Trail Tools: Sawing and Chopping Tools

by Jim Schmid

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

Bow Saw

A bow saw with a blade 16- to 21-inches in length is handy for cutting brush out of the trail and trimming small branches. The longer 36-inch bow saws are unwieldy for brushing projects. They are better suited for cutting medium size logs along the trail or cutting firewood back in camp. When properly maintained they will cut quickly and efficiently, however they can bind easily. Bow saws cannot be resharpened due to the hardness of the blade, so when the blade becomes dull, rusty, or bent, it should be replaced. If a saw has no sheath, make one by splitting open a piece of old garden hose as long as the blade. Fit the hose around the saw blade and hold it in place with cord or duct tape. A sheathed bow saw can be carried by hand or strapped onto a backpack.

Safety tip: Never use a bow saw to cut overhead branches. Use a pole saw instead.

Razor-Tooth Saw (Protooth Saw)

These saws have an extra thick, extra wide razor-tooth blade for rigidity and are used to cut limbs encroaching on the trail, cutting small trees or shrubs at the base, and removing small to medium sized windfalls. They come in a wide variety of sizes and tooth patterns.

Safety tip: Given its extra sharp teeth, a razor-tooth saw should be sheathed when not in use.

Folding Saw

Folding saws are a smaller alternative to the bow saw. Their small size makes them easy to carry and well suited to get into tighter places. They are useful for limbing, brushing, and removing small downfall. There are a vast array of blade lengths and styles, and some have replaceable or interchangeable blades.

Safety tip: Make sure blade is locked in open position before using.

Pole Saw with Pole Pruner

A pole saw with pole pruner can be used to trim branches that would otherwise be out of arm's reach above a trail. On some models, the pole can be taken apart or telescoped into the handle and the blade removed for easy carrying. The built-in pruner can be operated from the ground with a rope. When cutting larger limbs with the pole saw, it is best to use a two-step process. Begin by cutting the branch, first from underneath and then from the top, leaving a 4- to 6-inch stub. This prevents stripping the bark from the trunk of the tree. Next, cut the stub flush with the trunk.

Safety tip: Never stand right below the branch you are cutting. Stand well clear of the falling branch.

Crosscut Saw

Favored a century ago by loggers felling trees, the crosscut saw is still used to cut logs for timber projects and to clear large deadfall from trails and campsites, especially in Federally designated Wilderness Areas (and by those who prefer not to use chainsaws). Crosscut saws are available in two basic designs-one-person and two-person. The one-person models are generally 3 to 4 feet in length and perhaps most useful for clearing blowdowns. Two-person crosscuts are 5 to 8 feet in length, with a handle at each end. Pictured is a bucking crosscut which has a straight back and is heavier and stiffer than felling saws. Felling crosscuts are light, flexible, and have concave backs that conform easily to the arc of the cut and the sawyer's arm. Crosscut saws require special skills and care and must always be sheathed before they are carried. A sheath can be made from an old piece of fire hose split open to fit over the saw blade.

Safety tip: Know where the log will roll after you cut it and plan your stance accordingly.

Axe (Ax)

Axes can be used to chop deadfall from trails, shape stakes for turnpikes and waterbars, and cut notches for structures made of timber. Most trail crews use the single bit axe (one sharp side) versus the double bit axe (two sharp sides) feeling that one sharp blade is safer than two. Although the axe is a traditional woodworking tool, saws are usually recommended for trail work because they are safer and generally more efficient for the average user. The axe is best reserved for cutting jobs too thick for available saws. When not in use, or when carrying the axe, the blade should be covered with a sheath.

Safety tip: Never use a single bit axe as a sledgehammer or as a splitting wedge.

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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