very good Pack axe for my Day hikes & it always stays in my pack.

I will be purchasing a Small forest Axe soon for my longer trips, & for collecting firewood etc.
Very important tool the axe is, If someone told me i could only carry 1 tool into the forest being an Axe or a very good Knife, Id pick the Axe hands down. A high quality swedish axe is capable of doing many tasks as you said in camp & collecting firewood, shelter making etc.

Again great Video Paul.
Cheers,
Dave Smith.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave,

It’s always good to hear from you.

I agree – an axe is the top tool when heading for the North Woods. And the higher the quality of steel, the better.

Happy trails!

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Duane Yates

Hi Paul,

Very intersting article. I really like video aswell as the written article very clear and well explained. As you know I love my small forest axe but after attending the elementary course last year its very rare i use it now.
Take care Mate.
Duane

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Duane,

Good to hear from you. Thanks for your feedback – I’m glad you liked the combination of text and video.

For me it’s always a good feeling to use an axe, so I understand about your love of the SFA. But it’s also great that you have extended your skills with knife and folding saw and able to do much more with them.

I’ll have to do you an axe course too… ;)

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Scott Oeth

Paul,

Nice video, makes me want to chop something!

Have you heard of, or had problems with axes chipping when used in the extreme cold? I’ve read in old time outdoor books warnings to warm your axe before using in bitter cold to prevent chipping the blade. I personally haven’t, but was wondering if they warn of the same issue in Sweden?

The GB Scandi Forest axe is great. I know that it is what Garrett Conover and Kevin Slater also use in the far north. These two veteran Maine Guides have a lot of experience with traditional winter camping and tripping. If I’m doing more of a base camp trip I’ll often bring a full sized splitting axe for doing the big work outside, as well one the size of the small forest axe for splitting kindling while seated or kneeling inside the tent.

Thanks for the post!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Scott,

Good to hear from you again and thanks for your comment.

It seems I am in good company with my axe choice :)

I’ve also read this in the old books but have had no trouble with these axes chipping in cold (down to minus 40 Celsius).

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Paul Glazebrook

Paul, good advice. My winter group has been going out for a February week long Maine camping trip for 6 years now. Each one of us carries the larger Forester Axe. We splitt a lot of spruce and birch to keep the stoves well fed. I also use it on my summer canoe trips. An incredible tool. I never leave home without it.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Paul,

Welcome and thanks for your comment.

It’s good to hear from a fellow winter camper and appreciator of a larger axe.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Richard Tiley

Another great video, offering clear thoughts about the requirements of that particular environment.

I have to admit that, while owning and trying out the SFA for a number of years, I never really liked it: the head was too light and the shaft too short. I now use, almost exclusively, a GB Wilderness Axe which gives me greater weight in the head and a longer handle yet still remains dextrous enough for the more delicate carving and feathering tasks.

I can fully appreciate the benefits of something that is larger still for the Scandinavian Winter. I reckon I might well add such a tool to my Wish List… after all, Christmas IS coming and it’s just over a year until my birthday!

Many thanks for yet more good, balanced and informed advice.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Richard,

It’s good to hear from you and thanks for your feedback on the video.

I was interested to read your thoughts on the Small Forest Axe.

If you need any encouragement, I definitely think a Scandinavian Forest Axe has a place in your tool selection :)

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Rody Klop

I agree with your vision, but with the right techniques (working with wedges for example) you can still handle tasks quite well. There are some workarounds (perhaps for another video), but they take time and some experience.

Reply

Paul Anderson

Hi Paul, another really good article, well put across! Would you go as small as the Wildlife hatchet for more local UK based camping trips? I have been using the Husqvarna hatchet (GB Wildlife hatchet equivalent) for a few years in the woodland permission that I frequent and its served me very well indeed, but I plan to do some more winter camping later on this year and am entertaining that slightly larger SFA for greater wood processing capability. Thanks and hope to get the chance to say hi and shake your hand at The Bushcraft Show if you’re going? – Paul Anderson

Reply

Fr Dave B

Great vid sir I agree with all your astute comments. I am a modest spender and as such I suggest the use of Husqvarna brand of axes the price is very moderate while the quality is the same as the high price axes. Fr Dave B

Reply

TinkyPete

I totally agree with this after a trip to Norway at the begining of the year a larger axe was a must. I use a Swedish army axe as my choice, due to cost and it’s usefullness to me as well as it’s size which is extremely well suited to my size.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Tinky,

Good to hear from you. It’s been a while…

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad the larger axe worked for you in a colder envionment.

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Neil MW

Another great read (furtively on my office computer).

Hoping to get onto at least one of your intro courses this year, house moves and new job permitting. I would be very interested in an axe care/use woodcraft course as well if you consider running one.

Thanks

Neil

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Neil,

I can just imagine you looking over your shoulder while reading the article ;)

It would be good if you could make a course this year and yes we do have some plans regarding axes and woodcraft – keep an eye on the Frontier Bushcraft website

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

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