Axes, Saws, Chisels & Augers

Dry dead wood, sawn and split, ready for the wood stove or open fire. Way out in the northern bush, the natural forest provides for your warmth and comfort in deep cold, and for cooking needs. Your axe and saw are your fundamental tools for using and managing fire to stay warm, dry and comfortable, no matter what the weather and trekking conditions.

You can get by winter camping without fire as they do above treeline, and melting snow for water using a gas stove.   You don’t have to carry cutting tools, but instead use a stove and fuel, and you will need a lot of fuel.   Traditional winter camping style in the trees takes advantage of an abundance of dead wood above the snow, and if travelling on waterways, one can have liquid water available under the ice.    On we are advocates of the traditional winter travel style in northern forests where one is surrounded by an abundance of dead wood in vast landscapes, as well as often travelling on or adjacent to clean lakes and rivers.    In order to take advantage of wood and water, you are going to need some cutting tools.


The axe is your fundamental, essential cutting tool.   Don’t leave home without it.   You will need it to split wood for its dry frost-free interior.  It can trim sharp branches and blowdown out of the way to create enough space for you to live and work in your thick out of the wind bush winter campsite.   It’s essential to trim the sharp knots off your hot tent ridge pole.  In early season thinner ice you can use it to cut a water hole in the ice (and wear your eye protection for ice chips).  It will cut long snow tent stakes out of wood and drive them into frozen ground.   You can cut and trim shrub poles for fire-side drying racks.    Its squared blunt end can shave ice slush off your toboggan.   Etc.   The winter traveller’s fundamental tool.

Axe weight, shape and handle length are personal preference.   Once you find your personal favourite axe, others will feel distinctly different or even clunky.   The subtle shape of the handle, blade shape and flare, and overall balance really do matter, and its one of those things where you just need to find your own axe.

Axes are a very personal tool. Shown here is the author’s favourite: Snow & Nealley 2 ¼ pound head, small edge radius, 28 inch oiled hickory handle. For winter you need a long handle for a strong, fast, safe swing momentum for splitting bigger blocks on soft snow.

My personal preference for the all-round winter axe is 2 ¼ to 2 ½ pound head with a reasonable flare or wedge on the blade for splitting, and a 28 inch hickory  handle.   I use my saw for almost all of my firewood cutting, so I like my axe blade to be a decent splitter.   However it’s blade shape is still thin enough to cut all my wood should my saw break.   I find that for my swing, the 28 inch (total length) handle is an optimum balance between swing force and control.   With a bent knee swing, splitting wood is safe since that length, for me anyways, allows a follow through into the ground rather than my leg or foot.     Your preference may be for a longer handle, but I recommend against anything shorter than 27 inches.

It should go without saying that a short handled hatchet is inappropriate and totally unsafe for winter camping.    I would not allow one on one of my trips.    The follow through for a hatchet is into your body.   It has no effective swing force for cutting big logs or splitting blocks.   You have to split on snow, which means significant swing force and velocity is needed to use the inertia of the block.   Otherwise with a lighter tap the block gets buried into the snow.   Tap splitting on rocks is my choice in the summer, but in winter splitting you need a true strong swing on snow.

Oops! Follow through into the snow after making the split. It split easier than predicted. Good thing there were no rocks! When splitting on snow, one needs a quick, strong decisive swing to split, using the inertia of the block. A soft weak swing will only bury the block into the snow. Bent knee stance during swing, skilled technique, and the long 28 inch handle provide for safe axe use.

Much better! Follow through arrested as the block splits. Again, bent knee stance and long handle provide for safe axe use.

Every trip my friends and I have a debate about how many axes we need.  My preference is for one axe per person, since I like my own axe, and I think everyone is safe and better with their own axe.   It also allows for a handle or two to break.   For a 2-man trip, you need 2 in case one handle breaks.  For a 3-man or greater trip, the debates get interesting.    Let’s just say we have never resolved the debate.   For long expeditions of several weeks, the odds of breaking a handle are greater, so you may wish to carry extra axe handles and wedges, and a tool for extracting the broken handle out of the axe head.


I and my buddies do almost all our firewood cutting with bow saws.   There is no assembly or disassembly or lost parts issue with a bow saw.   In the cold, you don’t want to be fumbling with saw parts.   The hardware store bow saws today come with cheap plastic blade guards that will crack in the cold.  You will need to make your own more durable blade guard.   An old piece of garden hose or half inch PVC pipe with a cut groove, and bungeed on will do.

The smallest we use on our trips is a 21 inch bow saw.   We find that you need that blade length to get full efficient cutting strokes on larger poles.   Even better is a 24 inch saw, but it is heavier.    Longer saws cut even better but then the trade off is extra weight and bulk.

A winter camper’s paradise! Decadent stand in the boreal forest full of dead small diameter standing, dry black spruce, jack pine and balsam fir. Wood above the snow will be dry, below the snow is usually wet and full of frost. With a bow saw, you can collect dry poles easily and haul them back to camp to be cut and split.

My preference is for one saw per person, and each person brings an extra blade for his saw.   Saws do break fairly often.  In the last two seasons we have broken 2 saws at the clamp area.  The softer metal nub that holds the blade was cut through by the higher carbon blade.   Since this has happened twice to me, I now carry a stainless ½ inch #6 nut and bolt to field repair this common breakage point.

Blade teeth come in various designs for cutting green wood and dry seasoned wood.    All your firewood should be dry, but you may have to cut green blowdown or trim green poles to make living space in your campsite.   The hardware stores tend to sell saws and replacement blades in the green wood cutting teeth, and I think that will cover you for all wood and cutting needs.

Cutting blocks for a night in the hot tent using 21 and 24 inch bow saws. Several days supply of poles, in a black spruce winter trekker’s paradise full of old, dry dead standing wood. If cold camping using an open fire, no need to cut the blocks during the day. Cut blocks off the poles as you need them one at a time, and warm yourself with every cut. This nylon jacket is coming off after a couple minutes of doing this work!

Unfortunately “they” are not always making saws like they used to.   Already mentioned above is the softer metal nub used for the clamp area on some saws which will eventually fail.    Also quite frightening is the counterfeit, or downright flawed blades without teeth offset.   WARNING:   Check your new saw blades to ensure that the teeth are generously offset.  Otherwise the blade will bind and not cut, or cut slowly with extreme discomfort.

Blades with labels “made in Portugal” are the worst – I have seen them in stores without any tooth offset – these are garbage, and if you head off on a trip with one of these you could get yourself into serious trouble if the weather turns nasty, or someone falls through the ice and you need a big fire real quick.

Axe, bow saw, and a perfectly dry block of beautiful boreal black spruce “stored sunlight”, ready to be split. The wood warms you 3 times: gathering it, cutting it, and burning it.

The traditional source of good quality saw blades has been the “made in Sweden” brands.  Unfortunately I recently bought such a tagged blade from a new company I did not recognize, and was disappointed with blade binding on dead dry wood.   I suspect there are many counterfeit knockoffs on the market, so beware.    Seek out the traditional brands.  I recommend finding yourself a saw shop and take your blades in for servicing and re-setting if necessary.

Ice Chisels

The traditional tool for cutting holes in thick ice was the ice chisel, which is a heavy steel chisel blade (true chisel edge bevelled on one side only), with a steel tube or sleeve to fit a long wooden handle into.  The sleeve is drilled with a screw hole to hold the handle on.   The long handle has a long rope wrist loop to hold onto handle when the chisel breaks through.   The chisel itself is about 5 pounds to give it a lot of purchase for cutting ice.  In thick ice, the long handled ice chisel is far faster and more efficient than an axe for cutting a water hole and ice fishing holes.   Ice fishermen today sometimes refer to the chisel as an ice “spud”.  The long handled ice chisel is not only effective for cutting ice hole, but it is an ice probe for probing potentially hazardous ice in front.    I like to stay far away from questionable ice so in my career so far I have not needed to use my chisel as a probe.   One day I may need to.   However in the early season when the ice is thinner, I can cut a hole quickly with the chisel and so I bring it instead of an auger, and I have the added benefit of a probe should I need it.

Cutting a water hole using a classic ice chisel made by Pole and Paddle in Maine. Chisel head approx. 5-8 pound head. Home made 7 foot handle of black ash with long rope lanyard for the top hand.

The chisel also has an advantage over the auger if a rock is accidentally hit by the blade.   An auger blade grinding a rock is done – its now useless, and must be replaced.   A chisel on the other hand can hit a rock dead on, and with a file you can re-sharpen the blade in the field.

On thick ice where many ice fishing holes are desired, the auger is mechanically more efficient and much faster, and just about as heavy to haul.   So if it’s a deep water trip with fishing on the agenda and later in the season with thicker ice, I opt for the auger, but I don’t take any chances with the blade.

7 foot black ash handle, cut from the bush and shaved to shape. Note long lanyard for the top hand – long enough to start choked up on the handle at the start which provides extra downward purchase. As you get deeper and punch through the ice into the water, the lanyard wrapped around the wrist keeps your chisel topside!

Since ice augers became popular and universally available, the ice chisel has become very scarce.   There are small companies which still make them on individual orders, and if you are or know a welder or metal worker, you might be able to make your own.   I own two chisels that I purchased from Craig McDonald’s Odawban company, and from Don Merchant’s Pole and Paddle Canoe company in Maine.   Both are fine chisels that will last a lifetime.   Both are sold without a blade sheath, but one is easily made with heavy leather and leather rivets.  Old fire hose if you can find some  also makes a great sheath.

Craig MacDonald (Odawban Equipment).  RR 1, Dwight, Ontario, Canada, P0A 1H0.

Ice Augers

As discussed in the section above on ice chisels, ice augers have the advantage over ice chisels for being able to cut holes more efficiently (less effort), and much faster.   If ice fishing is one of the themes of your trip and the ice is thick, an auger is the tool of choice if you are moving around.

Augers come in one piece models, and fold-up models with extension shafts for thick ice.   Generally for the north, you require the fold up model for its reach down to about 3 foot (1m) of ice.  Beyond 3 feet of ice thickness you should add the extender shaft.   How do you know how thick the ice is?  With experience in the areas you travel, you will get to know.   However snow and temperature conditions all have a huge influence on how ice develops and how thick it gets – it varies widely from year to year.    The worst thing would be to not have the extender shaft when you really need it, so when in doubt, add it to the kit and you also need tools to fasten it.

Re-cutting the water hole dawn at -35 on a northern Canadian Shield lake. This is living!

The blades on an ice auger are razor sharp, and must be kept that way to work.  If the blades dull, its difficult to start the hole cut – the auger dances around without biting.   Dull blades make cutting a hole drudgery.    You cannot afford to hit a rock when drilling holes, or the tool is useless.  The blades have exact angles and I am not sure it is possible to hand sharpen them safely in the field.  The manufactures recommend sending the blades back to them for sharpening, or to simply throw them out and replace with new blades.  For a long trip, you definitely need to carry replacement blades and the tools to change them.  Some use an allen key, some need a wrench.

You must never lose the blade guard for an auger because of the frighteningly sharp blades.   That auger has to sit on your sled and it sticks out and you could easily catch your body or gear on those blades.   You must exercise extreme caution when your hands are around those razor-sharp blades taking the blade guard on and off.

Cutting the water hole with a Normark folding 6 inch ice auger, showed with the thick ice extender piece installed. For winter trekkers, the 6 inch diameter folding auger is a nice trade off between speed of cut, weight on the sled, but still large enough a diameter for ice fishing.

Augers or ice chisels are heavy and bulky to haul.   If you are not fishing, and you don’t mind the considerable down time needed to melt snow, and you don’t mind the flat taste of melted snow water, then you can get by without a chisel or auger.    But I travel by ice or with lakes as my destination, so liquid water is available, and therefore I always cut a hole for better tasting liquid water.  I don’t like melting snow.  I use a lot of water for drinking, cooking, and washing dishes, and can’t imagine travelling without an auger or chisel.   For me, it’s worth the extra weight on the sled.

The Normark folding 6 inch ice auger packed on a toboggan, hauling along a narrow portage trail. The folding model packs efficiently. Don’t lose that red blade guard!