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Trail Tools: Brushing Tools

These are the most commonly used Brushing Tools with tips on using them safely and effectively.

by Jim Schmid

Grass whip

Weed Cutters (Grass Whip/Swizzle Stick/Swing Blade/Weed Whip)

Weed cutters are used to clear trail corridors of succulent vegetation (grass, light brush, briars, and tree seedlings). It is meant to be swung back and forth with both hands. There are two varieties: the L-shaped weed whip cuts grass and weeds but is unstable for use on larger growth, the triangular-frame weed whip cuts briars and woody stems up to a half-inch in diameter. Screws holding the serrated double-edged blade in place can work loose, so check them often.

Safety tip: Avoid the golf swing. Swing tool no higher than your side.


Machetes are best used to clear the way when surveying new trail routes through dense vegetation. A slightly angled (off-vertical) stroke of the machete is more effective than a low horizontal swing. Being an effective, but crude cutter, the machete should not be used to hack branches from trailside trees.

Safety tip: Use extreme care when working with others. Always be aware of who is working next to you.

Woodman's Pal Axe

Used to cut and clear vegetation the 16 inch long Woodman's Pal Axe is easy to carry and to use.

Safety tip: When not in use be sure to keep in its sheath to protect the blade.

Swedish Safety Brush Axe (Sandvik)

Also known as a Sandvik, the Swedish Safety Brush Axe is a machete-like tool with a short, replaceable blade. Because of the shorter blade and longer handle (27 inch overall length), the Sandvik may be safer than a machete. Its shorter handle and lighter weight make it faster, easier to control, and safer than an axe or brush hook. The thin, flat, replaceable steel blade cuts easily through springy hardwood stems.

Safety tip: A sharp tool is a safe tool. Replace the blade when it becomes dull or nicked.

Brush Hook (Bush Hook/Ditch Blade/Ditch Blade Axe)

For removal of brush too heavy for a weed cutter and too light for an axe, consider either the double- or single-edged brush hook. Swung like an axe, the brush hook's long 36 inch handle and heavy head give it a powerful cut. Their curved blade, however, poses an extra safety hazard. Always maintain a firm grip with both hands on the handle. Cut with a slicing rather than a hacking motion and pull back on the handle at the end of the swing to utilize the 12-inch curved blade. Carry brush hooks with the head forward like a shovel.

Safety tip: Never use an overhead swing. Keep the brush hook in front of you at all times.

Bank Blade (Hook Blade/Swing Blade/Bush Axe/Kaiser Bank Blade)

Bank blades are used to cut brush, briar, or undergrowth. The 40 inch heavy blade sharpened on both sides and sturdy hickory handle keep you well away from the vegetation you are cutting.

Safety tip: Never use an overhead swing. Keep the bank blade in front of you at all times.

Loppers (Lopping Shears/Pruning Shears)

Loppers are designed for clearing heavy vegetation from trails. With their long handles, a sturdy pair of loppers has the mechanical advantage to cut cleanly through all sorts of brush and branches (most cut limbs of 1 to 1¾ inches in diameter). If you have a choice, select heavy-duty loppers with fiberglass or metal handles. Cutting heads are either the sliding-blade-and-hook type (known as bypass) or the anvil type. Some have simple pivot actions, while others have compound or gear-driven actions for increased cutting power. Do not try to twist the handles when biting into a resistant branch. This can bend the blade and ruin a pair of loppers quickly. If the loppers can't cut the branch, use a bow saw.

Safety tip: Carry loppers with the jaws pointed down and away from you and with one hand around both handles.

Hand Pruner

Handier and lighter to carry than a lopper when only minor pruning is needed. Used to cut small branches encroaching on the trail. Also useful for cutting protruding roots that are tripping hazards. Mostly used for trail maintenance.

Safety tip: Can be carried in hand while hiking to clip small branches as encountered.

Published January 2004

About the Author

During his career Jim Schmid served as South Carolina’s first State Trails Coordinator as well as working for the US Forest Service as a Trails Manager in AZ, ID, and FL and also had the pleasure of managing the Florida National Scenic Trail. Jim is a collector at heart. Check out his collection of trail quotes, terms, acronyms, sayings and more at In addition to updating his website and writing book reviews for American Trails Jim enjoys traveling around the country riding rail-trails and mtn bike trails.

Contact: [email protected]

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